December 22, 2010 · Print This Article
It snowed the night before. The morning was bright and sunny and I missed the idea of mountains.
We went to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, pausing just inside to take off coats. The green interior made me blink. Some plants looked familiar, others unusual, still others boughed under the weight of themselves, with signs reading, Please don’t touch the fruit.
This 20th Century building houses ancient plants; plants older than dinosaurs. One fern, I read recently, was planted in 1891. Imagine all those root systems, dug deep in the ground, older than any of us, housed in what they once called “Paradise under glass.” The steel/iron vestible, rife with foliage evokes nostalgia. I couldn’t help reconstructing some phantom of an American past. Add to this the Florasonic wall card, explaining the conservatory was named after the late president shortly after his assassination; or that once there was a cemetery on the park grounds–because of health concerns the city tried to relocate it when the Chicago fire burned the city. Records of those unmoved corpses were lost.
Annie Feldmeier Adams uses this site to create “Requiem (for Lincoln Park Conservatory)” with Steven Hess–a four-channel installation that loops about every 20 minutes.
We sat on a bench to absorb the sound. My coat felt bulky in my lap. I drank tea, relieved to be warm and imagining old ghosts snoring beneath our feet.
A heart beat kept the pulse of the room, in addition to a regular, though light, mechanical clacking–it sounded like a whirring fan but could have been a clock. Underneath those time-keepers lay ambient, changing waves of synthesized tones. Sometimes it sounded like there was a voice in the room, though I couldn’t place it. The bench was small, but we nevertheless fell into silence, trying to discern that voice, to parse its ethereal location. Visitors came and went, adding to our sonic landscape. While watching a large group of tourists gather and peer at some leaves, I felt very still by comparison. I smiled and my friend laughed. Sometimes we heard the crunch of gravel. We looked at each other. “Is that the recording?” she asked. “I can’t tell,” I answered. “I think so?” The more we concentrated the more difficult it became to distinguish the sound of the installation from the sounds of our environment. “Maybe this is what it’s like to be psychic,” I thought. There would be an inevitable flattening of experience, where the common reality was somehow crowded by a psychic one–difficult to discern ghost-sounds with living ones. The plants seemed complacent–happy even. Perhaps because they grow vertically, distinctions of past, present and future are irrelevant. A passing helicopter broke the spell. “That’s a helicopter,” my friend said. “Yes,” I agreed. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now that you say so, I think it’s above us.”
We left soon after, walking back through the plants and out to the shock of a city in snow.
At home, I thought of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, San Francisco–a smaller replica of the Paris Legion of Honor, the San Francisco version houses a private art collection that opened in 1924. In 1867 the city purchased the property from what used to be a cemetary. The bodies were moved to another location–or at least, the markers were moved. They converted the property into a golf course, and then The Legion of Honor. It all seemed pretty straight forward. Nevertheless, “in the summer of 1993, during renovation and expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, about 300 corpses from the Gold Rush era—two of them still clutching rosaries, others were wearing dentures and Levis—were unearthed from what appears to be an old pauper’s graveyard. Some experts say another 11,000 bodies might lie underneath the museum grounds’ according to a Los Angeles Times article (12 November 1993, A-23).” In both instances, at the Lincoln Park Conservatory and at the Legion of Honor, a direct alchemy seems to occur; the bodies of predessors remain below ground, while above public houses exhibit creative expression like tents against the uselessness of mortality. I’m not even sure what it means exactly; I’m not sure where to position myself in history’s continuum, or how exactly it is continuous. But the effort of production, its fruit: I can comprehend that. I can comprehend my position between the ground and the sky. I know what it is to sit with a friend on a bench. And while listening to Requiem, I had an experience of history, one nevertheless difficult to put into words.
The Experimental Sound Studio has been working with the Chicago Park District since 2001, using the Fern Room as a site for exhibition. It’s an amazing curatorial project about partnership and symbiosis. The experience of Requiem uses that foundation, and particularly during these dark days of winter, getting a dose of greenery is good. If you’re in town for the holidays and need to escape or entertain get a hot drink and walk into the conservatory, take a bench in the Fern room and listen.