constellations #54: submit to art

Hi again.

(And welcome to all the new people who found me via my ramblings on Jessica Hopper’s emo essay! Cool to have you here.)

This past weekend I saw my first live IRL concert in seventeen months.* Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby played at my favorite museum (lol you know the one). It was picturesque, really; the crowd splayed out on a grassy hill, the full moon rising behind us during the set (both Katie and Kevin commented on it from the stage, before realizing that their view from the stage beat our view from the ground and assuring us that the moon was indeed coming and it was great).

It felt oddly natural and sweet to be craning my neck in a crowd of strangers again. Pretty much everything seemed to be in its right place, for me; even the bad things felt good: the drink I sipped too slowly throughout the set, the strain in my voice as I tried to sing along, the obnoxious concert-goers just ahead whom my comrades in the crowd tried, unsuccessfully and often, to shush. The music was, of course, great, and I half-cried every time I so much as thought about how happy I was to be there, or every time I noticed my best friend sneakily wiping away a tear. Katie played all the songs from Saint Cloud for a live audience for the first time, and we all felt pretty privileged to witness it.

Before the concert started, in the afternoon, my friends and I heard soundcheck from inside the museum. More specifically, we heard it from inside a pitch-black room at the end of a winding corridor — one where you have to feel your way along a railing, around 90-degree turns, in increasing darkness until you can’t see anything at all, until the railing ends, abruptly, at a chair. There are two chairs in the room; you and your companion can sit there for a pre-designated 15-minute slot. The room feels entirely dark, though we later learned that there was something like 2% light filtering in, illuminating a circle on the wall that you could only detect through your peripheral vision. (I did not detect it at all.) This was an installation by James Turrell, who often describes work like this as being about the process of looking, the process of seeing. Sitting patiently in the dark and then hearing (on the other side of many walls) soundcheck starting up — the kick drum and then the guitar and then everything else — it was a bit like Katie and Kevin watching the moon come up: We got the sense that we knew, a little before everyone else, what was coming, and that it was great.

The next day, sleep-deprived and a little woozy in the sun, my friends and I wandered around the grounds of the museum. We settled inside one of the newest pieces in the collection: a repurposed concrete water tank turned into a light installation, by Turrell, called C.A.V.U. For a few brief moments, we were alone in the giant structure, gazing up at its domed ceiling, taking turns standing in the exact middle of the space and making any noise we could just to hear it amplified and reverberating all around us.

Afterwards, Madeline read us quotes from Turrell about his work; in one of them we really liked, he said: “My work is very literal and in that sense very American. It’s not about light—it is light.” I love that distinction.

In trying to find that quote just now, I found another good one:

Many people seek to like what they’re going to see — this is a terrible misunderstanding between artists and viewers. … I don’t think you should have any other expectations than you do when you go to a movie — you go because you are interested. Think about this: we go to the doctor’s office and an hour or so later we’re still reading two-year-old magazines. Despite the wasted time and the fact that it’s going to cost you, you still patiently wait and at the appropriate time remove your clothes, lean back, and completely submit. We submit in a lot of places in our lives. If you can’t submit to art, to hell with you.

That seems as good a goal as any for the week.

Thanks for reading.


(*To be fair, this excludes the performances that my neighbors in D.C., a middle-aged couple two doors down, would put on once a week on their back deck early in the pandemic; he played guitar and banjo and sang the lead, she sang harmonies, they live-streamed it all for their friends on Facebook and all the neighbors would come outside to watch. Basically the highlight of my week every week in the spring and summer of last year.)