Haunted Postcards (after visiting the Haunted exhibition at the Guggenheim, 2010)
Central Park; St. Mark’s Place
It begins on a long line, the way most things do in New York; it begins two days before Labor Day, when the city’s practically deserted—yes, a kind of ghost town. It begins with an ending, the way most things do, anywhere. Summer’s ending. Standing on the line to get into the Guggenheim, I’m looking at the treeline in Central Park. It’s yellow sooner than usual. It’s been a drought season. From what I understand a lot of trees died this summer. I saw one fall on St. Mark’s Place a few weeks ago. It just snapped in half, and the people on the sidewalk screamed. Somebody shouted, “Oh fuck, that branch broke his head,” and there, by tattoo parlor, stood a tall boy holding his temples, and a broken branch at his feet. He looked dazing but he wasn’t bleeding. He was one of those strangers you designate as the representative of a minor disaster—someone you’ll never see again but won’t soon forget. I’m on the line waiting to get into the Guggenheim, and somehow the image hasn’t left me, the tree broken in two, the boy being given ice to put on his head, and a dream that I had where every tree in the city had disappeared overnight.
Whenever I go into a museum alone, I remember Angie Dickinson’s character, the lonesome New York wife, in the movie Dressed to Kill. She gets followed around by a stranger and likes it so much that she follows the stranger herself. It turns out to be the sexiest museum-visit in the history of the movies. The exhibitions aren’t the focus of this elaborately made chase scene, but they never entirely vanish from the frame. Look but don’t touch—the law of the museum, the law between strangers—creates a kind of unbearable tension. We see Angie lose her glove, we see the stranger pick it up, we see the two of them play hide-and-seek, we see an urgency we seldom feel in museums and galleries. And we, the movie audience, are safe and shut-off from this pursuit, a little lonesome ourselves, a little deprived, infinitely more invisible than the art that Angie and her stranger walk hurriedly past, but whose power may have had something to do with igniting the spark between them.
Inside the Guggenheim, near the sign that says Photography Not Permitted, a young man and woman, two lovebirds who were kissing earlier on line, decide to share the audio guide headphones. No—they’re not the audio guide headphones, they’re iPod ear-buds. They’re in that stage that most people outside their relationship would consider intolerable, where no act of shared intimacy seems beyond them.
“I like that it’s called Haunted,” the male lovebird says.
“Too obvious,” the female lovebird answers. “It’s what any exhibition could be called.”
Then she kisses him again. A barrel-shaped woman behind them mutters, “Jesus, Get a Room.” She jams in not ear-buds or audio guide headphones but earplugs. She unwraps a package, makes a point of holding it up so everyone can see that she wants to be sealed-in, no voices but her own: the ear plug’s brandname is Hearos.
I’ve lived in New York long enough to know people I have no business of knowing—the man who sells paperbacks with acid pages, titles like Chariots of the Gods and Fear of Flying. Going around in circles, or in and out the grid, there are certain people who seem to hold the world together for me: the ancient Polish women gossiping on the stoops near the bridge, where every month or two there’s a new face on the billboard. The Brave One becomes Ghosts of Girlfriends Past becomes Avatar.
For once in my life I decide to get the full audio tour, it’s part of the ticket and it can’t hurt, but I start on the wrong floor and the narrator’s instructions don’t match what I see. I’m thinking about what the man said to his woman, and what she said back, and the third woman who found their kissy-lovey-honeymoon business annoying enough to issue them a stern rebuke.
Maybe she was correct. I’m thinking that we all need to get a room—not for anything carnal but just so that we can be more sealed-in, more haunted. Ghosts don’t often appear in places as populated as this, do they? My grandmother’s mother, a teller of tales, a midwife, said you know ghosts when you see them. They look like someone you’ve seen before, or maybe you’ve seen them in a dream. Ghosts only appear to strangers, she said.
What Will Haunt Me
So exactly right it is, I almost know it before I see it, the thing that will stick with me from this visit: Annette Messager’s My Vows. It’s a spider web of pictures—a spiral-shaped string suspending hundreds of gelatin prints. Nipples and hands and penises and other parts: no words, no names, only erotic memory. Think of ads on dating sites, Charlie Sheen using a shot of his tool as his online profile’s avatar, Jpegs of genitals on Craigslist Missed Connections—the parts that can be shown to a stranger before the most overexposed thing, the face, can be shown, because maybe it’s the only sex organ we have.
Marilyn wants to be friends on Facebook. 3 Friends in Common: Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Jane Fonda. Marilyn posted new pictures, drinking champagne on the beach with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, Album Summer 1962. Marilyn is single. Marilyn likes Carl Sandberg and her fellow Gemini Walt Whitman. People in Marilyn’s network include Fidel and Boddy. Marilyn’s Farmville animals are thriving. Marilyn likes your picture. Marilyn commented on your wall post. Marilyn is recovering from her cold and should be back on the set of Something’s Got to Give very soon.
Instructions for Hearos Earplugs, Rock and Roll Series, Reusable and Washable, NRR 22, Trusted Since 1992
Caution: Improper fit of this device will reduce its effectiveness in attenuating noise . . . . Although hearing protectors can be recommended for protection against the harmful effects of impulsive noise, the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is based on the attenuation of continuous noise and may not be an accurate indicator of the protection attainable against impulsive noise such as gunfire. . . .
In 1838, Louis Jacques-Mande Daguerre took a picture of the Boulevard de Temple in Paris. He must have taken it from a respectable height and distance—it’s definitely not a candid view of the European street. It’s the furthest thing imaginable from the romantic images of Robert Doisneau. Instead, one gets a dismal vista of city life, the profiles of Parisian buildings, trees that look like plumes of smoke. The two human figures in the picture are the size of grease ants, and just as dark. It’s two men, one shining the boots of the other. This pair, among the first human beings to be photographed, have no faces, no names; when I see human faces in other early photographs, I’m always struck by their expressions: the terror, the boredom, the impatience.
It would take many years, I think, for someone to achieve that kind of look. We flirt with the camera as early as a moment after our birth, Daddy ready with the flash button off so he doesn’t hurt the new baby’s eyes.
It begins with an ending, the way most things do.
* * *
What I want to say is that I think there’s some grace to being afraid of the camera, something to be said for the art of being sealed-in, and some sweetness in noticing the things that are turning yellow and are beginning to curl up before their time.
I go home from the Guggenheim with the same stranger I came with, myself. I worry about the disappearance of things I know about New York, I worry about the Hindenberg Omen, which I admit I don’t understand, and I worry about the students I’m about to meet, many of whom were probably in the museum with me. Maybe it’s that moment before you meet someone new that you’re a ghost.
All I know is that during summer weekends in New York, when Manhattan becomes deserted, when summer is what’s among three markers, Memorial, Independence, and Labor, I fill an imaginary but tangible space.