Sitting down next to me on a bench by the Williamsburg waterfront (six feet apart, of course), Daphne Fitzpatrick pulls out a series of objects that she picked up on her walk that morning. “Aren’t these great?!” she exclaims, holding up a shiny piece of wire, some rusty nails, and a red plastic item that I can’t quite identify. Since the late 1990s, Fitzpatrick’s sculptural and photographic practice has increasingly revolved around such found objects. Undeniably influenced by the Dada movement and Surrealism’s amour fou, Fitzpatrick extends to her objets trouvés a distinctively playful tenderness, often drawing in visual puns and irreverent titles such as Lesbian Seagulls for Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig (2020) or Your Zipper is Down (2020). Born on Long Island in the 1960s, Fitzpatrick has somehow retained an unconditional enthusiasm for the simple textures of the world, a tendency that usually disappears with the onset of adulthood.
In the Spring of 2003, Fitzpatrick felt compelled to walk the length of Manhattan’s Broadway, a span of nearly 33 miles. While she thought it would be possible to accomplish this within a single day, it ultimately took five, spread out over an extended period of time. It was then that Fitzpatrick realized the streets’ potential as an endless source of inspiration, something that could reflect both human activity and the poetic rhythm of the city. Going on daily walks became an intrinsic part of Fitzpatrick’s artistic practice—she now considers herself a modern day flâneur. The artist strolls for at least an hour each day, collecting small objects that spark her interest for later use. She also routinely documents her findings through photography and video. Working in analog before switching to digital in 2003, Fitzpatrick ultimately replaced the traditional camera with her iPhone. Since 2012, Instagram has been a main outlet for her artmaking, capturing subtle inanimate absurdities, from oddly shaped fruit to the chance encounters of sidewalk debris. Viewing the Instagram format as a 4×5 camera, Fitzpatrick’s approach to photography shares a sensibility with that of Stephen Shore, who started using Instagram in 2014.
As the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, social distancing began, and traditional venues of artistic display shut down, Fitzpatrick’s decision to bring her practice onto Instagram eight years ago took on a new urgency—and her activity notably increased. While in quarantine myself, I began to notice daily posts in which Fitzpatrick documented the debris saturating an empty Williamsburg, where she has lived since 1986. Oftentimes, the objects appeared to be activated by Fitzpatrick’s attention: a plastic bag starts dancing in the wind, a forsaken bucket suddenly rolls over—as if touched by some supernatural power. While many artists have lost access to their studios, or are limited in their usual approach to creation, Fitzpatrick’s way of artmaking has not changed. Yet the landscape she wanders has been drastically altered.
It was Charles Baudelaire and, nearly a century later, Walter Benjamin who together established the most well-known definition of the flâneur: a strolling city dweller of 19th-century Paris, a persona that back then embodied privilege. Who else had the time to spend their days strolling around? It was also Benjamin who said that “living means leaving traces.”1 These traces vary depending on the season, the weather, and, of course, the state of a global pandemic. A neighborhood that is typically bustling with tourists is now deserted, and the most frequently featured object on Fitzpatrick’s Instagram is the now-ubiquitous discarded plastic glove, in various colors and with its different signs of wear. Like Candy Jernigan, who documented the Lower East Side drug epidemic in her 1986 piece Found Dope, Fitzpatrick comes to function somewhat as a detective, or a forensic specialist, as she documents the textures of existence during a time of adversity. Fitzpatrick’s use of Instagram, which has swiftly gained momentum as an artistic tool in this time of social distancing, adds a diaristic quality to her endeavor by marking the time and place of the captured scenes. Fitzpatrick’s work shows us her experience of a world transformed by crisis, revealing an unacknowledged beauty in banana peels, the uncanny appeal of traffic cones, and the subtle splendor of all those discarded things that most of us pass without noticing.
Seated with me by the waterfront, Fitzpatrick comments on the beauty of the Williamsburg bridge. She is delighted by the sunny weather, and the comforting presence of the river. I find myself pleasantly surprised that what I had expected to be a grim conversation about devastation, fatigue, and illness, in fact turns out to be one about creation, vitality, and life. Maintaining this kind of affectionate alertness to our surroundings seems more meaningful day by day—and Fitzpatrick has mad love for New York City, now more than ever.
- Walter Benjamin, “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century” in Perspecta, Vol. 12 (1969), 169.