February, 2012: Suicide seems to be in the air, just in time for Valentine’s Day. I’m staying in Madrid right by the Viaducto de Segovia, a landmark bridge that my Spanish friends inform me has long been a favorite jumping point for hopeless, heartsick youngsters, even after the city erected a transparent barrier to catch them. (Apparently, now they just scramble over it.) In fact, one of their friends jumped from this very spot, which is in clear view of their front window. I tell them that in English it’s called a Lover’s Leap, and that Toronto’s Bloor Viaduct was used for a similar purpose until the city erected a fascist-looking fence to impede this folly. But I guess Spain should avoid fascist-looking fences at any cost.
I often wonder while walking down the street what prevents more people from taking the leap of ill faith from any number of hi-rise apartment buildings, like in the eerie film Pulse by Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa. According to the New York Times, it could be a question of brain and body chemistry. One study shows a deficiency of serotonin, a naturally produced chemical that regulates mood and creates a feeling of well-being, could be a contributing factor in people who attempt or commit suicide. It’s strange that a stuffy news entity like the Times doesn’t mention the theory that prolonged use of certain recreational and prescription drugs can cause the depletion of feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. You’d think they’d be all over it.
But hey, this isn’t chemistry class, let’s talk about Whitney. Of course you can’t say that Whitney Houston committed suicide, just as you can’t say Amy Winehouse did. But sometimes it seems that the overuse and abuse of certain chemicals, particularly when mixed with alcohol, do constitute a kind of slow suicide. When you add fame to the mix, it can be positively deadly. Both tragic singers had reached a point of no return where too much damage had been done to their voices, their careers, and their lives, to be reversed. It’s a scary thought. Everyone wants to think they’re invincible (the name of a substandard Michael Jackson album, and look what happened to him), or that they could overcome the odds through sheer willpower, especially the famous ones. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.
Hey, I’m not an anti-drug advocate. That would be hypocritical. I’ve had thousands of great recreational drug experiences in my life that made me see the world in a new and different way, or just gave me an unbelievable amount of pleasure. But we all know how dangerous the pleasure principle can be, and like Janet Jackson says in her song named after that very principle, “I’ve got too many things I wanna do before I’m through.”
It was crack in the nineties, meth in the noughties. A doctor literally drew out a chart demonstrating to me how there is a certain point where your brain can’t return to normal. It scared the bejesus out of me. A therapist described it this way: imagine your brain is a pan that holds all the chemicals that make you feel good. A snort of coke or some ecstasy tips the pan, releasing more of it into your system and making you feel great. Meth turns the pan right over, flooding your system with a feeling of euphoria. But when it’s gone, and the pan is temporarily empty, what do you have to give you a sense of well-being? Nothing. And what happens when the pan is empty all the time? Like Tuesday Weld says to suicidal, drug-addled Anthony Perkins in Play It As It Lays, “I don’t ever want to be where you are.”
All I know is, you don’t want to end up dead in a lukewarm bathtub, like Whitney, or Mike Kelley, the artist who committed suicide a few weeks ago. I have no idea what lead up to the death of Mr. Kelley, one of the greatest artists of the last several generations, but I do know how sad it is that he’s gone. I met him in 2007 when he came from his own opening in Berlin to see my opening, Blame Canada, a collaboration with artist Terence Koh. He was drunk as a skunk, but so was I, and I remember how gracious he was, and how attentive when I showed him around our installation. But he was really there to see the great drag legend Vaginal Davis, who performed at our opening, someone he’d known and appreciated forever from the punk and art scenes of Los Angeles, back when he was in the band Destroy All Monsters. I spoke to Miss Davis recently about the demise of Mr. Kelley, and she said she’d been at an intimate dinner party that he attended just days before he killed himself. It was at the home of his ex-girlfriend, Emi Fontana, founder of the West of Rome Public Art Agency in Los Angeles, in Pasadena, and they had an energetic and lively conversation, but apparently he had been depressed for quite some time. It just goes to show you that you never really know the real dimensions of someone else’s personal demons.
Depression has a wide variety of causes – environmental, genetic, and stress-related – so you can’t always blame suicide on the chemicals inside you or those you put inside you. Some people kill themselves when they stop using chemicals. David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, committed suicide after going off medication that he took for years to fight his life-long clinical depression. Something similar happened to a bi-polar acquaintance of mine who owned an extreme cleaning company in Toronto. He told me that when he went off his medication, it was like riding a big wave – extreme highs and lows – but eventually one of the low ebbs became unbearable and he killed himself.
Then again, maybe the whole world is committing suicide. According to Noam Chomsky, scientists are now claiming that if the world doesn’t radically change its behavior in the next five years, we’ll all be on an irrevocable path to self-destruction. Earth, the most famous planet in the known galaxy, high on fossil fuels and greenhouse gases, is going to end up in a warm bathtub, like Whitney.
Whitney Houston, Mike Kelley, Amy Winehouse, David Foster Wallace, The Soul Train Guy, The World… Have a nice day!
Previously – My Cuban Holiday - Part II