vulture paper stacks

I wish I could have seen Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s show “Untitled (Vultures)” (1995). I grew up in South Florida where the vultures are constantly circling. It was actually not until I moved to the Midwest that I saw some vultures up close. There is a big, craggy rock wall out at a place called the Coralville dam, and one summer it was covered with dry, shifting black vultures.

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I once dreamed about a vulture whose head wasn’t red but instead like rainbow-colored bubble gum. In another dream, one of the most vivid I’ve ever had, a group of vultures slowly emerged out of the bright light of a fog.

candy heap

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Freud famously wrote about da Vinci’s obsession with vultures. Leonardo: “I seem to have been destined to be especially concerned with the vulture, for one of the first things I remember about my childhood is how a vulture came to me when I was still in the cradle, forced my mouth open with its tail, and struck me several times between the lips with it.”

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Tibetan sky burial is accomplished by vultures. In ancient Egypt, the vulture was associated with the goddess Isis and maternity. The church fathers used the vulture, thought to be inseminated by the wind, as an example of virgin birth. Vultures of course also signify something or someone parasitic or ghoulish.

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From the Times, August 26, 2015: “But the birds that once feasted on that misfortune, the janitors that clean the grassy plains, are collapsing—part of a broader decline in vulture populations that throws off ecosystems and illustrates how far-reaching the effects of poaching, poisoning and other human interventions can be.”

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Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled (Vultures)” is, as Holland Cotter put it, “just a dozen or so grainy photographs of vultures circling high in a clouded sky.”

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“Untitled (Vultures)” had a press release with a statement by Barbara Streisand, an excerpt from Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini:

I Work All Day

[...] With the calm courage of a scientist,
I watch myself being massacred.
I seem to feel hate and yet I write
verses full of painstaking love.
I study treachery as a fatal phenomenon,
almost as if I were not its object.
I pity the young fascists,
and the old ones, whom I consider forms
of the most horrible evil, I oppose
only with the violence of reason.
Passive as a bird that sees all, in flight,
and carries in its heart,
rising in the sky,
an unforgiving conscience.

Pasolini here describes a certain type of poet/vulture whose confused passivity he finds contemptuous. Gonzalez-Torres, facing his own mortality at the time of “(Untitled) Vultures,” contends with the vulture as an emblem of mortality but also—given the institutional context of the work—takes aim at the inert, dutiful, yet unforgiving vultures of the creative class, academia, journalism, etc.

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From an interview with Gonzalez-Torres: “…[A]s Hispanic artists we’re supposed to be very crazy, colorful—extremely colorful. We are supposed to ‘feel,’ not think.”

carpet

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From Rimbaud’s “The Savior Bumped Upon His Heavy Butt,” quoted in the press release:

Forget your filthy charities, you hypocrite;
I hate the look in your runny rag-doll eyes!
Whining for papa like a snot-nosed kid,
An idiot waiting for music from on high!

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I love Gonzalez-Torres’s vulnerability—how his heaps of candy and reams of paper get picked away at by curious vultures—and his ferocity—how he’s never too fragile to shine and risk ruin. There is a way in which artist and work each play both the corpse and the vulture.

FGT: “I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. If I function like a virus, an impostor, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.”

Also: “I’m not afraid of making mistakes, I’m afraid of keeping them. I have destroyed a lot of pieces–I like the excitement of fucking up royally…. I don’t know, I never had anything to lose…”

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For me, the vulture serves as an emblem for a writing on the margins that has nothing to lose. It’s the writing of this nothing and no one—sack of flesh, spec of dirt, bag of bones—into possibility’s skies. It’s the recovery of what’s been lost or discarded retranslated into a clatter under talons, music.

The vulture also serves as an emblem for writing that anticipates the disaster, writing that is attuned to human beings changing as a consequence of the earth’s changing. Poetry’s work in the time of disaster is to sense how the structure is shifting, to sense how the demands of the planet are reconfiguring the possibilities of identity, to explore and extend what possibilities of existence and relation are open to us in this transition, and to affirm possibility’s openness as the corrective to law’s foreclosures.

Originally Published: September 3rd, 2015

Poet and editor Robert Fernandez was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in Miami. He earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the collections We Are Pharaoh (2011), Pink Reef (2013), and Scarecrow (Wesleyan University Press, 2016). He is also the co-translator, with Blake Bronson-Bartlett,...