In April, 2009, I spent a few days with Izhar Patkin, talking with him about “Veiled Threats” his
collaboration series with the poet Agha Shahid Ali. Patkin’s work, deeply engaged with Baroque painting,
is suffused both with narratives as stories and with the stories of material and form themselves—Indian
architecture, thrift store Americana, Sèvres porcelain, Persian rugs, Venetian glass, Genet and Cervantes,
the poetry of Ali, Faiz, and Darwish—all of these perform in Patkin’s work, simultaneously as material
and as narrative.
Agha Shahid Ali was born in New Delhi in 1949 and grew up in Kashmir, obtaining an MA from the
University of Delhi, an MA and PhD from Penn State, and an MFA from the University of Arizona. His
career as a teacher and writer led him through the United States, to homes and work in Arizona, Utah,
New York, and Massachusetts—where he, like his beloved Emily Dickinson, wrote of Kashmir as of a
phantasm, though he, unlike Dickinson, had lived and breathed and lost that place. The six volumes of
poetry he published during his lifetime have recently been gathered into The Veiled Suite, his collected
poems, released by Norton in 2009.
Patkin and Ali met in the fall of 1999, at the suggestion of Anne MacDonald, who commissioned the
two men to collaborate on a work, or works, whose development would be documented in a publication
that has become the book you are now holding.
Ali died of brain cancer in 2001. The last poem he wrote, “The Veiled Suite,” was written for this
collaboration. Through the course of my conversations with Patkin, I learned that Ali composed
“The Veiled Suite”—a canzone, with the intricate rhyme scheme and interlocking stanzas that characterize
the form—aloud, having gone blind from the cancer.
The canzone, a poetic form that dates from the thirteenth century, was made famous by Dante,
Petrarch, Boccaccio and Spenser. It consists, in Ali’s case, of five stanzas and an envoi, woven of lines whose
rhymes recur and pun upon each other, through which visions of love and abandonment (or loss) god or
death, interiority or omniscience, night or illumination, gaze at one another, or at inversions of themselves,
with a delicate, at times playful, dread.
Patkin has “translated” Ali’s “The Veiled Suite” into a room whose four walls are translucent curtains,
entitled “The Veil Suite,” that bear images not unlike the ones the young Marcel beheld spinning slowly
around his room, flung out from a magic lantern in In Search of Lost Time. Patkin’s curtain rooms are
narratives with no beginning and no end—circles one can enter anywhere, in the same way that one can
enter a poem one knows well at any point and still accede the whole of it.When I arrived in New York,
he was deep into the making of his third room, which responds to Ali’s translation of a poem by Faiz
Ahmed Faiz, “Evening.” Patkin’s curtained rooms (or curtain rooms) play on the word stanza, which,
while referring to poetry, also—in Italian—means “room.”Patkin’s veils will become a suite of rooms, but
also a suite as in the tradition of ballet music—a collection of some of the most enduring themes of Ali’s
oeuvre, one of which happens to be translation itself.
Our conversations ranged over many stages of Patkin’s work, as far back as “The Meta Bride” of 1982,
through his ongoing engagement with the Madonna and (or without) Child, across his work in sculpture
and his “Black Paintings” of 1985-6, through which he staged Genet’s “The Blacks: A Clown Show”
on panels of pleated black rubber curtain. The center of our discussion was, perhaps, the mechanism of
metaphor, how its various processes, sometimes so oneiric and personal, lead to engagements with the
history of representation as well as to a rigorous confrontation with loss of homeland, with the transmission
of culture, death, and love. —May 2009
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REPRESENTATION, ABSTRACTION, AND MANIFESTATION
ARIANA REINES ...we were talking about the strabismus that I have, and I’ve always had this deep
distrust both of what I saw and how it had sway over me and what other people see... I found these
different ways in myself to create a distance between what I think of as truth and what is visible. I always
work with that whenever I’m looking at art or writing.
IZHAR PATKIN I need glasses, but this is one of the reasons why I don’t wear them. It creates too much
of a crisis for me between what I see and what other people see.When I put them on it’s a reminder for me
that I’m not really sure at all. I only put the glasses on when I finish the painting, for a few minutes, to see
what it “really” looks like.
AR You get used to it, in a way. There are always those few traumatic hours and days when you get your
prescription adjusted when you’re like—God, I had no idea, I’m in a foreign country.
IP Perhaps its a way of being permanently abroad. I just don’t want to see that much. I take in too much as
it is, so it comes handy, my handi-filter...When I was a kid and I’d just learned to read, I would read every
sign when we were driving, I’d get headaches ...
Back in the 80’s, when I was working on my sculpture, Don Quijote Segunda Parte, I was very close to
a professor of comparative literature. His name is Pedro Cuperman. He’s from Argentina, a protégé of
Borges, a friend of Carlos Fuentes, one of those brilliant Argentines, sexy Jews. He coached me a lot about
Don Quixote and that whole meta-literary event where Cervantes’ Don Quixote is “reading” Avellaneda’s
Don Quixote. A fictional character holding a “real” book. A lot like the Hindu Maya—blurring reality and
illusion. Pedro spent a long time in India.
So I had my big show at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and he came because he was of part of the family, he
wrote for the catalog, and he really cared about what I would do next, and I really trusted him. And the day
after I had the opening we had breakfast and he said, I have a request, but it’s kind of Biblical. You have to
say yes before I tell you what I will ask you to do. Like when the Bible was given, when the Torah was given,
they said “Naaseh V‘nishma”—we’ll do, and then we’ll listen, we agree, and then we’ll listen.
So I said, Sure! So he said, it’s very short, my request: Make me a Shiva. And I said,Why a Shiva?
And he says,Well, you can’t understand now, why I would ask you, but through the process you will
understand why I asked you to do it. So I said, I’m gonna do it my way, and he said, Sure, I’m not going
to tell you anything more: just do it. So it became this huge project, I decided to do this fourteen-foot
sculpture in Venetian glass, a combination of the dancing Shiva Nataraja and Josephine Baker and Carmen
Miranda, and I changed it so that instead of standing on Apasmara the dwarf, I put a chicken, because in
Hebrew they say the world rests on chicken wings, which means the world is fragile, and I changed the ring
of fire he was circled by into a ring of roses, which are the garden, and I made him/her leap out of the circle.
So s/he was actually self-exiling, and Josephine Baker and Carmen Miranda, their big story was that they
were in exile too. It was the exilic dancer who was also a god. There is a taboo in my culture about making
a god, and I was making a god, and slowly I realized I was making a god that was working for his money,
that was seductive, and people believed in him and followed him because he was seductive, because he was
the greatest dancer, because of a million other reasons other than just being ominous. And then Pedro
came to the studio when I was assembling the sculpture, and he looked at it and I said to him, Alright, what
do you think of my Shiva? And he said, You got it! And I said,What do you mean? And he said, You
already said it.What did I say? He said,What did you say! I said, ‘I said: ‘What do you think of my Shiva.’
And he said, You got it. And I said,What do you mean that the proof that I got it was that I said ‘What do
you think of my Shiva?’ And he said,What would you ask me if you made an image of Christ? And I said,
Well, I would ask you what do you think of my painting of Christ? And he said,What did you say here?
So I said, I said what do you think of my Shiva? And he said, You dropped the word sculpture. And that’s the
key. Because now you understand the difference between representation, abstraction, and manifestation.
You had this idea that you internalized, that you put together, and it manifested itself in a Shiva. And it’s not
a surprise that you did that, because you can take this Shiva and put it on a street corner in India, and within
a day or two, they will invent the miracle and the story and the worship for it, and it will be a manifestation
of Shiva just like any other Shiva.
That took my breath away. It was a life-changing experience, and it was great how he structured it for
me. Because had he said that before I made the sculpture, it would not have made the same impact. So I
was transformed, and from then on, I always looked for that in the work. But I didn’t have the perfect
vehicle, because I didn’t have another Shiva. Really this culminates in the veils, because it’s without the
vehicle of the Shiva, but it still operates within the core of manifestation. It’s not an abstraction, it’s not a
representation, it’s something else. Physically—something else. That’s what manifestation means to me,
at least at the moment.
I went further into the stories of the ghosts, the shadows... something that I started earlier with “The
Black Paintings.” I can tell you a little story about a shadow. I had a feeling when I started these veil
paintings that shadows would be really important here. I had verbs, sentences in my head, such as “Pain is
the shadow of desire.” All sorts of things like that. But it still wasn’t really anchored. And then I was in
Venice with my friends Françoise and Sylviane. And we went to see “The Assumption of the Virgin to
Heaven,” the Titian painting.We sat in front of the painting and it started to rain, pouring cats and dogs,
so we couldn’t leave, we sat in front of the painting for a good hour, the church was empty by then. And at
one point I realized that in that painting there is no reference to architecture or scale or anything—it’s the
apostles, the Virgin, clouds, cherubs, God. The scale of the painting has no reference to size, place, or time,
and only one character in the painting throws a significant shadow, and that’s her. So I turned to Françoise
and I said, This is amazing! You guys, Catholics, it’s not a metaphor for you, it’s not her soul that goes up
to heaven, it’s her body! And she goes, Like, duh! You didn’t know that? And I said No, I didn’t know
that until I saw this painting just now! And it got me thinking about who gets the shadow and what the
shadow means—when shadow is basically a metaphor for fertility, like in that famous Strauss opera... and
what about the shadow-less? And then I realized that ghosts are suspended emotions: as long as an emotion
is unresolved, it’s a ghost. And that is our job as narrators, to suspend emotion.
MEETING ON THE VEIL
AR When did you first encounter Shahid’s poems, and what were the first poems of his that you read?
IP This whole project came about—Anne MacDonald, the publisher, started a series by artists and writers
almost twenty years ago. I was supposed to be the first in the series.We could never find the right writer
for me to collaborate with. And then she was speaking to another writer, a friend of hers, Jim Lewis, and
he suggested Shahid. Anne thought it was a great idea, and she sent me all of Shahid’s books up to that
moment, and that was it, I thought, this guy has it. A CountryWithout a Post Office, AWalk Through the Yellow
Pages, those early books. I loved how it was navigating Kashmir, America, formalism, free-form.When I
was reading his poems I felt that the metaphors were very close to my heart, they somehow belonged to
the part of the world that I came from. Bingo. So they arranged a meeting, Shahid was still living in Utah;
he came to New York and we met. And then we spent a whole year getting to know each other before we
started our project.
AR And what were you working on at the time?
IP The “Madonna and Child” paintings. Now that you’re asking me I’m thinking well God, how apropos.
His mother had just died. But we never discussed this coincidence, so I never put it together before now.
Because, you know, the whole thing he does with the Pietà. I didn’t connect that that was the moment
when we met—he had just finished “Lenox Hill” for his mother: “If only I could gather you in my arms,
Mother, I’d save you—now my daughter—from God.” There was always an incredible symbiosis between us,
right from the get-go. Just think, at that time I was painting “Madonna and Child” without the child. “How
helpless was God’s mother!” is his following line... He used one of my old paintings, the “carpet” painting
with the falling elephants motif, for the book cover of Rooms Are Never Finished, which opens with the
“Lenox Hill” poem, its epigraph: “( In Lenox Hill Hospital, after surgery, my mother said the sirens sounded like the
elephants of Mihiragula when his men drove them off cliffs in the Pir Panjal Range.)”
AR Around what year was this?
IP We met in 1999. Rooms was published later.
AR And he ended up moving to Amherst, right?
IP First he moved to Brooklyn. He lived in Brooklyn the whole time he was ill and going through
treatment, and then when it was clear that he didn’t have long to live, he moved to Amherst to stay with
AR When you were getting to know each other, what did you do together, make meals, or...?
IP Yeah, he was an avid cook of Indian cuisine. He came here and he cooked, and it took him five-seven
hours to do everything, and it would take me two or three days beforehand to get him all the spices he
needed—he was very particular. Then his friends and family would come, and my friends, it was amazing.
We would talk about things, but we never discussed the project until one day when he called me and said,
we’d better get going. And one day he came here and he said what we need to do, he said, “I decided that
our cultures, Muslim and Jewish, will meet on the veil.” And for me it was really exciting, because doing
the veil rooms was what I had in mind, but he didn’t know that.
AR How do you understand what he meant by “on the veil”?
IP How did I understand it then, or how do I understand it now?
AR How did you understand it then, in that moment, not having yet told him what you’d been working
on or what you’d been wanting to do?
IP I didn’t know the extent of it. I thought, wow, this is great, now I can tell him the story of the pargod
if he doesn’t know it. The pargod is the cosmic curtain, in Jewish mysticism, that God drew around us in
order to mark the parameters of the human experience. Everything seen on the pargod is a projection. It’s
The creator of our reality. Our human experience. And considering that the pargod itself is our projection...
I suppose it’s a bit like Plato’s cave. I thought oh, this is great, now I can tell him this story that always
interested me from childhood. I will show him this drawing, or woodcut, from the Middle Ages, of a monk,
or a pilgrim, going to the end of the Earth and lifting up this curtain that looks like it’s the pargod, and it is
perforated with a million tiny holes, which are the stars, and the pilgrim looks out to the universe, and it’s all
patterns. It’s all patterns. This was my magic image when I was a kid.
AR The universe is patterns?
IP Yeah. See? The little pilgrim that goes to the earth’s end. He looks a little like the priest in my painting.
And pokes his head beyond this curtain, see how the fabric is over his head, and he sees these patterns.
AR The image is from an encyclopedia, but what entry does it illustrate? Is this for the entry describing
the pargod ?
IP No, its not a Jewish image, at all. It says,
What, then, is this blue sky... which veils from us
the stars during the day? ... I can’t read it without
my glasses, it’s tiny. And you know, curtains... for
me, there’s the curtain in the synagogue, and the
bride’s veil and the tallis...
AR So there’s a connection between the curtain
and the screen.
IP Yes. The bride’s veil. My first “curtain”
painting. It was called “The Meta Bride.” It was
painted on pleated tulle. Tulle is called “Bridal
Illusion” in the trade, or just “Illusion.”
AR It’s protective, but it’s also obscuring. But it’s also the membrane, or the border—
IP For me, the curtain is a canvas. The metaphor: painting is a veil. That piece of wood at the top on
which the tulle is stapled is my stretcher. I leave it decidedly visible. Stretcher and canvas, pretty basic... so
the curtain, it’s not meant to be a curtain over a window, it’s meant to occupy the space of painting. A tulle
canvas, pleated into a space of vapor.When I did them with the opaque black rubber, the pleats become
a hollow of deep space. The pleats are also, for me, the perfect marriage between painting and collage,
because it creates an object that is seamed, yet seamless. It doesn’t have the problem of collage that tries to
defy the seamlessness of oil paintings, but then acquires a new essence of always being seamed. Because those
“seams,” of my curtain pleats don’t actually provide any gluing service.
AR What about the transition from the rubber to the “Illusion” tulle. The translucence. I’m connecting it
to the Madonnas that I saw in the other room, that are on the screens.What do you find in working with a
translucent surface, or surfaces.
IP First of all there’s this childhood fantasy of going through walls. Until you grow up and you realize
it’s not what’s through Alice’s looking-glass, but instead what’s right in front of you. Or you yourself are
the translucent object that everything passes through. Net, netting, or strainer, was something that from
childhood really fascinated me. I remember my first day of literature class, I don’t know how old I was,
seven years old, eight years old... You go and sit there at the beginning of the year, maybe in September,
and you have no idea what literature is and then the teacher comes in. So the teacher came in and the first
question to us was, Hey kids, what is language? And I raised my hand and said, Language is a strainer. Like
a tea-strainer, and it sits here in the middle of your neck, in the middle of your throat. And every word has
a shaped hole. And all the words that you have inside can only go out through these holes, these particular
holes. But also all the words that are outside can only go back in through those holes—so for me, language
is a strainer.
AR In the throat.
IP In the throat. Because I was thinking language is spoken language. I didn’t yet think of language as a
whole. So that’s the beginning of strainer, and that image of the monk wandering to edge of the sky with all
the holes. Strainer. Screen. Veil.
AR It’s funny, I have an image with a sieve that’s basically the same. An oscillation I always had, it’s
less now, but it used to consume me. Like for ten years, I used to think about it every day. A sieve or a
blotter—the opposite—a porous surface that absorbs, or the thing with the holes through which you decant
or distill something. I often have the experience that reading is like passing my mind through a sieve, that
somehow it decants something, distills something—
IP I totally agree. And the quality of your sieve has a lot to do with the quality of the experience that you
are able to absorb, outside of the greatness of the text. In 1987 I made a series of perforated paper collages
called “Funnels & Trumpets: Portrait of the Self as a Breather.” That strainer in the throat... breathe in,
breathe out... clear your throat...
AR It’s very strange how, no matter what, the text is always porous, and somehow you are able to leave
behind these tiny grains, with each encounter. And you acquire a little bit of a different ore, or a different
sediment goes into your mixture, in this alchemical way—
IP What I learned from Lawrence, through his gestalt training, is that in gestalt, when you interpret
dreams, you are everything that is in the dream. So also, in all these conversations, in all thinking and
painting, you are also everything. So if you talk about a sieve being a tool, you are talking about yourself as
a sieve, if you talk about a tool, you are talking about yourself as the tool. In the dream state of metaphor,
you are everything. But not just a dream, this is the pumping heart of perception. You may think it
alchemical–I would say the life of metaphor is empirical–it derives from observation and experiment rather
than theory. Metaphor give ideas a body–an objectification. Emotions and words are objects–they have
volume and weight no matter how fleeting they are, they have matter. Matter. Translucent matter is bliss...
How much body do you actually need is another alluring matter for me. I grew up looking at images of
paintings in reproductions, in the public library. There were not many paintings in Israel. Reproductions
of “Starry Night” were postcards of longing from the home I have never seen of that image. Later, I crossed
the sea and made the transition into images as paintings with meat and flesh and canvas and oil paint
cracks. You actually have to go to theWailingWall to understand the weight and volume of the cracks.
No reproduction, no representation can do it. The relationship between image and object is always a
tremendous battle for me in terms of its weight, its volume, what it needs to actually exist, does it exist in
the object, does it exist in my mind? Maybe that’s why my veils are “Illusion.”When I have an experience
in front of a painting, where exactly is the experience? A great Jackson Pollock becomes a veil only when
you stand in front of it and see the weave of the unprimed canvas through the lace of the drips. Is it all in
the painting, is it me?Where is it more alive?
AR But it’s definitely not in the reproduction in the book.
IP Well, the reproduction in the book transmits something incomplete, but it transmits something.
AR But it’s so different, it’s an image of an image, but it can’t really be an image of the experience.
IP It’s another experience, but it’s kind of somehow within the parameters of the painting. But it usually
produces a false sense of detail. In the height of the art boom collectors were buying and selling from looking
at disposable transparencies... there was more content per square inch in those slides than in the paintings—
AR Yeah, and also you get a sense of shape that might be stronger, because the relationship between
positive and negative space or—
IP Well, you know how painters used to stand backwards from the painting with a mirror in order to see
the composition as more compact, like this—
AR One of the reasons I’ve always thought I could never be a painter is just my way of seeing is so
unbelievably different from a distance to up close that it would be traumatic, I think, to work on something
at close range—
IP On the contrary, I think it would produce something really interesting—
AR I don’t know. I’m one of those people who—I love to look at my lover from far away, because I’m so
used to seeing that person at close range, five feet or less—
IP Oh, that’s nice.
AR I love, I just love seeing the person that I love, whom I know so well and so intimately, I love seeing
that person move and talk from far away—
IP That’s beautiful.
AR It’s like falling in love again. But—what about the relationship between translucence and the
experience of a text.We’ve been talking about reading and language. But in working with the poem,
it’s not just the poem, it’s your experience of it, the way it’s living in you. I’m interested both in the
permeation (or permeability) of the poem, and in these translucent surfaces. It seems like multiple
surfaces that you’re making images on, there are two or three layers—
IP of the pleats—
AR and also, the way the rooms embrace and surround—
IP the panorama—
AR How do those qualities reflect your experience of living with the poem?
IP The way I read, at least a Shahid poem, but any poem that is great, is I read it, I read it more, I have
to chase it many times. And at a certain point the cat catches its tail, it becomes a full circle. I can enter
the poem at any point, it doesn’t have to be at the beginning or at the end. The head of the cat is no longer
the premier doorway. It becomes a flow that goes forward, backward, sideways. Poetic time is not an
analog clock... I can’t imagine translating his painting—his poems—into a single panel painting. At least
not yet.When you walk into my veil rooms, depending on your personality and your interest or your
mood of that day, you find one spot that becomes the beginning spot for you. Because you identify it
first, it grabs your attention first, or something like that. My involvement with the poems is very,
And then there’s the whole question of how you go from the discipline of writing, which is not mine, to
painting.Well... I enter the poem, and then I try to imagine where I am. Each poem takes me somewhere
else. Maybe a comparison would be to imagine how a musician would translate Shahid into music. I’m
not talking about putting music to the lyrics. I’m talking about translating this to music without lyrics.
That might be a very similar process to how I go from Shahid’s text into this room of visual symphony.
I often see these paintings in a very symphonic way, that has to do with pianissimos and crescendos, tone,
rhythm—and the pleats of the curtain provide a certain pacing. There’re different kinds of “Illusion” fabrics,
with big holes, small holes, iridescent—and the pleats of the curtains are different, they’re not regular. Each
pleat is designed to support a certain quality of rendering, and they’re tucked in such a way that you don’t
have a pleat on an eyeball or something like that. They have different volumes, some are fat, some are
slender. There are variations of density even within a single pleat, because the curtain, it’s fourteen feet tall,
it flares out on the bottom, so the details on the flared tulle, toward the bottom, become more evasive. I
have to plan certain pleats and certain details for the bottom of the curtain, which are very different from
what happens on top. The top is very sharp, the bottom is very effervescent. All these things go into play,
in the same way that if you are to arrange an orchestra onstage, you would determines their distance to
the audience by how every instrument projects sound differently, at different volume, different register,
AR There’s a quality of being in that space, a room that has aspects both of dream-feeling and also of
memory. There are ways in which it’s familiar, it gave me the impression that it wanted to seem, in certain
ways, almost familiar, that these images were things I was recognizing from certain memories of mine, or
memories of things that I have seen, but it’s full of these displacements too, these disjunctions, here there’s
a pile of snow and there’s a cloud. These transpositions are like the transpositions in dreaming, and they’re
also like the transpositions of one’s memory playing tricks on one. Because of that quality, there’s a strange
nostalgia that’s produced in looking, in being there, that is strange because it’s not actually mine—I don’t
think—but it operates in the same way that mine would operate. That creates something really interesting.
In looking around “The Veil Suite” room, the first two times that I spun around slowly, I was sort
of not, almost actively not looking at what didn’t quite fit into what I was putting together on my
own. There’s all kinds of aberrations in it.Why the man is dressed in the way he’s dressed, with the
photographer’s black cloth over his head—or is it a dark bridal veil? Little moments like this, of traction
or dissonance, that keep you from just falling into a total trance, even though it’s a trance-like state that
the room produces.
IP The technique that enables me to do this dream state you’re talking about is the mechanics of metaphor,
which I learned over my life as a working artist, and especially this extraordinarily privileged encounter with
Shahid’s poetry. “The Veil Suite” is a requiem. The entire painting happens in some sort of a shroud like
snow-scape that could be Kashmir. The poet is standing there in his suit, and he has a black veil over
his head, and he’s standing in the snow. But at a certain point, you’re not sure if he’s standing on snow or
if he’s standing on clouds, like in the “Assumption Of The Virgin.” That transference between snow and
clouds is what creates the metaphorical landscape. Between what seems familiar to you as snow, that’s a man
standing on snow, that’s acceptable, or a man standing on clouds, that takes you into your experience of
looking at paintings like Titian’s “Assumption.” In my case the clouds and the snow are both the tenor and
the vehicle at once, but we can talk more about that later.
AR What I see as transposition is what you’ve described with the literary term metaphor.We were talking
about metaphor a lot last night.When you were explaining where or how in “Evening” you arrived at
Venice as a space of suspended time, or a space that’s on a different time somehow. In no way does
that illustrate in some kind of simple way, what’s in “Evening,” the poem—Venice does not appear in the
poem, has nothing to do with the poem. But Venice signifies a kind of time; it signifies an experience of
time that has everything to do with the poem.Which is why you create the space with the building facades
and canals of Venice.
IP You have to create, like in a movie, or in a text, you have to create a certain level of believability in
order for the viewer or even for yourself to enter it, and then liberate yourself from that believability into
the suspension of emotion. In “The Veiled Suite” Shahid says: “Make me your veil, then see if you can veil
yourself from me,” and the poem culminates with, “I am become your veil and I am all you see.” So I had
to think of a situation in life that would be that moment from the outside, that if you stood there and you
saw a certain scene, you would say “Wow, that reminds me of that thing Shahid said, make me your veil
and I am all that you shall see.” The image that I finally arrived at is a photographer taking a picture of a guy
wearing a veil. You have the photographer, you have the guy with the veil, and the dark veil that’s on the
guy who is the poet it exactly the same shape as the dark veil on the camera of the photographer, so you have
these two shapes playing off each other.When a photographer looks through a lens, you are all he sees, so
it’s a matter of framing, and that’s what Shahid does with his words. So I created that scene, and I took it
from there. And there are other visual kinks, like putting him on the snow, which looks like clouds, and
then the painting continues and develops from that. That’s on one wall.
The wall facing on the opposite side of the room works as an allegorical mirror. There, there’s another
duet and the two couples mirror each other, but they don’t look alike. The stuff you do with metaphor is
witchcraft, where the frog becomes the prince, kaboom. The facing wall duet is a pas de deux between Jesus
and a ballerina—it’s Jesus, taken off the cross. I realized, at a certain point that when you take Jesus off the
cross, he’s en pointe, so I gave him a ballerina. It’s Jesus doing a duet with a ballerina. In the poem it’s very
unclear if Shahid is talking to a lover or God. Meeting the faceless, or the veiled lover. One transference
in the painting is between Jesus, God Incarnate and the photographer, now God. Another transference is
between the ballerina and the veiled poet, now effeminized with the veil into being God’s bride (or widow.)
The scene is now somewhere between love and death. I think there is a condemnation in the poem of
our indoctrination into the enactment of divine love in our earthly lives. But there’s no specific religious
scenery going on there.We can talk more about that later. Did you notice that the only complete character
in the entire painting is the poet? He’s standing on the snow and he has a shadow. All the other characters
are only shadows, their bodies just imagined. Supposedly their bodies are in the room with you, the viewer;
you only see their shadows cast on the bottom of the tulle curtain. So the photographer is a shadow, Jesus
is a shadow, the ballerina is a shadow, in this entire painting there is only one character that is painted not
as a shadow.
AR For me one of the transpositions that I made, I think I’ve read the poem only four or five times, but
what I connected it to, maybe because it’s one of my favorite stories, is Jacob and the Angel. In the King
James translation that I always read, there’s a moment when Jacob sees the hind parts of the angel, or
God, or he doesn’t really know what he’s wrestling with, but he sees its hind parts, which is sort of like
the shadow. As I think about it I know I’m deforming it—perhaps it’s Moses who perceives the hind
parts of God after heeding the voice in the burning bush? I always think, somehow, that whatever I
perceive as a manifestation of divinity, whatever I see as really extraordinary, is somehow the hind parts
of the divine, a shadow, the disturbance of some kind of angel passing by, or some sort of residue that it
IP They say that the divine is only visible in the faces of the believers. Just like love is only visible in lovers’
eyes. But this is a whole other conversation.
AR To go back to the moment when Shahid said to you, ‘Our cultures, Jewish and Muslim, should meet
on the veil’—meaning, he was referring to his poem—
IP That poem was not written yet—
AR Ah! Thank you.
IP He wrote that poem specifically for this project. In fact, it’s a very breathtaking story, because Shahid
was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he was going through chemotherapy, and he had just finished a round
of chemotherapy, and he was feeling much better. Although he had a severe loss of eyesight and a lot of
his short-term memory gone. Not his long-term memory—he was still able to recite Shakespeare sonnets
forward and backward. But things of short-term memory were really strenuous for him. And he was
teaching his brain to use other parts to compensate, like music and things like that. In fact, every time I saw
him he was singing; there was a song in Urdu that reminded him of my name, so it kept him focused. So it
was a Monday, I spoke to him, and he said, I’ve just finished a round of chemotherapy, I feel much better,
I’m going to see the doctor on Thursday, and I’ll call you as soon as I’m out, I’m sure the news is going to
be good because I feel fantastic. So Thursday night he called me and he said, Izhar, I have good news and
I have bad news.What would you like to hear first. So I said, Let’s get the bad news out of the way first.
So he said, I have three months to live. I said, You have three months to live and you have good news
for me too?What good news could there possibly be? And he said, Oh darling, but of course. The good
news is that I’m not gonna let you down, by Monday I’m going to finish the poem for our project. And
that weekend he wrote—dictated—
AR Dictated ?
IP Yes, dictated. He dictated this poem [“The Veiled Suite”] to his friend.
AR Like Milton.
IP Yes. For me, it took me years to understand his poem. And I could only understand the rhythm after
I color-coordinated all the rhymes in order to understand the structure of the canzone.
AR This is incredible. I didn’t realize at all that when he said that to you, he had not already written the
poem. And I also didn’t realize that he composed the poem while unable to see. This is extraordinary. Now
I have to go read it ten more times.
IP Back at the first meeting when we decided on the veil, I said to Shahid, Lets not give them that tacky
Muslim-Jew love-fest they expect. Lets pretend we hate each other and demand separate book parties,
he said laughing, lets milk it, he roared. So we decided to call our project, the big project, “Veiled Threats,”
and we decided to play off the whole thing of hate and stuff, we were really having a giggle. And then a few
weeks passed, he was hospitalized again for some days, and after he got out of the hospital he called me,
we had lunch in a Middle-Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn, and he brought me a rough draft of the first
paragraph [stanza] for “The Veiled Suite.” The draft was titled “The Only Two Alternatives.” It was after a
dream he’d had in the hospital.
Or shall I bring you the sound of poisons?
Make me your veil and then see how you veil
Your self from me. Awake? Asleep? I sense
(why? He strokes my arm.What poison is in his ice?)
he’s either a conscious agent of night,
faceless by my bed, whom I almost see,
or, sent by the fog, that blond assassin,
he doesn’t know he’s the random assassin
(in his cold calm there’s no hint of urgency).
In other words, as he clarifies in the epigraph for the final version of “The Veiled Suite”:
Faceless, he could represent only two alternatives:
That he was either a conscious agent of harm,
Or that he would unknowingly harm me anyway.
AR —not on purpose.
IP Not on purpose. He said that he woke up screaming and his sister helped him. So he wrote the first
stanza. Then I kept visiting him, and he would tell me all sorts of visions and ideas and metaphors around
this poem that he had in mind. And then that weekend after the brutal diagnosis, he nailed it, and Monday
morning “The Veil Suite” arrived in my fax machine. And it was a masterpiece. Later on he changed the
title. Shahid was going back and forth between whether it should be “The Veil Suite” or “The Veiled Suite.”
I wanted it to be “The Veil Suite” because it was his original title, and because I felt that none of us had
anything to hide, and actually we were talking about objects, objects of a painting and objects of a poem,
so to me it seemed more apropos for it to be “The Veil Suite.” His brother told me that right at the very
end of his life, he decided to call it “The Veiled Suite.” I thought, Alright, let’s leave it where each one of us
want it. So the poem is called “The Veiled Suite” and the painting is called “The Veil Suite.”
AR And it’s not called “Veiled Threats.”
IP “Veiled Threats” is the title that we gave for our entire collaboration, which will have ten or twenty of
his poems, and ten or twenty of my paintings. This one painting is called “The Veil Suite” and the poem
is called “The Veiled Suite.” So this question, between veil and veiled is very interesting in terms of content,
in terms of his state of mind and my state of mind. And when that change happened. People are often
confused about it, the question of the veil or the veiled is the heart of the matter.
AR It’s so right though, that it’s between them. It’s almost as though one is on one side of the room and
the other is on the other, as though there’s a slight asymmetry in the reflection, but where they cross is
where it is. Maybe.
IP The dilemma between veil and veiled is one of the core questions—the use of veil as object and
metaphor. For me, at this moment in my life, my veils hide nothing. Like what Auden says—“Poetry makes
AR But yet, because of your interest in the bride, there’s still—even though it hides nothing, it’s the artwork
to which we have come.
IP But I have already inverted it. I put it back.With my first painting, I put the face of the bride on top
of the white veil, and she, the bride, is black. The whole thing of bridal illusion is very different from the idea
of the veil for Muslim women.
AR Really? I’m not so sure.
IP Well, because it’s a device of delay, a device of suspension, it’s not really a device of hiding. It’s a device
AR Well, it’s both. For example, SimoneWeil—ha ha—writes that time, human temporality is a veil. I
think this is an idea that’s also in Kabbalah. That if the totality of the universe and of divinity were to occur
to you in a single onslaught, you would be pulverized. So it’s through the veil of time and timeliness that
we’re able to take these little doses of infinity. It is through the time of the body, the time of the turning
planet, that infinity is dosed. So there’s your delay. This is what we live in. And also, why not—the veil
IP “No mortal has or will ever lift my veil,” Shahid writes—and you know the next line which he leaves
unsaid: and stay alive... No one can see God and live, supposedly. Maybe I’m thinking of the bridal veil
more as a theatrical curtain, the third wall, the device of delay and suspension.
AR It certainly is a device of delay and suspension, even erotic delay and suspension. I’m saying that I agree.
But somehow, even to have the bride’s face on the veil—
IP —“make me now you veil, then see if you can veil yourself from me”—make me now your metaphor
and then see if you can hide yourself from yourself—narratives and metaphors are essentially veils, and
I placed those veils on a veil. It’s also a question of where you place yourself. As a woman I think you
immediately feel the sorrow and the restriction of the woman behind the veil, whereas, as a man, I see
AR But I also see a power. There’s the image projected onto the veil, and there is also what the veil protects.
Both are true. Both are required in order for the circumstance to be legible.Whatever mystery or privacy
needs to be held in some kind of reserve, behind, is, in the metaphor of SimoneWeil—the total and absolute
truth that would pulverize you if it could overtake you all at once. To be held in reserve, or held on delay,
the curtain is not ready to be opened yet.
IP Well, the delay isn’t that it can’t be opened yet, because if you opened it, you’d see the wall. The delay
is in the rhythm of the pleats, in the rhythm of the layers, the time it takes you to process the fleeting images
in the tulle—the 3 dimensional fog shadows—the suspended emotions—the ghosts—that’s where the delay is,
for me, not in the curtain opening.
AR Oh I see. But when you said theatricality, and the fourth wall or third wall—
IP Yes, you’re right, from that point of view. But for me in the theatre, the curtain exists even when it is
AR Ah! Yes, of course. One way to think of theatre is as a veil for the wall.
IP The curtain?
AR No, the play. It’s there for you to have light and darkness and movement, to hide this emptiness
behind it. Plato’s cave, or whatever.
IP “Poetry makes nothing happen.” To hide the emptiness, to shield the emptiness, perhaps? You can take
veil, you can take it so many places. This young writer in Israel, Shimon Adaf, did an investigation into
the root of the word veil in Hebrew. And it turns out that the root for veil is the same both for veil and for
foreskin. It is also the root of the word for poison.
AR I was about to ask—I don’t know why I was just thinking about condoms.
IP Veil and foreskin. I googled it, and I found this esoteric Christian text that says the erection, the
foreskin pulling back, is the unveiling of creation. The third root is poison.We never really got to the
bottom of this—
AR Poison, foreskin, and veil.
IP Shahid actually asks in his poem, “What poison is his eyes?” And he does this play, in the poem,
between eyes and ice. So when he looks at you, or when he gives you the drink, Shahid says, what poison
is in his ice, what poison is in his eyes, that agent of harm. It’s phenomenal that he came up with these
metaphors, eyes ice—poison, within the parameters of the veil, or the veil suite. That’s one of these endless
things that I find with Shahid that connect to “my” religion, or my culture or something, and then I discover
that he was there, or that he had already handed it to me, but you needed to keep digging, or keep looking.
It’s this endless euphoria with that work, endless inspiration. I hope that it’ll be for other people as well,
AR I’m thinking about the way that you see the rooms being in sequence, or you’re still thinking about
what kind of building they’ll be in—
IP Well, the rooms can be like the individual couplets in a ghazal, each one can be a room, or they can be
strung together into a necklace.
AR But will they be room after room—
IP Or around the same piazza.
AR Instead of bent over walls, all just unfurling in one room?
IP Maybe like in a cathedral, what did you call it, those little chapels around the—
AR Around the chancel. Something like that. So it would still be interlocking rooms within a larger space?
IP Yes. I don’t know. These things need to be tested out. I miss the days when art used to be put out in
public, on trial. Now it’s put out as a fait-accompli. But I would love to be given the process of trial and error,
to see where this process would take me.
AR There is a chapel-like quality about that one—
IP All of them. Cause you’re immediately thinking about time, about sound, about eternity, temporality,
life, death. And those are things any chapel or synagogue brings out in you. They are incense.
AR What I was most taken by is that, in any religious space where there are images, which would be a
church, where there are paintings, there’s the kind of gaze that you do, the penetrating gaze, and it’s usually
very high up, what you’re looking at, a very ‘elevating’ experience, heady, airy—
IP That’s another option also, that I need to investigate, maybe to hang the entire room above the
AR What I liked about looking at this veiled suite, or veiled room, was that I had to look at it by sliding
my eyes over it in these sort of sweeping gestures, instead of trying to fuse with it and penetrate into it in
the way that I would in looking at an ikon. Like those ikons with the big eyes, those Slavic ikons, they’re
designed to bring about that vertigo, that the more you gaze at them the more you sort of fuse with them,
penetrating into them in a kind of maybe phallic way. But maybe as you start to disperse, it’s after. First
you’re outside of it, and little by little you start to penetrate in, and that’s when you start to atomize, that’s
when you get the intoxication of looking, that dizzy feeling of bodilessness.Whereas this is, for me, with
my weird eyes, and just my first experience, was about going back and forth along the surface, surfaces—
IP It’s a very Baroque experience. One image spills into another. In a Renaissance Church, you walk in
and it’s in perfect symmetry, you can see the order. You’re standing at the front door and God’s plan is in
your hand. You know where everything is, it’s in perfect symmetry, it’s in perfect order, you’re in control.
In the Baroque church, everything changes. The views and everything changes as you’re walking around, so
it’s more experiential in that way, you have many many viewpoints, many different perspectives. Someone
once described the Baroque as a reflection of the Renaissance in the water. These rooms are the same,
because you can’t walk in and conceive the floor plan in a flash—Because it has a lot of refractions.
AR And it’s an ambulatory. Not only do you have to move, but you can’t look at it with a fixed gaze.
IP I can see how these veil paintings can exacerbate one’s vision... they are like fog-shadows. That’s a real
term, by the way.We are not used to seeing shadows in three dimensions. You have to pick up the pieces,
you have to compute and combine them together. It’s a very active process, internalizing, putting the
pieces together. It must be even more difficult for people who are not familiar with the poem inside-out,
or with my work.
AR Because of the ways that there is a kind of off-rhyme between one image and another, like, the train
tracks and the crucifix, or the shadows and the snow drifts, there are ways that it contains symmetry, or
IP Yeah, but you know, metaphor, even if it’s not symmetrical by ninety degrees is symmetrical by role.
IP One thing makes the other. “The moon for its ivory scours the night.” The metaphors in the canzone
practically share a genetic code. A genetic structural code. There are five stanzas in the poem and five sets of
key words. These word sets are not rhymes per se, they are more like refractions in a pool. Every last word
of every line in the canzone comes from one of these five “pools”:
(A) veil, unveil, vail, vale, prevail
(B) eyes, ice, realize
(C) sense, crescent’s, essence, license, fluorescence,magnificence, incense
(D) night, tonight, ignite
(E) sea, urgency, fantasy, varanasi, see, debussy, foresee
All these words become inventers of each other, refracting into a million reflections, with no apologies or
arguments, as if they are not responsible for their genetic fate. And the genetic code is revealed in the last
stanza that is a short stanza of only five lines, called the envoi. The structure of the canzone goes like this:
stanza 1: ABAACAADDAEE
stanza 2: EAEEBEECCEDD
stanza 3: DEDDADDBBDCC
stanza 4: CDCCECCAACBB
stanza 5: BCBBDBBEEBAA
There, in the envoi, the five “pools” are pooled together: A,B,C,D,E—Tonight, Veil, Incense, Eyes, See.
The meaning of the poem seeps into you like osmosis; I hope the veils of the rooms do the same.
AR And yet, you don’t need to know the poem in order to be able to produce a kind of reading, or have an
experience of the room—
IP It’s not bad if you know the poem. Throughout history you had to know the Bible in order to know
what the paintings were talking about. Once religion was dismissed, narrative had a hard time finding its
text. Shahid gives the Bible a run for its money.
AR I fell in love with religious painting without ever having really learned the narrative.What fascinated
me was how much it contains beyond the narrative.
IP Oh, absolutely.
AR How relentlessly it does not merely illustrate the Bible, or a set of ethical ideals. It’s wild. You could
only look at religious painting and still have an unbelievably intense experience of humanity, even outside
the bounds of what the Christian cosmology admits of it.
IP Absolutely. Look at the Pietà. Look at what he did there. Michelangelo—to put Christ and his mother
at the same age, that’s like, audacious.
AR And that had been happening for a while, no? The transition from the throne of wisdom to having
Christ and his mother looking the same age, sitting opposite each other in thrones, like king and queen or
husband and wife—that perversion. But it’s still not the same, it’s true, to have him in her arms like that.
And she’s got those big mannish hands.
IP It’s phenomenal. Or you have Masaccio’s exile from the garden of Eden, and she’s discovering her
private parts, and he’s covering his eyes. I mean—BINGO. Maria’s ascension to heaven and it’s her body
rising not her soul, and I see that from the painting, not from knowing the doctrine.
AR They have transubstantiation and that’s not metaphor.
IP But as a Jew, where would I even begin to think like that! It’s unimaginable! It wouldn’t cross my mind!
But I totally saw it clearly from the painting. [Reads from “The Veiled Suite”] “On the farthest side of
prophecy I still need a veil.”
AR I want to ask you, because I was thinking about statehood this morning, and borders—When I was on
the plane coming over what I was thinking about, which I didn’t mention when I got here was, well: like
Shahid, you’re in exile too.
AR And, uhm, all of the Israeli artists that I know... most of the Israelis I know are artists... and they
assimilate so well in a certain way that there is not like this—
IP —because we have the model of Israel as aWestern country, because we have the model of Jews in the
world, because we are in New York, New York is so Jewish!
AR So you’re totally at home.
IP Yeah. And the history of diaspora for Jews is so long. It’s very complex history. It’s not a new Diaspora.
It’s almost a natural. For us it’s not an anomaly. But also the whole meaning of diaspora in the last fifty
years is very different than what Diaspora used to be. Every motherland has a diaspora and many types of
relationships with her Diaspora and in fact, America being the main diaspora-land, it feeds the whole world
with reinterpretation, many times, a more liberal interpretation of the motherland’s original theory, that
infuses it with more heterogeneity, a lot more exchange with comparative literatures, religions, and all
that, so in fact I think that the global notion of diaspora is changing radically, starting, in my lifetime, with
the hippies traveling.When I am in Israel, I see things they don’t understand about America, things that
America does better than them, and when I’m here I see the things that America doesn’t understand about
the rest of the world because it just can’t imagine it. A trip to India completely illustrates that. There is also
another set of values involved. There are values that are the same between two modern countries, but there’s
other things going on, from the religion, the idol-worshipping, etc, etc. So it’s very interesting. It’s rich.
But even when I’m furious at my motherland, I’m not here simply because of disgust. I’m here because I
wanted to be here. Because it’s better energy for me here. More opportunities for dreaming, for my art. The
art that I do here I could never do there.
AR Why not?
IP Because the temperament of my scope... I couldn’t have the scope of my thinking expressed. I couldn’t
have... I mean my veil rooms are like dream palaces, there’s no palaces in Israel, you know what I mean? It
would just seem—
AR A lot of people would say there’s no palaces in New York.
IP Well, now there are...
IP There are. I mean there’s financial palaces, museum palaces, there’re opera palaces, theater palaces—
And most importantly, to quote Shahid: “Rooms Are Never Finished.” You know the epigraph for that
poem is a quote from Mario Buatta a.k.a “The King of Chintz”... [laughter] saying “Many of my favorite
things are broken.”
AR I guess one of the things I’ve been thinking about in connection to Shahid’s poetry is: one way that
a person could begin to try to look at your work would be to look at textiles and curtains and even the
consumption of literature, the idea of fiction, as these [elements] traditionally in the female domain, there’s
a way that you invert them. There is a lot of inversion. Even from the first piece that you showed me, the
earliest one of your stenciled collage of Van Gogh’s face... how you arrive at Van Gogh through the negative
space of his beard, which is also the negative space of these paintings as reproductions in a book... which is
sort of where, like in an art book is perhaps where a work is tamed, made consumable in a somehow safer,
explicated, more bourgeois setting... I don’t know, like, who buys art books?
IP Well we often forget to perceive the negative space as part of the space. And for me it’s a given. In one
of my first drawing lessons I had to take into account that in the middle of the body are the lungs: this huge
hole, with its volume. Once I understood the lungs, the breath, encased in the body, my figures fell into
proportion. Most students when they draw, they are looking so hard at the outside they don’t feel the
breath inside, and when I understood that I had to do a drawing of a figure starting with the idea of the
breath’s presence. From the moment I understood that, I was able to draw. And from that moment also I
was free from all that smudging and chiaroscuro and all that shit that students do to cheat themselves. I was
only doing contours, because I didn’t need anything other than that. And in painting, a similar fallacy is that
black and white are not color. In fact, when I look at paintings, certain paintings, the first thing I look at is
the way that the artist uses black and white in the paintings. And that tells me their sense of complexity,
their sense of understanding color. Like in Matisse the black is really, really important. Of course there are
paintings that decidedly don’t use that, but then you take that into account. So black and white are colors,
with the rest of the colors.
AR Black and white, like the black bride, or the portrait of the bride—
IP —Black is not the opposite of white for me. But try and be SnowWhite on your wedding day when
AR An inversion is not an opposition. Something else, perhaps unexpected, comes through from the
IP Absolutely. Look. Freud mapped the inside of the soul as if the landscape of Greek mythology, and
that’s what we all do, and even if it’s not you it is a part of autobiography.
AR Its fascinating to me that for you, you either emerge from the inverse, there’s this desire either for the
image to come through from behind, or to appear on what is supposedly covering something. So, in both
ways there’s an instinctive need to invert, not necessarily reverse, but invert the supposed source or the locus
of the event. Something emerges from behind, something presses through, or something appears or takes
place upon what supposedly should cover it, or not cover but partly obscure it.
IP The constant feeling of movement, the movement of becoming is vital, because the minute you lose that
movement... comes death.
THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS
AR In speaking about this, I can’t stop thinking about the poem “A Dream of Glass Bangles.” It goes from
the bangles on the mother’s arm to icicles on the house she’s standing in, and then there’s this bloodbath,
and I wanted to go get it, because for whatever reason I am attaching this gesture or this movement, I’m
connecting it to something I am seeing in your work—
IP Well, you know, this is the life of metaphor where one thing constantly transforms, and informs, and
creates another. “The moon for its ivory scours the night”—do you know what I mean?
AR The moon scours the night—
IP —It’s not like the moon emits this on her own.
AR But its not just that, its also... synecdochial, which is to say, from a part—and not just a part but an
almost feminized part, from something that would recede, something that would be part of the negative
space, merely the ground upon which the real action happens, something that perhaps seems or is more
passive, or rather, more secret, like the breath in the lungs that allows you to trace the form of the body.
While everyone else fusses over details, using plenty of impasto to cover up their errors, trying to make a
contour via a mass of details, whereas for you, once you manage to connect with what’s inside the body, the
open space of the breath, then all you had to do was these lines and you immediately had it instinctively,
through something internal, as opposed to piecing it together from a million verifiable, visible, external
minutiae. There’s a way to understand this kind of vision, of thinking, becomes a kind of gender play, in the
way that this little, or hidden, thing ends up disgorging (concealing? containing? embodying?) the whole—
just like the little madeleine of Proust is the source of the great work.
IP Every time we try to size something up by measuring with our tools, all we end up getting are
multiplications of our tools. A very limited proposition... whether it’s meters, temperature, time,
everything.We must have invented measuring tools as a protection from reality itself... So, in fact for
me to learn how to draw, the measuring tool was not to make a grid and put limbs in their squares but to
internalize the breath—and from then on there was no more squinting... My new measuring tool was now
an imaginary absence, breath-like, for example when I used to draw figures. And you can also see how that
continues later on with the work into the stencils, with the holes, into the perforated paper, into the ... It
must be some sort of an internalized vapor of a measuring device yet physical, a giant negative of a
AR —somehow it’s the size of yourself.
IP Exactly. Man is the measure of all things...things, things, things, which are, which are not. Protagoras
dearest! [laughter] So what do the Jews do to screw with the Greek? [laughter] in Hebrew the word for thing
and the word for speak (in the past tense) are the same. When it is said it becomes an object.
AR I want to get this poem. Looking at it there’s so much inversion in his work between black and white,
not just in that poem, not just in the moon scouring—
IP —and then there is the poem where Kashmir is a giant negative. Kashmir, his measuring tool.
AR Yeah, [reads] “and I see only the dark side of the sky as we hit the frozen runway a Pan Am takes off
leaving behind a row of snow dervishes, whirling and whirling till they become the trance of ever-white
trees found on Christmas cards. The trees crumble, just so much white dust.”
IP And I love the ease in which snowdrifts are dervishes. I love that his poems are not surreal. You could
mistake them for being that, but I don’t think they are. But the freedom in which the metaphors flow,
without apologies, or justify or defend or explain—it was really transforming for me in terms of liberties
I was able to take with my work after this whole encounter with Shahid’s poetry. I did it before, but before
it was a huge effort, a battle, I had to fight for every move, now I don’t. I stopped. Do you think there’s
finally a truce between the motherland and the Diaspora? Because he’s using these Indian and Kashmiri
metaphors here in America and—
AR Yes, but there’s a bitterness, a sorrow that persists.When it crumbles to ash its an incredibly throttling
sorrow, but he does it very delicately. And there’s many of these poems where he connects in a peaceful
way, something that he sees here, to an image that would be more connected to a trauma or devastation in
Kashmir, or to a Kashmiri lexicon, and the poem often crumbles into either a twinge of pain, or a kind of
searing—it just paper-cuts you as it ends. But it’s very smooth, there’s not this kind of bombastic longing—
IP —and it’s very personal. It’s like when he says, “For compared to my grief for you, what are those
of Kashmir.” Uhm ... and it’s very brave of him to say that. To switch measure. People usually say
AR His is obviously more true. Because the proportion of what we live with is what is huge for us, huger in
our emotions and attention than political movements.
IP Yeah, you know, man’s the measure.
AR There’s two things that I wanted to say. So one is that, as Avital would say, he is transgendered. In his
writing he becomes a woman all the time. Like here: “I am a woman brought limping to hell, under the
Night and Fog decree.”
IP —and the time he becomes his mother’s mother, and God sobs in his arms—
AR —but this Night and Fog. I wanted to read this with you for another reason because Night and Fog is
certainly the Resnais movie about the Holocaust, the first film—
IP —possibly. In the early version of “The Veiled Suite” he wrote: “sent by the fog, that blond assassin.”
AR I’m sure. Because it’s capitalized, and it’s here, and it’s in “The Veiled Suite”—it’s not night and fog,
it’s night of fog, in “The Veiled Suite”—so I’ve been thinking a lot about the night, and also, this black and
white. Night and Fog. It’s not the opposite. Fog is white, a white mist and night is black, but fog isn’t the
opposite of night, it’s night and fog. But there’s a way that fog is a kind of inversion, a transposition of the
night, and yet, with both together you’re in this double night, somehow, and there’s this way that some of
his imagery makes me connect his work, in a very interesting way to the work of Celan, Paul Celan, but
much, much less violent, or that the violence in his... Shahid’s poems do stab you in a way, but its a clean
cut or something, whereas Celan is full of these explosions and the words themselves are like chewed up to
the point of, to a harrowing point in each syllable, and here there’s a way that he cleanly slices, it makes me
think of the tear in the Dacca gauze. Somehow its these clean progressive cuts. But here, Eurydice, when he
becomes a woman, this one is about the Holocaust. He’s named Belsen, etc., so there’s a way that in the
image repertory, I find he carries mass death, it has a place in the work, but because it’s related to the broader
image of the color, the black and white, somehow superimposition, there are these traces of insane violence,
devastating violence, and loss that’s beyond the personal, that’s like there is a trauma, or a witnessing of
something very large. But the way that it affects the poems it sort of the way that it might affect people
who are not directly inside it, which is that it haunts them, like a shadow. This poem, “A Dream of Glass
Bangles,” I’ll read it, if it’s okay. “Those autumns my parent’s slept warm in a quilt studded with pieces of
mirrors. On my mother’s arms were bangles likes weaves of frozen rivers”... and later on, “and my mother
inside the burning house a widow smashing the rivers on her arms.”
IP Everything is everything.
AR This poem took my breath away. Even if I don’t fully understand... it’s like a dream. But all of the
opposites, to make torches out of icicles, the tips of the icicles bursting into flame, and this quiet, this frozen
river on her arm, in a way the frozen river and all of the glass and ice through his work, its a little like the
two-inch Himalayas, like these ways that objects are crystallized into this—
IP —it’s an everything is everything, in the sense of “who is whose veil?” and the distinction between
things, reality and illusion, is an illusion in itself, the illusion of existence in duality, and you know, the
bangles are glass, the glass is ice, the ice is winter, therefore she is wearing winter on her arm. So the
cause and effect from her bangles to winter is immediate. Then, of course, everything else that happens
with winter coming and going, with the other traumas that are described there, from ice to fire, ice is
diamonds, diamonds fire, so it’s like the whole gamut of metaphorical and, uhm... very encyclopedic
AR Yeah, but if it was merely “everything is everything” there wouldn’t be this specificity or this cruelty—
IP —no, no, no, I’m not saying... look, he didn’t throw apples in there—
AR —right, for him to, for this combination, of the meeting or the intersection of the opposite of, these
elements, and the sharpness, and then there’s the blood of the fire and then as she’s smashing these bangles
you’re seeing blood, too, the blood on the outside of the house, and that somehow the house, and the
people outside the house, is more like a broader violence, more like a devastation that’s on a mass level.
Whereas what’s happening on the mother’s body, this beautiful thing frozen on her arm that she smashes
as this incursion is happening on the outside of the house.
IP —I wonder why he calls his mother a widow—
AR —“a widow smashing the rivers on her arms.”
IP Yes, at the very end.
AR “Inside the burning house, a widow smashing the rivers on her arms.”
IP House and widow, not house and window. And his mother was not a widow, what does it stand for?
AR But it’s not that it need have happened autobiographically. You don’t make torches with icicles. You
know what I mean? The poem sounds like it’s the scene of something, like a nightmare.With this extreme,
keen specificity, and the shattering, you could say it’s a metaphor for the violence and devastating loss of his
homeland, that inside the burning house the widow smashes the rivers on her arms. That somehow, beset
from the outside, outside the borders of the house, they’re scraping the walls of the house until they make
fire, and in there, it’s like a suicide. She’s smashing everything beautiful that she has and she’s shattering
inside this enclosure. Violence from within and from without. The metaphor has no bottom and no top,
but somehow between this small object, and it’s on the woman, that something that’s an adornment, that’s
like a side-thing, a seam, some kind of border-thing, it’s not, I don’t know it’s not like she’s stabbing herself
in the heart—I don’t know how to say it but that it’s peripheral, just as a bangle is peripheral, an adornment
or makeup, its not an essence, it’s on a surface. But somehow from that, and cycling out to the house, the
fire and the ice and the rivers, it becomes a whole country, and there’s something about... in a way, if
you understand deconstruction it makes sense in the same way of attaining the whole through the negative
impression, either from the shadow, the residue, or something on the periphery.
IP Ahhh, so the motherland is an accumulation of shadow and residue, and then they’re all woven
together. Something that is very elemental for me as well in the way that I process Israel as an accumulation
of memories, events, metaphors. You know, nostalgia literally means returning home. But what I learned from
Shahid is that what is nostalgia in theWest is loss in the East. I think this has been a reading of my work that
my western audience had missed all along. It’s a complex kind of loss, because its not exactly a void either,
because it involves the accumulation of a repetition, a cycle. In “A Rehearsal of Loss,” Shahid describes
the night (rhymes with knight): “it left the earth the way a broken man” —but you know there is morning
(mourning) to come. A rehearsal. Could also be for a play. Loss finds an alternative in ritual. I wonder
if metaphors have become some kind of a ritual for me... at this point I see the metaphor before I see the
thing itself. And then the metaphors have relationship with other metaphors, and then those metaphors that
have relationship with other metaphors, have relationships that materialize into the suchness of things. And
that’s how I operate now. That’s how these rooms operate, that’s how these paintings operate.
Manifesting the point is very different than making a point or pointing at it.
AR Right.Well, it’s just like you making a drawing of a body by thinking of the lungs.
IP Exactly. The lungs, the void, now the ritual of loss become an emotional landscape, and everything that
is physically in that room or in that painting, is an actor in that event, it’s curtain time for every broken man
in this dress rehearsal of veils, so if I paint the character of the poet wearing a veil, on my veil (my canvas) its
not only the poet wearing the veil being the character in the painting, the (canvas) veil of the painting itself
is a character.
CHARACTER AND BORDER
IP When I made the Shiva out of glass, there is the role of the Shiva, but I cast it in glass, and the glass is
equal character in that role. And the figures, the narratives, the materials, the sentiments, the memories, the
ghosts, the shadows, they’re all characters. They’re all characters subject to character development. And I
don’t know how exactly to explain to you how this is a different approach from the way other people work,
but I know, for me, that’s what narrative means. Narrative doesn’t mean characters going from A to Z,
its an accumulation of characteristics, and the height of narrative, for me—I can’t tell you that I’ve achieved
it—but after many years of being very involved with narrative the height of narrative for me is character
development. I know that to be true in novels, I know that to be true in film. It doesn’t mean that you have
a figure named John who necessarily goes through catharsis. There can be character development in the
celluloid itself. Metaphor comes handy then, you can make a transference between your celluloid and your
actors, for example. That’s where I am these days.
Back in the 80s when I started in New York, showing my work publicly for the first time, and they were
narrative—and narrative was taboo. People were looking for the sequence they were looking for the ten
photographs where you see a character, you know, burying a cat, and I didn’t provide that. Because, also
you have to think, “How do you do character development”?Well, in the rooms I have either four walls,
four frames, or many pleats. But how do you do character development within the one frame, which is
either a room or a canvas, without sound without text, without instructions? The character development
finds its sense of movement, its dynamic, in transformations of metaphor, because when you see a snowdrift
that you know was a dervish, within that one image of the snowy dervish there’s the movement of the
transformation. And that’s what I discovered to be of really deep interest for me. And the implications of
that are that I basically want to say to myself and to everybody I know, you have to be in possession of
your story if you want to transform, otherwise you are basically raped, you are a victim, a refugee. You have
to be in possession of your story, and you have to develop those tools in any possible way you can. And
once you have the tools, you can work in the reverse as well, using the movement of transformation to get
possession of your story. That’s the power of narrative, because it’s all stories. And you can be the breathing
narrator holding the story in your hands like an object to be given—
AR —I love when in old churches, sometimes on the wall there’s a picture of the donor giving the church to
the people. And the idea—
IP —oh, holding the building, yes.
AR It’s one of my favorite things, one of my favorite things in the world is this mechanism. Because it’s not
enough that the church is already there for the people to go into it, as thought that weren’t the narrative
enough, for them to paint the story, to paint a picture, just as you have the veil painted on a veil.
IP Well, it kind of takes you back to the moment of conception, where there’s the artist—
AR —yeah, but there’s a childish quality to it that’s so kind of delightful and—
IP —it is one more thing, I just thought about it, so I don’t forget, another very different thing that I do
with narrative, as opposed to the going formulas out there, post-deconstruction and all that, is I don’t show
you the “scaffolding.” I show you process. I allow you to enter the process. I allow you enter many, many
aspects that have movement in them, but I won’t show you the “scaffolding.” You understand I am not
talking literally, and I hate shoptalk. I mean, it’s just become very, very trendy to show the scaffolding. I feel
it as kind of an easy way out, false righteousness, a false nakedness, a false confession. Like saying, “Well it’s
not really this glamorous, it looks commercial but in fact I am really critical...” or “I’m not lying to you, it’s
fake gold...” I don’t get involved with that stuff. And it’s very important to me not to have the
AR You know, I love watching women put their makeup on? The illusion always works on me, even when
I watch them create it in painstaking detail. Because there’s is something about even applying it that is
already the artwork. It’s not like watching somebody get liposuction and then seeing them in a bikini—you
know what I mean? You know what I’m saying?
AR If I’m understanding what you mean by showing the scaffolding, the process is part of the illusion. Or
it’s part of the seduction, already. It’s not like showing what you call the scaffolding, which for me would be
IP —showing the scaffolding makes a distinction between what’s real and what’s not, and like you say,
both the made-up face and the unmade-up face are real, or both of them are an illusion.
AR Exactly. And watching—
IP —they’re both veils—
AR —watching the transition between one and the other is the pleasure. And it’s not this weird sort of
manhandling to show you the kind of before and after that is really common and very popular now, that’s
supposed to expose some kind of lie.
IP Yeah, and it’s like two photographs of yourself, and in one you look very aesthetically pleasing and
in the other one you don’t. So which one looks like you? They’re both there and you are always weaving,
and weaving your own history, weaving your own experience, weaving yourself into being, and at the
first chance you destroy that bad photo of yourself...[laughter] Is that the same as taking warp out of the
AR The “web”?
IP Ayy... that web, everything leads to the web these days...[laughter] and why not, lets not forget that
basically the whole structure of the Internet is a weave of pluses and minuses. And so even one of our most
advanced technologies is based on some very basic weaving impulses.
AR But you know whatWalter Benjamin says about Penelope work.Weaving is Penelope work, and that
means both remembering and forgetting, because Penelope, while she’s waiting for Odysseus to come, she’s
weaving, and at night she undoes everything that she’s woven. So that within the weft and warp... oblivion
and memory are there together... and so these textiles of yours, or these meshes, or the sieves we were
talking about, there are also these opposing motions inside them. Shahid’s writing is filled with these
inversions. Oblivion is not the opposite of memory, just like memory is not the opposite of oblivion. They’re
inversions but it’s not some simple opposition, somehow. And yet—
IP —yeah, funnels and trumpets. There’s a kind of inversion of in and out. And when I did that body of
work, “Funnels and Trumpets: Portrait of the Self as a Breather,” basically, I wanted to say that the self is a
breathing machine. It’s in, it’s out, it’s in and out. And it’s inside the house and outside the house, it’s the
sieve and the language going in and out, the mapping of the soul as Greek mythology, it’s all that constantly.
Things are in constant osmosis all the time, and there are no closed systems.
AR Right. But it’s so funny because when one says these things its very easy to just fall into this “Everything
is everything.” Because ultimately—
IP —maybe saying, “Everything is everything” is confusing.
AR Well, no, it’s not that it’s confusing, because it’s true. At least, I believe it to be, but for me, just saying
that, you might as well follow the Grateful Dead around. It’s interesting: art is really peculiar because it
remains specific, and it has to be, and that is part of its trap. The specificity that we are consumed with in
what we make is a trap that has to be a trap, because it has to waylay you from, you know, what Simone
Weil says, that if we were without the veil of our bodies or the veil of time then we would just be pulverized
by the totality of Being, or of truth, or of what is. And I think about people who become transfigured by
an experience of a totality that literally fries them, and it happens. And I don’t think that what they make
contact with is different from what is at play in what you make, or what Shahid made. But what you do
remains specific and it remains a kind of entrapment, just like the form of the poem, in its limit—thank god
for the limit—it allows you to erect the trap into which a person can fall and perceive something through a
tiny little pinhole through which, without the limits of its form, would otherwise arrive an onslaught that
would destroy. And I think the making has to do with needing to trap oneself. I could just sit around singing
Krishna Ram Ram Hare Krishna—whatever, whatever sort of process of authentic communion or bliss is
supposed to just be this constant. I mean that trap is in people’s lives and in their entanglements with each
other, and it becomes a little indication of—
IP —Yeah, we become very fundamentalist, fundamentalistic, about our beliefs. The fucking truth, isn’t it?
We cross over into some false sense of reality very, very quickly, whether we believe in modernism, whether
we believe in being secular, whether we believe in being religious, whether we believe in one God, two, or
three.When we erase doubt, when we erase ambivalence, we become delusional, yet we feel like we are the
least delusional when we do that.We even become fundamentalist about our personal grief.We think of
life as the opposite of death, not of death as being part of life. I can go on about death as a stage of love, I can
go on about the afterlife being in life itself, maybe later, its all part of the veils.When you are a creator of
paintings sculptures, novels, poems, whatever, you just know that “truth” is not how it works, you just
know it’s not like that, it’s not so. You just know how inspiring mystery is.
IP You know what’s really a mystery? I mean really...[laughter] Everyday I look at my dogs and I keep
thinking, what do they see? How come they’ve been here for twelve years and have never said a word?
IP Sometimes I can’t believe that he doesn’t talk, especially the big one. And then I think, Oh, in China
they’d eat her, the small one... you know? So I don’t know why I said all that. And why now. Perhaps
because we were talking about patterns and rituals and that’s really what dogs do, they religiously watch
your daily rituals and patterns to adapt their communication with you. Dog meta-language...
AR It’s like a border. There’s like a membrane around your experience that allows it to be so, that could be
transgressed, not just by the intervention of some divine insanity, but by a different culture, or a different
place, that an order of truth—
IP —the bigWho Said, right? [laughter]
AR Your dogs mean so much to you, but in China, under a circumstance different from this one, they’d
just be food. Something draws your attention to the assumptions through which you make sense out of the
world, through which you construct truth. It’s the same way when you are making something: you make
it with a certain canniness, an awareness of its limits.
THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES
IP For me, the heart of Shahid’s work, we need to get very deeply in here, because I think it really ended
up being the core of “The Veil Suite,” very specifically so, and in the other rooms as well, and it’s really
the question of the most illusory thing of all: Love. “The loved one always leaves.” Our models for divine
love are models of loss. In both the story of the Enlightenment, and the creation of monotheism, God
leaves, makes himself invisible, comes back, does all these shticks that lovers do. There’s a Sufi story that
Shahid uses in “A Secular Comedy” about God and Satan. Let me read you Shahid’s notes: “One Sufi
interpretation of the God/Satan myth portrays (Iblis) as being in love with God, and thus the jealous lover
when God asks him to bow to Adam. In his refusal to bow, he fulfills God’s secrete wish, for God is the
beloved, and Satan the true monotheist. Satan says to God, ‘When you created me, you told me to bow to
no one but You. Thus I’m truer to you’re Your word than You are.’ Hell is the absence of the Beloved.”
So who’s the bad guy here? In “The Veiled Suite,” his requiem, I feel a condemnation of the way we are
indoctrinated into a monotheistic narrative of what the highest love need be. The loved one always leaves,
God always leaves, your partner leaves, your parents die, or sometimes the child dies, children grow up and
leave their parents or their mother—the loved one always leaves. It’s this insane state. And what I realized
just a few nights ago is that death is a stage of love. And I’m using the word stage in all its meanings. For
one, religiously, you die and you’re united with your god.
When my father died I could see that (the stage of dying) was such a big part of his partnership, his
love story with my mother, for both of them, and also of mine with him when I said goodbye over the last
month. And luckily I understood that as it was happening, so I accepted the fact that this was happening,
and I tried to make it easy for me and him to go through it, and to make the best of it instead of just feeling
like, No. No. Don’t do it, fight, fight, fight. Part of it was there, but it was not the overwhelming goal.
And it’s very interesting for me to think how to try to maybe imagine if love might be different if we had
different models. I can’t tell if these models came out of children growing up and leaving their parents, or
out of death, and that’s how we invented love, because of our consciousness of death. Shahid is there,
very much there, and he has no fear of writing “The Veiled Suite” his last poem, his own requiem. In that
poem he goes metaphorically and kind of floats through images of his entire mature career as a poet. It’s all
there. And all these things are maybe coming into an end that is not an end. The train arrives at the station,
and the ... faceless, meeting the faceless, being the veil. There’s this God there that is bragging, saying
Look, I did the Colorado Mountains, and Vail Colorado, and the Himalayas and the Ganges, and I don’t
remember; he’s like Mr. Show-Off—Look what I did. Look what I can do—and Shahid says, Hey, hey, this
is my last night. Can you promise me this much tonight? And the answer is clear. No. And at that moment
you realize he’s not talking about God, he’s talking about his imaginary lover, or his real lover, or the idea
of love, or whatever, or just the state of love. And to me that was breath-taking. That was like the bangles
becoming the frozen rivers. And in the moment you make these connections and you understand these
things, there is a character development, because there is a catharsis. There is a relief, because you say,
Well, I see. I see where it’s coming from. Maybe I can’t reinvent it, or maybe if I can reinvent it for myself
it doesn’t mean that I can find a person to do it with, but at least I’ve got a little taste of ... I got the recipe
somehow. I know what goes into the cake, into the dough, into the thing. And I find it breathtaking.
The question of love in his poems is very, very delicate, sensitive and enormously brave. And even when
it’s audacious, when he calls God the final assassin, it’s gentle, and...Why not?Why not say it? This guy
should be able to take it. Right? He is God, no? So why not say it. So he says it. Or when he says to one
other god, How can you die like this and do that to your own mother? You know? The Pietà. “God sobs in
my arms.” It’s very, very unnerving. Very moving.
I remember one of the greatest ceremonies; the greatest ceremony that I’ve ever been to was my father’s
funeral, and I didn’t know it was going to be so grandiose emotionally. He was buried in a cemetery that my
great grandfather built, so there’s a little tribal thing. All my pictures of my father, from his childhood—he
was the first child, first baby boy, of a city in Israel called Netanya, and my grandparents were one of the
ten families that built it. He was born in a tent. All the pictures of his early childhood are in the dunes.
Today it’s a city with I don’t know, almost half a million people, and there’s no trace of the sands anymore.
And when we buried him, at the cemetery which is now an oasis with big trees and lawns, they had to open
the hole for the grave, and suddenly all those pictures came out ... of the dunes, because the dunes, the
wound of the dunes—
IP —opened up. And I did this irrational thing, which is I took a camera and took a picture of the hole
because I wanted to have a memory of where he was going to live forever. And then, in Jewish burial, you
don’t use a coffin, you bury in a shroud, in the veil, and they brought his body wrapped in the shroud,
and it was tied with ribbons, and they lowered it to the hole, and the undertaker—under-taker...What a
combination of words—was this little Yemeni Jew, and because we were like a founding family, he gave us
special treatment, and he went down into the hole with the body, and when the cantor—I asked the cantor
to read things clearly, not to sing it in a way that we can’t understand the words, so he did—and then there
was a point where the cantor was talking about this eternal sleep and rest in peace, the undertaker undid all
the ribbons and the body kind of relaxed, like the feet kind of went like this. And he made him a little pillow
for the head from sand, like this, but I could recognize it was my father’s body even it was veiled, and then
the cantor said, “And now eternity will swallow you.” And I thought, Oh, this is the bigger picture, this is
the permanent place.What we are going through is just—we’re not dealing with eternity, but once you’re
there you do. And I was very ... I don’t know, I was relieved, and I thought, Ah, I can do that, too. I can do
that. It doesn’t look so complicated. And I had this moment where I was not afraid of death. And the other
thing that happened was that, all my life I was this maverick, my big thing was making something out of
nothing. Coming to America with like a thousand dollars in a little carry-on bag, and building this empire.
Even in my paintings, the canvas doesn’t exist. It’s the oil paint that creates the canvas, like in the carpets.
Everything is always something out of nothing. That was, like, my thing. And in that moment, where I was
putting away this really dear thing to me, making my father into nothing. It was the opposite. You call it
inversion. And I thought,Wow. The emotional space, volume, and weight of that, of the object-hood of
that moment, was so much more an object in my soul than anything I’ve ever created, and I thought to
myself, right there by the fresh wound of land, I’m never going to make another object in my life, because I can never
out-do this. And it was very liberating. And then they covered him with the sand. And later on that day
I went for a cry on the beach, and he was everything. I was stepping on him, because he was the sand,
everything dune was him. And then other things started to unfold: memories, like I was driving by a certain
place and there was a palm tree that I remembered, and I remembered what he said to me ten years before
when we drove by that tree together and it had nothing to do with that tree. But that tree became the
manifestation of his voice, which had nothing to do with any tree at all, we may have been talking about
the history of the family, or something, whatever, a pound of tomatoes. And it was very moving what was
happening, it was a great revelation to me. It was strangely whole. And he was missing. And then I spent...
my father died, Shahid died, Holly died, Shosh died, Meir died, Dana died, all these people died within that
short period of time and I was paralyzed, sitting here in the garden talking to myself, talking to suspended
ghosts. And then eventually this work came out, and that’s when my next Shiva happened, because first
I had the dancing Shiva that could only arrive through manifestation and then I had this event that finally
started to manifest itself. And the first painting I did was of my father sitting in front of theWorld Trade
Center. It all happened around the same time. So it was kind of, what do you call it, an accumulation
of things, a crossing of events that made these paintings appear, and the suspension of all these emotions.
So, you know, love is I think an important chapter. Love, loss, and what you recover, what you do, and the
object, right? That’s very Shahid, and that became mine or me, too. I think this is a very key aspect of this
collaboration. And Shahid too, you know, he left too. You know what I mean? Actually, he knew that he
was leaving. It sucks. And people left him. It was his mother whose story he duplicated, down to developing
her same illness. This is really the heart of it all that goes, to me, beyond Kashmir and politics and history
and religion, and you name it. His sorrow, when his mother died, was greater than all of the tragedies of
Kashmir. And the story of love, and the loss, it’s not even the unrequited love, although that could be an
aspect of it, it’s different than that. It’s bigger than everything, than the poetry, than—I don’t know—that’s it.
AR He says at one point in one of the poems, maybe it’s the one about his mother, the one about Begum
Ahktar—I think it’s the one about his mother—something about the foolishness of thinking that he could
love her enough that death wouldn’t be interested, you know what I mean? That he could just revoke that
aspect of things. And in human love, because God leaves, and the lover leaves, there’s this implication that if
you can love well enough, you can defy the law somehow.
IP Maybe. But the big sentence is when he writes to James Merrill, and he says, Hush, Shahid. Hush,
Shahid. Enough with this nonsense, enough with all the crap. SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES.
THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES. In capitals, like a voice from the other world... And Shahid’s
name means “The Beloved.” That sentence, the way it’s built—‘Hush, Shahid’—like, ‘Shut up!’ The loved one
always leaves. Get it straight. But it’s gentle. It’s key. It’s key. It’s key. This is the effervescence. This is it. This
is it. It’s a huge narrative in one line, which goes back to what we were talking about, earlier statehood and
Israel and all that, and Israel came out of the Holocaust and the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment being
basically the death of God, secularization, and the Holocaust—which is also a product of secularization and
the death of God, I suppose. So they say.
AR Or God becoming technology?
IP Or whatever. But it’s certainly a big narrative in my life, the empty seat of God. I mean, didn’t we
invent God as the dead father? Sort of?
IP I mean, we’re all orphans.
AR That’s the modern, modernist position.
IP And that’s kind of what I grew up on. Mendele the Bookseller. “Hallelujah, I’m an orphan!” It’s what,
the death of the religious father figure. That was the birth of the—
AR —of the Israeli state?
IP That came later. First it was the birth of the new Jew. Of the enlightened, the Enlightenment!! It’s
“Hallelujah, I’m an orphan!”
AR Isn’t that the source of the horrible sickness?
IP I don’t know, because the Jewish world before was very tight. I mean, they were tightwads, they were
tight, because they were isolationists. They were a pain in the fucking neck, also.
AR And they’re not a pain now?
IP They are! But I want to read it horizontally, not vertically.Well, I kind of prefer to be on this side... to
tell you the truth. I don’t think I would do very well on the other side...
AR I certainly wouldn’t.
WHAT IS SEEN AND WHAT IS HIDDEN
IP So here’s another question of sides. Are you behind the veil, in front of the veil, see the veil, or just feel
it? Before? After? Here’s an old note I found, I wrote here, [reads] “This work was born out of a catastrophe,
even if it was conceived before.” Meaning, I conceived this work, aspects of this work, before, but it was
really born out of the catastrophe. Same thing with Shahid, his poem. And here is a quote from Pasolini,
[reads] “The smallness to which desperate tradition reduces man, has something grandiose about it.”Which
I loved. It was very much my experience in India, which I visited this time through the eyes of Shahid’s
poetry. There was desperation for sure, amidst constant ritual. Like Shahid’s shifting metaphors the Indian
Gods, they’re in constant state of manifestations, change and transformation. They change characters
continuously, from lingam to dancer, to milk, to flowers, to trees, to whatever.
There’s a palace in Jaipur called the wind palace, and it has these façade walls that are perforated out
into screens and no rooms behind the screen façade, just walkways in open air, and behind it the women
would stand and look at the street, and you could see their gauzy sari shadow silhouettes move, so the whole
building is a veil. And the women were doubly veiled, veiled behind the veil wall.We never think about
buildings as veil—the modern curtain wall is clear—TheWind Palace veil had the effect of a suspended
moment. In Japan, the building façades looked like masks to me, masks of modernism... but that’s another
story, except that it is fascinating how the cultural context transforms your perception. Screens, veils, are part
of Eros of India. In the TajMahal you see a lot of that. It’s about what is seen and what is hidden.What is seen
and what is hidden is very big part of Jewish mysticism, Galui Ve-nistar [“what is seen and what is hidden”].
AR It’s so interesting that the book, that the book, that the Torah, needs to be, not just wearing a curtain,
but behind a curtain, like in the Ark. I always thought it was just crazy that it was dressed in jewelry, and
wearing a crown—
IP —it’s very feminine, the Torah—
AR —very feminine—
IP —actually, the Torah’s dress, you know the way it drapes on the scrolls, it has a décolletage—
IP And it has the necklace, and all that and the crown. And they treat it like a woman. A few years ago,
very early in the morning, on my way back home I desperately needed to find a bathroom and all the local
cafes were still sleeping, I went into a local synagogue... It was the morning prayer and by complete chance,
they had one of those extraordinary moments there that hardly ever happen—they were reading the Torah—
you know the ten old men minyan covered in their prayer shawls—and they discovered a spelling mistake,
a typo! And you know, at that moment the Torah becomes contaminated. The Torah can no longer be used.
I mean, it has to be flawless. So they went into a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime, where you
actually have to put that Torah away, and bring another one instead. So it’s a whole ceremony of how you do
that without insulting it, and the damaged one has to witness the undressing of the new one—
AR —Oh my God—
IP —that is brought in from the Torah Ark, or in Hebrew the Aron Kodesh. And it’s a whole complex
ceremony. It’s like a storm in a teacup. It was fascinating that the whole thing happened over one letter.
And it’s a life and death experience. One man is assigned the job of holding the old Torah—while they
don’t banish it from the ceremony, but they bring another one to read from, and she’s kept on the stage
throughout the ceremony and only at the very end she’s rolled away, she’s dressed back, and she’s put back
in the Ark never to be used again. It was amazing.
IP And the whole thing was incredibly erotic because they kiss it and they stick their hands under the
dress, before and—
AR —did they parade it around to the—
AR —congregation to say goodbye to it?
IP Yes. The whole thing. And paraded the new one—
AR —for everyone to kiss it?
IP I mean I can’t tell you all the details. It was like an hour long. And it was heartbreaking. The whole care
of how not to insult her and not to be ungrateful—
AR —despite her flaw—
IP —yeah. And the drama of discovering the flaw! The world came to a standstill. Oh my God. You know?
Amazing. I think it was the moment where I loved my religion the most. I thought, this is so suitable for me
to have such a high drama, and so much emotion, over one letter. The precision and the care, the desperation
and the pathos, over one letter, I thought, “Fuck, FUKK! That’s excellent.”
AR [laughter] Yeah!
IP You know?Who else has that? Nobody.
AR I don’t know.
IP It was incredibly unique. It was a great source of pride.Whereas everything else, you know, I can take
it or leave it.
IP So I was just in India, and my rickshaw driver stopped for his evening puja, and he saw my camera,
and he asked me to take his picture with his God, and I said OK and he went and posed right next to his
Hanuman, all he was missing was a cocktail glass in his hand... And I thought, when do I get to have
my picture taken with my god [laughter] and then the morning after I opened the paper, and there was this
funny story, it was in the news, I am not making it up, you won’t believe it, it was a great conundrum, it
said, two undetectable submarines collided into each other, because they had the same military target.
AR That’s brilliant.
IP And then I was thinking, do our gods collide the same way because they are all undetectable?
AR If they have the same intention, maybe. That’s like a Kafka story.
IP Yeah. It was the headlines. “Two Undetectable Submarines Collide Into Each Other,” and I thought,
how brilliant.What about two invisible gods? It was like this great moment of paradox, and I never quite
thought about it before. Of course they would collide into each other, because they are undetectable. They
can’t detect each other. So that’s the end.
AR So there. Everything that has not been proven—
IP —So that’s all these gods, all these monotheistic gods’ fate. They have no choice but to collide into each
other. Because they don’t see each other.
AR You’re right.
IP Whereas the other ones, at least you see them...
IP Even if they don’t have eyes to see you.
AR Right. Exactly.
IP And I thought wow, this is so amazing, to have this headline in India.
AR That’s brilliant.
THE NAKED TRUTH
IP Metaphor is our measuring tool. And that’s why, in a way, the metaphor seems more tangible than
reality, to me, because—And then there’s the question of what invented what, right? Like it seemed to me
that we created God, and in return God created us. And that really is the life of metaphor. Isn’t that was
we call the symbolic order? And this tangibility is what you see so strongly in my “Illusion” veils and in
Shahid. And then it goes on that a metaphor in the paintings become other metaphors, and there’s this
whole ecosystem of metaphors of things that are familiar or unfamiliar—one creates the other. Nothing
stands in its own vacuum of realness. Nothing is distilled into being the truth, the only truth— there is no
truth, there’s nothing behind the veil. Like nature—because the nature of our perception is a world of
metaphors and veils and tools, and in fact, for me, reality is a bottomless pit. Somewhere—I’ll have to
find this thing I once wrote—the veil is my sanity. Because reality, otherwise, is an impossibility, and a
bottomless pit. The tearing of the veil is the death wish, because religiously speaking, the tearing of the veil
is the truth. And the exile from the garden and the invention of the fig leaf, and morality, was the exile from
the nakedness of truth. The naked truth was there and we just couldn’t handle it. So basically, everything
from then on, has to be a veil.
AR But in a way you could also say that the flesh was a veil in the beginning, with the first man. He was
veiled only by his flesh, by his body, but that wasn’t enough.
IP Yep. Now replace, metaphorically—keep switching the word “metaphor” with “veil,” because the veil
becomes your objectification, or manifestation of metaphor, and you start to see really easily: all that we have
for certain is our own measuring units, our measuring tools. Otherwise, the reality of nature, universe—
reality is a bottomless pit. Representation, in that world, is a false metaphor. That our ritual, in literature, in
art, in image-making, is a veil, and the ritual is our science, and that eliminates this whole corner about a
veil hiding things, or concealing things.
And again, poetry makes that nothing happen. That’s why you kept saying, last night, that Thomas’s
doubt is a joke. Because representation never really produces anything believable. I wish you would talk
about it again. I think both of us, in the two different places that we come from, interests and disciplines—
writing and painting—are basically hovering around the same thing. And then—even when we talk to each
other about love, we are hovering around the same thing from the same places, trying—it’s almost like we
need to create a moment of audacity. Of breaking the rules. In order to feel and understand and redefine and
possess and personalize that thing that somehow interests us. Very much.Which is – love.
And then somebody comes in and says, oh, it’s just a chemical reaction, you were born, you were a
baby, you don’t even know what love is, it’s milk, it’s breast, then narcissism and this and that, and all
our psychological measuring tools come into this, we’re educated grownups—we have this one system of
dissecting, we have this other system of understanding, we have another system like this or that, to kind of
make sense of the whole thing... I’m saying: yes, take all this in, but there’s a moment of manifestation—
where love, the great undetectable submarine is invisible, but it’s visible in the face of the lover.
AR And it’s irreducible. That manifestation, it occurs to me now, is absolutely irreducible. Representation is
completely reducible, multipliable, whatever—but a manifestation is irreducible.
IP Yeah. You don’t want to have buyer’s remorse on these things, you don’t want a quick dead end, you
want to wear your thing for at least a couple of seasons... In Hebrew, the word for ‘thing’ and ‘word said’ is
the same. You get more mileage out of this kind of effervescence. ‘Things’ and ‘spoke’—they come from the
same root, which ultimately is a manifestation of the speaker.
AR So this is your mesh in the throat, right?
IP Right. The speaker is a maker of things. That’s the Jewish manual, which is based in Hebrew,
anchored in Hebrew, of the creation of the world. The Jewish God created the world with a word. That
was a great source of inspiration to many writers, to anybody who is involved with writing, and those
AR Does Adam become, in Judaic thinking, or in Jewish thinking—does Adam become a maker of the
world because he names it?
IP I don’t know.
AR Because he names the animals in Eden—
IP Does the story tell us that he names them? I don’t know. But naming is our tool.
IP That’s how we create duality. You could name it this way and that way. Many languages and many
names, and you can say what does it matter if they all name the same tree, but these names come from
different roots and how many different roots can one poor tree grow... finally it boils down to the tree is you...
AR So in that realm of thinking, a way of understanding what Adam does, what God allows Adam to do
in Eden, to name the animals around him—God has created the world, and now, having named Adam, he
almost sits back and lets Adam recreate it according to his own proportion. So the world is made according
to the Lord’s proportion—the world before Man, because he’s the last thing that gets made. And then
having done that, he watches Adam, or gives him the faculty of re-making the world according to his own
measuring tool, which is himself. And naming it according to himself, and sizing—all the proportion of
the world, what is big, what is small, is not from an ant’s proportion or from an elephant’s proportion, it’s
from the proportion of a man. That’s a kind of—little game too, it’s like a little riddle.
IP Even crazier. Think about the story of the exile from the Garden. Think about it in terms of language.
When I say ‘language’ I take that to mean all language. Visual, literary, Hindu, Hebrew—perception, the
whole thing. Man was created into a garden. And then he has two choices, between Language and Life.
Between being Life, which would be complete immersion, eternally, into the garden, that would be real.
And Knowledge would be the one with the tools, with the notion of dissecting, the Symbolic. There’s no
need for perception if you’re just immersed into the Tree of Life, you would just be in complete harmony
with it. Eve eats from the fig, or the apple, whatever it is, and there’s the invention of sorrow, the invention
of morals, the invention of guilt, the invention of everything at the expense of eternal harmony, and at the
expense of Life.Well, she gets exiled from the Garden, into the new reality, which we call Nature. She
was expelled from the Garden into Nature. And what do she and her Man go and do? They turn it into a
formal garden. They divide the entire world, the globe, eventually—into lots. Every place in the world is
a lot with a deed. The Rainforest is a national park. Even the sea. Marine park. And yet people still speak
AR We were made according to the pattern of what was lost. Now out of Eden, in exile, what is
constructed responds to the form of what no longer contains us. It’s this endless metaphorical repetition—
IP Like the cheapest thing in psychology—repetition of a pattern. So within this construct, again, it’s like
every time we get into a big construct—reality becomes an impossibility and nature is basically a bottomless pit.
I went to this symposium on cancer and breast cancer, and these scientists, who are Nobel Prize-winners, they
said exactly what Paul Valéry says, that everything that matters—like the cure for cancer—is well-veiled.
They’re constantly trying to lift the veil off. They said, until that one day when they realize It was right in front
of us, and it’s so obvious that we just didn’t see it. It was the veil itself.
One scientist was talking about how his fellow researchers kept complaining for years that they could
not make progress with cancer stem cells because they could not keep them alive in the lab long enough to
complete the research, then it dawned on him that the cure he was looking for was in the language of the
complaint itself; they were hard to keep alive...
AR Well, you know, metaphor means transportation. In modern Greek, it literally means base
transportation, like truck companies, hauling companies, say ‘metaphor’ because they carry something
from one place to another. So in this other way, to speak about metaphor means to speak about a meaning,
or an essence, being carried across something, being carried to a different place. Let me say an essence,
because that is something that would need to be at the core of what it is of, right, if it’s an essence then
theoretically it’s not in the fog or in the weather, it’s something deep inside of something—but even an
essence is endlessly transportable, so Kashmir and Amherst, or glass and ice—the alteration that happens
as they are transposed also does not happen.Which is to say, in the refracting, that somehow in the endless
alteration and displacement that happens in metaphorical thinking—because we were saying, maybe two
or three days ago, when we were talking about inversion, how one isn’t the opposite of the other, like fog
isn’t the opposite of night—but almost—
IP —One makes the other.
IP “The moon for its ivory scours the night.” Three elements are creating each other in that movement.
IP And there are no black and white dualities in a movement of three.
AR But what’s interesting is that the formal, the logical construction of the metaphor is mathematically
pure. The form, the grammatical construction is absolute, but yet, in the process of metaphor there are these
disturbances, there is a friction, and there is the absolute opposite, and also not. It’s in that friction that the
transposition is able to take place.
IP I don’t know if it’s friction.What happens is a suspension, a delay. In that moment of slowing-down,
you have a moment where you can say, okay, I froze that picture, I can see it. It’s not fleeting—it’s not as
fleeting as a bottomless pit, Nature—or Reality. I think in that moment of suspended delay, is where your
entire thing of St. Thomas’s doubt comes into genius play—that whole moment of verification, the limits,
the parameters, the big question of verification. I love that. I was very impressed with that connection that
you made, because I never thought about it.
AR I have a question that’s in a way outside this project, but that I think will come back into it. I was
looking at your “Black Paintings” book, one of the books on it, last night, and I was thinking about the
clown side of “The Blacks.” You based your “Black Paintings” on Genet’s “The Blacks: A Clown Show.”
Yesterday I wrote to you about how the paintings of the individual characters are so much like tarot cards,
so I did find a connection in your work to that idea that I first mentioned when I came in, that first night.
Well, I was going to ask you whether there’s a way that this color register in your home is, one could say,
commedia dell’arte, in a way, harlequin type of colors, or clown colors. Bright primary colors.
IP Actually, they’re both. I make no distinction. One of the things I do in the paintings—and most
painters don’t do is that I mix primary and secondary colors with the same value.Which is how I see them.
And black and white.
AR I guess what I meant was, there’s a transaction going on between black and white in “The Blacks,” but
I completely discounted the transaction going on between “black-and-white” and “color.”Which is to
say, like the color of a clown show. In the mise-en-scène that you’ve created, you’ve also created this brilliant
ruse, which is about the constructed opposition between black and white. As you’ve said in our conversations,
they’re both colors, black and white are not outside of color—it was one of the first things you said—
IP They’re not non-colors. And as we said before, there are no opposites in a movement of three.
AR It just didn’t even occur to me that, obviously, part of Genet’s project, in making “The Blacks” also a
clown show is to show how color is made to stand, in cruelty and absurdity, as the manifestation of essential
IP I think when Genet says “The Blacks: A Clown Show,” it’s his warning sign that he’s not going to
reduce color into a clown show. That black-and-whites are not oppositions as color. And the whole
division of color by race is a farce. Like one character says, all white people are liars, I’ve never seen a white
person, only pink or yellow. The play’s like an encyclopedic romp. Over everything that is black and white.
AR But it’s also about the way that ideas of color and race operate in the culture is a clown show.
IP Exactly, exactly. And he takes you into the dance of the metaphors, where you say,Wow, it’s not a
clown show at all, it’s incredibly gentle and complex and, as a matter of fact, the place for these simple,
clownish oppositions of happy and sad, mimic faces, is a fallacy. It’s a reduction. An evil reduction.
AR But it’s by going through—only by setting up this absurd polarity can he bring you into this gentle
dance. To relate the grotesque—and very familiar—way that a clown’s face is painted to the ways that we
think about race, race and its metaphors you could say, the clown face is a transposition into a different
register of opposition. So instead of transposing black-and-white, or opposing “black” to “white,” you
oppose the naked face to the painted face. The “naked” emotion to the “grotesque” of that emotion.
Because, obviously, as you’ve just said, it’s not as though we have five emotions, each one with a
corresponding clown rictus. So to oppose one mode of theatricality with another, there are two parallels
at work against each other, and it’s not just between black and white, but also between the idea of naked
authenticity and the burlesque version of an emotional state.
IP This is a good moment to talk about what you asked me earlier, about going from poem to painting.
The process of adaptation, or interpretation, or any -ptation, of any sort. Like in the black paintings, cause
it’s way in the past, I can talk to you about it with a little more distance and a little more clarity. There was a
play. I needed to turn it into a painting. I used the idea of a room with four walls into the idea of scene and
progression. But what I could bring into the painting, which could never be in the play, for example, the
idea that black and white are not oppositions, that they are in play, is that, the way I painted it, with all sort
of degrees of black and white, yellow-white, red-white, blue-white, and yellow-black, brown-black,
and green-black, just all the permutations of it together with the stencils, in fact I created a giant piece
of lace. So the introduction of the visual lace, and the play of positive and negative, black and white,
supposedly—that’s where the visual adaptation came into a whole other only-can-happen-there moment.
The same thing is happening with the adaptation from Shahid’s poem. Even though, unlike Genet, we
decided in advance that the veil is going to be the metaphorical arena for both of us. There are things that are
happening there that I’m not yet a hundred percent sure of how to describe, that are operating on the same
level. I took the vision of Genet and turned it into lace. Something similar is happening here, but it hasn’t
yet completely unveiled itself to me.
I really loved your connection with St. Thomas and the question of verification. At what point is the
story verified, at what moment is the divine verified, at what stage faith and believability is a fait-accompli.
AR Right. In this weird way, all of my time with that obsession, over that story, the way I came out the
other side was like, it’s not about verification at all—like, the culture has tried to depict it as a story about
verification, and tried to read Thomas’s dilemma as a quest for verification, but that’s not what was ever
happening, that was never happening.
I might as well try to reconstitute a little bit of Doubting Thomas for us, since I brought him up last
night while the recorder was recharging, and now we can’t escape him! For years I was obsessed with
the depiction, in painting and sculpture, of what was called “Doubting Thomas,” or “The Incredulity of
Thomas.” After Jesus is resurrected, he appears before the apostles—Mary Magdalene sees him first,
mistaking him for the gardener, and he won’t let her touch him. Thomas arrives somehow late, and he says,
I won’t believe it’s really him unless I can see the wounds on his hands and in his side, unless I can lay hand
on those wounds. And then Jesus says to Thomas, as though he has heard him, here, come and touch my
wounds. The next thing that’s written is that Thomas falls to his knees and cries out, “My lord and my God.”
And Jesus says something like, You, Thomas, have seen and believed. Blessed are those who do not see,
and yet believe. So this story became in a certain way the emblem of obscurantist blind faith, and then later,
a kind of skeptic’s tale. But it’s in the paintings where it becomes really strange and comical. Because in
all of them that I have found, except for Rembrandt’s, Thomas is either touching or penetrating Christ’s
wound, often with Christ’s help. But nowhere in the text does it say that Thomas actually touches !
Caravaggio paints a kind of ultra-humanist, ultra science-y scene, with Thomas furrowing his brow and
sticking his finger into a very dead-looking flap of skin in Christ’s side, while a third figure looks on,
observing—it’s almost like a proto “Anatomy Lesson.” And I think it’s Masaccio, where the Christ helps
Thomas’s hand into the wound through the drapery of the gown he’s wearing... There is a conflation between
sight and touch. And there is a conflation between touch and penetration. To test the reality of the
resurrection by checking to make sure the holes, the wounds are there.... I mean, in looking at these
paintings, I realized that this story is not about verification of truth at all, nor is it merely about doubt or
incredulity. How far into the veil of the resurrected body would Thomas have to put his hand before
he believed that this Jesus was the genuine article? It’s like a joke. Only Rembrandt shows Thomas
overwhelmed by a visionary revelation that is not merely visual. Rembrandt shows Thomas realizing that Jesus
is standing, resurrected, before him, and that’s a realization of the heart, of inner vision, not merely a test
of the senses. Rembrandt is the only one that I have found who read this moment as being about the inner
discovery of truth and not about the kinds of reality testing we do with our senses. It’s not about doubting or
testing the truth, really.
IP Or for you, this story as it appears in representational Art, is a highly unsatisfying interpretation, a joke,
missing the freaking point.
AR It becomes a kind of koan, yes, a kind of joke—either it’s productive via the absurdity of its implications,
or it’s productive for the mind, a single hand clapping or whatever—
IP One of the things in Renaissance and Mannerist paintings, and Baroque later, is the invention of deep
space. That became the point of verification for a representation. My take, with the black paintings on black
rubber curtains, with the deep, hidden dark insides of the folds, was very much that wound that you talk
about. How deep do you have to put your finger in the freaking fold to make a moment of verification there,
into deep space? I thought, you know what? Leave me alone. I’m out of this one. And then in the tulle veil
paintings, the deep space, you see right through it.
AR But it still doesn’t kill the seduction. You still fall in.
IP I do.
AR It just becomes another veil. It’s great to have a photograph of that on the cover of Shahid’s anthology.
A photograph of translucence over solidity—the actual solidity becomes the dust jacket itself.Whenever I
see a book cover that has this kind of texture or quality, it’s fascinating, because in fact it’s all on the surface
in the copy, but it’s hard when you’re looking at it and trying to feel it—it’s very hard to know where the
bottom is. And that’s wonderful.
IP Every time you say the word ‘veil,’ and you think ‘veil’—covering, usually people think veil-covering,
there is immediately, also, the opposite activity going on as well, which is the unveiling, the discovery.
And there are all these immediate expectations: the restriction, the prevention of theft, the prevention of
seeing, depravation, but don’t forget the seeing of the veil, seeing that that’s your object, that that’s your
metaphor, stop. In the paintings the object and subject of the veil meld into each other. Play with veil,
there’s seduction with the veiling and unveiling. Do the dance of the delay, the suspension, hide and seek,
run away, come back, and any attempt to freeze the narrative is inherently resisted by that object. In my
case, the painting on the veil, the veil painting, is in itself, from the start, a metaphor for canvas.Which
resists being a window.Which resists being a wall.
AR When I was first looking at paintings, I immediately went to, like, Giotto and before. I immediately
went to flatness. So it was either Italian painting before single-point perspective, or Russian and Slavic
IP Your impulse to protect the flat surface in the midst of the 3-D mist is understandable. Like thinking
about realism when it is absent in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The relationship to Giotto, I don’t know if you—
AR Maybe I don’t know.
IP You were picking up Giotto because of the relationship between the figures and the architecture.
Because, just like Giotto, who painted his figures too big for the too-small architecture, it’s the creation of
humanism. That’s something that I’m very aware of, in all of my work. The figures are always slightly out of
scale for their environment. Even my Don Quixote—my horse is a foot shorter than a horse, and the Don Q
himself is a foot taller than a human, and it just sits there, it’s almost undetected, but it’s there. For example,
when I measure the figures for the veil paintings, because the veil is hanging about a foot off the floor, I
make them a little bit smaller so that they look quote unquote realistic to the scale of the viewer. But then
the architecture—in order to fit a thirty-foot palace into a fourteen-foot tall canvas, they get shrunk. So
you have this relationship between the architecture and the figures where man is the measurable thing. It
creates an intimacy. For me, it’s not so much about the flatness.
AR Well, I thought for me that it was. But when you say it in this way, another way for me to understand
what I thought I was penetrating is that single-point perspective is about architecture and the illusion of
depth in a depicted space, whereas the stuff that I wanted to look at was about the figure or the figures in it,
and this experience of illumination that I felt I could penetrate, whereas, why would I want to penetrate
something that gives me the illusion of depth. I had no interest.
IP Exactly. The depth is in the suspension.
AR That was my automatic sensibility in beginning. I didn’t grow up with any culture of visual art in my
family, and because I have this eye problem—I mean, I guess Jews are with music and philosophy.
IP You know, when you talk about inversion, it’s actually the moment of the extraordinary. For example,
in “The Black Paintings,” I put the whole scene into a palace of the night. A palace of the underground,
almost like Orpheus, which is where ghosts and shadows would reign, what would be the domain of the
black. And then I have a scene there which took me into a lunar landscape, into the creation of those lacey
starry skies. Very much like Shahid—many many years before I met him and his moon that scours the night
for its ivory; the scene that I painted as a lunar landscape was actually of a lunar eclipse. So everything is
illuminated except for the moon.
AR The source of light.
IP The moon became a hole. I’m always looking for those moments, like in “Evening,” which is my third
room to date in the “Veiled Threats” series, I painted the black cloud of birds in a manner not far from the
old moon hole, to light that orange sunset sky on the other side of the room, and then the orange sky is the
priest’s robe, who will not look up to the sky, and one thing scours the other for its value. And by the time
you’re finished weaving the things together, you really can’t pull any of the threads out.
AR There’s also a way that the blackbirds, with that enflamed evening light, produce this incredible anxiety
that the world is about to burst into flame, which is part of the anxiety of evening.When the light becomes
so red, like fire, but because there’s the ash-colored birds in front of the buildings, that feeling also of evening
in the poem, which is also in my body experience of evening, this deep, deep dread of the world bursting
into flame, or the feeling of being frozen in this moment that is so much about a transition, of the dread of
being in its thrall forever—
IP And think about portraiture, like photography—with good lighting, you can make a person look older
or younger. And the sun movement does that to our perception of the world—
AR All day!
IP All day! At noon the world looks very young, and in the evening it looks ancient. I’m very aware of
these things. And then if you are in a place where time is mentally frozen, like Venice for me. I mean, I
come back from Venice and all I have is a million pictures of the sky in my camera. It’s fascinating for me.
I can’t help thinking that there really is no distinction. That Maya thing—that the distinction between
reality and illusion is an illusion itself—I don’t feel that this creates an abyss. I don’t feel that this creates
chaos, nihilism, and anarchy. On the contrary, I feel that this makes us very aware of metaphors. They
multiply themselves like motherfuckers, they don’t become less mysterious—yet they become the most
tangible thing in the entire construct, which, if we introduce morality here—and I’m usually not in favor of
introducing morality into art—the morality is the delicacy you have to exercise with those powerful tools,
as a writer, as a creator.
AR This is so great, I’m really excited. You mentioned Venice—I’ve been to Venice twice, and I know
now that the sky there does indeed look like the sky in Venetian paintings, and the way that the buildings
are constructed and arranged, they look like flat stage sets—those façades—the way they exist in space, they
could be painted on cardboard. There’s this incredible experience, which is so much what the experience
is about—that the surfaces are rich, and there’s this wonderful play between convexity and concavity and
these seductive exteriors where you don’t know what they hide—I mean, I’ve always thought of Venice as a
IP Venice is an exercise in inversion, because the roads are water. Not only is there an inversion of sky and
water, light and all that. It was built there because it’s a very foggy area, and you have the inversion of light
and fog. That city is made out of historical theft from all cultures of the world. St Mark’s Square has pieces of
marble that are stolen from everywhere in the world, Byzantine, Egyptian, you name it. It’s all there.When
you go inside the church, the mosaic, the dominating subject is the deluge, it’s Atlantis. There’s the moment
there of the transition from paganism to Christianity. So when you look up to the ceiling, the pagan god
was not old, he was a young man. So God looks younger than Jesus. I was standing there thinking, this is the
first time they’ve gotten it right. If I was God, I wouldn’t make myself old!
AR I just remembered that the last time I was in Venice, there was an architecture competition to plan a
city—MIT was offering, or proposing, a competition, sort of architecture/urban planning for the city of
Jerusalem. They wanted architects or urban planners to conceive of a proposal for the city of Jerusalem in
a time of peace, how they would envision the city. My boyfriend at the time was an architect and I used
to oppress him all the time with my ideas about architecture, I would make these incredible demands. I
started to think about a project for a city that, like Venice, would be a seductive space, very very much about
what the buildings conceal. Seductive surfaces that don’t tell you what they hide.Walking along the streets,
when you see people coming in and out, you have no idea where people are coming from or going to—it
seems like a city of secret societies, and if you read about it, you learn that that’s true. Inside of those
enclosures, all kinds of religious practice, all kinds of perversion, all kinds of crime, all kinds of enlightened
procedure take place. I had this idea of a city that is seductive and mysterious, like a veiled woman, and you
move through it, and you don’t really know, by moving through it, what it conceals. You can see that that’s
a church, or that building has a name on it, but built into the way that it is constructed and the way that
it seduces you, is to point out that you don’t know what’s inside. These façades are so important, and it
fosters this idea that the depth is bottomless and should be. And also that public space doesn’t have to tell
you exactly what it is or what it’s for—instead it could produce this erotic feeling of sidelong glances and
fleeting intensity, there’s mystery—but not horror at otherness—just the mystery of desire. Rather than
present itself as this licit, legible, symmetrical thing, like Hausmann’s Paris, orWashington DC, some kind
of authoritarian presentation of everything, it’s about the freedom to do what one wishes, what one needs
to do, in private. But yet the experience of public space, moving through it, is incredibly arousing. I just
thought it was the sexiest place I’d ever been, because of that quality—
IP Because it allows you intimacy in public instead of a fundamentalist separation between public and
private, seen and unseen—this is a softer concept.When you talk about the doubt of St. Thomas and all
that—there’s no way more beautiful, in experiencing life and being gentle, than when you incorporate
doubt. It need not be seen as a moment of paralysis or indecision, because it makes you more of a receiver.
You allow things to penetrate that fence or veil, whatever it is. My choice of the veil versus canvas, versus
mural, expresses my choice of soft concepts over hard concepts, things that are constantly needing to
negotiate their survival as things. Because you don’t walk in and say, It’s a painting! And you don’t walk in
and say, It’s not a painting! And you don’t walk in and say, It’s a room! And you don’t walk in and say, It’s
not a room! It’s that moment, at that seam, where each is both.Which I have to remind—remind myself
all the time, in relationship to language—and when my father died—in relationship to life and death—I
remember writing back then, to friends by email, that the whole thing of saying that things are black
and white, life and death, the whole demarcation of before and after, I started to see that it wasn’t so.
That the after life, in fact is in this life, because we invented it. The afterlife only lives in our construct, as
we know it.When fundamentalists, make this distinction between life and after life, that’s when you get
suicide bombers, all the crazy shit. It’s this arrogance that our reality and our perception is the truth.When
I started doing this work with these veils I realized that my earlier work were already veils, whether they
were the wax sculptures, or the Don Quixote, which is very colorful and very object-like—but you know
what, it’s a veil, and it’s no coincidence that he’s looking in the mirror, it’s no coincidence that I sculpted
him as if he would fall off the horse if the books didn’t tie him to it, and that the front view of the sculpture
is actually the hind, with the roses for Dolcenea Del Toboso on his horse’s butt, that’s what you’re supposed
to walk in and see first... You know, the classic poster, DQ and Sancho are often depicted as two silhouettes
walking into the horizon, so it is only fitting that you see his back first, as he is leaving, the loved one who
always leaves, and we know that in a round world the horizon is an illusion, you keep walking until you get
to the starting point. Like the Promised Land, the horizon is never there when you get there. Metaphor is as
much a lie as fact, but perhaps more tangible to the mind’s eye. I want to read to you something from a
book Shahid gave me, it is from The Hidden Law by Anthony Hecht, and he is quoting from a Paul Valéry
essay on La Fontaine: “What is more misleading than those truthful men who confine themselves to telling
us what they saw, just as we might have seen it ourselves?What do I care for what can be seen?” and he
continues, “Our mind and our body are alike in this: They wrap in mystery and hide from themselves what
they feel is most important; they mark and protect it by the depth at which they place it.” And here it is:
“Everything that counts is well veiled; witnesses and documents obscure it; acts and works are expressly made
to disguise it.”
Ariana Reines is the author of The Cow (Alberta Prize, FenceBooks: 2006) and Coeur de Lion (Mal-O-Mar: 2007).
TELEPHONE, her first play, was commissioned by The Foundry Theatre and presented at The Cherry Lane Theatre in New York,
in 2009, while she was Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry at The University of California—Berkeley.
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