On Auguries of Innocence by Ellen Ziegler (2011): found umbrella, injket and stain on rice paper, red thread, solvent, bookbinders gauze, poetry by Patti Smith
  • Courtesy the artist
  • On "Auguries of Innocence" by Ellen Ziegler (2011): found umbrella, injket and stain on rice paper, red thread, solvent, bookbinder's gauze, poetry by Patti Smith

Three months before an exhibition of artist's books at SOIL last year, Ellen Ziegler's boyfriend died suddenly.

She turned to the words of Patti Smith and Frances McCue to create book-like sculptures, one of them a tattered umbrella I visited one night shortly before the gallery closed for the day, when it had already gotten dark outside. Ziegler asked me to write about that experience, and she has just come out with the spiral-bound publication (contact her if you'd like a copy). Here is what I wrote.

I am wearing Ellen Ziegler's installation like a dress. ...


It's a parasol, flipped upside down and suspended from the ceiling of the gallery. I stand under it. Hanging from the tips of its ribs, cascading down around me on all sides, are scrolls of paper with poems printed on them. Though I'm under the protective penumbra, inside the silo of scrolls, it's immediately plain to me that the point of this shelter is not to escape a storm but to stand inside one, to stand one.

I don't find out until later that Ziegler has just lost her beloved. Or that the poems printed on the scrolls are also by a woman clinging to her recently dead: the poet and musician Patti Smith.

But the loss is palpable even without a name, streaming down, absence's fragile presence hoisted up by the torn and tattered umbrella canopy above my head. I point my phone up and take a picture. In the picture, the bright gallery light sparkles like a sun above the other, faded sun: the radial pattern of the canopy's ribs—simultaneously spreading outward and pulling inward. Most of the paper between the ribs has deteriorated, rotted away. It's as if there has been a particularly bad storm here. One more like this and...

The printed words on the scrolls are fully legible, but in some spots they're blurred, as if they've been splashed with giant tears, or waves that hit and receded. "I touched your hip, the bone fell away," one line reads. Ziegler sewed a tiny, single strand of bright red thread across the word "touched." It's like warm blood making contact, crossing out the word while acting it out. "I touched your hip, the bone fell away," the poem goes, "and the sea was no longer empty."

Outside the gallery, the sun has just gone under. The dark of the picture window provides a stark contrast to Ziegler's whitewater fountain of grief.

Someone else is in the gallery at the same time; from within the umbrella's embrace, I can hear her. She's slowly, carefully turning the pages of another book sculpture by Ziegler, this one lying down like a proper book, but very large, and noisy. Each page of it is so big, thick, and painstakingly layered that it has become a hide. The hides turn and turn, new ghosts offering themselves up even in death.

The night I was there.
  • The night I was there.