Ten of Swords
An assignment on Endingness.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
TS Eliot, The Waste Land
—“Pick a card”.
For the last two and a half years, Dannielle has been working with Tarot as a medium. Along with Sharmistha Ray, both formed the collective, Hilma’s Ghost, focusing on experimental pedagogy through the lens of feminism and spirituality. Lately Dannielle has been using the Tarot deck as an art-making tool.
Workwise, I am in the darkest moment of my year. I do not like to speak about it publicly, because these bourgeois problems of mine are a trifle in comparison with the actual, real tragedies and injustice going on in the world. Notwithstanding, these days I still can’t avoid being overwhelmed, for the very first time literally crossing the days of a wall calendar in my desk hoping that this year will soon come to an end. It is amidst this context when Dannielle extends the card deck for me to pick a card so that she can test out an art activity she is about to present at a workshop.
I pick a card from the deck. It is the Ten of Swords:
“ In the upright or positive light, the ten of swords represents destruction, being pinned down by a multitude of things or situations. The person lying on the ground, defeated and bleeding, may also represent a feeling of hopelessness and being trapped by emotions or mental anguish, since swords represent strife and the mind.
Dark clouds hovering above the person signify despair and a bleak situation. However, upon closer examination of the images in the Rider-Waite card, any death or destruction, like all things, may not be permanent. There is hope in spite of the situation; the golden sky in the distance suggests that the current situation is bad, and things will improve.”
Dannielle then proceeds to tell me her prompt.
“Quickly make 15 art projects about endings.”
I hereby decided to write 15 notes, proposals, and memories, listed below.
This prompt is ironic and weirdly fitting for me, because throughout my entire career I have been interested in endings. In 2005, I published a very inept essay titled “Endingness”, a manifesto of sorts where I attempted to articulate a theory based on our awareness of finitude. Drawing rather arbitrary, and honestly irresponsible relationships (only allowable, I suppose, because this could be construed as an art work and not as functional scholarship) I tried to construct an argument for the artistic impulse as an attempt to preserve that which is unavoidably bound to disappear. I handwrote the book in beeswax tablets in triangular shapes, which could be reaccommodated in whichever way. Ironically, over the years the written words on the beeswax have slowly faded away, making the object a memory of endingness itself. I am glad that the essay has faded away. My interest in finitude, however, has not.
Memory: During those years I was particularly obsessed with an apocryphal story about Acolman, a 16th century Augustinian monastery in the outskirts of Mexico City where one can see some of the earliest frescoes in Mexico, painted around 1600 and covered in whitewash only to be rediscovered during a restoration of the church in 1895. According to the story, which either I misinterpreted or misremember, when the murals were uncovered the echoes of the singing Augustinian monks, which had been “trapped” within the layers of paint, emerged and have been reverberating in the church nave ever since. It fascinated me as a metaphor about the art of memory, and interestingly, about the very ideas about Saint Augustine and the art of memory, of which I made a video piece (thankfully, now also lost and forgotten).
3. Memory: I recall, sometime in the 1990s, seeing a natural history exhibit with a section that featured the recorded mating call of the last bird of its kind.
4. Memory: I vividly recall the last jar of preserves made by my aunt Elena Soiné of Lagos de Moreno, a small city in the state of Jalisco, who passed away in the 1950s. Her house became the Helguera family home, primarily inhabited by my uncle Carlos who retained the majority ownership of the house. He managed to keep almost everything in the house in the exact shape that Aunt Elena had left it, up to the location of every ornamental object in the dining room and the kitchen. She was a prolific maker of jamoncillos (a candy made with milk, cinnamon and sugar), jams and jellies. In the dry, semi-desertic weather of Lagos, everything managed to get perfectly preserved, including the homemade jams she had made. I remember being in the large dining room sometime in the 1980s (this is at least 30 years after aunt Elena had passed away) seeing my uncle Billy holding one of those containers and declaring in his deadpan voice, “and this is the very end of the last jam of Aunt Elena”. It was a simultaneously funny and sad moment for everyone—bittersweet, perhaps, as the very taste of that jam.
5. Proposal: Creating a film screening exclusively of closing credits ( I am certain, but do not have the time to research it, that someone has already thought of this idea and has created a festival exclusively showing end credits).
6. Reference: In Japan, Enneaphobia — the fear of number 9— is common. Nine in Japan is considered an unlucky number because it can be interpreted to mean suffering. The number also symbolizes the nearing of completion of something, but either the inability of reaching it entirely (as in someone dying before completing a full decade or, less dramatic and in academic settings, someone not reaching a full “10” in a grade), or the general anxiety produced by it being the near completion, the ending, of something.
7. Memory: The last sunset I saw before getting on a plane to emigrate from Mexico to the United States, in 1989. I was full of hope and anxiety about my new life. As my aunt drove us to the airport through the Circuito Interior, I remember seeing two office workers at a VIPS restaurant below the overpass, calmly having dinner. I thought about wanting to be them, having an undramatic, boring life, about not having consciousness of my own undramatic life. I hated ambition at that very moment.
8. Proposal: Collaborating with the MIT Lab to create an AI version of myself, with the same defects, idiosyncrasies, syntax and synapse peculiarities (for better or worse) of my brain organized in an algorithmic structure that would allow me/it to continue making works long after I am gone.
9. Reference and Proposal: In 1985, John Cage composed “As Slow as Possible”, a piano piece created that he later adapted to organ. 5 years after his death it was organized to be played continuously for 639 years at the St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt in Germany. In 2020, the composition changed chord for the first time in seven years. It is incumbent upon us to propose a composition to follow this one, to be performed immediately after this one concludes, in 2640.
10. Memory: in 2014, I visited supercentenarian Susannah Mushatt Jones, who happened to live in Brooklyn and was the last person in the world born in the 1800s. She was 115 when I met her, and shortly after became the oldest person in the world. For an exhibition I made a shrine in her honor, with historical objects dating from 1899.
11. Proposal: an installation ( 20 years in the making) about Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato (1858-1922). Castration was a common practice in the Catholic church in Italy in order to ensure that male children with a soprano voice would not reach puberty (and therefore their voice range would not change). The practice, which dates as far back as 400AD, was favored because its physiological effects allowed for larger lungpower and breath capacity in male singers, who would keep a soprano voice supported by an adult body. Moreschi was castrated shortly before the practice was made illegal in 1861 and became the only castrato to ever record his voice. The recordings, which capture him already at the end of his singing career, demonstrate a highly unusual voice; there is a quality of phantasmagoria in it.
12. Memory/Reference: the earliest proto-performance art piece ever made is likely Haydn’s Farewell Symphony of 1772— a protest-piece of sorts by the Austrian composer to gently ask his then-employer, the Hungarian prince Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy , to allow him and his musicians to go home after a long stay at the prince’s summer residence where they had to work every day, away from their families. In the symphony, which lasts about 25 minutes, starts with the whole orchestra but gradually musicians one by one leave the stage, each blowing the candle that lit their score and walking off stage. After the first performance, the prince got the message and let them go home. I staged this symphony in 2005, thanks to convincing the then up-and-coming conductor Alondra de la Parra to perform it with her orchestra along with a piece I had written titled Endingness. The exhibition context reframed the Farewell symphony as performance art, but to this day I am not sure if this was noticed.
13. Reference/Memory: the phonographic recordings of Marie Smith Jones, last speaker of Eyak, and Cristina Calderón, last speaker of Yaghan, that I made at their homes (in Anchorage and Puerto Williams, respectively) in 2006.
14. Memory: In 2003, I visited Sabbathday Lake, Maine, to interview the last Shakers— at the time four people who still continued the Shaker faith. Of those four, one of them left the faith and the other, a pillar of the community, Sister Frances, died in 2017. Only Brother Arnold and sister June remain from a faith that was founded in the 18th century and was in many ways the most successful communistic experiment in the United States— a community that lasted four centuries. In the interview with sister Frances, I asked her about commercial Shaker furniture, to which she, with great precaution as she did not want to offend people of “the world”, that commercial Shaker items “have no faith in them”, and that made the objects different. “Hands to work and hands to od”, is the traditional Shaker precept, which argued that every made object had to be perfect and useful because it was a tribute to God, as well as a one about the unity of urgency and dedication given by faith: “anything you make, make it as if you were going to live for a thousand years, as well as if you were going to die tomorrow.” Because of these principles, sister Frances said, “it is why such beautiful Shaker furniture items remain.”
15. Memory/Proposal: On September 21, 2017 the Village Voice put out its last print issue. I was putting Estela on the school bus that morning and saw the famous red plastic dispenser on the street corner of our house, with Bob Dylan saluting on the cover. Knowing it is a symbol of a vanishing New York City (and of the history of print newspapers) I took 10 copies, knowing that one day I would do a piece with them. I still don’t know what it will be.
If you have any ideas I welcome them. If not, I might ask Dannielle to do a Tarot reading for guidance.
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