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August 15, 2007

"exile" in truckee

rauschenberg_exile.jpg We arrived for a short holiday in Truckee, near the Nevada border, at about 4 o’clock this afternoon. Truckee is famous for its association with the disaster which overtook the Donner Party of settlers on the eastern shores of nearby Donner Lake (as it is now known) in the winter of 1846-47.

Truckee first began to flourish in 1868. Following five years of intense politicking, surveying, draining, dynamiting and massive amounts of human muscle, largely supplied by thousands of Chinese labourers, the Central Pacific Railroad, presided over by former Governor Leland Stanford, succeeded in constructing a huge tunnel at Donner Pass. This largest and most brutally difficult engineering feat of the whole project completed the "conquest" of the Sierra Nevada, and finished the CPRR's line from Sacramento, California, to Ogden, Utah, on the western end of the Rockies.

One of the company's trains first chugged through the "Summit Tunnel" at Donner Pass in June 1868. Less than a year later, Stanford, using a "silver ceremonial spike maul" drove the "golden spike" into a predrilled hole in a railroad sleeper in the Salt Lake Valley at Promontory, Utah, thus symbolically completing the First Transcontinental Railroad by linking together the CPPR's system and the Union Pacific's line. (The golden spike was swiftly removed after the dignitaries had retired that day and someone hammered home a regular, iron spike in its place. The golden spike in now in the Stanford Museum.)

In the 1910s and 1920s Truckee briefly became a fashionable winter resort for celebrities and movie people — in 1924 Charlie Chaplin tried to film much of The Gold Rush (1925) around Truckee, substituting the scenery of the Sierra Nevada for the film's purported setting in Alaska. Eventually most of the footage had to be reshot on carefully constructed Klondike sets back in Hollywood. But you sense, driving along Donner Pass Road, Truckee's main street, that for almost 70 years the town stagnated, the ramshackle buildings and grimy stores contrasting with the the unspoiled (that is, "worthless", unexploitable) magnificence of the surrounding landscape.

Now, though, Truckee is changing rapidly. Because of its proximity to the north shore of Lake Tahoe, and to ski adjacent resorts such as Northstar and Squaw Valley, Truckee is a booming townlet these days. Owners of ancient, grease-encrusted Truckee diners are feverishly trying to figure out how to get their new espresso machines working. The town jail is now a "museum". There is much ghastly and/but expensive "Western" art on display in various new galleries while in other storefront windows headless and armless torsos display the latest in shape-concealing fashions for the affluent middle-aged vacationers. A stampede of moccasins and name-brand sport-boots tread down the groping, voiceless ghosts of Truckee's lonely history.

Condos and fancy second- or third-homes are being thrown up all round our decidedly homey motel, the Best Western™ Truckee Inn, just outside the main strip of town. As soon as we got to the hotel room, Hugo and Owen dived competitively for the TV remote. "Ah, like father, like sons", I thought with a mixture of pride and sadness, as I stood gawping while Siri attempted to disentangle the battling limbs of our offspring.

It has only been about 3 years since I could enter a hotel room anywhere in the world without immediately and gleefully zapping on the magic, glowing box I found awaiting me there. Thanks to rigourous efforts at self-improvement, my responses have recently become just slightly less automatic. But I still cannot hear the staticky whisper of a hotel TV turning itself on without an excited quickening of the heart.

Like many people, I find, or construct, my past through the lens of memorable images. As I wearily dumped bag after bag (towels, medicines, sprays, clothes, coffee-making stuff, wine, shoes, hats, books, clothes, snacks, camcorder, DVDS and clothes) on the floor of the Best Western™'s ultra tough, in-room carpet, I remembered one of my life's iconic paintings, Robert Rauschenberg's Exile (1962). As if something clicked in my head, I could suddenly see it clearly in my mind's eye, an eye that is shaped like a rectangle with gently softened corners.

A black and white, uncentered quilt of images, a constellation of blurred, weightless icons: Cubism spectralized for the Age of The Networks! I can gaze at Exile for hours, daydreaming like the Velázquez Venus (top left) gazing blankly at herself or at me in a small, box-like mirror. "Began silkscreen paintings to escape familiarity of objects & collage", Rauschenberg wrote. He made 79 of these great silkscreen works, every one of them a prophetic visual codification.

I feel my eyes migrating between spidery skeins of paint and smudged geometries; between a colourless spectrum of image-worlds — the Rokeby Venus, a pair of keys, a mosquito, an elderly car, a glass. The picture drives into my mind like a sword slowly sinking in all the way up to the hilt. What is it that penetrates so far into me? It has to do with the crazily eclectic nature of the painting's nostalgia, with the flickering surface, the endless foregrounding of detail, the substanceless veils of light. It has to do with an entire English childhood whiled away in front of a black and white television set. Exile gives me a liberating feeling of distance from all that even as it prolongs the exquisite greyness of the memories, the spell.

"Nick! Help me!" Siri pleaded. The fused, four-legged, four-armed entity was still locked, roaring, in battle with itself over the TV's remote. Smiling, I waded in. "Easy guys", I boomed in my faux-American paterfamilias voice. "We didn't come here to watch TV. Now, let's take turns."

Posted by njenkins at August 15, 2007 08:40 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins