ON "TRACE"

11/19/2017

 
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Last week the board at the museum I work for approved the purchase of Ai Weiwei’s Trace. A work comprised of nearly 1.2 million LEGO pieces, built by volunteers in both Beijing and the Bay Area, depicting pixelated portraits of 176 prisoners of conscience from around the world. Many of these prisoners are still incarcerated. Some have died while in prison, others have been disappeared into obscurity. Some were teens and children when they were arrested, others quite senior. Some we recognize readily, the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Chelsea Manning portraits readily come to mind. Others have names I am learning to pronounce and histories I am beginning to understand. The work feels important, timely in the way that it speaks to current political issues both domestic and abroad. That Weiwei created this large-scale site-specific work while a detainee of the state, conceptualized this installation from his Studio in Beijing, specifically for the New Industries Building at Alcatraz, makes it all the more powerful. An artist-as prisoner, making portraits of prisoners, to be displayed in a former prison, which the artist would never be able to visit due to his detainee status.

I saw this work in 2015, and I cried. I walked around the eight different zones of portraits, crouching on the dusty former prison floor attempting to get closer to the work by changing my vantage point. Who were these people? How did they end up as prisoners? How many were women? How many were children? How many had been freed? And how many had died within those walls? Who among them was arrested for something like having a blog, attending a protest, or voicing dissatisfaction with their government? Who among them is like me?

I didn’t view this work alone in 2015. I approached Alcatraz by ferry, the salty wind whipping my hair around my face, standing next to the man I had been dating for two years. He wore his bright orange shorts, I wore a chambray shirt. We stood close to one another for warmth. Neither of us had been to the island before, so we stayed up late the previous night watching Escape from Alcatraz as homework. I was finishing my first year of graduate school that spring, and things felt impossibly exciting and uncertain. In a year, who knows where I would be, what ferry I would be taking to my next destination.

Things were tenuous between us, a tension that had been mounting for a year. Disagreements that led to resentments, resentments that led to squabbles, squabbles that led to drunken fights with broken glass, bruises, and on one occasion, stitches. I carried this secret violence with me, it harnessed itself deep in my marrow, but I wanted to make this work. We were talking about moving in together. I brought him to San Francisco to see something different with me. 

Two months later, longheld suspicions of mine were confirmed: he was cheating on me. I found out while at work in the form of an email from a friend. I heaved into the palm of my hand in the bathroom of the gallery where I worked, splashed water onto my face, straightened my hair and my dress, and returned to my desk. I went to dinner that night at if nothing had happened. But I knew that he was not the guy that I should be building a life with.

Our tumultuous relationship continued for months. I was in a prison of my own making. My journal rapidly filled with play-by-plays of our fights, and documentation of the terrible things he said to me. Comparing the cellulite on my legs to cottage cheese. Telling me he hated me. Resenting me for how long I was taking to complete school. A general dissatisfaction with the color yellow and how it looked against my skin. Put downs so regular and insidious that I began to take them as truths.

We broke up in November, and four months later he moved to New York, settling in with a woman he met while he was still my boyfriend.  We seldom speak, save for a happy birthday text every August and April.

When my museum proposed installing Trace in our second floor galleries, my heart stopped. Seeing its expanse, two years later in a space that I have come to think of as home, a space so distant in time and location from that day on the Rock, I was transported. How could I have known, that a work I would see and love at a time when I was so desperately trying to figure out who I would become and where I would land, would be placed gently at my feet in galleries I have tread hundreds of times? When he told me to hurry up, to graduate so we could leave Chicago on his schedule, I could not have known that I would be packing my own bags with a one way ticket to a life I would build by and for myself. Free from the confinement of a relationship that could have broken me entirely.

I recently finished Ariel Levy’s The Rules Do Not Apply, and a passage on Nora Ephron has stuck with me all week:

“I have a huge number of friends who've managed to change their lives," Ephron told me the first time I interviewed her. "Women way more than men. It's sort of the silver lining of things not being quite fair: It's not as big a deal if you say, 'I'm going to take a salary cut and see if I can be something else . . . a nightclub singer.'" She had changed her own life, transforming herself from a journalist into perhaps the most successful female director in Hollywood, after Carl Bernstein notoriously cheated on her while she was pregnant and their marriage dissolved. {"Everything is copy," she said.)

Ephron was opposed to whining. She told me she did not believe in it."I don't mean that you can't sit at home and feel sorry for yourself - briefly," she said one afternoon when we were sitting on her couch, watching the sun set behind the Chrysler building out her living room window. "But then I think you have to just start typing and do the next thing."

And isn’t that the truth? To just start typing, and do the next thing?

When the decision to acquire Ai Weiwei’s Trace was announced to our staff this week, I felt this primal urge to tell my ex. To let him know how strange and funny the world can be sometimes. How this thing that we did together seems to follow me around. That a work made of millions of small separate parts could come together to make one powerful whole. A whole that was now part of my history, my relationship with the work ever evolving.

He responded with, “ Hope you remembered what it looks like so you can assemble it.”

A joke, a brush off, a reminder of who he is and how far I have come.

He recently got engaged, and felt compelled to fold that information into this dialogue about art and memory. And all I could think was, bullet dodged. I’m still remembering what all of this looks like, assembling the LEGOs that make up this life, into something neither of us could know that day on the ferry with the salt on our lips. And I have to say, it looks a whole lot better from my vantage point.