Category:the souvenir series

January 11, 2009

"Topaz Carpenter"

I'd had the idea all worked out, and the script outline--or a draft of it, anyway--all ready for a couple of years, but my paternal grandfather Champ passed away before I was able to make the original documentary about him I'd envisioned.

In 2001, I rather impetuously set off to interview my grandmother Avis, his wife, about their life. Which is when I learned he'd been in a band. With outfits and everything. A dance hall country band that traveled the desert towns in Utah and thereabouts. It's how he and my grandmother had met. I guess that made her a groupie.

As long as I'd known, he was only ever the gregarious, Center Street businessman, the guy who ran the dry cleaners where everyone took their Sunday clothes. But my childhood memories of him picking songs for me on his guitar changed as I imagined how, for him, playing music was also a reminder of the life he'd given up when he had a family.

I'd met my great uncle Wayne, Champ's brother, twice. At Champ's funeral, and then a little over a year ago at Avis's. It occurred to me that I should talk to him, hear his stories, see his photos and mementos. Because he is only one of a few people left who can provide some sense of my grandfather as a young man.

And so over Christmas, I took a few hours to visit with him and his wife. And that's when he told me in addition to a musician, my grandfather had been a hobo. In central Utah in the Depression [aka, the last Depression, -ed.], there wasn't enough work in your tiny hometown, so you had to hit the road to find a job.


And in the Summer of 1942, after he and Avis married and had one, maybe even two kids, he left them and traveled to the desert town of Delta, where he got a job building the Topaz Internment Camp, where over 8,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned for up to three years.

Like most all the internment camps, Topaz Camp was built in a hurry, on a grid, using plans adapted from military barracks. Tarpaper-covered sheds were finished in sheetrock on the inside, and each block was divided up into apartments in a range of sizes--all too small--to accommodate different sizes of families. If they wanted any furnishings beyond the military cot provided, the internees had to build it out of the scrapwood the carpenters--including my grandfather--left behind.

Specifics of the camp's buildings and design were collected by the National Park Service, which conducted a survey in 2005 of all the sites and artifacts associated with the imprisonment of Japanese Americans [pdf], in order to identify candidates for National Historic Landmark status. In their report, it says,

Local craftsmen were used, but the requirements were not always stringent; in Millard County, Utah, near the Topaz Relocation Center, "Topaz Carpenter" is still a derogatory term, since anyone who showed up at the site with a hammer would be hired.
And a damn good thing, too, I guess. It's an odd feeling to suddenly find oneself--or one's family--on the wrong side of history. On several wrong sides, actually, if the "Topaz Carpenter" dig were real. I don't doubt that some people say/said it, but it so happens that my maternal grandmother grew up in Delta, and neither she nor her people seem to have ever heard the term.

Until I posted about it, the NPS survey was the only Google reference to Topaz Carpenters. It was someone's insult generations ago in the middle of BF Utah, and it ended up in a government history survey, sounding pretty official. Part of me wants to defend my grandfather by disproving the term's popularity, as if that would somehow change its accuracy. Because he really was a guy who showed up with a hammer, got hired, and who, in just a few weeks, built a prison camp for his fellow Americans.


After the camp was closed in 1945, the barracks were either torn down or sold to local farmers, who used them as barns, even a home or two. There was one left nearby--half of one, really, a 20 x 60 section, being used as a shed--which was donated and restored in 1991 to help create the Topaz Museum. [images:] Which is now on my list of places to visit next time I'm in Utah with a couple of days to spare.

This [Japanese] American [Internment Camp] Life [, 2007]
Ansel Adams Japanese American concentration camp photos from Manzanar [, 2003]

Former NGA curator and Dia director Jeffrey Weiss writes about the state of Land Art in the latest issue of Artforum. His focus: T.S.O.Y.W., a 3-hour Earthworks road trip movie/installation by Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler shown in this year's Whitney Biennial, and the Sculpture Center's recent exhibition of feminism and Land Art in the 1970's [which featured the Agnes Denes work, Wheatfield - A Confrontation in Battery Park City that I mentioned a couple of months ago.]

As Earthworks come of age, their fate has begun to look contingent and fragile. Those who are charged with caring for the sites are rightly doing what they can to forestall change; but a true poetics of Land art--given the very nature of the medium--must at least contend with the conflict between an ethic of preservation and the entropic pull of nature and culture that belongs to the content of the work. In this setting, Granat and Heitzler are melancholic visionaries. Their wheels, like reels, turn in order to draw a straight line and follow it: Their line is the road, a figure for unbounded space and inexhaustible time. But as their bike moves forward, their eyes gaze, historically, back; T.S.O.Y.W. shows us that memory has become a chief element of the temporal condition of the Earthwork. The film's end is a running-down and out, a sudden shift from images of the infinite desert to scarred film leader, then, abruptly, to nothing at all. Forever turns out to be the ultimate conceit. [emphasis added]
Hmm, let's ignore the conceit of a film ending abruptly while it's actually screening on an endless loop in a gallery.

I'm intrigued by the idea that memory is a "chief element" of Land Art and its "temporal condition," if it somehow equates to the divergence between the contemporary condition and experience of visiting the work/site and its various representations, whether in film, photograph, or documenting ephemera.

For most art audience members over the intervening decades--curators, critics, collectors and artists included-- Land Art exists as books, photos, gallery presentations, and texts. At the Whitney's Robert Smithson retrospective in 2005, one symposium panelist went so far as to argue that Spiral Jetty was primarily a film and photo work, as if the jetty itself were just a location, a bit of IMDb trivia. It sounded to me then like just the kind of critical reading that a New York art worlder would make who'd come of age when the Jetty was submerged, and who'd never bothered going to Utah in the 10+ years since it re-appeared.


With images and expectations formed in our head, actually visiting an Earthwork can be as disorienting as meeting your favorite NPR host. Or if, as Weiss points out, the work has deteriorated over time, it's like meeting an author who hasn't updated his bookjacket photo for a while. And the disconnect can be jarring; When Titus O'Brien made his pilgrimage to Smithson's last work, Amarillo Ramp, he found the powerful sculptural form of the iconic 1973 photograph had become "a worn down, weed covered, neglected berm of dirt you'd just mistake for an old watering trough dam. A phantom."


But memory is more than the gap between reality and what we think reality is; it's the reconciliation and construction of the two. Weiss's concerns about the complications Land Art curators face is right, but maybe not in the way he says. From Marfa to the Lightning Field to the Jetty to even Michael Heizer's Double Negative and Turrell's Roden Crater, the Earthworks Road Trip has matured in the last decade as both a real experience and a concept. As more people make the pilgrimages and have personal encounters with these works, not only do their memories of the works change, but other people begin to perceive the works not just as images in a book or on a wall, but as visitable sites.

I wonder how the perceptions and understanding of Walter deMaria's Lightning Field change when they're based, not just on John Cliett's dramatic, official photos [via], but on firsthand accounts of the 24-hour visiting experience, very few of which appear to involve actual lightning? And how would that change if Dia and deMaria allowed visitor photographs? When it comes to Land Art in the present and future, there are still a few more conceits left to be addressed.

August 13, 2007

Love And Music

I've been working with a recent episode of WNYC's Radiolab on in the background. The subject is memory, which also happens to be the subject of my series of short films, The Souvenir Series.

There was a typical brainy [sic] science segment on how memories are created--and blocked--in the brain, then a kind of random story about Joe Andoe's paintings. The possibility that memory is metaphorically more like creating a work of art than filing a piece of data away is interesting, maybe even persuasive, though our metaphors usually turn out to be more revealing of us at a particular moment in our culture than accurately illuminating of what's actually going on.

But it was the last story, about Clive and Deborah Wearing and an overwhelming amnesia that just stopped me cold. It started out as one more Oliver Sacks bauble before taking a remarkably poignant turn. Just listen to it, I can't tell you how it goes.

Radiolab Show #304: Memory and Forgetting []

October 4, 2006

Alberto Burri's Cretto


Like Pompeii in reverse, Gibellina has been remembered by its ghost-like burial instead of an unearthing.

In 1968, an earthquake devastated villages throughout the Belice Valley of western Sicily. The Italian government's incompetent response to the disaster and the corruption that absorbed rescue & redevelopment funds turned "Belice" into a cautionary touchstone of Italian politics. It's a scenario that might resonate today, even. In the United States. And/or in Iraq.

Anyway, in the mid-80's, artist Alberto Burri proposed a memorial to victims of the earthquake. His plan: encase the ruins and detritus of the abandoned hill town of Gibellina in concrete, leaving the roads as a solid, labyrinthine palimpsest of the village's public spaces. [The whole town had been rebuilt and relocated closer to the freeway soon after the earthquake. No preserve-or-rebuild debates there.]


The remarkable thing: the memorial was built. Cretto is now a 20+ acre piece of mesmerizing land art, the pathways of an entire town petrified in brutalist, post-minimalist concrete. Now, of course, in 2006, it looks like Peter Eisenman's Berlin Holocaust Memorial, but with content. The other thing it reminds me of is an old NYT Magazine article [date? who knows?] about the challenge of designing effective warning signs for a Nevada nuclear waste dump. To get the "Keep Out" message across 10,000 years from now, someone suggested paving a giant desert quadrant with spiky black stone, which the heat alone would render nearly impassable. Haven't heard much about that since.

Other things I haven't heard: anyone--even the memorial experts--discuss Burri's work in relation to the World Trade Center site, or even in the larger contexts of the evolution of memorial design, much less of Land Art. What gives?

Aleksandra Mir mentioned Cretto in her top ten list for this month's Artforum [artforum]
Cretto [archidose talked about it, though. twice.]

09/2010 UPDATE Google Maps now has higher res images, and Street View. of BF Sicily.

Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish was what finally woke us up. Attributions are a vital ingredient to that get added after a recipe is passed along, often without the original chef's knowledge.

We've been eating Val's rolls at family gatherings for as long as I've been on solid foods, but once when my mother mentioned them to Val's granddaughter--who then asked Val--Val said she wondered if she'd ever made such rolls. She doubted it.

Winifred's granddaughter, meanwhile, called on Wednesday to ask my mother a recipe question. My mother--whose tenure as the food editor of the local paper followed and was dwarfed by Winifred's--said, oh, you should have her bring something. Her cranberry relish. It's Susan Stanberg's recipe, but she gave it to me years ago. Within five minutes, Winifred called my mom to find out what her own cranberry relish recipe was, because she'd just been asked to bring it. When they're passed along, recipes get marked and remembered by the recipient, and every taste ever after is a one-way mnemonic trigger of the connection.

Also on the table:

  • Doris Epps' sweet potatoes
  • Grandma Mary's sausage stuffing
  • Grandma Mary's bread [which has since been commercialized by a distant cousin and is available fresh every day at a local bakery.]
  • Aunt Marilyn's coconut bavarian cream pie [which, we suspect, actually originated on the back of an ancient bag of coconut flakes. Someone at Kraft needs to send Aunt Marilyn a check.]

  • J.G. Ballard takes a new look at the films of Michael Powell on the centenary of his birth.

    I think of Powell as a prophet whose films offer important lessons to both film-makers and novelists, especially the latter, who are still preoccupied with character and individual moral choice. My guess is that the serious novel of the future will be serious in the way that Powell's and Hitchcock's films are serious, where the psychological drama has migrated from inside the characters' heads to the world around them. This is true to everyday life, where we know little about the real nature of the people around us, and less about ourselves than we think, but are highly sensitive to the surrounding atmosphere.
    The Prophet [guardian]
    the National Film Theatre's Powell retrospective continues through the end of August. []

    I'm heading to Japan for a month with the family. Tokyo this time, so there's a lot to do and see. I've got a couple of projects I'm working on in and around Tokyo, and I'm going to shoot another installment of "The Souvenir Series," my 12-part short film series about different aspects of memory.

    I'll post more details later, but the idea is one I've had since freshman English in college. My teacher at BYU, a woman named Elouise Bell, talked about how the world she knew, knew firsthand, that is, was actually quite a narrow place: Utah, parts of Los Angeles, some small towns in France where she'd lived as a young woman... Ever since that class, I've seen the idea of "my world" as something ressembling a cell phone coverage map, but for a very crappy service provider: thin ribbons of well-traveled routes connecting small-to-largish zones of familiarity, but surrounded by unknown, uncovered territory.

    It's like saying you konw New Jersey because you take the Turnpike. Trust me, get about 30 seconds off the Turnpike, and you'll be in a foreign country, my friend.

    In the film, I'm going to retrace some of the paths I laid down in rural Japan almost twenty years ago, when I lived there as a bike-riding, 19-year-old Mormon missionary. The core idea is retracing, to document some attempts to retrace the routes I used to take every day, all the time. It may be like riding a bike, or it may not. We'll see.

    ...they appear uninvited, grab you by the throat, flood your senses and then shoot away in a microsecond, leaving few traces. Mr. Lelyveld explores some intriguing themes: How much do we really remember? Why do we forget? What would happen if we found documentary records or witnesses who could fill in missing pieces of our imagined family narrative? What hidden catastrophes would fly out?
    from William Doyle's review of Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop, by Joseph Lelyveld A Journalist Investigates Memory, Family and Race []
    The writer-director Noah Baumbach, 35, based the film on his own experience of his parents' divorce. He said that he had struggled for years to find his voice as a filmmaker after making Kicking and Screaming in 1995 but had an epiphany at a screening of the Louis Malle classic Murmur of the Heart, organized by his friend Wes Anderson (a Squid producer).

    "I thought I should deal with this moment in my life," he said after an early morning screening on Wednesday. "But it's why it took me a long time to get it done. There was a censor in me, not in a literal way, more in general, wondering what people might think and who would care - it's only my story. Letting go of that censor was really important; personally, it was a breakthrough."

    Mr. Baumbach's mother, Georgia Brown, was a film critic for The Village Voice, and his father, Jonathan, is a film critic and novelist who teaches at Brooklyn College. Neither parent, as portrayed in the film, is particularly sympathetic. Mr. Baumbach said it was all right with his real-life parents "because they're writers."

    The director had [Jeff] Daniels borrow some of Jonathan Baumbach's clothes for his wardrobe. "I liked to use things that connected me to that time, in a Proustian way," he said. [nice. -g.o]

    Discussion of an actual film, buried in Tony Scott's nerdy "Sundance is all about scamming free stuff" article.

    June 10, 2004

    On Remembering

    I started this weblog to document a documentary I was going to make, a remembrance of sorts of my grandfathers. That film has been subsumed into the souvenir series. This week, even though he was never the subject of that film, I've been thinking about my great-grandfather a lot, too. That's because he died in 1982, at age 90. He had a shorter battle with Alzheimer's than Reagan did. These men differed in other ways, too:

    Reagan: Cut a deal to keep US hostages in Iran until after his election. Incubated Islamic militarism and, ultimately, Osama Bin Laden. Armed Saddam Hussein. Sent Rumsfeld to offer support while he gassed the Kurds. OK'ed the invasion of Lebanon. Cut and ran after terrorists killed US Marines. Sold heavy weaponry to Iran to fund right-wing death squads in Nicaraqua. Prevented the government from addressing the AIDS epidemic. Invaded Grenada.
    Great-grandfather: Put a plow on a tractor and plowed under half a field of fullgrown corn next to his house before someone ran out to stop him.

    Reagan: Conflated speeches with actions.
    Great-grandfather: Never said much.

    One of my earliest memories of him was a visit we made one summer when I was 4 or 5. I was already too much a city kid, or a suburban kid, really; visiting the farm was already an exotic, scary adventure.

    He was wearing worn overalls and a tan shirt. We were kneeling under a giant willow tree in my grandparents' backyard (they'd built just down the street; my grandfather had followed his father into farming.), and he was showing me the carrots growing around its base. He pulled one out and offered it to me to taste. It was small, too early to harvest then, but highly marketable as a baby carrot now, I'd imagine. It's got dirt on it, I recoiled, you have to wash it first. He smiled and brushed some dirt off it, and started nibbling on it himself. Then he pulled out another one and offered it to me. Flush with thrilling fear, I ate an unwashed carrot straight from the ground.

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    Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

    Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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    about this archive

    Category: the souvenir series

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    Paper Monument, Oct. 2016
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    TheRealHennessy Tweets Paintings, 2014 -

    Standard Operating Procedure
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    CZRPYR2: The Illustrated Appendix
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    Summer 2012
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    Destroyed Richter Paintings, 2012-
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