Reading Frank’s Corpus

A bronze model of a plump bird, presumably hollow inside, with elegant engraving all over its body. The bird's expressinon is a bit dopey.
Bird-shaped vessel, Iran, 12th century

For several years, I’ve followed Elisabeth Nicula’s docu­men­ta­tion of the scrub jays who alight on her back porch. The images are reliably inter­esting — birds caught in strange motion, or super close-up, or both — but it’s Elisabeth herself who brings the project to life, with her winning captions (narrating the politics of the porch: there are crows, a cat, and the sad sack squirrel known as Cindy the Barfer) and her simple persistence.

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Now, for SFMOMA’s Open Space website, Elisabeth has written a compre­hen­sive essay about the project, and it knocked my socks off.

Framing the scale of the imagery, she writes:

We know that I started Frank’s corpus on March 21, 2017. We know that I have taken 82,438 photographs since then, including today’s 115, whereas in all the digital years before that, I took 6,085 photographs. We know without question that since March 21, 2017, I have mostly taken photos of scrub jays. Therefore, according to Peter, “the average pic can be assumed to be a birdpic.”

Let me be honest: when I saw the link, I prepared myself to read this essay with, shall we say, “dutiful interest”. That’s totally fine; I’ll bet many of you browse these newslet­ters the same way, and I THANK YOU FOR IT!

But dutiful interest was, it turns out, not required, because the essay swept me away. I found it magnetic, provocative, totally absorbing. That’s espe­cially note­worthy for a piece of writing that, as you’ll see, treads some gnarly terrain; it tangles with the analog and the digital, the ecolog­ical and the archival. In my estimation, the things at the heart of this essay are basically unsayable — which is one of the reasons art exists, right? — but/and Elisabeth somehow makes them clear.

In the end, I’m not sure if this is an essay about the artwork, or if this essay is the artwork … but/and that blurred boundary operates as a feature rather than a bug.

Anyway, it’s great, and not in like, “one of the eight estab­lished ways an essay can be great”. Elisabeth’s moves are genuinely risky (and successful!); this is not an addition to the high-end discur­sive memoir genre (yawn) but a new genre of one.

It’s an uncommonly interesting piece of writing, from an uncommonly interesting artist, about an uncom­monly inter­esting bird.

Or maybe that last one should be “commonly”, and maybe that’s the point.

Please read Frank’s Corpus.

March 2021, Oakland