Joan Wilking

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.