Wish upon a star

“Wish upon a star: Gary Simmons and the Ghost House” in Gary Simmons: Ghost House. SITE Santa Fe (2002).

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I had the opportunity to be peripherally involved in the making of Gary Simmons’ Ghost House on Ruby Ranch in Santa Fe New Mexico. Here is a short text I wrote for the exhibition book.

For a more detailed analysis of Simmons’s artwork, see Avery F. Gordon, “Making Pictures of Ghosts: The Art of Gary Simmons. Social Identities Vol 5(1):89–124 (1999).

Wish upon a star

When I first see the house completed, nothing happens. I look, I look again. I see the same falling-down front porch and bird's nest in the rafters I saw before. I see the newly slated walls covered with chalk drawings--partially erased, blurry, and beautiful. I see that the stairwell has been removed and access to the second floor blocked off. Last time, I went upstairs. I see the kitchen full of debris through a white scrim, and also that it can't be entered except from the back of the house. I walk outside and see the windmill, the grass, the cottonwoods in the distance, the quiet, and that it's going to rain hard very soon. I go back into the house, pass the wishing well, barely recognizing its shape, and walk to the back bedroom, which is completely empty and completely covered with shooting stars. There, I feel something stirring, but I can't put my finger on it. The bus has taken the art tour back to Santa Fe. There are only a few of us left hanging around now. It does rain hard, but then it stops. There are no distractions. I walk through the house again. Nothing happens. I try to make something happen because this is the last time I will see the house before I return home. I walk through one more time, willing myself to try harder, straining in anticipation for a revelation, a whisper of a word, a fleeting memory of my own or another's. I give up for the moment. I'm trying too hard. Sometimes the point is the sky streaked with the trajectories of thoughts someone scans and frowns at to see, to find, to hear. And it seems this has been the whole of her life, and when the sky peels away, drops and glides on a smooth wind, she asks the bird, "Do you have a message for me?" [1]

Gary Simmons is well known for his practice of creating ghostly images out of "static vocabularies" and "stock renderings of experience" in order to register the dialectic of presence and absence, hope and loss, injury and repair specific to our history. Aiming not simply to "engage but to haunt the viewer," Simmons has created a distinct iconography or vocabulary of partially erased objects from popular culture. The white chalk is a fugitive yet stark presence against the slate drawing surface. These evanescent and pointed objects, designed to blur the boundaries between the familiar and the forgotten, animate the works with the power to transport us right into that place where the taken-for-granted borders between past and present and between what's remembered and what's suppressed are opened and available for critical reflection.[2]

Simmons has made a set of his signature erasure drawings in a dilapidated and abandoned house on Ruby Ranch, a private property a few miles outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. The name of this project is Ghost House.[3] It has been designed to be viewed once by the public and to be left at Ruby Ranch to slowly decay and eventually disappear. In this sense, the intent of Simmons's installation is to become a place where the traces of his art activity will linger amidst the past and ongoing activities at the ranch and in the surrounding environment. Something else of the Ghost House will be preserved here in this book and in the other art-world sites where a partial facsimile of it will be accessible for viewing. My goal here is simply to offer these brief remarks as an accompaniment, after the fact as it were, to the photographic rendering of the House.

Ruby Ranch sits along the Sapello River in San Miguel County where the town of Los Alamos once resided. Los Alamos had a post office, a general store, several houses, and a Catholic Church, which still remains in use for funerals. Los Alamos was connected to Las Vegas as a small town is connected to a larger one, and also was a trade stop between Las Vegas and Fort Union, where the black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed. Los Alamos is known in histories of Las Vegas as the place where the infamous Vincent Silva, bar owner and leader of the Society of Bandits, met his demise in 1893 at the hands of members of his own gang. Though they helped Silva kill his brother-in-law and kidnap his wife, the gang drew the line when he murdered his own wife and kept the bulk of the money he had stolen from the Los Alamos general store for himself. They shot him, stole the money back, and left him dead in a ditch. Shortly after the unsuccessful efforts of the White Caps (Las Gorras Blancas), a militant and insurrectionary organization of rural Hispanic settlers, to prevent the increasing encroachment and privatization of public lands by Anglos, J. D. Hand and the Ten Lakes Land Company bought the town in 1912. Hand did not parcel the 100,000 acres and sell it off as 50-acre farms as he had planned, but he did build an extensive and impressive irrigation system. The Kirpatrick family bought 20,000 acres in 1958, and today they use Ruby Ranch for ranching their young cattle brought up from Texas. A man named Domingo and his family lived in the actual house where Simmons has constructed the Ghost House. He was a ranch hand and his wife a housecleaner. There were sheep and egg farms next door. Kent Kirpatrick, who graciously donated use of Domingo's old house and who is no doubt the leading expert on the history of Los Alamos and Ruby Ranch, remembers them and their children. Apparently, Domingo was a bit of an artist himself, having left erotic drawings in a ruined double log cabin elsewhere on the property, where he allegedly met his girlfriend. Mr. Kirpatrick remembers many other stories—about the Taos Pueblo people who may have come down into the valley to fish during the summers, for example—and remembers also that there are many stories the local elders will not share about their past.[4]

It's a good distance, by city standards, from the entrance gate of Ruby Ranch to the small broken-down house whose front faces the cottonwoods along the banks of the river and the grassy plains beyond that once led to Fort Union. It's very quiet and the rickety screen door squeaks as you open it. The first set of rooms you see when you enter is called Chandelier Chaos. They are filled with drawings of several gloriously elegant and old-fashioned chandeliers—redolent of gaiety and enterprising dancers beneath their shining lights—spinning perilously out of control, appearing ready to come crashing down, evoking the sound of fragile glass splintering into pieces. Standing in what used to be the living and dining rooms, turning slowly to see what's around you, you start to feel as if you've entered a strangely otherworldly place. The walls are all slated gray, the ceiling is new and painted stark white, the floors are swept clean. The impending rainstorm has darkened the house, its few windows permitting only a small amount of light to seep in, setting the scene with an eerie glow. There's a feeling of enclosure and also a feeling of expansiveness as the chandeliers begin to come alive, inviting you into the house, encouraging you to keep moving into the other rooms. The old sitting room has become the scene of strongly blurred birdcages--large, erect, and imposing. If there are birds inside of them chirping happily or angrily straining for flight, their activity is almost entirely erased, leaving these cages hanging on the wall as monuments to an unnamed but effective system of containment or imprisonment. It's a bit of a relief to walk down the hallway past the wishing well, and peer through the white scrim into what's left of the kitchen, rubble strewn across the floor. A sense of warmth emerges from the house, but it doesn't quite prepare you for the shining beauty of the back bedroom covered with a mass of shooting stars, enveloping the room in an aura of peace and calm. Lit by an open window whose long grassy vista stretches out beyond where the eye can see, the room invites you to stay awhile, to ruminate, and to make your own wishes upon the stars in the almost magically unending space of hopefulness and optimism the very small room surprisingly affords. Stay you may, but you are forced to leave the house by the front door, on a course that takes you back, once again, past the hallway wishing well and those ominous bird cages and spinning chandeliers.

What does it mean to leave a Ghost House on Ruby Ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico? For me, answering this question has entailed knowing with what history and social reality the Ghost House will keep company, interacting in the peculiar and somewhat unpredictable way that ruins and haunts and traces do.[5] What was there before that's been written over? What relationship between past, present, and future already resides here, creating a mode of transmission or inheritance that's inevitably bound up with the local popular and elite traditions for understanding what was, what is, and what's to be? If the Ghost House will always be there waiting for you, as Toni Morrison suggested in Beloved, her profound meditation on haunting and memory, what will you find if you bump into it?[6]

Answering these questions has proved more difficult than I anticipated. Simmons’s Ghost House keeps company in a place overcrowded with ruins and ghosts of the past. This overcrowding presents an analytic challenge, and it also threatens to overwhelm the capacity of Simmons's images to do their work: to offer you a space for contemplation such that what's there and what you bring to what's there meet in a moment of profane illumination. In Las Vegas, New Mexico, the past comes out to greet every visitor. People regale you with tall and short tales, the library archives are full, and the city explains itself to outsiders in historical reference. Do you know, you're asked, about Baca's Folly, and how the arrival of the railroad created two towns not reunited until 1970? Do you know about Hoodoo Brown and the Dodge City Gang, and that Jesse James, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid came through town when East Las Vegas, during its brief heyday, was already mythologized as the quintessential Western amusement center, with its enticing mix of corruption, violence, and pleasure? Pictures of the hanging of Navajo Frank and stories of a powerful gangster culture--what Howard Bryan calls an "end-of-track civilization"--are particularly popular, from the "good" Harvey Girls working the Castañeda Hotel to the glamorous and mysterious opium-smoking, unbeatable card dealer and vaudeville entertainer Monte Verde (also reputed to be an ex-Confederate spy). Las Vegas, the "oldest film location in New Mexico," with its hopes of becoming the film capital of the world when movie directors and stars such as Romaine Fielding and Tom Mix had studios in town and made a series of cowboy westerns whose imaginative scenes of national settlement are all too familiar. Las Vegas, scene of the debacle that was Jack Johnson's 1912 "White Hope" boxing match against Jim Flynn. Las Vegas, host of the reunions of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders charged with their imperial missions. Las Vegas is full of its history of civic boosterism, of rural workers' struggles, of quiet pleasures and hard lives, of a variety of conscious schemes and forgotten dreams. Did you know …?[7]

Neither the place nor Simmons's work can quite carry this exaggerated and intensely narrativized history of hope and loss, a history rooted in and also hanging on to the years between the 1850s and the end of World War One when one optimistic development scheme after another failed. Military supply production, ranching, filmmaking, sporting, tourism--these enterprises, in their turn and each time they were resurrected--promised to make Las Vegas into the capital of something which would draw people and money and keep them there. From the moment in 1846 when General Kearney announced the annexation of Mexico in the center of the town plaza, the site of the ominous lynching windmill, and despite, or because of, its enduring poverty, Las Vegas had pretensions to civilization, development, and national prominence.[8] But they were never realized. These pretensions, however illusory they were initially, weigh the place down and continue to inflect its spirit. Today, Las Vegas stands in the shadow of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, holding tight to its stories of a past more glorious than its present--stories easily shared with strangers and with each other, stories capable of catching a bit of hope for the future on their ragged edges.

In Las Vegas, the past comes out to greet every visitor. Visitors are given stories of the past as a kind of gift of interaction and communion. To reject them would be rude, uncalled for. And yet there are too many of them swirling around Simmons's Ghost House, which sits contiguously and without direct reference to the city's haunted grounds. The cacophony of real and imagined stories cries out for quiet, for silence; for enough quiet to give the house room to speak in its own language, with its own tales. Gary Simmons's Ghost House will fade into the whispering background of the Taos people who no longer come down from the mountain, of the long-gone soldiers at Fort Union, of Domingo and his family who have no archival named history, of the stories the elders won't tell. It will keep company with the Kirpatrick family and their Texas cattle. It will reach across what is now a highway into the city of Las Vegas, perhaps to share a knowing laugh with Jack Johnson or cast a critical eye on its visibly distressed community. It will throw its ghostly shadow across a place where the past comes out to greet every visitor. Will its spinning chandeliers, shooting stars, sinking wishing well, and crushing birdcages carry a clear message to its ghostly co-conspirators? That, I can't say. Only those who encounter these ghostly icons will be able to tell us, later, if they choose, in what language they speak and to what end. For the rest of us, encountering the Ghost House in bits and pieces—as photographs or as transplanted artifacts—in the quiet of a book or a museum, will, in a gesture of the meeting of the creative power of the artist and the viewer, "make up stories around the silence of a picture, like a ghostly second frame."[9]

As we make up these stories, we would be wise to remember that ghosts don't like new things.[10] Ghosts are characteristically attached to the events, things, and places that produced them in the first place; after all, by nature, they are haunting reminders of lingering trouble. Ghosts stick pretty close to home precisely because once the conditions that call them up and keep them alive have been removed, their reason for being and their power to haunt is severely restricted. Gary Simmons's Ghost House was made on Ruby Ranch just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Of course, the house was made in other contexts too, contexts which are not confined at all to that particular locale. As the Ghost House moves and takes up residence elsewhere, its power will be inevitably diminished and enhanced. While the Ghost House will always be waiting for you there, where it sits, it will also travel, acquiring new and surprising messages as its images are relayed from one person to another, from one place to the next. And such is its promise and its beauty—a House where you must past through dangerous spinning lights and foreboding cages to reach the bright place where you can wish upon a star.

[1] Yvette Christiansë, Castaway, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999, p. 109.
[2] The quotations are from Gary Simmons, Artist Statement, courtesy of author. For a fuller, illustrated analysis of Gary Simmons artwork, see Avery F. Gordon, "Making Pictures of Ghosts: The Art of Gary Simmons, Social Identities 5, no. 1 (1999), pp. 89-124.
[3] I have had the opportunity to be peripherally involved in this project over the somewhat lengthy time of its fruition, courtesy initially of Gina Dent. I'd like to thank Gary Simmons for including me in the project and for our ongoing collaboration. Louis Grachos, director, and Erin Shirreff, associate curator, at SITE Santa Fe were exceptionally hospitable to me and a pleasure to work with, as was editor Sarah King. Kent Kirpatrick provided considerable information about the history of Ruby Ranch when he kindly gave me a tour of the Ranch and a lengthy interview in March 1997. I thank him for his time and for sharing his knowledge. I conducted archival, documentary, and ethnographic research in conjunction with this project. I'd like to thank M.A. Bortner for making the first research trip with me, Rachel Luft for her tireless and able research assistance, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau for her extremely helpful comments.
[4] For a map of Los Alamos and the land acquired by J.D. Hand, see the June 1919 Official County and Road Map, San Miguel County, in the Rough Riders Museum, Las Vegas, NM. Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, We Fed Them Cactus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), contains oral histories from Los Alamos residents and from Las Vegas residents about Los Alamos and the towns along the Sapello River. Historical information about Los Alamos is provided in Anselmo F. Arrellano and Julian Josue Vigil, Las Vegas Grandes on the Gallinas 1935–1985 (Las Vegas, NM: Editorial Teleraña, 1985); Clarence Pullen, "Scenes About Las Vegas, New Mexico," Harper's Weekly 34, no. 1751 (July 12, 1890), pp. 539 and 544; F. Stanley, "The Sapello New Mexico Story," (Nazareth, TX, 1970), and The Las Vegas Story (Denver: World Press Inc., 1951). On Fort Union and the Buffalo Soldiers, see "Fort Union. Black Troops in the West: The 19th Cavalry," and "Fort Union National Monument. New Mexico," U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service; Monroe Lee Billington, New Mexico's Buffalo Soldiers, 1866-1900 (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1991); William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976); Clinton Cox, The Forgotten Heroes: The Story of the Buffalo Soldiers (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1993); Arlen Fowler, The Black Infantry in the West, 1869–1891 (Norman,OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). On Vincent Silva and the White Caps, see Howard Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West (Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1988).
[5] See Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
[6] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 36.
[7] The City of Las Vegas with the Citizens' Committee for Historic Preservation has produced a series of pamphlets providing historical guides of the city, all printed courtesy of the Las Vegas/San Miguel Chamber of Commerce: "Las Vegas and the Santa Fe Trail," "Residences of Las Vegas," "Stone Architecture of Las Vegas," "A Walking Tour of the Carnegie Park Historic District," "A Walking Tour of the Douglas/Sixth Street Historic District and the Railroad Avenue Historic District," "A Walking Tour of the Plaza and Bridge Street Historic Districts," "Shot in Las Vegas." Las Vegas's most prominent and distinguished historian is Lynn I. Perrigo. See his Gateway to Glorieta: A History of Las Vegas, New Mexico (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1982) and It Happened Here: Incidents in Las Vegas, New Mexico (Las Vegas, NM: Las Vegas-San Miguel Chamber of Commerce, 1986). For an early economic history, see William J. Parish, The Charles Ilfield Company: A Study of the Rise and Decline of Mercantile Capitalism in New Mexico (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961). On Monte Verde and other "true tales of a frontier town," see Bryan, Wildest of the Wild West. On Jack Johnson, see Al-Tony Gilmore, Bad Nigger! The National Impact of Jack Johnson (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1975); Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson is a Dandy: An Autobiography (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1969); David J. Kammer, "TKO in Las Vegas: Boosterism and the Johnson-Flynn Fight,” New Mexico Historical Review 61, no. 4 (October 1986), pp. 301-308; Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes (New York: The Free Press, 1983); Cedric J. Robinson, "In the Year 1915: D.W. Griffith and the Whitening of America," Social Identities 3, no. 2 (1997), pp. 161-192; Dan Streible, "Race and the Reception of Jack Johnson Fight Films," in Daniel Bernardi, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996); Raymond Wilson, "Another White Hope Bites the Dust: The Jack Johnson-Jim Flynn Heavyweight Fight in 1912," Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29, no. 1 (January 1979), pp. 30-39.
[8] When the first Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train rolled into Las Vegas, decked out in colorful bunting, on the Fourth of July, 1879, one mile east of where everyone expected it would be located, excited residents were greeted with General F.A. Smith's promises of "civilization," development, and "national greatness." See also Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The History of the Military Occupation of the Territory of New Mexico From 1846 To 1851 by the Government of the United States (Chicago: The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1909).
[9] Paul Watkins, The Forger (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p. 202.
[10] See Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981), p. 21.