lecture on exhibitions

The images onscreen were fabulist enough to bring about a streaming of consciousness and déjà vu of the intellect-not of the heart-and it turned into a Real Head Trip, as might’ve been said back in the speaker’s heyday…”


by james beach


The lecture hall was a crush for the event Storytelling: History, Myth and Narrative. A strange-smelling mix of aging hippies and other anti-establishment types, powdered and perfumed upper-tier art-lovers, feminists and neo-feminists with their husbands in tow, and patchouli-doused long-haired students in ugly tennis… The generation gap spanned 3 decades and yet the audience gelled and settled as well any place else where the crowd was more bent on the higher mind than on visceral stuff. Even so, stagehands were anxious, darting here and there, pushing through congested areas like the corner pockets and entranceways. Latecomer attendees wanted In: a broken aisle seat was approached several times before a student volunteer taped a sign on it; blond girls snuck through the “standing room only” auditorium entrance alcoves to crouch in the aisles, as if they could hold that pose the lecture hour plus the interactive portion (none of them could, and I saw them leaving midway through); old men standing on the sidelines begrudgingly slid down the walls into seated positions; clusters of vapid-looking youths filled in beneath the lectern until it was realized that the presentation would also be visual, and slides were to be projected, and the youths were all forced to scoot back against a side wall. It might be said that the lecture event possessed all the charismatic hoopla of a genuine Happening, to draw so large a crowd-about 150 wanting to see/hear, while the hall sat 116, officially. After awhile the anticipatory buzz quieted and the emcee picked his way to the lectern to announce the evening’s scheduled guest. Most of the students there were required to go so as to pass their little art classes; the elders were there for either sentimental reasons or their own edification. The lecture series’ theme, described in the pamphlets and brochures scattered on the front tables as well as online, was vaguely-written enough to apply to a dozen very different visiting artists and writers, all of whom helped to “construct our understanding of the world around us and to connect us to our own and others’ histories.” My reason for attending had less to do with the lecture’s theme than on the night’s speaker, who’d been a colleague and longtime friend of my old employer and teacher who recently passed and yet whose spirit lived on through her work, which I was fortunate enough to be editing via a small monthly stipend and which would be published per the author’s wishes post-mortem exactly as she had intended barring minor edits to correct, clarify or make consistent the text, as well as do away with repetitions. Apparently she and this academically valuable woman about to lecture shared similar views on topics pertaining to literature and art, as they are cross-referenced in a handful of history books from the time period, though as I understood it my departed mentor was on a more conservative political track and wanted little to do with the feminist agenda other than gaining recognition as a brilliant author, critic and scholar as a female in a poetry and art world comprised of mostly schooled males. (My mentor, very sign o’ the times, chose to eschew any academic degrees in favor of 8 years of classes at distinguished universities in Manhattan; she taught writing at colleges around the country anyhow.) A man of objectivity, I of course respect either role for an educated woman to take, myself being aware enough to realize that each has its pitfalls, with horrendous suffrage being last century’s slant and the art of femininity being alluring enough to warrant some subservience this new century. But as stated, my decision to attend was based on my editing work and homage to the dead, and I wasn’t there on a judgmental or even an investigative level. Instead I WAS THERE… Our guest speaker took the stand and began her steady sermon, looking matronly yet accessible, knowledgeable yet young, maybe 20 years the junior of my late mentor, showing none of the frailty as she read from her published writings, clicked through her slideshow with a corded device. The rap was on the aesthetics and symbolism of simplicity, the significance of appreciating unspoilt land and space, the raw power in the understated, or something to do with these themes-with the large crowd it was difficult to hear every phrase; concentrating on her was a challenge. I heard her mention Fluxus at one point but lost the thread… Because of the way the rear wall curved behind the last row of seats, and the portal in which I sat being open to the auditorium near the ceiling and along both its horn-shaped auditorium entrances, the acoustics were better in the lobby… I wandered out there where 3 student volunteers flirtatiously simpered-all girls, quite pretty of face and yet all of them rejected from the Model Life due to height, weight or some other type of proportional problem. They posed casually and close-mindedly round the brochure and ticket tables. Perhaps resentful or confused over making art a career, the girls looked mischievous and artsy despite the youthful quasi-sophistication and competence they liked to portend; I strayed back to the entranceway where I could view the slides though only partly hear the prolix speech. The images onscreen were fabulist enough to bring about a streaming of consciousness and déjà vu of the intellect-not of the heart-and it turned into a Real Head Trip, as might’ve been said back in the speaker’s heyday. All during it reality felt ordinary, as inspiring of creation as of ennui. Almost a droning, the intermittent pitch of the speaker, the slow-to-dissolve photos above: the élan rural and primitive, rustic landscapes and unpretentious dwellings and rusty American-made vehicles, peopled with the folk an artist might study when attempting to live Off the Grid. One startling shot was of a millennia-old petroglyph in northern New Mexico, etched in basalt, that resembled a flying saucer, with antennae; the artist-speaker did not comment on it, but spoke in circles about the Native American ancestors of the prehistoric people who drew it… Pop! It was in the midst of some of this revelry that I saw the incandescent pop of a camera flash. Then another, and another lit the tiny alcove at the head of the entranceway. After a bit I turned and saw one of the volunteers prepping for another shot, brown-stocking’d knees below her black babydoll dress pressed awkwardly together, heeled canvas tennies giving her that lift, dark curly hair brushed back from the digital camera lens held by both pudgy hands. That she’d smiled sweetly and waved me through without requesting payment at 5:59 (because there were no seats available, I thought, though possibly she found me attractive or likeable in some other way) came as a surprise because it became apparent within a few seconds that she was shooting pictures of me and not the speaker. The other volunteers modeled formality behind her by the oversized exit doors, inexpertly hiding their giggles with pursed lips or fidgety fingers. Had it been photos of my face or even any other part of my anatomy than the back of my head I might’ve been flattered, or at least interested in her as a paparazzi artist-once I knew what she was up to I swallowed my upset, not wanting to upstage or disrespect the lecturer with any rebuff. See, the girl and her cohorts were amused by the injury I’d received about a month back, from a climbing slip-up on a steep flow of busted lava rock; the scab had healed and flaked off, yet the skin scraped clean by the bed of basalt was still pink, temporarily scarred in a thin line across the back of the neck with another line running perpendicular and disappearing into my nape. An odd injury, to say the least, and yet what with the alien energy imbued in the basalt I thought it an apt design for a trespasser on their rocks… Anyway, was the volunteer sending my unauthorized pics directly to a social network? Her thumbs worked the camera phone like a game paddle. So much for a revival of the 1960s… this was not love, but a gimmick… After a moment I politely asked the overfed glam girl if she wanted an unobstructed view of the speaker, and she accepted my invite, pretty face stretched wide in a smile she herself was unable to fathom as antithetical. (Maybe she liked me after all?) The lecture on exhibitions became then a metaphorical diatribe on the fragmentation of humanity into individuals. No intermission here! No breaks to catch your breath. After I stepped aside I watched the volunteer take a few official event pictures, the old woman in the lens looking strangely tiny and pathetic at the lectern, a curiosity amongst celebrity, her carefully spoken words lost amid the mechanical dazzle and whir of the moment.

Originally published:
Issue Sixty-Five
January 2013


(illustration: dee sunshine)

James Beach’s maverick online project WOOD COIN is nearly complete. Some of his essays, poems & fiction can be found at esoteric magazines Antique Children, Danse Macabre, Mad Hatters’ Review, Medulla Review, Paraphilia. More from James Beach can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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