Day 28: How I lost my mind on New Year’s Eve
You no doubt know the feeling of entering a New Year’s Eve party and facing a very particular temporal melancholy: the feeling that you and everyone there is doomed to repeat such an arbitrary occasion for the rest of our lives.
My parents had their own solution to this yearly dilemma. They’re both visual artists, so I grew up in a studio-house, where paint was flying off the walls, the smell of turpentine wafting through the boards. The process was often messy. In the 1990s – that retrospectively innocent period of self-expression – my parents organized tableau vivant parties every New Year’s Eve. They would choose a Renaissance painting full of figures in various states of disrobing and invite all their friends to come over and basically become the painting. Everyone worked feverishly for four or five hours, painting sets, putting on wigs and make-up, sewing costumes, fashioning donkey heads, and then at midnight the picture of the painting had to be taken, whatever the state. of chaos in which the scene was. .
I was always the youngest person in the room and often ended up being the donkey or the partially obscured lutenist or a plant. In Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris” I was the severed head of Cyrus himself, triumphantly presented to the queen around a bowl of fake blood. I must have lay on the floor for hours, my neck propped up just like that, until I started to believe that my head had actually come off and I now had a separate mind and body. . In this last midnight shot, I am barely visible, obscured by shadow and not quite of this world, yet everyone in the painting is staring at me, or at least the idea of my bodylessness, their varied expressions, each with their own set of motives, sorrows and delights.
My memories of those parties are strong. Children are keen observers of adults having fun; it’s a bit like watching your parents and their friends jump up and down with the unconscious enthusiasm normally reserved for kids at the playground. The common process of recreating a fictional moment from a 500-year-old oil painting brought an immediacy to the proceedings that was universally delightful. We were all very well in the present, the new year be damned.
Yet I think what has stood out to me more than anything over the years is that feeling of weightlessness of midnight surrender. When the clock struck 12, wherever you were in the process was the picture. And it was quite good. And sometimes it was perfect, no matter if the donkey still only had one eye. The new year would begin under the door of this wobbly sublime. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the best of the artist’s approach, the most generative, the most restless and the most welcoming. Such generosity guided me for the rest of my life.