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Fiction: I went to the Whitney Biennial & all I got was this poem (Portrait of An-Other Portrait)

By CHRIS CAMPANIONI, MAY 2017

They sell dark brown skin from the bottle. They sell pills that can change your hair color, your eye color, the color of your flesh, on the outside & the inside. & all the water fountains on every floor are no longer working.

The stream flows out for a flash, time enough for you to hold your face close & your mouth open, to gasp air instead of water. I picture the cameras, recording this phantom swallow, this fish-faced kiss, & playing it back on another level, maybe the basement, visible to anyone queuing up for coat check. It could be a part of the Biennial, or it could be shoddy maintenance. We pay enough for this ticket & I don’t mean the price of admission. Every time I go to the Whitney I feel fifteen years younger, & not in a good way.

Online, weeks ago or only hours, I’d read that the best thing that could ever happen to the museum was if a person of color reviewed its seventy-eighth installment of American art. It was the best of times, Charles Dickens once wrote. It was the worst of times.

At night we walk in circles, but I sound better since you cut my throat.

I’ve always been a mix. I’ve always been mixed up. Counting in Spanish or thinking in English & singing happy birthday in Polish until I stopped thinking altogether & only saw words & objects & things in one language. Monochromatic. Presented in Technicolor. What might appear to be a sun-speckled floor actually shows traces of blood, flesh, & excrement. In Cuba, they called abuelo chinito; they called gran tío chardo. It took me awhile to understand what that really meant & by then I had already thought twice about putting my head in the oven too; not about the act itself but what it would feel like at the moment of convection, all the time repeating the axiom hot air rises—doesn’t it? So maybe I would too. 


& meanwhile, in another room: A beach walker, a walking stick, a close-up of a pond or lake, a slow pan through the forest, a slow hold on the breeze. A super cut of a nose, a set of nostrils smelling various things: a tulip, a cheese puff, a woman’s breast. A pause to consider the nipple. A hold for applause that arrives in laughter (unintentional). & during an intensifying drum sequence, the indifferent commentary: Strawberry & vanilla can be extracted from a beaver’s backside.

Shazam didn’t quite catch that & neither did I, wondering still—I mean now, much later, as I sit here or stand up to share this with you & with everyone—where is the emoji for the Liger; the cross-breed between a lion & a tiger, an animal berated in the 3D film for the fact of its hybridity & I’ve never felt so hated; I’ve never felt a beaver’s backside or a stranger’s cheese puff with my nose & I feel as though I’ve never felt anything, or nothing but shame at never having been read my rights.

It aches like a cavity. I thought about calling my dentist. I thought about calling this poem White People Who Mean Well. Sometimes I wonder what it all means. In this scenario “it” is everything.

I got these tickets from the same kind reader who sent me tickets to the MoMA in Death of Art. Like a vampire, I only go to museums when I’m invited in. 

I don’t normally wear spandex to class but I was running. I don’t normally wear spandex to class but I was running late. 

Are we all on the same page? (Look down & toward the margins.) 

“You read Marx better than anyone,” he said, with his hand on my shoulder. “Including Marcuse.”

It’s a common situation where the captions are so much more interesting than the artwork exhibited & still, so much inside of me I’d like to show you. (I’m only quiet on the outside.) & this project is expanding to such great lengths; it’s increasing & growing with such inclusiveness & so am I. & so I am.

The child of two immigrants after all, two people who learned to live by mirroring the behavior of others, & imagining the possibilities of something greater. & this work has to be greater than the last one; it has to be bigger, it has to be more bombastic & electric & expansive, it has to be expanding too fast, too far (it’s good to lose control, to get out of hand, to get lost, to give up, which is another way of saying to surrender; to bow down to it, to better become it & to become it better; I sometimes feel as if these words & feelings will be mine forever).

The more & more interested I get the more & more I have to write about the more & more I write about the more & more interested I get.

If you’re wondering what I haven’t done yet, chances are I’ve done it.

Not only for pleasure but for the need to do it that I do it, by wish I might & by which I might re-claim my hybrid being tonight, & the day before, & all the days I had ever lived in which I didn’t know or had no way of knowing that there was something inside of me that was capable of coming out when I’d felt most silenced, most othered or alone. My online profile says Halfies do it twice as good & whether or not you know it now you know it’s true.

At the Biennial, & everywhere else, everyone is invited to participate, to consider our own position or role, to think about the transitional space of an elevator as a metaphor for other social spaces that are at once public & private, to inquire about the difference between action & gesture & how each might appear suspended in a state of anxiety & alarm. & of course we insist we insist we insist we insist to take pictures. Some say this is the flesh returning back to the world like slices of bologna, which curl up, fold in or on to itself, a bologna which is endeavoring toward masturbation or autoeroticism, a theorized assault on genetic engineering & biotechnology & imperialist exploitation; repulsive but perhaps inevitable. A meat to chew on or choke on; a meat to make love with or to. None of it means anything unless it means too much, & it does, & the situation involves a jar of petroleum jelly, the artist as a kind of copying machine, a very long line, an installation designed to disorient, a spinning video projection with out-of-synch audio (intentional), a wilting voice-over, the window of a moving car, a window into a room I should have never been in, we should have never walked through, a place I can only recall by re-writing it, on the condition of refusing to forget one’s own origins. Didn’t you know.

In England, pharmacists re-fill scripts with a stamp that says, The mixture as before. WM

 

Chris Campanioni

A writer based in New York City, Chris Campanioni writes for a variety of international publications and teaches writing and literature at Pace University and Baruch College

 

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