Day 28: How I lost my head on New Year’s Eve

You surely know the feeling of walking into a New Year’s Eve party and being confronted with a very special temporal melancholy: the feeling that you and everyone there are doomed to repeat such a random occasion for the rest of our lives.

My parents had their own solution to this annual dilemma. They’re both visual artists, so I grew up in a studio house where paint blew onto the walls and the smell of turpentine wafted through the floorboards. The process was often chaotic. In the 1990s—that retrospectively innocent time of self-expression—my parents threw crazies living tableau Parties every New Year’s Eve. They chose a Renaissance painting full of figures in various states of undress and invited all of their friends to come over and essentially become the painting. Everyone worked feverishly for four or five hours, painting sets, putting on wigs and make-up, sewing costumes, sculpting donkey heads, and then at midnight the picture of the tableau had to be taken, no matter what chaos the scenery was in.

I was always the youngest person in the room and I often ended up being the donkey or the partially covered lute player or a plant. In “The Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris” by Peter Paul Rubens, I was the severed head of Cyrus himself, presented triumphantly to the Queen over a bowl of fake blood. I had to lie on the floor for hours, just propping my neck up like that, until I started to believe that my head had actually come loose and that I was now mind and body separate. In this last midnight image I’m barely visible, cloaked in shadow and not quite of this world, yet everyone in the tableau is staring at me, or at least the idea of ​​my disembodiedness, their facial expressions varying, each with their own motives, sorrows and joys.

My memories of those parties are strong. Children are keen observers when adults are having fun; it’s a bit like watching your parents and their friends jump around with the unconscious enthusiasm usually reserved for kids in the playground. The collaborative process of recreating a fictional moment from a 500-year-old oil painting brought an immediacy to the process that was universally gratifying. We were all very much in the present, New Years be damned.

But I think what has stuck with me more than anything over the years is that weightless feeling of midnight surrender. When the clock struck 12, wherever you were, that was the picture. And that was good enough. And sometimes it was perfect, no matter if the donkey only had one eye left. The new year would begin beneath the gate of this shaky august one. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the artist’s process at its best, most generative, punchy, and inviting. That generosity has guided me for the rest of my life.

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