The Subjective Fog: For Julian Hoeber
November 6, 2013 | by Jonathan Lethem
1. Her Voice in the Night. The disc jockey broadcasts all night from the lighthouse. She back-announces her selections in a murmuring, insinuating tone that, while it wouldn’t disturb a sleeper, might seduce the long-distance trucker or the fisherman on the deck of a boat offshore, some night-shift laborer twiddling the dials of a transistor, barely able to grasp its signal through the wavering night air.
2. The Swamp. Yet no, we find we will have to adjust this account. This account is out of order, already entirely misleading, we must begin again; for in this place, there are no long-distance truckers or fishermen on boats. The lighthouse stands not at the juncture of land and sea but at the periphery of a swamp, a vast mire around which the city has erected itself. The lighthouse, once a bold, phallic monument, is dwarfed by skyscrapers, by the cathedral-like domes of vaulted banks, by gleaming condominiums, by monuments of commerce. The lighthouse is only a relic, dragged here by those with an intention to junk it. For it is also the case that the swamp has become the city’s dump. Perhaps the planners once believed the city’s detritus could landfill the mire, stabilize its quicksand core. The swamp might, after the disposal of tonnages of the city’s inconvenient clutter, become ground upon which a pleasant children’s park or a serviceable parking lot could be constructed. But no. The acreage has instead displayed a seemingly infinite capacity for engulfing the rejected material, for devouring structure and remaining nonetheless a moist and murky swamp.
3. The City and the Swamp. The city encircles the swamp and does its best to ignore it. The swamp is central, like the eye of a storm or a cyclops, but it is also an occlusion, a mote, a sty in the larger eye of the city proper. The swamp is an asshole or an armpit. This gesture of comparison is incomplete, may have to be abandoned. This comparison itself has been dragged, by “a man with a van” who will accept payment only in cash, to the swamp.
4. The Actress Playing the Disc Jockey. The disc jockey is played by the daughter of a silent-film star. The disc jockey is played by the daughter of a ventriloquist famous for the success of his puppet act on the radio. The disc jockey is played by the daughter of the most famous murdered starlet in Hollywood history. The disc jockey is played by the daughter of the director who murdered the starlet. This investigation into the provenance of the actress playing the disc jockey in the lighthouse will need to be extended before we can reach any certainty in the matter. All that has fallen into our hands is tawdry and secondhand. We live in an age where every performer is less celebrated than their parent before them and we no longer question this; it is a matter beyond mere nepotism, more as though the sons and daughters of the stars we recall from the former era are nothing less than human emblems of the exhausted and degraded world we have inherited, a constellation of materials that can only be recuperated by the good faith of our attentions.
5. Fusion. The music she plays is, almost exclusively, the worst and most tedious type of jazz, a sort of easy-listening fusion. Most of what we care for these days consists of a “fusion” of one thing and another, yet in our self-loathing, we reserve this word for the abominable music of the kind played by the disc jockey in the lighthouse.
6. A Tendril. She pauses between tracks—let us admit now that we would endure any extent of the music just to hear her speak, that we hang on each purred syllable—and warns the late-night listener that on an otherwise clear night over the sky of the city a tendril of fog has begun to emerge from the swamp. She promises to keep an eye on the situation, to provide updates on further developments. She drops the needle on the next record.
7. He Arises. It is only in peripheral vision that the Subjective Fog arises. The Subjective Fog is born out of negligence. The Subjective Fog is born in sonic static, that deeper fusion located in the space between radio stations, the alien ambient hum of cicadas in the suburban backyard. The Subjective Fog is born where one margin encounters another. It arises where two edge trimmers on neighboring lawns are adjusted to differing lengths and therefore set up a pattern of interference at their meeting point; it is in the “bad” but nonetheless interesting haircut your girlfriend bestowed upon you. It is born in the hairs that are neither a part of your stomach’s fur nor are fully pubes, those shameful to display yet absurd to shroud in modesty. Cinch your belt like a weird old man or let your unstable boundaries blurt forth. The Subjective Fog is born when the stripe painter too fulsomely loads his brush, in his carelessness leaving a blob of juicy pigment against the edge of the tape he has applied to his canvas, then too eagerly rips away this tape so that the blob of paint transgresses the limit of his intention, violates the antiseptic cordon of his concept. The fucking painting is ruined. The painter’s assistant carts the ruined stripe painting to the swamp and tosses it in, along with half-eaten chicken salad sandwiches in white paper wrapping and sticky bottles of orange soda his boss compulsively consumes during working hours, and with which the assistant must keep him supplied. Into the swamp it all goes. It is above all from the blob of paint that the Subjective Fog arises.
8. He Moves. The Subjective Fog arises and walks. He moves in that tendril of fog that, although attenuated, remains anchored in the swamp, an umbilical tentacle. The disc jockey pauses between tracks to give notice of this development to anyone who might be listening. “Folks, it appears to be headed downtown.”
9. In Search of a Mirror. The Subjective Fog is, first and foremost, in search of a mirror. The great difficulty in this pursuit consists of the following: the Subjective Fog cannot discern between what he sees when he gazes, in the manner of Narcissus, into the swamp from which he emerged—the surface of which is matte, variegated, and unreflective, yet nonetheless a fair approximation of what one would see by gazing upon the Subjective Fog itself—and the glossy burnished windows and brushed-metal surfaces of the towers of the city, which reveal to him more or less the same image. Either he’s invisible, or he’s everywhere. Either everything’s a mirror, or nothing is. He who knows subjectivity burns at the Subjective Fog’s glance.
10. The Museum. The Subjective Fog enters the art museum. Possibly he goes in a pursuit not unlike that of his mirror quest, seeking self-knowledge through mediation, indirection, an obscure glance of a telling artifact through a distance of several rooms. Perhaps he is seeking a sip from the drinking fountain or shelter from the sun’s punishment within the museum’s formidable air conditioning. Perhaps he has been told the museum is a good place to pick up chicks.
11. Art. The Subjective Fog doesn’t know much about art but he knows what he likes when he sees it. The Subjective Fog is pretty sure his five-year-old could have painted that.
12. Minimalist Sculpture. When a concerned citizen alerts the museum guards, the Subjective Fog discovers he possesses the power to assume the shape of a nearby minimalist sculpture. So, by the time a posse of guards and museum staff has been aroused and begun searching the rooms, they scurry past him without taking any notice whatsoever. There is nothing that demands less attention, after all, than a large minimalist sculpture. After they are safely past, the Subjective Fog finds himself entirely alone in the room with the sculpture whose shape he has assumed. The Subjective Fog realizes he has a hard-on. The Subjective Fog attempts to make out with the original sculpture, but he is unable to obtain any response.
13. The Movies. The Subjective Fog goes to the movies. There, in the chiaroscuro of black and white, he glimpses a vision of himself driving recklessly along a coastal road, enmeshed in a tendril of primordial saline mist, which, despite the keen pressure of his foot on the gas pedal, he finds himself, unsurprisingly, unable to outrace. His doppelgänger turns to the woman in the seat beside him and says, “I was born when you kissed me, I died when you left me, I lived a few weeks when you loved me …” The woman gives him a worried look. The Subjective Fog is getting a little intense.
14. The Studio. The Subjective Fog has become a painter. In his studio, a row of canvases lines the wall, variations on a theme. The Subjective Fog moves from one to the next, in the manner of a chess grandmaster who has taken on a dozen opponents at one time. He daubs at each canvas thoughtfully, raising his hand to judge the distance between his thumb and the canvas. The radio is playing. Between songs, the Subjective Fog hears the voice of the disc jockey broadcasting from the lighthouse overlooking the swamp, his swamp. The disc jockey plays, in succession, “Lonely Boy,” “One Is the Loneliest Number,” “Alone Again (Naturally),” and “Another Day.” Then the disc jockey interrupts her music for a breaking news bulletin: “The Subjective Fog is still at large.” The Subjective Fog glances at the floor and sees that the umbilical tendril remains visible like a slug’s trail, leading to where he stands at the canvases. He extends his claws and shreds the canvas before him.
15. His Claws. So often the Subjective Fog reaches out with what he believes is a gentle touch—his razor-sharp skeleton sheathed within its containment of sludge, his weaponry muffled in glop—to discover that he has unsheathed his claws, and that they have injured what he merely sought to caress. It is not only his hands that present this difficulty. His mind is a claw. His cock is a claw. His paintbrush is a claw. Once, the Subjective Fog went in for a routine medical procedure. The doctor removed a cyst from within his digestive tract, and when it was sent in for biopsy, the lab reported that the cyst was in fact a vestigial twin, a little ball of incompletely developed nerve and organ tissue, covered in fine silky fur. The Subjective Fog’s cyst also had tusks. Now, in his studio, the Subjective Fog is retrieved to the present by the voice of the disc jockey. Her voice is beautiful and ethereal and touches him in a deep place. The Subjective Fog imagines that the place her voice touches is the same cavity that once housed his cyst with tusks. Now, in his studio, the Subjective Fog cocks his head and stares at the result of his impulsive swipe at the canvas. It might look better this way.
16. A Director. The Fog is directing a movie. He has been reassured by the movie’s producers that he need not possess the technical expertise he commonly associates with the medium: anyone, they have told him, can direct. His directors of photography and lighting will arrange for the composition of each shot, the actors have been provided the script, craft services has provided a mountain of grub, the continuity girl is world-class, the gaffers shall gaff, and the fluffers fluff, and so forth. All that is required of the Subjective Fog is that he sit in the chair. That he preside. That he abide. A director’s gaze is required to animate the proceedings. The Subjective Fog occupies the chair. He raises a finger for silence and a hush falls on the set. He is on the verge of dropping his finger to cue the scene’s action when he notices a detail not in keeping with his vision. The actor’s hand … if it could only be moved, in its place, on the actress’s thigh … here, just an inch or two further … The Subjective Fog reaches out. The actress’s thigh is bleeding.
17. Therapist’s Office. The Subjective Fog presses himself against the door of the therapist’s office. The radio in the waiting room plays soft jazz, mellow fusion. Has he come wishing to play the role of the patient? To recline on the couch and decant himself before the listener’s restrained judgment? Could it really be that a mere couch could bear his weight, tolerate the spill of his form? He imagines the voice of his therapist as that of the disc jockey in the lighthouse overlooking the swamp. The voice emanating from within him, the murky music of self, the songs. The gentle suasion of her back announcements making sense of it all, knitting a coherent mix, easing any passing listener through the dark hours. Or perhaps the Subjective Fog wishes instead to be the therapist. Let another occupy the couch. Let the Subjective Fog be the listener, the half-attentive, withholding witness, glancing intermittently at his timepiece. Let him collect the fee, let him adjust the white noise machine so that the suffering is mitigated, so that no one, not even the speaker of the complaints, can any longer distinguish them from the drone of the universe, from the silent whirring of distant satellites as they orbit the earth. Yet again, no. This wasn’t it, not quite. The Subjective Fog found he wished to seep through the door of the therapist’s office, wished to join himself to the primal scene there, yet not as patient nor therapist. Let him in his abysmal immanence be the one to bear the weight. Let him in his bottomless yearning remain when the lights are extinguished, the door locked. Let him be the couch.
Reprinted from the exhibition catalog Julian Hoeber, published by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2013. All images courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.