Eileen Myles, poems, Bridget Donahue, New York, November 11, 2018 - January 13, 2019. Photo by Gregory Carideo, copyright Eileen Myles, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC.
Abysmal Grief, Ephemeral Beauty: On the Poems and Photographs of Eileen Myles
by Lune Ames (Class of 2020)
A black frame outlines the corner of a photographic print that in turn leans against a beige wall. “That’s an Instagram photo of an Instagram photo of an Instagram photo,” explains the poet, novelist, and art journalist Eileen Myles in a recent interview about the cover of evolution, their most recent book of poems.The photo of the framed print from an earlier exhibition reveals a window’s half-open blinds and a fire escape visible through the cloudy glass. On a bed inside, a dark grey pillow is propped up against a shadowed wall. No shams, no blankets, just wrinkly cream sheets. A crumpled long-sleeve shirt sprawls across a white square pillow and a small black shoulder bag rests next to a red pillow. A teacup sits off-center on a round wooden platter. An unlit white desk lamp bends around a wooden rod shoved diagonally between the window jambs. A used notebook that won’t close rests in the shadow of the lamp, as does a facedown, open book.
This photo of Myles’s bedroom corner unites the poetry of evolution with “poems,” their exhibition of Instagram photos on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery. Though the image on evolution’s cover is not included in the current show, “poems” showcases fourteen additional matte digital prints, along with a white plywood box filled with six framed prints from their previous shows. Pixelated images of the day’s ordinary moments are enlarged and nailed, frameless, to the walls of the gallery’s dining-room-sized project space, known as the Back Room. The photographs emulate the look and feel of prints made on the popular Fujifilm instax mini 9 camera. They narrate Myles’s re-acquaintance with what Lower Manhattan had become since they moved to New York in the 1970s while walking their adopted pit bull, Honey. Instants flash by on the wall like frames in a film reel. The horizon of each photograph is tilted, as if from the perspective of a dog that cocks its head with ears perked, wondering, noticing. One snapshot is taken from the viewpoint of a bicyclist, presumably Myles, who, for a moment, pauses on the street and looks down during a casual nighttime ride. A street lamp casts shadows, illuminating the front half of the bicycle tire along with rectangular silhouettes haunting the dark path ahead. I am reminded of the loss of Myles’s mother, which is intimately woven into evolution. Through language and image, Myles transforms abysmal grief into ephemeral beauty.
For their first iteration of “poems,” at the Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown in 2016, Myles described trying to create a mix of images that felt “representative but cavalier.”The pixelation of ordinary moments in the photographs embodies this nonchalance, as does the language of evolution. Their texting lingo, tangled inner dialogues, and punctual non sequitur (often without punctuation) brings the outside in and the inside out. Myles figured out that being present in the mundane can bear the weight of grief.
With evolution and the present installation of “poems,” Myles is pedaling the bicycle of language and image, each one a wheel for traversing the vast landscape of human experience. Language and image are often treated merely as rectangles: the canvas or photograph, the page of a book, building blocks of knowledge. Myles isn’t interested in hierarchy. Geometry, though? Definitely. Decades of poetry and art writing have reshaped these rectangles into squares, then into octagons, hexadecagons, triacontadigons, and finally circles, upon which Myles moves freely within the moment.
Myles uses nature’s symmetry to find its holes—the grimy, rotten, crooked, peeling. Death. Peering through a lens tinted by loss, they begin evolution with “[I am Ann Lee…],” an essay that recounts their mother’s last words: “Ooh Frosty she said, almost flirting which was my mother’s way.”Myles’s intimacy with the mundane and decaying pays homage to the maternal and courts death at the same time. They explain: “I love the whole book being a talk-back to her. My mother gave me language.”Their presence with the ordinary becomes a vehicle for journeying from death to rebirth.
of experience is the
only beauty here.
Myles’s ordinary experiences captured in digital images with casual captions create wide ripples on Instagram, which they call “a real new playground…I want to, in a way, re-introduce poetry to people as visual art.” Instagram becomes a notebook out of which Myles selects only a few pieces to be exhibited in “poems.” But the larger visual notebook is not bound by finite pages and is not private. Instead the public, which includes their 21,000 followers, can interact with it for as long as the account exists. To find their original Instagram posts, one must scroll through thousands of photos on Myles’s profile. The interactive nature of Instagram—liking, commenting, sharing—challenges the notion of the original. In her essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,” the Berlin-based artist and writer Hito Steyerl explains that the circulated image “recovers some of its political punch and creates a new aura around it. This aura is no longer based on the permanence of the ‘original,’ but on the transience of the copy.”
The transience of the copy is the human experience, the bicycle that Myles makes available through evolution and “poems.” Each poem a pixel. Each photo a letter. Each ordinary instant flits by. The power of the ephemeral emerges from the loss of their mother. Through captured mundane moments in word and image, Myles nonchalantly flirts with the death of the original that ripples into a nuanced notion of beauty.