found polaroid # 23
This was, you have to remember, the Eighties. New Year’s Day 1984, to be precise. Of course there was Orwell’s book of the same name, so we all felt as if we were living through some sort of a dystopia, what with the 21st Century looming – and all that it threatened. It was, you would have thought, the very apex of modernism, nineteen eighty-four and all that. God, how long ago it seems now. It was more than a different time, it was a different age. It was before the future had even been invented.
That New Year’s Day started off as most New Year’s Days do. Still at the party. Drink in hand, narcotics in the bloodstream. The only difference being that I was handcuffed to an American girl whose name I had yet to find out.
A 12″ of John Handy’s ‘Hard Work’ was soundtracking events. A slow groove from the Seventies.
Trojan was nursing a broken heart and in tears; Susie had just met Nick; Billy Sergeant was on parole and selling MDMA; Dave the Murderer was canoodling with a chicken he had scooped off the Leicester train; and Big Paul was capturing the whole thing on his Sony Betacam video.
Now … how quaint does that sound? A video camera?
At the very edge of cutting edge. Or so we thought.
The pop of a flashbulb. The slow whir of the Polaroid easing itself from the camera. The flap and shake of the image beneath my nose.
“There you have it, mate!”
“Evidence of what?”
“Dunno. Evidence. Is all.”
The Polaroid was dropped into my lap, the American girl’s free hand grabbed it and she held it close to her face.
“It’s you and me.”
“Yeah, but who are you?”
“Cindy.” She introduced herself and kissed me on the lips, slipped me her tongue.
It was the year they invented the Apple Macintosh computer, that the name Hezbollah went global, the Miners would go on strike in the UK and the Soviet Union would boycott the Los Angeles Olympic Games. It was the year I flew to New York City with one Polaroid photograph and twenty pounds in my pocket.
An artist, that’s what I was. What I thought I was. I fitted into the Downtown scene without a problem. No one was to know that I hadn’t attended the Slade, Central St Martins or the Royal College of Art – that is the beauty of Americans: they believe what you tell them.
Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel; Mapplethorpe, the ever present ghost of Warhol, even though he wasn’t dead – but his was a ghostly presence, strangely otherworldly, sketched on the edges of the scene – and all the hangers-on.
The ‘East Village Eye‘ called us “art junkies” – which many of us were, junkies that is.
From Second Avenue to Avenue B was our kingdom, our laboratory and our playpen. The sounds of the South Bronx and the visuals of the graffiti artists, cheap rents on huge loft spaces mixed with a hangover from the DIY of punk rock. A time of promise, when anything and everything seemed possible, seemed attainable. As the spring moved into another sticky Manhattan summer, I realised that the one thing I was lacking was talent. This, of course, wasn’t a problem. So many of us were talentless. The London refugees, the monied Eurotrash, the Cubanos, ‘Ricans and the wetbacks from south of the border.
Not forgetting the internals – the Texans, Californians and Canadians.
Quite the melting pot, to be sure.
I soon shed Cindy as a snake would its skin.
That was the way things worked back in the day. Everything was disposable, had a limited shelf life. Which suited me.
Moving my possessions, such as they were, into a shared loft on the corner of the Bowery and East 2nd Street I came across a box of photographs that had been left behind by a previous tenant, a dancer – his current whereabouts were unknown, he might have moved in with his Polish girlfriend on the Upper West Side, simply skipped town, or sunk deeper into the unfathomable depths of his heroin habit. No one knew for sure.
Gone. Was all.
Rootling through the box of instamatic shots, strips from photo-booths, Polaroids, film stills, studio portraits, colour and b/w, in and out of focus, girls and boys, candid and posed, I was presented with a sketchy mosaic of an idea. I shuffled them across a mattress and they formed a haphazard tale of dreams and aspirations.
To be frank, none of us knew what we were doing that summer.
I photographed the photographs.
I called it ‘Found Lives #1‘.
You could work the door at the Mudd Club and call yourself an artist, you could be a coat-check girl at Haoui Montaug’s ‘No Entiendes‘, a waiter at the Odeon, a hostess dancer, a shakedown artist, a fashion vandal – you could be anything, but you had to have that moment of luck. The moment that makes you an artist. You luck into something that sums up the zeitgesit, and you are more than aware that there is an element of right-time-right-place.
“This is interesting,” the girl at the Pravda Gallery told me. “Is it a part of a series?”
“Yes,” I lied. “It is. Part of a series, I mean.”
“I’d like to see more before we commit, y’unnerstand?” Her accent spoke of the southern states, her eyes had all the emotion of a cash register, her wardrobe had been paid for by her parents or a wealthy lover – swathes of Yohji Yamamoto. “You are seeking exclusive representation?”
“I can have the rest of the work with you by the end of next week.” I dodged the question.
“Does the rest of the work share the same themes? This sense of – what would you call it? – loneliness and isolation in a world of mass production? A world that imagines a familial togetherness but actually creates a profound sense of alienation?”
The girl at the Pravda Gallery obviously constructed all sentences as if they were questions.
What answers did she want?
“Yes, yes, that is exactly it.” I smiled. “Precisely,” I confirmed.
I had a week to create the pictures that would match her brief.
There was the one problem: I had used up the box of photographs to make ‘Found Lives #1‘, and I knew the girl from Pravda would be expecting a body of work, “sharing the same themes“.
Well, at least I had the theme, I just had to find the material to match it.
It had been some years since the infamous tabloid headline ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead‘. The brave new world of 1984 was better summed up by the more lurid ‘Headless Body Found in Topless Bar‘. All the same New York was a city of catastrophes, diseases, murders and corruption. Runaways haunted the Port Authority, the heroin shooting galleries were full, bums sold trash in abandoned parking lots. The detritus was there to be hoovered up. By me. And turned into art.
This was my chance to hold up a mirror to all that New York had become. The Yuppies were in Wall Street. McInerny and Janowitz in the book shops. It was a self-absorbed bubble of wealth and, although I knew that I would not be able to burst it, I could do my best to provide a prick.
So, I walked the streets – assaulted on every side by the sheer volume of New York noise – searching out the thrift stores, the second-hand bookshops, the junk shops. Round St Marks, off the Bowery, across the Lower East Side through outposts of the Salvation Army and in Consignment Shops.
Browsing, ferretting, collecting the cast-off images that I hungered for.
Back in the loft I decanted the contents of two bulging carrier bags onto the kitchen table. They avalanched across its surface, coming to rest against a copy of the New York Post – opened at pages of classified ads. That was it. That simple. The lost images and the empty prose of the ads. It quite literally fell into place.
‘Are you a strugling young female, who is attractive and slender. Consider, “Mistress”. Interested? This financialy independant male 35 wants to meet you. Write with photo and phone #.‘
A brutal emotional shorthand, dictated down a telephone line to a disinterested copy taker. Badly punctuated, occasionally mispelt. This was what was at the heart of it. And what better way to illustrate these screams for company and attention than the Polaroids, with their insincere gloss of inclusivity? Their warm smudge of love? That was a question the girl from Pravda would like.
Lonely Hearts, Obituaries, Help Wanted, Roomates.
Even the garages, video stores and groceries provided good copy. But it was the ‘Personals’ where the most wayward voices could be found, especially as ‘personal’ did not really mean what it suggested – it was the sound of disembodied voices howling in the wilderness, those howls echoing along the canyons of glass and concrete that made New York what it was; a shimmering edifice that reflected and magnified dreams, that tested those fantasies and if they were found wanting rejected them out of hand.
That was what I had found in New York, that I was interested in. Would my fantasy end up on the wrong side of the velvet rope? A busted flush on the wrong side of the tracks?
The frames were bought in house clearance sales. The ornate, the damaged, the kitsch, the plain. Gutted of their worthless offerings, they now framed the redacted advertisements and found Polaroids. Rubbish surrounded by rubbish, but that might perhaps be a form of urban poetry.
Perhaps, being the word.
There were 24 frames, that is 23 completed artworks and one empty frame. I had photographs, a small moutain of photographs, but I needed one more Polaroid to keep the thematic sense of the pieces.
It wasn’t, I suppose, strictly found. My stupefied face caught in the pop of the flashbulb, Cindy’s impish features – her lipstick smudged, who from? She hadn’t kissed me yet. Her eyes drugged. My hand rifled though the cuts from the New York papers – the alternatives, the freesheets, the tabloids – and blindly pulled one out. As ever, it boldly stated ‘PERSONAL’.
‘CINDY ARBUS Please come home. We all love you and forgive you. We’re desperate. Mom, Dad, Fred, Anne, Joe, etc.‘
New York, 1984. So many lost dreams, lost lives. All fading as memories in somewhere else that wasn’t New York, could never come close to it.
The exhibition at Pravda sold out. So had I.