Bill T. Jones started to sing, as he stepped out from the audience. He sang an old spiritual, and he slowly stepped down the stairs moving into the main stage, and his body swayed, his feet began to tap. The Kitchen, a black-box theatre located in Chelsea, Manhattan, a catalyst for much of experimental art and music on recent times, was his stage, his artistic home. And yet, he was not here to perform, he was not here to start a new program, he was here for a memorial service.
Gretchen Bender had passed away at the age of 53, to the shock of her friends and colleagues who came to honor her on that cold January day. Many influential figures of the art world, like Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo and Elizabeth Streb were present. Her sister Valerie Godwin, whose husband Clyde pastored my home church, The Village Church, introduced us in 1999. Gretchen then graciously took part in my TriBeCa Temporary project, which I curated after September 11th, 2001.
Gretchen, as many participants in the service recalled, remained in the background of the emerging media art phenomena in the eighties. She was a pioneer in this new form as New York Times’ critic Roberta Smith wrote in her obituary. She was part of “the generation of early 1980’s Pictures Artists…Combining aspects of Conceptual Art and Pop Art, these artists used the images of popular culture to dissect its powerful codes, especially regarding gender and sexuality. “Many credit her today with pioneering “the rapid-fire hyperediting now pervasive in film, television and video art.”
Her accomplishments range from PBS documentary to museum retrospectives. But to me, her public work of 1990’s collaboration with Miran Fukuda, in the Tameike-Sanno station in Tokyo continue to be etched in my mind.
Tameike-Sanno Collaboration appropriated, ironically, the images of the World Trade Towers. When I visited her studio, located in Southstreet Seaport near Ground Zero, she told me of her experience after 9/11: “I was sitting on the steps in front of my studio, reading an article in a newspaper about the ‘butterflies’ the Russians had dropped all over Afghanistan in the last war and I looked up from the paper and stared blankly as I tried to comprehend the meaning of the article: what kind of cruelty was it that children picked up these ‘butterflies’ floating down and were blown apart… A sense of general despair for the world began to creep into my whole being when, suddenly, two feet in front of me, a REAL butterfly floated by my face. I couldn’t move in astonishment. I had never seen a butterfly in all my years on South Street and it was November and it was ground zero air quality and where did this fragile emanation appear from? All those souls lifting out of the white dust, off the collapsed shards – a sacrifice, a gift, a hope, for a spiritual shift in the world.”
She then created an installation for TriBeCa Temporary project that became a highlight of our six months effort to “create an oasis of collaboration for Ground Zero artists.” She folded hundreds of white origami butterflies, and carefully arranged them on the floor, re-presenting her experience that, she repeatedly told me, was her “resurrection moment”. Then she told me something remarkable: “I could never do this in Chelsea galleries or museums.” I asked her “why?” She answered “well, it’s too tender, and beautiful.”
One of her friends reminded me, at the memorial, this was the last work that she ever exhibited.
It was evident to those who attended the memorial service how much she struggled with the hype, the greed and the back-stabbing that characterized the art world. She was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and too unguarded. Her long time partner Mitchell Wagenberg, shared how he wrote down pages and pages of how the art world had destroyed her, but then felt to restrain his comments. He nevertheless wanted to convey how she was victimized and swallowed up by the vicious realities of the art world, and felt betrayed. But perhaps Mitchell did not have to share the details his notes. The service started to take on a confessional tone, where one after another, emotive expressions by artists recalled her delicate nature, giving account of their personal struggles in their relationships with her, and with each other. Perhaps the language used in describing the scene was too brutally honest for some. One of my friends commented afterwards: “I’ve never heard so many four-letter words at a memorial service!”
After Bill T Jones spoke and sang, one of Gretchen’s assistants stood to share a song. It was a song that Gretchen listened to in her studio on her tape player. The worn-out tape is by an underground artist I’ve never heard before called Daniel Johnston1, but the assistant said, “it’s from First Corinthians 13 in the Bible.” I was surprised, as I knew how much Gretchen struggled with the church and Christianity. And yet when he started to sing, almost everyone in the room knew the tune, except, ironically, those of us who were Christians. We knew the words well, but not the tune. “Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way…Love never ends.”
Perhaps Gretchen herself was “too tender and beautiful” for the art world after all. Perhaps she saw herself in that butterfly, a lone specter of a strange mystery in terrible dark days. Where would a creative butterfly like Gretchen migrate to? Would the art world continue to alienate and divide in our Darwinian grasp for a flash of spotlight? Would we then miss the small “resurrection moments” of our ordinary days? Gretchen, at last, saw the butterfly. Perhaps we would miss it or ignore it even if it flew in front of our eyes. Perhaps what we wanted to acknowledge on that cold day in January was the reality of how far we have fallen short of our own expectations and, even, our desires.
If Elaine Scarry (Beauty and Being Just, Princeton Press) is correct, true beauty forces us to admit our errors. Perhaps, in missing Gretchen, would we admit the vulnerability, and unguarded innocence of a true artistic experience? Would a community of broken, brutally honest, creative people lead the way for admission of our errors? The small, avant-garde theatre in Chelsea, for but a fleeting moment, became one communal confessional box, filling it with hymns and spiritual songs.
As I left The Kitchen (only to return in a few months later to do a collaboration called, ironically, Shangri-La), I felt certain of Jesus’ presence in that room. As the author and fulfillment of that song by Daniel Johnston, He would have invited himself there, as the manifestation of the “unknown, rejected” singer of a worn out tape of old. And there, his “dancing has turned into mourning” (Lamentations 5:15). At that moment, he would certainly have been unguarded, and perhaps as vulnerable as a single monarch flying in the ashes of Sept. 11th.
- Daniel Johnston was recently featured in a Sundance Film winning documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig (https://www.thedevilanddanieljohnston.com)