The World As Installation Art
When I was maybe 10, the megachurch I grew up in, in an effort to outdo the previous year’s production, staged a live nativity in the lobby for Christmas. There was a donkey, a sheep, and I believe even a camel. It was surreal not only to see and smell and pet these living animals I had heard about but never seen in person, but to experience being near them inside of a building, each detail, each bit of fur isolated in stark contrast to the cream stucco walls, as if the whole scene had been picked up out of the world, the past, and placed in my ordinary, modern context. The experience is emblazoned in my brain.
As my family walked through, I turned to my mom and said with conviction, “The smell is so authentic.” I didn’t realize it was because it was real. Animals just actually smell.
Two details might help you understand this vignette: first, we didn’t have pets growing up. I was probably 13 when we got a hamster (how could something so small be so smelly?), and I was in High School when we got our Yorkie. So even non-exotic animals were quite exotic to me.
Also, we had a fake Christmas tree, not the kind they make now that open like two umbrellas stacked on top of each other. This tree had a good 50 separate branches, each one color coded at the base where they hooked into the main trunk pole. Assembling it was more of a chore every year as the colors wore off and we were basically guessing where each branch went by size.
The final touch was my mom grabbing a small can of Evergreen scented spray and perfuming the thing. The scent was close, but not quite like pine. It was my earliest memory of the Uncanny Valley, something that attempts to suggest a known thing, but in falling just short of the goal, serves to underscore its false nature more than to obscure it. The spray for me brought up a few complicated emotions: by the time I was old enough to be aware of the falseness, I had already developed happy memories of past Christmases attached to that specific, not-tree scent. So a smell meant to read “Forest” read “Very Clearly Not Forest” to me, but also “Your Family’s Christmas.”
Some years she forgot the spray, and no one else seemed to notice. I was bothered either way: I didn’t like that spray, but I liked that my mom liked the spray; I was irritated by the idea of a company not knowing what trees smelled like making money off selling tree scent, but I missed it when she didn’t use it.
I was aware on some level that the Nativity was an artificial construct, a symbol in the way that our Christmas tree was a symbol, a stand in for a tree, which itself was a stand in for the idea that life survives the winter.
In college, I got the opportunity to go to New York with my art school, to look at art and soak in the culture of the city. We saw so much art, as one does on these trips: it was overwhelming by design. The Met, of which I mostly remember the grand front staircase, which is the backdrop of so many scenes in television and movies and protests. The Guggenheim, long and winding, a fantastic building with a unique structure that inherently overshadows the art, a joke it’s perpetually playing on its curatorial staff. The MoMA, the ICP, the Whitney. Oh, the Whitney. They were showing Jenny Holzer, huge stock tickers laid on the floor, scrolling statements like “Protect Me From What I Want.” That work hit me between the eyes and square in the solar plexus. It still gives me goosebumps thinking about the visceral impact of those words, albeit written large, in light, and moving. It was so incredible, I never wanted to leave.
Over the course of our three whirlwind days in New York, walking around the city felt less and less distinguishable from walking around the galleries: everywhere was light, color, something new. All possibilities, and all man-made. And so many people crammed into configurations of space that were foreign to me. Walking through SoHo might as well have been Wonderland: half sets of stairs went up and down to doors as though the street was the Mezzanine floor.
One afternoon my friend and I were walking between museums and came upon this elaborate cardboard structure, at least 4 appliance sized boxes pieced together with duct tape into a sort of lump, a cardboard boulder, or some sloppy approximation of a geodome. It wrapped around a tree for support, like a large paper rendering of Flubber was slowly munching an over-sized stalk of celery. It reminded me of the Thomas Hirshhorn cardboard cave installation I had seen in Pittsburgh the year before, or like the blanket forts one of my classmates would set up any time she could get a spare corner in the art building. I said to Kyra, “Do you think that’s an Installation?” She looked at me like there was something seriously wrong in my head. Then she realized I wasn’t joking, and said in an urgent whisper, directing me away from it like one would a child, “I think someone’s living in there.”
Art is just an object made with intention. We can struggle against form, against medium, against definitions. We can glorify the object whose sole purpose is to be art, divorced from any other function, reality plucked from one context and presented in another. But anywhere there are people, there is art. Because people make choices, and those choices are what we call beautiful, ugly, heartbreaking, mundane, profound, profane: art.