Being as Glass Eel

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Photo by Flickr/Riccardo Cuppini
"If you think we're obsessed with what's under the napkin, behind the curtain or the numbered door, then you're wrong."


“Want to see a magic trick?” Who would say no? It’s late at night, and you sit at a table of strangers who met today for the first time (you all had work in the show). The stained checked tablecloth is smudged with spaghetti and meatballs, napkins and glasses. Across the road from the restaurant there’s a park that’s dimly lit. You note to yourself: “Ask for a walk to hotel room later.” The man fills his glass with dark brown liquor. He lifts a napkin by two corners, and lays it over the glass. The glass is completely covered, but its rim supports and deforms the thick cotton, creating a distinct circular outline in the cloth. “I will consume the contents of this glass without moving the napkin, no, without even touching the napkin. Okay?”

“Okay,” you say.

He makes a show of gestures around and above the covered glass; he hums a tune, recites some words, and closes his eyes. Then, he opens them. “There,” he says.

“There? What?” you say. Without thinking you pull away the napkin, and of course the glass is not empty, but as he picks it up and drinks down the thick liquor, “without even touching the napkin,” you realize that his deceit made the trick true. You’re disappointed because this is not magic, this is only a game played between words and fears.

If you think we’re obsessed with what’s under the napkin, behind the curtain or the numbered door, then you’re wrong.


“A family of four is murdered in their house in Northamptonshire,” I consider telling them. “Police visit the house after receiving reports that the curtains had remained drawn over the weekend, and the family had not been seen. A man had entered the house and drawn the blinds to conceal his crime. During the three days that the Ding family lay murdered in their living room, neighbors went back and forth, in and out of front and back doors, bringing in laundry and putting it out, coming and going from garages and driveways. Did I mention the murder occurred on the day of the Royal Wedding? Still the neighbors thought that three days was an unusually long time for the Dings’ curtains to stay closed. Nothing suspicious was in sight, only its
absence, its cover. Here, dissimulation is the agent of revelation.

“An incident of similar structure drives the point into the open,” I would continue. “Of the many considerations that went into the search for Osama bin Laden, one stood out, stout, awkward, and clumsy. Cheeky, too. Bin Laden’s compound near Abbottabad was built on a plot of land eight times larger than that of nearby houses; it measured 38,000 square feet in size, and had very few windows. There were no phones or Internet wires running into the compound, though aerial photographs show security cameras and satellite dishes. The compound was surrounded by a 12-to-18-foot concrete wall topped with barbed wire. It had two security gates, and the third-floor balcony had a seven-foot-high privacy wall, tall enough to hide someone of bin Laden’s height: six feet, four inches. Is there something to be learned (Bin Laden’s height, for example) by looking at conditions of concealment? A wall is built according to what it intends to conceal.”

“Of course,” a colleague might say, all smug, “as when a cloth draped over an object takes the shape of the object.”

“The degree to which the contours of the shrouded object are visible varies according to the warp of the fabric, to its integrity,” another colleague might add. A comment like this would let me know it’s time for bed.

“When Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped up a Philip Johnson, it wasn’t so much a statement. They heard the glass house had been losing heat for years, so they gave it a coat to keep it warm.” Laughter.

“Can someone walk me to my hotel room?” I would ask.

“Someone forgot to tell them that the house of language is made of glass.” More laughter.


We hid our relationship for years. It was the “click” of the brass lock on the door handle that gave us away. Leaving it open would have made for better cover.

To do it quietly with the door wide open is to give in to those who say, “We demand transparency,” and then to just do whatever.

Washing with green, blue, or pink gets rid of the smudges that let people know the thing is dirty in the first place: a blue spray for dusty windows, a green solution for dirty dishes, a Pepto-Bismol pink one for your soiled hands, but everything’s still covered in germs. Whitewashing means nothing has been thrown, spilled, expelled, or ever consumed at all.

Remember our day at the aquarium? The placard under the tank read Anguilla Anguilla, but we looked in and there was nothing to see, except empty blue.

“In the case of the glass eel, or the jellyfish, transparency becomes camouflage.”

“Something like Heidegger’s conception of Being … as jellyfish.”

“Joe Fresh as jellyfish.”

“MH370 as jellyfish.”

We had forgotten that ______ was a question worth asking, which reminded us of all the neglected questions that arise amidst disappearance.


Look through the window and you forget that you see a pane of glass before you do the scene outside. That is, you forget until you hear the sound of a waxwing smacking again and again against the divide.

Q: What lies at the bottom of the turbid creek?

A: The carp that stir up the water.

Q: A swarm of mosquitoes let loose in the room reveals?

A: A security system of red lasers. Sentinels are sent in first because the small animal always hears, smells, and dies before we do. Thank you, animal!

Q: Sardines?

A: A game where the one who hides first has all the cachet of being “it,” and the last one left unhidden loses.


She didn’t call 911 at the faint scent of wintergreen—she didn’t know it was the smell of gas. “That one’s really weighing on my conscience now,” she told me. She chewed cautiously, and covered her mouth after every bite with a cupped hand like an awning or a hood. As she ate and spoke, she became more animated, and used her hands to describe the explosion and all that followed. As she gestured vigorously toward and away from her lower abdomen with her hand now cupped in a different manner, I did catch glimpses of soft sandwich catching on the ridges at the roof of her mouth. “I found myself alone behind the rubble of the hotel building,” she said. “Someone was there. I could hear the rustling fabric of his pants, the clanging of his belt buckle, and the leather writhing against belt loops as he revealed himself to me.” Is the exposure any less indecent if we note that she is blind?


At the far end of the gallery there’s a cardboard howitzer partially dressed in women’s fishnet stockings. “What is the enemy up to?” reads the placard on the white wall. “Once you’ve thought about camouflage, you see it everywhere, or rather you see it everywhere that you think you see nothing. You can be convinced, for example, that your opponent, being invisible, has reached a point of absolute camouflage—your enemy has become, in your mind at least, one giant piece of butter muslin. An ordinary household object such as a book, a soda can, a candle, or something as small as a coin—such an inconspicuous object would not be expected to disguise anything of worth, and yet she hides her emergency cash in a cutout in her OED. That bodega is a front for a forged-document racket. The doormen from 53rd to 90th Street run a drug ring. A secret compartment inside the safe contains a safe.” It is possible, though, that you are the one with stockings on your head, and the howitzer across the room is naked.

“‘This is a girl who loves to ski,’ for example,” she said. “Through my research, I’ve discovered that when people are trying to conceal something about themselves, they tend to use I and me less often than people who are being truthful. Instead, they’ll speak about themselves in the third person—‘This is a girl who loves to ski,’ for example—or truncate their language, as in, ‘Really into listening to jazz.” Anything to give themselves distance from the lie.” Drawn blinds, shrouded figures, and white-paneled vans come to mind, and then, the image of an ostrich: awkward and clumsy, but cheeky too. This is a girl who loves magic. Really into thinking about drapes.

Rosa Aiello is an artist and writer dealing with humanness, subjectivity, and affective responses to capitalism. Reprinted from Art Papers (May/June 2014), the independent critical voice covering contemporary art and culture in the world today.

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