I don’t want to hear about anyone’s pandemic anniversaries, and yet I feel compelled to tell you that the last thing I did, the last Real Thing, was exactly one year ago today, and it was going to the Spring/Break art show with my parents. One year ago, we were worried enough to bring hand sanitizer, which they also pumped on us before we went in; we were not worried enough to think better of spending a few hours inside a series of closed, crowded rooms.
Spring/Break is a weird, stochastic collection of installation art, monopolizing several floors of a midtown office building. I really like good installation art, which in practice means that I go to see a lot of mediocre installation art in the hopes that some of it will be good. If nothing else, the Spring/Break show is a great way to power through a whole lot of mediocre installation art at once. One of the pieces was a room with a few sculptural beech trees and drifts of fallen pink leaves, but all the leaves were silhouettes of sexy ladies: a commentary, apparently, on women as community and individuals. Some of my other photos from the show include: cardboard Coke cans with Garfield faces, a LaCroix 12-pack (box and cans) covered in Swarovski crystals, a pink palm tree sitting on top of a pile of sugar in a room lined with white plastic bags. But there were also some moments of real innovation, skill, humor, and beauty: a chair that seemed to be hewn from a block of coal, a geometric structure covered in delicate pastel mushrooms, a painstaking miniature island labeled “Fake Italy.”
My favorite installation was one that I couldn’t find in any press coverage, or the Spring/Break Instagram, or even the hashtag. I finally found the artist’s name—Geoffrey Owen Miller—in a post about the show from his alumni association. I’m not surprised, really; the piece is hard to photograph, and my single picture from the event doesn’t come close to capturing it. When you first enter the room, it looks like nothing much: a black floor, a white backdrop, and in front of it a number of translucent pieces of plastic wired together in the shape of an upside-down deer, hanging from the ceiling as if caught and dressed by a hunter. The plastic has a slight sheen up close, but against the backlit white the structure fades to a pencil sketch. It looks like nothing, absolutely nothing. Then you walk a few feet closer and look down. The floor is a cool black mirror, and reflected in it, an iridescent rainbow deer, right side up and free, in a rainbow forest full of rainbow birds.
A year on, with the knowledge of all that’s come since, it is of course tempting to make this into symbolism. I want to spin out an analogy that lands on the claim that the colorless, featureless shapes of this past year will, when we reflect on them, burst into meaning. I wish I could tell you that and believe it. Instead, I fear a grimmer metaphor: that what seemed drab against the relative light will be revealed, as the background darkens, to have been the best time we had left in our lives, the last year before it got worse. The endless posts about pandemic anniversaries are suspended, trussed like a deer, between cynicism and hope. This has been going on so long, they say, and this is not over, and what does a year mean, anyway—but also this is a discrete event, this had a beginning, by extension presumably this will have an end. This may well be true of the pandemic. It will not be true of the collapse.
For the first few months of all this, I would occasionally say, with no obvious preamble, “I can’t believe that fucking art show is the last thing we ever did!” With vaccines creeping towards wide availability, perhaps it won’t remain the last thing we ever did, but it will always be the last thing we did before. And while I’d obviously now give anything to stand in a midtown office building looking at cardboard Coke cans with Garfield faces, or something equally silly, it has come home hard that every day has this potential: to be the last day before everything changed. This only becomes more true as the spiral narrows, as the breakdown speeds up. The first thing we do after this disaster may well be the last thing before the next one. This is what it means to live at the end of the American experiment, at the end of human habitability on the planet: almost everything you do is going to be the last thing you do before something. Before the outbreak, before the hurricane, before the insurrection, before the fire, freeze, famine, flood. They won’t all affect everyone, like the pandemic has; they won’t all affect you. But more and more of them will.
This is depressing, of course, but hard to deny. Still, isn’t the point of good art that it’s always open to interpretation? Maybe the message here is that what seems transparent now, almost invisible, will burst against the gathering blackness into iridescent brilliance. Maybe it’s only in hovering above the impossible dark, looking down, that we will see the shape of what the world could be, what it always was if we’d known how to look. It’s nice to think so, isn’t it? Surely that darkness must do something. Surely it can’t just be encroaching doom. So maybe that’s the story: the black hole that offers up, at just the right angle, a glimpse of a better place. You always have to tell yourself a story, after all.
That art show was not my parents’ Last Thing—they went out for a drink on March 13, the final day before most of New York shut down. This year, March 13 will be two weeks after their second shot: the day the world opens back up for them. They’re going out to the same bar. Somehow, in the midst of the giant ending, there are small beginnings too. The day after the art show I took a blurry, blown-out picture of the first daffodil of the year, its implicit optimism already improbable. Now it seems impossible, delirious, and yet: another March means another spring. The daffodils keep coming up as the world runs down its clock. We sit and hold hands across a bar table as the cliff we’re perched on crumbles into the sea.
A lot of the time lately, I feel like we’re running just ahead of the void. The end is both ahead of us and nipping at our heels, every day the last day before some new loss. I recently reread The Neverending Story, which ‘80s kids will remember features a fantasy land plagued by a creeping nothingness that eats holes in the world. The book is twice as long as the film, the defeat of the Nothing only the end of Act I—but this means that right at the heart of the novel is the image of a beautiful labyrinthine palace garden pockmarked with patches of oblivion, which cut off the paths and fade the trees to transparency. This is the image that speaks to me, as I try to avoid rank nihilism while hurtling towards the end. I was fortunate enough to be born, if not in the palace, then in the garden; I am trying to cling to those scraps of green until the Nothing closes in. But it could be worse. At least there are flowers here.
I hope we have many more last days together, friends. It’s probably the best we can wish for. And maybe, against all the odds, amid all the last days, we will find a way to build something strong: a forest of rainbow on black, a world that isn’t dying. The deer alive and running through the trees, the abyss only a reflecting pool. The last last day of the rest of our lives.
Hey pals, my book comes out tomorrow. I’ll also be doing events with Books Are Magic on 3/18 and Women and Children First on 3/25, plus others TBA. Main newsletter essays remain free but paying subscribers will get both some newsletter outtakes and some book outtakes in the coming weeks, so if you’re interested in meeting the darlings I slaughtered, consider subscribing. Thank you!