On the way to my studio by the river, in the very early morning, the grain trucks line up, heaped with a pale sienna load that sends the sparrows hopping and hoping. They bring wheat from eastern Oregon, grown in the rain shadow effect of the Cascade Range, to be shipped around the world. Some truck drivers are also the farmers, wearing overalls like in a children’s book. David, the building maintenance guy at my building calls them rubes and toolies; he has to go out and yell at them not to pee in the dirt while waiting to unload.
My studio sits between the train track and the Willamette River. Ships cross my window in huge black isosceles while on the other side of me are the trains, with a long mournful wail that makes a vagabond of all my intentions to work. But is mine work? What is a working artist? A plumber would never be called “a working plumber.” He’s either employed or unemployed. The farmers come, feed the grain elevators, they return to the farm as quickly as possible, before the sly city parts them from their hard earned cash. The trucks haul their goods, the ships move products across the water and the artists in my building only change the shape of shapes, add and remove colours, chase ideas and concepts making me wonder—is it work?
I am closing my eyes, imagining Tehching Hsieh. He’s a performance artist and even my hero, though we’ve never met. It may be best to never meet heroes, though I met Allen Ginsberg once and he was terrific. Tehching did a performance where he stayed outside for an entire year. Another time he punched a time clock every hour for a year, and took a video each hour he punched in. It meant he couldn’t sleep, or do anything, for longer than an hour. He looks a little crazy in the video and it makes you feel somewhat ashamed to watch him, like those television ads they used to run of starving children and you were the one who had to turn the channel.
Tehching’s works were called “One Year Performances” because each one lasted a year. For one year he lived in a cage. Someone brought him food and emptied his feces. One year he punched the time clock. For a year, he lived outside, never going into any building. Between 1983-1984 he tied himself with a rope to another artist, Linda Montano, whom he barely knew. They ate, slept, worked, and presumably had relationships with other people. There is an iconic photograph of them walking on either side of a train track.
That year, the one of the rope performance, I gave birth to my first child. Was it work? It was effort. Was it art? I was the architect of that moment, though I was not entirely the sole creator. I love my sons more than I love art and even work, which is saying quite a bit.
And during that one year I lived in a kind of cage, because I lived in a body that was confined and I shared what went in and what went out. And for nine months and three, I counted the time each day. I could not hide anywhere I went, my body was public information. I had tied myself willingly to someone I hardly knew. After the One Year performances, Tehching spent a year making art he never showed anyone and then he stopped making art at all (or so he said—that’s what Marcel Duchamp said, and we know how that turned out.)
In the studio, it’s back to work. Tehching, Tehching! The dirty trucks come to life with a roar, ships churn up the white river water and the trains have vanished, the red barrier raised. All work is transitory and invisible, the products out in the world and what is between them runs on parallel tracks, awaiting the train.
Merridawn Duckler is a poet, playwright and prose writer from Portland, Oregon. Recent poetry in TAB: Journal of Poetry and Poetics, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blast Furnace, Zone 3, The Psychoanalytic Review, The Meadow and Really System, forthcoming from Stonecoast Review, The Offing, Rivet, Nerve Lantern, Blue Lyra. She was runner-up for the 2014 poetry residency at the Arizona Poetry Center, judged by Farid Matuk. Her manuscript was a finalist in the 2016 Brooklyn-based Center for Book Arts contest. Recent prose in Poetica and humour in Defenestration. She was a finalist for the 2016 Sozoplo Fiction Fellowship. Her play in verse was in the Emerging Female Playwright Festival of the Manhattan Shakespeare Project. Other plays have been performed in Arizona, California, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Valdez, Alaska. Fellowships/awards include Writers@Work, NEA, Yaddo, Squaw Valley, SLS in St. Petersburg, Russia, Berta Anolic Arts Fellowship to Jerusalem, others. She’s an editor at Narrative and at the international philosophy journal Evental Aesthetics.
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