This is the second in a multi-part series in which naive, college student Heidi (ie Heidi from 2012) attempts to understand modern art. Join us for a wild ride. Check out the first installment here. In this installment, Heidi decides to learn more about modern art by attending an "Illustrated Talk". It gets weird real fast....
My first foray into the art world is for an “Illustrated Talk” by Bruce McClure. I have no idea who Mr. McClure is – perhaps an illustrator of children’s books? I enter the gallery through foot-thick oak doors and find three men. One wears a light blue dress shirt tucked into loose-fitting jeans held up by a black belt. His flowing, gray hair reaches his collar in the back, but sits at his ears in the front. He walks casually, almost stumbles, over to an enormous contraption in the middle of the room.
“Ok,” he says as he leans with his right shoulder against the contraption and holds his coffee in his left hand. “But I warn you, I’m not good at being funny. I guess this will be the casual picture,” he says. A man with a carefully pointed moustache snaps his photo. I realize the coffee-cup-clad model must be Bruce McClure.
As Bruce poses, I examine his artwork: a mini stage made out of black plywood, topped by a plastic folding table covered in colorful metallic power boxes, light control boxes, and mini generators. I can’t make sense of it all. The only thing I recognize is a can of crushed all-purpose tomatoes sitting in the corner and wires spilling over the edge of the table. I notice that the table is also a desk complete with a lamp and a chair. Bruce hops up onto the stage and takes a seat at the desk.
He jokes about the last picture: “It’s flaccid. Nothing’s worse than a flaccid man.” The third man, who is young and handsome dressed in tan and dusty green plaid, stands behind Bruce for a picture. The moustache taking the picture tells him he’s too tall, so he steps one leg down off the stage and keeps the other leg behind Bruce’s chair, which ends in half split half lunge pose that is definitely not flaccid.
The audience files in. They are all art students – they must be. They’re dressed with a creative flair and have glasses that must aid in introspection. They discuss an assignment I can’t begin to comprehend, and I feel like I have no business being there. A woman with her hair piled on top in a massive bun sits right in front of the table contraption.
She asks Bruce, “Is my hair too big? Is it ok if I sit here?” He tells her she’s fine.
“Well aren’t you going to perform? Won’t I be in your way?”
Bruce replies, “I did everything I could in last night’s performance. I spent it all. There is nothing left.”
“But I want a performance! I’m a performer!”
Bruce ends the argument with: “Even getting up in front of an audience is a performance.”
Once all twelve of us have filed in and found our seats, Bruce begins. “For fear of losing you, because this may be a waste of time, I’ll begin here. I am a person who shares. What is it about people who share, as opposed to people who take?” He waits expectantly for an answer, and when he’s greeted with silence, he continues, “It’s symmetries I’m interested in. When someone gives, another must take. I am the giver, and you are the takers. So in some way, you’re enabling me by your presence. You’re enablers.” He strolls casually in front of the white board, led by his belly.
“I like to occupy people with pictures. Who knows what a ho-mo-nuc-u-lus is?” As he says the word, he draws the vowels out and over-enunciates the consonants, taking three seconds to complete the word. Again, he’s greeted by silence.
“I imagine a little man sitting in my hippocampus,” he continues, drawing out the vowels again. “The little man sits in my own theater, watching the film projections on the cortex. The homonuculus is in my hippocampus.” It takes him a good six seconds of perfect diction to complete the last sentence. He passes out a drawing entitled “Motor homonuculus” that stretches out the body parts of an ugly little man over words like “Swallowing, mastication, vocalization and lips”.
Take --> give --> give --?
The same ugly man has different ugly parts stretched out over words like “genitals, tongue, and intra-abdominal”.
The man with the pointy moustache asks about the way Bruce interprets his relationship with imagination and refusal of recorded material. Bruce places his hand over his heart and says, “I don’t like film very much.” He begins drawing a spiral on the board, going around and around.
He yells at the audience, “What am I drawing? WHEN CAN I STOP!?” The spiral keeps going and going until someone shouts, “Spiral!” He thanks us for enabling him to stop drawing.
“You see, film is curled up like a viper, waiting to pounce. It has the deception of being an unending spiral, but then there’s this end here. It has a tendency to want to jump off the reel, but not in a convenient way. And then you have your unexposed film, which you somehow have to touch. In the dark. You’re not supposed to touch in the dark. There should be a law about touching in the dark. Yuck."
He has run out of space on the board with drawings and diagrams that seem neither artistic nor scientific to me. He tries to erase, then realizes it’s a permanent marker he’s been using. A man sitting on the front row jokes that his whiteboard is now being immortalized just like Einstein’s boards.
Bruce flips the board over the other side and continues writing and drawing with his black permanent marker, although there are five or six dry erase markers on the board’s shelf. As he talks about how transparency doesn’t exist and translucency is imagined, I’m startled to see a caterpillar crawling across my knee. I feel so disoriented, and the only thing that makes sense to me in the room is that the caterpillar is crawling rapidly towards me. I look around the room, up at the ceiling, and at the people beside me, trying to imagine how the caterpillar could have made it onto my knee.
Bruce draws a sun on the board and says it looks like an asshole.
“Let’s call it a sphincter, because that’s what it really is.” I scoot the caterpillar onto my pen and set it gently on the ground. Bruce explains that he almost has a heart attack every time he does a performance and that he’s still recovering from the performance the night before.
“It’s that intense for me. I’m making decisions up there. I’m obsessed about making it right.” The caterpillar has crawled back onto my shoe.
“I suppose I’ll show you, even though I don’t like to, because this is very valuable.” He fetches a roll of film from a red traveling trunk and tells us it’s part of a bird documentary about pelicans that he has taken and repurposed. He crawls up on the stage contraption in the center of the room and pulls out his loop of film while the moustache man hits the lights. The rumble and whir of the projector drowns out Bruce’s voice and all I see is shadows moving across the screen. He focuses the film, which makes a horrible screeching sound as dark shapes flip rapidly across the screen. What feels like minutes later, I can see a black and white shot of a pelican sitting in its nest, taking flight, and then looping back around to find its place in the nest again. Above the roar of the projector, I can barely hear myself think, and it’s peaceful. There is something more to the film than just a pelican and a projector about to break down. I am staring. I want to watch the pelican for hours.
I am jerked out of the moment by the lights flipping back on and the projector turning off. In response to a question about whether Bruce practices for his performances, he ends up saying, “I don’t care about gentrification. I don’t give a shit if you’re a family of Mexicans with 20 kids and you can’t afford a house. That’s your fucking wetback problem, not mine.”
The caterpillar has crawled away. It’s free. The moustache man mentions that Bruce has won a big award and asks Bruce what it means to him.
“I curse these awards that come to me.” When someone asks why, he asks if we know of some tribe – “was it the Aztecs or the Incas? Any way, each year they would pick the most beautiful kids of the tribe and let them live like kings for a year. They were celebrities and were pampered with golden bracelets and jewelry. Then they were thrown into a pit to die, gold bracelets and all.” He pauses for a minute. His shirt has come un-tucked except for one spot in the front, and a gap in the buttons exposes a pale, hairy patch of his belly.
“I think of these awards as not enough. It’s like, ‘Here’s $75,000, go do your work for two years.’ But where does that leave me? Without a job. Each year I live of the money makes the giant hole, the asshole in my professional resume, larger and larger.”
The talk is over. After the applause, and as we’re all standing up from our white chairs, the woman with the huge hair says in a jocular tone, “Bruce, you know you can’t make fucking wetback jokes in California.”
Bruce gestures around the room and says, “This room is my theater and I can make any fucking joke I want.”
Check out the next installment here