Postcards from Detroit




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

Become a member to receive the LARB Quarterly Journal

 

 

 

September 2016

I.

They say many things about Detroit. Start with what this lanky kid says. He came bounding up to me at a bar close to the Wayne State campus, near where I was staying during a press trip organized by a privately funded cultural exchange program. He whispered: “Are you straight?” I said no. He said that was a shame because he’s only into straight guys. His breath smelled sweetly of bourbon and Coca-Cola. He was so smashed he kept falling over himself as he rounded the pool table, trying to manage the cue without tripping over it, though twice it felled him. The straight guys laughed. A friend of his told me he’s always like this. Like what? “Like he can hardly walk after midnight.” It was sometime after one in the morning. Later he said, “Will you kiss me?” but I declined again, and instead we went across the street to an apartment complex with some other guy who was “definitely not voting for Clinton” because he was “sort of a Libertarian.” I watched him and the kid smoke pot in a bathtub while college students played first-person shooter games in the darkened living room. Out of nowhere, the kid started to sob. He was lying on his back with his arms wrapped around his legs, as if he was trying to shrink himself down. When I asked what was wrong, he told me he couldn’t afford to continue with his studies and had “no future.” “That couldn’t possibly be true,” I assured him, that he had “no future.” He held up his hand: “No, it is.” His blue eyes were glassy and bloodshot from the booze and tears. I had no assurances to offer. I was just a visitor. Our host, who was doing just fine himself, understood. “It’s true,” he said, “it’s hard to make it in Detroit.”

This essay was originally commissioned for a publication that later rejected it because it criticizes one of its sponsors, the privately funded arts exchange that flew me out to Michigan for a week of openings, panel discussions, and guided tours. Its purpose, both then and now, is to make a brief observation of Detroit in September 2016. This was a peculiar time in the history of what was once among the largest cities in the United States. There was, for one, a distinct sense of relief in the air. For years, Detroit has been viewed as a something of a ghost town, the grand failure of American urbanism and industry, with a civic crisis occurring at an almost unbelievable scale and penetrating nearly every aspect of its citizens’ lives. More recently, however, the city seems to have quietly slipped out of the news since it has been, tentatively speaking, undergoing a so-called renewal, or near renewal. Sometimes it’s called a revitalization. Neither word seems quite right.

There also seemed, at least to my eye, to be fewer dire reports on the city’s mismanagement and decline since the resignation of Kevyn Orr in 2014. Orr was appointed to the position of city manager by the governor after Mayor Kilpatrick was removed from office; his departure signaled a return to the democratic process. For a time, the people of Detroit had no say in their government. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened (see the 1967 uprising, when the city underwent military occupation, now the subject of Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit [2017]) and probably won’t be the last time. The governor declared the city’s state of emergency over. The national focus was now on Flint, Michigan, where there was, and at the time of this writing still is, a water crisis.

By the time I got to Detroit in September 2016, we were careening toward the end of the presidential election in which Michigan ultimately played an unexpectedly decisive role in tipping the Electoral College in the Republican candidate’s favor, ending for good the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton. Though I had never been to Michigan before and knew very little about the state, I was certain that Clinton would carry it and win the presidency — so much so that I frankly ignored the notes of indifference and hostility toward the Democrats that many Detroiters, both white and black, openly shared with me. Sure, Trump was awful but what about Clinton? What had she done for them? Most shrugged and said they were considering a third party vote for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, neither of whom seemed plausible to even the people who supported them. I often heard Detroiters ask what candidate would do for their city. I ignored what I heard about national politics. I did not believe that anecdotal evidence — my eye and my ear — was enough to signal that every Manhattan-based data journalist could be so wrong.

This essay consists mostly of anecdotes that do not attempt to make a larger argument about the situation on the ground in Detroit. It does not directly address the economic and political origins of decline or renewal, nor does it offer anything close to a complete portrait of the city. Instead, I’ve arranged a series of journal entries or longish postcards that follow the French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert’s notion of “photographic writing,” which he defined, in an appraisal of Goethe’s late journals about his Italian travels, as a “staccato sketch” of a landscape with the “texture” of “photographic immediacy.” This simpler and more direct writing, Guibert notes, differs from a normal fictional or even nonfictional account because it results from the brevity and transience of any observation made while traveling through a place that one will not stay at for long — and hardly knows. As such, it is a writing about impermanence and not-quite-knowing where one is.

In Detroit, I did not know where I was nor did I suspect that I would. I did not, after all, get into that bathtub.

 

II.

Detroit is the only city in the continental United States that’s north of Canada. In this strange geographical confusion, there persists, at bottom, an existential awkwardness to this once-shining capital of American industry. A visitor is often set adrift in a locational ambiguity despite the help of our GPS-equipped phones, with little — building or landmark — serving to indicate where you are in the city at a given moment. By this I mean it’s so large it’s hard to fix your place in the sprawl. Usually, the tallest and best marker is the General Motors headquarters, with its lonely television eye atop its central tower, striking out against the vast Midwestern sky, but even this silvery complex sometimes disappears over the horizon. Beyond downtown, there’s the storied run of fields and warehouses and a few still-standing neighborhoods in the blue mood of decline, some evidence of urban farming (though less than the internet would have you believe), and many large, unused buildings, like the city’s gorgeous, defunct train station that was built by the same architects New York’s Grand Central Station. Large segments of the city have crumbled, given way to ruin, or found themselves cordoned off, with neighborhoods islanded from one another through city-sanctioned demolition or insurance burnings. Since the collapse of the auto industry and subsequent bankruptcy led to the Detroit we know today, the city’s economy is largely based on food manufacturing, some tech, higher education, small and intermittent business, the guy who owns Ohio-based Quicken Loans (and its real estate subsidiary, Black Rock), and casinos.

Connecting Detroit to Windsor, Canada, the Ambassador Bridge is the only privately owned bridge between the United States and its two neighbors. Built in 1927, it stretches 7,500 feet and is the busiest border crossing in North America, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of commercial truck traffic in the region. In 1979, a reclusive billionaire named Manuel Moroun purchased controlling shares of the bridge, and it has since been an important cudgel against Michigan in Maroun’s disruptive real estate plans for the city. He has spent the last few decades buying up Detroit real estate for no reason, it seems, other than to stymie public projects. He owns the train station, but has no immediate plans for its use except to lease it out to film crews (talk of it becoming luxury apartments has ceased). He also purchased of the land along the river and, in the 2000s, even began to construct a second span of the Ambassador without notifying the Canadian government that he planned to expand his transit monopoly into their sovereign territory. Construction was halted when Canada got wind of the project, though I was told that the off-ramp still exists. The state would like to continue his project on its own terms, but Moroun refuses to sell his land to the city or state for those purposes. And so, traffic between the countries remains intractable.

I traveled to Detroit with a small group of artists, curators, and writers from several art and culture magazines, including Cultured, ArtNET, and The Atlantic. On the first day of our tour, which was conducted by a Detroit-based artist in a large rented van, we stopped at Michigan Central Station to admire its now-lost grandeur, as many locals encouraged us to do. At 18 stories, the station is the tallest building outside of downtown. It now stands in marked desolation on an empty parking lot colonized by weeds and surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence equipped with security cameras, its classical facade vaguely redolent of Grand Central, with a set of four large doors set between a row of Corinthian columns. There is no way to visit the station’s marble lobby, but recent ruin photography — a disagreeable genre for which Detroit is a favorite subject — reveals a grand stone concourse partially flooded and covered in huge swaths of graffiti, its windows shattered and walls largely gutted for salvageable material. Above the station’s entrance, a rectangular office tower stands like the imposing wall of a fort, with its two towers linked by a span of windows, a doleful protectorate of broken train tracks.

In Detroit, the widespread sense of architectural and social loss is almost always accompanied by a sense of awe at what remains from those bygone days — and while some of the grand architectural evidence of that wealthier past, like the train station, has been spared demolition, much of it goes unused, with each site standing as a kind of large-scale memento mori for the city that was. Seen from almost anywhere downtown, the train station recalled, for me, the Acropolis in Athens: an ever visible monument to a lost era that remains totemic of the endurable spirit of the city. Outside the van, the air was tinged with an inexplicably boozy smell, as if a glass of Bourbon had been brought to my nose.

“Does it smell like whiskey?” The Atlantic writer asked. He threw his scarf around his neck as he said so, pulling out his small notepad in dramatic anticipation of the answer. “There’s a distillery,” our tour guide said, “just a mile or so away. The wind sometimes carries the smell.”

We approached the security fence to get a better look at the station. Our guide told us he once broke in to take photographs (he is not a ruin photographer, he assured us; his artistic practice involves the documentation of inaccessible sculpture he places in forbidden or hard-to-reach sites such as the station), but since then Maroun has installed the fence and security cameras to keep out squatters, who are ubiquitous among the city’s empty buildings and warehouses. He assured us that it is beautiful inside. Small knots of yellow flowers threaded through cracks in the pavement at our feet and in the few squares of grass in the parking lot, but otherwise the station is lifeless, a decrepit hunk of stone, concrete and marble.

There are many security fences in Detroit. Nearby, at the confluence of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, a few miles from where the Ambassador Bridge extends to Canada, a former military base, Fort Wayne, sits behind one. The shuttered Fort was built, we were told, near once massive sand dunes that ran along the river, none of which are left. These dunes had been the thousand-year-old burial site of the native peoples of Detroit since before the French and American settlers arrived to claim the land for themselves (the precise tribe responsible for these burial sites is unknown, though the land was later claimed by the Potawatomi). By the 1950s, the auto industry had harvested most of the sand for windshields, leaving one rather small mound behind, surrounded by barbed-wire fence, as an unmarked memorial to the dead who were turned into glass for the midcentury commuter.

 

III.

We shuttled between panels, museums, galleries, cultural initiatives, talks, dinners, a few lunches, hotels, trendy cafes, a mural project that paired kids with their elderly neighbors, DIY art projects and installations, with detours to many of Detroit’s emptier neighborhoods to visit with activists who were working to improve daily life in the city. I struggled to find the words to describe these places. Each was imbued with a particular kind of energy. At some point, someone from out of town said, “There’s a lot of potential here.” In fact, there were people there, people who had been there for quite some time and who were, through a variety of community-based strategies, attempting to do something good for their knackered city. “Potential” had nothing to do with it. The word irked me.

At one panel — a discussion on art and progress — in a warehouse-turned-artist-studios one evening, a black woman interrupted a speaker after he used the word “abandoned” to describe some part of the city. She stood up and seized a microphone to voice her opposition to that word — “abandoned” — which, she argued, is intrinsically connected to whiteness in its assumption that the absence of white bodies and white history suggests that the people who occupy those places, whether they live there now or not, were not, are not, and never will be “there.” The panelists, who nodded in agreement, were silent as she spoke. She said she had lived in the city her whole life and the influx of people who didn’t actually know the city bothered her. The audience clapped. There-ness, she suggested, is itself a white construct in the white-centered imaginary of Detroit, because who gets to say who’s there, except white people. “Nowhere in Detroit is abandoned,” she said.

I opened my notebook as the panel resumed, reviewed some of the observations I had made about Detroit, and cringed at own thoughtless vocabulary for post-industrial cities and the American Midwest, a vocabulary I had inherited from the touristic disaster journalism of the last decade or so. “Abandoned,” “apocalyptic,” “destroyed,” “bombed out” were deployed by visitors on my tour to describe places we had never been to before and, in many cases, didn’t even get out of the car to observe closely for ourselves. I had copied down those words too, adding “ruined,” “voided,” and “wiped out.” I struck each from the pages of my small black notebook, stopping at “desolate,” which means, in the original Latin, “thoroughly alone.” That word suited much of the city and its sprawl of parking lots, neighborhoods, and former centers of town (Detroit, like Los Angeles, is dispersed across a network of communal nodes, townships-of-a-sort folded into a larger, quasi-cohesive urbanity). Much of Detroit is thoroughly alone, cut off from itself and from the aid of the country it helped to produce.

In some instances, these desolate areas are so isolated that they appear sealed off, enclosed in a translucent bubble that seemingly divides them from the rest of the city. Boynton, for example, is a mostly demolished neighborhood near the Marathon Petroleum Refinery. The Refinery — a wide, hulking colossus of tubes and spires spewing white smoke into the air — now works with highly toxic tar sands rather than conventional oil. Several years ago, Marathon bought out and bulldozed many of the nearby houses, though some still stand in threadbare lots separated far apart from one another. These last holdouts are now unsellable since many have been valued, as of 2014, at less than $16,000 per home. Known as Detroit’s “dirtiest zip code,” Boynton also has the highest cancer rate in Michigan. The foul air around the neighborhood reeks of a nauseating chemical smell that bears no resemblance to anything I had ever encountered before. It was the acrid, indescribable smell of cancer — and of failure. Tar sands, and the chemicals used to dilute the fuel so it can move through pipelines, like benzene, are highly carcinogenic, and the industry is mostly unregulated in the United States and Canada, where the sands are harvested at enormous ecological cost.

 

IV.

After the panel discussion on art and progress, some of us — the panelists, a few local gallerists, curators, and writers — were conveyed across the city to Wasserman Projects, a 9,000-square foot art gallery housed in an old fire station in the Eastern Market neighborhood. In the dark, it was difficult to tell where we stood in relation to the rest of the city; someone smoking outside said we weren’t far from downtown, though it seemed as if we had been dumped in a field in the middle of the state. Across the street, white trucks lined the rear of a depot for Roscoe & Horkey Farms. Despite our extensive cultural tour, which included the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Detroit Institute of the Arts, I was still unsure of what the city’s art scene was like, and I hoped Wasserman Projects would provide some idea of its shape.

The Projects is massive. I tried to take a picture with my phone, but my camera couldn’t capture its shadowy vastness as it extended into a dark, grassy field. We could have been standing in the middle of nowhere but we were somewhere, under a moonless night sky splashed with thousands of stars. The city’s light pollution wasn’t so bad, much better than in New York, and I could make out the slight shapes of a few constellations: Cygnus, the swan; the little and the large bears; Lyra, the harp. I wondered about the kid in the bathtub and where he might be, whether he was back at the bar near Wayne State, begging strangers to kiss him as he orbited the porch under this same sky. No one is abandoned in Detroit.

Inside the gallery, three wire cages loomed in the large main space, surrounded by an improbable array of chicken-themed art and a few makeshifts bars and tables, all hazily lit by soft overhead light. Two of the coops were filled with adult chickens clucking on a bed of sawdust, while the other held several hundred eggs. In an adjacent room, hundreds of chicks clustered under heat lamps. Waiters scurried around with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. One stopped in front me and said, “Welcome to Koen Vanmechelen’s cosmopolitan chicken project,” meaning the show, which was technically called Energy/Mass.

“Excuse me?”

He handed me a pink gin cocktail that had been thickened with egg whites. He noted this in case I was vegan. I am not. “Good,” he said. “Because dinner is chicken.” The artist Adam Pendleton, who had spoken on that evening’s panel, looked stunned when he considered the room before us. Then he broke into laughter: “Chickens?”

A cryptic press release explained that the exhibition was “the newest phase of Vanmechelen’s ongoing, 20-year-long Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP), which cross-breeds chickens from around the world as a means of exploring cultural, biological, and aesthetic diversity.” The chickens, seen in cages around the gallery, were the result of this “cosmopolitan project” and were to be given to the city’s farmers. Energy/Mass included several bizarre sculptures and photographs, including a metal sword with a black chicken posed on top; a few votive arrangements of stuffed chickens placed alongside portraits of chickens; some large photographs of chickens as well as one of the artist blowing smoke in the shape of a chicken’s egg; two light-box sculptures of the words “energy” and “mass”; and several books containing his breed’s genetic code.

In the main room, the gallery had arranged long, narrow white tables in an L-shape around the three coops. Cartons of eggs were stacked in the tables’ centers, with a single egg placed before each setting with a guest’s name written on it. I found my name near Adam Pendleton and the artist Trevor Paglen.

“I think we’re going to eat the chickens,” Adam said.

“While looking at them?” I asked.

While we were looking at them.

We took our seats. Before dinner, Vanmechelen, a middle-aged Belgian man with a Flemish accent and a thick mustache and tousled hair, stood up and thanked us for coming to his show and described, in brief, how much these chickens meant to him, how he had been breeding them for decades as a gift to the city that he called home. I was seated beside a woman who worked for the municipal department responsible for liaisoning with the city’s urban farmers. As the artist spoke at length about his chickens, she told me that, while there were many urban farmers in the city, few were approved by the city (her department was simply too small to regulate livestock) and none had yet been allowed to raise any animals, though many did — illegally. The cosmopolitan chicken would be the city’s official chicken and she was already working with some farmers, including an older man who sat opposite us, to introduce the bird to the city.

The farmer said hello, but little else. “He’s modest about his work,” the city worker told me, beaming at her friend, who was hunched over a plate of food. While we talked about urban farming, the gallery served us mustard greens from his farm. The city worker had known the urban farmer for many years, and she said he was both a good friend and an integral part of her community. He often provided food for large picnics that she attended with her husband, who sat beside her and who nodded at me when I introduced myself. (The men’s silence was cordial and seemed to belong to the manners of a more introspective age.) She showed me photos on her phone: in one, a group of about 12 men, women, and children stood before a long table covered with salads, meats, and other dishes. This work made the woman sincerely happy, she beamed as she flicked through the images on her photos app, though she told me she was also thinking of retiring soon and moving south (where I am from). She was concerned however about racism and the intransigent anti-blackness of the Southern states’ governments. The South — South Carolina and Georgia, specifically — worried her. She doubted she would leave. Her children still lived in Detroit.

The urban farmer ate quietly while we spoke. Later, our tour guide joined us for dessert and we continued to discuss city planning, urban farming, and the famous investor in Detroit’s future, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans. Gilbert’s real estate subsidiary Bedrock had partially funded — it funds almost everything now — my trip to Detroit. Through his two companies, Gilbert has poured massive amounts of cash into the city, both in real estate holdings and in cultural initiatives, making him the dominant force in city life since the 2008 crash and 2013 city bankruptcy.

Sensing that I distrusted Gilbert’s philanthropy, our tour guide told us he didn’t care where, or how, the money got to Detroit, as long as it got there. I wondered aloud if the reliance on predatory capitalism to fund the city’s revitalization, if that’s the word, might not restage the exact problems that have plagued Detroit for a century.

His face was blank. Yes, and no, he conceded.

Quicken Loans, according to The New York Times, is the second largest mortgage lender in the United States. Its business is “the selling of the American Dream” to the American people, whatever that means, and this business once attracted the attention of the Obama-era Justice Department, which accused the company of misrepresenting “borrowers’ income or credit scores, or inflated appraisals, in order to qualify for Federal Housing Administration insurance. As a result, when those loans soured, the government says that taxpayers — not Quicken loans — suffered millions of dollars in losses.”

I argued that Gilbert was a false prophet of Detroit’s future: hurting the poor and underserved to enrich the wealthy while appealing to a disintegrating middle class through art. While he was responsible for the comeback of downtown (mostly through swanky and largely unaffordable restaurants), outside of the gentrified sectors, people were in need of food and basic services. At a Bedrock-funded opening for an exhibition by the artist Gary Simmons, several apparently homeless people gathered near the door to ask for money and food. Their presence and number cast the event in stark terms, rendering the economic privileges afforded by the mostly white crowd and the out-of-towners that much more visible. The dynamic between the crowd inside and the crowd outside highlighted the drastic inequality that shaped the city — and that Gilbert not only helped produce, but actively exploited for personal gain. We were drinking champagne in plastic flutes while the people standing outside were struggling to afford a meal.

Our tour guide remained unconvinced and, in any case, dessert was served. The city worker had no comment and the urban farmer wasn’t listening.

 

V.

In the last few years, the question of the American Dream has become a leading theme in the Midwest: is there such a thing anymore?

For the sake of argument, I won’t consider here its dependency on a white imaginary of ownership, space, and ambition and whether it ever existed at all. Let’s accept the essential assumption that it did or does, if only as a postwar rhetorical strategy for expansionist economic policy. Let’s say the fiction matters, and that it matters particularly in a place like Detroit. In the openly racist, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial Republican talking points of the past year or so, Barack Obama had either sold the public out and personally destroyed the Dream in retaliation against past American imperialism or was in cahoots with an international Jewish banking conspiracy to ensure that Dream was priced out of the hardscrabble everyman’s imaginative budget. George Soros and the Witch of Chappaqua (who is a gentile and a Methodist) were both leading culprits in this crooked scheme, of course (see President Trump’s final “Argument for America” ad). Indeed, Detroit — and many of America’s inner cities, which the Republican candidate frequently and erroneously described as “war zones” — became, once again, ground zero for those failures. (Trump took up this theme once more in his feeble Inaugural speech, again citing Detroit.)

The brain surgeon Ben Carson, a Detroit native, led Donald Trump on a five-minute (yes, really) tour of the city’s southwest, to show the nominee what, and where, things had gone wrong. In their eyes, free trade, regulation, “P.C. values,” cheap heroin and other drugs ferried across our unprotected border with Mexico, as well as Democratic electoral dominance were, of course, the inevitable culprits in the demise of the Rust Belt. The impoverished belt itself had expanded well beyond its original borders, stretching across most of the middle of the country, from the tip of the Great Lakes, down along the Mississippi and into the post-industrial Deep South, all of which would become the rotund electoral bloc that would ensure Trump’s November win. The decline of federal aid and subsidies, corporate tax loopholes, and the rapid growth of the one-percent class at the expense of everyone else, were not included on Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump’s menu of possible causes for what they themselves conceded was the nightmare their constituents were living.

After his Carson-led dalliance through the “war zone,” Trump gave a maudlin speech “from the heart” at the Great Faith Ministries, a historic black church in Detroit. He promised that if he were to become president, “tomorrow will be better.” He also reminded his suspicious audience that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, apparently in an attempt to link himself to the centuries-long struggle for emancipation and equal rights. Or something. Trump himself seemed unsure about why he brought up Lincoln. Who, in any case, had forgotten? But, more to the point, whose tomorrow?

Today’s Republicans, and some of today’s liberals were right to pose their question in Detroit, the patient zero of the Great American Slowdown. Like the question itself, the Detroit to which this question is posed is itself a fiction, a flickering and impermanent image on the nationalist screen, resulting not from fact but, rather, from a set of erroneous assumptions. There is, after all, no war zone, no matter what Trump imagines. There is, however, a city built of — and for — impermanent and highly destructive industries. There is a city torn apart by the misuse of public funds, the electioneering of the far right, the privatization-pushes of local and state governments in Michigan and across the United States. There is a city beholden to the wonky generosity of billionaires who have, generally, used their substantial income to subvert any effort to actually remedy Detroit’s problems, like supporting a meaningful reform of the tax system, which might strengthen and expand the safety net or increase funding for public schools and not voucher programs. (The president’s school-choice-focused Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, is from Michigan.) The city’s difficulties are not so much rooted in a lack of jobs as in a failure of the neoliberal order that produced both the city and Donald J. Trump.

What is the American Dream if clean water is hard to come by, as it is in Flint? What is the Dream if one lives under the poison cloud of tar sands plant? These are the problems of the Midwest, these are the problems of the American Dream, and yet those who keep pushing us to “make it great again,” who tweet the imbecilic promise of some new and soon-to-arrive Dream, are the very same people who stand to gain the most from maintaining or even heightening the crisis of its grim reality. Their question — whatever happened to the American Dream? — is as perverse as the president who poses it, and it is in recognition of this perversity that we might learn to distrust both equally.

Detroit is the best representative of the state of that Dream today, absent still from the heads of workers and ex-union members, the under- or not employed, those used and forgotten by the industries that created and destroyed the city. In Detroit, it is not so much that the Dream has died as it has been reduced to its rawest form, limited in its imaginative scope to the teapot tycoons who run the show now: loan sharks, casino magnates, the owner of a bridge to nowhere. These are our so-called Dreamers, who dream of possession and subjugation, of voter suppression and natural gas; it is the Dream that the lot of available stuff, cash and goods, properties and cities, belong to a mere few, a few whose anemic hope is the hope of protection from those forces that would seek to redistribute, to take back, to take away, to share, and to overthrow. The American Dream is, in the end, no dream at all but instead a flimsy, unconvincing fiction. So be it.

If Detroit offers us any true dream, one that we might strive to bring into reality, it might be the dream of an abnegated America in which we might someday find a usable future rather than the fantasy of a past.

 

VI.

In the bowels of the Detroit Institute of the Arts lies one of the world’s great conservation departments. The conservators are employed by the museum and by private collectors as well as other institutions, so our tour was asked not to write about or photograph any of the works we saw. This rule applied to contemporary art and works dating back to the early Middle Ages alike — the danger was that they might not belong to the DIA. There were several astonishing pieces in the department, including a work by a contemporary artist who was, in light of a recent solo retrospective at a gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a name everyone was discussing at the time. Even the Atlantic writer, who seemed indifferent to art of any kind, recognized this artist’s work and admitted, or at least feigned, awe at the presence of a rare, previously unknown sculpture. In any case, we saw many things: tattered, aged, newly cleaned-up objects; objects in storage, objects in photographs, objects wrapped in plastic, objects I can’t name here but recognized as objects made by famous object-makers.

In a forensic room, where pieces were photographed using scientific cameras, we were invited to see X-rays of a medieval wooden statue of a Virgin and Child. The sculpture was from Galicia, I think, or at least somewhere in Spain, and had been in the possession of a small village until it ended up with some unknown person or institution or the DIA itself — the conservator would not or could not divulge its provenance. It was visible to the tour only as a luminous negative, printed in a loose grid of smaller X-rays that had been arranged into a scaled image of the sculpture. Before us, the Virgin took her shape on a light-box installed on the wall opposite the X-ray camera, a clumsily hung image of the real thing, which was at an off-site storage facility. Outlined in stark white, her innards were largely dark — hollow — except for a few bright streaks at the lines that defined the Child, her dress, her features, her arms. She stood less like a Christian figure than a kind of map, its white lines representing a patchwork of crisscrossing roads.

“What do you notice about this?” the conservator asked us.

The eyes were different, perfectly circular, as if they had been carved separately and were inserted (that was the case: they were glass). Otherwise, the sculpture had been penetrated throughout by small, white pricks about the length of the pinky finger.

“The nails?” someone asked.

“The nails, yes,” the conservator replied. “But what about them?”

None of us knew what to say, so he explained that the straighter nails were modern — and had been manufactured by machine — while the crooked, irregular nails were much older since they had been made by hand. He said that we could tell a lot about a sculpture’s origins based on details such as these nails. We can tell what might have needed repair, and when those repairs were made. We can even tell what might have caused the damage. We can tell if something was dropped, burned, or if parts were replaced — however seamless the replacement appears on the surface. Such small things, he explained, contain the history of an object and, in turn, contain the history of the place that made the object. These histories overlap and revise one another, leaving us with this: the sculpture.

“Where will it go after it’s been repaired?”

“Somewhere else. In the meantime, you can see it here.” What was there was a negative, an X-ray, light in a dark room.

I asked him what these nails told him about the sculpture and its village. He said he did not yet know.

VII.

On my final night in the city, I returned to the bar near the Wayne State Campus in search of the lanky kid. The other writers were still at a dinner for an artist at a newish downtown restaurant. I left early after I found myself seated next to three Republican donors to the cultural exchange program, who were telling me about the sad state of public education and why they supported “school choice.” I excused myself to go to the restroom and instead exited the restaurant, into a breezy evening. My cab took me uptown, through the lonely expanse of interstate roads, back to the university, and circled awhile as I tried to remember where the bar was. It had been somewhat close to the Institute of the Arts, but this wasn’t much help to the driver. “We can do this all night,” the driver said, “or you can just Google it.”

I Googled it. “Just let me out here,” I said when we arrived near a recognizable administration building. I walked a bit, looked for the bar, found none, debated returning to my hotel, turned a corner, and there it was, the bar where I had been told nobody was going to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It was midnight, a few college students lounged on its wraparound porch smoking and drinking beer, whispering to one another. The bar vibrated with pop music while outside the city was becalmed by a strange silence, as if we had been placed under a glass dome. I hadn’t wanted to feel so apart but I was, more so than I had ever felt in any other American city, and I couldn’t explain it to myself, why I could not penetrate Detroit — or ever feel like I had landed. Rather, I remained aloft, despite every effort I made to drop down to earth. Even here, where I had come closest to the city, I felt as if I still hovered slightly off the ground.

Detroit has accrued such myth, of both its success and its failure, and it seemed buried alive in expectation — though of what I didn’t even know. War zones and squats, hip cafes and urban farms. There was a flat Midwestern melancholy to everything, but was that simply the eerie start of fall, with its brisk nights and starry skies? Had I invented the mood for it? Was it mine? Or was it simply the city’s reality, reality as a postscript to the American century it had singularly helped to ensure.

The bartender served me a vodka on ice. The cubes cracked as the liquid settled into the glass. No one was at the pool table and everyone was outside. I wasn’t sure if I had actually come to see the kid again or not, what I had to say or what I wanted to ask, but regardless he was not there and would not come. It was near closing time. The bar would soon empty out and the implacable night would eventually become day. The bar would soon empty out and the implacable night would eventually become day and a small plane would take me into its belly and fly me back to New York.

¤

Andrew Durbin is a poet, novelist, editor, and critic. 


RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT