Sunday, October 19, 2008

Dreams Of Places Close And Far

We arrived at an elegant corner on the eastern side of the San Benito district, where the Hotel Presidente sits just around the corner from the new National Theater, and in between the two is the new Museum of Modern Art. We drove across the black metal gate, greeted by a skinny wrinkled old man holding a thick silver shotgun at his side, who waved at us without enthusiasm and indicated that we should drive on. We moved up a white concrete ramp overgrown with tall green bushes on either side and came to a flat parking lot at the top. My Dad parked the little red car in the wide open lot which was covered in white gravel and unruly green grass. As we walked out of the little car, I noticed the unpainted tall walls in the distance, some covered over with fading half ripped billboards and some left open and vulnerable in their nakedness of red brick and tainted concrete. We walked together towards the wide gray stairway that lead down to the museum. I looked down and saw that the stairway went straight down across three stories, all the way down to street level, where the long tall metal fence separated the museum from the street. There, in the middle of a plaza that stood a few feet from the sidewalk, was a giant stone sculpture that was almost as tall as the building itself. I walked all the way down to the bottom to look at it closely before we entered the museum. My Dad waited above while I fulfilled my explorations.
The sculpture felt like the kind of great heavy stone that I saw by the ocean when I was a kid. It felt titanic, full and complete, beyond questions or hesitations, beyond the reach of time and decay. The great gray stone was carefully sculpted into the shape of many people, all held together at the core and striving forward toward some unknown destiny. The people were thick and heavy, like the stone itself, their legs were like tree trunks, their faces were round and fat like glorious farmers out of a lost dream of endless prosperity. Their bodies and their faces but, most of all, their attitude of fearless striving and unquestionable unity reminded me of the art of the Soviet Union, an art that was meant to communicate the glories of communism and of the united proletariat conquering all challenges with a clean strong face and full muscular bodies. I thought then that I had never seen people like this in El Salvador. I had never seen armies of peasants marching across the fields with sunlit destiny in their eyes. I had never seen naked mothers rushing forward with their babies at their breast, eager to encounter the future with their nipples hard and their long hair flying at their back. I had never seen tall and muscular men trampling the tall bushes of the Salvadorean jungle in their quest for unified glory and power over any fearsome enemies that they might encounter. The people I had seen in El Salvador, specially the peasants, were all skinny and brown and somewhat shy. They walked with their backs arched forward and their eyes low to the ground, looking up and around only to make sure a car wasn’t about to run them over or a thief wasn’t about to take the little bit of money that they had left. Maybe the closest I had seen to this solid bravery was in the eyes of the guerrillas who gave their lives up for a glorious dream of justice that eventually faded into compromises, interviews, books, posters and loud political ads on TV. Maybe in them there had been this unity and this strength, but even they had never marched like this, they had never pulled their heads back and raised their eyes to face the future in the way that these people did. Instead they had found the secret dark passageways of the city, of the mountains and the jungle, where they could conduct a midnight war of attrition and forbidden messages painted on dirty walls. But even if I had never met these strong people of stone, I wished them well, and I felt that their struggle was a good struggle, even if their stone dreams ended where they began, always looking towards the freedom of the street, always ready to take the next step but always maintaining their shape as hard heavy stone and thus never moving. Their beautiful dream was not in any way diminished because of its impossibility. If anything, their dreams of stone made them more beautiful to me and I wished that they would always look up towards the sky and dream of other lands, dream of a time when stone might finally move and they might rush the future together, unified in their stone heart, strong in their stone courage.
Awash in the beauty of hard full nakedness and the pure raw courage at its heart, I walked back up the stairs. There was an event going on inside which involved a lot of loud amplified speaking and a lot of enthusiastic crowd response. I looked through the long windows and saw people dressed in fine pants and white shirts and I saw several computers scattered across white desks and a man walking back and forth on a stage, with a wireless microphone in his hand. As much as I tried, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The echo blurred it into a sonic watercolor that barely managed to convey enthusiasm and some measure of success, emphasized by the responses of the crowd. In the bare hints that the sound gave me, and in the way that the people inside were dressed and in the way that they moved, I could tell that these were the new Salvadoreans, the ones that spoke in a soft polite tone that was taught and learned in the hidden chambers of the international corporations, the ones that had learned to set aside the borrowed dreams of stone and had learned to embrace the dreams of steel, the bright Technicolor hallucinations that flowed continuously from the lands of the north, from New York and Los Angeles and Texas. These people strove to be top executives and arrange difficult deals for their bosses in the stars and look down at the new people below them with disdain and look up at the ones above them with fear and treacherous respect. They wanted a newer car, a newer computer, a newer house and maybe sometimes, a moment to be quiet, just to be able to look back at all of their success and breathe easy because for now, they were safe and satisfied and maybe a new model of Ford or Toyota was about to be released into their land of momentary joy. These loud people in their suits were as different from the Salvadoreans I had seen in the streets and the countryside as the stone people of the sculpture with their long silent stares. As I came to see this, I asked myself: who were these real Salvadoreans and what were their true dreams? Could their ancient visions be truly lost under so many layers of swimsuit billboards and loud honking cars?
We walked into the museum lobby and we left the world of the sun and the street noise and the tall grass clumps and the dirty walls of red brick. Here there was wall to wall carpet and the soft hum of air conditioning and a long counter with fliers and brochures and announcements and a perfect glowing display describing the current show. There were two guards dressed in black pants and white shirts. Each had a gun in a holster. I thought that maybe the gun was a way of subtly saying that here it was safer, here we needed weapons but we didn’t need the thick shotguns of the streets; instead the guards were more like refined military officers and they carried their guns at their sides, ready to face danger if it was necessary but, in the meantime, pushed away from sight. Behind the counter was a dark skinned woman, thin and pretty, with long flowing black hair and strong eyes. She was also dressed in black pants and white shirt, which made her just a little less of a woman and more of a guard. When she talked to us, her voice was cold and her words were memorized. I asked if I could take pictures inside and she said yes, as long as I didn’t use my flash. Then we bought our tickets and we stepped past the open threshold that lead into the museum.
I had been in museums many times before, but living as a ghost as I was today, this museum presented itself to me as a market of individual dreams, a sequence of highly personal chambers recreated in loving detail for a stranger’s eyes to caress, for a stranger’s mind to interpret, for a stranger’s heart to love. These dreams were not the dreams of the great collective as I had seen outside. Instead they were subtle and small and contained, etched in fine colors and tiny kisses of light. I saw the bust of a naked woman that was a castle or a castle that was as if a woman, and I thought that I had been there before, resting on the tower that was her head, sliding down the ramp that was her breast, rummaging in the darkness that was her crotch. I saw a small sculpture of an aquelarre, the savage parties where the witches used to meet to invoke their gods in a tornado of intoxicants, music and sex. I could see myself playing music for these naked figures and I could see myself joining them and I could then remember a time when I had indeed played music for more than one aquelarre, and I had chanted mantrams in people’s ears as they fainted and gasped and I had made a woman into a man so that she could penetrate a man who was a woman and I had danced wildly with the one who would later dance in darkness and sweat with me and I had held hands with tall semi naked men while we circled around sweaty naked women climaxing intensely with every explosion of the insistent beat. I saw a painting of El Cipitio, with a thick long nose and a small twisted yellow stick in his hand and crows flying all around him and I remembered that I had been once to his home and I had tasted of his strange ashes to become as one with him and to recognize him in all his many elusive faces and confusing garbs. One by one, the chambers opened up to me in their glory that masqueraded as art but hid something clearer, purer and harsher. I could almost feel the last movement of the hands as they finished the process of creating and left behind the vibrant corpse that would somehow call the attentive seekers to the forgotten lost paths of the underground world of Xibalba.
We walked down a carpeted ramp and arrived at two large square rooms that held a single complete collection: The Odyssey as etched and brought to life by the work of Marc Chagall. We walked carefully through the whole sequence, the eternal cycle of the hero that leaves home, is successful in war, struggles for years in the treacherous seas and finally comes back to Ithaca and his wife Penelope. The cycle was eternal in that it repeated forever, never quite the same but never truly changing. I saw Odysseus once again fight the Cyclops and boldly say the fateful words: "I am Odysseus", thus bringing upon him years and years of desperate loneliness and heart wrenching struggle. I overheard an old man reading the story and saying "pobrecito" in a soft gentle voice and I felt that this old man knew something about the years of longing. I followed the travels of Odysseus, and saw the demon beasts and the fateful encounters and the great battles and the terrible heartbreak and the mistakes that repeat forever for the greater glory of the endless and the successes that can only be imagined and can never be quite reached by beings that end and begin in dust. I saw the final return of Odysseus to Penelope’s arms and I wondered for a moment if Dilcia was my Penelope because, in Chagall’s drawings, she looked so much like a lost little brown girl that still loved the man that first made her a woman and rushed straight into her heart like a conquering warrior without fear. I quickly realized that this couldn’t be so, for Penelope had waited for as long as Odysseus had traveled and Dilcia instead had flown away as soon as the real journey began. I saw then that I was the Odysseus that is not written of in the story, maybe one of the other warriors that left their island homes to conquer Troy, I was the one that never came back to his lost Ithaca and instead broke past the inherent fear of the mermaids and took them with him on a longer journey that could have no return. Now I wandered the oceans with them, taking its recurring and omnipresent gifts and transforming them into eternalized moments that we may then show to a stranger someday and maybe his mind would caress them and maybe his heart would love them just as my own loved these pieces today. I no longer had an Ithaca to return to. Not in El Salvador, not in Southern California, not in San Francisco, not anywhere in the world of men.
We passed from the eternal individual story of Odysseus to the historic and collective history of El Salvador, as told through individual creations across the years. Here, in the early paintings of the 20th century, I could sense a hint of the lost dreams of the real Salvadoreans, the ones that were so easy to spot walking on the street and yet so difficult to reach and truly understand. A green hill scattered here and there with palm trees and little white houses covered with bright red roofs. A jungle brimming with birds of all colors, their beaks open and in the middle of a song. A naked young woman, with small breasts and curved slender hips, shyly waiting for her lover to cover her in a white sheet. A voluptuous black woman with a thick full ass and pronounced lips, leaning shamelessly naked on a white podium. A man in a white manta shirt and a wide brim hat, his face covered by his loving wife who is kissing him, as he is surrounded by two loving little kids, the boy without a shirt, the girl in a simple pink dress. A woman leaning against a table, falling asleep on a lazy afternoon. As the years progressed, from the 20’s to the 40’s to the 60’s and as the gentle afternoons of love and birds and naked women got shattered by poverty, corruption and greed, the colorful dreams turned into arid nightmares. There was a tall hill of dead and almost dead bodies, looking up at a sky full of dark foreboding clouds. A man whose face had been removed, leaving a yellowish raw being that stared with wide open eyes at hordes of soldiers and crosses and fire and guns. A man with his hands tied up behind his back who was forcefully kicked away by the naked feet of a priest. A skinny poor brown man being violently strangled by a man in a suit whose eyes bulged out in lustful anger and release. All memories of a war that flowered in eagerness and hope and descended into betrayal and disdain at the hands of people that saw profit in pain and whose most secret dreams were covered in fresh warm blood.
On the first wall of the post war period, I saw a piece by Walter Iraheta, the artist who was, but also was not, the boyfriend of Dilcia before me. She had loved him from afar and had offered herself to him in ways that were not too subtle for him to recognize but too truthful for him to embrace. And so she had loved him and maybe he had loved her a little but their lips never pressed together and their tongues never intertwined and he was only her boyfriend across a dirty window in a university classroom in the dying moments of a lost afternoon, when Dilcia was like a shadow and he was like a flash of light that quickly retreats into the distance. The piece that I saw this afternoon on the wall of the museum had a shirtless man standing next to a woman. The woman was naked and her head was bundled up in cloth, hiding her eyes, hiding her mouth, hiding her ears, leaving her blind, deaf and dumb. The man leaned towards her slightly, a wooden flat wheel in his hand. There were foreign bills and foreign text on the sides and diagrams of strange bicycles on the top. It all came together to form a complex unity that vibrated in its obscurity and made the simple figure of the hooded naked woman stand out in high relief. I looked at this complex creation and asked myself if this beautiful female body with her head wrapped up in blinding suffocating cloth was actually Dilcia, the beautiful brown girl that I had known so well, the one that had lived with me for so many years but could never tell when I was serious and when I was joking, the one who loved me beyond reason and now hated me in the same way. In rational terms, it wasn’t Dilcia. It couldn’t be. In lines of logic that fit into each other like an extended puzzle that never ends and burrows forever into the fabric of the infinite, it wasn’t Dilcia. But in the land of dreams and of underground connections that extend under vast territories of fire and ice, in this land maybe it truly was her. In this twilight land where all distinct differences are lines drawn in ocean waves and dream tales blend into each other like translucent spider webs over a perfect blue sky, in this land, I saw Walter as if he was me and I saw myself as Walter, making a piece about another girl that was also Dilcia but had a different past and a different future, and just as Dilcia wanted him but got me, he ended up with her in another body and with another name, and what Dilcia loved in me was also in him, and what Dilcia grew to hate about me was in him as well. I saw then that here he made a piece of art , beautiful, detailed and strong, and he made it for me, across the gulf of the vast unknown abyss, and through this complex and honest creation, he said to her who was not Dilcia what I could never say to the one who was.
I walked through the rest of the post war years, rising to heights of bold uninhibited abstraction, to the lands of pure process where minds communicate with each other without the need of symbol or sign or purpose. In these forms of pure color and texture I felt the most subtle calling of the work that forms the foundation of my entire life. Dreams of childhood, dreams of ideas, dreams of god, dreams of space, dreams of adventure, dreams of dreams that break apart into infinite possibilities only to come together again in impossible knots. The cumulative effect was of a glowing pressing circle of fire in my chest, and it kept on growing as I walked further into the halls of the newest works. Here I saw that all dreams are worth having, the dreams of stone, the dreams of steel, the dreams of naked brown girls and the dreams of love in a room full of sweat and mosquitoes. Their worth is inherent in their existence and their forms are limitless. To create is to push forth a dream out of nothingness, out of experience, out of memory, out of process, out of chaos, out of pure raw life, and to send it forth to spawn new dreams in the beings who will come to touch them. The constant effort must be perfected. The iron discipline must be etched in the evanescent substance of our Beings. Our attention and effort must be constrained in the service of creation. But the creation itself must be as deep and fearsome as the oceans, as open and limitless as the sky. Walking back out of the museum, back into the land of the sun and the unruly grass and the guards with thick shotguns, the tension between these seemingly discordant truths was set aside for a moment and the path ahead was clear, as clear as the shy eyes of a brown naked girl waiting for her lover to help her, as clear as the eternal horizon in the eyes of the people of stone.

Eyes of stone that shine
with solid determination and bottomless hope.

The dreams of stone as they looked out
towards the impossible freedom of the street.

The savage lustful aquelarre of the witches.
The naked woman that is also a castle.
The Great Journey that never ends.Dreams of horns and wings in the midst of fire.

The dreams of returning to Ithaca.Odysseus and Penelope before the Great Journey began.
A naked black woman with her delicious broad hips,
full breasts and a complete lack of shame.

A young shy woman vulnerable in her nakedness.

Dreams of a logic that knows no bounds.
The gift that Walter gave to me
across the great abyss of the unknown.
The naked body of the Dilcia
that was not Dilcia but truly was.

The lost dream of a Dilcia
that would never be found again.

Dreams of the Absolute in its infinite forms.

Dreams of pure beauty in abstraction.

Dreams of pure process that transcends all thought or purpose.

Dreams of music that plays forever and
touches on places yet to be understood.

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