It is the Artist's desire to permeate existence
He does so by the power of his presence
And by will alone he breathes a work into art.
As pumping air into a balloon, that when let go,
permeates the sky. - Patti Smith
How does one dress for an art opening? I threw on blousey rayon pants, a men's linen vest over a tank top, and -- an afterthought -- my Land Camera, and started to head out the door. I looked in the mirror, and put my hair into a ponytail. "So I don't look like a Patti Smith impersonator," I said to J.
The Coral Sea exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center was sparse, but appropriate. More than twenty years ago, this same museum was taken to court over indecency charges for its Mapplethorpe exhibit. In The Coral Sea, there was nothing hinting at what some might call lewd, more at what they'd recognize as saintly: religious artifacts of Patti's remembrances of Robert Mapplethorpe's life. It was a strong message: THIS is how I remember him. We all can remember everyone in different ways: here was my saint. Two hospital beds with drab blankets; a photograph of an angel statue with a note from Patti to Robert inscribed on it. He was her angel. A display case of Mapplethorpe artifacts, including the Jean Genet book of poetry she read to him before bed: Le Condamné à mort, A Man Sentenced To Death.
On one wall, framed pages of drafts of her poem for Robert. I walked along and read each one, jotting down, for some reason, the words crossed out on each page: "and considered lying down for awhile," "upon a raft," "he was drawn," "who had he," "spirit," "remembering," "swinging arms," "motioning organ," "perfectly," "suddenly," "and blood pumping madly." I liked the idea of picking up Patti Smith's discarded words somehow. Old scraps that might make up a quilt. The thoughts she dropped along the way.
On the other end of the gallery was a curtained space; inside, two screens showing black and white film images of a restless sea, over which Patti read the text of her poem. There were too many people chatting to hear it properly; I sat for only a moment before deciding it would be better to come back another day to hear it properly.
I had told two friends who were volunteering (hi Kate!) that I'd meet them inside when they were done strapping wristbands to people's wrists, and so headed back downstairs to meet them. I could tell by the buzz in the room that Patti had returned from dinner (as Kate had promised when I arrived). I came down the staircase, but didn't want to go too close; she was being swarmed. I hate swarms. Then suddenly the room shifted, and she was headed in my direction.
She stood next to me surrounded by a posse of people; everyone else stared at her with goofy smiles. I was suddenly dry-mouthed and nervous; I turned my head and ordered a glass of red wine from the bartender. She got into the elevator with her posse, along with a few bold stragglers, and ascended.
I was content with that: just to be in the same room as Patti Smith.
* * *
Why does this weird thing happen with people who do great things? Why do we get all nervous and dumb around them, or why do we feel the need to have the experience of their physical presence? What did being in the same room as Patti Smith give me? I've been thinking a lot about the idea of "celebrity" lately. How ridiculous it is to get worked up over someone because their picture is in magazines, their image moving across a television set. Even just those who deign themselves too important to reply to someone who starts a conversation on Twitter (yes, I've been burned by this once or twice before, which I realize is ridiculous, but still weird). I've decided that I want to use the word "celeb" for those I want to celebrate: not just artists, but people doing good things, people being people.
* * *
My friends appeared and we sat near the entrance, people watching. I noted how much I enjoy the art of fashion, how some people really have a feel for expressing themselves through their clothes. I noted how here, people dance at art museums, even when no one else was on the floor. I don't know that I ever saw that in New York. I told them everything I'd wanted to say to Patti if I had the chance to speak to her, my millions of gratitudes I carried inside. "But I guess this is not the time or the place." Millions were there with their millions of gratitudes. What made mine any more needed to be heard?
My friends were headed to Northside; I decided to stay behind for a bit and sober up before driving, and chose to go back up to the exhibit for one last look. When I reached the floor, I saw Patti standing there, her daughter and another posse member at her side, just looking around, not talking.
I straightened my vest and took a deep breath and walked straight up to her and said HI.
And then I spilled my millions of gratitudes.
I started by saying she was the reason I'm here in Cincinnati, her whole thing about getting out of New York and finding a different place for creative output. I told her that her show at Castle Clinton in the Battery was the perfect goodbye to New York. I asked if she was still there, and she said yeah, and talked about how there are some great things still there, but that it's lost its grit. She said it's like a big shopping mall now. I said yes: like a walled city for the rich. She nodded and asked my name, I said "Zan" and she said "that's a cool name." I realized at this point that we were having a conversation, that we'd moved beyond the part where I explode my thoughts at her and run away. I had expected to say my piece and be on my way, but here we were talking. She asked how it was working out here in Cincinnati, and I told her it was the best decision I ever made. That I was so happy. She said this place has a lot of great things going for it, and that she's sure I'll do great things here. I was suddenly self-conscious of the camera slung over my shoulder, and noted her glancing at it as we talked, so pushed it further behind my back lest she think I was a sad imitator. Though I don't even think she would judge me for that. I thanked her for bringing the exhibit to our city, told her it was beautiful, and thanked her for helping bring ME to the city. "I'm sure you would have ended up here anyway." "You're probably right."
And then I walked away with legs like jelly, kneecaps like canastas. I took to my phone, suddenly grateful for the giggly circle of gal friends and guy friends on Twitter who were cheering me on.
It was a brief encounter, but it was enough to learn that Patti Smith is my ideal celeb. She is an artist I admire and respect, and yet she is still people being people. Later on when I was relating the story to a friend, she told me she'd met her once at some schmancy event and that she was the most down-to-earth person in the room: Just Patti. She lives on earth, while her art lives in the sky, permeates all around. She felt the same way about Robert: “I don’t need another artist of my life. I have Robert. The belief that we had in each other is a belief that goes on after death. I’ve always felt it, and I feel it every day.”
I want to celebrate that.
After my encounter, I wandered up to the sixth floor of the museum, to an area called the Unmuseum. The room contains interactive pieces: a wavy carpeted floor that forces you to walk stumblingly across it, aware of your body's pitch, a camping trailer you can sit in and rock back and forth. There were small groups of stragglers up there, rocking trailers, scaling the carpeted waves, exhibit visitors who had had wine and danced and needed a break from the party below. In the back corner of the space, I found solace in a little house with dark rooms, a table and a chair, an empty, tiny doll house for adult-sized people. I wandered inside, into the quiet, then around the back, where there was a half-storey window that overlooked the city. There was a ballgame on the giant screen looming over Fountain Square. A few houses scaling the hillside of Mt. Adams were lit up in the damp night, over the river spreading out south and west, the Carew Tower solid in the middle, permeating the sky. The puddles of the earlier rains gathered in dips of the museum roof, reflecting the lights and the towers and the ballgame on the television screen. It took my breath away. And I was happy to celebrate that.
I'm sure I would have ended up here anyway.
* * *
This is the not the first time I've pushed myself to be bold enough to go up to one of my musical heroes and say hello. The first time? When I saw Kevin Shields in the Virgin Megastore in London. He also turned out to be a great guy, and he also collaborated with Patti on the music for The Coral Sea Room.
The Coral Sea is on display at the Contemporary Arts Center until November 2013.
© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.