New York Trilogy, part 3

A Portrait of New York's Streets and Clouds, a Journey of an Artist

/ by JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)



Before I start with the last “seasonal” account portraying my experience of New York as a vast, spread out, condensed city of infinite realities between streets and clouds, I need to go back to the 8th of November 2016. The day that kickstarted the winter of 2017, the cold prelude to where we are now, and I mean it from socio-political and environmental point of view. Grandmothers used to hail, way before the famous Games of Thrones, that “the winter is coming.” The generation that outlived one of the darkest periods of human history, the Second World War, used to look out of its window, happy to be inside, knowing that outside, very soon, things would get deadly. But there was something grim about the challenge, facing the blade of nature, tucking in, filling up the cabinet with sauerkraut, sausages and pickled everything. The stack of cut wood and smell of the fire. Gathering around and listening to the stories, of when the Partisans fought back the Germans in the middle of the snow-covered forests. Stories of how good eventually did beat the evil, and the feeling that none of this, none of this horror will ever happen again. Never again will anger, ignorance, discrimination, racism, nationalism and us-above-them become a ruling ideology, a national tissue, a country's flag.


I was following the US elections closely, as it was becoming (as usual) nastier towards the end. Somehow the impossible, the unpredictable, the nightmare started looking more and more real. When I got up in the morning, on the 8th of November, something was off in the air, something had shifted in the atmosphere, and it was not good. Something went the other way, and it was telling me that, one more time, we will all have to adapt.


 A similar feeling was haunting me when I was still living in Italy, when Berlusconi managed to trick a nation. Overnight, in a split of a second, something changed everything in the air that we were all breathing. Overnight, it infested everyone's lungs.


That morning, on the 8th, I was on my way towards The White Box, a non-profit project space in Lower East Side. It was the night of my final act, within the group show “Acts of Sedition.” Prior to that, I came to the space, unannounced, on various days to change the color of the sculpture I’d exhibited. From yellow to pink, baby blue, black, and yellow again, to restart the circle. Since the show was extremely politically-charged, my statement was “changing the colors of the surface and letting the comments stick.” That night, it was about blue or red. Coming from the EU, the palate of colors goes well, but not the choices. As planned, my sculpture ended up becoming black on the 8th. The special “election night” event gathered many artists. There were various concerts, performances, actions, readings and, in general, a lot of commotion, nervousness and palpable anxiety, as nobody knew what to expect.


In correspondence with the first official results, artist Martha Rosler streamed, or better yet, VJed Fox TV and CNN simultaneously, as a double projection, while mixing their sound. Right before that, we concluded the final act of my “Above All We Are Not Done.” It consisted of calling artists to participate, and Jaanika, Siren, Maura, Giorgio, and Frank replied. We gathered in the basement of the space, where we cut out our hidden “resistance” space, or so we joked. We were all dressed in black, heads covered with hoods. I sprayed the statement during one of the other actions; then the rest joined me, as we created a circle around the piece. We stood like this, among the public for a while, building a silent but menacing presence. After my vocal signal, we all approached the piece, embraced it, leaned low and started lifting it. Once we reached head-height, we squeezed underneath, and there remained.


The temporary monument, a situation of real insecurity gripped the space and everyone within. Nobody knew how long we planned to endure, and how was it supposed to end. As the monument started shaking, the public realized that the possibility of a collapse was probable, that we might give in to obvious signs of fatigue.


“There will be a lot of snow tonight,” I heard him say over the telephone, “and when it does hit the city, it can get hardcore.” This was the first time I flew high up in the sky in my mind, and saw the tiny city of New York on the edge of a massive quantity of cold sea water, and all the movements above the Atlantic going one way.


“I suggest you stay in,” added Matthew over the phone.


“I thought so, and since we seem to be caving in at Aimee's, with an amazing dinner coming up, I think we will be more than all right,” I said laughing.


“Aha, a proper blizzard dinner,” he added.


The term, blizzard dinner, stuck in my mind, as that night happened to be something extraordinary. The beautiful warm atmosphere, the red wine, fabulous food, endless talks, while outside the city was getting a completely white and it was hard to decipher which direction the snow was coming from.


A year later, on a similar night, with blizzard warnings coming from everywhere, I bumped into a guy I knew from the neighborhood, nicknamed Sticks. Not long ago, I’d noticed he was around again, but noticeably changed. I was smoking a cigarette in front of a local bar, as he stopped and we started talking. After a while, I asked him why the change.


“I just got back from prison,” he said, looking me in the eye.


He is originally from Russia, and a struggling musician, who did a few things on the side, to get some extra money. He’d gotten busted. Now he was out and homeless. The next day, I met him again, when winter had seriously kicked in. He asked for help.


We got him home, got him some clothes. He asked for shoes, but then he was off. In the next days, the weather got worse, and I lost sight of him, only to see him again, outside, as I was caving in a bar with strangers that became our blizzard-survival night-ship. We offered him help and shelter, as the snow reached more than 60cm. The night was through, white days followed, but then things got complicated, really complicated. New York is such a dense city, with so many stories, and many of the dramatic ones, that only once you are in one (or many) of them do you understand your limits. You want to help, you need to, but it can get like opening the door to a flood. Despite the will and readiness, you can hit a reality that you cannot change, and the feeling of complete incompetence takes over.


New York is such a hard city, when it comes down to day-to-day survival, that there is not much you can do, but to recognize your limitations within which you can still act like a human being. Winter in a city is still for many what winters always represented for humans: Bare survival. And skyscrapers with big windows showcasing different realities to a biting wind, and snow on the outside, and you have all that is so paradoxically wrong with this humanity in a nutshell.


The grip of ice has not left this town, yet.


In 2014, I was in the middle of a residency in Red Hook, feverishly looking for a weeping willow, a unique tree of choice, and there was no way I could settle for any other.


New York was still under ice, and everything we found was either too far or just insanely expensive and complicated. But we needed that tree. It had to be brought to the space and hung in the air at precisely the right time – in bloom.


Life restarting its cycle, a tree in bloom inside, as outside the city is still covered in ice.


Every one of the team in those days contributed a piece of magic. It finally did happen. The tree came, right on time.


Once installed, the roots had to be watered continuously, so that it could stay up in the air for three days. Then, it had to be planted.


Today, she is the queen of the garden of Pioneer Works, as those days of tip-toe-ing stayed with so many. Tip-toeing between the dream, the impossible, the mere vision of something beautiful and all the obstacles that we faced, but somehow, we managed, and it happened.


Sometimes, general situations push us into complete paralysis, we freeze. Individual stories shook us to the ground, and test our options and capabilities. There is only this much I can do, when everything freezes over. But this much, in most cases, is not only good enough, but it is the intention and purity that does make a difference.


Last winter woke up a nation before spring, for long in many we have stated that, given the overwhelming influence of the USA, the world should have a say in their presidential elections. So, when I say a nation, I mean people from all over the world.


The new political scene has brought back worldwide tensions, indications, ideas, and power plays, which we all honestly thought we’d managed to overcome. There is still so, so much to do!


At the same time, what we are facing now, truly, is what was always there, in all the markets of this world. All the situations that you somehow naively encounter, with the best of intentions, working for some notion of general benefit, as cultural growth, moral and ethical consciousness, and you take your vocation as a path to growth, where you learn from your mistakes. You go crazy over the summer, you continue going nuts in the autumn, then nature stimulates you to turn inwards and meditate on your actions. We all need winters to question and improve.


I never felt so humiliated as I did the first week after the 8th of November, walking into my usual Latino deli or any other non-white reality, due to the comeback of the “great white” man. It was not the first time I felt that somehow everything that I did until then became irrelevant, and the more we talked, the more I realized that most people felt like that. Most of these new insecurities gave an incredible drive to all the positive that is happening today, from the Woman's march, “resist” initiatives to the most recent #MeToo movement. While incredibly positive things are happening, and people are outspoken, and more and more individuals find the courage to defend not only common sense, but a certain codex of values and beliefs, a worldwide situation is boiling. What the actual condition legitimized in people is what is making everything so unsafe and worrying. From small situations to world-defining direction. Anger as a mere, unreflected self-expression is ok, I agree, if I am at a heavy metal concert, or some other dark club, by my own choice...but not if, besides that, ignorance as a virtue, egomania, etc. tailor our everyday discussions, and the faith of the whole planet. It is simply bizarre. It is freezing and hitting harder and harder.


Nature does purify itself over winter. Grandmothers always celebrated the first snow, because it was the sign of the end of all the bacteria or viruses that caused diseases in children. Time for stories, by the warm fireplace, about long-gone wars and horrors of the human kind.


How much snow needs to fall to annihilate the infections festering the human condition?


Looking at it closely, it did not change much. People in the city, in the country that has always only tried to survive, will go on doing that. All the “skyscraper society” will change even less, or simply more of everything will be piled on, since it is completely back in fashion. The situation is more and more similar to the dark ages before the French revolution, the deep and widening abyss between the realities of the few rich and many poor.


And honestly, how did anyone believe that a spoiled millionaire would change anything for the poor? How could any spoiled king, with his head up his ass, walk down the hill?


Winter came, and it will clean streets of this City again. As we tuck in, looking in and out, in all possible directions. The period of enclosed places, boiling with new ideas and intentions, all waiting to bloom. One thing will happen, and this is a fact: Spring will come. And maybe the most beautiful period, not only in New York, but in any city.

JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)

is a Slovenian artist who lives and works in Ljubljana, Venice and New York.