Two Palaces at Four A.M.

Duncan, a Bottom-headed monarch, writes an autobiography. Regret wells. An underling composes a letter to the king’s former lover, who is a bogle.1 In the letter, pomp and reminiscence alternate until, finally, desperate entreaty breaks through. Reading the epistle, we learn that Duncan had met his ex-lover, the fantastical being Hannahbella, years prior, while still a prince. A prince with the head of an ass, mind you, cannot expect the same sure fortune as your run-of-the-mill prince. An uncommon pair, he equicephalic, she a “semispirit” in the form of a diminutive (waist-high) but otherwise physically perfect woman, the two are surprisingly well-matched. For starters, they’re mutually attracted. Moreover, though there’s no talk of proverbial backscratching as they spoon on the night of their first meeting, each benefits from the relationship: while bogles, historically maligned and beset, lack any sort of political aegis, Duncan, a misfit and outcast with noble blood, requires an ally and strategist. With Hannahbella’s help and despite organized opposition, Duncan ascends to the throne upon the death of his father. A brief bliss reigns. The two share intimate moments in the palace in the wee hours. Of course, the union does not endure: Duncan blunders. Hence the regretful, beseeching letter.

Don Barthelme, surely an eminent citizen of some town or other, writes in another story:

Walking down West Broadway on a Saturday afternoon. Barking art caged in high white galleries, don’t go inside or it’ll get you, leap into your lap and cover your face with kisses. Some goes to the other extreme, snarls and shows its brilliant teeth. O art I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me.

Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at Four A.M. can be found on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Enclosed in a vitrine atop a chest-high pedestal, a dozen-some carved wooden skewers and a few small partitions delineate an architecture. The structure sits on a wood platform with slow, domestic corners. Served, as if on a table. To the left stands a woman, dressed and armless; in the middle, a few inches up from the floor, sits a sort of cradle, at the base of which rests a ball; in front of this form hangs a pane of glass; on the right is a cage, from which depends a spinal column; above that a skeletal pterosaur is suspended. With a strong diagonal and the jutting lines of an unfinished tower, it seems a bit haphazard for a palace. It has a stillness, though, despite the subtle swinging of the spine. (I didn’t notice the glass or the pterosaur moving.) “Quietude,” I guess, is more accurate.

Alberto Giacommetti - The Palace at Four A.M.

A tour guide points out the work to her group before they move on to an adjoining gallery. A few visitors linger, quizzing each other. “I see female anatomy,” essays a woman. “Upside down,” says another and, quickly following, quips, “Not that a man would know.”

According to the label, the work “was inspired by an all-engrossing six-month love affair with a woman identified only as Denise. ‘We constructed a fantastical palace in the night,’ [Giacometti] wrote, ‘…a very fragile palace of matches; at the least false movement a whole section of the diminutive construction would collapse; we would always began it all over again.'”

Rosalind Krauss includes a slightly more extensive version of this anecdote in a footnote to “A Game Plan: the Terms of Surrealism” in Passages in Modern Sculpture. The start of the chapter contrasts the role of chance in the work of Duchamp, on the one hand, and, on the other other, that of the Parisian Surrealists. In the former, chance helps negate the relationship between the artist and the artwork; in the latter, the opposite is true: chance– “chance”– is the agent of the unconscious, “attempting to remake reality according to its most extreme desire.” Desire, acting via the unconscious, effectively shapes reality: there is a “resemblance between desire and its product– between the viewer and the object that appears to have been waiting just for him.” In other words, there is recognition but also dissociation. Thus, the significance of Giacometti’s assertion that his works of the 1930s “presented themselves to [his] mind entirely accomplished.” Per Krauss, his sculpture “was to be a projection of desire rather than a product of something painstakingly wrought or painstakingly fashioned.”

Desire, the key term in Krauss’s account, tends to describe a shifting locus. A riddle: what hunter vanishes upon catching its prey? These two Palaces are full of loss. The pangs of loss are those of desire, which, once whetted, have dulled and broken: they cut but only painfully. The palace at four a.m. is fleeting, fixed in time and space; it is inescapable.

1 Hannahbella explains, ” ‘A bogle [. . .] is not a black dog.’ “



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