High-Rise Syndrome - Believer Magazine
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High-Rise Syndrome

DISCUSSED

The righting reflex, Quonset warehouses, falling from the 34th floor, an artist of the body, steel plates bathed in gravity, tears as protest, Manifest Destiny, a stack of bricks, an obsession with space, eyes open and closed, the fragile age of twelve, the Year of the Rabbit, the Year of the Cat, and dreaming of a flood.

by Sally Wen Mao
May 29th, 2021
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta series, Mexico), 1976.
© The Estate of Ana Mendieta.

When cats fall out the windows of tall buildings, the worst injuries result from falling out the first to the sixth stories. Cats that fall from higher stories (i.e. the tenth or twentieth floors) sustain less serious injuries. In other words, the closer you are to the ground, the more you reckon with your death, the less time you have to bend your body against the terminal velocity. This is called high-rise syndrome. It is science, not metaphor.


I can’t stop thinking about the myth that all cats land on their feet. To brace is to prepare, metastasize the moment of impact. When falling from tall stories, cats have a balancing system called the “righting reflex,” where their spines arch and contort into the least dangerous landing stance. The implication is that landing on your feet is a triumph and landing on your skull or tailbone or stomach is a failure of the first (human) order. As humans we love to fetishize survival, to craft a narrative of invulnerability especially for those icons we hold with reverence. To land on one’s feet implies safety. Hey, you are standing, you are upright, so you must be okay. But most cats land with their legs splayed and wobbling, and the impact of this type of landing causes serious injuries. When are we ever prepared for gravity?


I am spineless when it comes to my feelings. The way a human spine is built, we do not have the “righting reflex.” Because it is not a human instinct to know how to right ourselves. When a friendship ends, when a rift manifests and reaches a breaking point, we call it a “falling out.” The language around that is so precise, perhaps because when we fall out of a window, a relationship, a friendship, there is no instinct for the work it takes to repair. Defenestrated, we have no defenses. On the ground outside, we tend to our wounds and our fractures. Perhaps that’s why cats look at us with the most withering of glances.


During my 2019 residency in Marfa, I visited Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation and the tour guide showed us these huge warehouses devoted to his experiments with light. The Quonset roofs of the warehouses refracted the desert morning sun, and the scale of his endeavor was unmistakable. The bleakness of wonder. It was an all-day tour. Late in the afternoon we reached the little shack devoted to Carl Andre. To my surprise, the room housed none of the sculptor’s dreary sculptures, but his poems, typewritten and displayed in a long wooden vitrine. Whenever I saw a Carl Andre piece, I always felt slightly sick, but for some reason his poems, housed in that room as if hallowed, were the ultimate insult. A personal affront.

As the only person in the tour group who identified as a poet, I revealed my expert opinion: that his poems are trash, just like his sculptures.


The museum guide didn’t have to say it because I told the other women in my tour group: this is what the curatorial copy omits. The name: Ana. The tragedy: Carl Andre’s infamous falling out with his then-wife, rising artist Ana Mendieta, in which she allegedly fell out the window of their Greenwich Village high-rise from the 34th floor on September 8th, 1985. The doorman said he heard a woman scream “No, no, no.” On the phone with emergency services, Carl Andre claimed she “had somehow gone out the window.” Somehow. Gone. Window. Absent from this language was the presence of his body—he was 5’7, taller than Ana Mendieta by 9 inches. I imagine how far his shadow could reach, whether it touched the edge of the window.


Mendieta was an artist of the body, her work steeped in the corporeal and ephemeral. I knew her work well before I knew of Carl Andre’s existence. In 2010, when I first moved to Ithaca, I wandered the Herbert F. Johnson Museum and found two Ana Mendieta video pieces from her magnum opus series, Silueta. In one, her body made a hollow in the earth, filled with lava. I wrote a poem after it. I called the poem “Meat Bride.” It was one of the first poems I wrote in graduate school. I didn’t know about how she died.


When I visited the Dia: Beacon in 2017, I stepped on Carl Andre’s sculpture Steel Zinc Plain. I was angry. What was so subversive about zinc plates and steel plates lying on the ground in an unnatural grid, bathed in gravity? The smugness of it, this invitation to step on metal, as if we don’t all step on metal grids in the city every day of our lives. All his works sheltered in these huge open spaces, so solid, so rooted to the ground. Somewhere in this world his fleshy body still breathes, and this work will outlive all of that.


Groups of women have organized protests at his retrospectives in major museums across the country for the past three decades. In March of 2015, the poet and artist Jennifer Tamayo organized a cry-in at Andre’s Dia:Beacon retrospective. Fifteen poets, feminists, artists, and activists entered the space two by two, crying and wailing, screaming for Ana, until they were escorted out by the security guards. Less than one year prior, a group of feminist artists from the collective No Wave Performance Task Force left chicken blood and guts in front of Dia:Chelsea. When the retrospective traveled to the MOCA Geffen in Los Angeles in 2017, Metabolic Studio, an experimental architecture and art studio, invited women artists to lie down on a long white cloth scroll and have their silhouettes traced in paint. They unfurled the collaborative artwork in front of the MOCA Geffen’s opening, placing candles alongside the silhouettes and passing out protest cards about Ana Mendieta. The resulting scene was a haunting one: the silhouettes on the cloth called into mind not just the chalk outline of a body at the scene of a murder or crime (Mendieta’s fall and its aftermath) but also Mendieta’s artwork itself, the many silhouettes of her body she recreated in her best-known series.


In Marfa, I’d been on a residency at the Lannan Foundation. The house was comfortable, with a warm wooden dining table, bookshelves, and an Eames chair. Donald Judd’s books and interviews were all over the shelves. I marveled that it felt as if he single-handedly invented Marfa. A 1995 New York Times article stated that “In Marfa, Judd virtually rebuilt the world according to his own vision.” It called Marfa “a dying cattle town on the high plains of Southwest Texas” before Judd moved there in 1971.

Donald Judd and Carl Andre were good friends. In 1986, a year after Ana’s death, Carl Andre created a piece for Judd’s New York home and studio on 101 Spring Street, a sculpture Andre called Manifest Destiny, consisting of several bricks with the word “empire” stacked on top of each other.

In one interview, Judd spoke of his obsession with space: “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.” When I wonder what he means by space, I take it to signal scale. It is true that laying claim to a large space does imply a certain degree of access, of power, but how is it more specific? Is it more specific in its violence, in its symmetry?


Ephemeral versus enduring—our relationship to gravity, to time, to taking up space is different, depending on who we are. Like many of Mendieta’s works, the cry-in was transient, dependent on the movements and placements of feminine bodies as they participated in the gendered act of crying. This crying, a gesture toward the truth, operating on borrowed time. It was only a matter of time before they would be escorted out by security guards, but they worked with that pocket, that window of time in which their intentions were unknown and unidentified as protest.

In contrast, the art the women protested was permanent, profitable, and ponderous. When first confronted with his work, I pondered how Carl Andre’s Steel Zinc Plain was weighty, the effect being a certain imperviousness to time. The very material of Andre’s work stood in opposition to the transitory acts of video performances, protests, and crying. Just four years before this protest, in 2011, one of Carl Andre’s Steel Lead-Alloy Squares was sold in a Christie’s auction for $2,434,500.


Andre’s metal grids remind me of the bronze plaque on the ground on East 41st Street in front of Fifth Avenue. When I was a fellow at the New York Public Library I used to pass this plaque twice every day on my lunch break, walking down Library Way to the Sunrise market, where I would buy a bento box of broiled mackerel or salmon.

In 1996, the Grand Central Partnership collaborated with the New York Public Library and The New Yorker to commission the plaques from the installation artist Gregg LeFevre. A panel of literary experts selected the quotes on the hundred plaques LeFevre would create.

There are ninety-nine other plaques, but the one I noticed in particular was located on the busiest part of the street, the intersection. It featured a poem by Gu Cheng, a prominent Misty Poet from Beijing. In 1993, at the age of 37, he attacked his wife Xie Ye with an axe and then killed himself. She died shortly after being taken to a hospital. The poem is titled “Forever Parted: Graveyard.” “Now, on my heart’s page,” it begins, “there is no grid to guide my hand.”


In her essay “Portrait of an Artist” from Minor Feelings, the poet Cathy Park Hong speaks of the haunting effect of another woman artist’s violent death: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Cha’s work trespasses so many known boundaries—is it poetry or prose? Fiction or nonfiction? She never seemed concerned with categories.

When we had brief conversations about Cha and her work, Cathy Park Hong would talk about how people tended to dance around the hard truth of Cha’s death—that no one ever talked about it, and she was writing an essay that examined this impulse, that sought the truth related to that fateful day in 1982. During the Smithsonian Asian American Literary Festival in 2019, I heard Hong read an excerpt from this essay at the Library of Congress in D.C. I remember the hypnotic effect of Hong’s brutal sentences, how they did not mince the facts surrounding Cha’s murder. How everyone in that room was engrossed, as if all of us were experiencing a collective haunting. The essay ends with an image from Cha’s video piece, “Permutations,” describing Theresa’s eyes as “present, alert, not haunted at all.”


In the winter of 2017, I went to the Museum of Art and Design to watch a compilation of Cha’s video pieces. The one I remember most clearly is “Permutations,” her haunting documentation of her sister Bernadette. It is a portrait of sorts, a 10-minute 16mm reel of alternating shots of the same still, stoic Korean woman: front, back, her eyes open and closed. A month later, I read Dictee on a long plane ride to Berlin. Cha’s work has the distinct impression of haunting, and like Mendieta’s video pieces, Cha’s relationship with time seems focused on the temporal, the ephemeral. “Permutations” establishes a streamlined pattern in its repetition of Bernadette’s face, backside, eyes open and closed. Then, the pattern is disrupted with a single frame of Theresa herself. She appears and disappears in one second. Poof, she appears, and poof, she is gone. Not haunted at all. On the train after debarking the airplane in Berlin, I am weeping with my copy of Dictee. Just like that, the language of it transposes itself onto my own strange grief. Language is unstable, like our experiences of time, Cha seems to be saying. It bends and marls against the twin lives of writer and reader.


Both Ana Mendieta and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha raised complicated questions around belonging in their work. Both were young women of color artists navigating the very patriarchal, very white art world, and both carried in their bodies long histories of exile, migration, and state violence. Both were refugees. Both went to Catholic school as children. Both immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve.

Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 and was sent to the United States in the early days of Castro’s regime as a precautionary measure by her father, who organized counterrevolutionary activities. Cha was born in Busan, Korea in 1951 during the Korean War to a refugee family who moved to San Francisco three years after the May 16th military coup that led to a dictatorship in South Korea.

Twelve is a fragile age to uproot oneself. For five years, Mendieta and her sister went from foster family to foster family across Iowa and Florida, separated from their family. Exile, loss, dislocation shaped her consciousness and her world, and consequently her art. Cha, too, experienced this sense of dislocation—her family had, after all, become accustomed to packing up everything and escaping in a rush due to the intensity of political upheaval. As young women they both studied under scholars and artists who supported them, Ana at Iowa and Theresa at Berkeley. Both incorporated their Catholic upbringing into their works, both were especially interested in the Catholic imagery of martyrdom.


Three years before Mendieta was killed, Cha, too, met a tragic and untimely end—she was sexually assaulted and murdered by a security guard in the Puck Building where her husband worked as an artist. When Cathy Park Hong sought information and circumstances surrounding Cha’s death, she could not find a newspaper entry, save for a blip on The Village Voice. Although she found the court documents of Cha’s case in the public record, Hong hardly found any essay or comment from the academics that engaged with and valued Cha’s work. When Hong reached out to one of them, the scholar responded saying she refrained from discussing Cha’s death “out of respect for her family, not to overshadow the work.”


For all the ways Mendieta and Cha haunt us now, their very art and writings dealt directly with the deaths of the women who haunted them. The specter of violence and the burden of remembrance, in other words, also profoundly manifested in their artistic works. In Dictee, Cha was inspired by female revolutionaries such as Yu Guan Soon, who led protests against Japan’s occupation of Korea and died in prison from injuries sustained by torture and beatings from Japanese authorities. As Cathy Park Hong says, “Cha’s death saturated my reading of Dictee, gave the book a haunted prophetic aura—Dictee is, after all, about young women who died violent deaths—although I would never admit to that interpretation in class or a talk.”

And Ana, in 1973 while studying at the University of Iowa, created a series of performance pieces that responded to the rape and murder of a fellow student, Sarah Ann Ottens, from just a month before. In Untitled (Rape Scene), Ana is bent over a table, naked from the waist down, covered in blood. People entered the space and she remained in that position, motionless for over an hour. By drawing attention to the ways these women were murdered, Mendieta wanted violence against women to be actualized, as a visceral, living scene. In a way, she was forcing her audience to confront the concrete reality of violence, rather than look away.


It is all too easy to sensationalize and make a spectacle out of a young woman’s violent death. The perspective of the curators and scholars who work with Cha is understandable. But does silence generate justice? Does silence alleviate or amplify her loss?

Discussing the silence around Cha’s fate, Cathy Park Hong writes: “Where does the silence that neglects her end, and where does the silence that respects her begin? The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.”


But in remembering, we encounter thorns. The police, upon discovering Cha’s body, called her ‘Oriental Jane Doe.’ The Village Voice article about her murder seems to have only referred to her by that moniker. Cathy Park Hong muses: “Specificity is the hallmark of good writing except when too much detail becomes lurid, gratuitous, and turns Cha, after years of dedicated labor by her critics and curators, back into ‘Oriental Jane Doe.’”

A year after I saw Cha’s video art pieces in New York, a police raid in Flushing ended in the tragic death of an Asian woman, a massage parlor worker. She had jumped from the balcony of her apartment after refusing to give the police information. In October 2018, The New York Times published an article called “The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail.” This article was perhaps what the academics who revered Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work feared: a sensational account of an Asian woman’s death, told by two white journalists. The article opens: “A woman begins to fall. With her long dark hair in a ponytail and her black-and-red scarf loose around her neck, she is plummeting from a fourth-floor balcony, through the neon-charged November night. . . . But before the pavement ends the woman’s descent, a few feet from a restaurant’s glittering Christmas tree, imagine her fall suddenly suspended—her body freeze-framed in midair. If only for a moment.”


If only for a moment. This woman’s body, the violence done to it, reduced to a few sentences that invited the readers to “imagine” the moment before her death. Time, reduced to this lurid still, language allowing her body to be “freeze-framed,” suspended in mid-air, falling. If only for a moment. It is the lack of imagination, or the limitations of imagination, that has propelled and sensationalized violence against women. When Carl Andre called 911 to report Ana’s fall, he said to them: “My wife is an artist and I am an artist and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was and she went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out of the window.”

In 1958, Carl Andre wrote a poem. It goes:

“The ways of love were
sometime my revenge when
I was wronged by something
done or said & she stood
naked by the window waiting
to be struck perhaps where
here white breasts were red…”

And this is the thing about poems like this. Curators call his artwork minimalist and impersonal, marveling at the absence of self. His works are neutral, devoid of identity, yet Andre himself said that bricks were pertinent to his identity, being the grandson of a bricklayer. I see him most clearly in his own work, Manifest Destiny, as the “EMPIRE” he inscribes in the bricks. The title is fitting, for the thesis of “Manifest Destiny” has always been for the inalienable rights of white men to erase other bodies, other lives. And I see Andre most clearly in this poem. Not neutral, but angry, and out for blood. Not rational, but obsessive in tone, dominating in gaze. The woman in poems like this is always naked, the focus always on her body parts, and the violence broiling just around the bend, the line, the stanza.  


As I write this now, it is April 2021. Spring has arrived, drowsy and full-throated. It has been over a year since the world went into quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, I celebrated my birthday in Las Vegas. I was born in the year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese zodiac, in 1987, the year before Carl Andre was acquitted of second-degree murder.

A few days after my birthday this March, a 22-year-old gunman shot and killed eight people, seven of them women, six of them Asian women, in three different Atlanta-area massage parlors. In the days afterward, the names of these victims were slowly released: Daoyou Feng; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels. They were all workers and employees of the massage parlors, with the exception of the latter two names.

The policeman at the press conference parroted the gunman’s claims—that his murders were not racially-motivated, that he had shot up the massage parlors because he was a sex addict and he viewed massage parlors as “temptations.”


Never mind the long history of Asian women existing at the axis between misogyny and racism. That racism against Asian women comes from a specific lurid, hypersexualized entitlement, bolstered by the cumulative effects of the American war machine, its long history of imperialism, violence, degradation, capitalist exploitation, and racialized immigration policies. In the aftermath of this mass murder, many Asian women in my community spoke out. Wounds that lay dormant were being opened again. Childhood memories, moments of invisibility and degradation. Comments we’ve heard all of our lives. Threats. Gaslighting.

People left comments on my posts saying that racism against Asian people didn’t exist, telling me I was stupid. Every day, an Asian woman is violated, spat on, stepped on, kicked, punched, told she doesn’t belong. I am hyper-conscious of the space I take up, my own temporality. I am hyper-conscious of all the moments in my life where someone made me feel like I am not valuable, that I don’t matter.

I, you, so many I know, are tired. What bodies are read as important, and what bodies are read as unworthy? What bodies belong, and what bodies don’t? What bodies break quietly, and what bodies create noise? What bodies perish, and what bodies survive? I find myself envying cats again, for their abilities and reflexes. For the very myth of their survival.


In the Vietnamese zodiac, I was born in the year of the Cat, substitute for the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it, in the Chinese zodiac, the cat was in the race with the other animals to get to the Jade emperor’s banquet. The cat hated water, so it rode on the ox’s back when fording the river. The cunning rat pushed the cat into the river, leaving it to drown. In the end, the cat never got a month on the Chinese zodiac. I wonder if the cat survived that fall. Perhaps it did, and arrived late to the banquet, demanding a seat at the table.


When I began writing this essay, I thought it would be about art, or my experience of art, and the specter of violence against women behind the protected legacies of powerful artists, Carl Andre being only one example. Then it became the specter of violence, period, as it affected the legacies of women. But by the time I reach the end, perhaps it’s more about time, about haunting. Or the fear of heights. The experience of living inside the body of a woman of color, an Asian woman, my fraught relationship to ideas like taking up space. I am grateful that this month, I will get fully vaccinated, but I am afraid of returning to public spaces when my body will be read as an agent of disease, as unwelcome. It is fact that others do not think I, or many Asian women, deserve to exist in a public space, that we do not belong. I also have to contend with the fact that many of the incidents were reported in places that I have called home, in some degree or another: the Bay Area, where I grew up, and New York City, where I’d lived for years as a young adult.

I used to feel safe in these places I did call home. I used to be quite fearless as a younger woman. I used to talk back defiantly when I heard racial slurs on the subway. Once, in a Manhattan diner, a white man called me a “cunt” and told me to “go back to Tokyo” and I decided to throw the contents of my glass of cold water on his face. I’m not sure how I would react now.


Or perhaps this essay is about windows, what they can mean. A window can symbolize a future, or the ground. Or neither, or nothing at all. Last night I had a dream. Looking out the window of a high-rise apartment I once lived in, I realized that the whole building was underwater. And then I saw the shape of a whale shark, its beautiful, living heft. The whale shark is nothing like a Carl Andre sculpture—it is so much more powerful. It came thundering close to me, breaking the window, breaking the building, and then suddenly my apartment was flooding with water. There was no gravity under the ocean, no gravity to fear living in this high-rise with the window as a balcony. Dream-me did not panic. Dream-me still couldn’t get over that passing moment, that wonder, the emotion I felt as I saw the whale shark, how it materialized in front of me with its spotted, sinuous back.

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