CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Slide Turned on End
“Humankind yearns for its amoebaean roots, hence Abstraction.” Pause. Pause. I tapped my forehead to say “I got it all up here,” and O’Hara gave me a pitying look, as if I must be a little dense to take a risk like that with ideas like these.
We were sitting in his home office in Concord, Massachusetts. O’Hara—a biologist by trade—explained his entry into the art world. “I was on my way to a conference on DNA lithography in Illinois, when I got lost. I stopped at an art museum, called the conference directors, and realized that I got the day and time wrong. I missed the damn thing.” O’Hara gave a little shameless smile, acknowledging that brilliant minds are allowed leniency in planning and daily alertness. “So I figured, what the hell, I’ll look around for a bit, I guess. And what I saw there was nothing short of remarkable …” At this point, O’Hara was clearly ready to launch into a dog-eared tale of the humble beginnings of Microaestheticism. It was clear that his enthusiasm for his idea never abated even in repeated retelling. O’Hara, a rather shrunken man in his mid-sixties, was fond of spreading his arms wide to show how wide-reaching his ideas were. He did just this at his opening line: “I saw science and art merge once and for all …”
O’Hara claimed he glanced at a work of abstract art—a Kandinsky, he thinks—and was immediately struck by how similar it was to some of the rare amoebas he was working with at the time. “I thought I was hallucinating. I mean, here was something precisely like what I had under the slide just that morning!” So precise was the resemblance that he thought he had lost his mind. “I nudged this person next to me and said—I mean, I realize how absurd this is now—I said, ‘Is that a blown-up slide of Grayson’s amoeba, I mean, is that the guy’s er … inspiration?’” O’Hara reported that all he got in response was an “I think not” and some advice about brushing up on his art history. O’Hara, however, was sure that he had hit upon something significant. “The more I walked around looking at this so-called abstract art, the more I felt like I was looking at a bunch of blown-up slides turned on end.” He felt certain that there must be some explanation. When he returned to his university, he quickly arranged a sabbatical to study this phenomenon. “I lied to the department. I said I was going to study a new way to extract antibodies from fungi—specifically truffles. There’s no way I would get a sabbatical to look at a bunch of art.” He was clearly pleased at his effortless deception. “Those morons heading up that department haven’t a clue. I used all the truffles they ordered for me to make dinner for a group of art critics.”
Clearly, these truffle dinner parties were a success, because soon O’Hara had created a buzz among art critics. By this point, he had firmed up his idea. “I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves, and our origins—the cells, platelets, and our amoeba ancestors—in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art. We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.” At first blush, this hardly seemed like the type of theory to garner any sort of following. The fact that it did might be more a reflection of the art-world’s permanent scramble for the “new” than a reflection of its merits. Still, O’Hara was prepared for resistance. “Look, I know this theory is hard to accept. We all want to believe that we appreciate art because it’s ‘beautiful’ or somehow or other special and apart from our daily lives. But the fact is we appreciate it because it’s life—only magnified.”
I must have dropped my neutral reportage face because before I knew it, O’Hara was leading me down to his basement, where he housed his “evidence.” “Look at this.” He produced a glossy photo of a striated blob. “This is a virus—the common flu, to be exact. And now look at this.” He now pulled out a reproduction of Paul Klee’s work. “Is that uncanny or what?” There was a slight resemblance of line quality, but uncanny seemed like an overstatement. Always alert to skepticism, O’Hara supplied the explanation. “If that virus was just a hair turned right, and caught during a moment of replication, it would match the Klee painting exactly.” He then produced a Helen Frankenthaler and sighed with relish at how much it reminded him of hemoglobin. “It reminds me of some of my first real moments at the ’scope,” O’Hara reminisced, using a shortened form of “microscope” to indicate both his familiarity with and affection for the device. “We were supposed to find irregularities in rat blood supplies. I remember thinking how beautiful these irregularities looked, even though I knew they indicated hemophilia, and thus the end of the rat.” At this, he gave me a significant look as if he knew he inadvertently linked death and beauty but wanted to leave the implications of that for later. He instead bent down and rifled through more drawers, producing slides, prints, and photos that he laid out in a meticulous display of resemblances. O’Hara went on to compare this who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoa, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.
Microaestheticism may seem, at times, big on evidence but short on implications—of course, comparing abstract art to microorganisms might show similarities, but what does that ultimately mean? Other art critics have criticized O’Hara for creating a theory that cannot be properly applied—once you believe that abstraction is a yearning for our minute origins, what more is there to do or say? O’Hara, still a man of science, bristled overtly at that claim. “Look, I’m a biologist. Everything I do must have an outcome and a methodology. Microaestheticism is no exception. It is, in fact, far more rigorous than anything that passes for a theory in the art world now.” O’Hara quickly brightened at his deft insult of art theory and suggested we go to his lab to see the “practice” of Microaestheticism.
Markus O’Hara’s “lab” is not really a lab at all—after being ousted from his university for the fruitless (at least in traditional biology terms) and fraudulent sabbatical, O’Hara took up with a sympathetic group of critics who used their university ties to secure a space for O’Hara’s research. “No one in the sciences wanted anything to do with me. I was a defector.” Typical of O’Hara, he described all of his rejections as reflections of the small-mindedness and fear of those who turn him away. “They were nervous. I was applying science to the indeterminacy and chaos of art. I was collapsing the walls between them.” He dropped his voice conspiratorially as he explains the deeper reason for their fear. “And you know what? Sometimes I think science is nothing more than maintaining those walls—asserting that it’s not art, not religion, not philosophy. All their work is to prove their separateness. And I want to show science’s connectedness—the places where everything overlaps.”
O’Hara’s allies in art could only provide support from their world, so his lab was a studio before he crudely converted it for his purposes. Extension cords ran willy-nilly over the floor, some connecting to a power source or a device, and others purely aesthetic, serving nothing but the compositional effect of another curving line. Thin wires and small pipes also ran the length of the room, giving the whole place the look of a magnified network of nerves, set aquiver by the latest stimuli. The hub of the lab was centered on a few battered stainless steel tables topped with a line-up of microscopes of differing repair and size. The walls of the space were covered with reproductions of art and tiny pictures of various magnifications of some “bit” with nothing but the captions 200X, 300X, 400X as identification. O’Hara ushered me over to a microscope. “It’s not a fully equipped lab, to be sure. But I have most of what I need. It can be dangerous here, though. To tell you the truth, this space isn’t at all set up for something to go wrong.“ I noticed an emergency shower station in the far corner, but before I could point out that he at least had that for safety’s sake, O’Hara laughed. “That’s not a real shower station. That’s a sculptural piece meant to show how empty our ideas of security are. In fact, if you turn it on, it releases a noxious cloud of pepper spray.” O’Hara seemed unduly delighted at this send-up of a safety measure, something perhaps not worth sending up. He was also unfazed by the possibility of being left with nothing but a safety-parody in a lab crisis. “I think it’s a stunning piece. It’s by Mave Aieka. Heard of her?”
Of course I had heard of her—she was simply the latest in a long line of trend-riding assemblageists. But O’Hara’s name-dropping indicated that he was becoming a full-fledged member of the art world, even as his ties to science become more tenuous. Perhaps sensing that he was treading too far into the art side of things, O’Hara made a show of his expertise at the ’scope. He fiddled with various knobs, putting his face to the eyepiece periodically to check on the adjustment. Sometimes he winced at what I assumed was a blurry image, and other times he smiled slightly, as if a particularly sought-after blob had just reached the proper crispness. Eventually, he said “look” in a hushed tone and gestured toward me, as if the microscope contained something wild and beautiful and capable of being startled away. And what I saw was indeed beautiful. Three organic shapes in sage, azure, and copper undulated into a picture of ever-increasing compositional sophistication. A stringy offshoot produced a pleasing diagonal line, while the greenish blob shifted into a deepening plane. It truly looked like a highly accomplished work of abstract expressionism. But then the forms shifted again, and the image now resembled the mawkish fumbling of a first-year art student, resorting to abstraction not out of passion but out of an inability to master the basics of realism.
O’Hara, with an uncanny ability to preempt my comments, summed up the experience. “I know. It’s beautiful for a moment and then it’s garbage. That’s the problem with organic, living matter. But you want to know what those were under there?” He waited for me to supply the superfluous “what?” while I waited for him to give up and continue without it. We broke down simultaneously, both of us suddenly speaking at once. For a moment O’Hara paused, annoyed, but the thought of his theory, as always, seemed to banish all irritation from his mind. “Those were my own cells you were looking at. My own cells, that is, after visiting the museum.” O’Hara delivered this with a finality that indicated that I should find this as significant as he did. Baffled by what he meant, I merely waited for him to say more. With a slight hand-flutter of impatience, O’Hara elucidated. “You see, I went to the museum, and I swear to the holy higher power that my cells, blood, skin, tissue, the whole bit—became like art after viewing the art. What I’m saying is—and I know this sounds radical—I’m proposing that our organic selves adjust to art. We see the art, and our bits then become the art. Our body recognizes abstraction, and, in turn, competes with it.” O’Hara now seemed to be entering some even stranger theoretical territory than before. Was he just synthesizing a number of clichés and new-agey superstitions into one pithy idea? We’re beautiful on the inside, art is good for the soul, and we’re all unique—all repackaged as Microaestheticism. It began to dawn on me that Microaestheticism, packaged in this way, might have a reach far beyond the gallery or the lab. Was this a ploy to sell the theory, to give it some marketable touchy-feelyness?
O’Hara, however, seemed too sincere and unsavvy for such salesmanship. He was still lost in explaining the before and after appearance of his cells. “They were downright boring before. I mean, they were drab. My skin cells were just beige little irregular chambers, my blood cells were completely uninspired. Even the bacteria in my gut looked hackneyed. They were nothing, nada, sans thing, el nothito.” O’Hara apparently found some amusement in approximating other languages, an unusual quirk for someone of his education. “But afterwards …” He paused to give his customary lovelorn sigh. “They were sublime.”
“Hey—I’ve got an idea.” At once overtaken by manic energy, O’Hara began rummaging through the boxes piled about the studio. As his search intensified, he became less concerned with keeping things orderly. He knocked images off the wall as he rushed by, without even bothering to see what he had unsettled. At one point, he toppled a rickety microscope but merely giggled when it hit the floor. “Mave can have that one,” he said, referring to his sculptress friend. “She’s been planning on creating a ’scope sculpture as a criticism of the fussy, mechanical way gallery-goers see art. She’d love the big lenses on that one.” Finally, in the bottom of what looked like a tackle box, O’Hara’s search ended. “We’ve got to get a blood smear from you,” O’Hara blurted, simultaneously casting me as both a fellow researcher and willing test subject. “It’s perfectly safe.” O’Hara punctuated this by showing me a trio of lancets, still in their sterile wrapping. “I would love, love, love to get a look at your blood. I’m sure it’s spectacular. After all the art you’ve seen …” He virtually shuddered with pleasure at the thought. Both flattered and curious, I held out my arm for him.
“Wait.” He again launched into a search, this time for something he called Ethiphet©. “Where is the goddamn Ethiphy?!” This search, much shorter than the last, quickly produced a vial of absinthe-hued liquid from the recesses of a clearly secondhand file cabinet. “Now just drink this first. It’s a stabilizing agent. Sort of like a coagulant but not quite. What it does is slow the movement of your blood cells so they’ll fix into an image under the slide.” Unconsciously, I had drawn my arms back to my body protectively, the arm formerly offered up now receding behind my back. Another impatient flutter of hands. “For god’s sake, of course it’s safe. It’s sure as hell safer than all the genetically modified food you scarf down without a thought! I’m a biologist. I know the properties of everything in this lab down to the molecule! And I know their effects!” O’Hara’s presumptuousness about my eating habits (scarf?) made me even less inclined to take the “Ethiphy.” “Look. You saw what happened under that slide. The cells shift, the picture’s ruined. Don’t you want to see how beautiful your cells could really look? Who knows? You might be a masterpiece.” O’Hara whispered this last part in my ear, after silently advancing into my space. His voice sounded like a blend of the sexual cajoling one might use to break through a girl’s resistance on prom night, and the low-toned threat of a mob-king.
The old observation about people eventually coming to resemble their pets seems doubly true for theorists and their theories. Wittgenstein was as austere and difficult as his theories, living in a highly ordered home and quick to anger over unintelligible slights. Kierkegaard’s theories were innately paradoxical, much like his sex life: he would woo, woo, woo, and then cut out before consummation. (Some biographers claim to have found evidence that Kierkegaard had a curved penis, which would explain his sexual reticence. Even that deformity could be seen as a metaphor for his ideas.) O’Hara himself, likewise, now seemed just as threatening to me as he claims Microaestheticism is to science. One could speculate that O’Hara wanted a unified front: man and theory, both at the ready to disturb. And finally illuminate.
Ultimately, though, neither O’Hara nor Microaestheticism presented any real danger. Or any real illumination, unfortunately. Microaestheticism may be a pleasant diversion, but it simply stands on too many thresholds to truly enter into theoretical discourse. Part science, part art criticism, part new-age feel-goodism, part old-time alchemy. But in the all: not much. The mainstream art world simply won’t accept that its field is mere inaccurate biology, and, if O’Hara’s old colleagues are any indication, science will simply banish it, not even granting the acknowledgement of a refutation. It seemed harmless enough, then, to follow O’Hara’s instructions, if only to fully experience what will no doubt come to be known as an amusing hiccup in the history of ideas.
The Ethiphet© went down easily, and seemed to have a numbing effect. O’Hara had already deftly pricked the finger by the time I put the vial down. “It works the minute it hits the gullet,” he said, without explaining this improbability, or apologizing for what felt like a pretty rude way to take a blood sample. Wasn’t there a blood-taking etiquette? Unlike someone in the medical profession, who would at least put on an empty show of caring about my well-being (or give some vague comforting comment such as “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”), O’Hara had already moved on, with nary a half-hearted nicety. For lack of a cotton ball or a band-aid, O’Hara absently reached over, without taking his eyes off the lancet, and ripped off a paper towel from a soiled-looking roll. But perhaps O’Hara could be excused (or figured he should be) for all his born-of-distraction boorishness: he was, of course, a man of both science and art, leaving little for the prosaic world of manners, bedside or otherwise.
O’Hara now silently drew the lancet, sheathed thinly with a spread drop of blood, along a slide, then pressed another slide atop it to secure the sample. He slipped the specimen into its proper place under the ’scope lens, securing it with two silver clips. With the herky-jerkyness of someone tired of simply verging on something great, O’Hara nearly leapt to the other side of the table and thrust his head at the eyepiece. He hit it with what looked like enough force to give himself a black eye, yet he didn’t pull back to assess the damage or rub his eyes in chagrined bafflement. Instead, he merely grunted with impatience and reached down to re-affix the slide. Now came another round of ever-so-slight knob spinning, focusing and refocusing. To the untrained observer he appeared to be undoing everything he did, as every knob turn seemed followed by a knob turn of an equal amount in the opposite direction. To O’Hara, though, progress was being made. Soon enough, he chortled and pulled his hands away from either side of the ’scope to free them up for a merry clap of victory. “Come here,” he called, his voice taking on the near-obscene vibrato of intense pleasure. “It’s as beautiful as I had hoped.”
But the trek to the microscope, and the image, seemed suddenly complicated. For one thing, there were suddenly two of everything: two Dr. O’Haras, two battered stainless steel tables, two identical ’scopes. Though disorienting, it certainly had its implications for O’Hara’s work. He probably would benefit from having two selves—one to remain in the science world and one to flee fully into art. Instead, after demoting himself into a dilettantism he would no doubt deny, O’Hara was now little more than a compromised scientist and amateur art critic. And he wasn’t the sort of man who could juggle a dual passion without injury to both. One could argue that in O’Hara’s conception, both art and science suffered. Art, because it is too neatly explained, and science, because it loses its traction in reason.
The whole room now shifted entirely out of focus, as if the whole space was under a giant ’scope, and O’Hara, miscalculating, turned a mammoth knob way too far. It took considerable effort to keep O’Hara in my vision—there was suddenly something indistinct about him. Much like Microaestheticism, which more and more seemed to me a theory only of specifics, lacking a fundamental to give those fine points relevance, O’Hara’s relationship to the space was suddenly unclear. Was he that form inches to my right? Or was he the faded blob still feet away? Groping, like all theories do in their infancy, I reached out for my bearings and apparently collided with the ’scope instead.
“Damnit! I had it perfectly adjusted! Look, this space is just as sacred as any gallery. Same rules apply! Watch what you’re doing; don’t touch without permission,” O’Hara scolded. “This place may not be pretty but there’s serious stuff going on here. You can’t just grab at things willy-nilly.” O’Hara seemed unduly annoyed, as if he had been intuiting my increasing doubts about his theory and his credibility. Perhaps that’s why he elaborated so unnecessarily. “Think about it. What if you just reached out like that in a gallery and knocked over a sculpture?” Leaving me to think about what I had done, O’Hara went back to his adjustment ritual. The knobs turned, a sound not unlike an arthritic joint complaining at having to move once more. Or perhaps that sound was O’Hara’s joints, the soft bone-on-bone groan of a body too often employed in the same tiny gestures. In the absence of any clear visuals, it was impossible to say which. But it was clear where the murmurs of complaint originated. O’Hara’s mutters, theatrically overblown to remind me of the grievous consequences of my conduct, ranged from snarled “damnits” to little whispers on how things had degenerated in the last minute. “Well, there goes the right quadrant,” he said, seeming to address the ’scope in their kindred agony over how out of whack everything had become. But as for O’Hara’s face and movements, they were left up to guesswork. The room remained as undefined as the moment of my transgression.
“All right. It’s as fixed as it’s going to be. Believe me, it’s not nearly as good as it was before, but it’ll at least give you some indication of the quality of post-art-viewing blood.” I advanced toward the sound of O’Hara’s voice gingerly—I had a feeling bumping the ’scope a second time would be more than enough ground to end our contact. As I attempted to round the corner of the steel table to the viewing side, I felt O’Hara’s hand close around my upper arm. “Open your eyes, will you? You were about to bump the table.” O’Hara, one of the few of us blessed enough to believe that everything he does is eye opening, luxuriated in the dual meaning of his directive. “You know … Microaestheticism is all about opening your eyes. It’s about seeing life—and art—in a new and entirely synergistic way.” I stood in front of the scope, unable to decipher where it began or ended, or how far it was from my face. O’Hara, suddenly enthralled at what must be a new thought about his cherished theory, went on, oblivious to my hesitance. “In fact, I see the ’scope itself as a conduit to that new seeing. Unlike the gallery—with its white walls, its wine and cheese corner, its emptiness amplifying every insipid utterance, the ’scope is a quiet and private place.” He paused to let the profundity of that sink in. “And I like that you have to bend down and put your eye to an eyepiece to see a slide. That act … it’s like a literal—or rather—a literalized gesture—or act—of interpretation.” O’Hara, demonstrating the smug habit of rewording his own ideas merely to extend their expression, seemed in no hurry for me to begin this “act.” And all this talk about seeing was providing too obvious an irony in a room now so blurry.
“You know, when you put your eye to the eyepiece, you actually bring your brain closer to the slide, you know, the art. Isn’t that neat? That’s really what you’re doing at the ’scope—getting that thinker right up tight to the art.” Merely to stop O’Hara from continuing down this line of thinking—a line that would no doubt lead to another manic epiphany about the implications of his Big Idea, I asserted my interest in finally seeing what all the fuss was about. “Well, by golly then, put your eye to the ’scope. You don’t need my invitation. That’s the thing about the ’scope. It, by its very mechanism, demands viewer participation. You have to crane down and look. You can’t just stroll through like you can in a gallery. Noooope …” I had a feeling this was meant as some sort of dig—as if O’Hara was implying I had been spoiled by the noncommittal ease of gallery-going. Rather than argue with him—perhaps pointing out that a viewer’s level of engagement had nothing to do with a physical “craning” or lack thereof—I attempted to line up my eye socket with the eyepiece. It was best to let it go. O’Hara was obligated to criticize the art world; otherwise, how could he justify his intrusion? Like many theorists, O’Hara’s zeal was born of a belief that his idea was a long-overdue corrective. And anyone who was presumptuous enough to believe himself capable of remedying both art and science would hardly be distracted by the pinpricks of a single doubter’s logic.
A man of science, such as O’Hara still would tout himself, could probably tell me that looking through the ’scope’s magnified lenses would not correct what had suddenly gone wrong with my vision. Still, once I finally situated my face on the eyepiece, I was startled to see nothing crisper than the general blur everything had become. I tried to tell O’Hara, but I suddenly was too short of breath to speak. Thankful for what he no doubt thought was a silence inviting commentary, O’Hara plowed forward with a fresh thought on his theory.
“You know what would really be great? To have a slide with a viewer’s blood blown up right next to the picture he just saw. So, you have someone look at a Clifford Still—let’s say that big black one. ’Untitled’ something or other. Then, you look at his blood under the slide, take a magnified picture of it, blow it up, and tack it up right there next to the Still painting. I bet the blown-up blood would look like the Still painting, only more advanced. Like the next aesthetic step.” Gasping now, and doubled over in a barely repressed dry heave, I was forced merely to think my protests to this. O’Hara had a different reading of my response.
“Whoa there!” O’Hara reached out, grabbed my arm, and turned me around to face him. “Hey now, calm down. I know it’s shocking to see that level of composition under a slide. Believe me, when I first placed a photo of blown-up intestinal flora next to a Gorky, I had about the same reaction. ’Bout had to breathe into a paper bag, to be frank.” It always baffled me when people announced frankness about matters that demanded neither openness nor caginess. Whether or not he needed a paper bag after epiphany #453—and whether or not he was upfront about that fact or kept it tucked away in euphemism—seemed wildly beside the point as I was overtaken by a new round of heaves. Perhaps, I thought, feeling another contraction of my gut in protest to something likely more potent than any insight I heard today—perhaps O’Hara’s thoughtless recasting of my physical trouble as awe at his idea indicated a larger paradox of great and small minds alike.
There seem to me two types of artists and thinkers. There are those who work under a heavy mantle of self-skepticism, barely able to plow through their own doubt enough to clear any room for their creations. Then, there are those who seem not to acknowledge—or perhaps even sense—any doubts whatsoever. This style of mind sees everything in the world as support for its creations. Even contradictory evidence, detractors, a whole world shouting “this is not so” seem only further proof that the world needs them. Otherwise, why wouldn’t it already believe? Clearly, O’Hara was in the latter category: so romanced by his own thinking that even a totally unconnected phenomenon—such as a retching journalist—registered as a rising cheer for his theory. The problem is that it is hard to know which type of thinker to admire. At first, a skeptic’s wise tempering of his or her own insights seems nobler, as he or she is at least acknowledging all human fallibility. But then the realization hits: both the skeptic and the believer are equally solipsistic, as the extreme nature of both their doubts and convictions can be born of nothing less than a mind untethered by outside reality.
Maybe this was why, even after sitting me down in a swiveling chair, and rushing off to hunt down a paper bag, O’Hara hardly broke stride in his pontificating. “I have in my mind’s eye a new art,” O’Hara shouted from across the room, over the sounds of his own rifling. “Pigments in Petri dishes. Cells on canvas. Diseases exposed to art. Artists exposed to disease.” O’Hara had now returned, and shook out a paper bag inches from my bowed head (bowed, that is, not in reverence of Microaestheticism, but to ward off a wave of nausea and dizziness). “There might be a bit of powder left in this bag, but don’t worry about it.” O’Hara then jammed the bag on my face, kindly leaving it up to me to decide whether to christen it as a hyperventilation bag or a vomit bag. Not wanting to inhale, ingest, or otherwise encounter any more substances of O’Hara’s, I brought up my arms and pushed it away, bringing on a new round of wheezing. “Suit yourself,” O’Hara huffed. “It was just filled with harmless spores.”
Insensitive is surely too mild a term for someone who begins discussing the beauty of disease in the face of true physical agony. But it was the only term I had the energy to supply as O’Hara elucidated his meaning. “See, you expose disease to art, and then check it under a ’scope. Is it more beautiful? Is it trying to outdo the art with its own composition of viruses, bacteria, or malignant cell overgrowth? I bet it is. Conversely, you could also look at the cells of ailing artists. How does the image of their disease size up to the average sufferers? The thing is …” Here, O’Hara lowered his tone, taking the manic lilt from his voice to show how admirably even-handed his consideration of these matters was. “I think we really need to answer these questions before we even consider treating disease with art or contracting disease for art’s sake.” How prudent of you! I badly wanted to quip, but it was a distant third on my list of present wants, after “to breathe” and “to see.”
“Caught your breath yet?” O’Hara asked, in the offhand, rhetorical manner of someone asking if I was enjoying the weather of a perfect day. I opened my mouth to answer in the strenuous negative, but all that resulted was a series of hacking coughs followed by another ominous retch, this one ill-content to remain dry. As matter gurgled and rose up into my mouth, I covered my lips and forced it back down, where it rumbled, prophesizing another uprising. “You, my friend, need to be out of the vicinity of the ’scope when you erupt.” O’Hara seemed to pack another aimless insult in his use of the crude, unsympathetic “erupt” to describe a body’s natural revolt. He grabbed the back of my chair and rolled me to a corner, as if moving a piece of unneeded equipment out of the way. “I was not planning on this when I invited you here, you know. I’m not here to play school nurse.”
Was it that reference to childhood, or something else, that suddenly prompted a montage of my growing up? Though seemingly still conscious, and still focused on the floor with my head bowed, and still slightly swiveling the swivel chair with every fought-down heave, I could suddenly see isolated images of my youth. I saw myself, four or five, finger-painting in a way not intended—delicately, using small parts of each finger for different colors, my fingernail employed as a crude spade to give the picture texture, and me, pausing for minutes at a time in contemplation of my next mark. I saw my art teacher, oblivious, leading me over to a classmate to show me how it’s really done … and this kid, without the slightest plan in his mind, rubbing his entire hand and forearm in each color and slopping the muddy mix on paper, sometimes ripping it, something missing it, and all the while grinning in that its-damn-good-isn’t-it way. So much like O’Hara was that baseless confidence, that idiotic pride in his every expression.
Then I saw myself, about twelve, at the scholastic art fair, jotting down flaws in the works I saw in a little field book. Little Holly Rander’s “Two Faces”? Too baroque! No one’s eyelashes curl to that degree! And Johnny Wiles’s “My Mom, Dad, and Brother”? I remember my pleasure at coming up with: All the sap of Norman Rockwell with none of the skill! Then everything sped up, and it became harder to tell what time period images came from. Some were mere snippets—an exhibition catalogue falling to the floor, a fountain pen presented in a velvet case for a bygone birthday, an artist using the same circular gesticulation over and over to describe his series of tondo paintings, as if I needed his help to visualize “round.” The visions kept coming, and nothing tied them with the present moment except that they were a showcase of a life absent of Microaestheticism, a life where a clear line was drawn between art and science, cells and paint, illness and art-making.
If Markus O’Hara had his way, no life-review hallucinatory episode would ever be without the firm presence of Microaestheticism. A memory of kindergarten would draw up a different method of finger-painting, one which owed a heavy debt to O’Hara and his theory. Kindergarteners would simply rub their bare hands—still with abandon, of course—over a line-up of slides, which they would then look at under a microscope to see what sort of image their skin cells, oil, and perhaps PB&J residue would create. “A more accurately dubbed ‘finger-painting,’” O’Hara would likely say of it. And a scholastic art fair? Maybe, rather than questioning the unearned sentiment of a colored-pencil family portrait, a young critic would comment on a diptych of a cartoon daisy and a few chambers of skin cells arranged to mimic it, pointing out that the resemblance between the two was too obvious to be evocative.
Perhaps that was, after all, the most damning criticism of Microaestheticism. Both the body, with its still inchoate vagaries (ever mocking science), and art, in its untraceable power and inscrutable victories, still largely elude us, and rightfully so. To pin both art and science under a single slide, never allowing them free play in the unknown, is to sacrifice mystery for control. Still, when the vagaries of the body are upon us, when chests contract, when arms go numb, when vision falters, when retching asks for more than mere vomit, seeming to demand that the innards rise up in the throat as well—the mystery, admittedly, can be a bit hard to appreciate. But a critical mystery, I maintain, it nevertheless is. Through the in-and-out flickering that had now become my visual and aural field, I heard O’Hara, and as usual he hardly seemed to second me.
“Mmmm …” O’Hara began. “I think I know exactly what’s going on here. You’ve been skeptical about Microaestheticism this whole time, and now you’ve seen proof —in the image of your own blood nonetheless—of its validity. So you play up a coughing fit to stall until you can think of some clever way to refute it. Not a gracious loser, eh?” Playing up a coughing fit? Of course. No drama exterior to the drama in O’Hara’s own mind could be anything but a ploy. “But I’m used to this stuff. Comes with the territory, as they say. But you are gonna look at the slide again. It’s shifted into an even better composition. There’ll be no denying it then, friend. No denying it then.” His words were followed by a series of what felt like seismic shits, as my movement seemed to occur absent of my volition. “Oopsies,” O’Hara said, as I felt my body hurl forward. “Gotta watch out for these cords. Up you go!” It occurred to me that O’Hara was likely pushing my chair, but when I tried to feel around me, no definitive conclusion could be made on that. “Final stop, ’Scope Terminal. Everybody off.” I felt O’Hara grab me under my armpits and hoist me somewhere, presumably at the ’scope. I opened my mouth again in an attempt to impress upon O’Hara the gravity of my condition, but all that happened was a bubbling up of something bile-like, which I had barely the energy to choke down.
“Look.” I felt O’Hara’s hands at the back of my neck and head, directing me into the proper craning at the ’scope. While he pushed down on the back of my head, presumably to line me up better with the eyepiece, the sudden force caused my legs to slide under me. As I felt myself oozing to the floor, like so much precious substance spilled from a beaker, O’Hara tightened his grip on my head. “Ah-ah-ah … you’re not getting out of this so easily.” At that, he pulled me up, cranium first, and again thrust me at the ’scope. “Look.” O’Hara moved in closer to support me, effectively jamming me between him and the table, while the ’scope served as a balance point for my head. Poised to slip into a floor-bound heap should anything move, I probably looked much like Dali’s seeping clocks, kept only from puddling by their precise arrangement on the crutches. Such an image could double as a representation of theories, like Microaestheticism, that try to balance something as fluid as the sublime on something as rigid as fact.
As O’Hara pushed my head more firmly on the ’scope, my vision finally graduated from intermittent to all black. I was embarrassed to admit that my instinctive interpretation was utterly layman. “I have gone blind,” I thought, falling prey to that stock reading of everything going dark. Not wanting to give O’Hara the satisfaction of pointing out a conventional interpretation (even in my inner monologue), I concentrated until the darkness become something more. Balanced on the scope, I suddenly saw something—a vague form, a patch of lighter dark—emerge from the otherwise consistent field. The image was similar to Ad Reinhardt’s “Black Painting #34,” with a ghost-of-a-form manifesting after enough concentration. It was a brilliant use of subtlety; a subtlety employed so successfully that it became more extreme than a white swath on a black canvas. The thing about blackness is that no one looks at it long enough; viewers assume there’s nothing to see. But forming an image, even the shyest silhouette, in the language of black is more powerful than introducing color because it introduces the idea that there is no absolute saturation. Everything is a study in value.
If only I could have spoken then, I could have reached a tenuous common ground with O’Hara, conceding that what I saw under the slide was indeed spectacular, perhaps calling for a reevaluation of the worth of Microaestheticism, and thus forging a truce in awe. I tried to speak, but all I think I managed was “Blackkkkkkkkk …,” followed by a hot, wet clot spat up against the back of my teeth, which soon occupied all my energy in its gagging-down. O’Hara, still behind me to ensure I was wedged at the scope until I hit an acceptable epiphany about his work, saw this as a good time to make a pun. “Black? Hardly. For an art critic, you certainly have a limited ’palate’ of words! Ha! To me, the real beauty of those cells is their almost utter transparency … Hmmmm … It’s sort of like jellyfish layered upon jellyfish, upon jellyfish …”
“Upon jellyfish”—which sounded like a fit title for a Damien Hirst work, if he were ever prudent enough to keep his titles merely descriptive, and not obliquely interpretive—seemed to ricochet around the room, multiplying and becoming a sort of nonsense mantra, terrifying in both its implications and ultimate meaninglessness. Again, I felt myself sliding into an even worse conventional reading, both philistine and alarmist. I’m blind! I’m dying! But I gamely pulled myself back: Perhaps O’Hara, in a jittery haste, had just left the lens cap on. Perhaps that was the black I was seeing. I swung my head away from the ’scope to test this theory, before O’Hara grabbed my head and pushed me back. “C’mon now. What do you gotta say about this image now? Huh?” In that instant away from the scope, the blackness remained.
Yet it seemed too variously shaded to be blindness, too permeable to be the lens cap, too solid to be the image of my blood cells. It was something else, something that encompassed all those things but committed to none of them fully, or perhaps better said, committed to none of them restrictively. It was a rich overlay on the present moment, a cryptic light-blocking, oppressive, yet aesthetically one-upping every specific—blindness, the lens cap, blood cells—I could dream up as its source. It was, in essence, what art should be, what theory could be—an expanse outside all specifics. O’Hara, likely sensing how beyond him and Microaestheticism I now was, threw his hands up and let me finally fall. In that sweet drift away from the confines of theory to the release of art, I went over and over the options for what the darkness could be, granting, finally, that what it was truly was not as relevant as what it was critically. The blackness had achieved the only triumph to be had in art: an irreproachable ambiguity.
I tried to lift my arm to indicate that I was, in my own highly qualified way, a believer. Perhaps not in Microaestheticism and certainly not in O’Hara, but I did believe in the desire to extend the reach of art—to science, to the body, and beyond. But as I raised my arm in what was meant to be a sort of reverence for the communal enterprise of art-furtherance, my body chose to express this reverence in a far more explosive way. Blood shot from mouth like paint from a stepped-upon tube, my breath drew violently into my lungs, where it sulked, refusing to release itself in an exhale. Worst of all, the glorious blackness before me, with its eloquent language of value, was suddenly shot through by a blinding white light, the kind of impulsive, stupid mark that instantly demotes a painting from masterwork to let’s-get-out-the-gesso-and-start -again. The whiteness expanded, beckoned; like all bad art it was notable only in how blatantly solicitous it was of the viewer. Unlike bad art, however, this swath of white seemed to have the manpower to back it up, and drew me in and away despite myself.
“You mind if I use this stuff as a sample? It’ll save me a lancet.”