MIDNIGHT EXPRESS: Istanbul Biennial

Overnight to Istanbul.

Leave Miami in morning, transfer through JFK to this sprawling city’s 12th Biennial, a glass bubble floating in a taffy blob.

Annoyed taxi driver leaves me off in empty lot where phalanx of police stand around concrete blockhouse. Paranoia Alert #1: no one in “real” Istanbul seems to know where this event is being held, much less cares about another gathering of global art junkies. An attendant with black boots tells me to go 500 meters back so I walk a narrow, ominous alleyway that feels like prison gauntlet in Midnight Express, then through maze of chain-link fencing to incongruous sight of a red carpet leading through metal detectors to a plaza and two orange warehouses on water’s edge–Antrepo 3 and Antrepo 5–site of this year’s Biennial. To shrink scale in such a metaphysical landscape, a giant white cruise ship looms up from its berth and blocks view of Bosphorus.

                                                                                            Smryn Gill

The title of the exposition understates it all. “Untitled, 2011.” That’s it. The five-part organization is based self-consciously on the work of Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. 1:“Untitled” (Abstraction,) 2: “Untitled” (Ross,) 3: “Untitled” (Passport,) 4:  “Untitled” (History,) 5: “Untitled” (Death by Gun.) All share the same zero-sum title with bare parenthetical addenda that suggest a kind of Facebook vagueness without being fully committed to a single overarching idea. (I guess you can go blame Gonzalez-Torres if you don’t like the results.) The curators explain that the exhibition is untitled because “‘meaning’ is always shifting in time and space,” which seems dangerously naïve–really?–and as with all contemporary art fairs, there’s a premium on overstating the obvious. But there are also many beautiful works.

A grandmother’s shredded fabrics are repurposed by Romanian artist Geta Bratescu; 35mm slides of unknown families are displayed as artifacts by Vesna Pavlovic; there’s a kind of crude needlepoint by mono-named Leonilson and highly neurotic internal mappings by Simon Evans. Marwa Arsanios is obsessed with a 60s modernist beach pavilion in Beirut shaped like a flying saucer. Carlos Herrera makes vulva shaped self-portraits of his own death from sneakers, baseballs, deflated footballs strapped together with fruit-packing tape, while Bisan Abu-Eisheh gathers detritus from demolished houses in Jerusalem–stained documents, old shoes, shards of masonry, toys, clothing, etc.–and displays them in glass cases, tragically, as if luxury goods.

Marwa Arsanios

“We’re not interested at all in the spectacular,” says Adriano Pedrosa, co-curator while sitting, chatting with me in a back corner of Antrepo 5, a place that has all the ambience of an interrogation cell–“antrepo” simply means warehouse in Turkish–but it’s in keeping with general mood. There are no celebrity moments, no Koons or Wei Wei ego ejaculations. Subtle, almost too restrained, many of the 500-plus works seem fractured and displaced, appropriated or recycled artifacts, “archive art,” multi-cultural mementos, ephemera, pre-digital printed matter displayed as fetishistic tableau, letters, magazines, old vinyl recordings of political figures, cuttings, clippings, tiny pencil and watercolor renderings on pulpy faded paper, as if the 20th century and it’s printed matter were already a lost civilization.

Søren Thilo Funder

Words have been stripped of meaning, isolated from the text or narrative stream, words as ethereal flecks and pricks, word-encrusted objects imbuing themselves with extraneous meaning, worry beads wrapped with words (Smryn Gill,) words on crossed-out, censored documents (Glenn Ligon,) cancelled passports, title pages of antique books altered with lyrical imagery (Adrian Villar Rojas,) identity papers of sadly forgotten souls (Baha Boukari.) Larger-scale billboards by Mark Bradford have shredded, layered lettering that refer to a serial killer in South Central L.A.  Partially erased texts by Søren Thilo Funder have selected words–gun, shotgun, pistol–drifting across the page like orphaned nouns and seem particularly poignant considering the censorship of the current regime. While this Biennial sets out to explore the “rich relationship between art and politics,” the unmentioned elephant in the room is the fact that Turkey has more journalists and writers in prison than any other country in the world–twice the number being held in China or Iran. (Both Bayram Namaz and Ibrahim Çiçek of the Atilim newspaper, for instance, face up to 3,000 years in prison.)  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to look at any more art after hearing this statistic.

Adrian Villar Rojas

“We wanted to slow the pace of the visit because people are used to rushing through,” says curator Pedrosa who explains that this is the first Biennale to be held in a single location and not scattered throughout the traffic-strangled city of 14 million. Installation design is by über-minimalist Ryue Nishizawa (architect of New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York) and plays a similarly parenthetical role by being there but not really there. Corrugated metal decking  creates a maze of scaled-down galleries in the same industrial feeling as the warehouses themselves. The corrugated sheds amplify tones of lost identity, missed connections, isolation and deportation that are woven throughout the exhibition. Walls appear to be self-supporting but are penetrated here and there by small entry points with ragged, unfinished edges. (At 6-foot-4, I barely fit through without scraping the top of my skull.) Nishizawa left interstitial voids between galleries as if wanting to deny or extract narrative from the convention of contiguous architectural volumes. The warren of passageways–shadowy, narrow and slightly intimidating–is more telling than the primary exhibition spaces. It’s what usually gets left out or forgotten within the memory of a place. It’s also what stays with you when you’re back on the polluted streets of the Karaköy district.

Mark Bradford

Weary of contemporary, I cross Bosphorus to Hagia Sofia and to stare at the great dome and imagine purely Byzantium space before Muslim hybridization.

Great Dome, Hagia Sophia

Looking up, straining neck to make out 6th-century mosaics of Christ and Mary, only produces a kind of reverse vertigo. There’s no foreground reference to provide scale so perception swims in retinal flecks and dust particles. I feel flattened and pressed and have to gaze at cracked tiled floor to recalibrate optic nerves.

Yerebatan Sarayi: Basilica Cistern

Discover a different form of spatial flux, subterranean, in nearby Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern or Sunken Palace”) where slippery marble steps lead down to forest of columns and elevated walkways that cross vast but shallow waters–about two or three feet deep–built in 6th century during reign of Emperor Justinian. Reflections of columns in water reinforce illusion of infinite repetition in spectral orange glow while some hybridized genus of albino carp swim in confused circles and never see sunlight.

Back to my room for shower on top floor of hotel built for Orient Express passengers in 1889, final stop on direct line between Paris and Constantinople, by Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers and his Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. (The trip took 67 hours from Paris.) Hemingway stayed here, so did Pierre Lotte, Greta Garbo, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, who took corner room on second floor whenever he was in town. The hotel was a wreck for years but they finished restoration two years ago, including a ceiling with tulip-shaped skylights that bathe the big tea room with subaqueous glow.

 Kubbeli ceiling restored, Pera Palace

Ataturk room is now locked as a kind of museum but they let me in to see his toothbrush with blackened bristles, driving goggles, black shoes for his surprisingly tiny feet and rumpled linen suit in a vitrine, just like one of the ephemera cases at the Biennial.

Paranoia Alert #2: Istanbul is a modern city, but it’s also an ancient place of a million contradictions and a mob of young riot police–oddly attractive as if models for some J. Crew catalogue called “Rendition Fashion”–pour out of armored vans on Istiklal Street, near the foreign embassies, brandishing machine guns.  I take photo with my Blackberry and go to ask them questions but hesitate, remembering prison scene in Midnight Express, just as ocean swimming is forever ruined by Jaws. Later I learn that the police came to quell demonstrations against the visiting Israeli soccer team.

Kept awake till 3 AM by 1980s disco beat from across street then woken by 5AM call to prayers through crackling minaret loudspeakers.

Next morning at breakfast, a Turkish poet describes irony of Victoria’s Secret opening its first store in Istanbul while sixty-eight journalists sit in prison under bogus anti-terror laws. (Thirty-six more are being prosecuted.) You can now buy a “Sexy Things”® burka but you can’t criticize the government for fear of                                                      detention.

I dedicate this, my own  Biennial installation, to Turkish colleagues in prison:

1. Abdulcabbar Karadağ, Azadiya Welat Newspaper’s representative in Mers

2. Ahmet Akyol, DİHA, Reporter in Adana

3. Ahmet Birsin, Diyarbakır Gün TV, Chief Broadcast Coordinator

4. Ahmet Şık, freelance Journalist
5. Ali Buluş, DİHA, Reporter for Mersin
6. Ali Çat, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker in Mersin
7. Ali Konar, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Elazığ Representative
8. Baha Okar, Bilim ve Gelecek Magazine, Editor
9. Barış Açıkel, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Owner and Editor in Chief
10. Barış Pehlivan, Odatv, Execytive Editor
11. Barış Terkoğlu, Odatv, News Desk Manager
12. Bayram Namaz , Columnist of Atılım Newspaper
13. Bayram Parlak, Mersin representative of Gündem Newspaper
14. Bedri Adanır, Owner of Aram Print house and Chief Editor of Hawar Newspaper published in Kurdish
15. Behdin Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
16. Berna Yılmaz, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
17. Cihan Gün, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
18. Coşkun Musluk, Author
19. Deniz Yıldırım, Executive Editor of Aydınlık
20. Dılşa Ercan, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
21. Dilek Keskin, Atılım Newspaper Istanbul Reporter
22. Doğan Yurdakul, Odatv,
23. Emine Altınkaya, DİHA, Ankara Reporter
24. Ensar Tunca, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Iğdır Reporter
25. Erdal Süsem, Eylül Hapishane Kültür Sanat Magazine, Editor
26. Erdoğan Altan, DİHA, Reporter (Batman)
27. Erol Zavar, Owner and Chief Editor of Odak Magazine
28. Faysal Tunç, DİHA, Şırnak Reporter
29. Fazıl Duygun, Yeni Nizam and Baran Magazines, Author/Columnist
30. Füsun Erdoğan, Özgür Radio Executive Editor of broadcast
31. Hakan Soytemiz, RED Magazine, Columnist
32. Halit Güdenoğlu, Owner and Chief editor of Yürüyüş Magazine
33. Hamdiye Çiftçi, DİHA, Hakkâri Reporter
34. Hasan Aksoy, Yürüyüş Magazine, Dealer
35. Hasan Coşar, Atılım Newspaper, Columnist
36. Hatice Duman, Owner and chief Editor of Atılım Newspaper
37. Hayri Bal, Özgür Halk Magazine, Worker
38. Hıdır Gürz, Halkın Günlüğü Newspaper, Editor in Chief
39. Hikmet Çiçek, Aydınlık Magazine, Ankara Representative
40. İbrahim Çiçek, Executive editor of Atılım Newspaper
41. İhsan Silmiş, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker
42. Kaan Ünsal, Yürüyüş Magazine, Worker
43. Kadri Kaya, DİHA, Diyarbakır region Office representative
44. Kenan Karavil, Radio Dünya (Adana) Chief Broadcast Editor
45. Mahmut Güleycan, Özgür Halk Magazine Worker
46. Mehmet Karaaslan, Dicle News Agency (DİHA), Mersin Reporter
47. Mehmet Yeşiltepe, Devrimci Hareket Magazine, Worker
48. Musa Kurt, Kamu Emekçileri Cephesi Magazine, Executive Editor
49. Mustafa Balbay, Cumhuriyet Newspaper, Ankara Representative, Author/Columnist
50. Mustafa Gök, Ekmek ve Adalet Magazine, Ankara Representative
51. Müyesser Yıldız, Odatv,
52. Nedim Şener, Millet Newspaper, Reporter
53. Nuri Yeşil, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Worker (Tunceli)
54. Ozan Kılınç, former Chief editor of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
55. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Haberal, Kanal B Television,Chairperson of Board of Directors/ Rector of Başkent University
56. Sait Çakır, Odatv, Columnist
57. Sedat Şenoğlu, Atılım Newspaper, Publication Coordinator
58. Seyithan Akyüz, Azadiya Welat Newspaper, Adana Representative
59. Sinan Aygül, DİHA, Bitlis Reporter
60. Soner Yalçın, Odatv, Owner /Journalist
61. Suzan Zengin, İşçi-Köylü Newspaper, Worker (Kartal Office)
62. Şafak Gümüşsoy, former Editor in Chief of Mücadele Birliği Magazine
63. Şahin Baydağı, Azadiya Welat, Dealer
64. Şeyhmus Bilgin, Günlük ve Azadiya Welat, Worker
65. Tuncay Özkan, OPwner of Kanal Biz Television, Journalist
66. Vedat Kurşun, former Editor in chief of Azadiya Welat Newspaper
67. Yalçın Küçük, Author/Journaslit
68. Ziya Ulusoy, Atılım Newspaper, columnist

WET: Swimming the Pools of Miami

Back in Miami after floods up north. Have pool to self all morning. Reflections like pulled threads–depending on wind or angle of sun–webbing and filigree, torn or laddered silk, a grid of dancing ectoplasm when my hand breaks the surface. I took my time and swam a dozen smaller pools, building stamina, before crossing to Coral Gables.  There’s nothing graceful about my stroke so don’t get any ideas. Although I used to swim competitively (when I was 12,) I now thrash and jerk like an injured duck, corkscrewing my body this way and that, part crawl, part frog kick, exhaling when I should be inhaling and vice a versa.

I sit and write overlooking Indian Creek. I ride my bike up the undulating pink pathway that runs along the beach and plot a way to navigate the city and its riotous history by swimming all the significant pools from one end to the other, gazing through my “Aqua Sphere” goggles, intrigued by rippling reflections, lost toys, human hair, loose grouting of the tiles, day-dreaming like the character in my favorite Cheever story: He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county.

Sometimes I get invited but usually I just walk in or sneak in from the boardwalk and act like I belong, casually pick up a towel with monogram logo and order a drink. I swam the infinity pool at the Shore Club, semi-naked and high, during a midnight party for my book on psychedelia. And yes, it’s almost impossible to do laps in the harp-shaped pool at the Raleigh Hotel with its Baroque curves and wading-pool borders that attract talent agents. (The  Paramount has a pink imitation that’s even more impossible.)

I swam the long narrow pool at the Gainsvoort, eighteen floors above the lobby with mauve-and-beige settees and looping shark tank, where a certain smoothly bronzed set hang out with perfect teeth. A dozen male models looked on with disinterest as I ploughed through the water above the giant “G” spelled out in blue-flecked tiles at the bottom of the pool. Some of the muscled men posed with their skateboards and shirts unbuttoned and I assumed they were waiting for some photo op/cattle call or maybe they were male prostitutes waiting for a trick, I wasn’t sure, but never found out because I was asked to leave the premises after a few laps. (I still have one of the towels.)

I swam the brand new W pool just before a swimwear show and another casting call because I found myself surrounded by half-naked go-see models (young women in this case) like an erotic dream turned nightmare because they were everywhere, tan, long legs, some overly muscled, some anorexic thin, others with full, old-fashioned centerfold figures and big hair, preening in the mirrored furniture, stretching over, brushing out their hair, licking lip gloss, padding out bikini tops, all completely oblivious to me and the short PR woman who was pushing a path through the forest of towering fleshapoids, her face about crotch high, showing me the finer points of the bark-encrusted lobby, designer ceilings, fluffy-white corporate suites, Zen relaxation fountain, a jungle garden with gnarly swamp trees and a shimmering discotheque, making a path for me to follow close behind, out to a sweeping terrace with cabanas and a handsome pool. “Do you mind if I have a swim?”  “What?”  “I would like to try out the pool.”  Someone from marketing came down with a thick purple towel, made arrangements and I had my turn, stroking strangely down one side as workmen finished the installation of a floating catwalk lined with tiki torches and plastic magnolias.

Thoughts while swimming the endless perimeter of the L-shaped pool at the Biltmore: how my father always turned his shoulder such a way, sucking breath, and kicking off in one fluid gesture when entering the water, even when the water was cold. He was a beautiful swimmer, right into his eighties, with an effortless stroke that he learned form Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built in 1909 on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal.  I still have the bronze medal he won in 1931 from the Royal Lifesaving Society. He was only 15 but made it all the way across the Clyde Estuary from Toward Point, where his father was lighthouse keeper, a five-mile swim, against crosscurrents. Swimming was almost like breathing for him. When we went to the River Kwai in 2000 for the filming of a movie and to see the places he’d survived as a POW, we swam in the pool at the eco resort and there was an ornamental waterfall, with volcanic rocks and exotic flowers, that poured into the pool and down to the river, past Chinese gnomes and miniature temples.

One day I dared myself to jump into the muddy waters of the Kwai itself–the river having been such a presence, distant and brooding, throughout my childhood–and I struggled against its current, a little worried I would drown, as my father sat on the pier, drinking Coke and remembering that particular place as Tarsau Winter Camp–something familiar about the curve of the river and the shape of limestone hills across the way, he said–not far from where he’d fallen ill, close to death, and watched a fellow officer beheaded in 1943. (This was just a small opening in his occluded memory. The floodgates opened after that.)

I’d heard that the Biltmore had the biggest pool in the world and while it does seem vast, it’s no longer number one--San Alfonso del Mar in Chile, a chlorinated ocean of 20-acres, is the biggest–but it used to be true in 1926 when Johnny Weissmuller, pre-Tarzan, was swimming instructor and little Jackie Ott dove like an Osprey from the eighty-five-foot-high tower. There were tea dances and aquatic ballets every Sunday afternoon and people crowded around the Pompei-style arcade, hanging from ledges to watch Esther Williams, her synchronized aquanettes and alligator wrestling.

The arcade is still in tact as are the faux Roman statues and a Venetian palazzo at the lower end.  I swam very slowly around the perimeter, pacing myself, watching the worried tourists chatting on cell phones, eating lobster salads, recovering from hangover. Even if the rest of the day had been awash in digital clutter, the swim felt like something accomplished, 20 laps maybe 30.  “My dripping limbs I faintly stretch, And think I’ve done a feat today,” wrote Lord Byron after swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos, only about a mile across but symbolically loaded, from Europe to Asia, in honor of Leander who swam it every night to be with his lover.

Most people don’t swim any more. They lie in the sun and wade or stand up to their knees with an exotic drink, or walk through the shallows to cool off. It’s still in the Olympics as a sport but the lure of swimming as romance–as with Byron and Weissmuller–seems long gone. It’s just not jolting enough. The big Miami Beach hotels of the 1950s and 1960s rose up against the ocean like great white modernist bergs, their pools glinting in the winter sun like infinite sisters,  reflecting cumuli over Biscayne Bay. Here was a new kind of imaginary landscape and the aquamarine pool was the  central attraction. Goldfinger opened with a high sweeping helicopter shot of the Fountainbleau’s white facade, domed ballroom where Sinatra sang, Petit Versailles gardens, a perfect swan dive into the Olympic pool, and James Bond getting a massage by a poolside cabana. The pool itself has been rebuilt twice since then. In fact there are six pools and I’ve traversed them all, even the kiddy hourglass and of course the enormous free-form basin while observing a muscled man wading through the shallow end with a great white shark tattooed across his back. The lattice framework of the Eden Roc was offset by its square and oval pool, the latter over a bar with portholes so that drunken patrons could leer at mermaids cavorting underwater.

Melvin Grossman’s stacked-slab construction for the 14-story Deauville seemed like a mere garden shack compared to the 500-foot-long lagoon that stretched the length of the property. I wasted an entire afternoon during Art Basel drifting in that same Deauville  pool, in that same quasi-subterranean stream, that curves across this city where the Beatles swam when they came in 1964 and played Ed Sullivan from the Napolean Ballroom.

APPROACHING EXIT 27: Weary and Fretful


Spaces we need to add: master bedroom, master bathroom (x2), walk-in closets, bigger kitchen, family mosh pit, studios (x2), etc. I was standard male-issue wreckage, in recovery, midlife or early-mid crisis, whatever, publishing oddly personal pieces about suburban cul-de-sacs and highway culture–“blow-and-go” was memorable rest stop–while driving on L.I.E., back and forth, one end representing guilt and remorse, the other love and synergy and I must have gone slightly mad with so much driving because the highway itself became a hard-surfaced Pilgrim’s Progress (at 75 MPH,) every off-ramp another station of unraveling that defied interpretation. I kept a daily journal of my manic journeys and wrote a 250-page allegory that never saw print (one editor agreed to publish it if I rewrote book with a “body in the trunk,”) but it was operative landscape for that year of flux.  I’d come to a big intersection in my life, an interchange, with sluices, clover leaf ramps and swales.

Exit 27: weary, fretful driving. Graffiti on overpass reads “FUK.”  Place of indecision, distraction, too many options:  Dante’s  “Dark Wood,” Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond,”  Fitzgerald’s “Valley of Ashes” where ashes grow into  grotesque gardens. Could’ve stayed in city  another night with her. [“Her” was you.] Skeleton of burned-out Toyota says never too late but way too late.

When schedules were tight we’d meet half way at a mirrored, pyramidal hotel off Exit 50-something, near where Joey Buttafuoco fuked Amy Fisher and the notorious Parkway shooter aimed his rifle at motorists driving eastwards. (Only eastwards for some idiosyncratic reason.) We took a room behind the big red “R” on the seventh floor and I remember those highway trysts illuminated by a lurid hue, bloodfire red you called it. We made love and ate Chicken Parmesan, micro-waved from the deli across parking lot, gazed through window at traffic blur and young women with big hair in pastel chiffons crowding out of laser-flecked disco after midnight. It rained all night and I dreamt that your long legs were highways and I was driving, hopelessly lost, up one leg and then down the other. Early morning we went separate ways–romantic even in such marginal  infrascape of culverts and plastic bags trapped in chain-link fencing–you to Paris, Milan or Hong Kong, me to chilly, off-season beach house, sending long fax scrolls–now faded sepia and almost unreadable–with little sketches of yourself squeezed into a Tokyo taxi (“prepare for accident!”) or reclining on emperor bed at George V, eating room-service, wishing you were here

So the house became an essential place to meet between separations, escape, unfold, in dreams and for real. E.M. Forster wrote “landscape is personality” which I never understood until then. We both wanted new space, green space, cultivating areas that had been formerly unseen or deeply tangled. As with highways, the house became another allegory but this time for recalibration, healing, future life, love. 

You did drawings that were like dress patterns with one idea attached or hinged to the next like origami unfolded but the sections were rooms or views, not sleeves and bodices. (I was still learning about how you thought, designed, made collections that weren’t just clothes but narratives with mythical names and scenarios, whole new worlds.) And that’s how we found our way inside, jumping back and forth in time, collaging parts together from mutual memories, childhood travels, parents, remembered rooms, windows, shady gardens. We borrowed a cross-fertilization of ideas, intoxicated by possibilities: a separate studio building straddling the stream or hovering in the woods at tree-top height; bookcases for five thousand volumes engineered like  suspension bridge between slit windows, supported by crisscrossing struts; built-in counters and benches made from thick slabs of white oak–everything minimal and modern but made with a kind of dumb, Fred-Flintstone carelessness–sloping pylons like buttresses bolted in place by outrigger joists; translucent shoji screens opening to forest. We both kept scrapbooks and made lists. You were much more diligent and tore pages out of World of Interiors, Architectural Record, Dwell: a stone wall with a blue door somewhere in Tuscany; a house in the Engadine clad with horizontal slats like a corn crib; stone steps crawling with ivy; wisteria-tangled arbors.

I kept dreaming of an endless lawn of clover and buttercup, beautiful and open-faced, beneath a tangerine sky, like the poppy fields in Oz with slo-mo narcotic haze and I’m standing at the gate wondering if I should charge admittance or let everyone in for free. Had urge to expand perimeter, push back forest to reveal selected Larch,  Slippery Elm, Shagbark Hickory, open “view lines” to reveal beds of ferns and old stone walls, and kept thinking of those “blue lawns” in Gatsby, especially Tom Buchanan’s, the one that “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens–finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its  run…”

How could we make something like that?





She held a wedge of Gouda and gnawed it nervously into a perfect ball, like a trained chipmunk or mouse, her front teeth shaping the semi-aged cheese with little bites while I sat on the porch reading Young Werther. We came for weekends whenever we could and the old house wrapped around us like a cocoon, forced us together. No TV, no Internet, no networking at all except for humming birds and a 300-pound black bear who walked past us with a shambling, lazy gate, as if his pants were falling down at the back. (Could he smell cheese?) At night I read passages from Moby Dick out loud until she confessed she’d rather be doing something else.

One weekend she dressed up as a Dutch milkmaid, did a clog dance, and chased me with the garden hose. We baked acorn squash and root vegetables. That’s what I remember. We took baths together, chopped our own wood and made fires in the walk-in fireplace that had hooks for an 18th-century crane and kettle. She made chicken with Indonesian peanut sauce, kecap manis, sliced bananas. I made hi-cholesterol finan haddie with smoked fish, butter, leeks, eggs and potatoes. We ate our meals by the fire and made love.

Why go and mess with a good thing?

Because people who fall in love think they can transform their randomly exploding endorphins into a locus perpetuum, a fixed point in space and time, a holy shelter with walls, roofs and discrete spaces for everyday living. It just seems to happen.

We make plans.

We expand.

Was the cheese ball an early indication?

I’d promised myself no more fixer-uppers, no more renovations: been there, done that. But I started to cut away a few overgrown bushes and uncover an ancient stone retaining wall. (That’s how it starts.) She stalked the stream, clearing weeds, covering herself in slime, looking like a swamp creature.

Something was up.

She got pregnant and then pregnant again, the second time with twins, just after the river flooded. I joked to friends that it must have been the river gods who knocked her up. I took photographs of her naked body, tall and thin but supporting an amazingly extruded belly that seemed anatomically impossible. How could she stand and walk without tipping over?

The sonogram showed two bodies with legs and arms knotted around one another like Siamese twins–something of a shock, but it provided an image, something to work with. We did a lot of sketches, tore things out of magazines and old books, pasted them together, made collages and wrote long lists.

We wanted more than a house.

We wanted a performance piece that would transform our lives–nothing less–a magical place that hovered among the treetops like a puff of smoke or burrowed into the hillside like a hobbit hideaway. We’d lived together in a Tribeca loft and a cavernous old factory. We were ex-urban pioneers, not suburban Babbitts who’d settle for less and lose edginess as soon as we crossed the Hudson to raise a family. We refused to become safe or domesticated, too Martha Stewart. I’d just fled the Hamptons to escape phony neo-Palladian crap and wicker furniture, knowing all too well how it masked unimaginable levels of insecurity, greed and one-upmanship. I’d written about so many rich people who expressed their manic aspirations through rambling houses and formal gardens. Did any of them really need a 30,000-square-foot Mac-Versailles with twenty bathrooms and soaring foyers?

Small was cool. There were all sorts of books coming out just then on “tiny” living and “simple” living. We would be both tiny and simple, even though we were both over six feet and incapable of doing anything without neurotic levels of complexity.

And green! Off the Grid! Solar roofs, thermal wells, wind turbines, recycled materials, low carbon footprint, nothing toxic, nothing caustic, bees wax and milk paint, gently sheered wool from Abyssinian goats.

And local too! Local was very cool. Think global, act local. Support the local economy. Hire local craftsmen. Learn how the old-timers did it. Integrate with the community. Attend church suppers.

Then, suddenly, we had our window of opportunity: a good builder ready to go and a quicky mortgage from a company that had no mailing address and changed its name the following week. All we needed was a set of plans and an idea.

An idea.

I remember looking out from the little upstairs bedroom and imagining something growing off the side of the house, a kind of mushroom or fungus with big windows, jutting out over the roof of the dining room, out towards the apple orchard and leaning down to where the two streams converged. That’s how things start. Some arbitrary image locks into the mental screen and you fixate on it till you figure out what it means. Now that I look back I realize it wasn’t arbitrary at all. It was the house getting pregnant, prepping itself (and me) for the expansion to come: a place that would embrace the natural environment while protecting and nurturing a growing family.

I just couldn’t see it at the time.


Start with house, I guess.
This house.
Where I’m sitting.

First came September 1990.
Didn’t have a clue.
She drove blue Jimmy (with lift kit) after sushi on Hudson Street, Tribeca. Late and dark Friday and we’d been drinking saki with Chet Baker slow blues through nowhere Jersey, west and then north, over some bridge.
We’d only met the week before at end-of-season, inter-gender softball behind a church in East Hampton, me on first, she in right field. I didn’t know anything other than that she was tall (like me) with a Brit but colonial edge to voice. Australian? Kiwi? South African?
(First impression: high-powered Amazon. One drink at Lucky Strike, then forget it.)
“Who are you?” I asked, not intending to sound like lame pick-up.
“Who are you?” she fired back, rudely but flirty.
Turned out she was Dutch, from Amsterdam, lived and worked in London, thus Anglo accent, former model, now fashion designer with big sleepy eyes and long legs.
She’d been using my old outfielder’s glove and refused to give it back.
“It has ‘Gordon’ written on it,” she says. “You said your name was Alastair.”
“Yes. Gordon’s my last name.”
“Oh, OK,” her eyes turn up, then away, handing me the glove like she still didn’t believe it was mine.
Next day we went for picnic and swim at Accabonac and shared mutual passions for design, for dark British humor–Goon Show, Dudley Moore & Peter Cooke, Monty Python. Her father, a Communist architect, had been in German Concentration Camp while mine, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, had been in Japanese death camp, so we were off to a good start.
A week later I’m sitting in the passenger seat of her fashionably distressed GMC listening to Chet Baker and wondering where the Hell she’s taking me: past lakes, dumbstruck deer by edge of road, trailer park, back woods, abandoned boy scout camp.
She made a slight sucking sound between her teeth as she drove–trapped sashimi?–later confessing she’d popped a valium with the saki. For nerves.
Where the hell were we again?
She named a place I’d never heard of, way out of Manhattan-Hamptons-Maine-Princeton comfort zone.

What was that? A family of suicidal possums? Up winding, spooky lane lined with pines to small clapboard farmhouse with hand-hewn beams and big fireplace. Sounds of gurgling stream. Blue enameled antique stove and Dutch coffee grinder in kitchen.

A little boy’s navy uniform hanging on bedroom wall had me flashing on Glenn-Close-in-Fatal-Attraction-style scenario, gorgeous but crazed, with no one ever finding my mutilated body parts.
Chet was singing Let’s Get Lost and I still didn’t know where I was but that’s how it felt, like when you get lost in the woods, a little scary at first and then not so scary as your eyes and body adjust to the surrounding environment. Then you let go, like with anesthesia, and succumb.
When I woke in morning she was already outside, standing in her underwear, shooting arrows at a target made of straw.
Goddess of the Hunt, I thought.
There was a James Bond book sitting on the shelf and I could see that it was her on the cover, much younger, wrapped in furs, lying provocatively on a giant golden gun.

Diana of the Golden Gun.
Twenty-one years later this coming Labor Day weekend we’re still together but the house has expanded from that rough little hideaway to a fairly rambling residence/studio for work and four children, somehow, leaving 18th-Century parts in tact, paring back to original bones, while adding modern loft-like spaces to one side. “Best of both worlds,” we kept saying to ourselves and anyone else who bothered to ask.