Published April 29, 2019 | By thea
Below is a project I did with artist, Diana Frid and musician, Mark Gallay in 2004 when I’d only loved in Chicago for 1 year. I was four months pregnant and knew hardly anyone and no one knew. My husband was at Burning Man, clinging, I think, to the last vestiges of a certain kind of freedom and I was in town alone. I was energized by meeting my new friends in The Fine Art’s Building on Michigan Avenue and spending several hours there as we figured out together what to do with our allotted space, which was a broken elevator. This is the written result of that collaboration. I’ve been reflecting on it lately when I teach, trying to piece together how one makes a thing; Stuck with yourself at zero on a number line you have the past behind you, that is memory. Memory of course runs into imagination when you stretch to find words for it. The future is all imagination. That makes it so appealing. Process is what you do to get from the past to the future, what you do in the present of course. The intertwined nature of narrative and time and narrative as an act in time fascinates and troubles me. We’re stuck with this linear plane. We’re also graced by time, that gives meaning to events. Elevator First Floor: Memory, New York City 1973 There is a honeycomb grate in our elevator that covers the light fixture. When the brass accordion door closes I settle in for the thirteen-floor descent with my mouth open, my chin raised to catch something sweet from the ceiling. Yellow octagons of light give my mother a glow that she typically lacks. I watch as she faces the large mirror opposite the door; she traces her middle fingers under each eye and presses her lips together, her last moment of primping. On thirteen my mother had been crying, but here inside the elevator no one would know. When I’d asked her, why’re you crying?she looked at the elevator button, pressed it once, hard, then turned back to me and smiled. The smile toothy, terrible. I looked away from her blanched face and listened to the sound of the elevator whistling upward, the clank and squeak of the heavy doors as they came closer. On the ride down my mother clears her voice and asks Benny, the elevator man, how he is. He says, fine, thank you, and you? She says, just fine, firmly, like the way she pressed the call button. As we descend, air from the shaft filters through the door: gray air of pigeon, taxi crush and soot, it feels refreshing. It feels easy and fancy when it blows in my face like I’m in the back seat of a car by the beach and this is sea breeze through an open window. I watch the precision of Benny’s black, combed hair, oiled and neat where it meets his brown skin and crisp white collar. Eighth Floor: Process, Chicago 2004 We discuss putting a palm tree inside the stalled eighth floor elevator of The Fine Art’s Building, formerly The Studebaker Carriage Company. Nature and industry seem incongruous. (Like the orchid house by the lake.) Discuss flow of the building’s utility from horses to pianos. The elevator as a conduit carrying people, ideas, human detritus, cells in handrails, whispers over a century. Sound comes first, resonant voices, violins. Industry, practice, devotion; the processes of making everything. Wandering the building, arched windows face the lake; a blue inspiration. Reverie grows, distracts. That view can’t be pinned down. Why can’t we live here? The building generates its own activity. It’s ghostly in a good way, nobody at all inside an interior courtyard that feels foreign: Paris, Mexico City. Distant steps, the stone pattern on the ground, carry us to other places. Our frozen elevator poses problems. Stalled motion, broken flow, stasis in what was by nature, a carrier. A time capsule? The other elevators are sound nets, zooming throats, gigantic ears. They speak urbanity, glamour and also earthiness of pigeon and sky. They hear everything. Ours is dark and uncompromising. It’s difficult. But biopsy is possible in stasis. A broken elevator is a voice that’s stuck, an echo chamber carrying the dead, a wind instrument, (the musician says, also a percussive instrument.) Forget the incongruous; fill it with what it is. Cables and mass. A biological model. Rough cords and wires, that which transmits but is broken. Still, the elevator remains still, the center of a timeline. Write all the ways it carries me: carriage backwards to childhood memory; the hovering point which is zero and this description of process. The artist, the musician and I we aim for synthesis, carriage forward, to an imagined story. This is an attempt at motion. Thirteenth Floor: Story, New York City 1973 and Chicago, 2004 The two mothers met one night on the landing by the elevator like they often did. I followed mine to the front door, let it slam and peered out the peephole. Linda, mine, wore a white flannel nightgown. Nan, the mother next door, older but shorter, wore a wispy, peach negligee. Tonight, my mom wore sneakers and carried a purse like she was going out. A runaway mother was impossible but she said, I’ve got to get out of here. Dressed like that? I watched as my mother pulled the ruffled cuff of one sleeve. They’ve seen worse. (One of the building’s fathers had, what the mothers had called, a nervous breakdown, and rang for the elevator nude.) Come inside for a while instead. My mom shook her head and pressed the call button deliberately, the way always did, like she did like she was in charge and knew what she was talking about. She smoothed her hair as Nan lit a cigarette and exhaled. I scraped a chair close to the door so I could listen without tiptoes. What was that? My mom said, startled. I froze, She had heard the chair. She had caught me listening before. I didn’t hear anything, Nan said.The elevator hissed below, carrying a brief sharp peal of a woman’s laughter. Floors below, the oiled roll of the brass doors clanked shut. As the elevator approached, the wind from the shaft blew up onto the landing and the nightgown fluttered, rose up, exposing one smooth thigh. Marilyn!Nan said. The nightgown billowed until my mother was so fat and light that she might float away. But the gown deflated as the elevator grew closer and then lurched to a stop, shimmying a little bit up and down to meet the landing. I wondered if she was wearing underwear. Nan whispered into my mother’s ear and then the mothers laughed, loudly at first, leaning over their bellies, then silently, quaking, as tears ran down their faces and Benny, dignified in his dark navy uniform, opened the doors and waited.
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