Synaesthesia

By Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

There are so many ways a thing can make you shiver. A cello in a crowd. A chorus in a stairwell. A story about a child who didn’t stand up for another child. The fury of chilli and the honest, expected loyalty of a potato. A single note. The memory, a moment later, of that same note.

Morning. In the sun.

Conversations about heels.

Elizabeth wears them because Kirsha told her she should. And then because she discovered she loved them.

Angela doesn’t. She feels like a politician.

I always fall over. Lizzy thinks that’s a myth. Maybe it is.

Inside. The Void.

The first thing that I love:

A cello.

Pulls my guts out through my lungs and, coated in tears, drags them up my throat in a gasp and there’s everything I once thought I’d have and then thought I’d never need and now here it all is.

I want to drink the cello forever and already I’m sick of my own linguistic synaesthesing. But I do want to drink the cello.

At the beginning of this thing, and longing for the saturated, sleepy exhaustion of midnight.

And then a man in a black t-shirt, new for the day, towards me against the salmon-tide:

‘And so it goes’.

Later.

I find a room full of the throbbing, hypnotic reassurances of Philip Glass. Rhythmic certainties interrupted by uncertain pauses, and a mobile phone announcing some urgent communiqué from the world outside. The electronically generated xylophonic trill weaves itself easily into the milky notes of Glass’s intent, and I enjoy the absurdity of it.

Between Glass dances, the organist frantically shakes his wrists and fingers out, and the plants grow quietly in their wall-pockets at the other end of the room.

Later.

Five synaesthetes walk into a bar.

I’m not sure what comes next. But I think the joke is possibly arcane and probably offensive, and I decide not to pursue its invention.

Later still.

I think of a flautist I once knew, who had given up a professional career because her synaesthesia made performance (and especially rehearsal) too unbearable for her.

I wonder if this performance – in front of the busy Nolan snake, and splashed with cycling coloured light – is unpleasant for a synaesthete?

The subjectivity of humanity begins to preoccupy and mildly terrify me. I start scribbling incomprehensibly into my medium brown notebook. I write pages and pages and pages during the Mussorgsky, and it is so boring even I can’t bear to read it over afterwards.

Late evening. The Organ Room.

Kate Miller-Heidke is a glistening-polished jelly dessert with familiar and never-before-tasted tropical fruit. More saccharine at first than you think you wanted but then you discover you’re in love and, in all the sugar, what you taste is the whole world: the rind and the tang, the moon and the seas, the loss and the first times, poisons and wild animals.

She has a voice that doesn’t make sense coming from her small body. She sings about the past and about herself and about nothing sometimes, and she tells stories like she wants us to rise up and respond, or laugh at her, or be shocked, or maybe buy her a drink. She fills the already crowded room. She is bigger than herself. She becomes a way into the world.

Home
I’ve started to forget what I know about things. Or what I’ve heard. Started to think I’m making them up. Is there a story, for example, about David discussing the logo design, and saying ‘fuck it, let’s use fluoro pink: no-one uses fluoro pink’, and that’s how it came about? No? Well. It sounds plausible though, doesn’t it.


(De)Gustation

Saline

I saw a ghost and an angel while the chorus were painting the stairwell in Bowman and green and in blue light and in open vowels and in blood pooling softly across my chest.

He was magnificent and ordinary and dressed in white and in need of a haircut and the shape of a man and with eyes filled in sorrow and the everyday. He stood at the top of the stairwell and we made no contact and I stood near the bottom and by the Sanctus he was gone. I didn’t see him leave but I know he walked, down those back stairs, slipping quietly or with an excuse me, and the knowledge of him comforts me in no way you can imagine.

She was a sketch and a shadow and almost invisible amongst the resonance of the chorus. That chorus, haunting through the museum: cobwebs and sheets adrift in a hot, airless house. She slipped amongst them and was a shiver across their shoulders as they sang for us, sang for themselves, never once sang for her, sang for their childhoods and their immortality and their impossibilities.

And you didn’t see either of them.

Sour

I create restore points in time. I click something, somewhere, and I imagine that one day I’ll look back to this moment and I’ll try to re-feel all of it – someone I love sitting beside me, the air slightly cooler than my skin, the relentlessly gorgeous same-and-changing Glass patterns, the contented memory of kimchi, chilli, wasabi.

I wonder how long it would take me, in this space, to lose everything and become a throbbing, visceral echo of myself. Not long, I think. And what stops me? What holds me here? What holds you? What holds the ones you love? Is it the same thing that binds us all?

If this is the rabbit hole, I am already here. I’ve forgotten what I was following.

And the longer I’m here, the more uncomfortably mundane it all becomes. I see through the cracks and around the corners.

You can only eat so much, you know. It says a lot about a person, how they eat at a dessert buffet.

I met Alexandria at a dessert buffet. We were both standing beside the mousse, agonising. It said a lot about her, to me. And I suppose it said a lot about me. To her. I’ve never asked her, actually. I should. Should have.

See, if you know you love – and I mean love — the chocolate gateau, why would you go back, when you’re almost full and the party’s almost over, to try the passionfruit gelato? Just on the off chance that you’ll love it. Love it more than the chocolate gateau. Which you can never have again, by the way, because you’re full and the party was catered by a retiring pastry chef.

After a while, I start to wonder whether it matters at all.

The Messiaen is beautiful. So what if he saw golden Fmaj chords when he wrote it, and I don’t see them now?

Sugar
I’m holding your breath.

Bitterness

What if each time someone said your name, my mouth was filled with the idea of strawberries? What then? Or what if it wasn’t strawberries? What if it was the bitter disappointment of a lettuce leaf left too long before picking? A small, dark leaf perfectly formed, but carrying only ugly in its flavour? A tightening, lingering, wild-chicory of a bite. What if that metallic taste of regret was what accompanied you? Could I still love you?

Every touch of you is somehow unbelievable. Every brush of your tannin-tainted tongue is something I once longed for and now has no meaning. Where do such hauntings come from? Who turned us into this? I think there was a moment when I could have stopped it. This brakeless tumble towards loss. I remember. It was a winter morning but the sun was cruel against the tight cotton of my jeans. Your children were asleep – both of them, what a wonder. We sat together in their treehouse with a teapot full of sand, and we talked about politics and linguistics and the weather patterns of the antipodes. Something. I remember you opening the toy teapot and sliding one finger through the sand – I didn’t even know the children had a sandpit. I had only visited you in your house twice before, and both times in the unmooned darkness. This day, there was quiet in the air and the sound of the sand against your dry knuckles was remarkable. I listened as you warped that finger in and out, down through that multitude of crushed and infinitesimal fragments of things that once were, between the specks of abstraction.

And, you see, I knew then that I could love you more than you loved me. I don’t know why, but that’s when it was. That moment, your finger in a teapot full of sand, your children asleep, your words meaningless, your pulse at your throat contorting your profile, your treehouse around us and above us and below us, and the astringent taste of something familiar in my mouth – that moment. It was when I made the decision that swept me to where I am now. That moment was when I kissed you and you touched the side of my cheek with your finger sugared in sand, and the breath of you filled me up and emptied you. That moment. That was when I could have chosen no and I chose yes.

But this wasn’t supposed to be a story about love. They’re never supposed to be stories about love. What would I know?

Something else

‘What colour is silence?’ a woman asks the synaesthete.

A long pause.

‘I’ve never seen true silence,’ he finally says.

Later
The museum has absorbed all the synaesthetes and the nonaesthetes and the syn-curious into its skin like rain into an anonymous, quiet earth.

Synaesthesia returns August 2014: Synaesthesia+ 16-17 August 2014. Get your tickets pronto.

Five prejudiced affairs with Mona (or, Anica and Mona, sitting in a tree)

1. The art of knowing whether you are flirting
or
The art of consuming modern art

You never know what to expect, when you first walk in. Something, nothing. Something that turns out to be nothing? Nothing that becomes something? But that’s part of it, it’s part of what you crave. The not-knowing, the possibility, the risk, the anticipation.

Or, you walk into it, always, knowing that you want something. Anticipating. Breath-held wonder and the greed for Meaning. For something Beyond. For Something.

Forgetting that you always bring something, too. Into that space filled with sound and furious signifiers. A look, a wink, a glance, a colour, an ellipsis of thought…

And sometimes it feels like there is a lot of empty space here. Whatever that means. It doesn’t mean space with nothing in it. It just means space where what’s in it isn’t something you know how to find. But that’s part of it too. And if you don’t crave that, then there’s no room for you to become anything else.

Every visit, every interaction has a memory of the last, and the last-but-one, and the very first, and all those between. And not just your own, but everyone else’s too. Whether that makes you feel good or not. You can never be independent of it. You don’t even have to listen carefully to hear it. There’s nothing new here, and nothing old either – everything exactly as you see it as you come to it at this moment: the wink, the shadows, the abstract moment, the ambiguous words.

You ignore what doesn’t speak to you. Dismissive. (And yet you still think you’re better than the girl beside you who snaps a photo, winks a wink, pretends to see something, sees nothing.) You sidestep around the arti/fact for a moment, you make it what you want it to be, you read it, you act on it, you understand it, you live by it, you love by it, you are – for those moments and their repercussive pre-dawn awakenings – defined by it, and it by you.

And then you turn a page, a corner, a blind eye, and you discover a new star (or disavow an old one – all your past loves are eventually Plutos).

I stop near the end, as always, to check that my heart is beating. As always, it’s not. As always, I pretend I don’t care.


Pulse Room, 2006
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Photo credit: MONA/Leigh Carmichael

 

 

 

 

 

2. Don’t touch

There’s water dripping through the walls here. I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read about it, in all those things that people write, but I’ve never seen it. That interests me. To know about a thing and to touch a thing are not the same at all. At all. Peter Carey, in the voice of Lucinda, once said as much. I bookmarked it – a real bookmark, subcutaneous in the skin of a book, not a click on a word that once meant something real. Before ‘bookmark’ was a verb in my vocabulary. When it was still a noun I could touch. I held that page, with my bookmark, and came back to it over and over. And over. I could still find the page, I think, just with the curve of spine from so many visits.

Lucinda’s knowledge was about sorrow – about suffering and conceiving of suffering. Mine is about something else. About seeing what you want instead of what’s there. At least I think it is.

(Well, wouldn’t you touch that wet wall?)

3. The idea of absence

This place is just filled with your voice – literally, literarily. It’s all you. I can’t imagine how it feels to experience this place without you. On my own, with anyone else.

I think I’ll visit here when you die, and I’ll forget what it means to die: it won’t make any sense because you will be here and everywhere and I won’t understand the idea of absence.

That’s assuming that you die first. And I don’t know why you would. Maybe I’ll die first. And if that’s what happens, then I’ll come here after I die. I’ll haunt your words and your presence here and then you won’t know what it’s like to be here without me.

4. The blind leading the blind (after Peter Buggenhout)

A great hulking thing hangs above me. I think maybe it’s art. Or maybe dread. Or maybe love. It is huge and blackish in the blackness, embarrassed by its own size. An apologetic, deformed monster trying desperately and writhingly to disappear backwards into cracks nonexistent: a mutant spider, an octopus, without the proper experience of its species, to disappear into cracks. For every limb it squeezes into one corner, two more vomit themselves out of another: messy, dripping, scrabbling for purchase on the surfaces, alive yet utterly inert. Grasping at the ceiling, ashamed of its own clumsy bulk, its corners are impotent and its curves broken. Its rusting creaking groaning strength is a kind of unkind joke against its ludicrous body. It is Kafka’s Gregor, horrified by its own existence. I am afraid to stand beneath it. It is some kind of nightmare – to itself?

And also I want nothing more than to be closer to it in the half-light, for it to somehow ingest me, excrete me, validate me.

5. Why shouldn’t we?

I finally manage to book in for one of Tattoo Tim’s tours of the Wim Delvoye exhibition – his third-last tour. He’s had a few days off, and he says he hasn’t been so nervous in a long time. He’s buzzing. He greets us all individually, welcomes us, tells us that he’s not here to explain the art, but just to tell us a story. His story is his way of giving us the gift of recognising what he calls the ‘beautiful absolute irrelevance of our existence’. And somehow I think I understand what he means.

He talks to us for seventy minutes, in between the pigskins and the sharp points of the laser-cut steel. He is funny, self-deprecating, self-important, performative, honest, naive, cynical, charismatic, entrancing, exploding with energy. I suppose he has a lot of time to come up with clever things to say, sitting for five hours a day on his plinth with his tattooed spine towards his audience, his eyes on his one small white speck in the middle of the black window shade. During the tour, we never once see the tattoo. But we see the impact of it on his life, on his experience of being in the world. And it’s bizarre and mundane all at once.

Everything he says to us is engaging. But at the end, in the dark room standing against the projected reality of Delvoye’s Art Farm, where the tattooed pigs grunt and shove and scratch and sleep, he gets to the part that hits me most. He orates a kind of fanatical frisson of absolute adoration for Mona, and that’s part of his story now too. He tells us, from the outside, that ‘everything has changed here in the last 14 months’ – this city isn’t the same one it was before. I could not be more convinced by his arguments.

At the end of Tim’s tour, I’m shaking. He’s articulated a passion for this place that I’ve heard around me since the museum opened. I hear it everywhere – in the museum, away from the museum, on airplanes, interstate, in supermarkets, everywhere. It’s an uncontainable and weird sense of ownership, pride, excitement, gratitude, wonderment. I feel it too, and I resent it. I hate feeling so sentimental and I don’t want to be one of the anonymous masses who somehow feel that since it has entered our lives, we now have some righteous connection to this place. Last year I went for the first time to MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Neue Gallerie, The Dali – so many wonderful American museums, but all the time I was holding this secret smugness that I live in the place where there is Mona. I couldn’t wait to come back and visit. It feels unsophisticated to experience so much joy about a place, especially this place. I am embarrassed by my passion for this place. But why shouldn’t we feel in love – what’s so incredibly wrong with being joyful?

Mona has done something to me that nothing in my life has ever done before. It’s connected me to people I don’t know and don’t ever want to meet. It’s torn a gash in the emotional, creative, psychological space/time continuum – a great fissure that allows glimpses into everything we dream of, and forget to dream of, beyond the everyday. The things we search for in love, in religion, in our unknown selves. Meaning, connection, extraordinary grief and extraordinary radiance, and – more vitally – things wholly intangible, but so deep that they lift us away from everything else.

I thank Tim; he hugs me. I walk away fast, because I need to find a dark space to be alone and cry my guts out, because I can’t remember the last time anything made me feel so alive.

When I come back outside into the air, the steady rain takes me by surprise. But I don’t remember, anyway, what kind of day it was when I went inside. It was a million years ago. As always, when I leave here, I’m new. Better. Taller. Hungrier. More alive. More certain. More uncertain.

That’s all.

-Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Anica is a writer, editor and critic. She has an ellipsis tattoo and if you notice it and identify it correctly, she might fall in love with you. We don’t know how to pronounce her name.

Tim, 2006 – 2012 (ongoing), with various pigskins
Wim Delvoye
Photo Credit: MONA/Remi Chauvin