Julie Rafalski

Boats, Plants and Clouds

Baldessari's Goodbye to Boats (Sailing Out), is a piece composed of 12 almost identical photos of him waving to boats sailing out while standing by the shore. The photos are not arranged chronologically. In some a small white boat appears nearer and in other further away.

The futile action of waving to ships going out is poignant as well as humorous. The photos set up an absurd scenario - an attempt at communicating with inanimate objects, an attempt at getting a message across, even if it must travel across the bay and the recipient is not a human.

This same setting up of an absurd scenario occurs in Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That Are the Same. This is an attempt to match the look of a represented cloud with actual cigar smoke. The cigar smoke appears cloud-like, but it never takes the exact shape of the cloud. This repetitive yet failed action sets up a the scenario of an impossible and unreachable goal- an attempt at achieving the sublime moment of communication. It still creates a kind of dialogue with the represented cloud, albeit one-sided, albeit the cloud itself remains mute and incapable of communicating.

A similar attempt to communicate occurs in Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, a video piece in which the letters of the alphabet are held up on a sheet of paper next to a plant. The human way of communicating- language -is being taught to a plant.

These failed attempts at communicating with mute objects are both poignant and humorous. Though for a brief instant, Baldessari's work makes us see what it might look like to communicate with boats, plants and clouds and how this communication might be represented.


As an aside, below is Wislawa Szymborska's poem Silence of Plants, in which speaks of the necessity of communicating with plants.

A one-sided relationship is developing quite well between you and me.
I know what a leaf, petal, kernel, cone, and stem are,
and I know what happens to you in April and December.

Though my curiosity is unrequited,
I gladly stoop for some of you,
and for others I crane my neck.

I have names for you:
maple, burdock, liverwort,
eather, juniper, mistletoe, and forget-me-not;
but you have none for me.

After all, we share a common journey.
When traveling together, it's normal to talk,
exchanging remarks, say, about the weather,
or about the stations flashing past.

We wouldn't run out of topics
for so much connects us.
The same star keeps us in reach.
We cast shadows according to the same laws.
Both of us at least try to know something,
each in our own way,
and even in what we don't know
there lies a resemblance.

Just ask and I will explain as best I can:
what it is to see through my eyes,
why my heart beats,
and how come my body is unrooted.

But how does someone answer questions
which have never been posed,
and when, on top of that
the one who would answer
is such an utter nobody to you?

Undergrowth, shrubbery,
meadows, and rushes…
everything I say to you is a monologue,
and it is not you who's listening.

A conversation with you is necessary
and impossible,
urgent in a hurried life
and postponed for never.

(trans. Joanna Trzeciak)

And as another rather uncanny aside, at precisely the same moment when I finished writing this post, a jar on my windowsill that contained some flowers tipped over, spilling onto the floor. I will take that as some sort of a form of communicating.