I am working on an experimental project at the Soap Factory, a Minneapolis not-for-profit art center currently on winter hiatus despite the recently installed heating system—a comfort that may well have been realized at the expense of the sustainability of the 25-year-old organization. The City of Minneapolis imposed its building code; a warehouse building that remains cold in the winter season is an affront to downtown progress, after all. Money must be made, and young entrepreneurs must be lured to the city center to spend money on frivolous pleasures. Contemporary art, challenging and difficult, just doesn’t fit the bill. A not-for-profit visual art venue, in spite of its longevity, remains invisible to all but artists.
And so, the pleasures of the space and character it has to offer are mine. I’m working on the unadulterated, raw third floor of the Soap. I have the entire 4,000-square-foot space to myself—wood beams, weathered brick walls, the floors patched but not refinished for more than 100 years. I place eight 24-inch, barrel fans purchased at Fleet Farm in a 12-foot circle, so that when turned on they form a wind vortex. I throw discarded beer cans into the circle, and they tumble in a perpetual eddy. The heat from the first floor doesn’t rise up here. These forbidden top floors of the Soap Factory have never been approved by city inspectors or the fire marshall for any official usage, yet artists have and continue to find purpose here in the abandonment and decay—safe only for the able-bodied.
The cans tumble and clink around endlessly. What are they saying? My friend “Hamertime” suggests I call the piece the Wishing Well. I tell him that I was thinking about the desert and the way garbage merges with tumbleweeds and other materials as it gets tossed around by the wind. Is it a wishing well because the water has run dry in the desert? Should I replace the beer cans with plastic water bottles? Would this piece then be interpreted as being about the U.S. border with Mexico and the dehydrated immigrants dying north of the Rio Grande? I am thinking about Texas and its politics, but maybe I’m thinking mostly about Republicans. Is it a wishing well because climate deniers like Donald Trump get so much traction, regardless of an abundance of facts and tangible evidence to the contrary? Is it the case that bravado and confidence trumps all else, especially when moneyed interests are at stake?
I’m thinking of America, too — not South America, not Central America, not North America; I mean the United States of America. I’m thinking about how much its citizens love wealth and guns, how Christian they are, how much they like beer, and how sure they are of their superiority over the rest of the world. The fact that Bud Light is the best-selling beer in the USA and the third best-selling beer in the world seems to point toward global homogeneity or stupidity on a world scale rather than exceptionalism, unless exceptionalism equals money. Maybe Americans are exceptional in the amount of money extracted from the depths of oil fracking or from bets on the failure of mortgage loans made by our beloved Wall Street. The winners of January 13, 2016 Powerball—$929.9 million paid out to three individuals in California, Florida, and Tennessee—you better stay anonymous or risk getting plundered.
Alejandro G. Iñarritu´s The Revenant follows Hugh Glass’s epic, 200-mile journey and struggle for survival in the wake of a brutal bear attack and abandonment by his hunting team. It was -6 degrees fahrenheit in Minneapolis at 9:55 pm when Steve and I arrived at the movie theater; four, 24-inch drum fans still sat on the back of my Honda Element. We were late — not late enough to avoid previews, but entering the packed theater we could only find seats up front in the third row. This perspective provided an intimate view of the spectacular, high-definition, frozen landscape, shot on location in Canada and Argentina by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The opening scene shows water flowing through a partially submerged forest, a river overflowing its banks and caressing the sinewy roots of trees in winter. A group of hunters, including Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), wade through the shallow water staking out their hunt. Nearby their cohorts toil in a camp strewn with the carnage of the fur trade: hundreds of bloodied pelts hang on racks, while the skinned carcasses are left to rot. This scene foreshadows the carnage to come: greedy new world men, native men defending their stolen resources, and men seeking revenge pitted against one another within this twisted system. The frontiersmen trudge through snow, ice, and freezing rivers; the fur and leather they always wear becomes heavy, threatening hypothermia. The film makes it clear they have so overstayed their welcome that Nature threatens their very existence. Over the course of the two-hour-and-thirty-six-minute film, I feel progressively colder, bracing myself in my jacket, unable to find release from the synesthesia of the punishing visuals. But what of Hugh Glass, left for dead in a shallow, frozen grave? He must drag himself out, seeking shelter with a broken leg while enduring the suppurating wounds covering his back and neck, a souvenir given him by an indifferent grizzly. Hugh Glass’s breath keeps fogging the lens; we, the viewers, are in that way kept close at hand to endure the relentless environmental barrage along with him.
We leave the theater cold and then arrive home to a cold house. Steve comments that it feels chilly, but I attribute that to the film and the actual temperature outside. At eight a.m., we wake up to a frozen home. The boiler has failed. I can see my breath inside my house. It is Sunday, so we try to fix the problem ourselves: change the thermostat, replace a fuse that keeps shutting down. We refire the furnace and the problem seems solved, except that an hour later the radiators, once again, begin to lose their heat.
I think about The Revenant and feel jinxed. Remembering the hunters’ water-soaked fur, I shiver. I turn on the ovens: one upstairs, one downstairs. We move our sole space heater from room to room throughout the afternoon and evening, blowing fuses along the way. When we call, the technician suggests we wait until Monday to schedule a repair, as their rates will be much lower. We spend a very cold night, huddled under two feather comforters. I dream about beer cans clinking around in a cold vortex, and how unappealing it would be to drink one just then. The next morning, I exit slowly from my cocoon thinking about the film, about Hugh Glass’s rebirth from the interior of that dead, gutted horse. I think about how much better the scene would have been if — instead of methodically showing us the whole, expertly executed effect of his cutting the abdomen, removing the innards, prying open the ribcage, and crawling inside — we could have been surprised by his emergence from the body of his dead horse, satisfied to have survived another day.