by Jerome du Bois
You can't call up the Shekhinah and then expect Her to behave. -- paraphrase of a Fox Mulder line.
A voice from the stew kept speaking, in a low murmur: "I have lost my heart and you will lose yours. To the end of days, the end of all flesh, all living hearts must be broken -- a piece broken off and eaten, sticking in your throat." -- from one of Isaac's dreams, Zohar, tr. D.Rosenberg.
If I tilt my mind just right, Kabbalah Goes Hollywood, the wonderfully detailed, excellent article by Yossi Klein Halevi, is as funny as a Christopher Guest movie, chock-full of cultural tchotchkes. One could have a lot of fun with the healing water (whoa, that's new, California) and the red bracelets (against the "evil eye?" C'monnn), separate seating for the sexes (real progressive), and meditating on the seventy-two names of G-d (don't you dare spell it out, m-n). But the funniest thing is that while they're all down at the Centre [sic] chanting Satan's chaos into dust, the real Kabbalah, like Joseph bugging out on Potiphar's wife, has escaped their clutches yet again, laughing through its tears all the while. And the Follywood fools, like Potiphar's wife, are left marvelling over a beautiful, empty garment. They seem satisfied, and so am I, so long as they continue to avoid even the appearance of authenticity. Real quick example to give you a sense of the scene:
In the traditional Kabbalistic schools that have survived for centuries, the 72 names of G-d form the basis for arduous meditations and ascetic practices. Here [at the Kabbalah Centre], though, all you need to do is glance at the letters to be infused with their healing and invigorating power. In the Centre's literature, each name is endowed with a quality that can readily be accessed — such as "defusing negative energy and stress," "dumping depression," and "the power of prosperity." You can even call the Centre for a free ten-minute personal consultation with a highly trained 72-names specialist on how to find the name that best suits your needs. [from Halevi]
Moses wept. It's enough to make you rend your garments.
According to the poet and scholar David Rosenberg (translator of The Book of J), there are three kinds of Kabbalah, which he describes in his short, lucid millennial book with the jaw-dropping title Dreams of Being Eaten Alive: The Literary Core of the Kabbalah. (He means "literary" literally, too: words have power.) In the book, he draws distinctions between practical, creative, and frontier Kabbalah. In what follows here, I'll summarize briefly all three, and show my preference for the latter.
I also want to show some respect for Moses de Leon and Isaac Luria and all the other wise men in disguise who created the giant metaphors this pseudo-New Age crew want to miniaturize: Ein Sof (Endlessness), The Tree of Life, The Chariot, Tzimtzum, The Breaking of the Vessels, gathering the divine sparks . . . And the strangeness: Samael and Lilith as shapeshifting twins, demon babies born from nocturnal emissions; cannibalism; dismemberment.
That which has been received by these Follywood fools falls far short of what happens when you confront the voice from the stew, the sitra achra, the other side. It is a terrifying thing, if you look through this particular prism, to find out exactly where you fit into the dynamic creation, this Unstoppable Now. Frontier Kabbalah is like the shattering of the shaman, because the heart of Kabbalah is heartbreak, the stumbling block for any feelgood cult.
Here's an example of practical Kabbalah, from Rosenberg:
It is not unusual to oberve a standing-room only crowd pay twenty-five dollars a person to attend a seminar on "Kabbalah and Dreams." . . . The rabbi would like to talk further about what happens when the soul leaves the body -- to read more from his texts -- but someone yells out, "What does it mean to dream that my hat is burning in a fire in my basement?" The rabbi replies that he will not address actual dreams because it is a very spiritual thing to interpret someone's dream. He will merely talk about dreams in general. But the crowd cannot resist . . . So, the rabbi relents and hands out the meanings of dreaming about hats, fires, basements, weddings, spouses, and beach towns. This is practical Kabbalah, which is only concerned with success and career, not with failure. More important, it reads its texts literally. Dreams are data that equal something. . . pages 138-9.
And, in kind of dream sequence, Rosenberg presents Oprah Winfrey (not a professed Kabbalist) as a good example of a modern creative Kabbalist, whose main concern is tikkun (healing and restoration):
For her, the Zohar [Book of Radiance] would be a creative Kabbalah, offering guidance to formulating a personal religion . . . Above all else, she wishes to preserve something of the creative principle, with the goal of restoring and transforming the self, and, in the process, the culture. . .
Although she reads interpretively and creatively, there is still one thing that is literal: the self. The creative Kabbalist continues to read the self and personal spirit literally, and as I daydream my fantasy of an Oprah Winfrey Kabbalah show, I uncover my own wish to keep that domain sacred. The writers of the real Kabbalah did not even let that wish go unexamined. The real secret to the Kabbalah is that you know you can read it when you can laugh at yourself. Page 142.
The frontier Kabbalist recognizes that the soul, the self, is something that's stretched between Earth and the Heavens and connected to everything, and since the divine world is dynamic, not stable, so also the self. The practical and creative Kabbalists's need for a settled, complete soul is forlorn and doomed to the failure of all the self-help religions: that is, the failure to displace oneself out of oneself and into the cosmos. We humans may be the greatest things in creation, and I certainly think we are, but we are not the center. The nonhuman overwhelms us. The frontier Kabbalist tries to grapple with immensity: the darkness, the uncertainty, the novelty, the suspense, the ignorance, the bone-chilling, gnawing contingency of it all. We need to be up to it. Wearing red threads and chanting ooga-booga won't do it.
Hollywood Kabbalah sells both people and creation short, but these people want it that way. They want to avoid uncertainty, chaos, and death. Halevi writes:
The Centre sees itself as, literally, the center of the struggle against Satan. By releasing the hidden traditions of Kabbalah to humanity, it claims, it is threatening Satan's power of "chaos," which is responsible for everything from wars and illness to depression. The end of chaos will mean the end of human suffering. And so the creation of the Centre is nothing less than the most momentous event in history.
It wouldn't be the first. What's hilarious here is that Ein Sof encompasses chaos, eats chaos for breakfast, and that chaos is essential to creation and life. The frontier Kabbalist recognizes this. For my example, I'll take a hint from Rosenberg. Just as he pressed Oprah Winfrey into service as a quasi-Kabbalist, so I shall do the same with Donna Tartt, in the voice of Julian Morrow, the professor of Greek in her novel The Secret History. This is how he describes Greek encounters with the divine in the way they learned -- bacchic frenzy:
The Greeks . . . had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism . . . Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks and our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! . . . To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Now that's what I'm talking about. And that's frontier Kabbalah: wrestling with the Angel, trying to confront the cosmos on the scale it deserves.
So, what becomes of the broken-hearted? If they're wise -- if they're blessed -- they'll stay that way. Kabbalah or not, how else to be strong these days?
by Jerome du Bois
I have become so numb to the horrific things that happen in this world that I sometimes forget there are still people who feel. -- Portland OR shock jock Marconi, in his written apology for playing the audio of Nicholas Berg's beheading on his radio show, and laughing and joking about it as it played.
Snatch back your brain, zombie! Snatch it back and hold it! -- Ice-T / J-Bone, Johnny Mnemonic, directed by Robert Longo.
I started this blog a year ago on May Day, probably the most crowded holiday in human history, from the Celts to the communists to the kooks. So I stepped modestly out of the way, until now, to note the one-year anniversary of The Tears of Things.
(Its working name was Shooting Through Tears, but that seemed too bitterly one-note, though that was how I felt a lot of the time, and it still describes what I'm doing most of the time.)
I took my cue from Daniel Dennett: "I want to play a more direct role in changing what is ignorable by whom." That's why the blog was a dream come true for me: no editor, an occupation which in my experience was simply a misspelling of idiot; and the whole world was and is theoretically within reach. I see no reason to change my basic motivation now, except to enlarge and refine my range of subjects.
[Quick aside of sincere thanks. I don't get a lot of readers, or a lot of comments; I delete comments arbitrarily, without explanation; I'm irascible; and I'm paranoically convinced that fully a third of my readers are my enemies; but one statistic on the sitemeter warms my heart: the average reading time is over ten minutes. Any writer who crafts their sentences over months knows what that means. It's not uncommon for people to spend two hours here, and read twenty pages. I'm not bragging, I'm profoundly grateful. I know how precious time is, and you take the time, and I thank you for sticking with it -- yes, all of you.]
My targets in the art world were and are hypocrisy, misogyny, cruelty, humiliation, lying (political, mainly), and above all zombification, a slack-jawed, heartlessly humorous simplemindedness which animates these topics, and which I also call The Rebarb, and sometimes sociopathy without bodies. It laughs at pain, and it's ubiquitous. You want evidence? (You mean, besides Daniel Pearl's beheading, the prison abuse photos, Saddam's Greatest Torture Hits, and the mutilated contractors?) Yes, I mean besides all those. Fresh right here, served up by Friday morning's New York Times, in Grace Glueck's review of Exit Art's "Terrorvision" exhibition in Chelsea:
On the lighter side is a takeoff by Gary Keown, via a digital print on canvas, of René Magritte's 1928-29 painting showing a pipe with the legend "This is not a pipe." Mr. Keown has chosen to replace the pipe with a box cutter and the statement, "This is not a boxcutter."
Har dee har har. On the lighter side. This week of all weeks, as we relived 9/11 with Congressional hearings on cable -- Atta brandishes a painting? -- and when too many of us heard the horrifying sounds a murderer with a blade can bring from a human throat, misnamed Grace brings us this odious . . . what, kneeslapper? My example here is pure serendipity, too -- Friday morning's paper; earlier examples litter my desk -- because The Rebarb roams everywhere, grinning like one of Goya's malicious idiots. It is my main enemy.
In what follows I'll review a small part of my year of blogging to show how this rebarbarization surfaces in just three of my targets/topics: Islam, the downtown Phoenix art scene, and Jon Haddock, warlord troll of the resinous heart. You'll laugh, you'll weep, you'll gnash your teeth -- unless, of course, you're a zombie. Read on and find out.
My first post, which I wrote just before starting the blog, criticized a simplistic sculptural take on the Israeli-Palestinian war, on Islam, and on women, at Studio LoDo in downtown Phoenix. Little did I know how often that doom-eager and doomed (in its present form) religion would insinuate itself into my art and culture writing. But it did, and I'm ready for it, every time. To me, Islam -- and the Islamic desire for worldwide umma -- is like a gigantic lake of brackish water held back by the dam protecting civilization and the shining future, its insidious liquid fingers incessantly running over and over the surface of the dam wall, top to bottom, side to side, tirelessly searching for cracks to exploit. Remember shari'a. Remember dhimmitude. Remember: One Man, One Vote, Once. And, more recently, Zayed the Iraqi dentist of Healing Iraq, in his remarks on the Nicholas Berg video, made the point that while there may be moderate Muslims, Islam is not moderate. I advise my readers to never forget that. Also, May 20th's Wall Street Journal carried an editorial by Irshad Manji urging reform, reform, reform:
Moderate Muslims, like moderate Christians and Jews, shouldn't be afraid to ask: What if our holy script isn't perfect? What if it's inconsistent, even contradictory? What if it's riddled with human biases? As an illiterate trader, Prophet Mohammed relied on scribes to jot down the words he heard from God. Sometimes the Prophet himself had an agonizing go at deciphering what he heard. What's wrong with saying so?
In that spirit, I have a simple recommendation for Muslims: accept the reality of the Hijazi Ultraviolets, such as this one:
The caption, from the Atlantic article, reads: "A page from perhaps the world's oldest extant Koran, from before 750 AD. Ultraviolet light reveals even earlier Koranic writing underneath. Photograph by Gerd-R. Puin." Dr. Puin has over thirty thousand of these palimpsest images, and it means, of course, that the Koran was not channeled inerrantly; it was made up by men (and women?) over time, just as most of the Torah came from the Book of J (probably written by a woman), which came from earlier, even more archaic stories. For Muslims, it's long past time for their book to be broken.
Still, Islam too often gets a pass. Consider: five months after I wrote about the Sixth Sharjah Biennial, two men from the University of New Mexico emailed me their
feelings thoughts impressions about my article, and also to correct a minor mistake. I'll quote them in full here, with only minor fisking and comments, though both of them set my teeth on edge. And all spelling is in contents -- [sic] -- as they say:
From Erik/Spaceboy first: What do you really know about the Near East region? Have you ever been there with out the protection of a group of americans? Yes, Islam is different, and yes, it has produced a vastly different culture from the western world, but that doesn't make it wrong or bad. Just like there has been much blood shed in the name of the western world, there has been blood shed in the name of Islam. There is no one right way in this world, and if you're going to blast the UAE you should be willing to look at the government where you're from too. You know, the expatriot labor force of the UAE may be abused sometimes, just like americans abuse immigrant workes sometimes too, but these labor workers can make 3 to 4 times what they could make in there home land, and therefor actually support their family.
And by the way, Zain Mustafa's piece was made and signed by war protesters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, not New York. And being anti-war is NOT ant-american.
[I tell you, and I swear on the collected works of Daniel Dennett that this is true, just as I was reading this ant-american rant on my computer, a CNN headline visually blasted me: American Beheaded. It was the very first news about Nicholas Berg.]
Now let's hear from Robert McFarland, who I assume is also from UNM: Your list of frustrations with the Biennial while valid, seems somewhat unhopefull. Certainly, aspects of the show are hollow, but the art community in UAE is still in it's infancy. That it exists at all shows great progress. Art is the fine point of change, and given enough time will sever the grip of fear-based thought. With more and more of our freedoms being eroded in this country, the problems faced by the artists and curator of the Biennial are no more singular to the Arab world than they are to middle-America. "Greedy and amoral" individuals exist everywhere. There is a great deal of bad art, and there is a lot of good art silenced by political and moral bullshit. The less effective work is, if nothing else, the key to Chen Lingyang's box.
You also seem oddly surprised to find the more mercenary "Step'n Fetchit" aspect of art to be exposed. Were you naiive to it's existence, or simply objecting to it's baldness?
With time, and dedicated, constructive critique by reviewers like yourself, better work will emerge.
For the sake of accuracy, I would like to point out that Zain Mustafa's work was created in New Mexico, not New York.
Picture it: two middle-class guys, art majors maybe (who cares?), kicking it in sunshine Sante Fe or Albuquerque or Taos, and Zain Mustafa brings his little white shirts to campus to sign. Instant political art, and so heartfelt. We did something, man. (At the very time thousands of their cohorts sucked it up and barrelled into Baghdad; not all of them making it, of course.) Two males, notice -- the gender that gets all the goodies under shari'a, while women get worse than the go-by; and they staunchly defend Sharjah, which strives to be the jewel of the strictest form of shari'a. I picture two American, probably white guys with fat wallets from daddy, wearing A&F and the right tattoos, and with zero sympathy for any, ahem, Third Worlders, or for any female in the UAE except the director of the fooking farce they took part in. John Lennon wrote it true, and it's still true, "Woman is Nigger of the World," and these guys like it just fine. Severing the grip of fear-based thought, my ass. Fear of woman is at the root of it all. Your brains soak in its brine, zombies!
Just as the Koran soaks most recently in the blood of Nicholas Berg.
(Funny: I don't feel a year older.)
The Downtown Phoenix Art Scene
is was the downtown Phoenix art scene, which I simply got bored with covering every First Friday, especially since it became a to-be-seen scene of mostly teens. (More on that below.)
Oh, there were opportunities, such as noting every time the next new art writer from the New Times, whoever it was that week, would use the word "burgeoning" to describe downtown -- which was every time. Maybe so -- Greg Esser owns three galleries now, Will Bruder's wedging his ego down in there somewhere -- but in the last year MARS closed after twenty+ years, New Urban Art closed after considerably less time, Paper Heart moved to Grand Avenue (more on that below, too), Studio LoDo went nonprofit, an art gallery whose name escapes me bugged out of the Shade building like a stripe-assed ape, and Shade
Magazine Projects itself went nonprofit.
When Bentley Dillard and Glenn Lineberry opened Bentley Projects (that appelation again!) waaaay below Roosevelt Street, local dealers cooed and crooned -- Jim Dine to the rayskew! -- but Shade Projects' Wayne Rainey, the main downtown booster, said he hoped the new venue would encourage people to really buy art. Because they haven't been. But he was naive to expect mature art from the shallow, immature artists he promoted. Did he not think that, post-9/11, people might be looking farther and deeper than Randy Fucking Slack? Who down there confronted the fact that the world only moves forward, that we must stand up to the present peril, and that we must take all of history into account if we are to make art that is worthy of the world? Hell: I'm preaching to the deaf here.
The downtown art dynamic has always suffered because of its youth -- I mean the people who constitute the scene, create the art, run the galleries and satellite venues, not how old the scene itself is. Modified Arts, remember, pioneered and continues as a youth-music venue with a part-time art gallery attached. Metro Arts High School is right in the middle of the district. Holga's artists' mean age is probably 23. MonOrchid gallery shows fancy skateboards and Pop Retread Art. When Phoenix Art Museum Contemporary Curator Brady Roberts got a room to showcase local artists, what did he do? Got three derivative popsters to make "Sex, Drugs, and Rock'N'Roll." Yawn city. Teacher-artists like Mark Freedman (one of that trio), and teacher-writers like Joshua Rose, editor ("in-chief" now, too, eh?) of Shade magazine, encourage their students to attend First Fridays. And then they wonder why there's a crowded conga line of clueless kids with scarcely a Benjamin to break between them filling every gallery every month, and everybody else has made theirselfs scarce.
Well, the art brainiacs have a solution: Third Fridays! . . . What are you laughing about? This is as deep as it gets with this crew. From this week's New Times, a short piece by Ashlea Deahl:
To compensate for the swelling First Friday crowds, some downtown art venues are adding a second evening of events each month.
"[First Friday has] become a big party in downtown, which is great," says JRC [pronounced JERK? I dunno], owner of The Trunk Space, "but, for serious collectors or people who are looking for a more relaxed or art-focused evening, it gets to be a bit difficult."
Serious collectors. Of who? Karolina Sussland? Jeff Falk? Oh yeah. In these parlous times, it's reassuring to have such artists to inspire us.
Asafoetida / Jon Haddock
I first ran across this word in Thomas Harris's Hannibal:
The exposition of Atrocious Torture Instruments could not fail to appeal to a connoisseur of the worst in mankind. But the essence of the worst, the true asafoetida of the human spirit, is not found in the Iron Maiden or the whetted edge; Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd.
Asafoetida, a cooking aid and folk medicine, is a sulfurous-smelling gum resin derived from fennel. According to Wikipedia, "chunks of asafoetida resin are too hard to be grated, and require a hammer to crush."
Well, I've got a hammer. And it's no accident that I summon the ghost of Hannibal Lecter, the Patron Saint of the Rebarb: all appetite, no remorse.
Today, this is the image that comes up first on Haddock's shared website. (Find it yourself, please.) I think it refers to Daniel Pearl rather than Nicholas Berg, but he's probably thinking, Wow! How prescient can you get! And he sure does ring that chime, doesn't he?
I've gone after this guy before, starting a whole megillah everyone should read. I don't intend to flog it again.
I just want to point out that the severed rat head is part of his new exhibition in a hip LA gallery. His career is definitely taking off, due in part to the constant backing of John Spiak and the ASU Art Museum. He has his whole line of cartoon drawings at this exhibition, called "Embedded," including the one that sent Catherine and I out the door; but he has also, fans will be delighted to know, deepened his depravity to include implied pedophiliac rape in a Roman Polanski tableau.
I searched his blog (again, find it yourself) to see if I could get a clue to his motivations, and especially his feelings. He has an entry called "Why Old Cartoons?" which pointed straight to this series and was my only help -- and it was revealing. These are as close to feeling words as I could find:
I've found that information transfers better if you use a language your audience is already familiar with.
This is a near-tautology, of course; but beyond that, he refers to the content of his work, which is almost invariably violent, as information.
The issues I wanted to talk about in this series have to do with how we process tragedy, and weave it into our culture.
Again: "issues," "process tragedy"? What kind of way is that to talk? We're flayed here, we're bleeding here, we're decapitated, we're burning up, asshole. And you seem to love it, Haddock.
Another layer is my (and my culture's) fascination with a certain type of violence. At a certain distance it becomes really compelling and exhilarating. The cartoons reference that necessary distance.
Ah, here we are. Can you smell it, reader? We've reached the asafoetida. Let's cut out the weasel words -- certain type, certain distance, necessary distance -- and get to the stinky resin: fascination -- compelling -- exhilarating -- it's the violence! He and his culture love it! Breathe the funky fetidity in deep, foolish fan. It's the world you made, the world you want, life in the Rebarb.
I'm just getting started.
[Update]: December 24: Welcome in advance, post-Christmas visitors from the Best of Me Symphony. I am pleased to report that Mr. Bruzon Avila, referred to in this piece, was released from his Cuban prison and is now recuperating in France.
[Update]: Today, May 18, this piece was given more legs by Phil Dennison. Thank you, sir, and thank you, readers, for your kind comments. And go read Dennison's piece on Michael Moore and communism. Also, I finally figured out that James Lileks had me linked in his "Of Note" sidebar on today's Bleat. Thank you, sir. Waow: Lileks.
by Jerome du Bois
After sentencing Julio Valdés to twenty years in prison, the presiding judges in his trial ordered the burning of the books in his library on the grounds that they were "lacking in usefulness."
We are paid in pesos, but life is lived in dollars. -- Cuban saying.
We are being threatened; they tell us we can't speak out and we better not say anything. But as long as I am alive, while a minute of life remains, I am going to keep on speaking out, nobody is going to stop me. And if they cut out my tongue I'll keep writing, and if they cut off my hands I'll keep writing with my feet; I don't know what I'm going to do, but they aren't going to get away with it. This is the situation we are in, and this is the testimony of: Haydeé Rodríguez. -- Veteran septuagenarian independent Cuban journalist, Santiago de Cuba, January 29, 2004.
In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
(epigraph to Angels in America)
There are no cockroaches skittering across the polished hardwood floors of the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale Arizona. No rats patrol the baseboards. No scorpions pose macho in the corners. No biting flies attack your eyes to prevent you from seeing what's right in front of you:
Lisa Sette Gallery supports Fidel Castro.
And most everybody's cool with it, because everybody loves Lisa Sette, the hippest art gallery in Scottsdale for twenty years: Valley art patrons, museum curators, art dealers, local artists, local art critics. But by their silences, by their lack of outrage, none of these people seem to care how many political prisoners go diabetically blind, go into a coma, or go into the final darkness, as a necessary structural precursor for the local Cuban Art boosters' burgeoning business agenda: to make Cuban Art as safe as baseball. Who gives a fuck about the librarians and the loudmouths? Let 'em suffer! Up with Kché! Long live Cashtro! Cuban art will be the new green diamond!
It's quiet in here, the air is expensively odorless, the squared-away walls shimmer cool as cream with passing windshield reflections. Outside the floor-to-ceiling front window the golden sun falls on trees green as money, on oleanders white as heaven, on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Inca doves coo, Lexi honk discreetly, and the sidewalks click with the well-high-heeled. At the door chime, an Assistant stepped out from the back gallery -- tall, thin, all in black except for white socks, she looked like an exclamation point; she smiled when she saw no prospect of sale, and stepped back out of sight.
I came here alone, but I brought a headful of Cuban scapegoats with me, because once you know, you know, and there's no getting away from it for anyone with a broken heart. And those who don't have a broken heart nowadays, need one, or they're lost; it's as simple as that. I say again, when you know, you know.
I mentally broke these politicals out of various prisons for the day -- Canaleta, Guanajay, Red Ceramic, Black Mantle, even Kilo 8, where they lost the keys -- for two reasons: First, I wanted their reactions to Cuban artist Abel Barroso's charmingly subversive toylike constructions, as some art blivvey has undoubtedly already described them. Second, I wanted to dramatize their horrifying plight. So I will use some of them, and they will use me, to make our various points.
Whoever's reading this piece, please have no illusions about it. It will not be an art review. Abel Barroso is a bought man, one of Castro's many public puppets, who, in the face of a half-century of brutal dictatorship, makes twinkie-doodle wooden toys and twee-ass paper t-shirts. And the bovine buyers thrill to his counterfeit cachet of subversion, the faux inventando that Cuban artists have been refining for over a decade. Did you know he had to dismantle a wooden dresser to make these constructions? Oh, please. These clowns are among the most coddled whores on the island. What, do you think they smuggle this crap out to the mainland? If that's your image of Cuban Art, as edgy samizdat, you're a sucker and a fool.
What the hell do Abel Barroso's comic-book carvings have to do with life on an island where saying "The Revolution is a failure" in public will land you in a festering hell for the rest of your adult life? The answer is they have nothing to do with such reality, of course, since his work isn't for Cubans, anyway. But its acceptance in the larger world is crucial to the buffing of Castro's image into a benevolent shine. And Lisa Sette, selling Toirac and Barroso and sending Castro his cut, does her dutiful part. Ignorance does not apply here.
Forget about changing anybody's mind. This post is frustrated witness, ripped red anger, and several hallucinations -- but I make no pretense at persuasion. My mamma didn't raise no fool. No matter what I write, no matter how eloquently I describe the open sores, the hypertension, the dysentery, or the diabetic crises of the political prisoners she helps to keep in hell, Lisa Sette and her crew will continue to recruit, promote and sell Cuban art. And so will Ted Decker, and so will Marilyn Zeitlin, and probably the Vanesians now, too. They have no shame. Arizona State University is, I am convinced, tooling up for a big exhibition of Cuban Art in a year or so, consolidating the new acquisitions from the Eighth Havana Bienal into the museum's already-substantial collection, and commissioning many new pieces. The last show was a country-touring success, so now I figure visions of endless mojitos must be dancing in their heads. Well, nothing I write will stop the legitimization, and it's too late to appeal to the consciences of the people named above -- conscience? how quaint! -- but in the meantime I'll see what I can do for the stand-up Cubans with this little, wild monkey wrench.
I look around the front gallery. You could put eight to ten cells in here, depending on the punishment. Barroso's work is in the second gallery. Out here I see bland, medium-sized, b/w photographs by Spanish artist Chema Madoz that could have been editorial magazine illustrations. Thin, one-thought-shots. And placed at intervals on the floor against two walls, three dark green granite pillows by Mark Mennin. I approach one of them.
A pillow made of granite. (I knew a little about grinding granite, about the patient relentless circular abrading of stubborn crystals into dust.) Some of my guests live in a 4 x 6 cell, which includes their toilet -- a hole in the ground -- with no mattress, no sheet, no blanket of any kind at all, much less a pillow. The mere word, puffy and soft, is a dream beyond them. As I think about this, a reclining man coalesces on the floor before me, his head cradled on the pillow, his eyes closed, his hands crossed on his chest. This is Leonardo Miguel Bruzón Avila, imprisoned for planning to honor the late Brothers to the Rescue fliers shot down by Cuban MiGs in 1996. In Cuba, he's on a hunger strike, he weighs 80 pounds, and he's in a coma. [In fact, as I post this, he may be dead.]
But he looks pretty good today, dressed in a white shirt and white linen pants, ruddy-cheeked and breathing quietly. Shivering, I lean down for a better look.
But I'm interrupted by a man's voice at my elbow: "Leonardo, stop playing around, we don't have much time here."
I quick-jump double-take -- to my right there's a skinny old bald black man, also all in white, big grin -- then back to Bruzón Avila, who opens his eyes -- hooded, ironic eyes -- and flashes a white smile. He stretches luxuriously. "Oh, but Omar, that was so comfy," he laughs. Then he bounds upright, supple as a gymnast.
"Hercules!" he says. Then he looks down at the pillow, suddenly sober. He nods at me. "You're right about the grinding."
"Aren't you in a coma, sir?" I ask.
"Correct. That's probably why this is so easy for me. If one end of the silver thread . . ." He sees the look on my face. "Never mind. It's great to have energy again." He leans toward the older man. "But where are my manners? May I present Omar Pernet Hernandez, independent librarian, scholar, and wit."
The skinny black man, who makes Gandhi look like The Rock, performs a slow half-bow, and as he does his pristine clothing disappears for just a moment, just a flickering, and I see his ravaged, naked form, shivering and running with sores, wearing nothing but sagging, shredded, soiled jockey shorts. Then, in a blink, he's back in impeccable white and a sardonic smile. "As you could see by my outfit, I am not a common criminal," he says. Ah. A political thrown in with the hardcore criminals. He wouldn't, and doesn't, wear the common criminal's uniform. It is not a crime to oppose Castro, he insanely claimed as defense. It happened a lot.
Both he and Leonardo move to the wall to examine this photograph. Almost unconsciously, both men raise their hands and caress their jaws, as a man gauges his need for a shave, but not quite, because then they clench their fists under their chins. The Beard . . .
"Boooom," whispers Leonardo.
"Boooom," answers Omar.
They knew what that felt like. They turn to me. "Is this the gusano?" asks Omar. Gusano means worm.
"No," I answer. Wait. Something's wrong. "This is some Spaniard." They both nod as if to say, Same thing. But wait. "Barroso's in the back gallery." I start to turn to point but, wait . . . wait.
"Wait, look, this is stupid. I bring you here for art? Fuck art! To get your opinions? What the hell good is that going to do you? I should take you to a doctor or, or, or a restaurant at least! The mall! I mean . . . art? Who give's a rat's --"
By now they're both cracking up at my babbling, and Omar, compressing his lips and sucking in his cheeks to get control, leans forward and lays a wrinkled black palm against my fevered brow.
"Jeronimo," he says, "settle down, man. This is just a dream, yours and ours. Look." He holds out his hand. The iron knuckles from the photograph lay there on his palm, ugly and lethal. He makes a fist, and and when he opens it I see a chocolate heart as dark as the skin on the back of his hand. As I look, the heart breaks jaggedly in half. He pops both halves in his mouth, chews, and makes a face:
"Bitter. There's nothing you can do for us. We Cubans have to do it ourselves, and most of us haven't -- don't -- won't. I know it's hard to believe, but we politicals, we intellectuals, we book people you've read about -- like something out of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and Solzhenitsyn too -- we, the skinny, the sick, the stinking, the dying -- We're the strong ones. What does that tell you about the rest of the people? What other society do you know that has a social class they call comemierdas (shiteaters)? Maybe North Korea." He pauses to catch his breath. "You cannot imagine the dimensions of The Exhaustion on this haunted island."
"He's grinding us down," adds Leonardo, making The Beard gesture. "It's the pulverization of resolver. We could make a boat that could sail to Africa out of a flattened tin can; I could write a thousand-page novel with a pencil stub. But you can't find a tin can or a pencil stub, and even if you could, you're too tired from being too hungry for too long, and too stupified to follow through."
Omar stands erect. "But that's still no excuse, Leonardo."
"I know, I know: the whole island should be in prison until we're all free."
We all think about that necessary absurdity for a moment, then Omar tilts his head, as if listening. "Others are coming, and . . . and I smell Ché." Wrinkling his nose at the mention of the murderous Argentinian.
"Yeah, she's got three Ché studies by Toirac in the back room."
They shrug. "Well, let's go see Abel Barroso's Cuba," says Leonardo with broad irony, and we drift toward the second gallery. As we enter, I notice three more guests have arrived: on my left, economist Martha Beatriz Roque is talking with The Assistant, and on my right, Leonardo and Omar join the journalist/poet Raúl Rivero Castañeda and the independent librarian Julio Antonio Valdés as they discuss some of Barroso's work. Dream logic allows me to record both dialogues simultaneously and transcribe them serially, as follows:
Abel Barroso, Doctor Galactico, 2004, woodcut
Martha Beatriz Roque (to The Assistant, pointing at the above construction): This is such a lie. There are no syringes, no condoms, no pills, unless you have dollars. The clinics, which can only accept pesos, are open -- and empty. He's laughing at us, and selling you our pain.
The Assistant (still dazed; where did this woman come from?): What do you mean?
Ms. Roque (considering her): Got any tampons?
The Assistant (taken aback): Excuse me?
Ms. Roque: Or pads. Anything?
The Assistant: No, I, not on me . . . but . . . why? Are you . . . ? (gesturing)
Ms. Roque (laughing): No, for later, and for others, back in Utopia. Tampons, pads, handkerchiefs . . .
The Assistant: Utopia?
Ms. Roque: You're not very . . . Never mind. Look, on the island you have to register to receive menstrual supplies. The current waiting list is seven months long. Imagine what you have to do in the meantime. (Grasps her shoulders.) I mean it. Really try to imagine it: what do you use? You want to walk around, try to live your life, but it's your time of the month and there's nothing for it.
(The Assistant, fascinated and repulsed, stares mutely, wide-eyed. Ms. Roque tilts her head, reaches behind the Assistant to lift up her long black ponytail.)
Ms. Roque: Here's another true story, Wide Eyes. Your hair reminded me. Twelve-year-old Cuban girl, hair long like yours, she's been growing it half her life, riding home from school on the bus. Comes in the house, I'm home, Mamma. Mamma says what happened to your hair? Girl reaches back and discovers her long beautiful ponytail was cut off by someone on the bus who knew how to get money for it. (Makes scissors out of her fingers and reaches over The Assistant's shoulder.) Snip snip! Welcome to Cannibal Island! (Looks at her raised left arm) You know, in prison, I can't even feel my left side. This is nice. . .
(Steps back, looks around at the art, shakes her head) Such lies . . .
The Assistant: Is this a dream? Where did you come from?
Ms. Roque: I told you -- Cannibal Island, North Korea II -- and that reminds me of one more thing I want you to remember before I fade, because you're right, this is kind of a dream. Castro is behind a new effort to make Cuba a major player in stem-cell research. Where do you think he gets the cells? Well, abortion is free in Cuba; Cuba has a huge sex tourism trade; and since women, whether jineteras or not, can't even get tampons, what are the chances of getting contraceptives? Put them together and what have you got? Scrape, scrape, scrape, turning flesh back into money.
(The Assistant steps back, face twisted): What a horrible thing to say!
Ms. Roque (fizzing at the edges and gradually fading into nothing more than a sad smile): You can't stay ignorant forever, chica.
Abel Barroso, Robot Turista, 2004, woodcut
Raúl Rivero Castañeda (gesturing at the above construction): He's laughing at us. You're looking at the sad, true core of the Cuban economy -- dolllars for fun -- the one reason we're not literally eating each other -- and this fucker's goofing on it, as you Americans say.
Me: In the local paper, The Arizona Republic, they showed this picture, and a blurb describing it as "Public Enemy No. 1 -- Greed." They don't say whose greed.
Julio Valdés (reaching out to turn the crank; after a few turns): I find it "lacking in usefulness," if you must know. [see first epigraph above]
Me: They burned your books . . .
Valdés: They burned hundreds of books, and videotapes and cassettes and magazines and documents . . . I knew they would come, and I would sit some nights, late at night, unable to sleep, just scanning my bookshelves, my pitiful stacks, and finally I took a leaf -- sorry, couldn't help the pun -- from Mr. Bradbury's burning book. I started with articles -- memorizing, memorizing -- and, since our time here is limited, I want to infect you with just one image that always haunts me.
This is from a visit by Arthur Miller to Cuba in 2000, published in The Nation magazine. Listen (Begins to recite from memory):
Now, with a wicked look in his eye, he [Castro] turned to Wendy Luers. In midafternoon she had gotten us all out of the minibus the government had provided and into taxis that had taken us to the home of a dissident, Elizardo Sánchez. There we learned what was rather obvious -- that despite the man's having been jailed a number of times for writing and distributing antigovernment publications, he was presently free but without any detectable influence. Knowing that his house was bugged he felt free to say whatever he liked, since his positions were already well-known. And if any of us had imagined that the visit was secret, we were disabused by the friendly TV cameraman who photographed us out in the street as we left. So much for our taking taxis instead of the government bus.
Now, addressing Wendy Luers primarily, Castro leaned forward and said, "We hear you were all missing for a couple of hours this afternoon! Were you shopping?" A flash of fierce irony crossed his face before he joined in our laughter. And so to dinner.
Two things to note here, Jeronimo. One is Sánchez's complete impotence. Castro's initial move is always to emasculate; who care what Elizardo says? The second, the cruelest, is the reference to shopping. There's nothing to buy! And "He" loves it, because "He" never misses dinner!
(Taking a breath, sighing) Well . . . we do what we can. I wonder what you can do?
Me (shaking my head as a long-dead phrase from my long-dead past breaks gradually through): " . . . remember them that are in bonds . . . as bound with them . . . "
Castañeda: " . . . and them that suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body." Book of Hebrews, 13:3. Are you a religious man?
Me: No, I'm the ultimate sucker: I believe in people. Speaking of which: Congratulations on winning the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano prize, sir.
Castañeda (chuckles): Good one, and thanks. But let's not forget the first two verses of Chapter 13:
Let brotherly love continue.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Me (leaning forward): . . . Are you an angel?
Castañeda: No, but I expect I'll see them before you do.
Valdés (looking at his hands, which are flickering with light): I think we're supposed to move to the front gallery.
Me: Oh? Why?
Valdés: Isn't this your dream?
Me: Well . . . Omar said it was ours. (Looking around) Omar . . . ?
I saw that my remaining guests -- Martha was already gone -- had assembled in a small group at the center of the front gallery, their white auras glowing softly. As I moved into the separating doorway, I noticed The Assistant sitting stunned at her computer.
Something prevented me from entering the front gallery, so I hovered in the archway. The floor trembled, I heard a long, sad, creaking, and then, smoothly and quietly, the edges of the hardwood floor peeled themselves away from all four walls, the long ends rising and closing like an envelope, and then shifting to a canoe, and then a final morph into a giant longboat of polished golden wood. Printed on one side of the prow: LAW 88; and on the other: ARTICLE 91. My guests sat stiffly on benches across the middle of the hull, with their backs to me, already turned toward their fates.
The boat floated up off the floor and drifted silently toward the front window. As it passed undisturbed through the glass and joined the daytime traffic of Marshall Way, I saw it turn south, and then the boat and my nearly-forlorn guests dispersed like smoke blown into a fan.
I was alone again, feeling hollowed-out. The floor was the floor again, and the Assistant was looking at me curiously. It was time to go. As I reached the door it chimed, and Abel Barroso himself brushed by me. I turned and watched him skitter across the floor toward the office.
Okay, my mistake: one cockroach.
[It's obvious from the links that this piece could not have been written without the indefatigable research of Val Prieto of Babalu Blog. For some excellent links on the dissidents, check out this post on the one-year anniversary of their incarceration. And for those readers who think I'm too harsh on ordinary Cubans, I urge them to read, and reread, and reread, this recent post. Update: Though I don't agree with it, you should also read this reply to the last citation, from Yoan Hermida's blog.]
[Also, I have put words in the mouths of living, suffering, human beings. I hope they know I honor them. If I offended anyone else: deal with it.]
[Update, May 19]: Val Prieto has just posted a powerful, related piece on non-Cuban artists and musicians who help perpetuate the regime. Go read Amid the Decay, Let the Music Play.