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.

This message was emailed to newsletter subscribers. The assumed audience is subscribers interested in art, urban ecology, and/or inventive writing. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

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