Desperately Seeking Dragons

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Bucky Miller on Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs’ Lightning Tree and Mr. Thingy

Trees are nature’s grand manifestation of beauty and true chaos. Everything is connected to trees, history, memory, past, and future. One day we started to look at our archive like looking into a forest. This publication is one tree in this forest. The tree that was singled out and struck by lightning.

—Back cover copy from Lightning Tree

The house where I was born had a big tree stump in the front yard. That’s what I want to say, but it’s not exactly right. My memory locates a cracked, gray stump, about three feet in circumference, just off the front porch in a spread of brittle-to-dead yellow grass—the standard lawn in Phoenix. At Christmas the stump was decorated, and at Easter it hid eggs. I remember playing on the stump, being bitten by twenty fire ants and then being angry at the stump.  I was told it was a home for leprechauns. I remember, shortly before my family moved, my mother giving me an oral history of the stump: naturally it was once a tree, and when I was an infant that tree was struck by lightning and burst into flames. We watched it burn as a family. The fire department came; the tree was doused but dead and soon after, cut down with a chainsaw.

So, more accurately, I was born in a house with a big tree in the front yard, and even though I’ve seen the tree—immolated!—I can only summon a reasonably faithful image of the stump. I was too young for the tree. The tree is a ghost. Any description of the tree would be nothing but a product of my imagination, some amalgam probably closer to the oaks I see out the window as I write rather than the acacia or whatever it actually was. My images of the fire are from Hollywood; flames a color that only appears on film or video; odorless, heatless; a burning tree either far more or far less dramatic than the actual event had to have been.

Then again, it could have happened just as I’m picturing it. It’s not something I think about very often; the tree came back to me on maybe my sixth or seventh look through Tayio and Nico’s newest publication, Lightning Tree, and even then, beyond the title, I’m not totally sure why it did. You might expect a book of photographs titled Lightning Tree to present a catalog of well-defined pictures showing trees that had been struck, but the Swiss artists do not pander to such lackluster expectations. There are trees in some of the pictures, but none are clearly victims. Most of the photographs provide evidence of more miraculous occurrences; a few of the trees have been caught in the act of becoming lightning, and the circumstances of others are less tangible. Sometimes they stop being trees altogether, and other times they were not even trees to begin with.

So maybe there is a connection to my stump, but I must admit that as a person fixated on photographs, which are, if they are anything at all, little agents of distortion in time and place, it is easy fall into little ruminations on memory and imagination. Here’s another one:

Same house, roughly the same time period as the fire ants, at most twenty yards from the stump, a thicket of tall olive trees surrounded the irrigation valve. The trees dropped their leaves and fruit constantly, and nobody ever really bothered to clean them up. I think there was a wall of oleanders behind the olives, and the thick, combined smells warned of poison. It was the shadiest place in the yard but in the summer it was also the stickiest and buggiest, probably due to the irrigation valve. It was also the home of Mr. Thingy.

I don’t know where he came from but I feel confident implicating Kraig, who named him and was the first to bring him to my attention. Kraig was the type of uncle who enjoyed scaring me with Charles Burns’ Big Baby, who claimed that when he had a child of his own he would only tend to it in the nursery while wearing a chimpanzee mask. It was Kraig who, when he came to visit his sister/my mother, was quick to ask me if I’d been behaving, or if I needed to take a trip to see Mr. Thingy. It was Kraig who, years later, showed me blueprints for the Mr. Thingy Mobile, a sort of go-kart, “bristling with levers and knobs” with rapidly and randomly changing functions so that the driver’s hands were constantly in motion as if he were playing some perverse whack-a-mole game, just to keep the thing moving in a straight line, his face all the while inches away—for some reason—from a spinning propeller. Incidentally it was also Kraig, who had a portrait studio, who first introduced me to photography. There has to be a parallel in there somewhere.

Mr. Thingy, he was a headless scarecrow. Made from my dad’s newspaper-stuffed denim and a blue-striped dress shirt—complete with the patina of monsoons and guano—he was propped in the branches of one of the olive trees at a slight stoop as if fixed in permanent grope at the hapless children below. He wasn’t visible from the road; you had to be down in the thicket, crunching on dead leaves and dried pits, vulnerable to the mosquitos and whatever else, to notice the frayed ends of his jeans—with the yellowed Family Circus panels poking out—dangling above your head. He was horrifying to the point where, once I knew he was there, I could no longer enter the thicket. He was horrifying to the point where, once I knew he was there, I could not stop myself from staring into the thicket from the living room window while my mother tried to talk me down.

Mr. Thingy will be nice if you are a good boy. Mr. Thingy is only mean to bad children.

But the issue wasn’t nice or mean, good or bad. Those dichotomies are too simple. My fascination was tethered to his very existence. I allowed him to exist and he allowed me to be terrified. It was the type of symbiotic relationship that’s uncommon after adolescence. The type of relationship, I think, we should all strive to retain.

I would grow and forget, but then he would find me again as I was absently wandering the yard. My development should have, and, in some senses did, clarify the harmlessness of the dummy, but I tend to succumb to my imagination: I allowed Mr. Thingy to remain a force of sublime childhood terror until my family moved when I was eleven. It’s improbable, but I guess he could still be up there. In some ways he has to be, a demon presiding over the earliest, faintest channels of my memory. It feels like something Barthes would have written about. Maybe somewhere there is a picture, but even if there were I could not reproduce the Mr. Thingy Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “scarecrow”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most in would interest your studium: period, clothes, bird shit; but in it, for you, no wound.

If it is dragons we seek, or if it is angels, then we might reconsider our desperate searches through space and hunt them, with our cameras, where they seem to live: in the reaches of temporality.

—Hollis Frampton, Incisions in History/Segments of Eternity

Let us get back to the photographs by Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. They seem overrun with their own cabal of Mr. Thingies, wild inventions of questionable authorship and reliant—in large part—on the imaginations of those they captivate. But these are the beasts Frampton suggests; even when we see perfectly the dragon in the clearing we know, because we know better, that he only exists inside the frame of that photograph. Yet something lingers, some mixture of hope, dread, suspension of disbelief, mistrust, and pure fucking visceral pleasure, that makes us buy in to the degree that, once we are confronted with a photograph of a marble wall, as elegant and bland as any Wells Fargo regional headquarters has to offer, we cannot help but see in its surface something patently new and as-of-yet unknown to this world. And once we see the disarmed howitzer, deep behind the trees at the back of the thicket, manned, as it were, by an eleven-year-old girl in a sundress, we must seriously question—and envy—her role in this mess.

What I mean is: There is something just photographic about these photographs. That might seem redundant, and in a way it is, like saying there is something essayish about this essay I’m writing. All photographs, whether we’re on Instagram or at the Sugimoto opening or whatever, are tricksters, tethered to the history of their creation yet simultaneously new and distinct. Every photograph carries with it the same little standard-issue bundle of paradoxes; x parts document, x parts fantasy. Maybe we say we were there to see the photograph taken, but we can never really be there, not in the picture. Photographs can fail us as much as our memories do. We are always on the other side of the glass. It’s an old tale that we mustn’t forget, but sometimes do.

What I really mean is: Lightning Tree is a profoundly self-aware collection of pictures. The book knows we aren’t looking at trees, dummy; we are looking at photographs. It knows that some of these photographs are staged, and some are not. More importantly it knows that this distinction doesn’t matter so much since in the end we are just—again—looking at photographs. The book may position us near the pictographic forest, it might even give us a map, but it also challenges us; it provokes us, as observers, to decide which thicket to enter, and from where—if we decide to enter at all.

When I approached Taiyo and Nico about writing this piece, they suggested I not write about the book directly (I’m sorry, I had to), and I understand the request. At an essential level that is just how photographs are. Really, if we can write about it, might we be missing the picture? Frampton, again, from the same essay, has a thought on the matter:

[W]e might imagine, in a word, that photography is “about” precisely those recognitions, formations, percipiences, suspensions, persistences, hesitations within the mind that precede, if they do not utterly foreshadow, that discovery and peripeteia and springing-into-motion and inspiration that is articulate consciousness.

It happened again early this morning. It is happening again right now. We’re in our third straight week of thunderstorms, but the one this morning was especially bad. The rain woke me and moments later I’m sure a lightning bolt touched ground right outside my bedroom window. Car alarms went off at the condos next door. I fantasized about going outside and finding my second burning lightning tree as a nice clean completion of the circle, something to inform my memories. I drifted. A friend who lives in the neighborhood asked me around lunchtime if I’d heard the storm.

I said I had.

“It was weird,” she said. “Right when the thunder woke me up I saw a big orange orb, then it disappeared. Must have been a dream thing.”

Bucky Miller is an American artist and writer who currently lives in London. He is a Russell Lee Endowed Presidential Scholar in Photography and William and Bettye Nowlin Endowed Presidential Fellow in Photography at the University of Texas at Austin. Here is his Instagram @buckymiller.