Diary #21

WASHINGTON, D.C., 1975 — Oh gawd, this thing. One Easter, yes I am a (half) Jewish girl whose family celebrated Easter, my uncle Dmitri brought this small box of old, really old, photos and told us kids to look thru them and take what we liked. Like a bullet my hand immediately yanked this one out of the pile. Uncle Dmitri said it was some great-great-great-Aunt Anastazja. It was so cool, I loved this picture. And then my cousin Hannah goes,

Oh, Vaneeesa, would it be okay if I had that one? I have to make a project for school and that one’s perfect for it.

I would’ve said no if my mother hadn’t yanked it from my hand, given it to Hannah, and started going on about how wonderful that would be and how creative Hannah always was.

Hannah Blaylock's box construction or "Cabinet of Wonder" or "Blaylock Box," a wooden box built around a very old image of a great-great-great Aunt Anastazja from Poland.

THE HAGUE, 2012 — Later that year, for Christmanukkah, cousin Hannah gives me this package with this note,

Dear Vaneeesa, thank you for letting me have this picture. I had so much fun making this and my teacher said it was the best project in the whole class and I got straight A’s. Thanks V, you’re the bestest cousin ever.

And she gives my the collage / assemblage thingy she made. Which, as you can see, was flippin awesome. That was 37 years ago and I’m still crying about what a selfish brat I was.

Honestly, I had seen Hannah do lots of artsy-fartsy stuff, but this thing was sublime. IDK where the hell she pulled it out of. It was like she had had this whole vision, “memories of a life never lived.” Or maybe a life that someone had lived, but we were only imagining about. Kind of, in a way, like Tracy Chevalier’s book Girl With a Pearl Earring – nobody really knows jack about Vermeer or the infamous painting, he’s kind of become the enigmatic genius of art history, so Chevalier was really just writing fiction, making guesses about history – but it’s really smart fiction, they’re really inspired guesses. Even though it’s pretty unlikely that the exact details were like, or even anything like, the details in Chevalier’s book, it feels like in her fiction she found real truth about this artist and about the painting.

Anyway, in her miniature wonder cabinet or, hahaha, “Hannah Box” or “Blaylock Box” I think Hannah did that too. Even Uncle Dmitri didn’t know jack about great-great-yadda-yadda-Aunt Anastazja, but without ever even going to Poland or even leaving her house, Hannah found something that felt true and real and meaningful and powerful – all those little pictures, the little blocks with the animals or plants or numbers, and the maps! Oh gawd, the maps! Like the photo, they’re probably just something Hannah found and cut up, but out of junk she created something so much more than junk. She created something alive. She created something real. You see that little girl from so long ago and the vintage maps and your mind just reels on a journey, a voyage of possibilities.

The little orange ball too, is amazing. As you hold the box in your hands and look at it, the ball is constantly moving. Like Hannah invented a kind of early “gamification.” All of this young girls’ life sort of floats like a low hum in this box. And it’s simultaneously a game. Like all of life is a game. Like all of life, at least in the post-mass-media, developed world, is some giant MMORPG.

Aside from all that Roland Barthes photography and death stuff, photography is also, or similarly, such a crazy time machine. I look at this ancient picture of this little girl. I wonder what her life was like. I wonder what her future might hold. I marvel at how pretty she is. And then I realize that she’s grown and old and wrinkled and dead long before I was ever even born. In one single photo, now resonating almost deafeningly because of Hannah’s amazing assemblage, in one photo is Anastazja so much younger than me, and all at the same time her entire life played out and done so very long ago.

I doubt I’d ever have the vision or the patience to make something like Hannah’s “Blaylock Box,” although in a small way, maybe that’s what I’m trying to do. These virtual performance works, these many blog collections of little bits of words or images or videos or friends or moments, and now these “Diary” entries… maybe this whole thing is just one sprawling digital attempt to make a sort of Virtual Cabinet of Wonders… my Hannah-inspired, Virtual Blaylock Box.

Perhaps we are all artisans in a Neo-Victorian age.

Perhaps Steampunk is real.

As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

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