- Like a Shipwreck
In the spring of 1940, a man with a coif like a scalloped shell ordered 350 glass ampoules from a local pharmacist. He was making models of a project he had started 20 years before, 50 cc air de Paris. First you empty the serum from the tear-shaped capsule, then you seal it with a blowtorch, locking the air inside. Paris on the brink of war. Paris, caged. Marcel Duchamp was making miniature replicas of his work for a project that would become La Boîte-en-valise, "the box in the suitcase." He had been compiling miniature reproductions of his paintings and photographs since 1933, and now he was moving into the third dimension.
A year earlier, looking to flee Spain, Salvador Dali had unfolded a map of France. "I studied my winter campaign, trying to plan it in such a way as to combine the possibility of a Nazi invasion with gastronomical possibilities," he wrote. And so, Dali settled on Arcachon, a seaside village in Bordeaux known for oyster ports, pine forests, and the highest dune in Europe.
On May 16, 1940—just days before Paris's Ministry of Public Affairs employees tossed flaming government documents from the window of the Quay d'Orsay, igniting the bright green of the garden outside—Duchamp fled Paris by train, joining Dali in his white villa on the coast.
In August 2017, a sheriff came to my grandmother's house to warn her she might have to be evacuated by morning. It was around 11 p.m., and the night outside was black and orange, star-gone, hissing, hot. She had been breathing [End Page 1] smoke for weeks. This was an old story—lightning strikes, wind blows, flames spit across roadways and spin out like a bad rash. But now the flames were burning down the ridgelines toward the house my grandparents had built some 20 miles south of Missoula. It was a house of comfort: potato-hued leather recliner, cabinets of jarred cherries and freezers of smoked fish, hummingbird feeders that sloshed with nectar and swung from the beams of the wide covered porch. And now, the approaching flames were leaping so high that photos would show them like an orange splash, as if someone had tossed rocks into a blazing pond.
My grandfather had once been both a botanist and a fire lookout, and he had overseen cycles of forest management on their land for the last decade—thinning, burning, doing what they could to make their land unappealing to the flames. Still, they had seen what wildfires had done in recent years. They had known this call might come, and they had known there was only so much you could do when it does. Mostly, you fill your arms and leave.
So that is what my grandmother did, alone in the middle of the night, while my grandfather lay in a Missoula hospital, waiting for yet another precarious heart surgery the next day. I imagine her folding a few of her handmade quilts, running her fingers over the curls of stitched bitterroot flowers, remembering all that grew on the slopes behind their house. She dragged in the wood patio furniture and turned on a sprinkler to spray the propane tank. Then, loading cat food and some clothes, she put the cat in the car and rattled down the gravel road. Soon, morning would come. Choked with smoke, the sky would not lighten much.
"The house is past," wrote Adorno, in exile, in 1951.
When you leave it, what do you save? Or, what do you bring to save yourself?
I first saw La Boîte-en-valise in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It was a Saturday morning not long after Donald Trump had been elected president. Each morning I would wake having forgotten about his win, and then I would remind myself, and often cry, and in this way I wore the sunrise like a shock collar, wanting only to leave my house if it meant I could stare into the eyes of those who felt the same gasp of pain. Still, I now believe I...