Monday, July 25, 2011

A Bodiless Doll

Surviving outside through all kinds of weather, the doll head lost its hat and went bald. Little holes stipple the scalp where brittle hair had been. The face is dotted with extremophile mold that metabolizes rubber and plastic. Impaled on a short metal pipe staking up a young Satsuma tree, the neck sprouts two branches that gesture like nyad arms. Maybe the wide-open blue eyes and fixed smile will have eroded away twenty or thirty years from now. Meanwhile, it gazes around Ephemerata Gardens, mana from Smut Putt Heaven.

Scott Stevens gave us the head as a gardenwarming gift. His backyard cactus patch has been filling up with body parts for over fifteen years. A crowd of decaying doll and mannequin heads look in all directions at once. Held up on crutches and metal poles, each is in constant movement, bowing down after rain softens the soil or leaning back to contemplate sky and cosmos. Scott has done the impossible by finding a use for dumpster-dived haircutting academy heads. Decapitated dolls' eyes loll around, staring at their torsos dangling in the pecan tree. As the sun decomposes their polymer chains, plastic crackles into branching patterns like leaf veins or rivers. Fungus and mold spread across the humanoid faces – states of decay that look abject, but are profoundly non-violent. They are the material world’s slow unraveling, given time and visibility. Smut Putt Heaven (a.k.a. “Holiness Church of Wonders and Signs Following”) is a retirement home where decapitated heads and headless bodies can decay in peace. A kind of slow, roundabout way to heal decapitation by letting it dissolve into the landscape.

With fellow yardist Robert Mace, Scott Stevens organized the annual Austin Art Yard Tour in 2010 -- the first full-fledged micro-touristic manifestation of the City of Living Garbage! The Cathedral of Junk was closed by code enforcement at the time. The tour featured a dozen art environments that transform urban waste into otherworldly landscape patches. The 2011 tour featured over twenty sites like a South Austin bridge mosaiced by Stefanie Distefiano and Florence Ponziano’s house, where neighborhood kids gather. Each art environment is held together with signature items of living garbage (be they blue bottles, rusty machine parts, bowling balls, or bones), giving the impression that if every yard was an art yard, there would be no landfill. Scott never misses a chance to encourage people to “start your own art yard.” The tour is a major vector point for an infectious aesthetic, growing every year as tourists become yardists.

Some people see Smut Putt’s decaying heads and doll parts, and start to wonder ... is my neighbor a serial killer? After all, in one of Scott’s favorite movies, Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, the Mansonesque family has doll heads nailed all over their porch. Scott’s Heaven is other people’s idea of a horror show. His xeno-erotic paintings parade out of the living room gallery into the yard. Lately Scott has taken to painting cast-off ironing boards, starting with a larger-than-life Alice Cooper face. One of his signature Keyhole Girls lives on a hackberry log. Scott also hand-letters signs like the one at the backyard’s entry gate listing Sunday open hours. PRAY, says a painted shovel leading to the “Inner Sanctum,” a little brick sitting area hidden by cacti taller than people where orb weaver spiders, anoles and skinks, and stray kittens live.

You can pray for certain kinds of junk. Scott is a firm believer in attracting things by holding them in mind. “Whenever I needed something for my yard it would appear at the thrift store dumpster or elsewhere, almost like magic.” Yard art supplies materialize on the side of the road: “The pole lamps are bread and butter building supplies, the metal post plugs are perfect armatures for totem poles, the iron board (solid, no mesh) is great for painting on, and the curtain rod is screaming for a doll head to be put on it.” Keeping something in mind is a mode of attention to the world that makes things jump out, like when you learn a new word and suddenly read and hear it everywhere. This manner of following signs – selective scavenging – is best done riding a bike around the neighborhood on large trash day in a state of readiness to haul off good junk at a moment’s notice. This is one of the secret powers cultivated by yardists: an intuitive alignment or resonance between the world as it is and a desired world to be.

Methods of praying also include painting, yard work, digging out caliche, building garden borders with half-buried bottles, and assembling the plastic bottle cap snakes that festoon the pecan tree. Smut Putt Heaven got its start as a kind of playful therapeutic process around the time Scott stopped drinking. Working in the yard derails the mind from a boringly repetitive job or worries about friends’ troubles and loved ones’ health. Like other gardening practices, cultivating art yards pulls people into relationships with places that need them. Tending the yard is a way to “still and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences” through creative labor.*

Some visitors pick up on these therapeutic qualities and encounter Smut Putt Heaven not as a yard stuck in Halloween, but as a "healing machine," a deeply peaceful place resonant with mysterious energy. For around thirty years, Emory Blagdon experimented with what he called his Healing Machine in a dirt-floored workshop on the family farm in Nebraska. Live currents of electricity charged intricate assemblages cluttering the room: hundreds of scrap wire mobiles, geometric paintings stacked like voltaic battery cells, and jars of chemical elements that toned the electricity with particular healing qualities. Visitors could sense “a tickling in your hair ... like electricity going through you; you could feel it.” Some described the spatial warping peculiar to this “panorama – even though it was a small room – it looked like a vast panorama.” Others experienced an atmosphere as different as water is from air: “you must adjust from the terrestrial to the underwater silence, light; the shock of entering another realm.”**

Where tourists experience such art environments as novel, panoramic DIYsneylands, the yardist encounters vastness – the universe in a quarter acre, swirling with ethereal beings and inhuman forces, magnetizing the right junk to the scene. As Scott puts it, “I feel most in tune with the universe when building something in my yard.” Tuning in to the universe like this, something happens to the perception of time. Just as art yards warp huge panoramas of alien worlds into tiny spaces, moments can turn into eternity. It is the same timeless-time that Scott describes as bike time:
Sometimes when I go riding my bike time is totally elastic. I think I’ve been out for an hour...but the computer says 35 minutes. All of a sudden two miles have gone that I have no memory of. I am thought. It’s not as if I am solving some great personal problem... my mind is empty. Is this akin to meditation?***
A way to pray? Why does turning into a cyborg connected to a shovel or bike induce this sense of timelessness? Computer time, being on the clock, and “time is money” are just as invested in cyborg body parts. Perhaps it is purposelessness that helps eternity slip into time. Rhythms of peddling and coasting, not rushing to a destination but biking just to bike. Stopping to pick through roadside piles. Building something in the yard, working and resting at the same time. No grand plan directs future development. Puzzling together pieces of junk, lost in thought, mind empties and forms assemble themselves. Everything just happens.

One thing that happened is that the single mullein plant Scott gave us went to seed, and now every spring babies sprout up. The second year they turn into tall Mullein People with yellow flowered stalks that make thousands of tiny seeds. One year they migrate out of our landscape patch into neighboring yards. If you need cough medicine, harvest a baby, dry the leaves, and mix with dry mint to make tea.

* John Cage, paraphrasing the Indian musician Gira Sarabhai in an autobiographical statement. Cage expanded musical expression by experimenting with silence, methods of chance composition, and openness to unintended sounds in order to generate contemplative modes of attention in composer/musician/audience.

** Quoted in Leslie Umberger, “Earthly Power.” Raw Vision 59 (2007): 22-29. In 1986, Blagdon died of cancer that had gone undiagnosed for ten years. Art preservationists working under the Kohler Foundation disassembled the Healing Machine from the workshop, uprooting the interconnected mobiles and paintings to climate-controlled storage and occasional exhibition in a gallery. Other parts were sold to collectors. Outsider art historian Leslie Umberger recognizes that the Machine’s components “were not meant to be gazed at or contemplated – they were meant to function.” The emergent powers of the atmosphere did not emanate from any particular part. Now that the disassembled fragments are frozen in time for future gazing and contemplation, can they still heal us?

***Scott Stevens, "Elastic Time on a Bicycle," Kickapoo's Myspace Blog, March 8, 20-09,!/26690280/blog/475448844.


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