Joseph Cornell, A Gemini Mind, And The Beautifully Boring

Summer Block
Jun 12 · 4 min read

I worked as an art critic many years ago, and recently I had occasion to dig up the gallery reviews I wrote for a New York magazine while I was living in China. In one, I wrote about the Korean artist Son Bong Chae, who was then showing his work in Shanghai. For these works, Son collected photographs of the Korean countryside, often sites of invasion, war and disruption, then placed multiple images of the same location on top of one another in separate layers. These layers were mounted onto transparent acrylic sheets inside a series of three-dimensional light boxes.

I wrote, “The small, rectangular dioramas are reminiscent of Joseph Cornell, but while Cornell’s fragile collections are still and timeless, Son’s are dynamic, eternally fading; not Cornell’s held breath, but a single long, sighing exhalation.”

Joseph Cornell has been on my mind a lot lately, in part because I’m now teaching classes on essay writing. I used to teach fiction writing, and I’m learning how different it is to teach one than the other. In fiction writing, I tell my students, you start with nothing and build the whole world. In essay writing, you start with the whole world and start winnowing it down, pulling out strands, making connections. It is, to use the internet’s favorite word, curation. The thoughtful accumulation and careful ordering of objects and ideas.

Though Cornell was largely reclusive, he was wildly, almost obsessively in love with “the elated world,” keeping “folders crammed with cuttings and photographs of the ballerinas, opera singers and actresses he worshipped, among them Gloria Swanson and Anna Moffo. Other explorations, which sometimes ran for decades, were meticulously catalogued by way of topic: Advertisements, Butterflies, Clouds, Fairies, Figureheads, Food, Insects, History, Planets. Categorisation mattered to Cornell, though so, too, did intuitive leaps and flights of fancy.”

Like another of my favorite weirdos, Athanasius Kircher, he believed “the world is bound with secret knots.”

(Everyone’s favorite astrological Twitter account, Astro Poets, recently tweeted. “For a Gemini almost everything is a metaphor.”

Well, I am, but it is.)

The poet Charles Simic wrote about Cornell, “Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion.”

Though I’ve loved Cornell’s collage boxes for years, today was the first time I’d watched one of his film collages. His first film, Rose Hobart, is available on YouTube. To create the film, Cornell cut and re-edited the 1931 full-length film East of Borneo (found, like most of his materials, at a junk shop), adding a new score (also from a junk shop) and splicing in shots from a documentary film of an eclipse. At the first public screening, Cornell slowed down the film and projected it through a piece of blue glass to give it a dream-like quality (it was also at this screening that fellow surrealist madman Salvador Dali threw a tantrum because Cornell had beaten him to the idea of film collage).

The final length of the film is only 19 minutes, but it’s a slow 19. Most of the movie is magisterially boring, as only experimental films can be. Cornell has edited out anything resembling a plot or characters, while leaving in every single shot of the movie’s star, Rose Hobart, one of many starlets on whom Cornell developed obsessive romantic fixations. The film reminds us that fixation — in addition to being creepy — is fundamentally boring, insofar as it sacrifices novelty and accomplishment for unfulfilled repetition.

Rose Hobart also reminded me of the recent film A Ghost Story, which I absolutely loved and which is also very boring. (Here is a very good essay about the movie by Chad Perman in BW/DR.) The film is a meditation on grief, intimacy, and above all, time, and it forces its audience to feel time pass, excruciatingly at times. In its most famous scene, the actress Rooney Mara eats an entire pie in real time — that’s five minutes of watching someone slowly eat a pie — and keeping your eyes on the screen the entire time feels like an act of will almost on par with consuming an entire pie (though Rooney Mara may disagree).

It’s strange that the media-consuming public, which will gladly submit to being aroused, heartbroken, offended, and disgusted by everything from tearjerkers to grindhouse, should be so averse to being bored. It is in some sense our most uncomfortable feeling, and it drives us to do absolutely anything to alleviate it.

Parents often scold their children for complaining that they are bored. A truly smart/creative/interesting person would never be bored, they claim, because they’d be enraptured by the world around them (no matter that the parent saying this almost certainly feels bored all the time). It’s popular to eulogize boredom these days, killed by the smart phone, when in fact people have been trying to entertain themselves long before we had phones. I wonder if part of being in love with the world is learning to love boredom, to experience it without resistance or judgement, without justifying it as somehow salubrious and character-building.

I’m still thinking through all of this — so many strands! so many knots! — but I’ll leave it with this quote from Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Summer Block

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Writer for Catapult, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. I have a Tiny Letter (summer_block) and (and!) I’m on Twitter @teamblock.