Rachel Lyon


Rachel Lyon received her MFA in creative writing at Indiana University and her BA at Princeton. She has been, among other things, a radio producer, a teacher of people aged five to twenty-five, fiction editor at Indiana Review, and an editorial assistant at The Sheep Meadow Press. Her work has appeared in The Portland Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, Toad, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Arts & Letters, and Works & Days.

The Installation

The American artist turned out to be a woman. In retrospect, city officials had only themselves to blame. They should have done more research. They should have asked around. In their defense, though, her work did not betray her gender, and she went by just one name. In their defense, their country was known for being a little slow, and very far away.

Despite their surprise they treated the artist with the utmost respect. She had been invited to put their city on the map, after all. She was to create an installation meant to bring tourists from Europe, America, China. Pretty restaurants and Continental-style bars were already popping up in the slums in expectation. The very plan for her work had grown the economy, was creating jobs—phrases like these were becoming familiar to the city officials via optimistic international news reports. The city officials were excited. Their plan was working already. Already, it seemed, they were on the map. So they booked the American artist a room in a hotel on the wild river, where all night monstrous trees were whipped around by the wind, and birds the size of children dove for silver fish. She was fed local specialties—fish and grains and fruit and mollusks she’d never known existed—at meals with local dignitaries (though, curiously, they all ended up having to leave before midnight, forgoing their customary cigar).

The artist stayed for seven months, through the hottest season, through the rain, and into the morbid quiet of the misty tropic winter. She camped out with her materials in a vacant room on the top floor of a twenty-seven-story public housing high rise on a small alley high on the mountain slope. She hired ten or twenty men to transport several tons of lumber from the forest to the city to the alley, and to carry it up the endless concrete stairs. Half-naked children followed the men through the stairwells, asking questions they didn’t know the answers to. No one asked the artist any questions, but they knew she was doing something. Her sounds of hammering and sawing, banging and drilling, kept the neighborhood up all night. (Nobody complained. The people who lived in that quarter were as accustomed to inconvenience as they were to hunger.)

When the installation was completed, the city officials planned a grand opening. They invited all the country’s dignitaries, businessmen, its two living celebrities—a model and the son of a former pop star—and several highly esteemed citizens who would have been aristocracy had the country’s monarchy not been overthrown years before. They might have neglected all the local artists if the American had not insisted. Her entitlement, and her sudden friendship with the city’s sculptors, painters, and artisans, surprised the officials, but in the end they invited all those people too. There were a couple of other guests no one had seen before, friends of the artist: pale Americans in thin fabrics, tall shoes and lipstick, sweating in the humid, windy afternoon.

They were a large group. They began on the top floor of the public housing high rise, which had been vacated of residents and transformed into a gallery, its inner walls torn out, its outer walls painted white, and a table set up to serve wine and the country’s ubiquitous liqueur. Large photographs documented the artist’s seven-month process: Here she was bending over a two-by-four in the bright sunlight, a glowing mist in the air around her, a look of concentration on her face. Here, her team of men lugging a tree trunk up the dingy stairs, a boy looking on from the edge of the frame, chewing on his shirt. Here a nighttime shot, the whole dark room lit by harsh bulbs in aluminum lamps clamped to wooden horses, somebody’s work glove on the floor.

The mayor made a speech the artist clearly didn’t understand. The unofficial head of the team of city officials spoke too. The artist said something in English that was translated as she talked. Everyone clapped and had a drink and looked at the photographs. A teenaged boy went around with a clipboard stacked with release forms in case anyone was hurt while experiencing the art. Soft music played through low-quality speakers. Eventually, in threes and fours, the group began to make its way out the window, where the artist had fashioned a wooden staircase that led into the sky.

At the top of the staircase was what can only be described as an environment. A sort of cabin with walls made of glass over which dripped clear rainwater that had been captured in troughs far above. The cabin walls were angled in, so that the floor was smaller than the ceiling would have been—had there been a ceiling—but it was just sky. And what a glorious sky that afternoon, blue and gold and green, smears of pinkish cloud in the west and the first glimmers of cobalt in the east over mountains thick and dark with luscious trees. Enormous birds hovered over prey that only they could see. Droplets of days-old rainwater splattered on the American tourists’ expensive shoes. The artist had constructed a soundproof shield below the cabin so that no street noise floated up to invade the environment. It was completely removed, another world. Looking over the wall of water toward the mountains, one of the Americans whispered, “I think I see a dinosaur.” All anyone could hear were the sounds of the wind, of the birds, of the ferocious river.

The son of the former pop star was the first to notice the little rope meant to lift the square door in the floor. Kneeling, his dreadlocks falling over his shoulder, his knees creaking, he pulled, and the wooden square was lifted from the other boards, and the noises of the street rushed in like water through a hole in the bottom of a boat. He leaned his moppy head into the hole and gestured for the group to come toward him. From the cabin dropped a splintery, long—endlessly long—wooden ladder. The son of the former pop star put one foot on the first rung. He indicated with a thumbs-up to the small crowd that it was steady. Then he put his other foot on the rung below it and began—slowly, slowly—to let himself down from the cabin in the perfect sky.

It was a shocking descent, a fall from paradise to prison. One moment the visitors were surrounded by sky and mountains and wind and light; the next, they were climbing down—and the ladder wobbled threateningly under their weight—past glassless windows where men and women yelled and laundry flapped in the violent draft and babies cried (after all, they’d been kept awake for the past seven months). The further the visitors descended, the dirtier everything became. At the eighteenth floor they began to smell the over-roasted coconut on the corner and the exhaust from the broke down cars and buses that tore precariously through the nearby street. At the twelfth floor they could see the marks of bus exhaust on the walls, and the blood of a long-dead man on somebody’s window casing, and the carcass of a pigeon half-stuck to a ledge. At the fifth floor they could smell the body odor still leftover in the ever-damp clothes that hung supposedly to dry, and the puddles of sewage in the streets, and the secrets that the adolescents carried in their arm pits and their groins. By the time the last of the group made it down to the street below, the first few had already left, a little stunned, to wend their way through the mazelike streets, to find a cab.

Back in the States, in certain circles, the Americans who’d gone to the opening of the installation were thought very well of. Thought better of, in fact, than the installation itself, which was getting mixed reviews. They were asked by certain magazines and radio programs what they thought of the whole experience, what they thought of the art. They raved about the cabin in the sky. It was like being in a snow globe, they said, it was like Eden. Then they were asked if they thought the installation would bring in the kind of tourism the city was after. At that the American visitors shook their heads and rolled their eyes. “Not there,” they said, “not ever.” The work was good, they hastened to confirm. It was just a shame it hadn’t been constructed in a better neighborhood. That installation could have really been a destination.

Recently, the American artist was passed up for a major public works grant. Her installation had been written up in a well-known magazine under a glib headline: “The Most Depressing Work Of Art You’ll Ever See.” Now, in the tropic heat, the installation is starting to decay. Its unfinished wooden floorboards have begun to rot. The door in the floor was lost or dropped, leaving a gaping hole. Some months ago a large bird flew into and broke one of the cabin’s glass walls, leaving blood and feathers and hollow bones behind. Neighborhood children use the ladder as a plaything, daring each other to climb its deteriorating rungs, seeing how far past their own world they can rise into the unreachable sky.

My mother is an artist. Her work is nothing like what's described in this story, but I dreamt once that she had created an installation in some mysterious country. I sat down and wrote ‘The Installation’ that day. The work of art itself appears more or less as it did in my dream, but the plot is the product of waking work.