Desertshore (1970)

I know someone who looks at paintings because they like the big story of art. For this person an artwork or movement is a timestamp, a piece in the puzzle that bridged one moment passed to the next. I cannot imagine anything more reductive and wasteful. A different approach to the same subject has the artwork as unfinished business: a never ending wound or spark. In the art historical picture this better accounts for regular circular and nonlinear movements (pre-, post-, proto-, re-), but it also makes for a less guarded experience on an individual level. This person and I have both visited Goya’s paintings in the Prado, and with similar interests our reactions were critically different. Their takeaway was an art historical confirmation of Goya as an anomaly, of how his works moved independently of but in the same direction as the European avant-garde. This is helpful to an extent, and possibly true, but too strict a contextual method turns the artwork into evidence to prove something else, alive only in past tense. For this person, checking in afterwards with Courbet, Delacroix, Géricault, and Manet completed the familiar chapter on proto-Modern painting. For me the only reasonable reaction to the panicked eyeballs and loose brushstrokes of The Second and Third of May was to burst into tears and tremble with fear. Similarly Goya’s Black Paintings still hover over my shoulder and tell me that I will never be okay, that there are cruel mysteries and unspeakable agonies that will never be resolved. These works to me, however old, are very much alive.

They are ghosts. In Alice Raynor, ‘Ghosts wait for the(ir) secrets to be released into time,’ often ‘the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead.’ An artwork, like a ghost, interrogates its past and present, upsetting notions of time, binaries of real/unreal, physics/metaphysics. They remain frozen in time, tracking a line to us hundreds or thousands of years down the track. They endure into the future, being reactivated whenever they are visited. The work is born dead-alive, forever unresolved. This is why artworks have the quality of a wound or spark: either they hurt forever, or they are forever starting something new. Artists make artworks for a future audience, for people who aspire to change the world (the spark), or to be returned to for their secrets (the wound, the ghost). Here we are talking more of the latter, of the wounded present. Nico’s works speak to an unstable, hallucinatory now-time better than most. Anyone who has listened to Desertshore must have at one stage heard it for the first time, but that time is by design difficult to locate. It seems already familiar, like it’s been around forever, but it also never falls into relief and makes complete sense. It is a wound that never heals. Even if for whatever reason you noted it down, the first or most recent time you listened to it, it is only ever as temporally fixed as the time of a breakup. You might have moved on, but we are not talking love or wellbeing, here we are talking pain. That date in its arbitrary tidiness has little to do with the experience of what it represents, then or now. This analogy is too mild. How about the death of a grandparent, or the day you realise as a kid that war isn’t fun because people die in wars and they don’t come back. Then was probably a blur, set to be remembered in past tense, and the now-time is its persistent memory or truth. It is that memory of a blur that never stops aching.

Desertshore leaves its mark on your heart in the form of a scar that says ‘I was here’ and every return cuts along it, exposing all the old tissue. You slip into a delirious space where everything’s happening past, present, future, and worst of all, past, present, future all hurt and look the same. It is so familiar, and so horrifying. It is history, and it is freakishly alive. The human body of Nico lived a life of loss and misery, and she is not our tour guide. In Patrick McCabe’s Winterwood, the protagonist Hatch is stalked through life by the phantasm of Pappie Strange. Strange is the king abuser because he rules the domain of history and childhood memory. Through trauma and the seduction of the past, it is Hatch’s fate to block out the details, and return the cycle of abuse endlessly. Nico on the other hand never stalks us, she never invites us in. Winterwood‘s lingering scents (beer, mints, rotting leaves) carry into our lives, but Desertshore is an erasure, a painful amnesia. Nico is not the protagonist or the villain. When we find her in Desertshore it is a world in which she too is scared and unfamiliar. She hasn’t clarified any of this, she hasn’t taken the throne, she simply looks back without recognition and thinks So you’re here too. It is a world of Nico’s making, summoned through her pain and fear, in negotiation with an externalised history. It exists because she dreamed it, and we in the act of listening, remember it too. It is a nightmare we mutually build and share. History narrativises hell on earth, explains its cause, effect, and aftermath, but Nico remembers it. On the absence of her father, on her body, history is a wound that will never heal. Desertshore asks us to share the nightmare, to burst into tears and tremble with fear.

Nico made work for herself as well as her audience. There is a stern generosity that many read as steely but which is actually as open as it comes. This is ostensibly less the case here which is an apparition wrapped in mysteries that she is unable to untangle. She doesn’t ask our help, but neither does she warn us off the way Neil Young did with Tonight’s the Night: ‘I’m sorry. This means nothing to you.’ How can she tell us what will matter to us when she is completely stranded as well? Desertshore exits unprompted, but our bodies remember the experience differently. It’s part of us, ancient and immediate. The weird thing about its familiarity is that it feels like someone else’s knowledge that we’ve inherited; like some foul ghost speaking dust straight into your mouth. Saying that Nico is walking dead is belittling, an angel of death, ridiculous, but her voice betrays her understanding that the artist births something that is already undead. Her album with The Velvet Underground made this clear. The transition from the sticky clarity of Sunday Morning (which could have been released at any point in pop music, then or now) to the consciously gnarled I’m Waiting for the Man paints the band at the whim of Lou Reed who was already historicising and mimicking rock and roll as it was happening. Hearing Nico enter for the first time on Femme Fatale is a freak moment because her voice is elementally ignorant of Reed’s reportage and ingenious pop histories. Whatever Reed wrote, Nico would haunt. It makes sense that she would write and perform with John Cale, who could be as metropolitan as Reed, but then paint something as pastorally timeless and unsettling as Paris 1919.

The phantom of the past that manifests in a haunted now-time upsets conventional timekeeping, and something like Desertshore is frightening because its effect is bruised amnesia. It elides specificity but it encompasses everything. It was here before us and it will never leave us. Nico’s question is, going on from this, whether or not we imagine the immortal Prometheus to be traumatised. He can’t remember the first time it happened, and he believes he will never see the last, but every day he will have his liver torn out by an eagle. For the Greeks, the liver held the capacity for human emotion. In the historical picture, if Prometheus escaped without his liver then he would be free of both torture and feeling. He would be able to remember the day he stopped hurting, he would be able to tell the story of what came next, and he would go on to live unfeeling. Desertshore‘s conundrum is whether living traumatised by ghosts is better or worse than moving on with an indifference to the spectrum of human experience, from love to cruelty to hope to suffering. This can seem stark: I often think about it in relation to Richard Dawson’s Peasant which treads similar conceptual ground, but which in its details is constructive rather than reductive, and can’t help but believe in the grip of affection, however things are stacked. Desertshore has no such belief: is all about burdens, encounters with ghosts. It leaves us lost, afraid, knowing less than when we went in.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s hopeless. Folklorist Rojcewicz delineates a thread of human encounters with the horrific, from monsters, to the Devil, to the Men in Black, all of which leave the individual nauseous and disoriented. He briefly touches on the Tibetan tulpa, or physical manifestations of thought, which in these cases can be sustained through collective fear. In this view, the phantasm is a dark entity that we must reconcile for psychological wholeness. Tulpa, monster, alien, demon, ghost, memory, Desertshore holds horrific mysteries that affect us all. Wholeness here looks less remedial than like remembering: it is angry because it is here to combat forgetting. Our very inability to tidy it away, to rationalise it, is what makes Desertshore so powerful. Try as we might, it hovers over our shoulder, saying that things will never be okay, that there are mysteries and unspeakable agonies that we owe it to the ghosts never to forget.

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