“Roses that wear roses
Roses that wear roses must enjoy
The flowers they are worn by.
Roses that wear roses are dying
With a mirror behind them.
None of us are younger but the roses
Men and women have weddings and funerals
Are conceived and destroyed in a formal
Roses die upon a bed of roses
With mirrors weeping at them.”
– “Homosexuality,” Jack Spicer, 1945
“It is interesting to see that, in our societies […] at a time that is very difficult to pinpoint, the care of the self became somewhat suspect. Starting at a certain point, being concerned with oneself was readily denounced as a form of self-love, a form of selfishness or self-interest in contradiction with the interest to be shown in others or the self-sacrifice required.”
– “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Michel Foucault, 1984
I remember being quite young then. I was in Arizona still, so less than five. In a cowboy-themed room with cowboy-themed walls, one night I called out to my father who was in the hall. I remember telling him that I was upset, upset because I did not want to die. I did not think I was going to die that night or any night soon. I was just upset, because I did not want to die. I remember when I once thought something happened to my sister’s penis. Nothing had. It was always like that: not there. I had just never noticed. I remember once, when I was seven or ten, my stomach ached after having In-N-Out for dinner. I had just recently heard about mad cow disease from the news, that it caused extreme pain and deterioration of the mind for cows, that eating their bodies could do something like the same to any human. Then I lied on the floor with this mild pain in my stomach. I felt that I knew it was mad cow disease (or the human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). I told my mother that it was so. Of course, it wasn’t.
At the Rio Olympic Village in 2016, they provided a record 450,000 condoms, all that fucking.
When, in 1957, Jack Spicer exchanged letters with the already-deceased Federico García Lorca for a book of translations of the late Spanish poet’s work, he remarked, “When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.” Spicer was, of course, wrong. His postulation around the “really perfect poem” exists in the same space as the poems themselves: idealistic, apparently truistic, and undebatable. Spicer’s translations in After Lorca are unreliable; the book serves little use as a volume of Lorca’s poetry. In its introductory letter — which is attributed to Lorca — the poet, playwright, and dead socialist announces his affect toward the project as “unsympathetic.” He continues, “these poems are not translations. In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it.” Dead Lorca then says that the several poems in which Spicer lets himself drift far beyond the realm of translation (carrying chunks of Lorca’s originals tethered to pieces of his own) carry “the effect of an unwilling centaur.” But again, Lorca is dead, and this is Spicer’s masquerade. If the centaur exists, it is the stiff body of Lorca clumsily balancing atop Spicer’s ass and legs. Spicer’s ass and legs do their best to walk like the dead Spanish poet. If the imitation is convincing, it is only so for those who are willing to believe in centaurs.
Arca presents its artist as an icon and publicly visible figure, no longer obscured or represented by Jesse Kanda’s avatars. Here is Alejandro Ghersi’s face, and his voice, and his body, and his concerns, direct and unmediated. Even as videos for 2015’s Mutant were centered around the artist’s body, neither the frosted glass concealment that decorated “Soichiro” nor the fast-night-blackout-memory edits of “Vanity” allowed the translucent theatricality and dramatic representation that the videos for “Reverie” and “Sin Rumbo” place upon their viewers. Arca suggests the possibility that, at one point, it will be difficult to remember that it wasn’t always like this. The Arca project wasn’t always centered around this transgressive distortion of pop icon method. His voice and his song weren’t always front and center. Nor was this neo-Romantic fixation upon the dialogue of life, nature, myth, sexuality, and death. Arca suggests a sort of shift that is so well-defined, confident, significant, and grounded in the artist’s own past aesthetics that it capably reconstitutes its onlookers’ iconic definition of the artist. The gesture of the shift is familiar to all of us through the chameleon monoliths of pop past and present: Dylan, Bowie, Iggy, Madonna, Beyoncé, Kendrick, and so on. We get the feeling that Arca begins a much larger narrative of an icon in bloom.
Arca, it is told, was conceived at a Victorian burial ground. “[O]ne of London’s largest cemeteries, and a famous spot for cruising,” a press kit states. “They became part of the material of the album: it just felt right to be around the dead; and gay men cruising around the dead. There was so much poetry: life. Death. Gayness.” Yes, an icon is born. Floating against sharp MIDI arrangements, live piano, and the lively electronics that characterize Arca (but that are here admittedly somewhat less mystifying than Ghersi’s prior work), we find Ghersi’s weak, blemished voice. Cracking hums and feedback close to breaking: “Quítame la piel de ayer,” opens “Piel.” Thus begins the change, the self-attention that heals, a focus on the body and the sadness and the pain, the self-cleansing from which relation is built. Here, Foucault: “It is what one could call an ascetic practice, taking asceticism in a very general sense […] as an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain a certain mode of being.” It is what we shall do with our bodies and our brains.
Now, this is where you will meet a man. Yes, just over that hill. You will not fuck against the gravestones, and you will not fuck behind the mausoleum. He will take you to his home, and there you will fuck, your nose still cold from being outdoors. No gargoyles will watch you there.
And once it is done, this focus on the self will have cared for the collective. Again: “With regard to sexuality, it is obvious that it is by liberating our desire that we will learn to conduct ourselves ethically in pleasure relationships with others.” And again: “the care of the self can be centered entirely on oneself, on what one does, on the place one occupies among others. It can be centered totally on the acceptance of death […] and can even, up to a point, become almost a desire for death.” “Roses that wear roses/ Are dying,” Arca sings. Or, he might’ve sang. He is dressed like a centaur but bruised and narrow. He is pierced by a large horn. He stumbles in shock. In the release, he says, “Bullfighting is a great metaphor: you are fighting a bull, which could be yourself. You are not the victim or the oppressor, you are both.” But this is the language of the press. His cry says — his eyes say — he has lost. Again: “It should also be noted that power relations are possible only insofar as the subjects are free. If one of them were completely at the other’s disposal and became his thing, an object on which he could wreak boundless and limitless violence, there wouldn’t be any relations of power. […] [If] there were no possibility of resistance, there would be no power relations at all. [To] wield power over the other in a sort of open-ended strategic game where the situation may be reversed is not evil; it’s a part of love, of passion and sexual pleasure.”
“No hubo advertencia esta vez/ Y qué dolor/ Qué amargura,” he sings. “No blood to stop bleeding/ And what blood/ And what poor taste.” Outside, below a bed of roses, roses are dying. The West hides itself and its cares beyond its death, an illusion, but I have fucked against that large stone.