On the Interpretation of Silences

by Sprax

Trailing black smoke from both engines, the Stuka plummets earthward in a high-whining tailspin, leaving behind a double helix in the frozen blue sky of November, 1944. Inside the glass bubble of the cockpit, the pilot's eyes bulge at the white forest spinning up to meet him. He struggles frantically with his parachute's shoulder harness and then with the ejection lever. It won't budge. His face splits into a scream.

Behind him, the copilot is silent. He has never had a parachute, never buckled the seat-belts over his chest in the form of a cross. Now he calmly fastens his leather helmet strap, relaxes his jaw, and cups his palms over the hollows of his eyes.

The dive bomber plunges into the trees and explodes. Hunks of twisted metal fly off through the snow-laden branches; the swastikas emblazoned on its wings blister and pop in the flames.

* * * * *

Once upon a time, some peasants were out hunting in a snow-white forest. They were looking for anything not asleep in its den: wildebeests, warthogs, even wolves. Instead they saw smoke rising like a far-away black tower. They went and found a burnt-up airplane with the pilot still in it, his skull turned to charcoal. A ways away, they found the sprawled body of another man, nearly dead but still breathing. They put him on their sled and smeared him with animal fat. Then they bundled him up in felt made from the fur of rabbits they had raised themselves. He slept all the way back to their village, and when he finally woke up he had forgotten how to walk and talk. Again they smeared him with fat and wrapped him in felt, and told him many stories to make him go back to sleep. The next time he woke up it was night and all the people were asleep. He knew how to walk again and he walked out of the village. In the forest he met a wolf and together they howled at the moon. Then he walked alone for the rest of the night. When the sun came up he knew how to talk again, and he remembered all the villagers' stories.

* * * * *

From the air, Europe appeared as a huge chessboard: each square occupied or threatened and counter-threatened by mechanized cavalry, artillery shells as big as bishop's miters, and hordes of foot-soldier pawns. The Luftwaffe had ruled the air like kings, but the Allies were beginning to gobble up whole squares with their Flying Fortresses. In retaliation for air strikes on London, the Allies launched massive fire-bombing campaigns on Cologne, Berlin, and Dresden. These squares on the board would light up with white phosphorous, then darken to a chimney soot black. When our fallen copilot emerged from the forest and walked back to his ancestral home in Dresden, he found it reduced to a hill of ash. He lay down in it and wept; he rolled around in it until he was quite black himself. But the war was over, and vengeance is not justice. There was only one thing to do: trade charcoal for paper and enroll in art school.

* * * * *

From its onset, the war had eclipsed the professional chess tournaments formerly conducted in the palatial hotels of Paris, Cologne, Prague, etc. Nonplused, Marcel Duchamp rolled up his leather chessboard, packed his pieces, and set sail for New York. It had been a quarter century since his famous nude descended the staircase, and a decade since he quit making his ``ready-mades'' -- found objects like the bicycle wheel he mounted upside down on milking stool, or the urinal he inverted on men's room wall -- yet he had remained in the limelight of Parisian gossip. He had told the press that his new art was playing games, not fetishizing objects. He also said, ``I consider working for a living slightly imbecilic from an economic point of view.'' Now he took his inherited wealth (supplemented over the years by rich patrons of the arts) and disappeared into a lower Manhattan loft. Sometimes he entertained guests in his wife's flat uptown, but he never invited anyone to his studio. He entered what the critics would call his ``silent period.''

* * * * *

Joseph Beuys finished art school and became a teacher with many adoring students. He always wore the same felt fedora and a fisherman's vest with pockets full of magical knickknacks like batteries, tape, and paper clips; it replaced the leather helmet and nylon flight suit as his personal uniform. Add to this his haunted, deep-set blue eyes and his sensitive, bee-stung lips, and maybe you can see why this charismatic visionary became an icon all over Europe. His photo-documented performances were legendary, like wrapping himself up in fat and felt and starving himself in a garret for a week with a hungry wolf, or lashing himself to a chair in an empty jail cell and telling stories to a dead hare on his lap -- that kind of thing.

But re-enacting his own personal deliverance in solitary confinement was not enough. Propounding ideas for a ``social art,'' he became a pied piper, leading thousands of young Germans in human chains that left in their wake long strings of shopping carts, transplanted trees, vending machines, even heavy boulders. These ``markings'' stretched through entire towns, blocking traffic and cutting across soccer fields. Here was a new kind of artist: part shaman, part Ishmael, heretic and inquisitor both, sometimes a scapegoat, always a trickster. At the height of his artistic apotheosis, Beuys scribbled this pithy remark on a chalkboard that nobody dared erase: ``The silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated.''

* * * * *

In 1968, several years after Beuys chalked that famous classroom graffito, Duchamp died, never having broken the veil of silence that shrouded his downtown studio. Apocryphal stories say that dealers finally entered and found nothing of any value. As if to mock their search, there was a pair of heavy wooden doors set into the outside wall, six stories up. Then somebody peeped through the keyhole. There, on the other side of those locked doors, sitting in timeless repose, was a naked woman! Executed in startling trompe l'oeil and perfect renaissance perspective, this painting/assemblage was Duchamp's first nude since those cubo-futuristic staircase descenders of 1912, and he had secretly been working on it since 1946. In fact, he had already made arrangements for the whole thing, which he called Etant donnés, to be placed directly into the Philadelphia Museum of Art, doors, wall, and all. Some cried ``Travesty!'' while others hailed it as the dialectical antithesis to his Large Glass, also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Either way, it was a strange denouement to a career many critics and younger artists -- including Beuys -- had seen as a life-long attack against art as object. ``Etymologically speaking,'' Duchamp liked to say, ``art is making.''

* * * * *

Sometime in the early 80s, Richard Avedon and Norman Mailer took Joseph Beuys for ride on the Autobahn. They left the rented Mercedes in the breakdown lane and tramped off to a nearby swamp. Avedon prodded with his camera and Mailer brandished a gold fountain pen. Beuys did not stop at water's edge but kept on going even after he was entirely submerged. (There must have been lead in that vest.) The photographer and the writer searched, but the man was gone. Only his felt hat remained afloat on those murky waters between art and real life. But let us be clear: Beuys had not merely elevated a disappearing act onto the pedestal of art. No, better than Houdini, he had become art personified, only to make art itself disappear.

For better or worse, however, Beuys did eventually come back to real life, again. He got his hat back but then he died only a few years later, in 1986. Suddenly the collectors whom he had always mocked could not get enough of the great artist's artifacts. The market was ravenous. Anything authentically ``marked'' by Beuys -- pages torn from his endless parade of notebooks, handkerchiefs smeared with mucous from his nose, a spittoon, scraps of felt from his studio floor and bowls of fat from his refrigerator -- was framed, boxed, or tubbed, and auctioned off to dealers. That blackboard was removed from the classroom and sold for half a million deutsche marks. But can you guess the highest bid for his old beat-up felt hat?

* * * * *

Just months ago, I went to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Stephen Lanthanomon (let's just say Lanthanomon's real name escapes me), an art history teacher and performance artist well known in Chicago for his scurrilous diatribes against all forms of commodification in art. As we dug into his Sioux-recipe rabbit stew, we had a lot to be grateful for: Lanthanomon was alive, could walk with crutches, and moreover, had just broken the year-long silence following his accident.

You see, he had attended an exhibit at the Art Institute featuring Joseph Beuys' ersatz ``oeuvre,'' and afterwards, walking back to the El with his wife and several friends, he had become so wound up in decrying the greed, dishonesty, and sheer stupidity of the contemporary art scene that he was moved to act out his own parody of it. He threw down his cigarette and jumped up on the railing of the Harrison Street bridge, about 60 feet above the commuter rail tracks. He stretched his arms out like Christ Crucified, and then, showing off his many years of training in classical ballet, Sufi, and Javanese dance, he began doing helicopters. The faster he whirled, the louder he yelled, ``Is this art? Huh?! Is this art yet?!''

Then he fell. As his friends watched in horror, and his wife began to scream, his downward spiraling hands traced out a double helix through the frozen gray air of November, 1994. The paramedics did not smear his unconscious body with fat, but they did cover him with wool blankets. When he finally woke up, he found both of his legs suspended in front of him in traction and his jaw wired shut with about 6 feet of 10-gauge silver through his gums. Later, it was the silverless cloud of depression that kept his mouth clamped shut.

Stephen Lanthanomon has recuperated, more or less, but he still won't talk about the accident. Perhaps he simply finds it too embarrassing. But say what you will, he accomplished one thing that can never be taken away: his fall held up rush-hour commuter trains for over a quarter of an hour.

* * * * *

How are we to interpret the silences of these three men?

Duchamp's detractors allege that his silence was born of arrogance; his defenders, that it was from modesty. I agree with neither. His early retirement made him a historical figure while still alive, an oracle not above human judgment, but beyond merely personal reproach. From within his silent, one-room shrine, he was able to criticize and encourage other living artists without straining after or tripping over a brood of his own objects, all striving to escape their creator only to run into the outstretched arms of curators and collectors. Duchamp's silence was a refusal to speak for mute objects, even at the risk of leaving them naked and alone. What else could he have done but to keep that last nude walled in like a virgin for all those years? I would not say that the silence of Marcel Duchamp was overrated.

One might say that the silence of Joseph Beuys -- first in the cockpit of a falling plane, and then in that fairy-tale-like village -- was fearful but not fierce, foxy without being fraudulent, flippant yet not facetious. In all senses of the word, Beuys' silence was fabulous. But it was his underwater silence in the swamp that I find the deepest. If only his magical shamanistic tricks could have made art -- art as objects whose individual voices are so often drowned out by the clamor of the marketplace and then stifled by the prestige of ownership -- really disappear, and not come back. I am glad that Beuys did not burn up or drown; I only wish that his hat had sunk. Art might never save us from a plane crash, but at least we might have been spared this all-too-human conclusion, that the felt hat of Joseph Beuys was over-inflated.

``Is this art yet?'' may be heard as a Zen koan, a plea for help, or as a trite riddle of metaphysics suspended inside a balloon in a postmodern cartoon. It implies a wall, a barrier between art and life. Lanthanomon's art was to dance on that wall; Lanthanomon's life then had a great fall. Granted, the whole spectacle was more dumb than it was silent, and sure, they did put poor Stephen back together again. But what about the wall -- did that come tumbling down behind him? And was his question really so different from the ones we ask ourselves? Am I who I think I should be -- yet? Or, Can I stop talking now -- will you understand? I suggest that Lanthanomon's wall was actually a looking glass. Aficionados of art balk at the realism of the mirror, but I say let him who is without reflection cast the first stone. Or rather, let iconoclasm begin with a breaking of our own mirrors, those walls disguised in our own likenesses, those obstacles we mistake for ourselves. When all that silvered glass has shattered and fallen to the ground, the silence will be profound indeed.
Marcel Duchamp

People cannot live on silence alone. Trappist monks, for example, are world-class brewers. There is also bread, and there are always more words, even words about words. These words, however, are coming to an end. Is there a moral to this meandering tale? I would venture only this: Go ahead and make things. Hang them on walls or display them on racks; buy and sell them if you must. Even wrap yourself in them and invest them with enchanting ideas. But beware of letting your head swell up inside them, and beware of leaving them behind you like a trail of empty wrappers. Every wall is a mirror.

No, forget these words. Silence cannot be translated. Things speak for themselves. Listen. The last interpretation of silence is silence.