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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Writers Who Look at Art vs. Artists Who Read

Last week I read Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost. The book contains what has to be the most gratuitous, self-indulgent art reference that I’ve ever seen this side of a Robertson Davies novel.

The book’s title character has a friend named Leaf who makes an appearance in flashback midway through the book. Leaf decides to leave Arizona where the two characters are living to move to New Mexico. Several chapters later, we get this (sequential sentence fragments and all):

When Leaf left Arizona, Anil didn’t hear from her for more than six months. Although during every moment of her farewell she had promised to write. Leaf, who was her closest friend. Once there was just a postcard of a stainless-steel pole. Quemado, New Mexico, the postmark seemed to read, but there was no contact address.
If you’re reading this site, you probably get the reference. But it doesn’t stop there. “The next postcard,” Ondaatje continues, “was of a parabolic dish antenna. Again no message or address.” Finally Leaf contacts Anil, and Anil makes arrangements to travel to New Mexico to meet her. Ondaatje picks up:
Originally Leaf had said she had bad asthma, that was they she had moved into the desert for a year, disappearing from Anil’s life. She had got involved with Earthworks and was living at The Lighting Field near Quemado. In 1977, artist Walter De Maria had planted four hundred stainless-steel poles high in the desert on a flat plain a mile long. Leaf’s first job was to be a caretaker of the lodge. Powerful winds swept in from the desert and she got to witness storms, because during the summer the poles drew lighting onto the plain. She stood among them, within the electricity, the thunder simultaneous around here. She had just wanted to be a cowboy. She loved the Southwest.
Huh? She wanted to be a cowboy but she ended up tending the lodge at The Lightning Field? What did I miss here?

And then there are the factual points. No one who has visited would call the small, ramshackle cabin that sleeps six a “lodge.” The caretaker doesn’t live there. The field doesn’t really draw lightning; that’s a myth. And the first instruction you get when you arrive is that if there does happen to be lightning in the area do not go out into the field. If lighting strikes (which it does once every several years) you’ll be toast--burnt toast-- along with the pole that takes the hit. (When lightning does strike the field, the pole that receives it turns black and is ruined. It has to be replaced with one of the hundred or so extras that De Maria had fabricated and placed in storage when the piece was originally made.)

But the bigger question is why Ondaatje would think it necessary to include this character and her strange occupation in the novel at all. On the next page, he puts the following words into Leaf’s mouth, referring to the Very Large Array located near The Lightning Field. “Do you think they can hear us? That giant metal ear in the desert. Is it picking us up too? I’m just a detail from the subplot, right.”

Oh so very right. And a completely unnecessary detail at that. A detail that gets dropped in and never really used in a way that justifies its inclusion.

Going in the other direction, though, we have the bookish Dan Flavin, and he pulls off his theft from the literary world much better than Ondaatje does his.

Someone was kind enough yesterday to send me an exhibition brochure from the Flavin retrospective in Chicago. (Thanks Kiki.) The brochure contains this text:

Flavin usually demurred when asked where he got the idea for working with fluorescent tubes. When artist Carl Andre posed the question, however, Flavin identified a direct source: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In Ellison’s 1952 novel about race in America, the African-American protagonist combats his “invisibility” by saturating his basement “hole” with light.
I’ll admit that I haven’t read very deeply into the Flavin scholarship, but is this common knowledge? Does Flavin really owe his signature style to Ralph Ellison and one of the most important works of African-American fiction? Who would have guessed? If it’s true, it’s a great story.

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