Suction hoses, propeller fans, plastic, cloth, paper, breath
18 x 14 x 16 ft.
John Harrington's body swung in its harness, lifeless. His death
enfolded the layers of irony he adored in his own work and mocked in
the works of others. After all, there he was, bolting his new
installation to the gallery's ceiling, fans blasting, hoses humming,
air vectoring everywhere except his body, which had expelled its last
breath in a soggy moan. John Harrington's last utterance was as wet and
deep as sorrow itself—that's what they would say. Already,
people chatted about Harrington's heart rate, his yawns, his stomach
gurgles and expulsions. John Harrington transmitted his body's every
sound—for what else was the body but a canvas for air?
His obituary, which he'd written continuously throughout his life, was
mainly true. It was true he was the world's most famous Artist of the
Air. He did spend his childhood in the wind-belt of Kansas, where he
did build intricate kites. It was untrue that he lost a kitten in a
tornado, pure fiction that he'd thrown himself in after it—the scar
on his cheek was not cut by debris.
It was true that fame arrived with his Cloud Series II, which critics
praised as "exquisite ephemera." True, no one could
copy—though many tried—the delicate intensity of
his cloudwork. True, spectators wept when "War Widow"—a
towering black cumulonimbus shaped like a veiled woman—rained,
then hailed, as it moved overhead. True, his political series,
Speculative Bubbles, puzzled physicists and incited politicians on
several continents. But it was false that each dome-sized bubble
—painstakingly inflated over fields of tulips, railroad
tracks, abandoned banks, or foreclosed houses—was popped by
an outraged banker. For that, he'd hired an actor. It was true John
Harrington's art gathered crowds, inspired change, made statements.
Still, it never lifted him.
Nor did the obituary address the recent years of failure. The utter
lack of ideas. The inevitable copywriters' puns: "No Wind in
Harrington's Sails," "Out of Breath!" "Master Zephyr?" All
the while, his mind was flapping, flapping, waiting to take wing. There
was his Propeller Period. His flirtation with dirigibles. Lame
experiments with windmills, weather vanes, barometric pressure. Soon
critics heralded a new young thing, freckled with blond braids, whom
they'd dubbed the Sun Goddess. But her work was pap: prisms,
silhouettes, and, of course, one enormous feel-good rainbow
commissioned for an Olympic Opening Ceremony. That one stung John
Harrington's heart as he'd not-really-watched it on TV. The crowd
delighted in splashes of red, orange, yellow; bathed themselves in
green, blue, indigo, violet. John Harrington marveled. It's what he
missed in his own work: a breathless whirl of shared excitement, the
And so, finally, this, a massive work of intimacy: Respiration. He'd
implanted devices in his nose, lungs, intestines, and trachea,
live-feeding his body's air travels to the public, hoping someone would
listen. When his fourteen-hour spell of hiccups made the news, it was
time. On the day of his death, he was installing a gallery exhibit: a
room strung with a complex chain of toys, balloons, parade floats,
inflatables, all hooked to hoses and in turn all linked to
him—everything powered by his exhalation.
Now, people talked of the tragedy. The Air Artist's last breath, so
sodden with regret.
Except John Harrington's last breath wasn't sorrowful. In fact, as he
hooked air hoses to the ceiling, he contemplated the joy of those
people caught in the Sun Goddess's rainbow. Her face in smiling TV
close-ups sparkled in his mind. His youth was over now. Isolation was
turbulent, exhausting. Swinging, swinging, he considered the merger of
air and light: perhaps a collaboration?
Swinging in his harness, John Harrington touched the scar on his cheek
and remembered: his sixth birthday party. His mother had covered a cake
with candles, as usual, taking whimsy to extremes. The fire blazed;
heat flushed his cheeks; he swooned in the melt of buttercream. Then
everyone inhaled. He made a wish. They all blew the candles. But the
flames swelled and licked his face. Guests swarmed around him, patting,
dousing. His mother had apologized for the next fifty years, never
knowing what she'd sparked.
But at age six, he knew. He had been seared by breath. One minute there
was sugary safety, and the next, a blistering wind. Celebration and
danger, child and crowd: all so finely joined. What power there was in
air! What wonder up in the clouds, across the ocean, in human
lungs—in the body of our bodies!
John Harrington was swinging in his harness when he realized he'd
completely missed the point of his installation. His mistake was so
obvious, in fact, that he laughed—a low, damp sound like
something gusted from its moorings.
In the end, he got his wish.
Two days after his death, the Sun Goddess, whose graduate thesis cited
Cloud Series II, slipped in the gallery to make adjustments. She
understood spectacle. She'd heard John Harrington's last gasp, live, in
her earbuds, and recognized its joy. Now, she redirected the hoses and
fans. She stenciled a new title.
Resuscitation opened to record attendance. For months, crowds arrived
to stand shoulder to shoulder in the gallery as the doors sealed behind
them. The closeness of strangers' bodies, the warmth of anticipation
made everybody giddy. They tittered. They whispered. The more they
exhaled, the brighter the room grew. A baby would cry, her mother would
"Shhhhh," and balloons bloomed from the walls. A teenager would hum and
his friends would join in, uncurling long necks of floating giraffes.
Every "Ahhh!" launched flocks of paper parakeets or squadrons of balsa
planes. Sneezes spun whirligigs. Crowds got clever: they chanted cheers
or puffed in symphony, propelling larger and brighter enchantments. One
group swore they'd generated a cloud shaped like John Harrington's
face; another claimed a tiny tornado dropped a kitten into a woman's
purse. Inhaling, exhaling, the gallery billowed with light and motion
and pleasure. John Harrington's last laugh lofted through the crowd.
The room caught its breath.
Rebecca's Meacham's collection of stories, LET'S DO, was published in 2004 as the winner of
UNT Press' Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Read her postcard.
Detail of photo art on main page courtesy
of Craig Rodway.
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