Given how sad – livid – I am that one of my favourite paintings was vandalized this week, I’ve been digging through some old files to see if I can find the piece I wrote on it 7 years ago. It’s funny to read an old piece of writing – a little embarrassing, but also kind of fun to be reminded of the things that moved me back then…many of which still do today. I get that to a lot of people, most paintings by Mark Rothko look the same – I’m posting this old piece of writing because for those of us who love his work, there are paintings with which we’ve spent hours of time in conversation and contemplation, paintings of his with which we’ve developed old, familiar friendships. The one that was defaced is one paintings of those for me.
I wrote this piece in 2005 while I was living in London. I wrote it in part for fun, but also with the thought that I might share it with my various friends who visited over the year, take them to the Tate, and let them enjoy this little aesthetic experience I’d put together. The Tate has since rearranged the room in which the Seagram Murals are housed, painted it with brighter colours (I liked the old version, in which I wrote this piece better). Nevertheless, the integrative art experience would still work – so if you find yourself in London, maybe pop on a little Ani, and make your way to the Tate with what follows after the jump in hand
Let’s just hold here… Keep holding… Keep holding… Let’s just stay here…. Ani DiFranco breathes this petition in the middle of her extended, poetic, song, Pulse, her words honeyed with the hope of new love, but dripping with the heavy resolution of knowing her lover won’t stay, knowing that her words will vanish into the pulsing beat of this repetitive and undulating piece. It is the moments when words have failed. Resigned, she simply repeats all she has to give, I would offer you my pulse, if I thought it would be useful, I would give you my breath, and allows these words, too, to fade into the music, her only remaining language.
DiFranco’s pulse, her breath, her rhythmic language: turn to it on your iPod, sit on one of the three benches in The International Council Gallery – the dark room at the Tate Modern that houses a collection of Mark Rothko paintings known by many as the name of their original commission, “The Seagram’s Murals” – and allow the song to fill the space. The collection is seven large-scale paintings in all, executed in deep, rich maroons, reds and blacks. As you enter the room you leave behind the crisp, bright, white of the other exhibitions, and find yourself spellbound by a site for melancholic reflection. All you really need to know from the information panel on the wall is that Rothko claimed he wished to make you “feel that [you] are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up. So that all [you] can do is butt [your] head forever against the wall.” The massive size of the canvasses, and similarity of their themes can create in you the sensation of overwhelming uniformity. Many who enter giggle, shake their heads, and simply mutter, “I don’t get it; what on earth do they mean?” and quickly exit before attempting to answer the futility of their own question. Because to stand in the middle of the room breathing in these great works is to know no exit; but it is not the panicked anxiety described by the artist himself. Rather, when you turn on Pulse and turn it up, and revel in the beauty and engage the conversation ongoing between the works – begun before you entered, to continue after you leave – the space will envelope you in a tactile, pulsing motion. When you allow yourself to be simultaneously haunted by the sight of these paintings and the sounds of this music, the murals can become like the womb of your mother, the space of blood and death and life, so long gone, and returned to you, a lost child, for perhaps only a moment.
First, sit down in the quiet of the room. Then pause. Remember to breathe. Then look from painting to painting and imagine that they are speaking together. Imagine that the abstractions of their images are sounds that can communicate with each other, and try to find patterns in their language. Find the relationships between the slight variations in the colours. Uncover your response to the same colour as it rests beside different shades. Does the black over red evoke the same response as it does next to the purple? Imagine that the thickness of line can bend and shape the language that these paintings speak. Feel free to look at the works up close and try to see the differences in speed, motion and emotion that the artist used to get the paint on to the canvas. Note that the paint appears to have dribbled in different directions as it dried, as if the artist rotated the canvases each day he worked on them in order to gain differing perspectives on his work himself. Discover how shapes that may have appeared to be identical with your first glance might actually carry their weight in ways that are dissimilar enough to offer you clues for understanding how the seven members of this family are talking to each other. Even if you cannot decode a precise system of meaning to this language – don’t worry, you are not supposed to be able to – let it vibrate between paintings, passing back and forth in multi-layered dialogue, and then, only then, press play on the song and let the whirrings and flashes of the its opening join in the ongoing cacophony of visual conversation. Then, as the beat begins, allow the language to make sense, not in your mind but, rather, in your body as your toe begins to tap along to the rhythm.
The key to transforming this room into womb is to invite DiFranco to work her spell that reveals an ugly mess as beautiful. She describes her lover: You crawled into my bed that night like some sort of giant insect and I found myself spellbound at the sight of you, beautiful and grotesque. Spellbound by the grotesquely beautiful, DiFranco’s voice moans the same hope-tinged melancholy exhibited in Rothko’s work. And in saying to her lover, That night you leaned over and threw up into your hair, I held you there thinking, I would offer you my pulse, she draws the juxtaposing experience back into her – simultaneously as you listen, into your – own body. This is the late night trembling of clammy, drunk skin against the warm flesh that seeks to help it vomit all last traces of a long night of drinking; the wretched vulnerability of retching the last poison of one too many beers from one’s system. As she becomes caretaker to her lover, in the damp and the stench, DiFranco – like a mother to the child that she cradles inside her self – offers to her partner the life in her breath. She cocoons her lover in her protection as you, the listener and viewer, are cocooned in the womb created by the large, bloody, anxious paintings. The beat of the music and the language vibrating between each artwork sustains your breathing.
Breathe it in, through your eyes, your ears and your skin, until you are ready to be expelled from this room, back to the clean, crisp, whiter walls of the other exhibitions. You may find it rejuvenating. You may find it exhausting. If you can let go of the need to control your response and, instead, accept that simply responding is enough in this space, then you can wrap yourself in the pulsing rhythm of maroon and red and black, and try to imagine the language that throbs in the space before words.