Friday, April 11, 2008

Jeffrey Greenberg: My Performance with Him



On the way out the door he would remark to himself, though you could overhear him, "That particular step. That lamppost. That clot of dirt." I would follow after him closely to hear the levity of what caught his soul. "That azalea, the way the wind rustles the drapes, our footsteps quieted by the rug."

He imagined he was working with a team, silent, along a path, in a line, standing together, through the trees, staring at a distant light source.

He interested me in general, there was no particular activity that drew me.

He wasn’t ego-less, far from it. He observed himself! He lived in his third person actively: speaking of himself as "Him." He would say to his friends, "Do you know what he did today?" This served two purposes: by saying "him" or even "it", at times, he would surround himself in mystery and celebrity, become famous in his own language; and secondly, it was the only way he could be close to himself: it was the only way he was himself. But deep down he must have doubted this; saw it as mere, thin strategy; a gimmick of his soul; an intellectual stupidity.

When he saw me to the door and moments before I was to see my own ghost in the hallway, he whispered, "The disproportion between the greatness of my task and the smallness of my contemporaries has found expression in the fact that one has neither heard nor even seen me."

He told me about his experiments, "A point sticks out, becomes a landmark, erodes, passes on. A life as landscape making: hoping that around this turn, a more dramatic view will take place."

"I make my life art. At first this led to a state of amazement, an eye opening: everything glowed; in the corner of my eye flickers of movement, static objects transmuted, wiggled, twitched; I constantly spun about, trying to see it in action; to catch it and safely watch the change."

"I felt in control, endowed with a special and great power. I could bend things to my will. From afar I could clutch things, rotate them, inspect, heat one part, cool another, vaporize a portion, separate the gases, transmute the whole into wood to plastic to lead then have it disappear."

"I obsessed with finding a great drama in my tastes, sensations, thoughts, in all my ways. Now, I don’t bother. I want much more. At the time, my power was enough. But it cured itself. The more I dramatized my life; the quicker the sensational aspects faded; bored, my mind wandered. I would continue sweating, trying to focus but on what? What it was? On the faint remembrance of a flicker? Now, I am entirely different and open to much subtler things. For example, I only want to sink faster. The trouble is I am only up to my knees in mud, there’s not enough of it around to cover my body.

Later he explained, "I tell you, you cannot help but sink into the mud since it is all around us. Still, when the foot hits the soil, almost immediately there are vines of blue and green silk that curl up around the ankle. It is so incredible! Each step brings me deeper. I gave up breathing long ago. My gills have adapted to removing the impure air and water and to taking in only the dirt from the mud. And it feels good!"

Walking with him, he wanders. Stops, backs up, goes forward. Down one block then back up again, then down again. Then he says, "You know, I always move forward, I never take even a single step back. More precisely, I advance to the side."

The work was easier for me, floating along as I do, but his feet began to tire so we rested and ate in some underground garage where everyone wore suites and was silent together.

Deep inside, at what would be his core if he had one, he said, "I have no core, you see. I have no center. At my deepest, I am a tangent. The closest I come is to the edge. But what good is this? When I chop an onion I cry, not because of the chemistry but because of the crime of penetrating the layers. And I weep because the layers turn out to be finite. Still I must eat.

"Inside I am a pot of mud. I advance and hit the wall, then the pot of mud in me sloshes forward and I am shoved further forward a second time."

"I am good for a while. I advance strongly at first then I sink. I don’t sink fast enough, though. That is my problem. I sink too slowly.

I told him I wanted to sit face-to-face, silent, looking at each other, drinking shots of vodka. He said, "Your thoughts are so grim and angry. Can’t you see we must pull colored scarves over our heads? Such timidity! I am not your teacher! Get on with it!"

He said, "You should know about my researches. I have investigated certain subtleties. I say ‘investigate’ but I am not speaking of techniques or methods. I wouldn’t degrade myself so."

"Much of my time has been spent looking at the details. I have focused my eyes millimeters from fabrics, cloths and weaves of various kinds. Saffron, cotton, red rayon, plastic chintz, paisley, rich brocade, needlepoint embroidery, lace white and black, silks, hemps, burlaps, flannels, wools. My pointed nose would push into them and I could taste mustiness, freshness, perfumed scents or the mix absorbed."

He showed me how to travel sideways, lengthwise, against and skew to the weave. Sometimes I would rip through, rending the cloth.

Because of him, I hovered over a white Styrofoam ball on snow and caressed it with white ripstop nylon and white lace. I brought cloth to the desert-electric yellows and crimson cottons and nylon flowery chintz and I wore a women’s gold rayon shirt the while. I traced my black shrouded feet crunching through the windy cold snow. The microphone picking up air shifts, my breath, camera rubbing against chest. I crumpled up cloth and held it to my belly. In my apartment, I practiced hand gesture studies in a mirror listening to Indian ragas and Van Gogh dramatized on television, slightly drunk and with made-up dances on the spot all framed for video upside down. I painted myself black and danced to Monk. I spun round in the middle of a circular building, strode straight through corridors, jimmied along sidewalks, ran aimlessly through Monument Valley kicking a blue ball.

Together we hung cloth in trees in mild winds. Lace in prickly mesquite. Cotton on dry cracked riverbed clay and drew feather boa over the roots of a desert bush, licking its bark.

"This will have no ordinary risk: a cool risk...I ask nothing of you. You can slip out easily. Why should you be affected? I offer you nothing. It is up to you to do the work...It is our occasion to do what we need to do...perhaps I will need your help...perhaps I can help...perhaps I will stand aside for you."

"Listen," over the phone he says, "They’re burning in my kitchen."

"What is burning?"

"Remember the leaves I collected last autumn and dumped in the corner of my room? They’re on my stove now, and I’ve turned the burner on low and there is a terrific fire." And he hung up.

"Do this carefully," he told me, and he gave me a series of instructions. I felt uncertain: what was I supposed to get from this? Still, they were clean, precise...I was so attracted to the orderliness.

We traced and documented our steps, sometimes with levity but more often with a formulaic and lard-like heaviness. We sought the moment as if stalking our lives would let us grasp hold of it, and we succeeded, gasping for breath, our fingers on our own throats.

He sat me at the table. "Just sit." He covered it with black velvet. "I do this for you." Then he placed in from of me: stone, pebble, pea • brick, chair, table. • horse, cow, plastic chairs. • bricks, small houses, huge pebbles, giant peas. • shoes, socks, small plastic cows & a rabbit. • spotlight, humus, hourglass, puppet. • flame, cloth, fur, steel. • retread, sand, asphalt, pencils, tomatoes. • skin, fleas, roaches, hairs, potatoes. • urine, feces, accident, remorse, hairdo-on fire. • birds, air in bottle, red earth, clay, muddy water. • key chain, locks, battle sores, coughing, (moving hand in front of head, palm in front of chin, to forehead, looking forward.) • rain water in jar, alcohol in low flat container with black screw-top, cheese on wood. • box of nuts & bolts, leather, hammer, flame.

He said, "OK...Listen to my instructions: Roll on your back and scream. Roll to the left not right...do it again. Now, you’re nervous. Now, you’re trying to look relaxed but your shoulders are tight. Now, you’re smiling...stop smiling. Grip your shoulders hard. Now, smile...Now, bare your teeth...Face away, to your left...Ok, but you’ve clenched your shoulders again...so stamp your right foot...And, grimace again...

He lead me to the forest, put me on my knees, and pushed my head almost to the soil. My nose grazed the wet leaves. I was cold, bent, and water was soaking into my pants. "Are you comfortable?" "It’s OK, go on." So he guided me, pushing my head, my shoulders, so that my eyes floated over the ground. I floated over the brown and wet, then a patch of sheer, dark blue cloth so thin that I could see it doubling over, rippling, curtaining with black-green moss below. Then a fabric of the same quality but a paler, sky blue. Then a series of arabesque book etchings and filigree, then up and over a rotted stump, then back to pine needled earth. When he finally pushed my lips to the soil, I rested there feeling and tasting the cool.

Still, other times he was more open, less controlling: "Come with me." He gave me string and knife. We went out to the park and wandered, and now and then, when we felt it was right, we cut a length of string, tied it into a circle, a loop, and dropped it. Again and again, here and there just as we felt. And eventually we wandered back and found a loop we’d left at the start which he balled up and put it into his jacket saying, "We’ll need this later."

He said, "Look for something to clean and clean it as fast as possible. I thought I’d clean the gutter. "You’re using your left hand to scrape the dirt out of the gutter...you’re grimacing...it doesn’t look any cleaner...how can you clean a gutter?"

We went outside together, touching walls, fire hydrants, loading docks, asphalt, sidewalk, beer cans, newspaper, store windows, garbage cans, elevator shafts, parked cars, street lamps, manhole covers, curbs, door handles...silently.

"Talk wildly, expressively, incoherently and simultaneously."

I want to conclusively comment on our activities but they feel vaporous and fictitious to me though they are, without exception, real. Often when we’re done and even though there is a drama in their plan and in their telling, the actual sensation is flat. And that is precisely their power! They are entirely lacking a romantic conclusion or grand statement. Their importance derives from the way they color our lives--that we found a way to do these acts. I struggle to remember them, for they dissolve inseparable into my past: some were self-conscious decisions on our part, others we simply did and forgot while doing them. We cannot even refer to them between ourselves; I only construct them for my benefit. Our "activities", begin and end in our friendship.

We drive to a cliff by the ocean at twilight. We eat oranges and bananas, some decorated with dots along their length, others with stripes around their circumference. It is warm and windy and there are evergreens. We go to one and, facing the setting sun, pour tequila over our fists, dripping down our arms and flowing onto our pants and the dry brush.

Over a meal he says, "Go and look into the mirror and blow as if fanning embers into a flame."

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