She I

The flight climbs above the cloud into the stratosphere. The soundscape dismisses any attempt to think. Her seat is close to the aircraft wing and the engine is loud, she feels rather subdued. The Tibetan lady next seat is intensely perfumed, the scent is agarwood. In a full beige business suit, she is petite, her neck circled with a Bvlgari rose gold mother-of-pearl “diva” necklace. Cheeks tinted with plateau red and bad teeth. After a few drinks she grins at her for no reason.

Taking her counterfeit AirPods off, a sense of inflammation arises around the earlobes. This is how she got on board, with mud clumped around her hands that looked like two gigantic beehives hanging off her forearms. A few moments ago, the airport security inspected everything she had, opened her carry-on and took everything out on display: packages of dry goods, a 5-inch-tall Guanyin statue, a Huawei MatePad, lots of wires, a tripod head and flash lights, a bundle of artemisias, hotel slippers and shower caps, more laundry bags and a glass jar of wine-marinated crabs (the label is peeled off, they don’t know what it is). They let her pass after scrutinizing her items, without ever questioning why she didn’t clean her hands.

During the 20h34min flight, she goes to the bathroom once. She stares into the mirror. The pigmentation, the messy hair. The mirror is exceptionally greasy, with lots of fingerprints. 

Back to the seat, the overhead light inside the aircraft is dimmed. It’s nice. She asks an attendant for wine, she is served. Raises her hands up (she’s been hiding them under the tabletop), but realizes she can’t reach the cup. Her fingers buried in mud that’s been piling up around her wrists. Her hands look like heavy drumsticks. She stares at them, under the beam of the reading light. The surface of the mud appears dry and wrinkled, but in general the mud feels moist. She presses back what’s coming up on top of her stomach and releases her jaw. To get more air in, she loosens the shoulders and opens the lips. 

As if some neuromuscular tension is unlocked, her knee suddenly jerks, bumps the tabletop and spills the wine. She lets the liquid drip across the table—she didn’t want to drink it in the first place. A smell of fermentation rises in the aircraft chamber. The lady next seat is asleep with her eyes wide open, gleaming in the dark like two rhinestones. 

Landing at JFK airport, she buys a bag of Rold Gold pretzels and goes into the bathroom. It is oddly remote, no one seems to come. She puts her hands under running water to rinse off the mud. Dirty water spirals down the sink. She waves her hands to activate the automatic tap and keep the water flow, and water weighs down her hands. She starts to smell the mud mixed with chlorine, the drain is clogged, the sink is overflowing, water starts to come out. Hopefully no one comes in at this moment. 

The mud on her hands isn’t being washed away. It’s still roughly the same size. A strong sense of guilt of soiling the public bathroom attacks. Perfunctorily, she grabs a few sheets of paper towel, wraps them around her palms and leaves. Water keeps dripping down, and the drumsticks turn into the shape of spindles. She still can’t feel her hands. The legs of her Levi’s are soaking wet and also dripping. 

On her way out, she traces the pinkish clouds across the skyline, counting silently in her mind the Delta aircrafts parked in one of the aprons. She swings the saggy Patagonia backpack to the front, the zip front holds a single-use subway ticket. The air train passes from one terminal to another, like a capsule circling in the gland waiting to be ejected. 

 

Back in the city, she goes from Duane Reade to a nameless dollar store to get Advil. “Dollar store painkillers work better.” It makes more sense to her. Patiently waiting for the bathroom in a McDonald’s, she recalls that her father, a potter in Jingdezhen [景德镇], had more than once told her that in ancient times, funeral objects often included body jewelries, not to be worn, but to be inserted inside the body of the deceased: Seven pieces of jade, one piece inside the anal opening, one for the vagina, another inside the mouth, the rest would be put in ears and nostrils. They were to prevent discharges and gas from escaping during the stages of decomposition; by blocking the outlets they built an enclosed interior in the corpse, so that bacteria would take over and reset the biological clock from within. 

It is not entirely for the purpose of anti-deterioration. It’s also significant in a spiritual way. She thinks. The oral object is often sculpted in the shape of cicadas, insects that spend most of their life as underground nymphs. When they reemerge, they shed off their skin to join the current life cycle. To place a cicada-shaped jade on top of the tongue of the deceased is to silence the soul with the prospect of immortality, and maybe, when resurrected, cacophony.  

When all the truth comes out altogether, it will sound like chaos. What is equivalent to death is a longer and deeper sleep, but in sleep the metabolism keeps working; with a few things, it can make do. The belief in the cyclicality of life puts the dead in deferral. The living is forever shadowed by the resurrection of the dead. This kind of sedimentation is never downsizing, only scaling up. Life proliferates, the sum remains the same. Chronological misplacement can cause major discontent. She ponders. The temperature and smell in the McDonald’s remind her of someone’s body, overheated fast food, orangey lights and bleach. A tall Caribbean man in a red bandana comes in, his whole body covered in an elaborate tattoo. The labyrinthian pattern reads Middle Eastern-ish, but could be catholic, with an identifiable Green Lantern superhero logo in the center. As the man anxiously scrolls down the Kiosk screen, a homeless person is opening and shutting the door to shame the customers. A few moments go by, this glass storefront seems to be trapped in some kind of repetitive motion.  

Towards the end, father could only manage to reply to her WeChat messages in emojis: Agreement, smiley face. Disagreement, crying face. Good morning, sun. Good night, moon. They were not in the same time zone. The doctors told her his organs had been snatched. They parked him overnight in an ad hoc treatment room. They said they already called the police. It is bizarre that someone would steal organs from a body with final stage liver cancer. She thinks about him, lying in the cool summer night, upper abdomen wide open, mouth too. It was those hours before dawn, before the next nurse arrived for her shift, and nobody knew. 

She spends her first night at nycstudentcenterdotcom on 88th street although she is too old for it. An expired student ID is deceptive enough on most occasions. It isn’t great. Dragged down into limbo where she is half-asleep but can’t wake up, her jet lag makes her feel like she is still experiencing turbulences, descending after ascending, then in reverse. She can see shapes in the light, but they don’t morph into anything tangible. She tries to detect small talk between attendants behind the curtain, sounds like they are hating on one of their colleagues. In the end she gives up listening and directs her sight outside the windows, bringing her vision into focus. Clouds are bumping into and devouring each other, attacking each other with puffy fists while changing shapes. She thinks she’s been drooling, and someone has stuck a tube into her mouth so she wouldn’t choke. She hears the sound of oxygen bubbles breaking on a liquid surface, and the airplane engines vibrate — it is aero-mechanically designed. She pushes her chest against the sheet to relieve tension under her armpits. There is a feeling of fatigue she wishes she could fully embrace.

 

Macalline Art Center is a practice-oriented site focused on contemporary visual inventions. The Center engages with artists and art groups by building physical and online communities through events and research. The Center is guided by the working processes of artists, constantly re-defining and testing itself and renewing perceptual and cognitive systems in contemporary situations and contexts.