“…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.
The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality. To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case. Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite. It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed. It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture. Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels). He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain. Yet we watch him anyway. There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach. And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding. There is something electrifying about his presence. There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist. His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.
Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny. The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes). In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive. It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear. Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle? Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined? It matters less whether the carny actually feels free. It is the perception of freedom that matters. Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another. The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not. The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls. So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo). Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is. Their names tend to come with a caveat: “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…” Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor. I just love him.” Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.
By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent. The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent. It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety. Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large. In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it. These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive. Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules. We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away. Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure. Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable. And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”). Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive. Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?
Amy Winehouse. Digital image. People. 2007. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.people.com/people/amy_winehouse/0,,,00.html>
Donna Reed. Digital image. Women large jaw. N.d. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.womenlargejaw.com/node/2154>.
Reality star Jesse James. Digital image. San Marcos Mercury. 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 March 2013. <snmercury.com/2012/09/14/reality-star-jesse-james-to-appear-at-thunderhill-races/>.
“Spring Break.” Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael. Dir. Rob Thompson. Universal Studios, 2006. DVD.
Tom Hanks On HBO Pics. Digital image. Your Stuff Work. 2011. Web. 11 March 2013. <yourstuffwork.blogspot.com/2011/11/tom-hanks-on-hbo-pics.html>.
At the intersection of circus culture, rock culture, biker culture, and intellectual culture, a current flows–distinctly American in its independent spirit–just outside the mainstream. It is rooted in the gypsy-like traditions of social drifters and outcasts, with their penchants for exaggeration, drama, and garishness, often with a dark bent. It is a mindset cultivated on the fringes of polite society. A style that harkens back to the days of the traveling freak show, in which a barker peddled to passersby some fantastical grotesquery just inside a tent, has managed to manifest in a variety of creative ways, from amusement park rides to tatted-up rockers to modern-day hipsters. The accoutrements of the marginalized have surfaced on Main Street.
Attached to this broad-yet-identifiable style are a tough-minded pragmatism and a generous autonomy, and a willingness to embrace differences–even flaunt them–rather than tamp them down. An assertive stubbornness shows in this countercultural questioning of much-accepted standards, seeing if what those standards are based in is anything more than just widely adopted prejudice. One may find traces of this influence in places like the French Quarter, or at roller derby bouts and horror festivals, and lest it be thought that dark is synonymous with evil, let it be remembered that evil often wears a guise of moral uprightness–the guise of which is rooted in middle-class Victorian manners, which ironically is the exact time period when we begin to see the emergence of the traveling sideshow.
An early glimpse of this freak show aesthetic came to me in the late 1980’s in the form of a thrill ride at the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida. The rides at this park could have been culled from any carnival—a tilt-a-whirl, a scrambler, something called a trabant—but they were given nuance by their housing within structures unique to their location. The particular ride in mind was cheekily named Dante’s Inferno (not the only amusement ride with that name–see Coney Island), and it consisted of a black dome with a giant devil’s head attached whose gaping, fanged mouth served as the entrance. The ride waiting inside could have been anything; the real fun was assured by the ride’s outer shell and the anticipation arising from waiting in a line that entered a wide, demonic grin and disappeared into a scream-filled darkness. Yet the demonic visage was unthreatening. Darkly playful is a fitting description. No one standing beside those massive molars possibly could have felt they were in any real danger, and therein lies the key to the sideshow sensibility. This is just the type of cheap thrill offered by the traditional traveling freak show, where much of the excitement is generated before one ever enters the tent.
The freak show remains an actual thing, perhaps most famously at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The major difference in the modern version of this historically notorious event is that the culture of it seems to be as much a part of the presentation as the performers themselves. It is difficult to imagine the freak show without its particular trappings, such as the posters that illustrate the talents of the featured “freaks”. These posters tend to present flat, almost cartoon-like figures with exaggerated and sometimes monstrous features. The settings are depicted in lurid colors (lots of rich reds, ghastly greens, and pallid yellows, all with black outlines), and the descriptive text is rendered with elaborate, out-of-date fonts. The focus has shifted from human deformities (like a third foot) to extreme feats and radical appearances, such as a sword-swallowing woman covered in tattoos. Without this shift, it is questionable whether a freak show aesthetic could survive in our politically correct era. Prolific chronicler of off-Broadway productions, Simi Horwitz, offers up an additional explanation for the sideshow’s enduring presence: “The sideshow is pure Americana, a performing arts offshoot that has not yet been gussied up.” It belongs to the world of folklore and myth, a realm once-removed from the subconscious. It is a genre largely forgotten by time, written off by the tastemakers of contemporary society. Their outsider status has enabled them to fly beneath the conventional radar for so long that a tremendous freedom of expression and identity has been allowed to thrive.
This is where we begin to see parallels between the sideshow and a host of other subcultures. There are the tattoos so prevalent among bikers and rockers; the daredevil tactics of skateboarders and freestyle bicycle riders; the theatricality of actors and actresses; the racy routines of burlesque dancers; the physicality of roller derby girls; the graphic style of comic book artists; and even the bohemian pose and scruffy dandyism of hipsters. All of these groups are marked by tight-knit inclusion–either you get it, or you don’t. The majority of these groups eschew middle-class mores, regardless of upbringing, viewing such concerns as either disingenuous or as part of an establishment that does not have their interest in mind. Likewise, these groups provide outlets for those who must find their identities outside the mainstream. If current trends are any indication, this includes a significant part of the population. The sideshow is alive and well.