When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that they would be doing a major exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs, I can’t say that I was overly excited. We’re members there, so I figured that I’d see it eventually, but I wasn’t going to make a special trip for it or anything.
I have to admit that before today, I didn’t know much of Smith beyond her status as the godmother of punk and her seminal 1975 album Horses. Part of my disinterest in her show probably stemmed from the fact that I often don’t trust artists who dabble in other forms of art – actors who put out an album, say, or musicians who try to be novelists. I guess that part of my curmudgeonry is because they don’t have any obligation to be talented in fields other than their own – some label will release David Hasselhoff’s album because he’s David Hasselhoff, not because he’s good. I figured that Patti Smith and her photography had a similar story.
Then today, I scheduled myself two hours of do-something-pleasant time (which is a thing I’m trying to do lately) between 11 and 1. I decided to go down to the AGO, wander through the galleries, and maybe park myself in the members’ lounge (actually several shabby-chic rooms in a Victorian mansion that’s attached to the gallery) and write in my journal. But when I got to the AGO and showed off me membership card and ID to the woman working at the desk, she asked if I’d come to see the members-only preview of Patti Smith’s show. I told her no. She asked me if I wanted to see it. I shrugged and said sure, because I’d already seen just about everything else in the gallery.
Smith’s show was a revelation. After making a tour of the main room, I sat down in one of the comfortable old wooden chairs provided (tastefully arranged on an oriental rug) and started scribbling in my notebook. The first words that I wrote were, “miniature & melancholy & perfect,” which seem like an accurate way of summing up how I felt.
The exhibition is made up of approximately 70 photographs taken with Smith’s vintage Polaroid camera, presented there as gelatin prints, as well as a handful of personal objects, and Equation Daumal, a film Smith directed which was shot on 16mm using Super 8 film.
The room is bare and white, with the rug and chairs occupying the floor space along with a large piece of artwork constructed by Smith. The photographs that line the walls are tiny (as you imagine vintage Polaroids would be) and are displayed in groups of four or five, sometimes with cases full of related objects underneath.
Some of the photographs are self-portraits. Some are of Smith’s children. Most of them, though, can be summed up by this quote by Smith, which is posted on one of the walls:
“I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them.”
Some of the dead are people she knew – Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, the well-known photographer and her one-time partner who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Most of the photographs, however, are of people who inspired her and the various objects they owned.
There’s Herman Hesse’s typewriter. The river Ouse where Virginia Woolfe drowned herself, her pockets full of stones. A stuffed bear belonging to Tolstoy that served to hold calling cards in its outstretched hands. A funeral wreath. William Blake’s grave. Nureyev’s ballet slippers. Virginia Woolfe’s bed. Victor Hugo’s bed. Frida Kahlo’s bed. So many photographs of beds belonging to dead, famous people.
Why beds? I wondered, then realized all the various uses we put them to.
Beds are places where we sleep, yes, and also dream. We fuck in beds. We eat, read, maybe write in bed. Beds are places where we fight with the people we love the most; beds are places where we make up those fights, with whispered reconciliations, skin brushing against soft skin. Sick days are spent in bed, sleeping, Facebooking or watching old movies. Nearly all of us are born in a bed; many of us will die in one, too. Beds are equally places of pleasure and pain, but even more than that, they’re places of transition. Beds are where we make our way in and out of this world, making them a sort symbolic doorway or portal.
There are objects in Smith’s collection, too. Her father’s chipped white bone china mug, a cross that belonged to Mapplethorpe, and a sort of totem Smith made for Brian Jones. There’s a pair of slippers belonging to Pope Benedict XV, the man who canonized Joan of Arc. There’s a stone from the river Ouse.
There’s an entire section devoted to Arthur Rimbaud, photographs of his bed, the path near his house, his grave. There are drawings that Smith has done of Rimbaud, black lines with a few dabs of colour. The large object in the middle of the room is a reconstruction she’s done of the litter Rimbaud designed to carry him 100 miles across Ethiopia, to a place where he could seek medical treatment after falling ill in the jungle.
As I walked around the room, I thought, yes. Yes. I live here. Here, in this grainy black and white land between living and death. I know the holiness that surrounds the grave of a painter or poet that you love. I know the happiness of holding an object that someone I love once cupped in their hands. I know this place. I live here.
The whole exhibit was a sort of communion with the dead. It was about the ways we connect with those we’ve loved and lost, through sight, through touch. It was a reminder that love still exists, even after death. And what do you do with all that leftover love, the heart-searing shit that’s left behind when you lose someone you care about? What do you do with the love you have for a poet or painter or musician who has greatly inspired you but died long before you were born?
You channel it into something, even someone else, I suppose. You put it into your own art, or your work, whatever it is, or into your children or your lovers or your friends. Or else maybe you waste it, let it drain out of you, use it to feed your loneliness.
I’ve been thinking all afternoon of the things that I have that once belonged to people who are now dead. My names, for a start – Annie, after my great-grandfather’s sister who died of tuberculosis when she was 16, and Rebecca, from my mother’s beloved Nana Kelley. I have a scarf that belonged to my Grampy, an old wool plaid affair that’s looking rather moth-eaten these days. I have my grandmother’s father’s Latin grammar book. I have a photograph of my Poppa in his RCAF uniform from when he served in WWII. I have a letter that my father’s grandmother sent to my mother when she was pregnant with me, a note that has my great-grandmother’s name, the date and “Halifax City” written neatly in the upper right-hand corner.
I have things that belonged to people I’ve never known, too . A blue vintage dress printed with purple and orange flowers. An American 1st edition of Camus’ The Outsider. My antique engagement ring. I have all the words of the dead that line the walls of my living room, shelf upon shelf of well-loved books. I am surrounded by the dead.
I still feel breathless, almost light-headed, even several hours after seeing the exhibit. I wish that I had sufficient words to explain how it affected me, but every sentence in this post, though carefully and meticulously constructed, somehow seems flat and emotionless.
I can tell you this: it was lovely. You should see it. And then you should sit down, and think of your beloved dead.