With the few spasmodic flickers, florescent lamp in the bathroom steadies itself to illuminate plastic black marble tiles, swamp green toilet, sink and a bathtub, into which I was submerging myself to the soundtrack of some horror film or other every late night of the past week. Besides that, my hotel room in Madrid boasts a red couch, a mirrored wall, and a balcony with a fake plant on it and a view of a beige concrete well of a courtyard from which a soundtrack of multiple turned on tv-sets and domestic negotiations is heard at all times. Having come into this unexpected luxury of a solitary living in a city that is foreign but not unfamiliar (and therefore not demanding immediate tourist attention), I’ve allowed myself to go deranged for few days: stay up until 8am, sleep until 4pm, sleep until 10pm - have dreams as profound as Mariana Trench, shamanic flights of omnipresence on which I would encounter all friends and their spaces, everybody and everything that I was worried about missing or losing altogether. I would wake up deeply happy, just to realize that the square-shaped bit of sky above the well of my brick fortress has grown grey again and that satisfaction of having apologized and been reconciled with everybody, with having established complete fullness of life and memory is also dissolving, and I could return to a stupefied blowing of smoke into my reflection in the wall mirror.
This fake black marble was perfect, emblematic somehow, it made some sense for the entire environment that could be consumed without even leaving my cavernous room. What did I remember about Madrid anyway? Baroque churches, pious pomp, black Goyas - figures soaring over dumb and inarticulate landscape, witches and giants made more real in their nightmarish flesh for being such a low ridicule of the familiar pathos of pink and fat gods, heroes and goddesses. All of it was right there, in an absurdity of a plastic fossil that was not supposed to remind of anything, and yet still could offer a face of Jesus or whatever one wished - and spit it out as something I knew was an object of missing, of desire - an artifice that is, a total theatre of (cheap) matter.
"Baby, I stopped reading tea-leaves and coffee grounds to understand the vicissitudes of our life together, apart, together. All that was too bitter and too noble. Now I just blow pink bubble gum and stare at the ripples on the cheap-ass plastic marble tiles and the flicker of light reflected in my filled bath."
Down below, the street are crowded by rich tight-lipped old women with their flat patent shoes and stiff hairdos. The hotel is in the middle of expensive, pompous, conservative and fascist neighborhood of Salamanca. (A nice addendum, is that they used to hold human zoos in the El Retiro garden nearby in the late nineteenth-century. But I did not dream of these atrocities - only of the secret and heavy life of the tropical plants in the Botanical Garden). I also found out that Will More, a Movida muse of predictable frail, pale, aristocratic & vampiric appeal lived nearby at his family apartment - it is very easy to imagine him surrounded by all the powdered nazi half-corpses shackled in their heavy gold chains.
Late, adamantly cold April. The truck was driving away from New York City up north to the Delaware County, I was huddled in the back, looking out of my window. The landscape moving behind the glass was hypnotic and uninviting – like a clear pool of cold water into which one stares without the slightest desire to jump in. Bare trees, stretches of empty fields underneath blue-gray stain of sunless sky – it was a picture of stoic sternness and emptiness sharpened with potential and expectation. Close-up though, when under my rubber soles, the earth turned out to be an indecent, brown, deep, and slippery mess, slurping below the hair layer of dead colorless grass.
It was the mud season upstate, and mud was king. Downward-pulling dominating force of erasure and inertia.
I was on my way to visit my friend Tianna, an artist and a musician, who four years ago came there from the city to reconsider her life-strategy, and ended up staying, having embraced organic farming as something to learn, take on as a full-hearted purpose, a promise of a business and income down the line, and also perhaps as an exercise in gaining peace of mind through practicing labor-camp type of penance. She is now living on the property of a former Madison avenue advertisement agent, and together they are trying to build a farm. Neither has extensive farming experience, so this is a very brave venture of cultivating uncollaborating and infinitely demanding land. Which, at the end of the battle day, he owns and Tianna does not.
We saw none of it the first night, though. When Sunny pulled her car by Tianna’s house, it was already dark, and the field stretching in front of the porch was a foggy and howling mystery (no stars), and remained that way until the morning.
Out of this dark plane came an incongruous cast of characters invited to dinner that night, absurd enough for the city, but made even less comprehensible in the setting of this wooden cabin, beaten from every side by the storm winds:
A young British woman of clear grey eyes and rather cynical and macabre sense of humor – a daughter of a famous screen writer, a cook, and a teacher of English and Tibetan for the homeschooled children of local Buddhists.
An owner of an expensive restaurant in Park Slope that offers organic fair of fetishized jams, cheeses, and pickled goods, all treated with reverie fitting for exotic spices. He was born and grew up upstate, made his fortune as a builder and so had redeeming proletarian directness to him.
A Dutch former model and her former scaterboarding pro corn-blond American husband who is also a carpenter, and an eighth child of zealously religious parents. Together they run a forbiddingly expensive organic pizzeria in the adjoining town.
A maker of goat cheese and her seven year-old daughter Haley, the latter digging through the box of Tianna’s trinkets and souvenirs, and forcing her tell one painful story of loss after another.
A calm, independent, yet affectionate black and white cat named Panther, who claimed Tianna as his owner. I respected him instantly. (The following evening, when the storm erupted fully, Panther walked through the mud-filled wind as unperturbed, unhurried and noble as ever, deigning to come and sit his soaking wet and dirty body in the ray of a table lamp light only very late into the night.)
The demographic was rather checkovian: all bourgeois people, mostly petty, who were driven to live the country life by an ambition to secure something – a homestead, a business, a family. But all that we heard from them were no foundational tales, but rather stories of endless slippages, break-ups and heart-breaks. This melodramatic leitmotif was the red thread interweaving the narratives of extremely hard and precarious labor. Matt remarked that just moving into the frontier prairie environment does not ensure adulthood and the ability to commit to anything or anyone, if it has not been acquired earlier.
The following day I woke up on the floor as Tianna and Jordi were stepping over me, preparing breakfast and discussing the news. (Manhunt was going on in Boston. I was having massive dreams of detection and persecution.)
Tianna starts out every morning at six and toils until eight at night, taking care of pigs, chickens, and vegetables that seem as demanding and fickle as little children, perpetually in danger of freezing or overheating to death. Work is constant, hard, and financially untenable – there is little to none governmental support for the organic farmers, and all of them are desperately in debt.
After a full day of labor of Sisyphal emergency, pushing against the inert swampy land that constantly threatens to swallow all efforts, she took us to dinner to the restaurant run by the Dutch-American couple. There, vegetables grown by her and people like her, are transformed into $15 pizzas (hence instantly made unaffordable for her) and served in the decorum of sensitive minimalism to rich New Yorkers who come upstate for the weekend. The atmosphere struck me as strange: lions and lambs, ascetics and epicureans, poor artists and rich patrons were sitting at the same tables, admiring what bucolic escapes have to offer, reminiscing about the Occupy and the emotional bonding across the class lines that it provided, and discussing NY art scene. All was very pretty, but my head started to boil: “what will happen in five years, after the yuppies colonize the town as a vacation spot and Tianna loses the last chance to buy land, since the prices would go up”? “Is there any attempt made on behalf of the farmers to cut costs by organizing some kind of equipment or labor share?” I understand the need to cultivate local market, but these people of money privide just a short-term respite, treating food as another cultural commodity and helping to fashion the relationship between farmers and buyers as the one between artists and art patrons.”, “Nothing is essential, everything is an object of luxury.” I unleashed some tamer version of this nervous monologue onto a wife of a MoMa curator sitting next to me – she instantly put on a apologetic tone in response to my implicit accusations: “We brought our property last year, and we got so very lucky, and it was still very cheap”.
After the dinner, the entire party drove off from the pizzeria to the house of a German fashion designer (Tianna said that he exuded sex; I did not think so, but there was a perpetual guttural kind of vibration to him), and his canary boyfriend in pink polo shirt and yellow pullover. Bearskins and furs were spread, mannered design objects in perfect order, family silver mentioned more than once. Everybody found the couple funny and charming. I hated the jovial fuckers. Fashion designer was enthusiastically orating late into the night about his plan of opening an auction house for household antique items. “No concept, but it will help build the community”. Farmers were giving polite exhausted smiles, and falling asleep one after another like flies.
At the end of the night, MoMa curator and his wife gave everybody a hug.
“Why doesn’t anyone ostracize those clowns?” was my question. Because they can feed the rest expensive cheese at the end of their impossible work day, because they can afford to buy organic food has been abstracted into an art object, because they help to reproduce familiar situations of hustling for sponsors who would support your work in exchange of your cultural cache of having “real life experience”.
All that is solid melts into air, even carrots, even dirt.
Ivan Zulueta was raised and lived most of his life in a villa by the sea – its large windows forming beautiful transparent two-way screens catching the light echoed and broken by the surface of the water. Over time, its white walls got completely overgrown with ivy, the thick and wild abundance of which carpeted this crystal coffin of an ageing prince from the outside world. Inside was the enchanted kingdom full of age-inapropriate treasures: his studio filled with boxes of Disney chromos, paintings of his mother (many of him as a snobbish and refined child), posters for the films (his own as well as by others) that he has been drawing since early years.
Absolutely consumed by cinema, Zulueta allowed himself to retreat into this building as into a shrine entirely dedicated to idle revery and contemplation. Nothing else at all. And that became a whole life: of dreaming, filming the passage of light along the walls, lying down, not leaving.
In the documentary made about him made in 2004, Zulueta appears as sweet as revolting. He gets dressed eventually, but for a good part of it we see him walking around his parents’ mansion in a blue bathrobe – naked legs sticking out from underneath it, stomach barely covered. In an interview he emphasizes that the house belongs to, was built and designed entirely by his parents, and that he is but an overgrown parasitic child “living with his mother”. In fact, one of the most poignant moments in the film is when his mother walks into the shot. They appeat almost the same age, her – more masculine, but with the same heavy long-toothed jaw, him – a velvet-eyed boy-prince turned old duena.
The full documentary (in Spanish) may be viewed here: http://www.hamacaonline.net/obra.php?id=646