regular-article-logo Wednesday, 06 December 2023

Intimate doodles

The essays are very young, very contemporary with the self-indulgent tone of social media posts

Upala Sen Published 04.03.22, 12:06 AM
Heart-Shaped Bruise, NYC by Nan Goldin

Heart-Shaped Bruise, NYC by Nan Goldin

Book name: Pop Song: Adventures in Art And Intimacy

Author: Larissa Pham,


Publisher: Catapult

Price: $26

Someone asked me — “Is it true you were around even when the mobile phone wasn’t?” Another time, about seven years ago, a colleague had remarked, “You watch TV serials on TV!” I remember both instances as much for their hilarity — perhaps apparent only to me — as for the fact that these two younger people were trying to understand and articulate the passing of time, change and generational shift using tech trends.

While reading Larissa Pham’s Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy, I found myself fixated on similar tech clues as I rode out my epiphany about time and change.

Pop Song is a collection of essays; creative non-fiction, according to the publishers. In the “Works Cited” section, artist-writer Larissa Pham thanks someone for letting her use a tweet as one chapter’s epigraph. Other citations include “a very cool website” with details about historical solar and lunar eclipses, a photo archive, YouTube videos and published obituaries. Pham cites a website she referenced to “determine the Indigenous nation affiliations” of the land where much of her book was written — New Mexico. The explanation-exhortation follows — readers ought to learn about the traditional territory they may be occupying for the sake of knowing and also just in case they are able to contribute in any way.

The essays are very young, very contemporary in terms of narrative ingredients — the self-indulgent tone of social media posts; the same eager suspension of privacy. Pham writes, “There was the time where an old boyfriend and I fucked as quietly as possible just to see how long we could do it.” And there is that way everything gravitates towards Pham’s “you” — lover figure. Brand names, app names, names of social media platforms are naturalized characters in this word-scape.

No, I am not saying it jars. But like (16th century Italian artist) Caravaggio’s Bacchus — which Pham describes — with his distracting, exposed nipple, the audacious narrative weave takes up much of the reader’s initial attention. Gradually, other things leap to the eye.

The essay titles are poetic in their absurdity — “Blue”, “What we say without saying”, “Ways of knowing when it’s time to go”. “Forty­minute FaceTime with bad Wi­Fi” is the name of a sub-chapter, all of five sentences.

“Blue” is about Pham trying to capture the sky blue on canvas and not succeeding, the failure playing in a loop in her mind through different journeys and experiences and, then, her arriving at an explanation for her non-achievement. Like a drop of paint on a readied canvas, the essay assumes a non-shape.

Be it “Blue” or “Body of Work”, Pham paints onto her canvas her visual experiences. Once, a friend, Annabel, took her to an Agnes Martin (American abstract painter) exhibition. Annabel stood for a long time in front of the painting titled The Beach. Pham writes: “I looked at the painting… and I wanted not only to understand it but to feel what my friend was feeling.” In another essay, she starts describing Nan Goldin’s photograph titled Heart-Shaped Bruise and, in the same breath, she writes about her own obsessive need to photograph herself every time she has a nosebleed. She writes, “… as soon as I feel the jet of warm blood I’m in the bathroom with my iPhone”.

Pham writes about art with intimacy, and about intimacy through art. There is that bit where she describes her thoughts on seeing for the first time a series of paintings by Louise Bourgeois titled 10 AM Is When You Come to Me. She writes, “The drawings had meant something different to Bourgeois… I don’t think she would have minded my interpretation. I wanted my own reunion — my own 10 a.m.”

That week I read Pop Song was shot through with a gnawing grieving for all that had been, for what still is but is fast coming undone in the shadow of a virus. Pham’s essays arrested that downward spiral of the mind; they worked as a tangential reminder of the future that had begun to be present, would be hereafter. I don’t think she will mind my interpretation.

The portions on artist history are a bit clunky. It will be interesting to see how Pham’s writing evolves.

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