Art and the Significance of Ordinary Objects

Photo by Jose Padua
Yesterday, I spent a good part of the evening tracking down a song Maggie remembered and wanted to hear again. Neither of us, however, could remember the name of the song, and so I was stuck trying to find it simply using search terms describing the video of the song, which Maggie said featured a man, dancing and singing by himself, who was then joined by another man, who turned to be the same person wearing a different outfit. Throughout the video, Maggie said, there were several different versions of this same man, wearing different costumes, singing beside himself. Eventually I found it—a bhangra song by Daler Mehndi called “Tunak Tunak Tun,”—and on the way to finding it I came across another song Maggie used to listen to a lot, Asha Bhosle’s “Saiyan Le Gayi Jiya,” which I also played for her a couple of times. For the last couple of days, whenever we’re in the car, Maggie has wanted to hear the song, “I Will Starve Myself to Death” by the late Cambodian singer, Ros Serey Sothea. Then, this morning, on the way to school, Maggie requested an old favorite, “Bratwurst,” a song by the German musician Quio and which features a guest spoken bit from a writer I know from my New York days, Darius James.

I must say that I am a little bit spoiled by all this. Although Maggie does also listen to some of the standard pop songs other kids listen to, she doesn’t listen to them exclusively and certainly not as much as other kids do. I’ve never had to listen to a single Katy Perry song in the car, and although I have listened to Taylor Swift on occasion, I think Taylor Swift is actually a talented singer and songwriter. All of which means that I’m able to play the music I want to hear while I’m driving—and I’m always the one driving during any long trip—and everyone is happy with it. Although one time Heather did complain about a Stravinsky piece I played during a long drive back from Pennsylvania, more often than not what I’ll hear is Maggie asking, “Is that Jimmie Dale Gilmore?” or “Is that Sun Ra?” or “Is that Lizzy Mercier Descloux?” when we’re on the road somewhere. As for Julien, since he was a tiny infant he’s liked songs like The Go-Betweens’ “Streets of Your Town,” Sade’s “Your Love Is King,” and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde.” And this, I suppose, is what had me experimenting this afternoon when I brought Julien home from school.

I hardly watch television anymore. Part of this is because whenever we do have the television on it’s to watch one or another kids show or movie. We could have solved this problem by having more televisions, perhaps, but we chose not to because we don’t want to have too many TVs in the house because, frankly, when the TV is off it’s just an ugly machine taking up space in the house (and of course, depending on what’s showing, when the TV is on it can actually be even uglier). Right now, in fact, we have only one working cable connection since the cable box in Maggie’s room started malfunctioning. At first, Maggie wanted to get it fixed, because she liked to watch TV right before going to bed, but after a while she got used to it. It’s been maybe a half a year now since her cable box stopped working, and since then she started to just read before bed or, sometimes, look at the one electronic device she’s allowed to have, her iPod.

So, this afternoon, when Julien and I got back from school, I decided to try something. Usually, after we eat lunch he’ll either play with toys or ask to see something on television. Yesterday, when we got home he said, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” which meant he wanted to see the film by Japanese director and animator Hayao Miyazaki. This, I must say, was an excellent choice. Then today, when we got home, he asked for Toy Story, which is okay, but not in Miyazaki’s league as far as films go. And of course, it’s fine if Julien wants to watch something that’s just entertaining but not some great work of art. Still, I wasn’t quite in the mood to watch Toy Story, so I decided to try something.

Last night, after everyone had gone to bed, I was still up for a while as I usually am, but I was too tired to write anything new. Instead, I went into the living room, turned on the television, and pressed the On Demand button. I browsed the selections, and was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the movies available was Finding Vivian Maier, the documentary about a woman who spent most of her adult life working as a nanny but who in her spare time was taking photographs—thousands and thousands of photographs that she pretty much never showed to anyone. Her work wasn’t discovered until after she’d died when a man named John Maloof, who was working on a book about Chicago, bought a box of negatives from an auction house hoping to find stock photos to use for his book. That box contained a sampling of Vivian Maier’s work and Maloof, totally by chance, became the first person to take a look at it.

Then, this afternoon, with Julien asking for Toy Story, I thought about the film I saw last night. I thought about how Vivian Maier died in poverty, how she died without anyone knowing what a great photographer she was. And I thought, yes, my son’s only three years old, but he needs to see this film. Or at least as much as he can deal with at this age—I wasn’t expecting much—so while he continued to ask for Toy Story, I pressed the button to start Finding Vivian Maier again. And the film started to play.

It began, as I remembered, with interviews with people who knew her—the parents of the children she took care of, and the children themselves, now grown up. Julien wasn’t very much interested in it. We were sitting on the living room sofa and he said again, “Toy Story, Toy Story.” But then the film switched from the interviews and began showing some of Vivian Maier’s photographs. As soon as her pictures filled the TV screen, Julien stood up and walked right up to the television to get a closer look. And he kept on looking. After a while, the film went back to more interviews, and Julien lost interest again, and I eventually did put Toy Story on; but whenever one of Vivian Maier’s photographs was on the screen, he looked. Because, somehow, even at his age, he recognized their significance.

We watched Toy Story for a little while, but soon it was time for his afternoon nap. As I took Julien upstairs, carrying his favorite blanket, I thought about Vivian Maier’s photographs, and I wondered if, somehow, Julien was thinking about them too.

This photograph was taken after dinner this evening. Maggie took an old play tunnel of hers, and stood it up, having found some other use for it. Then she put it on, and wore it like a dress, only it wasn’t a dress. And she walked around, even though it was hard to see in it, and she danced, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing you usually danced in. Whatever it was, it was now a work of art, and Maggie recognized that, and she saw its significance. Heather and I—and, I think, Julien—did too.

-Jose Padua

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