Worn on the Bayou

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:51

    He nods. "Not bad for an elephant, eh?"

    You want to take anything Komar & Melamid say to you with a grain of salt. They are masters of the art of the deadpan, deadly serious joke. As dissidents in Moscow they did work that slyly mocked Soviet culture. Since moving here in 1978, they've gently played on the foibles and weaknesses of democracy and consumerism: goony portraits of George Washington in a three-piece suit; a series in which everything looked liked something out of a Sears catalog; their 90s experiments in totally democratic art, the People's Choice and Most Wanted projects, wherein they poll a sampling of a country's population for their favorite elements in a painting, then paint that painting (see the Dia Art Center's website, www.diacenter.org/km/index.html).

    And now elephant paintings. As Melamid explains it, there are some few thousand domesticated elephants in places like India and Thailand, bred for heavy labor, especially in the logging industry. As those countries are becoming logged out and the industry dies, the elephants are in effect being laid off. What do you do with the workers when an industry dies? You retrain them in new job skills. Komar & Melamid are in Thailand as you read this, "retraining" their elephant students as artists. Put a brush in their trunks and watch them go at it. The proceeds from their artworks will go toward their upkeep.

    Some elephants are better artists than others. The painting I like is by an Indian elephant named, of course, Ganesh. For some reason, Indian elephants seem to like to paint more than African elephants. Melamid says the goal is to get up to 1000 elephants making a living this way, as working artists.

    But is it art? Melamid gives me a who-cares shrug. "Art, not art, it's still a nice object."

    Yes it is. In New York City, where so much that goes on in the art world seems to be assholery and humbug, Komar & Melamid can actually make you feel good about artists again. They have a book on the elephant project coming out next year; meanwhile, their funny 1997 Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, which explains the People's Choice and Most Wanted projects, was reissued in softbound this year by the U. of California Press.

    Worn on The Bayou The bayou country west of New Orleans, around Lake Charles, affects visitors differently. I like it a lot. It's got a doomed charm. Sunken, ghostly, worn-out and worn through, it puts on no airs of even trying to keep up with the present; everything, from the mossy trees and the gators to the people who make the gators into soup and belts, seems ancient and moving at a very different rate of life-speed from the rest of us, like a day in the bayou is a year of outside time. Where New Orleans is all festive mayhem and merrymaking, big drinks and big meals and a drunk swinging at your head, you drive an hour outside of the city and things get awfully quiet and still. You can hear a big bird fluffing its wings in the air from a long way off, the gnat whine of some kid on a dirt bike, the puck! pack-puck! of hunters' shotguns somewhere out on some creek where they probably oughtn't be. The sounds rise lugubriously in the air, then sink back into the silent murk.

    Farther upriver they can move like that, too. I remember an unconscionably hot, damp night in Memphis where the process of ordering a Coke from a young street vendor seemed to take 20 minutes. The air tasted like river mud, a taste of green slime and corruption gas, like licking the arm of a floater. The kid wasn't being rude or stupid, he was just in summertime slow motion, the way they get there to keep from killing themselves in the heat and humidity. He moved like one of the gator people, blinking his moist eyes slowly and thinking over every move in the transaction for a minute before committing himself to an act with minimal expenditure of speech or speed or energy. By the time he finally handed me that Coke there was a block-long line of people waiting behind me, not showing the slightest sign of being antsy. They were still and patient as a mural.

    Another time, in Raleigh, in the dead of August, I foolishly rushed outdoors in the full heat of a mid-afternoon and was instantly blasted still by the incredible blazing heat and glare. The sun bore down on the street with its full weight, its furnace door thrown wide open; it seemed to take up the whole sky, like it was hovering just about the roofline. I squinted up and down the deserted street. Not a car, not a dog or a cat moved in that heat. When I approached a taxi stand, the two dark men who were leaning their chairs against the wall in the shade were as still as those shadows of people that were flash-burned into the walls of Hiroshima.

    The only place north of the Mason-Dixon I've felt anything like that is the pine barrens of South Jersey. Barren's not the word, and old, really old. You stand there among those silent, weather-corroded pines and feel all your energy and intelligence sinking out the soles of your feet into the sandy ground. You can feel yourself growing stupider as you stand there, your higher brain functions shutting down, leaving you to operate on the autopilot of your ancient reptile stem.

    Trip, the new book by the great photographer Susan Lipper (powerHouse Books, unpaginated, $45), ably conveys a sense of the bayou's profound desuetude, the utter exhaustion of things that spend all their time fighting a losing battle with entropy. Like me, she visits that country from New York, which is exactly as far away from the deep South as you can get, psychically, and still be in America. Unlike me, however, these photos suggest she doesn't find it terribly charming. In Trip, the deep deep South is kind of a brooding Twilight Zone where the living are all ghosts and all the personality's in the poor, threadbare, quietly long-suffering objects.

    The photography's not documentary, but personal and gesturally narrative. The affect is less like one of those iconic Southern rural photography projects of the Depression era than a Ross McElwee movie: a particular, idiosyncratic view of a place that was weird to begin with.

    Although the photos are untitled and nothing is explained, the way the images are lined up in the book at least suggests that we're following the photographer from the interstate loops just west of New Orleans (that's where the cover photo looks to me like it was taken, anyway) out to and around the Lake Charles area. The photographer, and thus the viewer, makes this trip in complete solitude: Not a single human being appears in Trip, only the numerous signs and scars humans have left on the land. Often the impression of this human intervention is a surreal blight. A loudspeaker hangs bizarrely from well up a slender tree in an otherwise unblemished grove, a single human mark ridiculously defiling the view. Similarly, an election poster nailed with a kind of brutal stupidity to what was formerly a rather noble-looking tree. (A live oak, maybe? City boy, I'm not good at IDing them.) And 6 feet of white picket fence standing out idiotically in the middle of a field, and a portable tv on a sagging picnic table that appears to be bicycle-chained to the tree next to it, I guess to prevent picnic table thieves.

    When the camera is trained indoors, the views are no less empty and haunted, and even more bedraggled and sad-looking. Lipper shoots her breakfast in a booth in a battered diner, and inexpressibly depressing rows of portrait photos?salesmen of the year? dead Rotarians??on a badly papered wall, and a miniature house that seems to be Graceland-in-a-bottle, and the interior of one howlingly sad super-cheap motel room after another, the kind of motel rooms where desperately lonely and troubled people?in debt, thrown out of the house, cuckolded?blow their brains out all over the fake wood paneling.

    Those portrait photos are as close as Trip gets to showing you human beings: stiffly smiling, formal, staring at nothing, they hang on the walls like empty clothing. Sometimes the humans have left behind cryptic signs. In a diner, a plastic-letter sign advertises a small "SLUSHPUPP" for 93 cents and a large for 79, and advises desultorily, "HAVE NICE DA," as though it can't even drag out the falsely cheering words. In what's probably a roadside church, people have left Post-it note prayers stuck all over the paneling. A still from Gone with the Wind hangs by itself on what looks like a ladies' room wall, mute reminder of a faded Southern glory that was false in the first place. (I'm trusting Lipper that this isn't a setup.) And in the cheapest, saddest epitaph I've ever seen, a paper plate thumbtacked to a poster board bears the ballpointed witness:

    One of Our Volunteers Mrs. Dale (Beverly) Price died 11/26/96

    The photos in Trip are so evocative, so enigmatic yet eloquent in their elusive way, they don't need a word of text. Which is why I can't understand what possessed them to add a bunch of captions by Frederick Barthelme. He's an okay writer in his own context, but here his words are unnecessary and intrusive. They're just as enigmatic as the photos, but that doesn't mean they're a good match: his words just add a layer of confusion, not mystery. Their presence violates Lipper's images as unjustly as that election poster nailed to that tree. Good thing these captions are off to the side where they can easily be ignored.

    Best of The Best I've seen the first books-of-the-century list I've liked. But then, it comes from family: It was compiled by Alexander Cockburn and his colleague Jeffrey St. Clair for their inside-the- Beltway newsletter CounterPunch. You can find it on their website, counterpunch.org.

    The first thing to recommend "CounterPunch's Top 100 (and a few more) Non-fiction Works of the 20th Century" is that virtually none of the titles on it have appeared on anybody else's lists. Instead of committee-mediated mainstream glop, it's very definitely a list compiled by a couple of literate old hippies and lefties, with plenty of nods to their own personal eccentricities and tastes (cooking, the UK, the great outdoors). And even if I differ with particular choices, it's one hell of a 20th-century reading list I'd hand to any growing mind. That's something I haven't been able to say about most of the other lists.

    There's Box Car Bertha's autobiography, Ezra Pound, Hollywood Babylon, Northrop Frye, Hunter S. Thompson, Lewis Mumford, Mencken, Miller, Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That, Samuel B. Charters and Noam Chomsky, W.E.B. DuBois and Havelock Ellis, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin and Jim Bouton's Ball Four. There's one of my favorite literary biographies, Geoffrey Wolff's Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, and Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism; Frances Yates' The Art of Memory; both R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, Leroi Jones and John Maynard Keynes, Walter Karp and Alfred Kinsey.

    I definitely disagree with a few of the choices, like including Peter Matthiessen's tiresomely polemical In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, for instance, and Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Sometimes they choose good authors but cite odd (though not necessarily wrong) titles, like Mailer's Advertisements for Myself (rather than the amazing Executioner's Song) and D.H. Lawrence's Etruscan Places.

    It's lamentable to see how many of their titles are now out of print (barring future paperbacks), including Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, Ida Tarbell's The History of Standard Oil, Kim Philby's My Silent War, Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power: Kissinger, Philip Agee's Inside the Company: CIA Diary and Jack Anderson's Confessions of a Muckraker. But then, I bet if you hit up a service like my friend Paul Rickert's rarebookroom.com you'd turn up copies of most of those.