A year-in-review (sort of).

Spied on our cross-country sojourn: A pick-up truck, outside of Austin, Texas.

It’s been a weird year. I drove back roads across the U.S. Threw a fish across state lines. Stared at an artist in a museum atrium. Taught art yoga. Spent the summer watching a “reality show” about art. Rowed around Randall’s Island in a handmade boat. And joined a religious procession in the Andes. I’ve covered most of these activities here on the blog (or over at WNYC). But a few things have eluded me — either because I just haven’t had time to get them down in pixels, or because I hadn’t quite sorted out my thoughts.

So, in lieu of a year-end listicle (I produce enough lists throughout the year), a little bit of stream-of-consciousness ruminating instead:

Take 1: Marfa, the Bizarre.

A visual exercise in severity: Judd's sculptures at the Chinati Foundation
Southwest Chic (and Bolivian blankets) for sale at the Thunderbird Motel.

This little Texas town — with its bounteous Judd sculptures and its hipster motels and its refurbished bungalows with Garden Design-worthy landscaping — has become an art world pilgrimage site of sorts. Here, the international demimonde arrives to soak up minimalist art in the minimalist environment of the West Texas desert, while dining on grass-fed beef brisket and chipotle coleslaw in brightly-painted early 20th century architecture. During our stay, we holed up at a motel stylishly accented with Bolivian blankets, where you could get a manual typewriter delivered to your room free of charge (presumably, a service geared at the expanding literary poseur market). On the whole, visiting Marfa is like visiting a highly attractive backlot.

Admittedly, bits of gun totin' Texas poke through the arty veneer: I found the above ski cap at the local gas station.

We arrived in Marfa after driving through much of the Southwest: beginning in L.A., through Palm Springs, Flagstaff, the Four Corners, Albuquerque and Carlsbad — and just about every one-convenience-store town in between. Until then, there had been a certain visual rhythm to our journey. Vast expanses of desert gave way to motel-studded tourist centers which gave way to dilapidated 1950s towns which gave way to putty-colored suburban subdivisions and then back to desert again. But, in its design-conscious quaintness, Marfa felt peculiar.

Zutritt Fuer Unbefugte Verboten: At Chinati, a sign forbidding unauthorized entry.

Beyond the artifice (which rivals anything out of Orlando), was the general weirdness of the Chinati Foundation — a 340-acre compound dedicated to showing sprawling installations by the likes of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain. Don’t get me wrong. The art is quite stunning. Traipsing around Judd’s concrete cubes and watching the reflection of the clouds and sky move along the surface of his aluminum works was truly memorable. But there’s something unnervingly severe about the place, too. Perhaps it’s the nature of the art, or the fact that the buildings that now serve as galleries were once Army barracks (some of which housed German prisoners during World War II).

Don't tell Jonathan Franzen: Donald Judd claims another member of the avian species.

What most likely left me with a somewhat unsettled sensation was getting off the beaten path and taking a walk behind the glass-walled former artillery sheds that house Judd’s priceless aluminum works. Here, we found the smashed corpses of at least half a dozen dead birds — all presumably claimed by the reflection of the building’s glass. It was a dour moment amid all the hyperquaint scenery, one that has had a stranglehold on my views of the place ever since.

The art industry often likes to believe that it is in possession of practically shamanistic powers of observation — that it can somehow see things others can’t. But my visit to Marfa leaves me feeling that it’s groping around in the dark, just as myopic as the rest of us.

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Take 2: In advance of the spill.

Somewhere in Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast.
Drove My Chevy to the Levee: A T-Shirt at a New Orleans gift shop.

Our cross-country drive took us all along the southern route of the United States, from Marfa, through Texas and into Louisiana. We were in New Orleans on April 20th, when the Deepwater Horizon well exploded. The event, at the time, was tragic — principally for the 11 lives it had taken. At the time, it wasn’t clear that this would escalate into the largest environmental disaster the U.S. has ever faced. In fact, it would be at another five days before the looming magnitude of the problem would begin to become clear. In a city still reeling — physically and psychologically — from “The Storm” (aka Hurricane Katrina), the accident in the Gulf was heartrending, but probably no more or less so than the daily act of living in a city with the highest murder rate in the nation (174 people were killed in 2009 alone).

Mullet Toss Mania at the Florabama: In line for the bikini contest.

Three days after the explosion, without thinking about the catastrophe that lay off shore, we continued our journey, on Route 90, along the coast, along the very shoreline that, just four weeks later, would deliver apocalyptic images of sea life soaked in crude and tar balls dotting crystal quartz beaches. We tooled past crawdad joints and dead malls, brightly-lit Whataburgers and old school Southern towns draped in Spanish moss. It was a moment of blissful ignorance, which continued right through our visit to Pensacola — where, in the company of old and new friends, we proceeded to inhale vast quantities of Apalachicola oysters and beer. The visit was capped with a trip out to the Florabama, a rickety honky tonk on the Florida-Alabama border, where we joined in the time-worn ritual of drinking Bushwackers and tossing a dead fish into the neighboring state, the perfect party with which to herald the end of a world.

By the 25th of April, we were making for the North. By the time we made it safely back to Brooklyn, late at night on April 27th (narrowly avoiding a catastrophic accident in North Carolina), it had become clear that the world we had driven through had irrevocably changed. And, with it, so had I.

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Take 3: Peru.

The sarcophagi at Karajia, in the northern Peruvian highlands. The Chachapoyas culture buried their dead in cliffside niches always in view of a village and a water source. (Note the human figures at the bottom of the shot, for scale.)
In Miraflores: A view of the fog that has inspired much literary musing.

When it comes to Peru, I make no claims for objectivity. My father was from Peru. I’ve read a lot of the literature. I love the food. As a kid, our family made frequent sojourns to Lima to visit family and marinate in bizarre climatological conditions. The alternate reality of being Peruvian runs through my veins — even, if at times, I have an acerbic, third person perspective on the place. But lately, I have to confess. I’ve found the place more intriguing than ever before.

Jesus and Santa Rosa play the dice at the Museo Pedro de Osma.

When I was in country last year, I met up with a foreign correspondent who is based in Lima. We discussed the country’s inherent insanity: its extreme geography, its nuclear-colored foods, its corrupt politicians, and its infernally complicated history bound together by a narrative arc of violence and brutality. What makes the country remarkable, he told me, is that despite all the tumult, Peru nonetheless manages to occasionally burp out some truly wondrous accomplishments to the world: The continent’s oldest city. Masterful pre-Columbian engineering. An ancient empire that once rivaled the Romans. The first Catholic saints of the Americas. A unique indigenized form of baroque art. Liberation theology. A Nobel Laureate in literature. And, of course, all of that absolutely sublime food.

Even the food is freighted with visual drama: A lemon meringue pie at a Lima cafe.

Every time I go, I find myself mulling the trip over for weeks and months after — be it the sight of Lima’s apocalyptic coastline or the impossible-to-reach cliffside tombs of a highland civilization whose apex was a thousand years ago or the sight of brilliantly-colored band posters plastered along a dusty city street or the food, which is more like religion, and like all things in Peru, dramatically presented. But most of all, it’s the unreality of being in a place where various epochs in history seem to be taking place all at once.

Who needs fiction when real life is so intensely strange? If I have one hope for 2011, it’s to go back and soak it up some more.

All photos by C-M. Click on images to supersize.

5 comments

  1. Kamilah Gill-Reed

    “Who needs fiction when real life is so intensely strange?” Amen. I also appreciated that observation of the dead birds in Marfa. I would notice something like that, too.