In the Mall, I Was . . . in the Mall

As a halfway educated man, I wonder why I like hanging out in shopping malls. There’s an understood mandate among we liberal arts types to despise such centers of consumerism, with their calculated storefront designs and cleverly displayed merchandise; and the hardly hidden motive for profit, which is one small, capitalist step away from greedy excess. In other words, the mall is a two-storied, soulless gallery of deception. Yet this store across from me right now, called Altar’d State, looks inviting, even though I think it’s geared toward women. The letters in the name are clean and modern, and they’re evenly centered above the entrance, on a slanted, wooden awning that runs nearly the width of the store. The tall windows are arched and contain rectangular bits of stained glass, all in various shades of brown, beige, tan, and off-white (I imagine that at some point, someone used words like “khaki” and “cream”). The facade reminds me a little bit of Macaroni Grill, which has even further pleasant associations. Anyway, staring at Altar’d State, it strikes me that mall storefronts are a little like television shows: just as TV gives us artificial slices of life on one convenient screen, the mall gives us artificial slices of architecture in one convenient location. Neither is what you would call real life or fine architecture, but they both seem to be enough. They both seem to satisfy some vagrant need for spectacle.

Maybe its the cleanliness and brightness that I love at the mall, and the good smells, and the splashes of color in the makeup department at Belk. The fact that the mall is climate-controlled is a definite plus, and opportunities for people-watching abound (even though most of the adults seem to be nursing a low-grade misery). Also, there’s something to be said about the pairing of familiar stores, like Dillard’s, with stores I’ve never heard of, like Native and Nomad. It’s as if the mall is saying, “I know who I am, yet I also like trying new things.” Humans like that kind of spirit.

Inevitably, I begin to wonder what this desire to be in the mall says about me. Am I drawn by the scent of retail? By its implied promise that happiness can be bought? Yet I almost never buy anything. (But I could. But I don’t. It goes back and forth.) To embrace the idea that buying brings happiness is, of course, shallow. So if I do get some kind of thrill from close proximity to retail, I hope that it is only a vicarious one. Perhaps the fascination is an expression of social class: an overlap of the working-class obsession over brand names with the middle-class obsession over buying power. This doesn’t feel quite accurate either, though. I shook brand-name obsession decades ago (I like to think), and as I’ve already said, I almost never buy anything. Or maybe, like most Americans, discussions of social class put me on edge, so I’ll drop that. Anyway, I think I’m gonna just drop this whole thing. I’m beginning to feel shallow.

From Rilke to Ragnar

“…because truly being here is so much…” (Rilke, Duino Elegies, “Ninth Elegy”)

Today I took in the full sixty-four minutes of Ragnar Kjartansson’s video art installation, The Visitors, at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It is immersive and seductive, the former term being the best I know to describe it, the latter being a word used in the show’s promotional literature with which I cannot disagree. It was both of these things and more. There are nine screens arranged in a large gallery space in such a way that gives the viewer real-time access to several rooms inside an aging mansion in New York state. Each room is occupied by a musician, with Ragnar himself situated in a bubble bath with an acoustic guitar. All of the musicians can hear one another via headphones, and all proceed to play what amounts to one really long song–several movements that continually return to a single, haunting refrain.

I was mesmerized from the start, even having a couple of moments that I can only describe as joyful. In fact, with Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic cycle, the Duino Elegies, fresh in my head, these moments of joy struck me as pure moments, as pure a moment as we can find in this life. These moments represent the best thing that can happen at an art exhibit, or in any experience, for that matter. For those who have not read Rilke, the poet presents art (specifically poetry, but I expand his thought to include art in general) as a relief from our nagging self-consciousness. You will have to read Rilke to take in the brunt of his thought–there is so much more than what I’m giving you here. To oversimplify, I will say that he specializes in the plight of the human consciousness.

My notion of a pure moment, informed by Rilke’s Duino Elegies, involves both the cessation of time and the suspension of self-consciousness. It is full immersion in an event. For me today, that event was Kjartansson’s The Visitors. It fulfills Rilke’s idea of “hiersein,” German for “being here.” In these moments of intense being, we forget about time, and we forget about ourselves. We are free to be inside a moment, free to experience pure joy.

The Visitors is on-view at The Frist until February 12th.

A Paragraph for the Beginning of November

I turned off my radio because I noticed the tips of the trees were already bare in many places. All across their tops the sunlight was catching them in a way that softened them like the bristles of a baby’s hairbrush, except wavier and stretched wide as the land–an earthwide undulation of soft, orange-pink bristles. And I turned the radio off because I wanted to listen to the trees, which is another way of saying I wanted to listen to nothing, because nature doesn’t talk to us: a leaf falls, and we call it an omen. We pick it up; turn it in our hands; roll our mind over its veins and across its papery flesh behind a dry fingertip, searching and searching for meaning, and when the meaning doesn’t come we create it: this is the sacred work of the artist. And aren’t those bristles lovely.