The city has the cruelest light that she can remember seeing in her short life, flat and harsh and falling obliquely and without discrimination across the facades of the old metal and glass buildings that line the sea front. There are palm trees along the avenues that sway in the wind, and beneath the light their fronds are the same colour as the panes of the windows and the shimmering asphalt. The cruelty is this lack of differentiation, they way that the light covers every surface completely, like liquid. She came to the city alone several years ago, first to study, but then, after realising over several painful months that should could not actually afford this, to work and to live, to meet people and to watch and bear witness to the frantic movements and incredible energy of the metropolis, so much bigger and denser than the country of her birth, which she took pleasure in remembering now and then as a kind of cartoon, a provincial village peopled by idiots. When she came into these moods the great coastal city would appear to her as the swollen and enormous body of a recently butchered animal, a cow or an enormous ape, the way that gods were cut to pieces and their matter used to form the earth in ancient stories. There is no real feeling of horror or revulsion in this vision. The body moves and twitches occasionally under the power of external forces, as though there were some great invisible machine sending electricity flooding through the expired musculature at random intervals, or on a schedule that is impossible to parse from her vantage.
Before she arrived she had learned about America from books and films, and had imagined its cities burning constantly, in natural disasters or ambiguous uprisings, or sometimes (in older stories) in nuclear fire. Different urban sections burning every day and every night. In her mind it worked like this: the productive forces of industry and personal improvement would continue unabated while the different sections burned, and the citizens would march through the inferno each new day without ever looking at it or acknowledging its presence. Some of them were consumed and destroyed and some were spared, and this selection appeared to be by random chance. Nonetheless, no state of exception was called and productivity never faltered, in fact it increased, as though the bodies that were burned up were really like fuel for the city, which she thinks must, in some obscure way, be built like a steam engine or a combustion chamber, driving the repeating movements of machinery too complex to engineer backwards from symptoms and byproducts, which are all that she or anyone else living up here, clinging to the edge of the coast of the Atlantic, would be able to see.
As she thinks about this combustion chamber city she is walking by the beach front, up along the edge of one of the costal strip roads. There are friends of hers gathering at one of the galleries that have opened here in the last five or six years. They (the galleries) are all more established than they appear, and each has its own sharply perfected taste, sleek, young, and muscular, discernible from one another by minute traces and signs visible only to those (like her) who are enmeshed within their workings. She has taken the night off work, something that can be difficult to organise on short notice, but that this time she managed serenely, with comfortable feelings of great psychic distance, and none of the usual tugs of anxiety that plague her in confrontations with her various bosses and managers. It is now early evening and the sun is sinking quickly into the ocean. The sunlight is turning orange and bathing the glass facades in its colour. She arrives suddenly at the space, much more quickly than she anticipated; it appears in front of her as though conjured in a trick. She sees that there are people clustered around the front and also a few inside moving slowly around and looking at the work on display, but no one that she recognises. She briefly considers walking past and not stopping, just continuing this walk along the edge of the water in the evening, but instead she steps inside the brightly lit glass-fronted room and sees that the show is full of paintings, works from an artist that she does not know and has never heard of. There are six paintings on display, and they are large and abstract, holdovers from the twentieth century, a refiguring of that NY critical language of minds and souls working themselves out across their sanctioned ground, but a smart refiguring, the line and ground work fading with practiced ease between a ruthless openness and retreat, opacity, dirtiness, cloudiness. This same universal cleverness that twins abjection with humour, and sincerity with coy deferrals. The pictures are tightly controlled and produced, in command of both their history and its visible decay. As she walks past them looking she is reminded of the ancient capitals of Empire, of pale stone buildings and European anxieties of collapse and contradiction. Perhaps also of bad faith, and of filth, centuries of filth. She cannot correlate these pictures with the city outside, with the evening and its late sunlight, and the wind that smells of salt, exhaust, garbage, corrosion. Their triumphs and their champions are elsewhere. Someone who works at the gallery offers her a drink which she accepts. As she prepares to exit the space and stand with the others outside she notices that there are also two small drawings that have been hung alongside the paintings, and that she almost missed. They are unframed and installed in some clever way that makes the hanging system completely invisible, so that the two thin pieces of paper, each slightly smaller than A4, sit just off the wall, as though hovering in place. Each shows a scrappy line drawing of a kind of iron cage propped on iron legs, two different iterations of this form but both essentially similar. The cages are complicated, built around several bulbous compartments that interlink in complex ways. One of them has a funnel on top and two small tubes like chimneys or exhaust ports running from its chambers. Sheets of smoke or steam billow around them. Both drawings are titled ‘cooking machine’, and this is another point of difference with the paintings, which are all untitled and numbered with roman numerals. She spends some time trying to figure out what is happening with these works. The vessels are very obviously not scientific (too rough, made of iron), but also not in any obvious way meant for meat or the bodies of animals or anything else that might easily be ‘cooked’. The various compartments are connected by what looks like a series of valves that link them up into a system of flows and reductions. She thinks of alchemy, of the transmutation of matter, of changing the essence of a thing. What substance is reduced in the process of cooking? What remains in the cage in the aftermath? It seems unlikely to her that the drawings come from the same artist but when she checks the name she sees that yes, it is the same person. She begins to make an effort to work through how the machines and the paintings might speak to one another and to her, but as she tries this a blackness wells up inside her throat and threatens to overwhelm her vision. Suddenly she feels that she cannot be in this space any longer. Outside the sun has sunk very low. She walks to the door and brings her drink with her and exits to breathes in the cool air and consider whether to wait outside with the now diminishing crowd and make conversation, about work perhaps, or her own artistic projects. There are subtle distortions around the edges of her eyesight. Instead she walks around the side of the building, down a brick walled alley that leads her into a broad concrete carpark behind the building. It is ringed with steel chain link. There are tall steel street lights installed but these have not illuminated even though the sky is now very dark.
After several minutes standing in the semi darkness her breathing stabilises. Occasionally when she gets overwhelmed like this she feels like she will cry, but not tonight. Tonight she feels strange and flat and the world also looks flat to her, an optical illusion that makes every surface appear to belong somehow to the same plane, which stretches out in front of her perpendicular to her gaze, and, disconcertingly, that shifts with her if she moves her head. Everything is rendered in a series of complex two dimensional shapes that slide and reform across this plane. It hurts her eyes if she moves her head too quickly. Facing across from her on the other side of the car park there are a low series of apartment buildings built from concrete cinderblock. Every opening into this complex is dark, no light anywhere, and as she studies the windows and the black door frames she sees the marks of soot and ash and realises that the whole complex is actually ruined and condemned, perhaps after a fire, or maybe it was torched after it was abandoned. She wonders idly what it must have looked like engulfed in smoke and heat, how the concrete curbs and footpaths would have changed their colours under the flames, thinks about the loss of control that major city fires represent, and as she spins these fantasies she finds herself walking across the vacant space, across the asphalt, until she has pressed her face and hands up against the wire mesh of the opposite fence, only two or three metres from the facing wall of the burned out building. Directly in front of her is a space that once would have housed a doorway, but that now opens into total blackness. There are long scorch marks at the top and sides. From inside the invisible interior of the building she thinks that she can hear movement, very soft and distant, as though beyond this threshold the space opens out into an enormous cavern with bustling activity inside, very far away. The sounds are oddly domestic. She pictures bodies moving around, candlelight, portable stoves, plastic barrels of water, murmured conversation, and the soft clinks of cutlery. She tries to still her breathing, her heartbeat, every bodily process, so that she might be able to hear better what is happening inside. Just then the enormous street lights that border the carpark turn on behind her and cast their harsh white illumination over the entire space. The light also falls through the open doorway. Standing just inside very still and now harshly lit there is a pale shape, like a human body but strange and horrible to look at. It is less than three metres from her. She searches for a face and finds a garbled mess of repeating patterns and move over what looks like the flesh of the head. Her eyes flare wide and her lips pull back from her teeth. The thing in front of her does not move, but seems to vibrate intensely. In the split second before panic overwhelms her she thinks that actually she cannot see it properly, though it is now standing in the full light of the street lamps, and that there is something about this thing that blurs and distorts the light around it. She can make out flashes of human postures fixed in place, but when they form they vanish again almost instantly and are replaced by new ones. Thousands of arms, thousands of hands and faces. What she thought were moving patterns seem now more like gestures repeated infinitely, but contained within a finite area. That of a single body. Each of these is fixed but also subsumed immediately into the thing that occupies the space in front of her. It is monstrous. She is aware of a low humming sound beginning to emit from it. Something shifts in the light and she thinks that it turns towards her. The hum grows louder. There are words or language, but millions of iterations layered over one another. Nothing is intelligible. She walks backwards keeping her gaze fixed on the pale body in the doorway which does not or cannot follow her. The humming grows louder. Its attention is fixed on her as she retreats. Her backwards step catches on a lip of concrete and she falls backwards, and she does the body expands outwards, unfolds somehow, into a crown or a halo of flesh stretched around its shoulders and face, and again she sees the rippling repetitions of arms, fingers, hair, and eyes, but this time there are flashes of clothing too, even of logos and brands that she knows, there are pieces of jewellery, shoes, laptops and phones and other material goods incorporated into the patterns that are its form. Before she can think she is already twisting away, running, scraping her own unfeeling body over concrete and tarmac, tearing skin from her hands and knees and pushing violently back up the alley to the seafront. The distance is short but feels elongated as she moves. After several seconds she emerges and realises distantly that the humming is gone. She is standing in front of the sea, retching and panting. Her whole body shakes violently. After a few minutes she is able to collect herself and turn back. She sees that the gallery is closed and dark, and that there are two police cars and two ambulances parked outside in the street with their blue and red lights tracing across the architectural surfaces and even reaching out to the mounds and hills of sand that mark the boundary between the raised walkway and the water and waves.
In the days and weeks that follow she will return several times to the burned out apartment building behind the gallery. Her memories of the body are stretched thin and incomplete. It never appears to her again. She spends much of her waking time thinking about the patterns and gestures that composed it. Fixed into a single spatial position they were unintelligible, monstrous, even dangerous. But if you could peel each from the others and see them arrayed before you, if you could extend or expand this composite body out over its true dimensions, perhaps something else would appear. Maybe no less monstrous, and to her maybe still unintelligible, but discrete and capable of expression. More and more she feels that there are those, or maybe that one day there will be those, who would recognise these fragments of a body, this pattern being that is a monster, and who would welcome them and feel themselves safe, loved, and comforted in their presence. And that perhaps she lives alongside her own composite being that watches and follows her, and that allows her to recognise the people that she loves. She feels sadness and a type of fatigue (which could be relief) when she realises that she will never have the opportunity to compare the two. Sadness, but also a worming knot of suspicion and paranoia that grows inside her as over time she becomes more and more certain that nowhere in her memories of that endless parade of images could she find a single version of the pattern body at work; nothing that hinted at any interest in labour at all. How would it survive? she asks herself again and again. What would be the point of developing those millions of images of beauty and autonomy if the body itself could not survive? Paranoia, and a black occluded point deep inside of her, minor, almost invisible, but impossible to forget or ignore, an opacity that she would spend the next few years of her life slowly and painfully working to unravel.
First published as part of Lillies in the Headlights, October 2021