A Matter of Scale
The fog is as thick as cotton candy on this August Ipswich day; traffic is backed up from the beach, snaking for miles, all the way up Argilla Road through town, as far up as the curve where early morning coffee drinkers who stopped at Dunkin Donuts probably wish they’d kept on going. Back at the beach the crowd moves like a murmuration, flowing like the tide, which is going out, exposing an expanse of much needed level sand.
I spot a man I know. His wife is in my writing group. He’s running, clutching their young son’s hand, pulling the kid to get out of the way of the crushing crowd. I start to try to get their attention, but stop. There are too many people and they’re already too far away. When a cheer and the fog rises the crowd parts to allow yellow shirted volunteers to carry the first contraption to the water’s edge. That’s when the grumbling begins.
“I thought they’d be bigger,” someone says.
“We braved all that fucking traffic for this?” is a comment from another.
A guy wearing a hipster pork pie hat mutters, “Armageddon on the beach.”
The colorless Strandbeests, as they are called, are cobbled together from PVC pipes, elastic bands and unbleached muslin. They are the creatures of a Dutch artist. In his videos they gracefully skip across the sand, reminding me of the fifty-foot tall figures crafted by Bread and Puppet, the reactionary performance group based in Vermont. In person they look more like something engineered by Rube Goldberg.
The wind is blowing off the water. When the Beests, which aren’t much taller than the tallest man in the crowd, begin to move it’s towards the dunes and the volunteers have to keep pulling them back. I get close enough to see their PVC pipe knees high-stepping. One of the volunteers keeps yelling at the disgruntled crowd, “Get back.”
I walk back to where my friend and I have left our chairs at the Ipswich residents’ end of the beach. She’s already there, chatting up friends. Our friend Joyce hugs me. She’s such a pretty woman, in her seventies. We all walk together on Wednesdays, rain or shine, through sleet and snow, except from mid-June to mid-September when it’s too hot and everyone goes to the beach. Everyone except me.
This is my first trip to Crane Beach this summer. I can see it from my house. The smell of the sea wafts in but I’ve never been much of a beach goer. Today it’s old home week. People I haven’t seen in months walk by and stop to complain. Some are trailing disappointed grandchildren or friends who have come from afar to see what everyone thought was going to be a larger than life spectacle.
“Oh, boy,” one of them says, “Here they come.”
We’re standing well away. The wind has changed. The crowd has turned to follow the Beests along the shoreline. Ten thousand strong according to the news reports one of my friends keeps reading off of her phone. The followers are bunched up around the swift moving mechanical creatures. All we can see are the beige cloth wings unfurled and flapping above their heads. The crowd thins out behind them into a tail reminiscent of a flame, a conflagration of bodies, running now, to keep up with the flow of people that mimics the tide, wonderful, and kind of terrifying, at the same time.
During the hour long wait in the car to get out of the parking lot I find myself thinking about art. How often the perception and the reality don’t match. Sometimes, like today, a buzz kill. But sometimes a revelation that changes the way we see. When I was young there was an Henri Rousseau show at the Modern in New York City. I was just out of college with textbook images of his paintings stuck in my head. That iconic jungle scene, the nude, and the lion peering through lush greenery, seemed so tight and controlled. On the wall, freed from its four-color halftone on the printed page, it was huge, raw. The rough brush strokes stabbed at the canvas, a true primitive. Astounding in its bravery. And another one of his works I still remember, one I’d never seen, emblazoned with an unnerving coral sky.
Years later, with my daughter at the Prado in Madrid, room after room of Rubens, hung alongside their cartoons, the tiny test paintings the master did before he and his apprentices tackled the big ones. I wanted to pluck those jewels off the walls. There was an energy to them that surpassed their larger counterparts, that for me overpowered the Goyas, and Van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross, proclaimed a perfect painting by art historians, with its Mary, collapsed in her precious blue dress, the pigment formulated from ground up lapis lazuli. If I had been invited to choose, I would have walked out with one of the Rubens cartoons.
As my car creeps to the front of the line I consider the impact of scale. On an ordinary day the parking lot at the beach accommodates three hundred cars. Today the Peabody Essex Museum’s aggressive marketing campaign has turned what was supposed to be a popup precursor to a show of the artist’s work, into an overblown fiasco that has grid locked the entire town for most of the day, the unintended consequence of art.
At home, I climb the spiral stairs to my studio. I can see the beach where the Beests walked on the other side of the Bay. My iPhone buzzes. It’s my friend.
“Well that sucked,” she says. “We waited around for the crowd to thin out but it never did. There were cars still lined up trying to get in as we were going out. They were packing the damned things up and turning people away.”
Our conversation ends and I launch one of the Strandbeest videos on my computer. The white bearded artist speaks. Music swells. The beach scene is appropriately moody. The Beest moves, fluid, huge, shot from a low angle so it appears to be even more monumental than it actually is. There are no crowds, no yellow shirted volunteers. Part of the magic is the illusion of privacy, that I’m the only one seeing it at that moment in time. The reality doesn’t matter. Not any more. The illusion is everything.
Joan Wilking’s short stories and memoir pieces have appeared in many literary publications in print and online. Her story, “Deer Season,” was a finalist for the Nelson Algren Short Story Prize. Her story, “Clutter,” which appeared in Elm Leaves Journal, has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. She lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts in a house that overlooks Plum Island Sound.