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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

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JUNE 2021 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

60. (Pier 34, Hudson River)

One day a man in his late 20s who has still not “found himself” in the world hears about some unusual activities on an abandoned Hudson River pier a few blocks from his home. Apparently artists have been sneaking into the vast decaying structure and filling it with unauthorized murals and sculptures. Curious, and a little nervous (trespassing is a crime, after all, and in early 1980s New York wandering around an abandoned pier is not a particularly safe thing to do), he finds himself one afternoon stepping through a broken-open entryway and penetrating into a vast decrepit domain. After surveying the cavernous main space of the pier, he makes his way through a series of smaller spaces that had been shipping-line offices. The floors of these rooms are thick with sheaves of letters, ships’ manifests, invoices, thousands of scattered or piled-up sheets of paper probably tossed aside when the company that operated at the pier removed its desks and filing cabinets. During the intervening years—decades?—as the windows and roof of the pier no longer kept out the elements, these decomposing records had fused into soggy masses. In places, moss and grass has begun to spread.

Carefully avoiding areas where the floor has fallen through or where there is just too much muck, the young man passes through an enfilade of rooms, pausing to look at the rude, brush-wild paintings on the ravaged, pockmarked, greenish walls. As far as he can tell, as he stands in a dank, dripping space looking at an expressionistic mural, he is the only person, perhaps the only living thing, in the entire pier. But at exactly that moment he becomes aware that he is not alone—something or someone else is in the room with him. He slowly turns around and sees a bizarre figure squatting in one corner, silently watching him.

Although wearing only a loose loincloth and a pair of army boots, this person is far from naked: what looks like brown paint or dried mud covers his body and the features of his face are obscured by a nylon stocking pulled over his head. Looming above him, and apparently attached to his back and shoulders, is a large skeletal structure made of sticks, bamboo and small tree branches lashed together with twine and string. At once rough-hewn and intricate, this weird spindly carapace might be a portable shelter or a primitive prosthetic device, but it also seems like a parasitic creature that has latched onto the artist’s body. The man reflects that if this (he has a hard time finding a word for it: apparition? creature? monster?) were to suddenly jump up and charge at him there would be no one he could call to for help.

As he and the bristling figure in the corner stare at each other, time seems to slow down. His brain scrambles for some way to account for this weird situation. He wonders if he might be dreaming, even as he recognizes what a cliché that is, and then suddenly, in a flash of relief, the answer comes to him: the figure in the corner is “The Mudman,” a performance artist he has seen walking around SoHo in exactly the same guise. Instantly, the situation goes from being uncanny and maybe a little threatening to merely strange and awkward. Without a word or gesture he calmly walks out of the room and continues his exploration of the pier. As he does so he can’t help wondering how long the Mudman had been perched silently in the corner, waiting for someone to show up and witness his solitary performance.

It’s only years later, after he has finally left behind his luftmensch phase and stumbled into a career as an art critic, that the man, now no longer young, learns details of the Mudman’s life: his childhood battle with a degenerative bone disease, his year in Vietnam with the US Marines, his notorious 1976 performance where he burned alive three rats, the gradual development of his Mudman persona. Whenever he thinks about his unexpected encounter on Pier 34 he focuses on those few seconds between when he first noticed the unsettling figure and when he recognized him as The Mudman. For that long moment his mind was grappling with an event that didn’t conform to his notion of reality, an event that he couldn’t explain. It was, he would come to realize, one of the few times in his life when he was able to experience an art work without mediation, with preconceptions, without the alibi of “art.”

(Kim Jones, Raphael Rubinstein)


Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2021

All Issues