In February of 2020, I went to see Portrait of a Lady on Fire with Bobby at Midtown Landmark theater. I have been a fan of Celine Sciamma’s films for about a decade now, and on some now-forgotten day back in 2019 when I heard about her new film, I got excited and couldn’t wait to see it in the theater. I avoided reviews about the film as much as I could. When I was sitting down and watching the film beginning to unfold in the dark theater, I thought, “Here it is, something I have been waiting for since last year. Finally.”
Since last year… Remember “last year?”
Today is December 30, 2020. Perhaps everyone is over it, but it is still one day too early to call 2020 “last year.” By the time this is posted the year 2020 will indeed be “the last year.” Yet it seems to me that no one—I know I can’t—can casually regard the year 2020 as just the “last year.” The year 2020 somehow is prodigious, conspicuously frozen in my memory. I will remember the year 2020 as a monumental, trenchant narrative about how the world was forced to slow down and look, as if caught on virulent fire.
My father used to tell me that if I really wanted to impress someone I like, begin with how I serve 배추김치, pronounced “baechu kimchi,” to them. I am certain now this was his way of telling me he’d like his kimchi served both fresh and, this is important, neatly arranged on the plate. My father always emphasized things like 정성, “jeong seong,” which can mean “sincerity” or “great care” in English, but I always interpreted it as “putting one’s heart into something.” He’d say, “I can see you did put your heart into it” (or not!) just by looking at how I served food, or even watered plants. Maybe I was trying to be dismissive of my father’s crotchet, but back then his claim that he could discern the intangible quality of whether certain food was served with or without love seemed thoroughly inexplicable. 배추, “baechu,” means Napa cabbage in English, but to Koreans, 배추김치 “baechu kimchi” signifies that it is not just any type of kimchi, but the kind that made with the whole or halved head of a Napa cabbage (it’s also known as 포기김치, “pogi kimchi,” “pogi” meaning a head of a vegetable). A staple for almost every meal in Korea, kimchi takes many different flavors and forms, such as kkakdugi (cubed radish kimchi), oi sobagi (cucumber kimchi), gat kimchi (mustard leaf kimchi), dongchimi (radish water kimchi), and many more. One can serve and eat kimchi anyway one wants, but there are ways to serve certain types of kimchi so they are easier to eat and more enjoyable. When one takes a head of fermented cabbage out of the jar, one is handling an organism that is still intact until it is sliced on the cutting board. Koreans say a well-matured head of baechu kimchi is like a sanguine heart, a breathing organism. Because I grew up eating kimchi with almost every meal, I joke that that red might as well be my blood. Imagine carrying a sanguine heart in your hand—a fresh, unsliced head of kimchi, dripping its ruddy juice. You have to be careful not to make a mess while moving it out of the jar to the cutting board, but once sliced, you also have to handle the sliced pieces in a way to keep the layered stuffing between the leaves until placed on the plate. If done right, the slices will reveal the cross-section view of a cabbage head, the sinews inside a sanguine heart. This way, one tastes both the fermented leaves and the stuffing between them. If sliced right, one can pick up the kimchi slices with the stuffing still sitting on or stacked between them, the stuffing giving the peripheral flush of complex flavors—zingy, spicy, and salty—to the sweet juice bursting from the chewed fermented leaves. If I were thoroughly putting my heart into it, according to my father, I’d make my own baechu kimchi, carefully layering cabbage stuffed with spices in clay jars (“dok” in Korean) and burying them underground over the winter, just as we did during my childhood. I have to admit though—I buy baechu kimchi in containers at the Korean market. Alas, the store-bought kimchi often comes already sliced before being packed in the container. It’s not just because I live in Georgia and one perfectly clement, sunny afternoon here in December might over-ferment the winter kimchi buried underground. I also convinced myself that I don’t actually have time to do all that.
Despite the banality, it is true nonetheless—speed vitiates the joy of love. Call it treacly, but my father, a pragmatist, was teaching me something immitigable about love. People diligently pursue something they love. They take time for what they love and ignore the passing time. The joy of love can even obscure reality, the peril of time. My father was right—if I did put my heart into it, it would have manifested itself into something more than just sliced kimchi on a plate. If we love something, then we can see things we once thought not there. In 2020, a lot of things came to a halt due to the pandemic. For many weeks, I sank into quiescence and mental depression. But once freed from the heedless motion of moving forward, I started seeing things I had missed before, with less fear of time being wasted or lost. I used to arrange my experience through the material restrictions of time: “I only have thirty minutes now, but I am sure I will have more time later. This won’t be the last time.” But what if that last time remains the last time?
I am not arguing that love will fix everything. A quixotic, lovelorn self obstinately blind to reality is never the answer, especially at a time of pandemic and political necessity. But again, sometimes it’s not about the solution or the end, but the attitude, the steps we take, the quotidian practices keeping us alive every day. It is about what inspires us to change the way we look at things, to look at something more carefully, as if we were in love, as if it might be the last time. It’s about finding mystery and awe in the things we look at every day and appreciating the moment we are with them. And this kind of looking requires eradicating the familiar and hardened way of looking, even becoming blind to the beliefs that once led us believe that what we saw was all there was. It’s about taking the time to see things that we once arrantly convinced ourselves were not there.
During the shutdown and quarantine period from the second half of March through much of May, I did what I was told to do—stayed in. But work, both writing and painting, became scarce in my daily practice, while time abounded. There was so much time, yet I was nonplussed when faced with a task of re-imagining time without the usual, familiar modifiers and measures such as “plans” or “schedule.” It seemed easier to keep my eyes-closed and snooze. Then on May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd was handcuffed and prostrate on the street, the video of this brutal murder immediately surfacing on Facebook. On June 2, 2020, a few days after the murder of George Floyd and following a week of fervent Black Lives Matter protests inside and outside the U.S. calling for justice for his death, Venita Blackburn’s essay “American Refugee” was published on The Paris Review blog. The following observation opened my eyes: “Forty million unemployed Americans have been given a powerful weapon: time. They have the time, time to see the interchangeability of words essential and expendable.” Lives are not expendable. Lives are essential. Time is essential, too, but only in the context of living. Most people think legacy and history should be venerated in a museum, but often it results from people looking at what’s established as “essential” and “expendable” and finding the ways to correct discrepancies and injustices. People don’t live in museums. We visit museums, and in museums, time does triumph. On the streets, out here, people live or die. I asked myself this question then: “Is art essential or expendable? Or, what makes art essential?”
Blackburn insists, “When people live only to judge the past, the present body is neglected, left to rot. And yet, when they turn fully away from the past, ignoring it entirely, they are subject to incarnations of old traumas. When we carry the past objectively into the present with honesty, our memories become assets.” I don’t want to spoil Portrait of A Lady on Fire for you in case you haven’t seen it (I do recommend it, if not), but I started this rumination with Sciamma’s film for a reason. The quote from Blackburn’s essay is crucial for connecting all the disparate examples I have compiled so far, but I’d like to bring in one more literary example. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Orpheus travels down to the underworld to bring his deceased beloved, Eurydice, back to life. By captivating Hades, the king of the underworld, with his mournful but beautiful song, Orpheus receives permission to leave the underworld with his beloved, but only on one condition: Orpheus should never turn around and look at Eurydice until he makes it back into the world, or it would be the last time he could ever see her alive. You know what happens–Orpheus turns and looks. Why? Out of fear perhaps. Maybe he couldn’t trust what Hades had said. Maybe he wanted to make sure she was really behind him. The question “why did Orpheus turn around?” has inspired many conversations, just like the one central to Sciamma’s film; thousands of years later, people still stir to this allegory of love, art, and memory. But I have a suggestion, too. If my father’s idea is true that putting one’s heart into something allows us to see things that aren’t really there, then why are we so afraid of losing something, not seeing it, being out of sight? Have we really lost them because we are not seeing them with our physical eye? Are they really gone? Is it not there because it’s intangible to you? And most importantly, why wouldn’t we turn around and look at something we care about if when “we carry the past objectively into the present with honesty, our memories become assets”? Why should Orpheus blindly believe what the god said? Why shouldn’t he doubt?
Perhaps he had to look again to refresh his memory. Or to observe his love one more time. Orpheus, the legendary artist, has to look. It is categorical that he looked. Rather than reading it as an allegory of how love is sacrificed for the sake of art, I want us to focus on how it reveals the way an artist should look—how Orpheus chooses to look in spite of the forewarned danger. An artist should question the established facts. They should question and take a second look at any perspective that seems frozen or desensitized. Artists need to take a second, third, even countless looks, not to just emend or rebuild, but to create as many diverse perspectives and narratives as possible. Through their mind’s eye, artists see both what’s there and not there. And perhaps, by seeing what is not there, Orpheus learns to live with the ghost of Eurydice, not with the body that “is neglected, left to rot.” Being led—revived, but still dependent—by Orpheus, who has not yet acknowledged her presence as he is trying to avoid looking at her, Eurydice is trapped in a state of limbo, caught between past and present, unable to exist fully either as the dead or living. The object of one’s gaze is present. It is there, alive, as much as you are, activated by your gaze that also has captured you. It looks back. It’s part of the process and in it, the artist also faces the whisper that echoes from the bottom of their soul—You almost had it, but not quite. Keep looking. So the artist looks again. Art will be expendable if it fails to encourage us to look again. Art is essential when it incites us to do the work of careful observation, to strive to own the gaze that doesn’t cease at the work of art, but sees what’s outside of it, what’s not conspicuously there. In the late spring and summer of 2020, I saw more artists on the street than in their studios. What was happening in the world asked us to turn around and look back. The present supplicated for our reckoning. An artist must be vigilant in their process of observing as much as creating. Those who look at the world this way will not stop fighting for what’s “essential.” For some, what’s essential has always been difficult to sustain because of their racial, gender, political and social identity, with or without the pandemic. Many people I know have been struggling for years to sustain their homes, work places, and communities facing the rapid development and mutation of our city.
“Looking” or “looking at” doesn’t necessarily signify a direction away from oneself. Every look that I initiate begins with where I stand, how I maintain my footing. And no matter how far I try to look, my gaze can’t escape my position. What I see as outside of me is a reflection of what’s inside of me—because I see things that I desire to see. I can be blind to the things I don’t want to see. So if I want to see different things, then I need to change my desire. Isn’t it powerful yet disconcerting, the way we can see or not see?
Since I have now talked about looking back at oneself, I’d like to include a story of a cat named “Jazzy the Mayor” (b. ?—November 26, 2020) to close my desultory story about 2020. Jazzy was a cat famous in our neighborhood, as he had several homes he had marked and visited frequently, and at each one he was recognized and loved. We met Jazzy on our front porch on July 3, 2018, and he really charmed us. In fact, our front porch, protected from the street by a steep hill yet allowing expansive surveillance, became his regular hangout. No one knew when Jazzy was born, but it was obvious that he was getting old, that he had amassed at least fifteen or sixteen years by the year 2020. Almost every day he would show up at our door step as a dapper and lissome grey cat ready for his daily adventures in the neighborhood, and as he grew older he would often spend entire days sleeping in the chair he had claimed as his own while I worked on my computer next to him. But on February 7, 2020, about a month before the quarantine started in March, I noticed that his left eye had gone foggy, shielded with a cloudy film. He had contracted a type of feline eye disease that comes with old age. Eventually, within a few months, Jazzy had lost the other eye, too, as both of his eyes were completely clouded, leaving him unable to use his eyes to navigate. After that, for his safety, his owners kept him indoors. Even though Bobby and I missed him, we were consoled by the fact that he was not out on the road trying to navigate without his sight. Then on the morning of November 21, 2020, I heard a cat yelling at the front door! At first I thought “that can’t be Jazzy,” but I darted to the door, recognizing his voice. It was Jazzy the Mayor! Having escaped his home across the street and several houses up, Jazzy had somehow made it to our front porch again, but I could tell he was frail and exhausted. He was rubbing his head on my hands and looking at me intently with his clouded eyes. This might sound ridiculous, but I saw a creature clearly and desperately trying to see me. I had been thinking he was blind, but in which way? Or was it just me trying to see something invisible? After giving him his favorite food and petting him awhile, recalling all of our wonderful times together, Jazzy was picked up by his owners and safely back in his home. Five days later, on the morning of Thanksgiving, we were told that Jazzy went to sleep in his favorite spot the night before and didn’t wake up the next morning. I do love our pets as best friends, but many people have suffered much greater losses in the pandemic. Whether due to Covid-19 or not, since March of 2020 a lot of people had to deal with seeing the face of death in a way that they were not yet prepared to. In 2020, I think many of us learned that we were blind to the nearness of death tantamount to the consistency of life. If anyone asks me, I am still figuring out how to be consistent and diligent with my practice as an artist. Admittedly, I am afraid of looking too hard, approaching anything too sincerely, because obviously I am afraid of losing them. Love and fear, always together. Do I want to be constantly reminded of the certainty of mortality? But once again, have I lost them because they are not in my sight? I also know if I don’t change my ground, my perspective will not change. And being an artist means to keep looking no matter how it sabotages the current view. Whatever foments the change, microscopic or conspicuous, it begins from my perceiving the exigencies in the sometimes tedious and mundane process of creating, how I approach and take time with what I love. The joy, fear, and pain of love leads us to the reckoning of what is truly essential. Through love we can negotiate with time; we can dream of tricking time to buy into our story, and if compelling, we might even get to steal time. Once we can manipulate time, then perhaps we can palliate the pain of our loss, too. At the dawn of the new year, I am remembering not to neglect or interchange the lessons of the last year with recurring sound bites such as “the new year.” By taking an ardent look into the past, I confront the present with sincerity, carrying the memories that will activate the present moment as if this were the last time.