We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
When I was in high school, the few friends I had all lived in other states—the far-flung gains of various summer camps—which meant that I took a lot of long train trips on weekends. On these rides, I developed the habit of sitting next to a very specific kind of stranger: a middle-aged man who looked lonely. The goal was to find someone who’d talk nonstop. That was how I met Tom Malone: on the train from New York to Raleigh. Over the course of the eight-hour journey, he talked about everything from his government job to his pit bull’s separation anxiety. He told me he used to braid his ex-wife’s hair every night, back when they were married. He explained in detail the reasons Amtrak’s business model was bound to fail. He said my name a lot, and with formality: “Here’s the thing, Jean,” and so on.
I’d never felt safer in my life, sitting next to Tom—his belly like a life raft, and me nodding like a therapist. At one point though, he ruined the spell. He said, “You look exactly like that girl Lennon dated. What’s her name.”
“Yoko Ono?” I said.
“No, no, not Yoko Ono. Oh, darn it. May. May Pang? You know her? Lost weekend?” I didn’t know her. And I wanted us to go back to talking about him.
About five years ago, when I first saw the work of artist Laurel Nakadate, I could have sworn that she had cast Tom in one of her videos, which feature middle-aged, sometimes overweight, mostly white men who had approached her in the street or hit on her in parking lots. In return, she’d invited them to go home with her and act out strange one-on-one scenarios in front of video cameras. We see them shaking her inert body and yelling, “Wake up! Wake up!” or performing an exorcism, or sharing a birthday cake. In a scene from I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2006), her hirsute costar strips down to his loose-fitting underpants, while she takes off everything but her bra and panties. Then, with her index finger, she traces a clockwise circle in the air over his head. It’s a signal for him to spin around, which he does, while she watches, unblinking and tender. Read More
“If you want to be famous,” photographer Miroslav Tichý once said, “you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.” Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, Tichý spent decades taking voyeuristic photographs of women bathing. His subjects are caught unawares, often through fences or peepholes, in an erotically isolated moment. The pictures are spotted, blurred, crooked, scratched, and underexposed—done, by any conventional standards, “badly.” These flaws of execution are surpassed only by the crudeness of Tichý’s cameras, which were made with materials such as shoeboxes, tin cans, toilet-paper rolls, sandpaper, and toothpaste.
Tichý the man was equally disheveled. A ragged town eccentric, he had been trained as a classical painter but quit the academy after the Communist takeover forced artists to focus on socialist subjects. He remained, however, a diligent practitioner of the arts. He took three rolls of film a day, printed each negative only once, and embellished the prints with homemade frames. The results amount to a clever commentary on the state; his disguised cameras and the atmosphere of surveillance in his work subtly allude to the surveillance of the society at large. But the furtive pictures are also beautiful. They recall the scratched bodies of Degas’s bathers; they presage the soft focus of Richter. Their imperfection imprints them with the personal. As Tichý himself said, “A mistake. That’s what makes the poetry.” Read More