Let me be your leg and carry you over mountains your gangrene cannot go. Let me describe to you the plants I found, the shape of their many leaves, how they flower in the winter, and change sex when they begin to smell. When your leg was so swollen it was the size of two, I cut the surface with a piece of glass and smeared a bean paste in the wound. Sometimes it helped and the pus came out. Temporarily, you felt better. You would sigh deeply and hold my head, murmuring to me, “oh my dearest, my beast of burden.” Other times, I could not find the right plant on these foreign islands, so I used the Law of Similars and found what appeared to be legumes. These caused poisonous welts and blisters, and you cursed me for my peasant stupidity. But a foot cannot kick itself. We were bound.
Before I was a peasant in the Loire Valley, I was a king, the Beloved, whose body was made of glass. All the courtiers would gather around with pillows stuffed with goose down, wrapping me in heavy woven blankets and rugs, protecting my fragility. The doctor said this was sickness. But he knew nothing of the plants that could be eaten to restore my animal flesh. So he said, “wrap her carefully and bring her to parties.” And to parties we went, where they sang with bright musicality and moved their hips. They dressed us to look like wild men in textures of linen, moss, and pitch. Then they burned us and I remembered how it felt to be made of flesh.
I wish I could say I was purified by the fire, but all it did was hurt. One man jumped into the wine barrel and was saved, some were pissed on by people who watched from the balconies above, some were thrown into the Seine, and I, I went inside a dress.
Sometimes my countrymen would carry pieces of glass and mirror with them on their pilgrimages. After a long journey, across a steep rocky trail to the remote hermitage where the saint’s relics were stored, they would take out this small, precious piece of glass and hold it in front of the fragment of knucklebone.
The glass operated much like the contemporary iPhone, in that it acted acquisitionally. It absorbed the aura of the relic. Though the glass looked no different, no plumper or cloudier, it held the memory of having “seen” the relic. When you played the glass back, you could recover a perfect replica of the object that came before. In this way, books and movies were made and history became a thing, much as you know it today. You could say, “This is crystal clear.” You could say, “It’s in the books.” And the argument would be made.
My sovereign body was like an iPhone, a giant refractive lens that took all the Rays of the World into its core, absorbing all the energy without a visible sign of accumulation. Many of the people gathered together and burned their books; they stood outside the buildings of government officials and printing presses, declaring, “we want transparency.” One day they gathered outside my window with rocks and banners full of angry slogans. “I see through you,” they shouted as if my future duplicity could be undone. But how could you blame me? I was made of glass.
In the next era, glass became common and it was porcelain that was prized. When you held it up to the light it was neither opaque nor transparent, glowing with pure milky promise. It was delicate but strong. It had the hardness of a superior white body.
The white body comes from outside. It is from America, Italy, or China. It is made of kaolin and feldspar, bone and flesh; it was genetically engineered on the island of Patmos. It is impregnable. Nothing can stain it. Not coffee or tea or any other foreign product. Yet because of its small pore size, porcelain was used as a filter, protecting armies against cholera and other bacterial diseases. Similarly, survivalists suggest the use of clean white socks or white sheets packed into a cylinder with the water poured through them as an emergency filtration device.
On board the ship, the Étoile, a sheet of sailcloth was affixed in the wake to allow the sailors to dunk each other without risking death by drowning or being eaten by sharks. As the ship passed the equator, Jeanne Baret among the other new sailors was dunked by more experienced sailors dressed as “devils;” the costume of a devil involved was darkened with soot and tar and decorated with feathers.
As Jeanne waited her dunking, she was the only one who was not naked or stripped to the waist. When the crew began to whisper rumors that perhaps this botanist’s assistant was not the man he claimed to be, Jeanne concocted a story that explained she was a eunuch and the sailors empathized with the implication that she had been a captive of the Ottoman Turks, who perhaps kept her as a slave in a harem. In the privacy of the small cabin below decks, Jeanne fastened the torn strips of linen sheeting closer to her chest where the irritated skin was blistering into a chronic rash.
When I was a king, the Beloved, the one they wrapped in sheets and blankets to keep from breaking, you took this photo in Istanbul. When James Baldwin was in Istanbul, he heard of a magician who could hypnotize crowds. At first, Baldwin’s friends laughed at the magician’s stage name, “Morgan,” assuming this was a mistake of language or culture based on a conflation of Merlin and Morgan le Fay. Baldwin said, “perhaps he she knows exactly what their name means; let’s invite this magician to visit us.” The magician radiated an ominous negative feeling. Morgan was known for taking advantage of people under trance, making their bodies gyrate with sexual improprieties that shamed them when they woke up from their trance and heard what it was they had done. As Baldwin and his friend sat across from Morgan, Morgan suggested to the friend that he was very tired, and after the friend had fallen asleep on suggestion, Morgan told Baldwin to wait naked in the bed. He thought he was waiting for Morgan to disrobe in the bathroom but suddenly, somehow, Morgan and the magician’s assistant, a young man, came into the room and began to beat him violently, kicking and punching his face and body.
Black Panther Party leader, Eldridge Cleaver, wrote that James Baldwin was “a white man inside a black body.” According to Cleaver, Baldwin’s homosexuality (and the way it infused his writing) expressed a “sycophantic” relationship to whites, hatred for his own black people, and a “racial death-wish.”
I think of porcelain and the filters made of this material that separated the tiny bodies of bacteria from the liquid they lived within. And it was through porcelain and these bacterial studies that we learned of viruses, a class of beings small enough to pass through the white body, to make it “go mulatto,” or so the phrase went when describing the symptoms of the tobacco mosaic virus, TMV, in terms of racial “degradation”: the wooly texture, the yellowing leaves. So small that the finest material could not catch it, the virus went on, neither dead nor alive, though its shadowy existence wrote question marks around the very notion of what it meant to be truly alive.
When I was the Beloved one, the one they swaddled in heavy duvets and linen sheets, you took this photo in Istanbul, while I kept my face averted from you, afraid of the grief and terror that might break open and spill across the room if you were to see the markings he had made. I think of you here, turned away from me, away from the future that waits in vain for the past to roll over and offer itself up.
Candice Lin received her MFA in New Genres at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2004 and her double BA in Visual Arts and Art Semiotics at Brown University in 2001. Her work engages notions of gender, race and sexuality, drawing from post/de-colonialism, citizen science, anthropology, feminist and queer theory. Lin has exhibited widely including recent shows at HANGAR (Lisbon), Sculpture Center (NY), Galeria Fortes Vilaça (Sao Paulo), with recent residencies and fellowships at Centre les Récollets (2017), Headlands Center for the Arts (2016) and the CCF Emerging Artist Fellowship (2015). Her recent solo exhibitions were at Gasworks (London), Commonwealth & Council (Los Angeles) in 2016, and Betonsalon in 2017 with an upcoming exhibition at Portikus in 2018.