I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Dodie Bellamy on hate crimes, Tariq Alvi’s artwork, and life behind the glass. Or, the origins of lynching through the eyes of a post-op handkerchief.
Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.
We hang on the wall side by side, Pony on the left, me on the right—Pony with his red carousel flesh, me with my red shoulder flesh. I am all orifice, greedy mouth and eyelids emerging from my bandages. My eyes are closed because I have X-ray vision. Strip of cumulus behind me—I am a woman with her head in the clouds. Kevin thinks I’m a burn victim but I say, look at my lavish mascaraed eyes, my meditative aura—I am both eager and patient for my facelift to heal. The oversized safety pins on either side of my neck add a note of humor, emphasizing the scarfness of my neck bandages. One can’t do the face without the neck. Some women forget the neck when moisturizing, for instance, but I never did. Tariq Alvi created us in summer, 2005.
Kevin dials Tariq in London, but the connection doesn’t go through. Dodie: “Try pressing ‘one’ first.” Doesn’t work. Dodie: “How about pressing ‘zero’ first?” Doesn’t work. Dodie: “I know—google ‘how to phone England.’” Kevin finds a site and enters Tariq’s number into a box and then a string of new numbers appears in front of it. Kevin: “Wow, look at all those numbers!” Clumsy, side-blindered Americans who know nothing about city and country codes. When they finally reach him, Tariq tells them about an image he found on the web of two teen boys with their heads in nooses. “They were hanged,” he says, “because they were gay.” “Who hung them,” Dodie asks. “The entire community.” “So they were lynched,” Dodie says. Then the line goes silent as Dodie waits for Tariq to say something, anything—the silence is too long, the silence seems to say “what?”—Tariq says softly, “They were executed, Dodie,” and she wonders if “lynched” is an Americanism—did they lynch witches, or did the word enter with a later form of hate crime? With Tariq and Dodie words frequently pop up the other one doesn’t understand, a cultural gap both sexy and frightening. Back in 2005, when I was no more than a concept, a plan, Tariq showed Dodie a picture of a red pony and a blue pony. “I want to print this photo on a handkerchief,” said Tariq. “Which color should Kevin’s pony be,” he asked, “red or blue?” Dodie can no longer remember if she had a preference. And then it proved to be impossibly difficult to find white linen handkerchiefs in San Francisco—Tariq looked in big department stores, Brooks Brothers and other high end men’s stores, to no avail, and presently he found them in an Irish shop, a shop devoted to everything Irish. When Dodie was a child women bought their white linen hankies at Woolworth’s or at Goldblatt’s, the locally-owned department store—her grandmother taught her to embroider flowers in the corners and to crochet lace around the edges, the fine thread grooving her chubby grade school fingers. Kindness—we are gifts of Tariq’s kindness.
Kevin commissioned our vitrines at FastFrame. The vitrines are airless, sepulchral—and the UV glass doesn’t keep anything out—death surrounds our white Irish linen fields, death and capitalism pile up around us.
Even though you don’t believe in black and white, in good versus evil, even though capital punishment appalls you, there’s always that one person who has behaved so abominably towards you, who has schemed and plotted, betrayed you with a smile, that person who brings out the vigilante in you, a person at whom—even though you know better—you would gladly cast the first stone. Dodie saw our enemy at a poetry reading. Our enemy was wearing this creepy black leather jacket, hip length, kind of shiny, her hair was pulled back and up with a barrette, the last few inches of hair cascading over the top of the barrette like a hair fountain. Despite the youthful way her hair flopped when she moved, she looked old, fleshy, her skin powdery. Our enemy watched Dodie from across the room, hungry for information she could use to destroy us. To evade her gaze, Dodie scanned the rest of the audience, most of whom she’s known since the ’80s, the whole room of them aging, the floorboards buckling under the weight of their aging. All of them moving forward on an unstoppable conveyor belt, like the TVs in the RCA factory Dodie worked at for four days one college summer. Entire families labored there, in Bloomington, Indiana, generation after generation, Dodie was an outsider to their close-knit community, a college student (having lied on her application, saying no I’m not just seeking summer employment, I want nothing more than to make a career at RCA), and the other workers snickered at her pathetic job performance. The Elvis records blasting from loudspeakers are almost impossible to hear over the roar of the machinery. TVs relentlessly flow by and she has to tighten several screws and bolts on each of them. Dodie cannot train her limbs to move fast enough—her wrench catches on a screw, but the TV keeps on going, pulling the wrench with it, twisting her arm. One woman loved Dodie’s hair. “That strawberry blonde sure is pretty, how’d you get that color, doll?” she said with a Southern twang. “It’s natural,” Dodie replied proudly. That’s the only dialogue Dodie remembers—a compliment on her looks—she was young, she needed to be beautiful, but she wasn’t. Her hair was nice though.
I just got back from Indiana, my first trip since I was bound and framed, I sat on the nightstand in Dodie’s childhood bedroom, watching her propped up with a pillow, writing in a red journal made from the cover of a funky old hardback book. The cover reads MISS PAT: thus Dodie writes: MISS PAT—which I didn’t relate to at first—obviously a woman’s name, a school teacher I imagine, a dyke-y one—but now I see it as a cryptic message about needing to be touched—MISS as in missing—PAT as in touch—my own need to be touched but also my mom’s need at the end—over and over her saying about the stray cat—‘all he wants is some human touch’—and my pathetic attempts to touch her, my pathetic patting her on the head when she was dying—but a nurse or somebody, it’s such a blur, I can’t remember, telling me how she held her mother’s hand the whole time she was dying. So MISS PAT comes to me as a message from my mother, her missing my touch. I miss her. At night Dodie’s afraid of the empty house, with its lingering energy of her dead parents—what if that energy has somehow changed, flies out at her—to ward against it she takes Ambien—but we both know ghosts could give a hoot about prescription drugs. It snowed in Indiana, the smooth white yard refracting the morning sunlight, sparkling like diamonds, but.
Flying to Indiana has made me thirsty for adventure. How I long to be a hanky tucked away in a pocket or purse, to go on daily trips. It is unnatural to be trapped in this frame, this cage. Children confined during their formative years—imprisoned, for instance, in a house of indescribable filth for seven years—exhibit psychosocial dwarfism. An infant with bones as fragile as crystal, a seventeen-year-old boy the height of a nine-year-old, a thirteen-year-old girl who looks like a seven-year-old. Gonadotropic secretion from the pituitary can also be suppressed, meaning the children never reach puberty. Confined children finish all sentences with the word “but.” If only Tariq had kept me for himself, but. I’d be an international adventuress, exploring Europe and Asia, and even Las Vegas from a pouch in his gray camouflage backpack, but. Tariq doesn’t lock his art in frames, he lets it sprawl across walls and floors and wheelchairs, all those glorious naked bodies tumbling and overlapping, butt, butt, butt. Tariq is the great liberator of prices—$29.95, $5.00, $1799.00, two for $10.50—he scissors them from their newspaper ads and sticks them on the white expanses of galleries. The narrow-minded see this merely as a critique of consumerism—when really it’s about emancipation, unleashing the beauty of a block of numbers preceded by a curvaceous dollar sign—or in England, a lithe pound sign, but. Dodie didn’t fly on a plane until she was 23 or 24, it was to Jacksonville, Florida, she felt so cosmopolitan—finally—with her ivory hardsided Samsonite luggage her parents gave her as a high school graduation gift. Dodie didn’t get a driver’s license until she was 48.
Confined children communicate using primitive whimpers and whines—and short high-pitched squeaks that are hard to understand. If you were to give a toy to a confined child, she would feel it gently first with her fingertips. Then she would rub it against her mouth and face, using her lips to feel the object. The confined child does not seem to know when to use her eyes and when to use her sense of touch.
We look up “lynch” at dictionary.com:
The administration of summary punishment, esp. death, upon a suspected, accused, or convicted person by a mob acting without legal process or authority.
[Origin: 1805—15, Americanism; after the self-instituted tribunals presided over by William Lynch (1742—1820) of Pittsylvania, Va., c1776]
So witches weren’t “lynched,” as they didn’t have the word yet. We type in “gay teens hanging” and in .66 seconds Google offers us over a million hits. I’m surprised to discover the hanging occurred in Iran. Since Tariq hadn’t specified, Dodie and I assumed it was England or the US. The boys, like Tariq are gay Muslims—that familiarity, of course, would make them just boys, where as to white ladies, unqualified boys would never be Muslim. Muslims are never unqualified. We find several variations of the same image: against a flat blue sky two blindfolded boys, two hooded men, two thick ropes with nooses. The bottom of the frame cuts them off at the waist, the boys’ pale short-sleeved shirts are ordinary. The blindfold on the left is dirty muslin, the one on the right looks like a necktie, gray with diagonal stripes. The hood on the right also looks recycled, a khaki t-shirt or sweater with holes cut out for the eyes. The executioner on the left’s head and face are wrapped in a black cloth, leaving a slit for the eyes, in a fashion I’ve seen Muslim women wear, the sleeve of his red shirt is a clot in the middle of the scene. From what I can see of their faces the boys are handsome. There’s a stillness to the picture, as if a superhero has frozen time and will jump up on whatever platform they’re on and free the boys. In the mock-ups for his show at [ 2nd floor projects ], Tariq disrupts the stillness with saturated color. Now the boys’ shirts are cornflower blue blobs, the executioners and their ropes are raincoat yellow, the sky hot pink. Around the boys the ropes the hangmen, a thick white aura whooshes. Over it all in pale blue Tariq has painted: BE CALM. I have never seen such outrage emanating from the word CALM.
The confined child’s first words are “stopit” and “nomore.”
When Dodie was in her twenties she never used kleenex. Instead she kept vintage hankies stuffed in the pockets of her jeans or 1940s jackets or sloppy shoulderbags. The hankies were brightly colored cotton with elaborate floral patterns, or white linen which her grandmother embellished with embroidery and crocheted lace. Dodie’s favorite hankie was plain white, with an inch wide border of white cotton lace that her mother carried on her wedding day in 1949. Dodie’s snot dried on her mother’s wedding hankie. I know not if that hankie still exists, but I dream of meeting her some day, befriending her, absorbing that sense of history and perspective that an older hankie can give. Or would she see me as her enemy because I’m perky and starched, not wadded like her for years in the back of a dresser drawer. I shudder at her wrinkles, her stains.
On the way back from Indiana we flew above the clouds, blinding white mountains of billows and the blue blue sky—it all looked so primordial, like worlds were being formed in those clouds, that sea of blue air—I thought men—meaning myself—weren’t meant to see this—within these swirling soupy masses, earth gels then hardens, then within its briny deep, elements collide and life appears, then evolution fastforwards, one cell morphs to many cells which morph to reptiles birds mammals apes Neanderthals and then the woman with the wrapped face sits above it all on a plane bound for San Francisco, Japanese flute music piped into her headphones. Disney probably already did this—no new thoughts in this bound head of mine—Disney would have made it playful, thrilling—within these swirling soupy masses earth gels then hardens, lightning flashes and suddenly there’s Life—for eons there’s nothing but one-cells blindly absorbing nutrients, and then bam! two cells stick together—this is the beginning of love—then there’s three cells—community—then four cells then an animated frenzy of more and more cells—Mussorgsky clashing on the soundtrack—joining and joining, together and together, whole nations of cells, galaxies of cells—and then a slug inches across the ocean floor, beautiful flower-headed anemones sway gracefully to Brahms, then cute little fishes with bulgy eyes and puffy lips dart about, one of them sprouts feet and crawls upon the land, giants arise, the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex roars, the wide-winged pterodactyl flaps through antediluvian skies, the Ice Age spreads across the land, wreaking havoc to the tune of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”—a dark dark frozen time—silence—then the drip drip drip of melting snow, melting ice—cherry blossoms bloom, adorable chipmunks and mice scamper, bees pollinate lascivious buttercups, wide-eyed deer bat long luxurious lashes, a pair of bluebirds touch beaks and hearts spark in the air—“L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” in the background—in the next scene the bluebirds are feeding worms to a nest full of baby birds—life goes on—and then there’s ponies and apes and hunch-backed Neanderthal families, then upright man—then Cinderella in her ballgown, mice with spectacles and measuring tapes, bluebirds fluttering about with ribbons in their beaks—then the Classical Era, then the Modern, Oppenheimer builds a bomb so big it looks from a distance like new worlds are being created—Angelina Jolie leaps forward as action figure, the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, then flashes of talking fish and donkeys, headless gay porn figures tumble across the screen on a diagonal, a fountain of pumped-up naked pink and brown male bodies, two queer boys hang in the Iranian heat, rats cook delicious French soup, and then we zoom out to the wrapped woman with her head in the clouds on a Southwest flight to San Francisco, sipping cabernet from a plastic cup, surveying it all.
Confined children speak in shrieks grunts growls and snarls. If confined with other children they may have developed sign language or other strange languages that sound like German but aren’t. The confined child is brilliant at nonverbal communication. When frustrated at not being able to say what she wants, she will grab a pencil and paper and in a few strokes, illustrate fairly complex ideas and even feelings. The confined child achieves the highest score ever recorded on tests that measure a person’s ability to make sense out of chaos and to see patterns. In later images the hanged boys are swinging—their blindfolds have been pulled down and their hands are bound behind their backs, their ankles bound as well. Their full pants balloon out—I imagine them filled with helium, lifting the boys, relieving the weight of all that death. The boys look serene, with their heads cocked to one side, as if behind their closed eyelids they’re just sleeping. One white slipper on the boy on the left, otherwise bare feet. Mobs of spectators in the background. Julia Kristeva: There are lives not sustained by desire, as desire is always for objects. Such lives are based on exclusion. I spoke to the blindfolds, and they’re grief-stricken. “It’s not our fault,” they wail. “We had no choice, the hangmen stole us from our homes, tugged and twisted and knotted us. We were just following orders. We weep with the sweat of the boys’ terror.” My head, like the hangman’s, is bound—slit for eyes—but my bandages are white. I am the good guy in the Western, the cowboy with the white hat. See me ride my Pony into the sunset, but. What was Tariq thinking, giving me to Dodie, who’s afraid of surgery, afraid of anesthesia—including novocaine at the dentist’s office—who lumbers out of bed smelly and old, who glances at her makeup mirror and thinks why bother. When there are so many reasons to bother. I was young, I had good genes, I deserved to be beautiful. I wasn’t. My bandages wipe away all that messiness. Soon I shall emerge smooth and tight, too tight for a full range of facial expression, but I have my spidery lashes, pillow lips—and my wit—don’t underestimate that—I’ll dazzle the world with wit and smoothness—no need for muscular tics that any baboon could read as Happy or Sad. Neanderthals invent fire—they scamper away frightened at first, then their eyes pop right out of their heads in delight—then agriculture is invented and primitive man plants soybeans corn and wheat, laying the foundation for American agribusiness—but they’re too primitive to know this—barebreasted women with hair long enough to cover their nipples grind masa by hand—rope is invented and then money, happy merchants in togas, golden coins stacked to the sky, thieves in the background hanging from trees—then Modernism and the rise of factory farming—a conveyor belt of happy chickens and pigs and cows glide into a gleaming factory—and on the other side of the factory emerges a conveyor belt of Chicken McNuggets, hot dogs, and steaming burgers—children of all races and nations stand round, sniffing the air in delight.
New Years Eve Kevin and Dodie went to see Charlie Wilson’s War in Schererville, Indiana. Dodie thought the movie was reactionary let’s get together a vigilante squad and kill us some A-rabs, while Kevin saw it as a Brechtian saga of government dysfunction. Midway through the movie Dodie has to pee—inside the women’s room a small boy races past her a woman with a blown dandelion perm shouts at the boy “Not that way!” so the boy spins around runs into Dodie and falls to the ground. The dandelion-headed woman bends over to help him, so Dodie continues into the stall. As Dodie sits on the toilet the boy’s cries turn to screams, he’s screaming as if he were dying out there and with each “That’s all right, honey” his screams get louder. “Shit,” says Dodie. When she opens the stall door, yet another dandelion-headed woman confronts her—she looks like the other dandelion woman, so they must be related, but Dodie can’t tell if they’re sisters or mother and daughter, the perm wipes out age distinctions. The boy’s still screaming. She yells at Dodie, “You knocked over my child.” Scream scream. Dodie: “No I didn’t, he ran into me.” Scream scream scream. Dandelion Head: “Why didn’t you tell me you knocked him over!” And then she raises her arm, points a finger at Dodie, and shouts, “What kind of woman would walk away and leave a wounded child.” Scream scream scream scream. Then the original Dandelion Head is also pointing at Dodie, “What kind of woman,” and all the other Indiana women in the restroom are staring at her, appalled—scream scream—and Dodie begins to feel scared. Dodie wants to shriek, “Stopit nomore!” Instead she walks quickly towards Charlie Wilson’s War and the anonymity of darkness, too afraid to look back to see if they’re following her or pointing her out to security.
What kind of woman! What kind of witch. In 1692 the following women were hanged in Salem: Bridget Bishop, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, and Sarah Wildes. No mercy was given to the condemned. As they were driven to their execution they were mocked by a huge crowd that walked and ran alongside the cart. The mockery continued even as the witches climbed or were carried up the ladder that leaned against a high branch of the hanging tree. The executioner lowered the noose over the witch’s head, pulled it tight around her neck, then he pushed her off the ladder so she fell downward and swung sideways. A clever witch would jump upwards while being pushed, making the drop violent enough to break her neck. Most died of slow strangulation—similar to being suffocated with a pillow pressed against your face—that could last five or ten minutes. Should the knot of the noose slip to the back of her head, it would take her even longer—up to fifteen minutes. Artaud: The dead little girl says, I am the one who guffaws in horror inside the lungs of the live one. Some witches gave a faint scream and moved their arms up and down, some witches convulsed. A hanged witch’s face swells, distorting her ears and lips. Her eyelids turn blue, her eyes turn red and project forwards, sometimes partially forced out of their cavities. A bloody froth sometimes escapes from her lips and nostrils; sometimes her tongue protrudes. Her fingers clench. It is not uncommon for a hanged witch to expel urine and feces at the moment of her death.
I am the masked white woman, the executioner, Time streams from my eye-slit my mouth hole monotonously there is no stopping Time’s forward momentum—Dodie tries to steer her students away from writing about Big Concepts like Time, but here we are—Time is the prison treadmill that destroyed sodomite Oscar Wilde—Time is the hellish conveyor belt Dodie worked beside for four days that one summer in her bell bottoms and Indian hippie shirt embroidered with tiny mirrors that reflected TV guts as they flowed on by, muffled Elvis above the roaring machinery wise men say only fools rush in. There’s the politics of death, and then there’s just death. Dead Elvis. Time streams from my mouth and eyes there is no stopping it. Ever since the Dandelion Head incident, Dodie’s been afraid of children, like what if she knocks another one over—when to look at—when to pat—the living—the dying—the proffered object—Dodie dials Tariq in London, but. The connection doesn’t go through. She’s typed in all the country and city codes, but. A woman’s voice comes on the line, with a thick recorded British accent: You have insufficient funds to complete this call. It takes three redials for her to realize it’s Tariq’s cell phone that has insufficient funds—a frequent occurrence the six months in 2005 he lived in San Francisco. Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that you come alive in us; it is we who live in you. Dodie woke up remembering Tariq telling her about a near death experience—not like he was out of his body, entering a tunnel, but. Somehow he confronted death, was in a mortal situation, but. Survived. It’s driving Dodie crazy she can’t remember the specifics. The situation changed Tariq, it opened the beauty of life to him, inspired him to embrace and savor each moment. In the midst of a fucked up, violent, homophobic, racist world hurling toward extinction, a world teeming with enemies, Tariq has found the key to happiness, but. What is it?
About [ 2nd floor projects ]:
Since establishing [ 2nd floor projects ] in San Francisco in 2007, I have featured twenty writers in the exhibitions, with six writers forthcoming in 2011. My programming includes commissions to writers throughout the country to produce an edition: essays, personal narratives, interviews, poetry, or mixed-genre pieces in the form of handcrafted broadsheets or chapbooks. From early on in my art practice, I have been interested in trespassing disciplines. These visual, theoretical, and narrative crossings perhaps address an interstitial space of engagement with the artists’ works from the writer’s point of departure. A distal approach rather than the traditional essay model, such as an exhibition catalogue. For each exhibition, I design and print in-house a limited run of 100 on archival papers. The writers are also invited to give a reading during the run of the exhibition, or to send a recording if they are not in the area. [ 2nd floor projects ] participated in the NY Art Book Fair in 2009 and 2010. BOMBlog will be re-publishing these pieces regularly over the next several months.
Dodie Bellamy’s latest chapbook is Whistle While You Dixie, from Summer BF Press. Her Ugly Duckling Presse chapbook Barf Manifesto was named best book of 2009 under 30 pages by Time Out New York. Other books include Academonia, Pink Steam, and The Letters of Mina Harker. Her book Cunt-Ups won the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award for poetry. Forthcoming in April is the buddhist by Publication Studio. She lives in San Francisco with writer Kevin Killian and three cats.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee