Degrees of Entanglement
Bodies: The excitement and anticipation leading up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic games literally changed the air. The sky was bluer. The leaves were greener. My aggressively robust middle school art teacher, almost cartoon-like in her classic thick-boned villainy, even stopped calling us rat-bags. It was truly a special time. Our project, an uncomfortably chipper Ms. Deayton explained, was going to be a semester long sculptural endeavor inspired by an Olympic event. Javelin was my sport of choice—for a reason I’ve now forgotten—and wire was the medium—because it seemed easier to work with than splintering wood, subject and material falling at my feet through unexpected providence. The stupid idea came to me, as all stupid ideas do, with a bubbling excitement—a wall of bubbles exploding from my brain and falling over my eyes, a blinding, obstructive and stupid wall. The idea was to build a javelin thrower out of wire and make her fly.
The thing about wire is that, if you’re smart enough, you shouldn’t ever need to use adhesive. It makes building a taunting, teasing game. When a wire frees itself from hand-labored bend, each loosened coil is an individual unraveling, a smirking insult to your pink, flaking fingers doing the winding. Try something else. So you learn to weave with the wire—in a wild, lawless sort of way—and discover that this specific kind of disorder comes with a comforting stability. Layer over interlocking layer, no limit exists for degrees of entanglement. The catch with wire, however, is this: metal does not flop, the ends stay erect. It’s often too late when you finally realize what you’ve done, that you’ve made an iron cactus, different and more dangerous from its botanic counterpart, its iron spines camouflaged, hidden, protected by the exact same material that makes it so utterly self-sustaining. The pin-point ends prick your fingertips pinky raw so the budding red growing from the holes in your skin doesn’t even look that dramatic. Wire kind of always wins.
The thing about 2008 is that I hadn’t learnt about any of this yet. Though the consequence wasn’t exactly a punishment, that was what it felt like. Ms. Deayton’s one instruction was to wrap; wrap the thin wire around the thick wire and really it’s as simple as that, why do you keep coming back asking for the next step. Wrapping added mass, made things three-dimensional, but it also added weight and spikes—and therein lay the secret danger to this simple repetition. Somehow it did not feel right to just keep mindlessly wrapping, soon enough it becomes too easy to lose all sense of when to stop. There was always more to wrap—and that essential action of wrapping, that endeavor to knit flesh over bone, has historically been an ungodly ambition. What was Ms. Deayton thinking, when this ratty fool of a 7th grader came to her with a plan to build a body out of wire, and she told me I could do it? Of course I couldn’t. The project became a loser’s parade—full of crashing, shameful floats. Failure looked like the tear-drop torso that would not support the frantically wrapped, muscularly wired thighs; failure looked like the maddening fumes of melting metal at the soldering iron, gluing a wire body together that could not hold its own weight. The sculpture ended up a tangled nest of metallic mess, awkward limbs bending the wrong ways mummified in dense wire and almost offensive in how inaccurately it represented the sport. But then again, javelin was never actually the point and more of a romantic excuse. What I really wanted was to create a woman flying through the air with her legs vertically split, hair flowing in elegant wave-like suspension, trapped in a moment that was never supposed to last forever. Back then, My wire dared to dance.
I learnt many things that semester, namely: that three-dimensionality is high pressure stuff, that ballet should be an Olympic sport, and that hanging a wire sculpture in midair does nothing to make it look weightless.
Belugas: I would never build a beluga out of wire. The smoothest creature to ever come into existence, the beluga whale is truly a blessed thing. A simple Google search would verify the otherworldliness of its pearly membrane; how the light snakes across its body and wraps around the undulating forms in a holy glow. This is an animal that wears the marbled ocean sunshine like a second layer of skin. How pointless would it be to recreate the beluga made of its antithesis, wire and all its ugly twists and bumps. Perhaps it is the beluga’s opal richness, this pelagic grace that makes for great leather—the only cetacean skin thick enough to sustain the transformative process. Turn the beluga skin into horse harnesses, machine belts and shoelaces or any other sort of useful thing. I assure you these objects will only get better with age.
Bugs: Wire followed me across the Pacific, from Hong Kong to America, and crept up my unsuspecting back with six creepy-crawly legs. Once again, it began with an art class—but I was in college now, so the stakes felt higher, it is less cute to fail. The assignment was to create a wearable sculpture. What the flying fuck is a wearable sculpture? I hated sculptures. I would never want to wear one. This seemed like a losing battle from the start—but then I remembered. I remembered how I lost to wire in the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, how when I tried to make wire fly it crashed instead. Maybe this time, I thought, I might just win. And thus, wire returned to me in the form of bugs. A smart, strategic choice on my part, one born from experience. Bugs are compact, a manageable three-dimensionality. I began with mosquitos, than quickly moved on to the more anatomically advanced—grasshoppers, mantises, dragonflies. The material seemed to match the form, and that made the wrapping delicious. A logical entanglement, it is addictive to see things fit. I even discovered how to make wings: by gluing a loose net of wires over a scrap of rice paper, you could make flappers that almost look as light as the real things weigh. Soon, I was proud leader of a swarm.
Needing a receptacle as quirky as my new hobby—I bought myself a tin lunch box and filled it with spools of wire and pliers, my own little bug building toolkit. Though I cared little about such things before, I paraded the streets feeling like a warrior of womanhood—subverting all sorts of expectations of femininity. Thread is weak, wire is manly—a weapon. No this isn’t a sewing kit, I’d tell you, it’s a wiring kit. I’d smile shyly to hide the sheer weight of my pioneering achievements, fearing you might crumble under them: yeah I build things out of wire sometimes.
To complete the assignment, I tied hemp to each bug and glued the strings onto a strap of fabric that I wrapped around my waist and fastened with glue. Voilà! A wearable sculpture. Not really, but close enough. Every time you spin, the bugs would take up some rickety illusion of flight, a dying carousel, whirling around in stationary and absurdly unstable circles. Handing in the project felt slightly anticlimactic. Somewhere in the back of my mind I expected a medal.
Belugas: Whaling is not an Olympic sport. Here is how you play the game: Chase the whale, kill the whale. Here are the items you should use to ensure victory (it’s not cheating to be better prepared than your opponent): a ship, high-powered rifles, and most importantly, an explosive harpoon. The explosive harpoon enters the whale through its spear-ended tip. The barbs fasten the tool securely to the creature, metal irreversibly tangled with flesh. When the wired knot of meat now attempts to escape, a predictable move, the force with which it pulls on the tow-line will break the wooden pin—causing the fluke to turn upon the iron rivet, break the vial containing the powder, and explode. I wish you the best of luck.
Bugs: I kept two of the bugs. Little trophies. They hang over the foot of my bed with hemp and hooks. One is quite discernibly a dragonfly. The other a mosquito. It has a horn, but that’s just me taking artistic liberty with biology. They’ve stayed with me for almost three years now—rare for their size. I have trouble owning small objects, often they find a way to lose themselves before I understand that they’re gone. But these, for some reason, have decided to stay. The wires have aged along with the insects. What happens when wire grows old? I don’t know yet. Except tight knots loosen in loops and forms hand-bent into shape are not a stationary thing. The dangling bugs, they’re growing, even though they will never really fly.
I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Apparently I whine and groan and moan and scratch my head with an aggression seldom seen in my waking hours. I’m not sure if this is true because the roommate likes to exaggerate. But if it is, I imagine I must rise from the boggy comforts of my mattress much like a swamp monster, giant bugs swimming at the foot of my beastly feet.
Belugas: The beluga whale is almost cartoon-like in its cuteness—with black dot eyes, an oversized forehead, and a single drawn line of a smile, the beluga seems to possess at all times the expression of an animated sea-creature who just took a gentle poop. Everything about it is adorable. So really, it comes as no surprise why we want them so badly for ourselves. It is easy to empathize with this greed that makes the beluga one of the few species of whale that are still kept in captivity around the world today. For your viewing pleasure, belugas and other orcas are lifted squirming and alive from the ocean and dropped into fish bowls, entangled in nets and slings that leave scars on their smooth smooth skin because that is the only way to overcome their power. Who doesn’t want to trap a face like that and stare at it all day? It’s like art but so much more fun because they’re really real! You can’t deny this sad human impulse. We are all so lonely. It doesn’t even bother me to know that the smile—plastered on with biological glue—is a devastatingly empty illusion. Don’t let it bother you.
Bodies: The roommate wanted to direct a play. And the roommate being one of my most treasured friends among living objects—I knew, from the very start, that I needed to be a part of it. Alas the danger of loving living things: you say things like need instead of want.
Because the roommate is so incredibly smart, he chose a weird thing called AntigoNick. Anne Carson’s translation of the Greek tragedy Antigone is a heavy, weighty text. The poetry so odd, the humor so cerebral, the traditions and the history so deeply rooted—all of it felt so terrifyingly beyond my reach. And yet, there was a need—a messy, unwanted need to satiate.
There were so many reasons why I never really wanted to be his props designer—but it is some strange, persisting fear that compels me to double, triple knot myself, however uncomfortably, however pathetically, into the fabric of his life. He needed someone to build Polyneikes and there it was, lying tastelessly prostrate, I found it! The hole where I would fit. At first it was just a teasing suggestion, but he took it seriously, more seriously than usual and that was already so much more than enough. So I tell him, I sort of lie—wire—I can do that. I’ve done it before, you can trust me! I can make you a dead body out of wire. That’s what friends are for.
The crusty snow crackles under our feet, with every step little worlds are beginning to break apart. He says, I’m telling you not as a friend but as your director—we needed the body sooner. It is a week before opening night, so fair enough, but how does one explain to a director, that hey fuckface, this is a favor. A friend’s favor; it’s the only reason I’m doing this and the only reason why I’m going to stay up all night, tonight, and finish this thing for you. Building the body has been so hard for me and I don’t need you to know why but the least you can do is be nice to me. Though I would’ve never said those things out loud; such thoughts are much too unprofessional to confide in with a director. Besides, he wouldn’t have understood. The air is sharp and humorless, edged at the rims with salt that teases to burn these newly opened wounds. The distance between us is deliberate. It seems to me if I could walk slowly enough I might be lucky enough to find an accidental slit in the ground just wide enough for me to fall through, to be closer to the center of the earth, to be somewhere so hot it is warmer. Because I’ve had enough of this night. This stupid night. He tries to make me talk but I don’t respond, it’s like fighting a muscular reflex, almost impossible but not quite. There are certain sensations, the taut tension of an angry neck, that trump the will of jerking knees. I am doing all the things he hates, like the distance. They are also deliberate. I walk slowly, dragging my toes in inefficient half-moons; I look down, my hair falling over my face; I bite my cold, crusty lips, they split and bleed, I do not care, I will not talk. He’s told me before, that when I do these things, they make him feel like a monster. I cruelly hope this is what he is feeling now. A monster. What sick species of broken friends are we, splintering wildly into the snow and yet somehow still unwilling to irreparably shatter.
Belugas: I first learnt about belugas when I was a sophomore in high school. When charged by a warm, balding teacher by the name of Michael May to write a research paper highlighting an important issue I’m passionate about, I identified two pressing problems with my life. The first being that I cared alarmingly little about the world around me and the second, because of that, I might just fail Humanities II. In that way, the belugas saved me. Someone had shared an article on Facebook about how a local marine theme park, uncreatively named Ocean Park, was planning to import beluga whales as its next big attraction. Incidentally the article included photographs of the most entrancingly beautiful animals I had ever seen. Additional research revealed that their natural habitat is the arctic, an icy wonderland not of this world, which further convinced me that belugas were made from the brushes of surrealist dreams—untouchable, almost unreal. I had something to write about.
I ended up with a twenty-page document—painstakingly researched, overflowing with long sentences clunky with heart—arguing urgently against the importation of beluga whales into Ocean Park. There was little that sickened me more than the idea of belugas being snatched from the sharp blue of their northern home to live out a prison sentence along the equator, entangled in the webbed smog of Hong Kong. Michael May never graded my paper and did not give it back, so nothing ever came out of all that work—I never saved the belugas, but I’ve quietly loved them ever since.
Ocean Park did not, in the end, import the belugas. I don’t know who convinced them, but I am grateful. On a recent visit to the park, while riding an escalator inside the North Pole Exhibit, I noticed two belugas hanging from the ceiling. They were made of white plastic, bright and artificially shiny, tails suspended in mid-swing. I didn’t know what to call them—sculptures, props, or consolation presents—but in any case, I thanked them. I thanked these thankless substitutions because even though it made me sad to see them stuck and stationary so far from the sea, they are after all only objects, and their sacrifice means that the real ones have a chance to swim wide and free.
Bodies: I went to watch the show on its second night. And there he was, my boy, sweet Polyneikes making his grand entrance being dragged down a flight of stairs by his rounded foot. I decided that toes would be an extraneous detail not worth the effort. Why would a dead man need his toes? Appendages such as those are a luxury saved for the living.
Here is what I learnt from being a props designer. A prop is first and foremost a tool—not a piece of art. Art and tool are not necessarily mutually exclusive, no, art can be tool and tool can be art; the crux of the matter is, however, the matter of function. A tool exists in relation to its purpose to other objects. It exists for a reason outside of itself and yet, for some reason, watching Polyneikes serving his purpose on stage made me kind of sad. Wire projects for me have always been art projects, terribly executed but art none the less. And art—suddenly this terribly self-righteous thought—should have the privilege of a certain sanctity, or at the very least, a certain degree of separation. Art should not be torn, thrown, yanked, pulled and shoved. Art should not be treated like a dead man shamed. But oh Polyneikes, you sweet sorry meat, you are neither man nor art but a prop. Prop. What a cruel sounding word. Perhaps that is why you looked so awkward, so jarringly toe-less, dancing with your skin clad sister in this dimly lit wasteland.
Entanglement: Polyneikes, son of Oedipus and Jocasta, a man of war, a warrior wrapped in monumental myth. He died killing his brother, a treasonous crime and was condemned to rot above the earth. An edict that killed his sister, his sister’s cousin-fiancé, and also his sister’s cousin-fiancé’s mother. It is a death of monstrous proportions, a stench of decay that has lasted for more than two thousand years. In wire though, funnily enough, the spectacle of his death looked more like a bug than a body. Don’t blame the artist for the sins of her wiring impulses.
In a way, I finally won. I made a body of wire, he performed his role dutifully and duly pleased the director. But the thing I can’t seem to forget is that there was once a time where I believed wire could be a thing of grace, a thing that could dance. Polyneikes inversed all her fantasies. He was disgusting and dreamt of nothing but an ugly death. Sometimes I think it a pity, that after almost a decade of struggle, this is how I made my defeat. My most successful creation will never fly, and he sure as hell will never go to the Olympics. His wiry arms would be much too weak to throw the javelin. It is kind of ironic that he is Greek.
The roommate often complains that every time he appears in my writing, he’s a two-dimensional object, only existing to serve as a foil to make me as the supposed narrator look more complex, more empathetic. Usually I laugh, I laugh so not to say this:
That denying you three-dimensionality is the one power that I have. Tell me, how can you ask for something like that when you are the one that makes my arms feel weak? Is it not enough that you consume, you tower, every moment of speckled stupor, of frayed cotton shirts, of this unreasonable and knotted awareness of the distance that makes up sixteen stupid grey chairs? No, I am keeping my tapping fingers, the hair over my face, and the monsters that live under my desk. These are the things that I will keep. Everything else you already have. On this page, you remain two-dimensional, an inky winking clown—slipping in and out of this rickety frame with a crafted ease that for me exists no where else. Here, I make you a prop. Just like every other thing and every other choice I’ve made, please know that this decision not to unwrap you is one that is also frustratingly deliberate.
Bugs: I threw them away recently. The two bugs. I ripped them off the ceiling and shoved them deep into the kitchen garbage can, a suitable grave of empty fruit juice bottles, tissues, and wet noodles. The roommate was confused, he asked me why I did it. Sometimes we’d have fun just sitting there and watching them swing. I told him I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the truth; perhaps I just needed to learn the art of letting go.