Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Michael R. Taylor

“This is where he wanted to go…”

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"Rounding a corner..."

Note: This post is the fifty-second installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 51. You can read the earlier installments here

Years ago, I served as an alternate juror in a civil case in Brooklyn. The details of the lawsuit don’t really matter—it involved a patient alleging malpractice, ultimately without success, after undergoing cataract surgery—and I didn’t even get to stick around long enough to render a verdict. I took good notes, though, on the assumption that the experience might be useful for a story one day. This hasn’t happened yet, but one detail still sticks with me. Part of the case hinged on what the doctor had written in the patient’s file, so at strategic moments in the proceedings, the lawyer for the plaintiff would put an enormous reproduction of the relevant page on an easel, inviting us to look closely at some marginal note in an illegible doctor’s scrawl. And what struck me was the fact that records like this are kept for every patient, filling cabinets and boxes in every doctor’s office in the country. Most end up filed away forever. But every now and then, a trial or insurance settlement will depend on detail from a past case, so one dusty file will be promoted out of storage and blown up to huge proportions. It’s a kind of apotheosis, the moment when an ordinary document turns into a key piece of evidence, and we’re asked to study it as closely as a sacred text.

You see the same phenomenon whenever a mass of information promises to yield one small, crucial clue. Conspiracy theorists pore over every scrap of paper connected to events like the Kennedy assassination, until what might otherwise be a routine report or standard form acquires a sinister significance. And writers—who differ from conspiracy theorists mostly in the fact that they’re aware that what they’re doing is fictional—often find themselves up to the knees in a similar process. When you’re writing a novel that requires any amount of research, you find yourself collecting whole shelves of material, but in practice, you find that a critical plot point hinges on a little morsel that you gathered without understanding its full importance. You’ll be trying to map out a scene, for instance, and realize that it has to take place in a particular corner of a building that you’ve never seen before, or that you visited months ago and have mostly forgotten. When that happens, you go back over your notes and sketches, look up photographs, stare at maps, and hope to find the tiny bit of data you need, which often turns on a few blurry pictures that you can barely see.

"This is where he wanted to go..."

I often found myself staring at images like this. When I was writing The Icon Thief, for instance, I knew that the action of the last chapter depended on a detailed knowledge of the interior of Étant Donnés, the enigmatic work by Marcel Duchamp that was installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art after his death. Since I couldn’t easily get inside that room myself, I was forced to depend on the sources I had, shelling out ninety dollars for a copy of Duchamp’s Manual of Instructions and going over the illustrations until I had a pretty good idea of what my character would find. (Just before the novel was complete, Michael R. Taylor published his definitive study of Étant Donnés, which had much better pictures. It was too late for it to influence the story itself, but it allowed me to correct a number of small errors.) Similarly, in City of Exiles, my description of the London Chess Classic was based on a trove of pictures from the tournament’s official website, which I used to clarify my descriptions, the layout of the building, and the logic of the ensuing chase scene. And I don’t think the photographer in question ever imagined that those images would be used for that purpose.

Ideally, of course, we’d be able to verify everything firsthand, and I’ve tried to do my own location research whenever possible. Yet there’s also something to be said for the experience of looking at a scene through a very narrow window. You can’t range freely through the world; the maneuvers you make are constrained by the evidence you have at hand, which forces you to focus and scrutinize every detail for possible use or meaning. I knew, for example, that the ending of City of Exiles would take place in the network of tunnels under Helsinki, which was something I couldn’t easily visit. All I had, in the end, were a handful of pictures and a video that offered a few tantalizing glimpses of the interior, amounting to no more than a few seconds. From those fragments, I was able to build the sequence that starts here, in Chapter 51, as Wolfe arrives at the data center that provides an access point to the tunnels. Making it plausible involved going through the footage I had inch by inch, pausing it repeatedly to figure out the geography and how to describe what I was actually seeing. Mistakes undoubtedly crept in, and I’m sure I would have benefited from walking those tunnels myself. But as it stood, I had no choice but to put together the pieces I had, put my characters inside, and see what happened when they met…

“She crossed the threshold…”

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"She crossed the threshold..."

Note: This post is the fifty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 57. You can read the earlier installments here.)

When I first started writing The Icon Thief, I knew from early on that the novel would end with Maddy breaking into the secret chamber behind Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For those of you who might need a reminder, this work—which was discovered and installed in the museum only after Marcel Duchamp’s death—lies in its own room just off the main gallery. It consists of a pair of wooden doors, which Duchamp bought in Spain and had specially cut to size, set into a brick archway. Through two small eyeholes, the viewer can see into the chamber beyond, in which the body of a nude woman, really a realistic dummy covered in calfskin, lies on a bed of dry grass, an upraised lamp in one hand. It’s the work that sparked much of the plot of this novel in the first place, partially because it’s so striking in its own right, but also because it inspires countless interpretations. And for a story in which the way we interpret or misread the world around us is such a crucial theme, I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than to have Maddy break into the installation itself in search of one last clue.

Obviously, this presented a number of problems, both narratively and logistically. Much of the novel is devoted to stacking the deck so that the reader truly believes, when the moment comes, that Maddy would be capable of taking such drastic action. I also wanted my description of the installation and its violation to be as accurate as possible, which turned out to be something of a challenge, especially in the early stages of research. At the point when I finally had to figure out how the scene would work, my only good source of pictures and diagrams of the interior was Duchamp’s own Manual of Instructions, which was published in a limited edition by the museum after the installation was first opened up for photographs. A few of the illustrations had been reproduced in Juan Antonio Ramírez’s useful book Duchamp: Love and Death, Even, but I soon realized that I’d have to get my hands on the real thing. As luck would have it, I managed to find a copy at a bookstore a short walk away from where I was living in Brooklyn, and although it was fairly expensive, it was more than worth the price.

"Then her vision cleared..."

Once I had the source, I studied the diagrams and pictures carefully, trying to see how the installation looked from the inside, how best to break into it, and what Maddy would encounter when she laid her hands on it for the first time. I learned, for instance, that the dummy itself consisted of several pieces: the torso, the left thigh, and the forearm and hand, which would all come apart if someone picked it up. Other details, such as the appearance of the underside of the armature, were less clear, and I had to extrapolate them from my sources as best I could. Much later, as I was finishing up the novel, the excellent study of Étant Donnés by Michael R. Taylor was published, with detailed interior photographs and essays on its construction that would have been incredibly useful. I discovered it too late for it to have a meaningful impact on most of the action, but I was able to use it to correct a few mistakes, and I later sent a copy of the novel to Taylor as a token of my appreciation.

Eventually, though, I knew that I’d have to go to the museum itself. The result was a visit that went much like the one I describe in Chapter 57, as Maddy figures out her mode of attack. Like Maddy, I noticed that behind the room with the visible door, there was another room that contained the dummy and tableaux itself, and that it appeared as an enigmatic unnumbered square on the upper left-hand corner of the museum map, like the secret chamber in the library in The Name of the Rose. There was an unmarked door leading into this room from the gallery devoted to Brâncuși, but I didn’t think you could easily force the lock. (I tried it gently—and as I’ve often reflected while doing location research for these stories, I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested.) I also spent a lot of time studying the wooden doors themselves, which I knew could be slid open to allow photographs to be taken of the interior, and I confirmed, as I’d long feared, that it wasn’t just a matter of getting the doors open: there was a pane of glass behind the door, not specified in Duchamp’s original plan, to protect the interior and prevent anyone from attempting precisely what I wanted to do. And to give my novel the ending it needed, I knew I’d have to break through it…

Duchamp’s doorway

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The door stands alone in its own room in the eastern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s a little out of the way, tucked into a corner of the Marion Boulton Stroud Gallery, also known as the Galerie Rrose Sélavy. Nothing in the blandly worded placard at the entrance indicates that anything unusual lies beyond. When you peek inside, you see a small, dimly lit room, empty except for an old-fashioned wooden door, set into an archway of brick. If you’re particularly observant, you might notice that the room isn’t quite like any other at the museum—there’s a carpet on the floor, instead of concrete, and the walls around the door are covered in textured plaster. Most visitors simply glance around for a moment, take in the door, see nothing else, and head off to the next obligatory stop on the tour. Only a few notice the light coming through the pair of small holes drilled into the door at eye level. And even fewer—at least of those who aren’t aware of the secret—ever venture close enough to look inside.

Étant Donnés, to quote Jasper Johns yet again, is “the strangest work of art in any museum.” And it’s strange even if you don’t know the circumstances of its creation. Look through those eyeholes, leaning in close enough to catch the faint odor of fragrant wood, and you see, behind the door, the startlingly lifelike image of a naked woman lying on a bed of dry grass, her legs spread, a glowing lamp in one upraised hand. The woman’s head is concealed by the edge of a brick wall, making her seem faceless, but if you look carefully, you can make out a tantalizing lock of blond hair. In the background, there’s a forest, a blue sky with clouds, and even a moving waterfall. It’s an incredibly detailed tableau, quiet, mysterious, and meant to be seen by only one viewer at at time. When I first saw it in person, I had spent close to nine months preparing for that moment, but it’s far more startling to see it without any advance warning. As a museum guard remarked to another group of visitors as I was on my way out: “You can’t unsee that!”

Yet Étant Donnés remains strangely unknown, even among those who care about art, at least in comparison to its creator’s other works. This is despite the fact that the story behind its creation is as fascinating as any I know. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: for the last forty years of his life, Marcel Duchamp, the most influential artist of the twentieth century, claimed to have retired from art. Instead, he played chess at a very high level, gave occasional interviews, and oversaw the display and reproduction of his earlier works. After his death in 1968, however, it was revealed that he had spent at least twenty years working on a final installation, in complete secrecy, laboriously transporting it from one studio to another whenever he moved, confiding only in his wife. Whatever it meant, it had clearly been on his mind for decades: the first notes toward what later became Étant Donnés appear as early as 1934. And he had deliberately timed it so that the work would only be revealed when he was dead, perhaps so he could avoid being asked any questions.

These days, thanks to a ravishing study by Michael R. Taylor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in honor of the installation’s fortieth anniversary, we know a great deal about how Duchamp made Étant Donnés, but still almost nothing about why. It was solitary, methodical work, involving much trial and error with body casting, materials for making the skin, and creating the trompe l’oeil effects. Many of his solutions are charmingly quaint, like a hobbyist making a diorama in his garage: the effect of the moving waterfall, for instance, is created by a revolving light bulb inside a biscuit tin. And that’s the strangest thing of all. Duchamp, more than any other artist of his generation, declared war on what he called “retinal” art, which appealed to the eye, not the mind, and was only interested in reproducing what it could see. His attempt to move past representation changed art forever. Yet the entire time, in secret, he was systematically experimenting to find ways to represent what is, for all its dreamlike trappings, the most classical subject of all: a woman’s body. And nobody knows why.

This is the enigma at the heart of Duchamp’s career—and at the center of The Icon Thief. Tomorrow, on the day my novel finally comes out, I’ll do my best to explain why this mystery has intrigued me for so long.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am

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