Visual Language (Gertrude Stein)

I would like to think that I am making sculptural work the way Gertrude Stein wrote poetry—taking recognizable, concrete things extracting them from the context in which they are meant to be understood, thereby allowing them to be precisely what they are, but then re-contextualizing them in relationship to one another in a new, unexpected way that make’s formal and sensory, if not logical, sense.

-    WORDS ARE UTILITARIAN OBJECTS

We have certain expectations for what they are meant to do. In the same way that Stein could not extract the inherent meaning from the word “buttons” I cannot extract the meaning from the shells of pistachio or soap.

She wasn’t interested in creating a whole new language but more interested in re-presenting us with the English language, perhaps in an even more raw form than we are accustomed to.

“Why was saying nothing so damn hard? The answer returns us to her earlier discovery: the structure of language. Because words are always interconnected by syntax, they can never say nothing. Meaning is contextual and holistic, no word exists alone.

“Any human being putting down words had to make sense out of them.”- Gertrude Stein.  

While this is true can one not make sense out of something that is perhaps, illogical or absurd. What is the value in the work of trying to make sense out of something? Can it strengthen mental muscle?

Is it only affective when it makes sense or, on the contrary, is it most effective when it does not.

“a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the
grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the
magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the”

Conversation with Nash:

N: “I’m just not very familiar with her work. What’s the idea?”

M: “Well I always think about my sculptural assemblage work as a sort of visual language or a way to compose disparate objects in relation to one another so that they’re perhaps no longer sensical in a traditional sense but they still hold their own individual characteristics/stories or “definitions” of sorts. Gertrude Stein wrote poems that attempted to do something similar with language itself. She wrote poems based on this idea that words could be extracted from their original contexts and no longer have the kinds of contingent meaning we are used to them having but instead be abstracted so sound or symbol or something more formal and nonsensical. But the words still carry their own inherit meanings because as long as we know the language we will try to understand the word as a utilitarian object that does the work of being a vessel for that meaning we’ve ascribed to it.

N: That’s a cool idea. So if I understand correctly, an object or material is kind of like a visual morpheme?

Or the work is a visual phrase and each component loses it’s individual meaning.”

M: I had to look up morpheme (A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language. In other words, it is the smallest meaningful unit of a language. The linguistics field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word, by definition, is freestanding. When a morpheme stands by itself, it is considered as a root because it has a meaning of its own (e.g. the morpheme cat) and when it depends on another morpheme to express an idea, it is an affix because it has a grammatical function (e.g. the –s in cats to indicate that it is plural).[1] Every word comprises one or more morphemes.) which is, in and of itself, a great word. But I think what I am trying to get at is more of the latter.

But maybe not that each component loses its meaning—each component is more itself because the phrase itself looses its meaning.

M: Like a line from one of her poems (just a random one I found just now) says… “ a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas…” So, there are certain elements that make sense and we know and recognize (just as there are objects and materials in my work that are utilitarian and recognizable) but at the same time the statement makes no sense so we are asked to think more about each individual unit as meaningful. But there are loose formal relationships between the units that make the units feel like, despite their nonsensicality, they somehow belong with one another.”

Peaches Do Not Callous

 
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How far must I travel
in order to come home to myself?
How many flights does it take
to bridge the gap between
the territory I was lost inside
and the region where my identity
is embedded in every inch of the terrain

                        fossils and roots.

When my feet are not bleeding
from newness and friction,
and sore spots become strong spots
I walk, as if walking could be a rare gift,
a small bite of chocolate to let dissolve
on the tongue.

When my heart expands,
far enough to let someone in,
It will never contract.
Somehow there is always space.

And when it is dropped to the floor,
bruised like soft summer peach,
fallen to the linoleum,
still it is growing

 
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Every era of my life has
possessed its own texture,
except these moments,
of coming home to myself
which always feel the same to the touch:
pockets of feather down,
a handful of cattail fluff

How long does it take
to know in your bones,
that all is living and dying?
And that somewhere,
beyond a sense of self,
the world is growing bigger
and smaller
all at once.

 

                        (Peaches do not callous,
                                when they are hurt they become
                                                     only softer.)

 

In Smoke Smudged Sky

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In smoke-smudged sky
moon asserts itself over sun.
A rare occurrence.
People take notice,
go out of their way
to see its dominance,
its decision to no longer ­­
sit quietly in the
shadowy corners of night,
hoping only for the attention
of the nocturnal.

Moon and sun share nothing
except the shape which is a circle
which is a cycle
which is no end, no beginning
which is matter
which is life.

 
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In smoke-smudged sky
sun shines neon red
and milky,
an unlikely combination.
Below trees burn to black,
necessary destruction.
The mountain, a colossal phoenix.

Huckleberries spill from plastic bags,
plump with purple,
round and firm
born to fill pies, stain lips,
harvested from mountains
where they have been fed
by last years ashes,
sustenance from destruction.

 

Like Clay in Her Hands

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I pound clay onto the table
to say what I don’t have the words for
and what remains is neither beautiful
nor silent.

I pound clay onto the table to feel my body
impact a body
to feel soft flesh in my grip
and what remains is neither human
nor object
but the act of touch, solidified.

I stand in the dark on the shoulder of a highway
inside a fog of impact
and in the blackness, I can see nothing
but the passing headlights tell me
it is destruction I am looking at.

I walk in the dark along a hill
of submerged caskets
to the foot of a landslide
and in the blackness I can see nothing
but I know it is destruction I am looking at.

I let tiny, sharp teeth gnaw at my hands
and bite at my hair
hoping that this is affection I am receiving.
And collect little slips of yellow,
as artifacts of a love that is not yet
and may never be.

 
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I breath in the softness of her face,
then breath in the scent of uncountable roses
as I walk in the late night, early morning
towards my own bed.
Neither rejected nor chosen.

I listen to her voice as she tells me it is language
that she cannot give me,
the container in which a “we” could exist.
I listen to her words,
seeing her past on their glassy surface,
knowing that the body is flesh
but the self is built from stories.

I look at myself in a round mirror
and I know that it is mortality I am looking at.
I ask myself if I already carry enough language.
If outside of the words I contain,
I could be a body,


like clay in her hands.

 

On Beige

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    By the time we reached the deserts of West Texas, the skin which I had burnt red raw, carelessly floating down a river in the North Carolina sun, had turned to a translucent beige. As he drove the roads that bisected great swaths of tan sand that seemed to stretch on eternally beneath blue sky, I stared out the window. Every few moments I would glance back to assure myself that he was still there, illogical as it would be for him to have disappeared from behind the wheel of a moving car. In the silence of the passenger seat I was falling in love with him. In the silence of the driver’s seat he was gaining resolve to leave me sooner rather than later. 

    On the morning we visited Marfa, the great minimalist mecca to which I was eager to make pilgrimage, we drove more than an hour across the sprawling national park where we were camping to find a quarter-operated shower. It had been days since we had showered. No more than three, I am sure but for someone who sees this as a daily spiritual practice, going so long without showering felt like starving my skin. When my body felt clean again I put on a raw silk shirt that I had made myself while in art school and a soft beige pencil skirt I had found at the Goodwill that was slightly too big in the waist and wrinkled easily. It was the nicest outfit I had packed for our trip which was planned to involve camping, swimming and mostly driving. 

    He preferred to drive. I preferred to sit in the passenger seat and brush my hair, for the sensation of the bristles on my scalp is one of my favorites. When I wasn’t brushing my hair or listening to a gruff voice telling the story of a man stuck on Mars, I would examine the damaged skin on my thighs and chest. The little blisters dried and broke open to look like constellations on a clear night. Or like the cluster of foamy bubbles that cling to the shore when a wave dissipates. The larger patches of skin peeled off in sheets that flapped, partially connected to my body like the bound pages of a book. What remained beneath was a pinky-tan color, flushed like newborn. I rolled down the window, letting in the oppressive heat, and threw the dead skin into the desert. I liked the idea of leaving little pieces of my DNA out into the landscape, to be absorbed by the sands.

 
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I grew up with snakes, my brother being a passionate herpetologist. They never scared me but they also didn’t interest me much except for when they shed. Sometimes I would watch them, in their sandy terrariums, slowly exiting their own skin. If it was a clean shed, what would remain was a perfect shadow of the creature’s form, translucent and ghostlike. But even if the discarded skin was broken, the purpose of the act would remain intact; the snake would be, in part, reborn. 

    That June in Texas I imagined that I was shedding for the sake of exposure, to make myself vulnerable to him and to become a new iteration of myself in his presence. Soon enough I realized I was shedding to become a new iteration of myself for myself, to gain a thicker skin, more resilient although still soft and creamy. And I was shedding in offering to the desert, to leave behind the part of me I felt I owed it. He has since settled, like a fine layer of sand, into the strata of my personal history. But my skin retains the reality of the story, the beige of my chest remaining just a shade darker than the beige of the rest.

*originally written in response to a question posed by Lula Japan but was never published.