The Top Ten Ghosts in My Studio This Christmas
I’ve been thinking about ghosts and what it means to be haunted. I don’t know much about spirituality but I’d probably say that the only reasonable way I’ve found to look at existence is through its physical manifestations. That belief hasn’t done much lately to prevent me from feeling like there are ghosts around me all the time and that my studio has become a very haunted place. I’ve taken up the intellectually dubious practice of thinking about works of art, artists and people that I love as ghosts, and their continued influence on me as hauntings. I recently read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” again for the first time in years, so in honor of Dickens and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future here’s a list of the top ten ghosts that have been haunting me in my studio this holiday season.
10. “Au hasard Balthazar”, directed by Robert Bresson / Candido the Donkey
My friend Joe Wooten and I have a faux finishing business and last year we drove deep into the belly of East Texas to do a job on a little country house for Mike Cavender, the owner of Cavender’s Boots and Western Wear. The house was in a little town called Bullard, about 15 miles south of Tyler. As we pulled into the place I noticed a donkey in a small run marked off with barbed wire. He was surrounded by piles of his own shit, his fur was patchy and he was enveloped in a constant swarm of flies and mosquitoes. We were told his name was Candido. One day I saw him looking straight up into the sky where the sunlight was breaking through the clouds in clear, distinct rays, the way it does when it’s depicted on greeting cards and self-help books. It kind of broke my heart. When I got back home I re-watched Bresson’s film “Au hasard Balthazar”, the story of a donkey named Balthazar who enters the world as a foal living an idyllic life in the French countryside as the beloved pet of a farm girl named Marie. Eventually, through situations created by the humans around him and always far beyond his control, he is sold and his life becomes a series of hardships and degradations that turn him into a literal manifestation of the metaphorical beast of burden. Being an ass, he has no choice but to bear his burdens in the resigned way of all donkeys. I love Bresson’s clear, unsentimental, early black-and-white films with non-actors who fearlessly walk that artistically deadly line between reality and the clichés that reality eventually becomes.
9. “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson”, edited by Thomas H. Johnson
I have a hard time with poetry and I know next to nothing about its formal properties but many of these poems do the same thing to me that music does:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
8. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” soundtrack, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Like the soundtrack to “The Proposition”, also by Cave and Ellis, these instrumental tunes hit me hard in the places I love to be hit. I’m not a music critic, but they’re concise; not overly ornate, dramatic, despairing, elegiac, hopeful….whatever, they’re really beautiful. I’ve grown up listening to Nick Cave. When I was younger and angrier I would turn Nick Cave and the Birthday Party up to 11 on my square black boom box. When I was a little older, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were almost always in my giant Walkman as I walked around campus feeling alternately full of rage and gripped with crushing lovelorn despair. Now, feeling pretty old, sentimental to a fault but still a little angry, Nick Cave’s incarnation as Grinderman and his partnership with Warren Ellis are permanent fixtures on my iPod. (The movie is really good too, directed by Andrew Dominik who directed “Chopper”, another good movie.)
7. “Jealousy” by Alain Robbe-Grillet
I am new to Robbe-Grillet, who died in February of this year, and I haven’t read all of his books yet. But the first one I read, the novella “Jealousy”, still stays with me in the strongest way. It’s the story of an unnamed and unmentioned protagonist whose wife seems to be having an affair with a family friend. I found it to be one of the most formally amazing and frustrating things I’ve ever read. The protagonist (if indeed there is one) is presumably the narrator but is never mentioned and is only made present through oblique references to there being three table settings or three chairs on the veranda when the only two characters directly referred to are the wife and the friend. This formal device perfectly conveys the notion of the invisible, cuckolded husband who watches as his wife is fucked under his nose. Robbe-Grillet’s other formal devices—repeating sections of text multiple times in a single story and compulsive attention to descriptions of the visual appearance of the world—are also frustratingly evident and struck a special chord with me in relation to my work.
6. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner
Faulkner wrote this novel in about two months while he was working as a night watchman and firefighter during the graveyard shift at the University of Mississippi power plant. Told from the perspectives of 15 different people, it is the story of the Bundren family of Mississippi and their journey to bury Addie, the recently deceased matriarch. In its shifting perspectives, multiple takes on single events and journeys back and forth through time, Faulkner’s novel prefigures many of the formal characteristics that would come to define the Deconstructionist writers exemplified by Robbe-Grillet.
Technique is simultaneously the most and least important part of a Faulkner story. He could have taken the novel apart and put it back together again, but it’s philosophical poetry like the following that makes me feel like I have such a long way to go to be a good artist:
I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman,“Get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to always be a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man.
Last year I discovered the music of Odetta Holmes while watching “No Direction Home”, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan. One of the most influential figures in American folk music, Holmes died on December 2 of this year. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed her “the queen of American folk music,” and Bob Dylan cites her as one of his primary influences. I’m discovering all of her work now and listen to her in my studio a lot, but the first real revelation for me was her album “Odetta Sings Dylan”, an album of Dylan covers recorded in 1965. Her versions of his songs have reaffirmed to me just what great songs they are, because when she sings them they’re hers, not Dylan’s.
4. “Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West” by Cormac McCarthy
Since I began thinking of myself as an artist, one of my great unanswered questions has been: Does human nature fundamentally evolve? Do we really change? Society obviously changes, but are the motives and actions of the human being much different now than they were when we lived in cracks on the sides of mountains or when we enslaved entire races of people to make mud bricks to build palaces and monuments? With the civilian death toll in Iraq estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000, photographs of soldiers dragging people down the halls of Abu Ghraib on leashes and entire races of people enslaved to make t-shirts, I don’t know. Hope springs eternal I guess, but Cormac McCarthy makes a convincing case in his violent, baroque novel “Blood Meridian” that we are the same bloodthirsty animals that we became when we first stood on two legs. McCarthy, through the character of “the Judge,” argues that the excuses for our murderous deeds are different now than they were then, but still only exist in service of the primal human need to enslave, destroy and kill. The book tells the story of “the Kid,” who joins a scalping party in the 1850s and winds back and forth across the border of Mexico and Texas murdering just about anyone and everything for money. Written in a florid, antiquated style that recalls everything from pulp detective novels to the Bible, it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing. I love this book and think it and “Suttree” are the two best novels McCarthy has written. Thanks to the Coen brothers and the upcoming film version of “The Road,” it’s hip to like McCarthy now, but don’t let that discourage you—he’s the real deal.
Last week I discovered that the church in Flagstaff, Arizona in which I was raised has a website through which you can view the sermons. They can be watched live or in archived form about two hours after the service ends. Watching the people in the congregation, many of whom I recognize and remember from my childhood, and listening to the strange but familiar beliefs preached from the pulpit freaks me out to no end, and watching these things has become a frighteningly compulsive activity. Some of the kids I went to elementary school and junior high with even preach an occasional sermon. My girlfriend looks at me with alarm and concern when she walks into the room to see me watching these things. I’m working on drawings about the church I grew up in for a show next year at Moody Gallery and this discovery is the gift that keeps on giving.
2. Heather Bise
Heather is my sister. She was born blue with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She was revived but the doctors believe that her “stillbirth” was the cause of her deafness. When I watch home movies from my childhood now I see Heather in her highchair looking out from her silent world, hearing nothing, piecing together a completely different understanding of the world from the one I was creating with my intact senses. She was finally outfitted with baby hearing aids and small, distorted snatches of sound began to make their way into her brain. My mother raised Heather to be a “hearing” person (a source now of some bitterness), and taught her to speak and to read. By combining the sounds she is able to discern through her hearing aids with lip reading, Heather is able to understand them as spoken language. Her primary language is American Sign Language, but when she speaks you cannot tell that she is deaf; her speech is perfect. Heather is a social worker, working to ensure that the legal rights of people in the deaf community are met by state and federal agencies. She travels across the country delivering seminars to teachers, police officers and lawyers about how to effectively communicate with deaf people. Whenever I begin to feel self-important in my studio, I think of Heather and all of the people like her who work every day for almost nothing to help and improve the lives of people who are having a hard time.
1. My Dad
My dad said a handful of words in his life and was dead by the time I was 23. He worked most of the hours of most of his life; ten hours a day as a journeyman electrician and then home to eat dinner and back out the door to work a graveyard shift four times a week at a Stop n’Go. He died when I was still angry with my family and I never had the opportunity to really know him, to ask him questions as a man to a man. In the nine years since his death, his presence in my life has become an ever-expanding void into which I pour everything about myself that I don’t understand. If I do something that reminds me of him, I create the notion that maybe, just then, I was thinking the same thing that he once thought; that maybe some of my ideas or fears or vices were his too. Because I never had the time to make peace with him and understand him, I’ve folded him into myself. I’ve collapsed my identity into his and his into mine. He has become the black hole in the center of myself, a way for my pragmatic and atheist mind to tentatively and fearfully approach an understanding of the soul. As always, he is the most frightening ghost haunting my studio this Christmas.
Michael Bise is an artist living in Houston.