But I also found this work by Jeff Wall:
I had gone to the museum for the obvious death and literary resonance of the first photo, but, in person, I became enamored of the second. The artists have a similar appeal: staged photographs presented as transparencies in light boxes. The replications here don’t do these images justice. The light boxes really change everything. Those sea urchins and starfish mounding the walls of the grave are vivid and shocking in person.
The Flooded Grave and the story it told were so much more subtle than Ophelia. It was more subversive. Here was this grave you’d automatically associate with death, and it was full of appalling life.
That life would go on was harder to think about than that life could end.
It’s strange that this is the photo that introduced me to Jeff Wall. So much of his work plays with the presence of the human. He makes images that live halfway between a snapshot of something no one was meant to see and something intentional, carefully composed film stills. When viewed in their light boxes, they shine at you. The images feel like something horrible on a sunny day.
I saw these images right around the time I started writing, and so it seems silly not to find connections. The same impulse that drew me to these, was wanting to start stringing words together to say something. These images are spooky and lively. They create a truth that reality can’t show on its own.
When I write I use images as shots of energy. Don’t know what comes next? Look at an image. Probably it has something to tell you. All the better if it’s a lie.
In 2005, I started working on a novel. I got about three quarters of the way through a draft, and wasn’t sure what to do, so I started flipping through art books at the library and I found this image:
The photo catapulted me to a solution. I knew what else had to be written and what would need to be rearranged. I understood why I’d been so off balance. I needed to move the center.
This photo was another Jeff Wall without a human being in it. What’s left behind in the image is like the shed skin of a snake. Or it’s like you can tell something hungry was there, but they couldn’t find food. Or it’s like you can see that nothing in this room mattered as much as whatever destroyed it.
So much of Jeff Wall’s work contains human life, but the real surprise is when he takes the human being out of the picture. You can still smell that animal in the air.
While I worked on the next draft, I started looking at old still lifes.
They all seemed focused on a gluttony that was closely related or even a stand-in for desire. I became obsessed with the slaughtered animals hung or laid out in the scenes. They may be limp, but they struck me as anything but still. In van Ryck’s Kitchen Scene, an ugly man tears into an apple alone, while across the room, a woman fends off a plaintive, lecherous-seeming beggar. The woman is hoisting a leg of mutton, and, if you look for the beggar’s hand, you’ll find it caressing the meat.
The laid table, rather than the kitchen or market scene, lacks the gore, but still appears somehow lewd. It’s an opulence and concentration that’s only needed when someone’s trying to prove they’re alive. And why would you need to prove such a thing if you didn’t think that you might be dead?
Desks, too, can evidence a gourmandizing of a different sort, a similar unrest, an urge to gobble everything up.
I think of the way we misunderstand vomitoriums, of people filling themselves and then purging so they can load up again. In reality, vomitoriums were just additional exits for a theater full of patrons to quickly leave after a performance, “spewing forth.”
I think of the way a train car fills itself up with warm bodies breathing and pulsing at each stop, only to flush them out when the doors open again. I think about how many times I’ve had to step off a train before I get to where I’m going because I’ve felt certain I might pass out.
Even flowers can be nauseating, gorey, violent.
An image like this can suffocate you. It can make you feel like it’s pulling something too large up from your groin and out your throat.
Looking at these images of objects—for that’s what an animal, a flower, a human being becomes once they’ve stopped living—I focus on all that still buzzes and decays and adds up. This new obsession is what carried me through to finish the novel.
What does it feel like to want to look at something that makes you ill?
Where does the impulse come from to stare straight at a thing that’s begging you to look away?
Looking at something dead, reminds us of life. Grief exists not just because something has ended, but because everything else continues to go on.