Trisha Low’s lyric ruminations on art writing, gestures of refusal, and the unresolvable desire for shared utopia amidst crisis and collapse.
I get in a car and we drive to the beach. A cave, dented into the cliff by salt spray, bedded with sand and glassy detritus. We clamber into it, bodies bracketed by the debris of human luxury. The Sutro Baths ruins, a seaside spa from the 1950s built to be extravagant—all pools and high ceilings—now succumbed to the fury of the elements. Mossed wood and flooded foundation, melting into an oceanic backdrop. I hear a hollow drip from deep within the cave. I lick my lips and swallow; the saliva hits my belly. It’s funny how things turn themselves over. They always return, somehow.
How best to account for a life?—this was the question I asked myself when I first started writing Socialist Realism. I did not want to report my existence with fact or to excuse it with gloss. I had become disinterested in argument. I had become bored of finding direction. I wanted to show my life with all of its moving parts. How living meant I had to twist the banal—what I ate, where I shopped—to fit awkwardly with ideology, like a torn puzzle piece. How this trash fire world sometimes engulfed me, and I too, spit its venom—structural capitalism, racism, authoritarianism seeping deeply into the way I desired, what I desired.
I did not know of a form that would hold it all. Life, that is. Poetry was too effusive and fiction too distant. What I did know—that every day I tried to solve my most intimate problems by writing about conceptual tangles of art and performance. That I understood the abstraction of critical theory best by mapping it onto messy geometries of love and friendship. That I found political affinity in Carly Rae Jepsen, the ecstasy of resistance an undercurrent to the pop music blaring through my headphones.
In the end, I wrote an “essay.” But life never resolves any of its hostile categories, genres or complexities, not really. And sometimes, things move across these boundaries, meet each other, are beautiful; apt. So I tried to make a book that feels like how living does—how despite everything, and in all its forms, it just happens. It just goes on—
Like how yesterday; I got lunch with Noah—his sister’s better from surgery, god, I love health insurance. Remember the literary scandal that was so five years ago well, he had the updates du jour. What about that book from Duke University Press, about racial melancholia, right they’re great, they did that one Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor too, about music during the AIDS crisis, I liked the playlists. I’m doing a Gertrude Stein cover at the reading, Claire sent me her pet dog’s family tree. And the new exhibition at BAMFA, the artist who made cat portraits out of tiny cat faces? Yeah, I have to go to the vet tomorrow, she’s getting so old—
—In other words, I recorded a Möbius strip of events, memories, imperatives, beliefs, intensities—how they pass, then come back into focus and return.
In the cave, Tooth sets up the generator by flashlight, the 16mm projector settled beside it. Black night sky, the roar of the waves, strobing beam of light. I can make out the figures long before they approach, but it takes standing nose-to-nose for them to mutate into people. I recognise a few by their trimmings—a familiar beanie, the outline of hair, that fleece blanket from the living room, cold. Two years ago, I was here, but alone. I wore heeled boots, teetered on a rotting wooden beam in the day-long sunshine. I bent down and touched its barnacles. Now, it’s different. Things are darker. Time, too, is a cluster. Depends which angle you’re looking at it. In the cave, the hiss of the fog machine, smoke floods in.
I see it coming before it happens; I watch the person in front of me disappear head first into the encroaching white cloud, its yawn. I’m swallowed too, a sweet chemical scent. The world fades out and my brain pulses with the film, circles of light expanding out onto slick surfaces of stone. The smoke around me is dense with evocation—blizzard of snow, steam from my mom’s fish, aromatic with ginger and scallion. Yellow clouds of sulphur in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. Scorched smell of tear gas at the protest, hovering sweat beneath a too-warm mask.
I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger in the cold, remembering in class how Barbara read Marx to us, “to be sensuous, that is to be really existing, means to be an object of sense, to be a sensuous object, to have sensuous objects outside oneself—objects of one’s sensuousness. To be sensuous is to suffer.”
I didn’t write a theory or polemic. I hope that I wrote something else instead. Something with which to examine how we feel, and therefore exist under the treacherous conditions of this world. To celebrate the moments we can exist sensuously, as strange shapes clicking in the dark, together yet apart, present yet uncertain; suffering into collective being.
Something like being in the fog; to know possibility amidst the ruins.
Excerpt from Socialist Realism
I’m lying in bed, very still. I don’t want to go to work, so I’m trying to detect any symptoms of possible sickness. If I’m sick of anything, it’s the weight of revolution. I want the promise of something better, sure, but I also want the minor. I want the weak underbelly, our routine deficiencies. I want every symptom of hard-lined ideological fantasy—of burn-the-banks communism, or formal aesthetics, or queer separatism. I want it alongside the real and fateful knowledge that we will necessarily fail to live it.
It’s now. It’s a year later. I see that Jenny Holzer piece on the internet all the time, white text on a black background that says, “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.”1 I can’t actually think of many ways to survive late capitalism, so it feels ill fitting, a little like consulting WebMD—how every diagnosis is cancer. I’m in the kitchen, eating eggs with Claire. She tells me another friend of hers is thinking of planning an action to take over a space—to quietly craft or arrange flowers together within it, a tender form of protest. They’re tired of holding signs and stalking angrily around the lake. I’m weary of it too. I say, “Sometimes I think it’s funny how the aspirations of what we call full communism are so much gentler than what everyone likes to remember. I mean, what is it anyway? It’s subsistence farming, right?” “Are you hungry?” I ask Claire. I say, “Let’s face it, the end goal of revolution is just everybody eating salad in a field together.” I’m lying on my couch, wrapped in a pink fleece blanket, wondering what would happen if the austerity of smash-the-state revolution were a little bit more like the gentleness of coming home.
I know, I know, that’s fucked up. For any revolution to be a revolution, you have to burn it all to the ground. And after that, what even is salad anymore? Wanting the end goal of revolution to feel cozy and familiar would likely end in some reformist compromise—a “central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise,”2 as Orwell imagined.
It’d be a little like wanting to kill yourself but not wanting to die.
For that impertinent impossibility, though, José would have liked it.3
“California Dreamin’.” We’re driving and it’s on the radio. Is it the Mamas and the Papas, or the Carpenters?
It’s strange, how our visions of a better life are barely ever new.
It’s, what, four years ago? I’m back in London, a place that gradually, since boarding school, has become another home. I’m tired, jet-lagged, and the world starts to black out around the edges of my vision. I stop by the Tate Modern to catch my breath. I’m sitting dead center in the Kazimir Malevich exhibition, in front of his Black Square, thinking about how much I love art that is a simple gesture of refusal. Refusal to give you any explanation for a deeply arbitrary world. When I look at Malevich’s best-known painting, sneering within its uneven white borders, I know he wasn’t interested in discovering some new aesthetic form that could sustain a common language. No. He was interested in the dissolution of communication, in negating every possibility. He was interested in how refusal, stark and unadorned, has an elegance all of its own.
I’m sitting in the last room of the exhibition, and because it’s a retrospective, I have to contend with the horror of watching an artist degenerate into his own sentimentality. For some artists, it’s a return to the scaffolding of a more conservative form. For others, it’s complacency: a softening of what they’ve already accomplished into what’s weaker, nostalgic, pinker (literally pinker, I like to think, in Henri Matisse’s case). But the change in Malevich’s later work is less personal, less emotional. The conservatism of his final portraits suggests he’s succumbed to a state-mandated socialist realism.
A style of representational art that glorified communist values and romanticised the lives of a heroic proletariat class, socialist realism was the only form of art sanctioned by the Soviet government after the rise of the Soviet Union in 1932. In drastic contrast to the Russian futurism of artists like Malevich, who wanted to enact a complete refusal of bourgeois values by breaking with traditional aesthetic representation, socialist realism was communist ideology made material, meant to inspire the masses to become the kinds of citizens the Soviet Union needed most: strong, healthy, and unquestionably optimistic about the future of their country.
In line with the state’s demands, Malevich was forced to relinquish his avant-garde refusal in favour of propaganda. He was made to take part in the compulsory artistic commemoration of glorious revolution—something “to be transmitted over distance, preserved as history, viewed as models, enjoyed as sources of pleasure,”4 as Robert Bird and his co-editors describe in Vision and Communism. Because of this, Malevich’s final paintings are a “celebration” of idyllic post-revolution everyday life—abstractly pastoral portraits of workers in fields, in factories, their natural habitats. In the distance, rainbow paths lead across the rolling hills. But just one thing stands in the way of these portraits’ total realism—each person wears a blank colored circle instead of a face.
I’m at the Tate Modern, and I need to pee. It’s starting to hurt. I can’t find the bathroom, so I peer into the blank, sky-blue oval of a farmer’s head. I twist one leg around the other. There’s a slight remnant of refusal in its glossy, abstract indifference, its suggestion of homogeneity. A mild hint that the communist haven he’s depicting might not be all it’s cracked up to. There’s something uncanny that remains in Malevich’s portraits, a sardonic refrain that we, the people, have made it! That the revolution has been won! The perfect homeland has finally arrived! These late portraits suggest that in life under Soviet communism, everyone is equal, and therefore equally content. There is no longer any reason to want or hope for anything different; no reason to yearn for a house, or think about how we might build one differently. Instead, each painting bestows a rainbow-colored halo around the pissy reality of life in the Soviet Union. Each painting a restrained shorthand for a bizarre political situation in which communism has failed, and yet its state-mandated “paradise” has robotically continued.
Malevich’s socialist realism suggests, however subtly, that if we choose to believe that revolution is already over, the perfect home already built, things may, in fact, turn sinister.
Home might be, as Naguib Mahfouz says, “where all your attempts to escape cease.”5
I don’t think it’s strange to want revolution, just as I don’t think it’s strange to desire utopia (how could we not?), but to embrace this desire is also to recognise its emptiness. First used by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in the book of the same name, utopia has come to mean a perfect place where everyone has what they need and nothing needs to change—someplace better than the one we know. But the word comes from the Greek ou, for not, and topos, for place, meaning no-place. In other words, it refers to somewhere impossible. I think this is apt. I don’t believe any utopia we imagine can ever come into being. Such perfection is, by definition, beyond what our reality is capable of.
But maybe the value in utopia is not in serving as place—as structural blueprint for an imminent future—but as the impetus behind it. Maybe utopia is imagining life beyond what we know is possible. For striving to create new ways to exist in the world and in relation to one another, ways that do not depend on our society’s current flawed foundations. From unexpected intimacies in the mosh pit at the queer hardcore show to the one-time grace of a dancer’s incomplete gesture, José taught me how it’s these small and numerous acts of imagining utopia that have the deepest implications for our lives—even if their direct results are not a perfect revolution.
I’m home, but I can’t sleep. My parents are away, so my grandmother is babysitting. We’re sharing a room, and she’s snoring loud and hard. I’m only seven, but I’m a serious child, awake with anxiety. I’m pondering my fate. I wake her and she tells me a tale about a woman who becomes the first great empress of China. Her name is Wu Zetian. She first enters the palace at age fourteen as a lowly concubine, a common path for girls of her breeding and stature. She’s smart and educated, but pretty girls in the palace are a dime a dozen. She doesn’t quite manage to catch the emperor’s eye, so she spends her time reading instead, about government and politics, literature and music. She is admired by many other men of the court. When the emperor dies unexpectedly, she is sent to a nunnery to serve out the remainder of her life, a customary fate for concubines who have not yet produced children. It’s a waste, but it could have been worse. My grandma tells me that when an emperor died, many of his wives and servants were entombed with him—alive—so they could continue serving him in the afterlife. It was considered their destiny. Rows and rows of women, wearing gauzy white gowns, sealed into a beautiful tomb. The lucky ones were gifted a length of cotton and a footstool so they could hang themselves once the doors were shut. Others were given a fast-acting poison. Others simply had to starve to death. They were supposed to consider this final act a privilege. But this Wu Zetian, my grandma exclaims, is wily. When the emperor’s heir, his son by another concubine, visits her in the nunnery, she promptly seduces him. He commands that she be allowed to leave and return to the palace. She births his first son, the crown prince, and becomes the queen consort of China. And when her second husband (conveniently) dies, she becomes the child’s regent. She ascends to the throne. It is a long and scandalous journey, peppered with vicious scheming and cruelty. She puts two rival concubines to death. She chops off their arms and legs and places the bleeding stumps of their bodies in giant vats of fermented vinegar while they are still alive. I’m fascinated, I beg for more, but my grandma makes me go back to sleep. “You’re lucky,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “If you had been born a century ago, that could have been your destiny, even if you were a good girl. Starving to death in someone else’s tomb. Cheating your way into a better life.” She shakes her head. I frown. It seems to me that this empress fought to become exactly who she was.
After all, in all the books I’ve read, about the West or otherwise, you can only fulfill your destiny once you overcome many terrible dangers.
Is destiny just what you call living despite being doomed?
I’m sixteen, a girl on the internet. I’m locked in a school in the faraway West; it has iron gates and a dress code that’s long, one whole sheet, double sided. It’s my destiny even if I don’t know how I’ll survive it. I wear my hair in pigtails. I double knot my tie and tuck it into my kilt. Between classes I read stories about gay teen hustlers working in the porno theatres of Times Square when New York was a different city. I write fan fiction in long, sticky trails on LiveJournal. Comment by comment, I develop a vocabulary of orgasmic expressions. I can describe any florid sex act with starry-eyed detail, even though no one has ever made me come. I let my boyfriend touch me between my legs at the movies, popcorn stagnant on his breath. I imagine myself as a boy, like him, on my knees in a filthy theater with someone else’s cock in my mouth, blue jeans slipping easily off my slim hips. I’m in the laundry room at school, letting another girl feel up my thigh, her face in my neck, her tinny breath catching in my ear.
I’m in Philadelphia with a friend who works at an x-rated movie theatre, the Forum. (It’s out of business now, its doors shuttered with a bashful, ladylike wheeze.) On Wednesdays, after everyone’s left the theatre, he tells me he finds a small pile of fried chicken bones underneath the same seat. Carefully balanced on top of it, there’s a smaller, neat, even stack of acrylic nails. He’s never been able to figure out which patron it is. Is it a ghost? A vicious teen queen? We delight in conjuring identities. My favourite: a construction worker too embarrassed to publicly indulge his fetish for donning acrylic nails. He gets manicures once a week and admires his flawless cuticles for an hour and a half before slowly destroying them in a blur of white meat and grease.
I’ve always thought the French expression for orgasm is apt even if overly precious—la petite mort. It’s a singular moment in which you cease to be yourself. You manage to find, in someone else’s meat, a portal to somewhere distant, a place severed from reality. An orgasm is the perfect disassociation. The little death: a temporary respite from the horror of your big-picture destiny. I’ll take any freedom I can get.
I look up. I’m at the movies. The woman on the screen clutches a purple dildo with her curled and precise red talons, her face looming large. She scoffs at my tiny, sharp silhouette, my crooked and wrinkled nose.
It’s years later and I’ve moved to California. I’m not yet assimilated. I’m itchy and uncomfortable. I don’t yet feel at home. Back in New York, Joey’s started calling me Rainbow and threatens to mail me a bunch of hemp bracelets and weed paraphernalia. Back in New York, there are decadent karaoke sessions at Sing Sing that end with the bartenders giving out free shots and Holly performing air guitar to her epic rendition of Heart’s “Magic Man.” I tell Joey that I’m sorry. I miss everyone, but I was miserable and unhealthy, and I wanted to live; I moved to California to work on my life.
Joey tells me that back in New York, friends and enemies alike can’t stop joking about how I moved to the West, where they’re always seeking revolution. I still don’t know what that means. Maybe seeking revolution is a way to make the world liveable when it feels complicated, when there are so many moving parts. Bodies joined in protest can literally embody our collective vision of the future. Fantasy can be an imperfect solution; it’s why we have the cinema.
But it’s all a story we tell ourselves nonetheless. Something imaginary.
Trisha Low is a poet and performer living in the East Bay. She earned a BA at the University of Pennsylvania and an MA in performance studies at New York University. She is the author of The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013) and Socialist Realism (Emily Books/Coffee House Press, 2019).
1. Jenny Holzer, In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and You Were Full of Joy, 1984, text on cast aluminum plaque, 152 x 254 mm, London, Tate Modern, https://theartstack.com/artist/jenny-holzer/dream-you-saw-way-su.
2. George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell: I Have Tried to Tell the Truth, 1943–1944 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1998), 42.
3. José Esteban Muñoz, see page 26 of Socialist Realism.
4. Robert Bird et al., eds., Vision and Communism: Viktor Koretsky and Dissident Public Visual Culture (New York: The New Press, 2011), 41.
5. PEN International (@pen_int), “Home is not where you are born . . . ,” Naguib Mahfouz quotation, Twitter, December 14, 2017, 6:55 a.m., https://twitter.com/pen_int/status/941335933319827456.