Inside the Ruin: A Pair of Gilded Aftermaths

by Sarah Ann Winn

I’m not a fan of escape rooms, mainly because I want unlimited time to explore all the clues, to discover mysteries and answers that maybe have nothing to do with the goal, but which have something to do with plot, or connections the designer tries to make. I like well-thought-out red herrings. I love the idea of Sleep No More, the New York City production loosely based on Macbeth, staged in an elaborate and immersive environment that the audience members are “free” to explore, to open drawers and read letters, to smell bottles of perfume on nightstands, to flip through the books on the shelf. I never went, because something about the cast members being able to pull people away from the group, out of their exploration was a little too creepy for me, in what is an already gruesome play. That and the mask requirement.

Walking into Darren Waterston’s in Filthy Lucre at the Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington DC in May of 2017 gave me the same sense I wanted when I read about “Sleep No More.” The viewer enters a world where something has gone terribly wrong (or continues to go terribly wrong) with society in general. Filthy Lucre is a riff on the Peacock Room, a full dining room designed by James McNeill Whistler to display a wealthy British shipping magnate’s porcelain collection in the late 1800s. The original room’s gold leaf peacocks – the room’s namesakes – battle in one mural, entitled “Art and Money: the Story of a Room.” Despite the acrimonious title, and the subject matter, everything is harmonious, and in the battle itself no gold blood is spilled. A large painting of a beautiful dark-haired woman in a soft pink kimono, Princess from the land of porcelain, presides. 

Filthy Lucre transforms the Peacock room, its opulence corrupted beyond full destruction. In Waterston’s installation, one set of gold peacocks disembowel each other. In inglorious illumination they trail ribbons of gleaming entrails. Gold oozes from the painted wallpaper and pools on the floor, seeping out even beyond the room itself into the exhibition space. Vases have fallen from crooked and broken shelves. Some are fired despite being thrown wrong. They are warped, crumbling, cracked, collected in their imperfected state. The light is dim, and everything seems gritty.

Filthy Lucre
Filthy Lucre by Darren Waterston.  2013-2014.  Oil, acrylic, and gold leaf on wood, aluminum, fiberglass, and ceramic, with audio and lighting components.  Used with permission of the artist. Photo by Amber Gray.

As in the original, the focal point is a painting, but in this one, I could not look away from the obliterated place in the portrait where a face would be. As I stood in the middle of the deserted room, many minutes passed. The guard kept “casually” passing the door, clearly wondering what I was up to. A title was on the tip of my tongue, a book I’d read when I was a librarian, which had given me the same feeling I had standing in the ruin and staring at the painting.

In Tony DiTerlizzi’s WondLa trilogy, Eva Nine exists outside of any human company in an automated world, raised by a robot “Muthr.” She lives in a fully automated home, a Sanctuary, which attends to her every need. When a hostile stranger invades, she and Muthr are forced to flee into a world that is nothing like the one she’s been training for in her lonely classes. DiTerlizzi is careful to balance these deep environments, and leave us as disoriented as Eva Nine is, quickly moving from one place to another throughout the books, often pursued, always searching for more humans. When she finally meets the family she seeks throughout the entire first book, (spoilers!) her immediate delight passes when she realizes that they need to be saved from themselves, from their own version of utopia, knowing that the “utopia” she just left was no more a perfect place with perfect tools than this new version of humanity.

DiTerlizzi is not heavy handed with his messages. Eva Nine is spoiled and bratty in the beginning, and maybe a little annoying in her know-it-all enlightenment by the end of the series, but the books are engrossing and well worth the read, especially for fantasy and sci-fi fans who enjoy heroic journey cycles.

In her futuristic world, lonely Eva has lost her context, has no connection with her fellow humans. I want to believe that our youth obsessed, fame obsessed, money obsessed society would find a StarTrekian moment of enlightenment, once we are able to supply our basic needs with technology. I’d imagine our ideal future to feature a compassion-driven society. That empathy and economy would work together, not on opposing sides. But Star Trek, Filthy Lucre and WondLa reach the same unfortunate conclusion: We can’t all get along.

I’ve been talking all week with my students about the role of modern poetry and assigned them Carolyn Forche’s lecture on the Poetry of Witness, which she ends by saying, “Poets and artists are conversant with centuries of their kind, and their visions may address the most pressing need of the epoch: that of saving the biosphere of Earth.” It’s one thing to have a sense of I-don’t-want-to-be-lost-this-way. I don’t want the earth to be a museum of once beautiful things that we have wrecked. It’s another to think about what I should do next, living in the “after” seeing.

In viewing Filthy Lucre, as in reading the glorious WondLa trilogy, I’d been granted a peek into the future we don’t have to have. I was like an urban explorer/alien who didn’t have any part in the downfall of either society. For there were definitely dead in both visions. There is no way the owners or previous occupants of the Sanctuary escaped unscathed. Alone in Filthy Lucre, I felt the shadow others — the not-rich, the not-alone; the ones who are outside the ruin are only implied, blameless in whatever caused its downfall, but still impacted by it.

I think we’re prepared to survive all the wrong things, as Eva was. It’s good to be reminded to find tech useless and/or untrustworthy. I come away from both scenes relieved and reminded not to lean against the intricately carved railing, in case I might fall into consumption and consumerism, become robot reliant, trained to miss all the landmarks because Waze told me to keep going. Eva Nine is searching for others like her, but in the end, what she finds is her own humanity. Both works remind me to see the sky breaking through the overgrowth, and get beyond Dorothy, to go home, to make a better home.



Sarah Ann Winn’s first book, Alma Almanac, won the Barrow Street Book Prize. She’s the author of five chapbooks. Her writing has appeared in Five Points, Kenyon Review Online, and Massachusetts Review. She lives in Manassas, Virginia, with her husband, two sweet beagle/lab dogs, and the ghost of one bad cat.

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