All images provided courtesy of Spencer Finch.
THE ARTIST SPENCER FINCH has produced pendant photographs of two places in Brooklyn where a rainbow ended. This was a rainbow he'd glimpsed through the window of the F train, at the Smith-Ninth Street station on 10/24/99 at 3 PM to be exact. The locations are, necessarily, inexact. (Finch overlaid a street map onto a topological map and reobserved the site on the train to deduce them.) Nevertheless, they stand for the way any rainbow arbitrarily joins two spots on earth for the span of a few minutes or seconds. Both photos frame ordinary sidewalk views of Brooklyn: one of a closed corrugated metal garage door with graffiti garlanding the familiar interdiction No Parking, beside which a dumpster, beside which a couple bags of garbage; the other of a corner bodega, half a car, another No Parking sign. Whatever rainbow idled there, it wasn’t for long, and it left no trace of itself. Thus the photos, unpeopled and vaguely desolate, also conjure Walter Benjamin’s famous description of the French photographer Eugene Atget’s landscapes: “He photographed them like scenes of a crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.”
Rainbow (Brooklyn, 2001; 16" x 12" (each); Archival Inkjet Photograph and Pencil]
To establish evidence of something as ephemeral as a rainbow puts us right at the intersection of precision and illusion, a paradox also suggested by the title of Finch’s retrospective, What Time Is It on the Sun?, which I saw at Mass MoCA in early 2008. I caught it purely by chance on a desperate midwinter weekend getaway. It was genius on the part of those curators in Pioneer Valley to bring a show of varied light installations and investigations to New England during the darkest days of the year. Standing in front of the photos of Brooklyn, I felt a pang. I had recently left Brooklyn and did not miss it; yet looking at those drab street views, iconic only to someone who had lived and walked there half-oblivious to similar corrugated metal garage doors for many years, I was transported back. I was living there, was I not, on the date of the rainbow? I looked again. No, I was in Ifrane, Morocco at that point, at loose ends and depressed. I had given up a decent apartment at 8th Street and 4th Avenue to join my husband at the Arab university where he had gotten his first teaching job. If you know Brooklyn, you know that 8th Street and 4th Avenue is a pretty dumpy address in Gowanus, scarcely to be mourned. You also know that it was close to the Smith–9th Street subway station where the legs of a rainbow were caught joining two disparate locations.
Let the vision of a rainbow over Brooklyn on 10/24/99 stand for one scene of one crime, and the vision of my forlorn self in the Middle Atlas Mountains on 10/24/99 stand for another.
There was another reason for a poet to be gratified by Spencer Finch’s work, besides the immediate thrill of light and color in Massachusetts in January. American poetry is an intimate reference point for Finch. One of his best known pieces, Sunlight in an Empty Room, recreates the light conditions in the backyard of Emil...read more