Saturday, September 6, 2008

the man who talked to sculpture

In the winter of the year 2000, working huddled over a spaceheater in a cramped, closetlike room, I built a sculpture of enormous power.
Inspired in part by images I had seen in art history by 16th century painter Giuseppe Archimbaldo, the idea was to create a human being completely from dolls.
I started with the hands, based on a discovery I'd made that the breasts on Barbie dolls mimic knuckles quite believably.
The figure was basically lifesize, and given the size restrictions in my studio, I decided to make it from the midriff up, like an odd bust. It was my futile attempt to completely exhaust an abundance of dolls that I'd inherited from another artist. The entire structure was dolls, pierced and stitched together with zip ties.
Instantly upon completion, I became aware of the power the dollman possessed. Nobody could look at him without having a strong, intense reaction. Most people were freaked out, but others thought he was cool. My theory was that the reaction was determined mostly by the relationship the viewer had held with dolls in their youth, whether they played with or tortured them. In any event, it made people blurt something out loud whenever it was seen. As an artist, this is a difficult and coveted reaction to induce, a powerful reaction.
Five years later and a thousand miles away, the dollman would find himself behind the bar of a joint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The place was new, the beers were cheap, and a friend of mine was the manager. Having this sculpture installed there generated great buzz. I used to post photos of him on Craigslist saying "have you seen this guy?" with an ad for the bar. Business boomed because of him, and peoples' jaws would drop when they found out I was the artist responsible.
A local man, Puerto Rican, and probably in his 40's, became close friends with the dollman. They would spend hours, night after night, staring at one another, holding hands, and sharing secrets unspeakable with all others. He had a large scar on one side of his face, caused by an iron his mother had pressed there when he was a child. Everything about him was deeply tragic. The guys he hung out with had known him his whole life, and they'd always treated him like crap. They made him do things for them constantly, and relentlessly abused him verbally, telling him to shut up every time he said something out loud. Apparently he'd been homeless and jobless for decades, and these "friends" kept him fed and let him sleep on the floor in the hallway in return for his dog-like obedience. Once one of them told me that sometimes he had to hit him to make him listen. I felt bad for the guy.

One night, he left his group of "friends" and sat beside me. He knew I was the artist who made the dollman, and he told me it held power. He gripped my hand tight, stared with a penetrating, frightening gaze directly into my eyes, and told me that the dollman was Jesus. His clawlike grip tightened and he thumped his chest with his other closed fist when he said it. Corazon. Tears welled from his eyes, yet his gaze did not falter. I was flattered, but also uncomfortable and frightened. The moment seemed to last forever. One of the others came over and pulled him away, saying to me, "Just tell him to shut up."
About six months later, I needed to take the dollman somewhere else. When I came to pick him up, I noticed many trinkets adorned him, rubberbands and cigarettes, gifts given by his friend as they spent time together in similar silence, sharing dreams of escape from a cruel world and disfigured life. Later that evening, the police had to be called. When the poor guy noticed his friend and confidant had left him, apparently he went berserk, smashing tables, throwing chairs, and screaming. It took several officers to restrain and drag him away. Whatever solace he'd briefly found in the dollman's company was lost. Within months, the bar changed owners and was converted into a restaurant. Amen.

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