Dust Storm

The Best American Poetry Blog
November 09, 2009

I left Washington for New York in a cinematic 3-D dust storm this morning. Actually, the storm is pretty much confined to one dark room just off the escalator on the third floor of the Hirrshorn Museum.

It’s a huge, vertiginous wall projection in a disturbingly beautiful small show by the Irish artist, John Gerrard. Using gaming software, satellite imaging and a Depression-era photograph he found of an actual Texas dust storm, Gerrard has pulled off a stunning, uncanny 360-video weave of fact and fakery that makes you feel as if you’re moving around and along an on-coming storm.

Through some complicated cinematic artistry way beyond my ability to explain, you find yourself being stared down by a gorgeous, billowing, dirt-in-air menace that seems crouched on the horizon for miles, but is also right in front of you, like a giant brown beast panting beneath the widening gyre.

And even more frighteningly (but perfectly), there’s nothing to hear: there is no soundtrack, just deliberate, mechanical muteness. None of the roar and rage one might too easily imagine from such a huge wall of danger scooped up from the dried-out Texas plains.

The animated suspension of churning dust is as stilled and reticent as the jagged flashes of light in the Clyfford Still color fields and Bierstadt landscapes in the Hirrshorn’s adjoining galleries.

The silence of Gerrard’s storm film is frightening, in part, because of the disconnect (think sound and fury); in part, because it’s so awkward nowadays, even in museums, to be alone with one another without voice or noise; and, in part, because this storm—this high-tech manufacture by a subtle artist—is actually a storm warning:

The storm’s sources, as Gerrard makes clear, are the native tribes and buffalo dead, the great plains grazed to stubble by cattle, and then oil derricks, like malarial insects, barbed to the bare skin of the West. Al Gore has been telling that the great beast is coming again, but leave it to another Irishman to make the Apocalypse seem beautiful. Mr. Gerrard, I believe Mr. Yeats would be proud.

Eighteen months ago, my partner, Fred, and I were caught in another dust and sand storm in another land of Apocalypse. We were hiking in Syria. One moment was late-day heat and haze, the next, a sudden, scary, magnificent and mercifully-brief blizzard of grit at sunset. Just as we were getting a little skill at howling on the heath, our guide told us to relax, this was pretty much going to be a shoulder-shrug squall.

Among the places we were exploring in the gorgeous barrens of the Syrian desert were the religious sites of the 4th Century Coptics, who shrugged at a lot more demons than air-born sand.

Consider the most famous Coptic: Simeon Stylites, crazy holy man who couldn’t find enough ways to abase himself. He tried tightening a rope around his waist for months until his flesh rotted and maggots crawled out of him; he tried burying himself in sand up to his neck and becoming a literal talking head. And for ten years he lived chained to an iron ball in a tiny round room not much bigger than the ball itself so he could never lie down.

Finally Simeon figured it out: he would erect a column out in the desert, but not too far out (see snide rumors about Henry David Thoreau), and live on top. Hence, Simeon Stylites – Simeon of the column.

The first column Simeon tried was just 9 ft high so he could stand above the crowds that gathered to listen to his lunacy. But crowds are real pests—and closer my god to thee and all that—so Simeon got people to build him taller and taller columns until he was up there Jack in the Beanstalk high at 65 feet.

He was content enough to live up on the small flat top of this one column for 36 years out in the elements and under the stars. His mother and sisters would climb up every week or so to bring him food and sweep off his neat pile of dried shit. A few times a year someone would go out and trim his beard.

Of course, copycats put up dozens of other columns—still being excavated throughout the Syrian desert. And, of course, Simeon became one of the most revered Catholic saints.

And, not surprisingly, Simeon was a great obsession of the Spanish filmmaking master, Luis Buñuel.

There is a wonderfully bizarre short film by Buñuel from 1965 called “Simon del desierto.” It’s a surreal and camp hagiographic re-write, revved to a hallucinatory pitch that’s at quite the opposite extreme from John Gerrard’s stately “Dust Storm.”

In the final few minutes of Buñuel’s film, a black coffin zips like a dune buggy across the desert landscape and opens up at the foot of Simeon’s column to reveal Satan inside, dressed in a toga. That’s evidently enough to seduce the saint down and into Hell, which, according to Buñuel in 1965, was, you guessed it: a New York disco, complete with hipsters in Mad Men suits and skinny ties dancing to an early version of electronica that Satan calls "Radioactive Flesh.”

(Did I mention that Bunuel was exiled for a second time from Franco’s Spain after the film?)

Dust. Storm. Landscape. Mindscape. As I obsess about that eerily-moving, technologically advanced, gaming-software of John Gerrard’s “Dust Storm,” I think how Simeon and the Stylites and other desert fathers essentially invented the whole idea of landscape.

Before these hermits went out making places of pilgrimage in no-man’s-land, the world of walking was not “scaped” at all: it was wild. It was the unmarked void between villages and cities. The ascetics shunned society. But once they were outside its gates, where were they? The best they could do was only to be in the land, never of it. The idea of landscape was invented to show us who and where we’ve been outside the cities of people or our many gods.

But the earth itself, rough beast, may have its own ideas, and wipe all ours away. Climb your column. Or lock the city gate.

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