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John Ashbery

Posted 12-07-2010 at 07:33 AM by Steve Bucknell
Updated 01-15-2011 at 04:54 PM by Steve Bucknell
Rather than Parmigianino I think of Self by Marc Quinn: the frozen head cast made from his blood. Every five years he repeats the work, taking the blood from his body over a period of five months. The series becomes a testament of his aging and of his worth. The impression it makes is both innocuous and disturbing. We all have a reaction to blood. Its otherness is there to make us “feel something and think something,” he says, but do we? The eyes of the Self are closed as if trying to get some sleep; closed as if trying to forget or trying to remember who we are. The series of self-portraits Rembrandt made, and that Quinn makes reference to in interviews, are more searching: Rembrandt’s black open eyes look upon something unbearable. I feel more comfortable with Quinn’s refrigerated disembodied bloody heads than I do in front of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

Another cold day. Quinn’s Self could nestle happily in my snow-capped hedge, very red against the glittering white. It would still be there the next morning. The garden is solid with frost and ice. The swathe of pebbles around the stepping-stones outside the back door is a permafrost moraine. The blue line in the thermometer on the outside wall sticks all day at three below.

The writing continues: the marks on the page appear as code, notation, record, life-support and self-assembly instruction. I used to think I could ” lack all conviction”, but now I’m not so sure. I feel the intensity of the cold. This otherness is all we have, and all we have to look at and look forward to and learn from. Are we becoming wiser? Are we thinking anything interesting yet? Are we feeling anything at all? I think of the inevitable red silence in the head of that Self, and then think of John Ashbery again, of all the words stuffed into and falling out of his cold pockets, all remembering and whispering and laughing together like the snow, like the stars.


Clear Winter



The space of wrinkled gold where I passed the time
In the bed of December with descending flames
The hedges of the sky erect on the boundaries
And the frozen stars in the air which extinguishes them
My head goes on to the north wind
And the faded colours
The water following the signal
All the bodies recovered in the field of showers
And the faces come back
Before the blue flames of the morning hearth
Around that chain where hands sound
Where eyes shine with the fire of tears
And which circles of hearts cover with a halo
The hard rays broken in the falling evening

Pierre Reverdy. Trans. John Ashbery.
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