IN FEBRUARY 2015, San Francisco–based artist Lynn Marie Kirby sent an email to Lebanese writer and painter Etel Adnan, who had just celebrated her 90th birthday. Kirby was headed to Spain to study the patterned tiles of the Alhambra Palace for an upcoming project, and she invited Adnan, ensconced in Paris, to participate in a collaboration via correspondence. Adnan cheerfully accepted. “How shall we proceed?” asked Kirby, who had no firm sense yet of what form their collaboration might take. “you start with a question, and I will follow … yes?” Adnan replied. “any question, and any answer will do … so long as it is you, and me…”
And so, over several late spring and early summer months, Kirby and Adnan traded questions and answers. Their e-correspondence, collected as Alhambra Exchange in the recently published Oracular Transmissions from X Artists’ Books, is an epistolary delight. Blending poetry and colloquy, Kirby and Adnan share thoughts, observations, and periodic photographs with the intimacy of old friends. Their messages are a study in action and reaction, and a strong argument that experience is best understood when it is shared. As Kirby explores Alhambra, Adnan is her trusty sounding board.
In May, Kirby sends a scanned image of some calligraphy on a mosque wall. “what an adventure you are having!” Adnan replies the next morning. “this last photograph, so real, material in its immaterial way, bone like, ivory as I said, smooth curves, good Lord, a whole world you caught while making happen.” Adnan’s writing in particular is wonderfully fluid and lyrical, turning each of her emails into a prose poem. Her secondhand observations are just as generative as Kirby’s firsthand accounts.
And Kirby doesn’t just relate wonders of the ancient, palatial kind — even quotidian moments spark unexpected discovery between the two women. “There are so many people with their cameras taking pictures of everything in the palace and the gardens,” Kirby notices. “I read recently that Selfie pole sticks are now forbidden in many museums.” “dear dear,” replies Adnan, “to answer all your questions will be hard on a creature like me but before we go further what is a selfie pole stick? would really like to know.”
The selfie-stick exchange provokes joy on several fronts: for starters, Adnan’s innocent curiosity and Kirby’s arbitrary capitalization of “Selfie” are incredibly endearing. But the moment also stands as a sweet token of intergenerational friendship. “Here is an image I found on the internet of someone taking a Selfie on a selfie pole,” Kirby responds to Adnan’s inquiry, attaching a photo of a woman photographing herself by the ocean. “Basically one puts one’s cell phone on a long pole with a special device for holding the cell phone, so the cell phone camera can be held further away!”
In the exchange of information between intergenerational friends, the elder usually shares knowledge acquired from the past and the junior shares knowledge acquired in the present. (In my experience, this often takes the form of a lopsided trade of hard-won wisdom for the latest lingo: I correspond with an author 30 years my senior, and they’ve taught me countless lessons about living and working as a writer; I’ve taught them the etymology of the slang term “bodied.”) Yet the relationship between Adnan and Kirby, both established artists, is generally more reciprocal, though Kirby certainly draws from 90-year-old Adnan’s well of experience. On a visit to the Nasrid Palace, Kirby senses “whispers from another time” filling the space. “What do you hear from the past Etel?” she asks her friend.
Most moving is the artists’ genuine, unrestrained affection for each other. Both women sign off with “much love” (as well as the occasional “much, much love” or “much, much, much love”). “Little angel,” Adnan calls Kirby in one email. “I’m waiting for your next move, where you are going to, wherever you will go something will happen, Lynn Kirby way.” Their mutual admiration at times overwhelmed me — to see two accomplished women, two authentic artists, care for one another in this way feels rare and beautiful.
Oracular Transmissions includes two other collaborations between Kirby and Adnan — Transmissions (2017) and Back, Back Again to Paris (2013) — but Alhambra Exchange (2016) is far and away the most interesting and affecting. Reading Kirby and Adnan’s emails, I was reminded of epistolary friendships between women contemporaries like Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy or Audre Lorde and Pat Parker. Luckily, Kirby and Adnan never wait days or weeks for a reply — their correspondence is instantaneous; Adnan usually gets back to Kirby within several hours, so that the correspondents trade energy back and forth in real time, lending their conversations tangible momentum.
This is the part where I acknowledge the current pandemic — not because I want to, but because reading Oracular Transmissions in a pandemic, as I did, inevitably shapes one’s experience of it. Alhambra Exchange feels now like an artifact from a time (five years ago) when movement and inspiration and art and really everything was easier. Each timestamped message flaunts the ease of the Before: on her trip, Kirby watches the sun rise alongside a French teacher from Paris; waits in line to enter a mosque behind a honeymooning couple from India; chats with a Korean exchange student at a royal residence in Granada. Remember trips and chance encounters? Honeymooners and exchange students, kind strangers and new friends? Like most any pre-pandemic text, Oracular Transmissions is bound to induce a clawing sense of nostalgic yearning.
But the correspondents’ geographic distance also provokes timely sentiments: “I wish I were there with you,” Adnan writes to Kirby, “and I MEAN it!” I picture Adnan at home on her computer, perhaps huddled over her desk or laid out in bed, pounding on the caps lock because when she says she wishes she were there she really MEANS it. I’ve been sending similar texts to friends lately — how I wish we could see each other, wish we could hug each other, wish things were different, wish, wish, wish. Words, of course, help bridge distance. They transmit love (and sorrow and longing and most other feelings) through time and across space. So I really do feel something resembling an embrace when Adnan signs off saying there’s “no reason not to send you a big hug! ETEL.”
Ninety years before Alhambra Exchange, Ernest Hemingway wrote the first of what would be many letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was summertime, and Hemingway (like Kirby) was traveling around Spain, while Fitzgerald (like Adnan) was residing in Paris. At the letter’s end, Hemingway asks Fitzgerald to write back. “Or don’t you like to write letters,” he suddenly asks. “I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.” I’ve wrestled with this lately: maintaining my correspondences sometimes feels like a chore. But it can also be a great source of fun, as well as a way to feel productive without having to attend to other, more pressing responsibilities. But Alhambra Exchange sweetly marries labor and diversion. Art is work, but Kirby and Adnan remind us it can (and perhaps more frequently should) involve play.
When Kirby’s Alhambra Project finally opened in San Francisco in 2016, she exhibited her correspondence with Adnan as part of the installation, turning their words into a visual presentation of found poetry. Phrases plucked from Alhambra Exchange flashed as video stills on a screen in white san-serif text against a cobalt background, like the blue signal that plays before a VHS tape. “I wish we could see the moonlight over the Alhambra together,” reads one of the stills, printed in Oracular Transmissions to blanket a whole page. I revisit this page often; I imagine Lynn Marie Kirby and Etel Adnan, shoulder to shoulder, bathed in moonbeams. It’s an image that encapsulates the whole of their correspondence — wistful, intimate, and suffused with love.