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David Lang, Mac Wellman
the difficulty of crossing a field
Cantaloupe Music, 2015
Disappearing in plain sight
David Lang first described the difficulty of crossing a field to me as a work that ‘can’t really tell if it’s an opera or a very strange musical’. Whatever its category, the work is unsettling – creepy even – and darkly layered with history and mystery.
The original one-page story the difficulty of crossing a field by 19th century writer Ambrose Bierce was the inspiration for New York’s ‘legendary incomprehensible playwright’ Mac Wellman who elaborates in his own unique way, on the story of a slave owner who simply vanishes into thin air in front of his family, neighbours and slaves.
Set in the American South before the civil war, we hear various accounts of how Mr. Williamson suddenly disappears while walking over his field, and realise over the course of the work that there are dark and mysterious forces at play in the town of Selma, Alabama. It seems the only beings who seem to really know the ‘truth’ of what to happened Mr. Williamson are horses.
In considering where to start with the album cover, I quickly came to the conclusion that the hole left behind by the man would be the strongest motif. I needed to find a picture of Mr. Williamson and somehow make him disappear.
I searched through collections of historical portraits and found some fantastic daguerreotypes – one of the earliest photographic processes – made on sheets of silver-plated copper. There were many great pictures but the image I chose to use was of Roger S. Baldwin, the Governor of Connecticut from 1844-46, whose face had been unfortunately (but luckily for me) scratched away from the fragile surface of the daguerreotype over time.
I wanted to set the image of the faceless man into a frame in order to make the picture into an ‘object’, so I took a frame from another image of a daguerreotype and collaged it around the portrait. I repeated the image of the portrait on the inside of the CD wallet, but this time we zoom out even further to see the frame of the colour film transparency. You can see it’s a reproduction of a reproduction, which is again reproduced in print. Layers of time, memory and documentation – and at the heart of it a picture of man who has lost his identity.
The image of the horses on the left inside panel is a reworked, found image from a Russian postcard from 1913 – something I bought in an old antique shop many years ago. With their frothing mouths and staring eyes, you can just imaging the evil they have seen in Selma, Alabama. ‘Someone or something who knows something someone or something will not tell …’