Tag Archives: Zola

The Discarded

IMG_0702Walking through the El Anatsui exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art the first thing one encounters are massive veil-like curtains. Made of the bits and pieces of modern refuse, carefully folded into a loose color rich chain-mail, its delicate beauty and fragility envelopes. Close up the dazzling perfection of the crafted tapestries and sculptures imbue the viewer with a feeling that is all at once strength and grace. El Anatsui is an Ghanaian artist that creates works of art with what is unthinkingly thrown away. He works with collected bottle caps and metal wrappers, the tin tops and bits of wood that litter our every step and what he creates is Byzantine mosaic meets Medieval tapestry meets Gustave Klimpt meets material seduction, and global commerce. The results are stunning.

His work is site specific and the conceptual ideas flow through the entire exhibit: what moves, what changes, what we leave behind and how distance gains us a perspective and clarity of place while the intimacy of detail reveals tangible subtlety. His world view is one where nothing is fixed, there is beauty in the fluidity.

There are short films throughout that show in which Anatsui explains his process both practically (a typical wall hanging will take some 25 workers three months) and philosophically. My daughter ( an artist currently doing a turn as an art-world intern) and I wondered about the the more mundane aspects of the work as well: did he pay for people to collect the thousands of pieces of debris, if so how much? Were we right to feel discomfited by Anatsui’s use of unpaid interns- in a world that so freely abuses the rights of workers I balk at arguments that suggest “the honor” and “experience” of working for anyone is worth compromising our sense of what’s fair. Neither of these topics came up in the show, but a discarded argument has as much power as a discarded bottle cap when joined in powerful numbers.

El Anatsui’s work is still mesmerizingly beautiful despite the pragmatic musings of two pecuniarily pressured women. But having just finished Zola’s Rome, (despite never actually beginning it- but never mind that) the interior space of my head still rattled with Pierre’s lament, In a quivering voice Pierre was bold enough to answer: “I look for some kindness and justice.” (87)

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New State, Old State

Was this the woman who had shown herself so calm, sensible, so patient the better to ensure her happiness? […] He had hitherto seen her so reserved, so modest, with childish charm that seemed to come from her very nature! But under the threatening blow she feared, the terrible blood of the Boccaneras had awoke within her a long heredity of violence, pride, frantic and exasperated longings. – Émile Zola, Rome (12)

IMG_0676I must have some nomadic blood coursing through my veins, I’ve moved often enough. But if I do, it sours at the complex bureaucracy that governs our every action. Just the amount of stuff to transport is hard enough.  I am an absolute devotee of public libraries and still, I had to weed through some embarrassing number of books to make my move manageable. I went through them with lightening speed- “No. No. You had your chance to read that, no. No- just get at the library. No, Jessica. No. Oh I love this one- yes.” Down to four boxes (okay I am not including my children’s books which I dealt a much kinder cut to considering they read far less than I do and most of them are actually my own childhood books or books I read to them- but damn my relentless sentiment!)

“Oh those Frenchmen,” remarked Dario, to whom the mere idea of a cemetery was repulsive; “those Frenchmen seem to take pleasure in making their lives wretched with their partiality for gloomy scenes.” (37)

Because I have (relative to the average non-nomad) very little “stuff,” it took me all of 3 hours to unpack, hang paintings (with two of my son’s help), and admire my fine work. I found Zola’s Rome among my books, and there is nothing quite like a visit to the DMV to give someone ridiculous amounts of time to read…

Yes, a threat of doom and annihilation: as yet no people, soon no aristocracy, and only a ravenous middle class, quarrying, vulture-like, among the ruins. (52)

I don’t mind, terribly, confessing that it is actually a deep and abiding pleasure of mine to get rid of stuff; the part that is the cause of the searing pain in my head at this very moment is the red tape. Still, I try to have a decent attitude, after all, as long as I have a book to read I can suffer to jump through the endless paperwork hoops.

In his anxiety to bring things to a finish, Pierre wished to begin his campaign the very next day. (61)

However, as I read Rome, whilst waiting for my number A123 to be called, I couldn’t quite decide if I was impressed or bewildered by the manner in which Zola just dove head first into the story. Without any explanation of where, why and with whom I was dealing, I felt as though my foot had gotten tangled in his line and I was being dragged undertow- shut up and swim, Jessica… finally I gasped for breath around number A116 to ponder Zola’s  mad confidence in the reader to just hang in there, groping for the thread of the story. But, in full DMV-conciliatory mode, I read on, who was I to ask questions?

Habitual self-doubt and faith in my idiocy often manifest into a polite deference and acquiescence, so I can’t say I was entirely surprised, more than forty pages in,  as I was flipping back to the beginning to verify that I understood who one of the characters was, to discover that what I was reading was volume two of Zola’s novel.

Oh well, I reasoned, I’m about forty years into my life with volume two beginning and letting go of volume one of my epic is not entirely a bad idea, the important parts will let themselves known, so- I read on.

*translated from the French by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly