July 18, 1999 | Infernal
Summer swelter has turned Washington
into an enormous tandoori pot, in which 3-piece suited citizens wilt and
bake unattractively on every street corner. In my stuffy house, the cat
retreats to her cool sanctum under the iron bathtub. When I try to pry her
loose and carry her up to the one air-conditioned room, it only aggravates
her heat-addled emotional state. I know how she feels, and I'm not even
encased in a furry coat. Again I'm gladdened at the perks of running my
own little company, namely that I can pass my working hours in shorts and
a t-shirt. I look out the windows at people trying to maintain their professional
composure while rivulets of sweat run down the backs of their necks and
stain half-circles under their armpits. It is an ugly day to be powerful,
and imprisoned in the trappings of power.
Appropriately, I spent a few minutes flipping idly through an illustrated version of Dante's Inferno that once belonged to Susan's dad. Mostly I just looked at the pictures of the punished denizens of Hell, and then went back through the text to discover what they'd done to deserve such mistreatment. One tortured soul was depicted with a slit running from his chin to crotch, opening his skin with his entrails falling out. I was disturbed to note, on locating the relevant passage, that this was Mohammed, founder of Islam. Condemned to eternal damnation for causing schisms in the One True Church, he and his henchman are perpetually split open and then sealed up again for operative divine justice. Elsewhere, the souls of people who died for love fly around in a maelstrom, swooping around endlessly, ever out of reach of their earthly lovers. They remind me of ping pong balls in a giant lottery machine.
All this strikes me as monstrously unfair, but I suppose a Hell without nastiness just isn't much of a Hell at all.
Dante's Hell sounds a lot like "fear-based education" a term often applied to certain kinds of sex-ed programs in schools. Some sexuality educators believe that the most effective way help kids make the best decision about having sex (i.e. not to do it) is to terrify them with graphic images of genitalia infected with horrific flesh-eating sexually-transmitted diseases. Research suggests that most such methods don't work very well. I don't know why, but my own experience suggests that when one is experiencing the first adolescent joys of getting naked with a happy partner, ugliness is the farthest thing from one's mind.
Inferno is all about fear-based education, revealing in vivid detail the various punishments any of us can expect for our current transgressions. It's irritating because it suggests that righteous behavior is motivated in part by fear of negative consequences, rather than more lofty aspirations for do-gooding. When we're assured automatic punishment for offenses, it denies us the knowledge that we did the right thing for the right reason. Doesn't the motivation count, or is God the scientist only interested in measurable behaviors?
Sunday was another news-hyped "code red" climate day, in which heat and humidity conspired to cause normal citizens to burst into flames. Streets were liquefying and swallowing up entire Nissan Maximas full of terrified tourists. Susan and I went to the Hirshhorn museum, which is not only stocked with loads of 20th century art, but refrigerated to meat-locker temperature. I love the museum's art, because the tremendous variety of works means that one can't possibly like or appreciate ever piece. I am free to enjoy what I like, ponder what challenges me, and mock what I find moronic. There's no yellow varnish of history lathered thick on the paintings, telling you that this art is Great and Timeless and You Clearly Just Don't Get It. I can blow through one room at a near-sprint and spend twenty minutes splayed out on the squooshy sofa before a big canvas in the next. To say that it's like shopping is to invoke a comparison that works on several levels, not all of them very flattering or ideal. But there's loads to ogle, and it's all so pleasantly air conditioned that you can get goosebumps in front of even the least inspiring artworks.
I was particularly enamored of an installation called Video Flag, by Nam June Paik, which confronts you as you get off the escalators to the third floor. A bank of humming monitors presents images running at fast-forward speeds, coalescing into a restlessly shifting image of the American flag. While both this medium and subject matter are fertile ground for clichés, the flickering mosaic effect is done with such eye-scraping intensity that it's almost impossible to tear yourself away. The monitors produce a collective drone that is further mesmerizing. It makes your mind hurt. Susan finally had to drag me away from it.
In part I wanted to visit the museum because looking at art always inspirers me to create some of it myself. The studio-to-be on the third floor of the house is still choked with boxes of my crap from when I moved in, and I'm hoping that the desire will be so overwhelming that I'll be motivated to clean it out, complete the integration of my belongings into our home, and get my ass in gear on the creative front.
In fact, I have a contract of sorts for an actual work -- a praying mantis garden sculpture requisitioned by my mom . I made small progress on my mighty mantis on Saturday, when we went out to a toy store in the burbs and bought a small balsa-wood kit of the insect. It is sadly short of true-to-life -- the underside of the wooden mantis' forelegs are not serrated, for example, where real mantises use their front legs to catch and devour prey. Nonetheless, assembling it might give me some ideas for the design of the final piece. I have in mind a large metal construction of various intersecting planes suggesting the exoskeletal form of the mate-consuming hunters. But first, there's the matter of producing a small version, and then the problems of acquiring the necessary sheets of an appropriate metal (zinc, perhaps), taking a class to relearn welding, procuring an acetylene torch, and constructing my creation without seriously injuring myself or setting fire to the surrounding forest. Finally, given my past modest efforts in sculpture, there are legitimate concerns about whether the creature will fall into exoskeletal pieces when one of the cats rubs up against it. My mom inquired whether the whole project might be more successful if I did something less ambitious in size, like a weather vane. But I'm holding out for the whole insect.