Sun and Smoke

by wjw on July 21, 2021

The other day we meandered down to Belen to view a work by the artist Judy Chicago. She and her husband moved to Belen some years ago and bought an old brick railroad hotel. They live in part of the hotel, and use the rest to store art. (Since Chicago tends to go in for massive installations along the lines of The Dinner Party, they need a lot of room.)

(I might point out that while I live close enough to Belen to share a zip code, I live well out into the country amid the waving fields of alfalfa. So Judy Chicago and I aren’t neighbors or anything.)

Chicago has recently gone in for smoke sculpture, partly as a comment on the sort of (mostly male) artists who sculpt entire landscapes into works of “land art,” shoving dirt around with bulldozers and pouring tons of concrete. Smoke, by contrast, dissipates and leaves no footprint on the earth.

Chicago owns a small gallery in Belen, and the gravel lot in front of the gallery was loaded up with a large array of pyrotechnics. The performance was scheduled for 6:30, then moved to 6:00 out of concern for monsoon weather. We duly arrived on the hot sidewalk at six, and nothing happened. We toured the gallery, but found it hotter than the 90+ degrees outside.

A local wine bar was open, where one could sample and buy Judy Chicago’s bespoke wine. I heard the performance had been delayed for two hours, thought about drinking wine for those hours, and decided against it. If there were tapas, I might have changed my mind.

A strong wind was blowing, and I thought that most of the audience was going to get a lot of smoke in their faces. (In the event, they did.) I presume the delays mostly had to do with hoping the wind would die down, which it didn’t. No one seemed to know quite what was going on, and I wished someone with a bullhorn would come out and tell us what to expect and when. Members of Chicago’s posse wandered around carrying high-end video cameras intended to document the experience. A drone cruised overhead, and there was a flash as it took my picture. Thus was I made immortal.

“We’re on Artist Time,” someone said. “It’s like Indian Time, only more vague.”

With the heat and the delay and nothing to do but get drunk, I got pretty cranky before the event kicked off, nearly two hours late. I stationed myself on the flank of the event, so the smoke would get blown past me and not at me.

Someone came out and lit a fuse, and suddenly there was a rolling series of crackling booms as dozens of red highway flares lit. They had been set up as a rectangle surrounding the larger pyrotechnics, as a kind of delimiting boundary between the event and the rest of us.

Then the big bombs began to go off, hurling yellow and red smoke into the sky. The wind ripped it all away, and much of the audience vanished into the red cloud. The air smelled like fireworks. I have no idea what the sculpture was supposed to look like, all the smoke going straight up into the sky maybe, but what I saw was spectacular and joyous (but then I really love fireworks and blowing stuff up generally). It went on for maybe ten minutes, and then the smoke poured away between the buildings. (Driving home, I followed behind this big cloud of smoke as it traveled over the landscape. Probably my neighbors thought half the town had vanished in a huge explosion.)

Most fireworks shows have some kind of ideological content, from Bonfire Night to Cinco de Mayo to the Fourth of July, and Chicago’s was no different. I reflected that if this were a standard fireworks show, (1) it would have started on time, and (2) would have lasted a lot longer.

Nevertheless it was something unique, especially for the neighborhood, and it was colorful and noisy and fun. In the end, I had good time, but if this happens again, I’ll try to improvise some kind of personal air conditioner.

John F. MacMichael July 22, 2021 at 1:52 am

“We’re on Artist Time,” Kathy said. “It’s like Indian Time, only more vague.”

So true.

Robert M Roman July 24, 2021 at 10:46 am

and personal air conditioners ARE available; i’ve seen them advertised… no improvisation necessary… perhaps next time the event planners could add tapas and bespoke personal air conditioners to the menu.

On the whole, it doesn’t sound like an event i would have enjoyed.

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