Up In Smoke
October 26, 2021
GIDDY FROM SIPPING FLUTES of the de Young Museum’s prosecco, my friend Karen and I quickly realized that from the VIP section, the view of Judy Chicago’s smoke sculpture, Forever de Young, was going to suck. Since we were standing to the side of the huge pyramid-shaped scaffolding that was holding the canisters of colored pigments that would be “released” into the air, we knew we would not be able to see the whole picture. We scanned for a better vantage point but were cordoned off, and the rest of the crowd formed a dense mass that looked impossible to insert ourselves into. So we hunkered down with museum patrons and low-level journalists, and waited, as the de Young instructed us, for Chicago to “pull the trigger at just the right moment” and set the extravaganza in motion.
Until I got here, I wasn’t sure the event was going to happen. Last March, Chicago’s Living Smoke performance in Palm Desert was cancelled because of environmental concerns. This time around, both the de Young and Chicago herself assured us in print, in video, and in person that the plumes of soon-to-be-unleashed colored smoke were nontoxic. You could have made a drinking game out of how many times museum and artist uttered the word “nontoxic.”
After a few self-congratulatory speeches and assurances, Chicago pulled the trigger, but instead of puffy crayon-bright clouds unfurling in the air, a murky gray mass of smoke swept down from the scaffolding and engulfed us. It stunk. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. The crowd’s anxiety was palpable. Many of us stumbled towards the pathway behind us that ran along the side of the museum, and rushed away.
After the isolation of lockdown, to flee a site-specific shitshow with strangers was an awesome communal experience. I was reminded of walking through the intense quiet that followed the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake here in San Francisco, when random people would make eye contact and say hello. Over and over, we who were living through a real disaster said it was like being in a disaster movie. Each and every member of the shocked populace felt like my friend.
As we shambled along, Karen and I saw some low palm trees and imagined ourselves in a tropical forest straight out of Apocalypse Now. Rather than Judy Chicago’s rainbow clouds, we were fleeing the rainbow herbicides of Vietnam—Agents Green, Pink, Purple, Blue, White, and Orange. Panic engenders a sick sense of humor—one that doesn’t really amuse but attempts a pressure release. When Karen joked the museum should have supplied gas masks, I imagined us in World War I, fleeing chlorine gas with James Cagney in John Ford’s What Price Glory. She then positioned herself in front of a monument engulfed in haze and said, “Watch me disappear!” And she did fade away.
The sound of explosions punctuated the frenzy. We didn’t know what was causing the bang-bang-bangs or where they were coming from. I later learned it was just fireworks. (When negotiating with environmental groups for her Living Desert performance, Chicago agreed to use a quiet trigger so as not to startle the wildlife. But what about the frightened little creatures in Golden Gate Park?) Every association with Chicago’s “air sculpture” that came to mind relates to histories of violence. The “nontoxic” fiasco made me absorb on a visceral level what I’ve read over and over: that behind every flourish of institutional spectacle, marginal people (and species) suffer. That the de Young doused their VIPs is big time poetic justice. Of course, it wasn’t just the VIPs who were smoked out. The air roiled with indiscriminate malice. Anybody downwind from it was engulfed. Families, children, dogs, hipsters. Couples who were pushing strollers through the park had no idea what was going on. In official museum photos of the event, the billowing colors look cool, but if you look closer, you can see the smoke swooping to the ground. Wherever that smoke touched down, inside it there were frantic beings.
We walked for a long way, and finally Karen and I outpaced the haze. Our glasses were smeared with grit, our clothes stank like we’d been in a fire, our paper masks had to be thrown away. My eyes stung, and I could feel a headache coming on. The next morning, a friend texted that another VIP “had a terrible allergic reaction to the smoke and had to take a half-hour shower to recover!” Another friend emailed that he could smell the fumes from city hall, three miles away.
On social media I learned that surrounding streets were also filled with smoke. Neighbors complained they didn’t know what was happening and feared the park was on fire. Warning lights on air filters turned bright red, and one person said he sat in his home wearing an N95 mask. Some people marveled that Chicago’s smoke sculpture had blocked out the sun. Many were reminded of how, last fall, smoke from virulent wild fires also blocked out the sun, turning the San Francisco sky a vivid orange. It was beautiful but terrifying, like an apocalyptic nightmare you couldn’t escape. I had to stay away from the windows because I couldn’t stand staring at it.
We live in an era where there’s not a lot of trust in institutions. How could those in charge have failed to check out a simple thing like wind direction before Judy Chicago pulled the trigger? It was like trauma-flashback-arama. I looked up Agent Orange and found photos of children with no eyes and wave-shaped heads. It was used to defoliate forests and crops. Unlike napalm, which blistered the skin and caused asphyxiation, Agent Orange was insidious. It did not affect its victims immediately but had longer-term impacts, such as cancer and birth defects. In one photo, a girl with stumps for arms writes with a pen held between her toes. I thought of the Thalidomide scandal of my childhood. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, pregnant women were given a sedative to help with morning sickness, and ten thousand babies were born with birth defects. I looked up “gas masks” and read that during World War II, they were widely distributed in England to prepare for chemical warfare. Unfortunately, the filters in the masks contained asbestos, which killed many of the people those masks were supposed to protect. As YouTuber Eric Mayers said of his experience of Chicago’s “cloud,” “When you’re inside it, it feels very present and real, and you’re breathing this sulfurous chemical that does not feel—it’s probably safe—I’m trusting that it’s safe—but it doesn’t feel so safe.” Or as Karen said, “Nontoxic my ass.”
After I washed the smoke residue from my body, I stood on my back porch and looked up at the just-shy-of-full moon and thought, Judy Chicago cannot occlude the moon. I pointed my iPhone skyward and snapped a picture. Something on the phone flashed and the resulting photo was of a white orb on a flat vermillion background. Beyond weird. I thought of the witchy goddess energy of Chicago’s early work, imagined it growing stronger year after year, feeding on her rage at the lack of institutional support, and I envisioned her standing on a scaffold with her bright-purple hair, arms raised overhead, Day-Gloing the heavens.
— Dodie Bellamy
Judy Chicago’s Forever de Young was performed on October 16 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California.
In response to Dodie Bellamy’s “Up In Smoke”:
To the Editors,
Throughout my six-decade career, my audiences have often been polarized in their reactions to my work. Many viewers have embraced—and been inspired—by my insistence on confronting so many absences in our art and our culture; be it women’s contributions to history, birth, toxic masculinity, the implications of the Holocaust for contemporary society, and more recently, climate change and its devastating impact on our planet. Others are still struggling to understand the nuances or do not agree with the intention.
I believe this may be the case with Dodie Bellamy, who was assigned by Artforum to cover my first retrospective at the de Young and my latest performance Forever de Young. If she had studied my body of work, she should have realized that my use of spectral color often carries complex meanings. I have been creating colored pyrotechnical performances since the late 1960s, and by now have done over 50 pieces. These works can highlight the beauty of our environment, but they can also suggest a myriad of meanings including sati, self-immolation, terrorism, and in relation to Forever de Young, performed just a few weeks ago in San Francisco, the terrible forest fires experienced in the Bay area.
Ms. Bellamy’s expectations to see “puffy crayon bright colors unfurling in the air” remain a mystery to me. The work was not promoted this way. Some viewers do find it unsettling to be enveloped by these pigments while others find it exhilarating. Unsettling or not, let me assure you that the color used in these pieces is just pigment and does not present any danger. The scent—like the smoke—is dissipated by the wind. Since 2011, I have worked with Pyro Spectaculars, a six-generation, world-famous company. They are required by law to use products that are extensively tested and deemed to be safe. I would never knowingly put anyone in danger; on the contrary, my pyrotechnic pieces are intended to bring joy and beauty to viewers while also addressing important issues. I wanted to clear the air as Ms. Bellamy’s piece seemed to run high on personal emotions and relied very little on facts.
Forever de Young was viewed by thousands of people in Golden Gate Park and the comments our audience made on social media and via email have made it overwhelmingly clear that for most of them, the performance was what it was promised to be—a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Belen, New Mexico
October 27, 2021
Dodie Bellamy responds:
When I need to chill out one of my guilty pleasures is to watch the YouTube channels of glam beauty gurus. I’ve learned from these videos that when one steps over the line or makes a mistake, one takes full responsibility for their actions and apologizes for any harm that has been done (such as scaring children on a Saturday afternoon without any warnings in the advertisements for the event that this was a possibility). I suggest Ms. Chicago check out Rich Lux’s beauty guru gossip channel. Lux does an excellent job, over and over again, deconstructing what it means to take responsibility and to formulate an apology in the twenty-first century.