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Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace catalog (design - Wendy Peng)


H O
LE Story


Whoa, there's some things, baby, I just can't swallow
Mama told me that girls are hollow – nuh-uh
What's inside a girl?
Somethin' tellin' me there's a hole in the world

Well, you can't see it by satellite and baby, that's cheatin'
The President's callin' an emergency meetin'
The King of Siam sent a telegram
Sayin', "Wop bop a loop a lop a lop boom bam Woooeee - What's inside a girl?”
Somethin's tellin' me there's a whole 'nother world

Whatcha got, whatcha got, whatcha got in the pot?
Whatcha got, whatcha got, whatcha got in the pot?
In the bottom of your bottomless body pit
Oh baby, you got somethin' an' I gotta get it
Come on, baby, what's inside a girl?

The Cramps, “What’s Inside a Girl?” from A Date with Elvis, 1994




I’ve been trying to remember exactly who first turned me on to Mel’s Hole. I’m thinking it was probably Hannah Miller (whose excellent essay is included herein), but it may well have been Christine Siemens or the Rev. Ethan Acres, or the Marrin sisters, or some of the folks from the Center for Land Use Interpretation. So many of my friends were into the Art Bell radio show at the end of the last Millennium that it was somehow just in the air. But there’s more to it than that – an archetypal resonance that exempts the story – just like Mel’s Hole itself – from the constraints of space/time.

This accounts for the almost universal enthusiasm I encountered from individual artists (and, thankfully, one museum professional) while initially developing this exhibition, Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event in Radiospace. It’s the nature of archetypal images and narratives that they bring up deep and personal associations from across the spectrum of phenomena and even across time. The deeper and more basic the symbol, the more universal and multifarious its incarnations.

I myself began seeing holes everywhere – and was startled by the seemingly prophetic content in works like the Firesign Theatre’s mid-seventies masterpiece of vinyl and video narrative, Everything You Know is Wrong (a story about Hellmouth, California, trailer park-based radio host/paranormal researcher "Happy" Harry Cox and the apparently bottomless pit that appears in the High Desert), or the Cramps’ lyrics excerpted above – recorded more than a year before the Oklahoma City bombing began to skew Art Bell’s political talk show toward the paranormal tradition of Frank Edwards and Long John Nebel, and four years before Mel Waters sent his momentous fax to Bell’s compound in Pahrump.

When I revisited the Cramps’ recording and researched the lyrics, I encountered a few surprises. First, I had never deciphered the heavily reverbed line about the “bottomless body pit” and had completely forgotten the “Can’t see it by satellite” bit – a particularly spooky synchronicity given that the redacted TerraServer image of Mel Waters’ Ellensburg, Washington, property remains the iconic visual representation of the Mel’s Hole mystery. But of even greater interest was my apparent mishearing of the “Somethin' tellin' me” line, whose only official transcription reads “whole 'nother” as opposed to “hole in the” world. A trivial case of mistranslation it seems – not even worthy of the Archive of Misheard Lyrics at kissthisguy.com – but in fact it puts the finger on the exact fulcrum between the two very distinct symbolic meanings embodied by Mel’s Hole, and describes the secret narrative underlying the compelling surface story.

But perhaps I should back up a bit. The vast range in interpretations engendered by the Mel’s Hole story is well represented by the work in this exhibition, which runs the gamut from the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s steadfast literalism – organizing an investigative excursion to the relevant regions in hopes of discovering and documenting tangible evidence of the alleged geological formations – to the minimalist symbolic reduction in the prophetic (c. 1974) monochrome painting by James Hayward (one of the earliest and most eagerly committed of the exhibiting artists).

The complex voyeurism of Marnie Weber’s film/video/installation shows an artist clearly enamored with the peculiar hybrid of dream-logic storytelling in the virtual town square rhetoric of talk radio, while Paul Laffoley uses the hole as a sort of narrative switchboard connecting his own visionary explorations and the rhizomatic subculture of paranormal research. Rev. Ethan Acres slots the hole neatly into his own idiosyncratic mash-up of contemporary art practice and fundamentalist Christianity, while Jim Shaw discovered existing mythological parallels in his exploration of O-ism, a little-known matriarchal religious cult dating back to the early nineteenth century, whose iconography includes circular interdimensional portals.

Others have found similar correspondences between their extant practices and one or more of the layers of meaning in the saga of Mel’s Hole: Brenna Youngblood’s collage-based paintings of transformed domestic interiors easily accommodates a disappearing television picture tube (“My favorite thing to toss in there,” asserted Waters); Mark Dutcher used the Mel’s Hole motif as a formal segue from the hooked rugs in his elegiac columbarium paintings into what became an entire series of “portal paintings”; Don Suggs’ recent series of landscapes translated into concentric bands of color, Dani Tull’s Psychedelic-Romantic documentation of The Subterranean River Caverns of Los Angeles, Cathy Ward and Eric Wright’s multimedia explorations of the mythology of Manifest Destiny by way of the Donner Party – Mel’s Hole seems to magically fit practically anywhere. Mere coincidence? Perhaps…

But consider this: The Hole is a fundamental symbol of our species, spread too wide to be mapped in its omni-absence. Everybody’s got one. More than one. Any number of human orificial metaphors – not just anal, vaginal and oral, but extending to all our sensory receptacles; our eyes, ears, nose, and tastebuds, to our internal organs; our lungs, stomach, guts, and heart – down to the very pores of our skin – hold water as analogues for Mel’s Hole. I will shortly be addressing one of these in more detail, but it is important to first expand The Hole to its symbolic limits.

In a phenomenal world defined largely – like ours – by binary systems and polarities, The Hole is bound to its opposite as zero is to one, negative charge to positive charge, nothingness to being. Existentialist extraordinaire Jean-Paul Sartre in fact devotes an alarming amount of his magnum opus Being and Nothingness to The Hole, which Sartre understands as an absence waiting to be plugged. “The hole is originally presented as a nothingness ‘to be filled’ with my own flesh,” insists the noted philosopher “The child can not restrain himself from putting his finger or his whole arm into the hole. It presents itself to me as the empty image of myself. I have only to crawl into it in order to make myself exist in the world which awaits me.”

Sartre’s degraded and (mere coincidence?) feminized Void-as-imminent-bondage-mask seems an awkward and lopsided symbolic system compared to the elegant symmetries of Buddhist and Taoist cosmologies (and don’t get me started on Freud!), which venerate The Hole as the ground of being – the closest these Asian spiritual traditions come to the monotheistic concept of God. The Buddhist idea of Sunyata – the Void – cheerfully undermines the idea of an independent “self” – as well as the essential reality of all phenomena in favor of a duality-transcending emptiness. “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move,” Lao-Tzu instructs us. “We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

As we step back – as we must to continue discourse – from the duality-transcendence into the endlessly entertaining phenomenal world for a moment, questions occur to us: If the Hole is the hub, what are the spokes? As the Hole is to zero, blank is to one? A poet once queried: “Did you know that the Hole’s only natural enemy is the Pile?” Ah, the Pile! I have one in my fundament even as we speak. More than one. Any number of human orificial metaphors…. I know why you’ve been hanging out in those public restrooms, Neo. It’s the question: What is the Pile?

The Pile is Materialism. Capitalism. Samsara. All things bright and beautiful. The Pile is substance, desire, thing-ness; all that culture has to offer. The Pile is anything-and-everything-that-is-not-the-Hole. For Jean-Paul Sartre the Pile was Jean-Paul Sartre (as, apparently, was the Hole). The Pile is the self. For Mel Waters the Pile was “more than one” TV picture tube, some truckloads of tires, dead cows, ghost dogs, refrigerators; generations-worth of society’s jetsam, which – reunited with the gaping maw of depleted resources from whence they were given form – should level the landfill playing field for the next round in the infinitely recursive cycle of consumption: There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza.

The significance of the Mel’s Hole story begins precisely where it veers away from this formula: when the hole is not filled. Perhaps an infinite trash receptacle is the inevitable corollary generated by our society’s predication on infinite abundance, but it is unexpected enough that it is where Mel first hooks our artists’ and writers’ imagination. It throws us off balance, unnerves us by disrupting the natural order of things and not-things, without indicating what new order might ultimately (if ever) emerge. If the Hole is a womb, our unconscious conjures an insatiable Mama – that smothering and inescapable maternalism that is the bête noire of post-feminist America. If the Hole is a tomb, we are confronted with an exponentially expansive nothingness that ultimately reduces the vast but limited somethingness of the tangible world past the threshold of significance.

At the same time, the unfillability extends the tantalizing mystery of the Hole – what’s in there? Something good? Something bad? – and indefinitely postpones the post-coital depression that comes from infinite possibilities collapsing into measurable mundane parameters. It is this potential for endless reception – a form of attention, even – that sparks the excitement of the creative type. Unsurprising, as the history of art could be spelled out in holes – from the 32,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet Caves (cognitive archeologist David Lewis-Williams equates the birth of human consciousness with Paleolithic cave art ; Georges Bataille – in the French author’s first published English translation (1955) – describes the cave paintings at Lascaux as the Birth of Art ) to the negative space carved out from Chris Burden’s left arm in Santa Ana in 1971 when (in the performance Shoot, which made him famous overnight) he had a friend fire a copper-jacket .22 long rifle bullet at him, creating a Modernist art history wormhole from which much of the art world – having passed through – has been moving furiously backward in time ever since.

Between these far shamanic shores lies a veritable Sea of Holes (many having something to do with the body of Christ), but it is this shift from Hole as finite vacancy to Hole as portal that is the locus of meaning for Mel’s story. When we learn of the mysterious 1943 Roosevelt dimes found adjacent to the Ellensburg hole, there occurs a fundamental figure/ground shift away from fundamental figure/ground kinds of polarities toward a decentralized multiversal model of reality. By the time we get to the Nevada hole, with its ice-burning, fetal-seal-materializing, cancer-curing parade of phenomena (and more of those dimes!), we are that much closer to finding out just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

The Hole as portal has been implicit from the beginning of culture – the practice of burying the dead posits the grave as a passageway to the underworld/afterlife – but from the Enlightenment on, the Hole’s symbolic potential has been systematically recast in increasingly materialist and (over the last century) Freudian psychoanalytic terms, reducing it to a passive deficiency in need of redress (or in its most active extreme as a willful negation of the Pile; a castration), as opposed to an osmotic membrane between parallel realities. A hole in the world as opposed to a whole 'nother world. As Mel’s story unfolds, his Hole charts this exact progression – from vaginal vessel awaiting fulfillment by the full insertion of the ultimate achievement of hetero-patriarchal civilization – its trash – through a mutant incarnation where its receptive capacity approaches infinity (and time reverses, dissolving poor Little Willy in a cosmic ocean of amniotic slush), to one patch in a vast switchboard linking an apparently infinite catalog of possible connections, orificial and otherwise.

Underlying the richly detailed folk yarn is a mythological progression from a predictable hierarchical materialism to anarcho-feminist, humanist-mystic indeterminacy , and this, I think, is what excites so many artists about the story of Mel’s Hole, regardless of their respective individually nuanced interpretations and enthusiasms – the aspects they respond to. The radio broadcast itself conflates a remarkable set of contemporary art theory concerns – the legacy of Land Art, paranormal phenomena, vernacular narrative, and more – into an eruption of profound possibilities. It may be the most remarkable single art work related to this exhibition (though we must give it the benefit of suspended disbelief in order to access its juju).

One of my favorite quotes is from a Samuel Beckett interview conducted the year I was born: "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now." The fragments of the art world that emerged from the hole in Burden’s arm heading along the same approximate trajectory – or at least that wasn’t trying to crawl back and seal the hole up again – continue to grope for a formula for their practice that goes beyond plugging up open spaces with decorative knick-knacks (and, hopefully, beyond getting shot). Mel’s Hole speaks to that need, even though the message it sends is that it can never possibly be filled. Dig your own Hole – Art means never having to say you’re sorry.

1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956), 613.

2. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 13.

3. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002).

4. Georges Bataille, Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (Lausanne: Skira, 1955).

5. Tom Driver, “Beckett by the Madeleine,” Columbia University Forum, summer 1961: 21-25.

Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace catalog – edited by DH, Grand Central Art Center, Santa Ana,2008