I had certain ideas about being an artist. Artists were people who lived jagged lives along craggy coastlines. Artists did not stop moving.
Artists were never in the right place at the right time. Rightness was not what inspired. To be an artist was to seek only wrong places, only wrong times.
In Mexico, alone on a bus from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, I stared out the window and saw black highway, black trees. When I began to cry the man in the seat across the aisle moved to the seat next to me. He took my hand. He told me about his wife, a jealous woman, he said. He asked me to sing to him an American song, but all I could think of was Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” He asked me to recite American poetry, but all I could think of was e.e. cummings. Whoever pays any attention to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you. When this man and I kissed, I tasted my own saltwater tears inside his open mouth.
In 1995 Tracey Emin created a piece, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.” Some people thought she was bragging. But the names listed include her grandmother, her twin brother Paul, and two aborted fetuses.
What does it mean to sleep with someone? What is sleep? What is with?
I thought being an artist meant making sense of these questions.
It was okay, too, if in the process you mostly made unsense of yourself.
Some of my men had ridiculous names. There was Blender, ten years older and with eyes like copper pennies. When my tongue was touching his, I tasted his piercing, a hot metal ball that slid around inside its hole. Blender sold ecstasy at raves, but it was shots of Kamakazes that tipped my body into his against the brick wall in front of La Linea on Avenue A. For a handful of Saturdays I fell against him dizzy and laughing, the metal ball inside his tongue like a pinball, rolling inside its arcade game.
In the Lower East Side, in the late 60s, there was a well-known activist art collective called Up Against the Wall Motherfucker. They cut the fences at Woodstock so thousands of people could enter for free. They stormed the Pentagon during an anti-war protest. They dumped garbage into the fountain at Lincoln Center during a garbageman’s strike.
To Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, art was life and life was art and art was action and action was life and life was action was art.
I wanted that.
Being an artist, I thought, meant living just that way.
When I returned from hitch-hiking along the coast of Chile, I went to the hardware store and bought buckets of screws, nails, wing-nuts, hex nuts, washers and bolts. I glued the metal pieces to small patches of cardboard and painted beach scenes, garden scenes, forest scenes across them. I wanted to convey what my trip had been. Hitch-hiking alone at nineteen. Going with men in trucks. A marriage proposal from a sheriff in a small town. Dust & salt & fear & sunsets & cocaine & deep indents on my shoulders from the weight of my pack & trucks & highway & water, so much water, sparkling in diamond-glitter under yellow-white sun.
During crit my professor told me I’d misunderstood the assignment, which was to make an installation in a space that already existed, not recreate spaces that were entirely my own. He asked me why I’d skipped classes, asked where I had been. He gave me an F for the semester.
He asked me, Do you plan to go through life breaking rules?
I asked him, Isn’t that the point?
Besides Blender, there was Steve’s-Not-Here. Steve’s-Not-Here and I met in the parking lot of a Phish concert, where he was selling acid. He wore leopard-skin bell bottoms and in his car we smoked opium while listening to The Animaniacs, voices so squeaky high they spilled out onto the freeway like balloons.
Steve’s-Not-Here and I drove through California, Utah, Nevada. We picked up hitch-hikers and we swam naked in salt lakes. In a tent by the highway, he searched for a damp crevice to insert his body into mine. He grew frustrated when my body did not yield the way he wanted it to.
Steve’s-Not-Here wanted to go on a vision quest. He wanted to find a shaman. We couldn’t stay long in any one city because the acid he sold at Phish concerts was just paper with nothing on it.
Wasn’t this what it meant to be an artist? This kind of life?
In high school I hurt someone, my first true boyfriend, whose name was Huckleberry Pin. We smoked clove cigarettes and walked with linked elbows through the park, talked about nature and farms and had nonsense conversations with words we made up.
But I let him read my journal, where I had drawn pictures of Blender, written about how Blender and I had gotten drunk on Kamakazes and I’d let him slip his tongue into my mouth and press me up against the brick wall.
Like a motherfucker.
Many years later, there was Maurice, someone I met at a party at a hotel while I was an intern with The Institute for Degenerate Art. He wore a floppy hat and had a French accent so thick I could barely understand him, and I hated everything about that internship, hated the entire summer I’d spent in that office trying to make something happen for other people who barely cared to remember my name, and I hated the boredom and purposelessness of that time. Maurice was a thing I could take all for myself, his mouth soft against mine in the elevator down and then his body hard and urgent inside my mouth in the taxi back to his apartment. He lived in Brooklyn. He made sculptures with wax. He played trumpet in the Hungry Marching Band.
For weeks we had morning bagels and smoked joints in the West Village and he fed me edamame while sliding his hand up my shirt. He said he loved me. But I did not love him and did not want to, and many years later when I saw him at a concert he turned his back to me, and I was astonished to see that my leaving had wounded him so much, had even really mattered very much to him at all.
What did he think being an artist meant?
Perhaps, I think now, when he said “love” he might have meant it.
In 2004, Tracey Emin’s tent with the names of everyone she ever slept with was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Collector Charles Saatchi said, “I feel pretty sick. This is probably the worst thing one could imagine.”
Yet many people were convinced the fire was just a stunt, that it was, in the end, just a further extension of her work, self-destruction the inevitable final gesture.
I still don’t know why I let Huckleberry Pin read my journal. Only I think it had something to do with art. Like I thought he would see the art in the act.
I thought he was in on the joke with me.
But he wasn’t. How could he be? Even I didn’t understand the punchline.
It happens that way sometimes.
This is especially true, if you are someone who’s always had certain ideas about art, about what it means to live your life like an artist.
There is the man in the truck, there is the man on the bus, there is the man in the tent and at the bar, the bedroom, the taxi cab, the classroom. And there you are, gluing your nuts and wingnuts and bolts and washers into place. All those tiny metal pieces, cheap but plentiful, gathered in piles big enough to fill your outstretched hands.
Photo by sloneczna.pictures, used and adapted under CC.