ISSUE TWELVE | SPRING 2019
Anita Murthy moves through the space of her sitting room with all the fleshy, awkward grace of the cinematic undead. A limp too pronounced to disguise, the opposite knee canted out, arms hanging apishly long past a squat torso and undifferentiated hips. Even her expression hangs lower than is seemly over the bones of her face, just shy of the droop of a stroke victim. Her hair, black as the day she was born, is short and thick as the pelt of an animal. The star-struck pinch in my stomach sours to disappointment at the sight of her.
And then she reaches the window that opens onto the garden, parts the tall shutters, and mid-morning light sketches her silhouette. The sun blackens the details of her body into only a shape, positioned unwittingly in her own iconic pose: an arrow of her arms, head straining up, a dive straight into the stars. Here she is, then. The legendary artist, the living zeitgeist. I had a poster of this woman on my wall when I was a teenager. Among the basketball stars and pop groups. Murthy, in this pose, with her quote: We as artists are immensely powerful. We as human beings are responsible for one another.
Murthy bellows, a human being again, calling for the house boy to fetch her personal assistant from the detached studio space. She turns and waves one long arm at me, irked that I haven't yet taken a seat. I do. To take her direction is what I came here for, if I'm honest. It's what we all looked to Anita Murthy for thirty years ago, what we'll return seeking now: the spark of the divine within our own failing bodies.
* * *
I was eight years old when Murthy's first body ship launched right above my head. My parents came to Bangalore with the second or third wave of Filipino software developers who rushed to the megalopolis, lucky to find that the city was hungry enough to take them all. I spent my days in an old colonial school fighting with British English. My father collected me at the gate every afternoon and took me two or three times a week on some obscurely-selected and culturally-enriching extracurricular excursion. I was an ungrateful brat about it. I love these things more in my memory, now. Cubbon Park's wide avenues, Someshwara Temple's incalculable intricacies, the grand chariot procession capping off St. Mary's feast, the planetarium, the modern art museum, the profusion of gardens, and my sweating, dogged father. Murthy gave an interview once:
I: This is your first exhibition after coming to India from your native Philippines. Do you think the change has changed the work itself?
AM: Certainly. My physical space is always present in the work. One must source new materials in a new home, and I’ve always been one to look as close to my front door as possible. I abhor a commute. So you get then the muck of a place on your hands, under your fingernails. Something must seep through, certainly.
The second summer we spent in India coincided with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Bangalore Arts Council. Those months India saw poetry spread like rust across the surface of city walls and lamp-posts. Crudely printed block letters on neon paper, more than half in English. “I like my body when it is with your body” and “My path is not thy path, yet together we walk, hand in hand” and “we say our own names when we pray” and what I later thought was an odd amount of Shelley. Sketches as well; blueprints and Vitruvian figures. The posters accumulated in a gradual tide, they covered political ads and help wanteds, and they spilled off their own pages to mate with native graffiti. Among it, first occasional and then predominating, was an admonishment: 25 May, 8PM: LIGHTS OUT! EYES UP! This last message became the solid thing, the bridge from the dream of the city walls to reality of the city’s life. It came onto radio broadcasts and the evening news. The city was enforcing it.
What seemed a fun, city-wide sleepover game to an eight-year-old I realize now was in fact an astonishingly ambitious request to make of a city of more than 15 million people. Astonishing that the request was made, that it survived the passage from artist to festival coordinator, from local council to city hall, and then out again to each municipal unit, to business leaders, taxi unions, nightclub owners, on and on, and to each of our households. Histories have been written of the compromises, deals, and outright graft that greased those wheels. Still, even the most thorough illumination of bureaucratic machineries can't dim for me the memory of the absolute darkness of that night.
Our apartment was on the third floor out of ten, and we all went to the roof, my parents and me and our neighbors. Some locals, but mostly other transplants who recommended the landlord to each other. A lot of Pinoys, some Malaysians, and the one old Chinese couple who fed the stray cats lavish meals twice a day. There was barely enough space for us all, but nobody cared about being pressed close. Maybe the adults had an idea of what to expect, but I had none. We buzzed together, a residential unit sieved to its flesh alone.
On some nearby roof or balcony, (or maybe some far-distant one, and then passed from perch to perch, park to park, tongue to tongue, district to district up and down the hills and across the city) a crowd of voices began a countdown in Kannada, and luckily counting from one to one hundred was my only strength in the language. At ten (Hatthu!) even my mother joined in, a tremendous gesture from her. She never joined in much of anything, but this overcame even her, even before we knew what it was, only knew it as a strangely compelling agreement to give the night what it wanted for a half-hour.
Anki! We were jubilant at one! And despite the months of knowing what we were asked to do, and the mounting feeling that the majority of the city bought into the plan, even so, the shuttering of the city was shocking.
What buildings we could see darkened nearly as one, as if in some joyous catastrophe. I hadn't realized I could see the ambient glow of the rest of the city until it dropped away from us in a patchwork of losses, darkening and darkening, leaving and leaving us more and more in the night. Until finally all we had was the comfortable press of each other's bodies huddled under the spectacle of the stars.
And then, above: the body ship.
* * *
"Thank you. I appreciate you having me in your home. The profile I'm writing should come out just as your show opens. The 24th, correct?"
"Hm. Ruby usually does these for me," says Murthy. She's shuffled and lowered herself into a rattan chair that bends and closes around her shape. "Phone calls and emails and…" She finishes the thought with low-chinned nodding.
I thank her again for taking the time. She nods once more. We wait to hear Ruby's steps in the hall. There's nothing but the scratch of someone sweeping the patio downstairs. Murthy appears to be a woman totally comfortable with silence. Immune or indifferent to awkwardness. It's a particular lack of tension that leads me to being spouting inanities.
"First exhibition in two decades, that must be very exciting!" Nothing. "Or very stressful?" Maybe a frown, maybe indigestion. "I always get so nervous before a new piece is published, even when I'm confident in it, you never know what people will take away from something after you've let it go. You know?" She makes no show of artistic solidarity. I gesture to the figures arrayed along the walls. "I recognize a few of these, are they all yours?"
Murthy turns to consider the contents of her own home with what looks like squinting resentment. A misfire meant for me, perhaps.
"I put my dead ends in this room."
In the far corner is a four-foot-tall sculpture that roughly half the people alive today would recognize on sight. A stooped, naked human figure seated in a wheelchair, sexless, skin a burnished orange. It's the original design piece for one of the massive wire-frame figures from her Travelers series that hung over three cities worldwide.
"Drafts?" I ask. It's maybe the first time she looks at me straight-on.
"Failures," she says. "They came too easily, no ordeal in them. I know, early in the work, if it is a failure. Because I am too comfortable. Because I am too confident in it. I must finish the piece, though. Superstition. Must close the circle."
When she has nothing more to say to me, Murthy picks at the cloth of her duster. Unspeaking, she looks for all the world like someone's stocky, provincial lola. I try to make a compliment of her decades-spanning body of work versus a small sitting room of (supposed) duds. She tells me there are countless more, but these are the ones she's elected to keep. Ruby the personal assistant appears in time to hear the beginning of a strident complaint about the selective enforcement of ordinances regulating what can and cannot be burned in residential lots.
My expectations for Ruby the PA have been built from several years' experience interfacing with the handlers of the high-profile tier of artists which Murthy sits atop. These assistants have been broadly competent people, nearly always under thirty, nearly always looking out of the corner of their eye for the opportunity to leap from their star's orbit into whatever else came along. Young people with more ambition than direction, experts at appearing inoffensive, yet stylish. In a certain sub-section of the arts crowd, they're the type to have those brutalist face tattoos that confound facial recognition software. They operate somewhere between being a bodyguard, a butler, and a mobile device. I'm nearly always intimidated by personal assistants. I expect the elderly woman in paper-thin tsinelas knocking at the door frame saying "excuse, po" to be someone announcing Ruby. But she soft-steps in and apologizes for her lateness.
"Ruby Tibay," she introduces herself.
We'd corresponded via email to arrange this interview, and for months I hadn't paid attention to her surname, which is of course Anita Murthy's maiden name. This is her elder sister. I gamely pretend to have realized this all along. She graciously lets me believe I've fooled her. She's tidied up the studio, which I wish she hadn't done, and asks if I'd like to tour it now. Murthy would rather finish listing grievances against the barangay kapitan, but agrees that the light is best this time of morning.
The sisters have shared this property since Murthy's wife passed away in 2032. It's two buildings with small footprints situated on opposite corners of a lush garden, every square meter occupied by something fruiting or flowering or doing both. We process along the dirt path to the studio: two stooped and greying women, and me stooping between them to catch their shorthanded conversation. Everything smells of sun-warm earth.
It's the sort of place where I'd expect a small herd of dogs, or cages of pampered birds, but there are no non-human members of the household and I'm told there never have been. Neighborhood cats are shooed back over or under the gate. They did have animals underfoot in childhood, though. Ruby narrates a list of them which Murthy annotates. A series of related dogs (those were not our dogs), a goat or possibly several goats in succession (goats do not have names), a pair of chicks bought during Holy Week when they were dyed neon pink and carted down the road with dozens of their cheerily discolored siblings (yes, we did eat them, I watched papa twist their necks).
The studio squats in the shade of a massive santol tree. Ruby plucks a fallen fruit from the grass and slips it into her pocket. Murthy opens the studio with a progression of actions that have the look of ritual. She wipes her shoes in the packed dirt at the door three times, pats the handle of the sliding door twice, then smooths her palm down the length of it, the heavy wooden handle inset in the heavy wooden door. I have the belated instinct to offer to help—it looks incredibly heavy. But she pushes just slightly and it slides on its own. And so, into the studio.
* * *
I wrote my university application essay on the topic of the launch of Murthy's body ship. I read Geeta Ramesh's account of piloting the ship at a particularly impressionable age and that, married to my memory of the night of the launch, led the story to take on the weight of real experience for me. It's a childish instinct, to think that one can insert themselves into a historical event like that. It's the kind of knowing misconception that makes meeting one's heroes so nerve-wracking.
And yet, I remember. Ramesh said it had been a century since anyone had seen the stars over Bangalore as clearly as we did that night. She said that it was 20:05 IST when she broadcast to all aboard that the moment had come. Thrusters fired from the toes and the heels and from the backs of the knees. Two hundred meters from the feet, bursts from the fingertips. Another two hundred and seventy meters from the hands, another burst from the crown of the head to stabilize the approach into low Earth orbit. Deep within the chest and the delicate neck: Anita Murthy and the crew of artists and engineers. Below: a child in the dark, pressed on all sides.
We saw her silhouette light up inside the sky. Exterior lights and the precisely calculated reflection of the invisible sun gilt the body's edges. Brighter than any satellite. As large as a fingertip held up against the stars. It was ourselves made incredible. The shape of a human body aloft, traversing the night.
For a moment, only. For a moment, we saw her.
Projections said it would take just ten minutes for the ship to cross out of sight below the horizon. Records say it was only visible for one before it simply blinked out, still high overhead. I can't remember seeing it move. In my memory, the shape of the body is stamped against the sky, alight. And then gone.
Ramesh recalls, and others who were aboard have independently agreed, that the crew experienced a moment of what she described as "profound embodiment". In an autobiography that was largely what you'd expect from a woman who was career military, whose most emphatic recollections of her youth and even marriage were recorded as "great fun", these passages were strikingly baroque.
It was as if the ship itself closed its eyes. Not the window, but the eyes. We were truly within the body then, cut off from the planet. Each of us alone within ourselves too, and then collectively alone. Somehow we encompassed the group entirely, grasped each other as if within massive palms, clasped safely together. When we returned to ourselves, we were gone.
In the city, we waited. There was nothing. My father cried and wouldn't tell me why. Shouting and barks of laughter ricocheted around the dark neighborhood. He stayed on the roof for another few hours that night, as the lights came back on and everyone else went to check the news, and as my mother forced me to bed.
After the end of the festival-atmosphere summer, the monsoons fell onto us for a long, funereal season. Nobody could find a wreck of the body ship, or even a trace. My mother said the anticipation had been a cruelty done to us all, and called the ultimate failure of the endeavor typical, what we should have expected. Around the city, the poetry moldered and fell. My father took me on no tours. We heard that the crew's family held empty cremations. Murthy's wife wrote a letter of general gratitude that ran in the Mirror and the Star. We let them go, and let go of the body ship, enormous as it was.
And then six months later, they came back to us from very far away.
* * *
Murthy is not precious about the physical stuff of her work.
"Touch anything," she says, and flaps her hands into the studio's interior, ushering me in before her.
The ideal light we have come in time to catch falls in thick yellow curtains through high eastern windows. The space is long and open, like a garage or a carriage house. The walls are bare and whitewashed, interrupted by thick pillars of the same dark, native wood that built the heavy door and the rafters above us, up among the double-high ceiling. Long wooden work tables run the length of the studio in three rows—two against opposite walls and one down the center. The floor is dirt, not cement. A cut stone path rings the room. Something in the building materials has made this a cool, dry environment, even just one step inside from the garden. A breeze blows in.
Were it not for the inhuman colors, the bits and pieces arrayed atop the work tables might make this sacred space look more like some sort of cannibalistic abattoir. A torso or three here, a dozen arms there, a haphazard pile of heads piled half a meter deep, their faces in agony.
Laid out alone on the center table is a full body, in repose as if for a wake. It's broad-shouldered, long-legged, its lap modestly draped in a towel. The skin of it is a mottled slate blue like the sea in a storm. Our entrance has interrupted the work of one of Murthy's assistants, a young man who is treating the ragged cuts gouged along the body's wrists with some sort of viscous resin. He holds up his own, animate hand to silently contradict Murthy's invitation to paw at the works-in-progress.
Ruby leads me in a lap around the room. Her sister dons an apron and plunges her hands into a shallow tub of some yogurt-colored paste. She begins pulling strips of cloth from within it, holding them very close to her eyes, kneading them, and then using some obscure criteria to sort some onto a drying rack and some back into the tub. Her dismissal of us is unspoken, immediate, and complete. I realize that the venue has given her the excuse to remove herself from our interview, and that this was of course the point. They've done this before.
At the start of our correspondence, Ruby Tibay had turned me down outright. Some embarrassing pleading on my part and her compassionate but firm replies led to the revelation that she thought I was another science writer out to pick the last, scanty flesh from the bones of the first body ship. Only after proving my artistic bonafides did she agree to pass my inquiry along to Murthy herself. Yet still, this reluctance. Ruby briefly, visibly hates when I ask if any of these sculptures-in-progress will be wrought large and sent up. As in up and out, as ships.
"Maybe, yes, although that isn't the preferred word," she says. Ships? "Sculpture."
"Oh. I'm sorry. To be honest, I was quoting from the press release about the opening. I found the term odd as well. I don't think I've heard her use it before." I look across the room at Murthy and then back, unsure whether to assume she's listening.
"I will call them. Annie's work are of people, functional. Like tinagtaggu, like mga taotao. They are in the shape of people because they must be, in order to be what they must be, hold what they must hold." We come to the table of heads. Ruby puts a palm to one of their brows. "These are practical objects."
She doesn't say what it is they must be, what they must hold. It's they question that's tormented those soldiering on with the scientific method since I was eight years old: why can the body ships fly like they do? What must we be, our bodies, what can we hold in order to shoot through the cosmos, away and back?
It's been asked of Anita Murthy before, of course, and incessantly. The assumption being that she must know something, or at least know more than Ramesh did. The first ship can't have been an accident, or so the thinking goes. So Murthy was hounded, photographed, her work dissected to the marrow, even as her wife fell ill and we proved once again that no amount of human tragedy can shame the public into incuriosity. This morning in the good yellow light of her studio, it's been more than twenty years past the death of her wife, since Murthy bought this remote plot of land, closed the gate behind her, and stopped showing her work. Though before all of that, when she was still our pride and our prophet, our national-artist-national-astronaut, in those days she also offered no answers.
It shames me that I still expect an answer from her. Murthy's half-bow-legged stoop shames me, and the dirt under her toenails. Her sister's thin, undyed hair shames me. That there are not children here, no other Murthys or Tibays, and that they know that I know this, this fills me with a horrible sympathetic shame. And, shamefully, I cannot find it in myself to give up my curiosity. The need to know what she knows.
Murthy is washing the white mixture off her hands in a deep, dirty skink.
"You said once that we're responsible for one another. Did you decide to come back, with this new collection, out of a sense of responsibility? To give more? To tell people… more?"
"When did I say that?"
"In a speech at the UN."
"Oh. I hated New York City."
"They're moving the headquarters soon. Flooding."
"Yes, I do read the news."
"So. The new collection?"
"You may attend the opening," says Murthy. "It will be in two weeks." Her sister then gently, firmly asks me to leave.
* * *
When the first ship re-appeared and we learned where they'd been, the line of investigation started with the engines. They were unremarkable, and remained so under scrutiny. Good Morning America aired a segment where they asked people on the street what they thought propelled the body ship so far out and back. I can't recall the details of the armchair physicists or the conspiracy theorists, but one little girl in a Superman shirt went viral. The one who struck the Christopher Reeves pose. "I can fly too!"
Tech-head JT Uppgren, flush with cash after what many would term war profiteering, built the second body ship as a sort of expensive, affectionate joke. One knee bent, one arm upstretched, the classic superhero. Uppgren rode in the style of a racecar driver: alone and cramped. As is the way with his sort, he broadcast himself live to the planet. "Up, up, and away!" He set out for an elliptical orbit. By the time he returned, eight months later, three more body ships has been built and launched.
There’s a library’s worth of material about Murthy from that period. After she returned, before she became a recluse. She and Ramesh and the rest were held for a while by the government of India, who it’s rumored extended interrogation rights to a handful of other nations. Certainly the Philippines in Murthy’s case, inevitably the Americans, probably the Chinese. They were out of sight for months, but Murthy emerged smiling, resilient. They’d wanted an equation from her, and she’d given them art.
I have a clipping, the actual magazine pages, from a profile that came out that year in Vogue, of all places. It’s scanty on quotes—she was never talkative. No, she had never seen the movie “Contact”. In fact she doesn’t watch many films at all. No, she can’t imagine what will come of human society with the discovery of travel by body ship. Must anything come of it? And no, certainly she had no insights about the spaceship part of the body ship, nor any of the ones that came after. She had no hand in that. “I simply made it look like a person,” she said.
What does it mean, then, to look like a person? The early imitators were conservative, they mirrored Murthy and Uppgren’s ships exactly. Then Murthy’s exhibition of her Travelers collection opened the conversation. She depicted the bodies of her grandparents and great-grandparents wrought massively into 25-foot-long miniature spacecraft, and had them suspended above the streets of Bangalore, London, and Makati, strung between and among the buildings. Frail bodies made colossal, spindled limbs in everyday poses, often as if sitting, some seeming to dart out from a nearby skyscraper, bellies rounded and lumpy with ropy metallic webbing, sheeting draped from them like flab. On their faces: stark rapture. It was the last year my family spent together, in Bangalore. Figure 3 hung above a street my parents commuted along every day. My mother didn't hate it, but she didn't care about it, and to my father this was much worse, a moral crime. In this face of this, I became an art lover.
He took me to see Figure 3 once, and to each of the other three figures in the city in turn. He taught me the way that Murthy made them appear to be people, and the ways she made them appear to be spaceships. The trickery of positioning and craft that gave the illusion of weightlessness and of flight. The textures that told the eye that they were elderly, that they were glad, that they were kindred. I never saw him draw more than a line. I never saw him pick up a brush, or hold a lump of clay. I never asked how he knew these things.
It was, to my father, the most incredible luck of our lives, and of my childhood, to live in the shadow of Murthy and her work. When my mother and I left him, he gave me a beautiful set of magnets bought in the art museum gift store, one for each of the figures that hung over the city. My mother wouldn't have appreciated them confronting her from the door of our refrigerator, so they stayed in their packaging. They may still be in it now.
After Travelers, up in the stars, we sent all sorts of bodies up. Fat body ships, starveling body ships, amputee body ships, and excruciatingly-anatomically-correct body ships. There was that (thankfully brief) fashion for overtly sexualized body ships. There were body ships curled into a fetal crouch, or their limbs spread wide, and bodies harrowingly disfigured, bodies in mid-stride, bodies hugging their own bodies, body ships deep asleep. And they flew, they all flew. Every one of them blinked out, went far, far away, and every one of them came back. We’ve found no edge to what was allowed. Every single body, a ship who looks like a person.
* * *
I halfway expect my invitation to the opening to get lost in the mail, but it does in fact arrive. It allows for a plus-one, so I invite my mother. She finds the offer truly hilarious and accepts, possibly just to extend the life of the joke.
The opening of Anita Murthy: Children is held at the new Metropolitan Museum of Manila building, which was built after the loss of the old BSP location on Roxas Boulevard and is blessedly lacking in the claustrophobic weight of its ancestor. Yes, it looks a bit like a toilet paper roll stood on end, but inside the building that slim spiral of windows and the round, clear ceiling create a drama that recalls the airy space of Murthy's studio. A thick crowd of barong tagalogs, sherwanis, saris, and airy Western outfits are in attendance. Before the speeches begin, I misplace my mother somewhere near the wine bar. To search her out I have to wander through the forest of the artworks.
They are bodies, the ones I'd seen piecemeal. Their shapes and sizes are various, though within human scale, and the variations stand out less than the injuries. Along with the suicide that had been on the studio work table, there are bodies of the beaten, the mutilated, the surely-murdered. One body’s scalp hangs on by a literal, stitched thread, and flaps wetly down. Down because every body is raised above our heads on anywhere from two to six stilts. As if they are nipa huts, and we, their viewers, the shallow waters. Up the spiral walkway, we can ascend to stand at their level, and then higher. Clear walkways cross the empty space inside the tube of the walls, and in singles and pairs people travel these to see the bodies from above.
The room holds a tension in between a feeling of community and the feeling of the collectively accused. It reminds me that Murthy spoke of the "ordeal" of creation, and also that certain confrontational performance artists of the last century termed their work "the art of the ordeal". The idea being both that the artist goes through an ordeal, and also that it is the job of the artist to lead spectators through an anxious passage to a place of release. That it was, in a way, their responsibility to put us through such an ordeal. Around the second turn of the climb, my mother stands casually chatting with the artist and her sister.
"This is much better, of course. Look! Hah, they hate it." My mother is pointing into the throng of big names and pocketbooks below, grinning. "They wanted more of that stuff from before that nobody understood. Outer space and whatever, young people things—we-can-do-anything, inspiration. They hate this!"
Ruby Tibay catches my eye. The loose skin of Murthy's face is contorted, but before I can panic entirely, it resolves into a sharp, straight-lipped smile. She is trying not to laugh too loudly. She is patting my mother's elbow with mirth and affection.
I press wine glasses into empty hands to say hello. Ruby does not drink, Murthy emphatically does. She looks very much the same there, save for a string of freshwater pearls and a pair of closed-toe loafers. She wants to know what I think of the collection. I stall. The milling crowd presses me up against my mother's side. I want to know if Murthy is satisfied with the collection.
"I do think it is better than I was. But better for me, only. You are maybe not satisfied. I'm not young anymore," she says. And she twinkles at my mother for a moment. "I am in conversation only with myself. But they can take them, to build these larger and send them up, if they want to."
The sisters move away, compelled by the gallerist and a huddle of black suits. My mother and I step out across one of the thin paths through the air to look down at the bodies and the art below us. She and I, suspended above them, see our own shadows fall onto the people below. There is mine now, traversing the wide space, reflecting onto it in the shape of a person. We cross, and it goes, away and back.
Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in venues such as Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, and Lightspeed. He's currently pursuing an MA in creative writing at the University of the Philippines- Diliman. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.
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