"Inventory," October 29th, 2016, Studio 10 Gallery, Brooklyn, running time: 01:17:56.
Matt Freedman: A couple of notes. In the spirit of the title of the show today, Inventory, I decided to collect all the old pads of paper we've used over the last year and a half. We start out with 50 or 60 pages in a pad and then do 40 or 50 drawings in a show and end up with about ten blank sheets at the end that sit on a shelf for a while. We'll have numerous breaks, musical breaks, in the show today so that I can switch pads and get rid of all this paper, which I feel guilty about using in the first place, but even more guilty about not using. If it gets to be too tedious, I’ll break out a fresh pad and start the whole obnoxious pattern all over again.
The house I grew up in, in Chicago, had an extremely pitched roof, very steep, with ceramic tiles, those circular ceramic tiles, which are very beautiful but very hard to keep from leaking. My family moved there when I was very young. It was an unstable neighborhood. The house had originally been by itself on a large block and I think it was meant to be entered from the west along this kind of grand drive. Over the course of many years, other houses were built all around it. The neighborhood began to decay and by the time we got there, there was a fence here, a kind of wild yard here, an old wooden building which had seen better days across in this empty field. And now you went into the house from the side.
One night, soon after we arrived, this house; the large dilapidated wooden house in the field next to us, caught fire. Apparently we all crawled into bed with my mother. My father was away. I looked out at the glow of this building, and I recall seeing on the roof of this building a fireman hacking with an axe through the roof to let the flames out. I remember asking my mother why he was up there doing that, and she said, “That's what firemen do.” I was more impressed by the ladder that got him up to the roof on than by his heroism.
About a year later all the toilets in our house began to back up and the experts came out and they diagnosed a root problem and cut all the roots in the yard around the house. And the toilets continued to back up. Then a plumber came with a World War II mine sweeper and walked around the entire building.
Oh good! Drum solo!
What he diagnosed was that, at some point in the history of this building, after all the other buildings had been put in the block and the entrance was changed from the west to the south side, somebody had simply broken the sewer pipe from the house to the street and our house had been draining into the field, basically turning a city block in Chicago into a leaching field. It had been filling up until it couldn’t fill up any longer, I guess. That was partially because the person who had lived there before was a woman named Edith, Edith Samson, who had been one of the first and most corrupt female judges in the Chicago Traffic Court. The appointment was a reward for long service to the Democratic Party machine. What Edith Sampson couldn't do in the house by herself, five little kids did in two years. So, we had to put new pipes into the house and reorient the whole building
In the basement of the house was a large circular table which we still have. Behind it was an alcove with an electric motor and a spit. The story was that every Saturday night Edith Sampson would roast a pig on the spit and she and the local precinct captain would split all the money they had bribed out of people over the course of the week. Until I started to put the story together, the idea that they would eat the entire pig between the two of them while they split up all of their ill-gotten gains didn’t seem incongruous to me, but this enormous engine with the spit made an indelible impression. We turned this space into a theater in the basement in which we staged plays that usually turned into extended sword fights.
The house wasn't exactly haunted, but it was an enormous old, cold house. It was empty and frightening for a family of young, imaginative kids, even though it was home. We mostly lived on the second floor. A room for four boys; a room for a girl; an empty room; a room for parents, and then the third floor, nobody went into. My father's office was one side and three small rooms ran by a balcony. When we would go up to the third floor to see my father's office, what we were most impressed by was his enormous desk, with a picture of a terrifying looking man who was a famous jurist behind him. A sculpture of a human figure with the head of a frog and the tail of a dragon doing a cartwheel across the table and a glass jar with the lid on it. Inside the jar was a murky yellow liquid holding a human brain. I don't know where my father got the brain, but it somehow symbolized to him his search for knowledge. In one of the little closets under the eave of the ceiling--The roof was so steep that on the third floor none of the walls actually went all the way up to the ceiling, they all angled inward at some point: the closet only had room for a small half-size door. We went in there once when my father wasn't around. We found a box. Inside the box, there was some oil paper. Inside the oil paper was an enormous green pistol, which we took downstairs, where it was immediately confiscated. The pistol was my father's weapon in World War II. He had been issued it as young soldier and he had taken it to the firing range and had been so inept shooting at targets that he mailed it to his brother for safekeeping for the balance of the war, and his brother mailed it back to him at the end of the war and he put it in the closet and forgot about it. I don't know what happened to it after that.
One by one as the brothers reached a certain age, we were sent upstairs from our communal room one after another to one of these empty rooms on the third floor. Didn't seem like an achievement, it felt more like an exile. The rooms were kind of cold and empty. One thing that was most interesting about being on the third floor, however, was that it was close to the attic. The attic was accessed by a trap door in the ceiling outside my room. If you went and got the ladder with hooks on the end, it would hook into eye hooks below the trap door and you could walk up the ladder. It was too heavy to push with six-year-old arms, but if you used your head as a battering ram and just kept climbing, you could push enough of the trap door open that you could get a purchase on it and then get it to a kind of tipping point, throw it backwards and get up into the attic, which really wasn't all that remarkable. It was empty. The building was old enough that the wood was all roughhewn and the slats had horsehair and straw and plaster sticking through and there were two upper windows at either end that sort of cast a glow. I didn't spend too much time there.
One day when I went up there, I noticed there was a hole in the floor. I went downstairs and discovered in my father's office that a hole had suddenly appeared in the ceiling. When we reported this, we were told that this this was a mysterious occurrence of no known origin, and the ceiling was fixed. There was an access panel in the roof of the attic that would reach the outside. And I remember looking outside--pushing it up---looking outside and being terrified by the steep slope of the ceramic tiles away from me, closing the door and never going back. I asked my mother if she had any memories of any of these stories this week because I wanted to fill in some blanks and she said, “Well, you know, your sister told me many years later that when I would put her to bed for naps, she would climb out her window and sit on the roof, on the shingles until she thought it was the end of her nap. And then she would crawl back inside. “And the other thing,” my mother said, “That the hole in the ceiling was my fault. I was crawling around in the back of the attic one day and my foot went through the ceiling and we were afraid to tell any of you, because we thought you'd be too upset by the idea of your mother falling through the ceiling of the attic. So, we didn't tell you.” What she was after was a tube of architectural plans that she found in the back of the attic that established the history of the events that I've just told you about.
One night. I remember looking up at the ladder to the ink black opening in the ceiling to the attic. I tried to keep the trap door open for as long as I could get away with it after I pushed it open because it was so difficult to manage. I recall staring up into the void that the ladder led to and having a moment of insight into the state of the universe. I realized at that moment that time was an illusion, that we were living in an ever-present moment and that I would never age, that my siblings would never age, that my parents would never age, that we would always be children in this house and would always be taken care of. This insight filled me with great calmness and satisfaction. It seemed self-evident, so self-evident that I didn't bother to tell anybody, but the insight never left me.
Behind the house was a smaller house we called the Little House. It must've been a byproduct of the early days of the big house when it was all by itself. It was made of wood. It was fairly--it was plaster as well, but open wood slats and boards. Inside various projects had been left behind by Edith Samson, mysterious, great corrupt judge. On the second floor was a set of carrier pigeon coops that my brother Josh reminded me about, and on the first floor was a homemade iceboat. An iceboat is a midwestern phenomenon. It's basically a plank with another plank and another plank, a couple of struts and a mast and some skates and a canvas seat. And then you sit on this thing and you sail very fast on the frozen rivers of the Midwest. It was either purple or brown. We can't decide on which, now. It was quite exciting, and we all fantasized about taking it outside and sailing it on the ice someday. It was really too big to come out. It was stuck like Robinson Crusoe’s canoe in the forest. It was just built to be in there, and like almost everything else about this house, it gradually fell apart.
In fact, the greatest source of terror in my life, the greatest indication of impermanence was the gradual and irreversible collapse of this building. First, the windows were broken, and we said we'd fix them, but we never did. Then the floorboards began to rot and give way. The plaster began to sweat and fall away from the lathing. Each time one of those things happened, it seemed like the solution was very simple, if we would just do it, but we never did it. Then the roof developed a hole and water began to fall inside, but the house never fell down. Twenty years later, it was still there when my family finally moved out. Every time I looked at it, I had a terrible feeling of anxiety and doom, but we never were able to fix it.
Another byproduct of the de-evolution of this neighborhood was at the other end of the block. It was a mansion owned by a wealthy man who collected many things, most famously, weapons and armor from the medieval European era. He collected so much, he actually built himself a mock castle in the background. You could walk a block from my house and go into this building with wide staircases and armored knights standing on every landing. Knights on horseback. It was a fantastic place. What I remember most distinctly though, was a medieval crossbow, which disappointed me terribly because of its incredible sophistication. Crossbows have all sorts of gears and mechanisms and winding systems. It's a great testimony to the technological skills of a 14-13th century gun maker, but far less satisfying to look at than a sword or a spear or a battleax. A year after I first saw this building, all the armor was moved out. The building was torn down. The armor went into limbo for about 30 years, until it emerged in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago with its own wing, back visible to the public again, but utterly altered in its nature and impact.
A student of mine in Nevada at a college I teach at received the grant from the state to go around visiting towns and recording their museums. She’s created a website that you can visit and she helped them write grants so they could build…
Oh, look! Drum solo!
Her thesis is very admirable; that the people in these small towns have lived admirable lives and that they deserve to be seen and known, and that their little museums, that are seen only by the idle passersby, should have a larger platform. And that's what her website does. She calls this the Modest Museum Project. In Mineral County, Nevada, there's a town that's very proud of all its soldiers and she's been very careful to honor their values, so she's recorded all the names of all the people who've served and pictures of the collections of the artillery shells they have in there and the helmets and--most beautifully--this giant eagle that dominates the entire room. You can see behind it all these little dioramas stretching back and forth.
I'm particularly interested in the town of Yerington, Nevada. Yerington, Nevada like many of these small towns, is all but forgotten because during the years of railroad expansion it was bypassed. It was bypassed by no fault of its own. It was so determined to get a railroad track through town and so terrified of not getting a train to stop that it changed its name from Greenfield in about 1890 to Yerington, because Yerington was a name of the train magnate who ran the system in Nevada. They thought “If we name our town after Mr. Yerington, he will be so flattered that he will naturally run a train track to our town just so people will come and see the town of Yerington.” Either he wasn't susceptible to that kind of flattery or he was too corrupt even to take the time to notice, or something in the middle. They didn't get their town a train track, but they kept the name. I don't know what Yerington thought of it to this day. Greenfield was not really the name of the town anyhow. They'd been going through a lot of names. Greenfield was their first attempt to upgrade the town. They must've had a very active chamber of commerce. The real name of the town, the original name of the town was Pizen Switch because it was actually just a little saloon at the corner of two roads and the saloon was so disreputable that the legend was that when they ran out of liquor, they would take the contents of the spittoons--This is the historical record--and pour it into-- I don't know why that even makes sense. But they did name the town Pizen Switch. The museum people got a grant from the State of Nevada to make a diorama of Pizen Switch. It's just a shelf with bottle of liquor and an oil lamp. I don't know what that has to do with anything, it’s just another bottle of liquor. There is also a sign, as least as big as everything else, that says, “This diorama was made by Allen Watson and Jim Jones.” My student thought that was worth recording as well.
The foundational myth of the town though, is a story about a man named Harry Warren. And he has a proper diorama. Harry Warren was either the largest beekeeper in northern Nevada or an ordinary working stiff. Whatever he was, he was around one day when they were loading 120 pound sacks of grain into the back of a cart and in passing the time they began to speculate about how far anybody could carry one of these sacks of grain. Harry said, “I can carry this sack to Yerington,” which was ten miles away. And they said, “Prove it Harry.” And he said, “Well, make it worth my while.” So, they passed the hat. They actually passed the hat for several days, til they put up $1,500, and Harry put the sack on his shoulders like a cross, and he set out. He walked the ten miles to Yerington without stopping more than once, and collected the money. According to a beekeeper---this may be the source of the confusion about whether Harry was a beekeeper or not--the beekeeper said, “I've been keeping bees for 30 years and none of them ever stung me. But Harry sure stung me.”
I was so taken by this idea of the innocent, well the modest museum, that I looked it up, and I found this a manifesto for, it's called a modest manifesto, but it’s for innocent objects and museums. It was written by Orhan Pamuk, and his thesis is that museums, the Met, the Prado, are all institutions of nationalist pride, that their big wide doors are designed to dehumanize not just those who go inside, but what's inside already, to tell the story of the state and the power of the state. Pamuk argues that the future of the museum is in small spaces where one person puts one thing out and one person comes in and sees it and somehow through the magical, vibrant being of the objects, some spark of understanding is passed from one generation, or one person to another.
Pamuk wrote a novel called The Museum of Innocence that took him a long time to write. And as he was writing--it was sort of an experimental novel, a kind of encyclopedic novel--he began to collect the objects that were part of the story and he realized that the story had to have an intrusion into the real world. So, he bought a building in his home neighborhood in Istanbul and began to fill it with these objects. The man in the story has a background similar to Pamuk, a privileged middle-class man on the rise, and his love affairs his various adventures. Pamuk said he got the story when his family was visited by an acquaintance, Prince Ali Vasib Efendi who would have been the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire if the Ottoman Empire still existed in 1983, but hadn't been around for 50 or 60 years. His great grandfather was the last sultan. He'd spent his last 50 years in exile living amongst other disinherited royals. Most of the time he lived in Alexandria, Egypt where he was the ticket taker and then later the director of a palace that was also a museum. He was very proud of his job there. He was in charge of maintaining the cleanliness and management of the silverware and the glassware and the furniture. And the guests
The guests were people like himself, or they would have been like himself if he had maintained his power. The Shah of Iran, the son of the Shah of Iran who became the last Shah and his wife, Princess, what's her name? Fawzia, who looked like Hedy Lamarr apparently, stayed with them and her brother, King Farouk, the second to last King of the brief reign of royalty in Egypt. King Farouk was there and Prince Ali entertained his guests with stories of Farouk's except Romania. Farouk became king at the age of 16, and immediately began to collect everything. He had the world's greatest collection of coins, apparently 8,500 coins. He collected stamps. He collected cars. He apparently collected pornography and he saw a plate in the Antoniadis Palace that Prince Ali was running, and he stole it for his own collection. This was the kind of story that you could dine out on in Istanbul.
Farouk wrote a memoir where he speculated with some glee about how he thought the usurpers would have reacted to his collections in his palace. Nasser overthrew him, but he was sure it was really the Muslim Brotherhood, who we still are aware of to this day. Farouk thought of them as prim, uptight, superstitious, and pathetic creatures. He wrote about how they would walk through his rooms, like old ladies on a cook's tour, pulling out drawers and opening cupboards and staring at all of his shirts and pants and dresses and collections of gold and, and just “ooh and ah,” and he wishes he could have been there to see it, for some reason.
Prince Ali was afraid of indigence. He wanted a job, but everybody knew he couldn't get a job because the Turkish secret police were afraid he was there to spark an uprising. Anybody who knew him knew that was the last thing he wanted. He just wanted a job. So they began to speculate about what kind of job Ali could have. And this was the beginning of Pamuk’s interest in the small museum. What would happen if Ali was given the chance to become a guide at the very palace that he'd lived in as a young man? Pamuk imagined him taking a group of tourists through the palace and coming to a room where he could say to them, “This is the room where as a young man, I did my mathematics with my aide de camp. Here is the desk that I sat. Here is the paper that I used, and the pencils and the rulers.” And then he would step--this is the speculation of Pamuk the future novelist--- Ali would step over the velvet rope, and then sit down at the desk and perform the same operation that he'd done as a young boy for the tourists, simultaneously being both the guide to the history of this place and a relic himself. Pamuk felt this was a grand and exquisite fate for anyone. He got a Nobel Prize, so I guess who are we to argue about that?
I can't hear stories like that without hearing a story I think I've told you before, that seems closer to reality to me, which is Nabokov’s recollection of a kind of a similar experience. His family too was exiled after a revolution. He came from an incredibly distinguished family of government servants, businessman, intellectuals. They had to flee after the Russian Revolution and he lived most of his childhood in Europe before settling in the United States. He said he always remembered and carried with him the image of the bedroom that he slept in as a young boy; Where the bed was, where the tables were, where the window was. Bureaus. Bookshelves. Every time I hear that story, I think of my own bedroom for some reason and the window out over the roof.
Nabokov never spoke of this room or this memory to anyone until much later in his life when he was writing a novel that required him to describe the bedroom of a character for some particular reason. And so, like many writers, actors, artists, he drew on his memories, and he regurgitated this room; where the bed was, where the window was, where the shelf was. He said he felt after he'd done that as if he had lost a part of himself, that his this memory that was so central to his sense of who he had been as a boy and where he had come from--by sharing it, by turning it into an image in a book about somebody else that anybody would read, had utterly changed its relationship to him, and that his own memory of his past was compromised by the work he did as a writer. He chalked this up to the cost of being an artist, that you would consume and alter your own life in service of another point, but you would not personally benefit from that experience.
The house that I now live in is an old synagogue, and before every Jewish holiday a little Jewish rabbi who believes that the building belongs to him rings the doorbell and brings us a gift that is appropriate to the holiday. If it's Passover, which involves, the escape from Egypt and unleavened bread, he brings us unleavened bread. If it's Hanukkah, with the menorah and the candles, he brings a menorah and candles. He brings sweets when there should be sweets. Every week a circular that is written from beyond the grave by his messiah, Rabbi Serachev--I'm sorry, he's Rabbi Serachev--Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah, Serachev is waiting for God to give him back the building.
We just recently went through the Jewish new year. The tradition is to blow the shofar, a ram's horn, for good luck. The doorbell rang one day and I went out to open the door and there Serachev is with the ram's horn and he begins blowing on it. It's a very hard thing to do to blow a Ram's horn. It's basically a tube made out of fingernails with twists and you have to “Pfftt!,” blow, and this God-awful sound comes out. I'm standing there waiting for him to finish and then suddenly the doors swing open behind me and it's Jude and all our dogs and they see him and they rush back in and when he finishes blowing I go back in and I say, “What happened?” Jude says, “We you thought you'd been stabbed and we were coming to see if we could do anything, but there's no way I'm staying in the same room as that man.”
After we left the big house, my mother moved into an apartment building with lots of other people from the university and her life became complicated in a different way with all the different agendas of her neighbors. One is a woman, Madame M and her husband, who live on the top floor. She lived through the occupation of Paris by the Germans and their great passion in life now is feeding the squirrels in the yard, which they do obsessively, much to the consternation of everybody else in the building, especially Frau H who lives with her husband on the first floor. They are constantly at war over the squirrels, specifically about a tree limb that stretches from the trunk to the window where Madame M lives and she puts food out for the squirrels, peanuts, and they run across the limb and eat the peanuts and then they poop all over Frau H's geraniums.
It all came to a head, literally, one day when a squirrel fell from the limb and landed on top of Herr H’ s head and scratched him. The H’s called, the tree service to come in to chop, saw, down the limb. The tree men arrived with their equipment, only be greeted by Madame M with her broom standing between them and the tree, swinging her broom in a wide arc, trying to keep anyone away from the tree. They assessed the situation to the best of their ability, basically, apparently, trying to determine who was crazier, the old German lady or the old French lady. They decided it was the old French lady, so they climbed up the tree and sawed down the branch, breaking Madame M's heart, but not her spirit. What she told my mother, who was one of the few people in the condominium who can talk to her, she said, “That woman is a Nazi. I lived through the Nazis and I know what a Nazi looks like.”
Last week I was in Philadelphia and a man in a red hat handed me a piece of paper. It was a large, broadsheet newspaper. It was called the Hamiltonian and there was a picture of Lyndon LaRouche on one side and then all the bankers of the major economic powers on the other. The headline was that we were on that verge of global collapse. On the back was a picture of Obama. It said, “World headed for nuclear war. Obama will start World War Three to cover up his economic incompetence. He must be impeached immediately.”
This brought back a lot of memories. Lyndon LaRouche was an old Marxist who began a kind of cult in the 60s that was extremely left wing until it wasn't, and it became extremely right wing. But at one point they became interested in my father because he had served on some board, probably just as an advisor, to some organization that they suspected of doing something nefarious. He was at an economic conference, no just an academic conference, in Hawaii. He came back very happy with a story that unfolded during a very dry panel. At the end of some presentation a man from the Labor Party, the LaRouche cover organization, stood up and began to read an indictment against my father for crimes against humanity, which aroused the anger of the other academics.
The man from the Labor Party was very cool. He said, “I don't know why you're all being upset, when nobody is threatening Dr. Freedman. He's only been indicted. He has a right to a fair trial. Only if he's proven guilty, will he be punished.” My father loved to tell the story because he liked the insanity of it all, but I think he also enjoyed the suggestion that instead of just being a college professor he was in fact helping to run the world behind the scenes. He was very happy, and we were all very impressed, that the university police kept a car outside of the house for a few weeks to see if anybody would do anything. And the gym teacher said he drove his car by back and forth to protect us. Nothing ever came of it.
Despite the problems with the LaRouchies, my father actually loved having people from these organizations from various points along the spectrum come by, as they did in our neighborhood all the time, asking for donations or purchases of newspapers, and my father always invited them in, people from the P Stone Nation--- The Black Muslim headquarters were down the street. So they were often over, and the Black Panthers…They would come through and instead of getting money from my old man, he would invite them in and they would have to drink tea and eat cookies and sit and debate him for hours on end while his children sat around listening in order to be edified by the potential of human dialogue and mutual understanding, which never quite panned out.
One of the more active organizations at that point where the Jehovah's Witnesses. I was very happy that the same day in Philadelphia that the man from the LaRouche organization gave me the sheet and I got a book on Ten Choices in Life from the Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses were started about 130 years ago by Charles Taze Russell, a Brigham Young look alike type, who passed on the organization’s administrative and theocratic reins to a man named Joseph Rutherford, who was actually a lawyer. When he took over he threw himself into all aspects of the organization, creating great schisms that have split it into many different parts, but he's responsible for many of the tenets that we associate with the Jehovah’s Witnesses to this day. He predicted that God, Jehovah God, would return in 1914, which didn't happen, but he also eliminated the worship of anything he felt was idolatrous: birthdays, Christmas--almost every holiday was taken off the books. He lived in San Diego for his health. He apparently had a bit of a drinking problem.
There is a lady from the Jehovah's Witnesses who used to come by our synagogue, I remember. She often tried to begin by engaging me in a dialogue that would lead to a greater communion by commenting on our dogs. She once said, “I didn't know Jews had dogs,” which as a conversation opener I found kind of insulting because I didn't think that I was a generic Jew with dogs. It was interesting because she could've tried to talk to me about her religion right off the bat, but I think she saw the dog gambit as a way into a discussion of our mutual faith systems that would lead to a discussion of her superior faith system. I never fully engaged her with this, but she kept coming back, trying to be polite and I was never polite. In fact, we had these fantasies that we would invite her in, but instead of having an honest dialogue like my father would have, we would create a sinful scene that she would have to wade through and try to ignore and then be sent on her way. Finally, she seemed to get the message, like the little rabbi, and she stopped coming by.
Jews have no problem with dogs unless they're orthodox, the Jews that is. When we lived on Metropolitan in Williamsburg, we lived across the street from a chicken slaughterhouse. I remember once we were walking our Williamsburg dogs by there and some yeshiva school boys were just coming out. They had just had a tour of the slaughterhouse and they were so excited by the experience of seeing chickens slaughtered up close that they couldn't contain themselves and they ran up to the dogs, which apparently, they hadn't seen many of. They climbed on the dogs as if they were horses and they tried to ride them around the slaughterhouse. And we kept pulling our dogs away and they kept climbing on and then their teachers came out and they were just as excited by what they had seen and they reached into the dumpsters outside the slaughterhouse and they pulled out handfuls of chicken guts; intestines, stomachs, hearts, lungs, gizzards and they tried to force them on the dogs, to feed them as an act of friendship. Which the dogs utterly rejected
One of the other innovations that Joseph Rutherford imparted to his followers was the theory that Jesus Christ was not crucified on the cross, but on a tree. As soon as I saw that, I was lost, because this seemed wonderful. I looked it up and apparently this is a subject of great speculation. What exactly was Jesus crucified on, really? Was is it a cross? Was it a stake? Was it a tree? It's the nature of Christ's suffering, the passion of Christ, which is a great significance all throughout the history of the church, particularly in the Renaissance and in the medieval eras and contemporarily. What did he go through? What did he feel? The intensity of the physical experience of his torture was a measure of the sacrifice of his Father, sending his only begotten son down to earth to die for our sins was so important to determine that they counted his wounds: 5,466. If you say the Our Father 15 times a day you will say it enough to cover all of the wounds in a single year. It's the invention of Saint Gertrude
In the twentieth century this fascination took on a kind of scientific aspect. A World War One surgeon named Barbette, a French surgeon wrote a learned book in 1960 about how the crucifixion could have taken place. He got ahold of a severed arm, an amputated arm, to which he tied an 88 pound weight and then he drove a nail through the palm and reported that it couldn’t hold 88 pounds, about half of a human body. He theorized that two hands couldn't support the weight of a whole body. Therefore, either the nail had to go through the wrists, or the feet can no longer dangle free and would have to be supported from below which would decrease the level of pressure, the weight on the arms. But then he further speculated that based on observations of contemporary executions, the problem would be that after a few minutes, the stress of the position would cause Christ to begin to sink and he would sink down and then his diaphragm would jam up against his ribcage and he couldn’t take a breath so he would have to push himself up and then he would sink down and push himself up so in fact the image of Jesus Christ on the cross would be an animated image of a man doing pushups like this until he can no longer sustain the position and He would be asphyxiated. This became the accepted scientific explanation of the experience on the cross. But they weren't done. There's an amazing photograph of a Christ-like corpse, a skinny man nailed by one hand to a board, that another French doctor took to show that in fact you could get a nail though a hand and hold up a whole body.
But then a contemporary medical examiner from Rockland County, Doctor Zugibe, a feisty and argumentative man, wrote his own book about 20 years ago, where he rejected all the other theories about what Christ went through on the cross because as he said—he liked to throw around words--there's a story about Apelles, Alexander the Great's painter who had painted a figure with a sandal on and a sandal maker and walked by and said, “The latch on the sandal is badly painted. It needs to be corrected.” Apelles was hiding behind the painting. He comes out and he corrects the mistake. The sandal maker was so encouraged by being taken seriously that he says, “And the leg doesn't look very good either.” At which point the painter said something to the effect to quote the Latin, “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam,” which is, “Shoemaker, not above the sole”, meaning don't talk about things you don't know. An ultracrepidarian is someone who talks about things they don't know, which is a word that I need to know very well, I think.
In any case, Zugibe said that all these people who had been nailing corpses that either could or could not be supported by weight were using bad bodies and that in fact you could support a body that way. He didn't have the option anymore, unfortunately, I think he felt, to nail people up, so he had lot of volunteers from the local church and he devised this ingenious system of ropes and seatbelts to tie people up to a cross and he ran a bunch of electrodes from them into a machine and there's a great picture of him doing this. It looks like he's in his office, but with lace curtains behind him and a man on a cross who looks like he belongs in a discotheque, kind of chubby with one of those 1970s mustaches and trunks and he's sort of tipped, leaning over the room and he’s all wired up. Dr Zugibe is in his white lab coat and he's looking at some dials and running his tests.
I've gone through so many drawings Tim, you can do another solo. I hope this is not the last one.
What Zugibe suggested is that actually---We are almost through the inventory. I won’t even bother to draw this one--- that actually you, or Christ, could speak, you could breathe up there, on the cross, but it was a highly stressful situation and what actually happened is first your blood pressure would drop to about 80 over 50, then your heart rate would go up to about 250 and your legs, which were supporting the weight at this highly stressed angle, would give away and you would actually have a kind of aneurism. Your heart would literally burst. That was his conclusion, which actually is sort of in keeping with the position of Saint Gertrude, and the cult of the sacred heart, which is symbolized by the cross, the flame, the sword in the side, and then the crown of thorns around it, and the representation of this bursting heart in the chest of Jesus. This is all collectively known as the Sacratissimum Cor Iesu----
You're not going to get out of here that easily.
---The display of the wounds. I'm not the only Jewish guy who was fascinated by this. Leo Steinberg, a refugee himself of sorts from the Russian revolution. His father was actually a commissar who fell into early disfavor with Stalin and they had to get out of there. He ended up in England studying art and then he came to the United States and became an art critic, successful enough that in the Painted Word, Tom Wolfe identified him as being part of Cultureburg with Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, the people who are key to a corrupt pyramid of art theory, commerce and practice that moved us from a history of representation to abstraction and flatness and then to pure theoretical abstract thought as art disappeared up its own fundament. But Steinberg got off that train early on and became a historian and one of his great and controversial contributions was a book about the sexuality of Jesus Christ and his descent into oblivion, which he coined ostentatio genitalium, not the display of the wound, but the display of the godly junk.
The idea is that if you're looking at art, at representations of Christ after about 1400,
maybe a little bit before, you see an amazing, amazingly obvious, representation of the genitals of the Baby Jesus, not just being displayed, but being touched, sometimes by the Baby Jesus himself, sometimes by his mother, sometimes by his grandmother, sometimes by God. And then it's never spoken of again. His theory is that the sexuality of Jesus was as important in the theoretical development of the nature of the sacrifice of God for mankind as his suffering was. And that only by representing him as a fully formed and sexual being could we understand the nature of his commitment to humanity. And in fact, he goes beyond that. In many of the pictures of Jesus with his mother, he's reaching up, and giving her a little chuck on the chin, a chin chuck. Now his critics say this is just part, as are the representations of the naked Jesus, of sort of renaissance naturalism. But this happens over and over again. And Steinberg says, this is a highly eroticized gesture of a husband to a wife and that the Baby Jesus hitting his mother under the Chin prefigures his role as her heavenly husband in the world to come.
It's not just the baby Jesus’s genitals that Steinberg is interested in. It's Jesus on the cross, or on the descent from the cross. He is often, represented with an enormous erection, always under wraps, but occasionally impossible to ignore. Again, the argument is that he's studied---the painters at the time studied the records of executions and said, this is what happens to executed men, which there is some anecdotal evidence of, but Steinberg again takes the position that this is another reflection of the passion of Christ in another sense. And that only by representing him as a fully formed sexual being, capable of arousal, would his chastity have any weight, and that, I’m sure he was very proud of this pun, that the resurrection of Christ was in fact inextricably linked to his sexuality. It's a good story at least.
When I was living in Chicago by myself, I had a whole parade of religious visitors. One day in the doorway were two young Mormon missionaries complete with the black pants, the white shirts and the backpacks. And they began to talk to me as best they could. And I began to try to shut the door as best I could on them. Not that I had any particular reason to worry about them, but I felt intruded on by their persistence and good cheer. And I felt like I wanted to hurt their feelings somehow. I didn't really care that they were talking to me, but somehow I felt that I wanted them to feel bad about talking to me. So I pulled the old, “Don't you respect other religious traditions, and can’t you're not see how insulting it is to come up to somebody of another faith and tell them—??“ You know, the whole story. They listened to that and they started in again. And then I started in again. I said, “Well, I'm sorry, I have to go.” I began to close the door on them and then one of them literally stuck his shoe in the crack and said, “Wait!”
I opened the door a little bit and he said, “I just have one question for you.” I said, “Yes, what is that?” And he said, “What if you're wrong?”
I closed the door and I thought, “Shit. That's too good a stupid question, but I'm never going to forget it. It's not even profound.” It was just one of those earworms that you put in somebody's head so now I was supposed to be thinking about for the rest of my life; that maybe Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the answer and that I'm wrong and that sooner or later, maybe 40, 50 years later I'll have an epiphany and come to the truth? Or am I just going to spend the rest of my life be irritated that he got the last laugh on me with this stupid little logical twist that's not any more profound than saying, “The statement on the other side of this paper is incorrect” and writing and on both sides of the paper. I don't know. It's stuck in my head forever now and I will never see that guy again and I'll never be able to ask him a similarly impossible question.
The only truly miraculous event I ever took part on happened in the basement of that building a short time later. It was owned by a friend of mine--don't worry, we're almost done--and he was fixing up the basement for another artist to live in and he hired a bunch of neighborhood guys to come and clear out the space and then begin to frame in the basement with wood, so they could drop the ceiling, bring out the walls, create hallways and rooms. And I remember after a few days they'd done all the framing and they were quitting for the day and they invited me to come down and spend a couple of hours drinking beer with them. I remember It had the same sort of wood smell of any room that's full of sawdust and nails. I hadn't a lot of experience drinking beer, but I was determined not to embarrass myself. I thought I'd come down, drink a beer, go back.
There were a bunch of men sitting there and they're drinking beer and they hand me a beer and I drink the beer and then they drink another beer and they hand me another beer and I drink a second beer. Now I’m frankly getting into unknown territory. And the third beer and a fourth beer. I discovered that it's actually fairly easy to drink beer, but after five beers I realized there were consequences to this. It was about this time that they began playing a game. There was a wheelbarrow in the middle of the room and after every beer they would throw their cans at the wheelbarrow. Sometimes it would fall in, sometimes it would bounce out and sometimes it would miss altogether. I was just trying to be as unobtrusive as possible and drink my beers and just wait for this hell to end. But then they noticed me, and they began to encourage me to throw my beer cans in the wheelbarrow. I was up to the sixth beer and I could barely focus or even move my arms and I knew whatever I did would be a horrible embarrassment to myself and my family, but I couldn't say no. I was unable to say no at this point because I was unable to speak, really.
After listening to their chanting for a while, I took my can and tried to throw it towards the wheelbarrow, but I couldn't even grip the can and instead of going towards the wheelbarrow, it went straight up in the air because I couldn't even get my arm to swing forward. And then it somehow changed direction, like a magic bullet, and began to fly through the joists that were hanging down without touching one of them. It was threading a needle like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star. It kept flying on and on and on through all the joists, and then it began to fall, and it fell straight into the wheelbarrow. And we all stared at it and I heaved myself to my feet and I said, “Gentlemen, I bid you adieu.” And that's all I remember.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios have been producing their Endless Broken Time drawing, talking and percussion performances at Studio 10 gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn since 2015. Ancestors, machines, and philosophy are told and illustrated by Freedman and take their irregular rhythm and form from the aberrant and improvised syncopation of Spelios’ broken time drumming.
© 2020 Matt Freedman
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