by Greg Schatz
Odonata means “teeth on jaws,” or so I was told when I was born for the fourth time. “Fourth time” is a figure of speech used to describe a ritual ceremony I was put through thanks to my parents. My parents belong to “The Church of Impenetrable Ethereality.” It is a very, very old religion that hasn’t yet found mainstream success, I’m afraid. I will try my best to explain it all, one story at a time.
I will start with the priest. He took my skinny white arms and wrapped them around his legs until my skin pressed so tight up against his. Strange words I cannot repeat came from his mouth. In fact, there were purple bandages stuck to his eyelids before he set me in his compact lap. There were people surrounding me: the congregation of course. Blessed hands waving around me, wishing I was part of their past.
As I wriggled in arms of the priest, he began to paint me from head to toe. The sound of waves crashing entered my ears. Was I lost in the ocean, helpless and drowning? Were there tears in my eyes, impossible to hide?
I now bring photographs of this prosperous event and lay them in front of your naked eyes. You shuffle through them with a hint of cynicism. You are not used to seeing something like this up close and candid.
My parents Thom and Thorne took pictures every time I was reborn. They went through this very procedure themselves. All you needed was the sweet soil and the smooth mud from the earth. All you needed were friends with the gift of light in their palms. All you needed...
This boy, Odonata, was nicknamed “Dragonfly.” He clawed at his food, refused to socialize with the proper regiment, but was accepted of course on the condition that he obey the rules of the church. Odonata finished his cup of whatever and laid down his series of photographs from the previous day. The photos were stark with realism: a cow thrown in the smooth mud, dead vultures that climbed upwards, an old man with so many wrinkles on his face you could barely tell he was for real. The man placed a kiss on his fingers as if he wanted to mock the photographer.
I looked at the photos that Dragonfly took and I must say I was impressed. “You seem to capture the things that most of us wish we could realize. Or is it purely accidental?” “What is your name?” He fingered for the truth. “Used to be different every day,” I joked. “The light in here is far from complementary. Would you prefer we step outside to talk? My name is Tristan.” “You can call me Dragonfly if you please.” We shook hands and went for a walk. As we talked I noticed some of his eccentricities: the way his voice wavered when he talked about things that excited him, those piercing eyes that held you down under their weight and pinned you exactly where he wanted, his slight accent and unconventional way of putting two and two together. Then I noticed his skin. You will regard me as crazy but I thought at that moment I could see right through it.
I advised him to simply go beyond his photograph collage and introduce actual objects into his artwork. I had started doing this very thing myself years ago playing around with occasional ideas. I won the highly esteemed Hans-Frederick award for best conceptual piece, so I had some clout to work with. I wanted him to join my club so to speak. I introduced him to Darleen, Taylor and Milo. As a child, Odonata spent many hours in a sensory deprivation environment, staring at an absolute blackness that was impossible to describe in mere words. Sometimes figs or cucumber slices were placed over his eyes so he could not see. Branches and flowers hung beneath his nose. He was told to free his mind until the thoughts no longer came, until there was nothing anymore but the silent whisper of his own breath in the dark. Nature would take care of the rest, the silent shuffling would repeat and his mind would reorganize itself properly. This was the first time he was born.
He sat under the tree in the orchard for twelve hours pretending he was a plant. This was something he practiced frequently as a youth. “So this is what it’s like,” he reminisced, holding his breath and crossing his fingers. He steadied himself and changed positions, but the scenery slowly evaporated and left him tongue-tied at what he saw: thousands of coiled snakes raining down from a hapless cloud above. His skin shook with new life as it replaced itself with smooth velvet and the rain leaned into his ears: the sweet sound of the afterlife. Can a plant think? Can a plant feel with nerves that operate like eyes seeing shapes touching colors washing rooted deep in the earth part of the cycle part of the dirt?Can a plant converse with other plants? Does a plant see with eyes that stretch through pathways carved in the dirt and the soil that wraps around it?
This was Odonata’s inspiration for I.S.A. Inarticulate Soil Artwork. Artwork that utilized found objects, incorporating them into patterns marked into the dirt. Whatever he finds becomes the wings or the talons on his mythical eagle. My first series follows:
Leaves vs. humanity
Dry cough vs. plastic baby toy
Piece of string vs. wire heart apparition
Grain of rice vs. wire heart mechanism
Wire vs. girl #7
Cracked donut vs. remade python
Remade heart vs. dog coughing
- Mud vs. humanity
Leaves vs. paper cup
Pleasure vs. paper cup found in mud
Our first presentation of I.S.A. was a success. We picked the left wing of an abandoned cellar, where light was sparse and the sweet aroma from the cookie factory nearby crept in. Cameras were allowed for the first fifteen minutes, after that, only word of mouth. We pinned the found objects to the walls along with the photos of our group posing along with the mud sculptures.
Some of the most prominent art critics arrived, so I let Milo serve them some refreshments while I corrected the background music: I wanted it soft and unfocused, a little unsettling. The reaction was positive when I incorporated the sound of a baby crying with the slight humming of machinery. Their faces lit up like candles.
I was completely astonished when a sweet young thing took me aside and asked me how my parents were doing. It seemed like it had been years since I contemplated their whereabouts. Inside the belly of a snake, young Odonata waits. He feels the fluids rub up against his clear skin. You can see his arteries, his heart pumping, his liver and other organs at work. There is a small sack that grows from outside of his head. It is full of flies, each fighting one other, buzzing away. He tries to punch his way out, but it is no use. He is cold and alone here. How did it get this way? He wills the sack to burst and suddenly the flies are free. He tears at the wall of the belly as he puts his hand onto the bloody wound where the sack used to be. It is now just a deflated layer of skin hanging off of his head.
He opens his eyes and there he is, sitting on a torn mat surrounded by the congregation. They clap wildly as he is handed a towel. He notices an empty bowl overturned right beside him. They made him drink that notorious liquid before the evening ritual. His head throbs with pain. He is touching it, looking for the sack that isn’t there. “It’s okay Odonata, you’ve made it!” The priest is shaking him. “We shall all celebrate your rebirth! This is your second time!” His head throbs when he remembers this. “Hey, you alright?” It’s Milo standing within reach. “The show’s going great! You proud?” Odonata just stares at the floor. No words come out of his mouth. He is silent, mute. There is an understanding between the two of them though it is unspoken. “It must be overwhelming,” Milo says and shrugs his shoulders. “I’ve been there myself.” Odonata looks up at Milo thinking there’s a real pal.
Back at Odonata’s place, they share a pot of tea. Milo’s hands are everywhere, organizing leaflets, flyers and slides for the upcoming show. A cigarette burns in an ashtray in the center of the table. There are one hundred and forty nine slides that will be projected onto the wall of human bodies. Pictures will form on the nude flesh, conspiracies will show up, whether they like it or not. They will read reviews in the paper that will either slander or encourage their choices. The moment is tense, but Milo breaks the silence by reaching around and patting Odonata under his cheek. “Cheer up Dragonfly. It’ll go as planned.” Trent walked into the light where it was possible to see the shape of his wings that were attached just above his shoulders. They fluttered hesitantly in the darkness, creating a slight breeze.
“He’s not done up correctly!” complained Darleen. He mutters questions in which there are no answers, fumbles with a coin he found in his pocket. Confusion sets in as the piercing blue light burns his eyes. He picks up his cigarette, takes a long drag and exhales blue smoke that curls in the air around him. He sees stars as the flashing begins. They are taking pictures.
“Darleen, will you reapply the paint? Asked Odonata.” “I want him to look like he’s tortured, like a bird that cannot escape by any means. I want the sadness to break through. I literally want it to ruin everything else.” Trent suggests a friend that in his eyes would be perfect for the project. He says he’s a dwarf that lives down by Lawn Creek, a real character. The story goes like this: he used to work for the circus but was turned away after they found out he worked at the bank counting coins that he sometimes took under the table. They saw it as a breach of contract and fired him on the spot. He’s been doing parties ever since. Sometimes he does the torture shows downtown, but that’s rare since he considers that stuff worthless and cheap. The tears pour down from eyes that are caked with mud, eyes that have seen years of misery. The beams that shoot from his eyes draw in the butterflies. They land on his wings in patterns that resemble the I.S.A. work he studied in the portfolio. He longed to work with the Dragonfly Collective. He heard about them in tight circles when the word got out. He heard about the strange creature known only as Odonata. No last name. No one knew where he came from, only that he was discovered by Tristan Davidson.
Tristan and Odonata worked together on a number of pieces that defied description. Some of them were considered to be “stunningly original” and were seen as “the next big thing” in the art world. The next time he read about them was in the pages of a torn magazine he found stashed in the seat of a subway car. He was on his way to meet a prospective buyer and things didn’t look so promising. He paused in an alleyway, snorted some cocaine and checked through his duffle bag for the invitation. He still had it and would go to the dinner party as soon as his transaction was completed. His interest was beginning to grow. Now he was the angel. After countless auditions he had made it. It is worth all the trouble just to be here. He could put up with the long hours and the makeup that burned his eyes and left strange marks on his face. He would wash them off later. He would forget everything and bask in a sea of drugs. He would forget everything.
“He’s not done up correctly!” My art is my baby that I must treat with the utmost care, thought Odonata. I must not upset any of the elements involved. The dead angel-man with the sad druggy look in his eyes will listen to me. He is part of my art. Odonata means “teeth on jaws” for anyone who doesn’t know. I’m rewarded with a smile, but it’s not enough. I tell him to stand still. The angle isn’t right. The lights need to be turned up. All of the butterflies have flown away and need to be collected. The past has become the present. No retro in here, simply the real thing. And it scares people. I know what’s at stake here. It goes beyond the boundaries of what’s acceptable. If I must cut flesh and make blood, then that’s what I have to do. I won’t make any compromises here. Not a damn one.
“See, the contour is comparable,” Odonata observed, but it wasn’t. There was some molding left to do and the Dragonfly Collective still hadn’t eaten a single bite all day. Someone suggested sushi, but no one stood up. They left the room in single file until no one remained save Odonata and Darleen.
Darleen began to change, taking off her top. It was smeared with the peculiar eel juice that they had used to coat the uniform piece. She looked around to see if anyone was watching. Odonata was huddled in the corner, staring into the mirror that leaned upright against the wall. He pretended to be busy, studying the different formations and slides. But she knew different. She knew what he was really looking at and it scared her.
As he studied her nude body his skin began to flicker and fade. He was becoming invisible! The Church of Impenetrable Ethereality collected all sorts of salves and ointments from all kinds of exotic places around the world. The one with the hood gazed at the bright yellow liquid in the vial. He shook it steadily in his hands to see if it would froth. His mouth trembled as if his thirst would simply overwhelm him. For a second, it seemed as if he would drink it out of plain curiosity. The intrigue bubbled within him. He dropped the vial and it smashed loudly on the tiles.
The man with the hood was beaten as a child. His mother took loud mouthfuls of pills and sopped her beer in the kitchen, while daddy made his rounds with the neighbors. The one with the hood used to believe that all the neighbors were aliens visiting earth. He used to believe that everything would slide out from beneath his feet one day. And it did. He left home eventually, searching for safety and comfort of the Church. He found it in those who would bring him closer, who shared his taste for a new way of life far from the normality of the common family.
From the beginning of his initiation, Odonata was rubbed and bathed with these exotic lotions. They were worked into his skin day after day starting in the morning. The session usually took about an hour, starting with goat’s milk. Then came the honey collected from Wild Timber Mountain. There was a brief intermission where he was allowed a refreshing beverage, usually a liquorice milkshake or wild oats, depending on who was stationed in the kitchen.
Then it was back to the applications. After some years of treatment, his skin began to change color: ochre, melon, mellow yellow, pink and finally a kind of china white, very pale and filmy. If he had gone to a traditional school, the kids would have surely made fun of him. The Church of Impenetrable Ethereality was not about tradition anyway. They would not have subjected Odonata to a traditional lifestyle by any means. He was to be treated with special care. He was the one.
Dragonfly stood looking in the mirror, studying his transparent skin. He waved his hands over the spots that seemed to disappear and flicker, just like in his earlier photographs. He didn’t know exactly what his art meant. He knew about the pleasure he derived from it, the satisfaction it provided him, the time it killed dead on the floor.
It could mean anything to anyone. The wind blowing through the arctic hemisphere, the cold that turns hot and burns fingers right off, the slight drop in pressure that begins in a calm period, the snow that falls in clumps and burns when it touches your skin, the action movie playing in the theater down the street, the gobs of spit coming from your fixed mouth, the tears that don’t drip from your eyes, the tears that pool on the floor underneath you. It could mean anything to anyone.
Copyright © 2005 by Greg Schatz