Homage to Francis Ponge | 1989-1991
Incidents of soap-stealing in various states in Mexico
I got the white soap from the downstairs bathroom into a zip-lock and packed it in my camera bag along with the others.
On the way to the airport, José explains my soap thing to Jorge, who laughs. It’s in Spanish so I have no idea what’s been said.
Ten, fifteen minutes into the flight, I notice two small brown boxes with promotional lettering on Jorge’s tray-table. I ask Philip if it’s complimentary soap and he shrugs. I can’t ask Jorge because the language thing makes everything so ponderous.
Jorge’s assistant Ishmael meets us at the airport and drives us to Jorge’s apartment outside Coyoacan where we’ll be staying. There’s an olive green curvy soap (I think Aztec) in the kitchen and a just-out-of-the-wrapper Zest in the bathroom. No time to check the shower; I’ll do that later.
On to Coyoacan Centro, a shopping mall, for breakfast. I excuse myself to find an exceptionally clean bathroom with a series of soap dispensers.
“I take you to Chalco,” says Jorge. Jorge is the chief architect for an apartment complex there. Ishmael’s driving and the ride is endless.
We arrive at the construction site and park outside Jorge’s office in a dusty open area where there are many dogs. Directly across the way is the bare cement structure of an apartment building. On the ground floor is a makeshift shrine. On the second floor are two grey weimaraners.
We climb the stairs to Jorge’s office and meet the Cheese’s, Queso and Quesa. Jorge got them from the American Kennel Club. We heard about the Cheese’s in New York when José and Jorge came for dinner and looked at Philip’s photographs.
I use the toilet and note a pthalo green soap on the sink. It is worn in the middle like a schematic configuration of a woman and it is the same kind of soap that I’d passed up in the green tiled bathroom I’d used behind a souvenir shop up in the mountains in Michoacán a few days earlier.
It resembled a huge blue-veined turquoise and I told Philip it was the most beautiful soap I’d ever seen. I wouldn’t take it because it seemed like something an ugly American would do, but I did take a beige soap sliver off the bathtub instead.
Earlier that day we stopped at the city hall in Vista Hermosa because we liked the mural on the front of the building and I needed to take a piss. Directly inside, a dusty pink courtyard with struggling foliage. To the right, the Commandante. He has a pistol and pale blue eyes. Behind his head is a gun rack with an impressive number of rifles. The Commandante and his posse are already picturesquely posed and José seizes this photo opportunity.
José asks the guard the location of the bathroom and he guides us upstairs. The bathroom is huge and intensely pink. On the tiny white sink gleams an emerald green soap... and I bag it. We go back downstairs and José switches from his Rollei to a Leica with a wide-angle lens and snaps the Commandante some more.
When we get back in the car I tell José about my soap collection and about Francis Ponge, the French surrealist poet and author of Soap. Ponge wrote that soap is an artificial stone. When water is added, soap becomes frothy, voluble. When dry, soap becomes stone again. Therefore, said Ponge, soap is capable of re-birth. Ponge also remarked on soap’s giving of its body so freely.
Philip points out the crosses that dot the edge of the highway and tells me that each marks the location of a death.
Later that night we reach Zamora. Our hotel room is bathed in a delicate pink light and smells like rotting plaster. Philip sits in the “ugliest chair in the universe” and photographs me from the mirror on the opposite wall.
Since Philip and I have opted for a single, we must share 1/4 roll of toilet paper, one plastic glass, and one tiny cake of pink soap. José appears with his pink soap worn to a wafer in a plastic bag the next morning.
In Patzcuaro, the morning of the following day, José takes his shower and offers me his worn pink soap on a clear plastic platter.
In Patzcuaro, we visit several old Catholic churches in bad repair in which there are a host of plaster idols. Gruesomely graphic depictions of human suffering, most specifically Jesus’s, dominate softened by veiled Virgin Mary’s, floral arrangements, and metallic and/or brightly colored party decorations.
In Patzcuaro, I see mountains of rose-colored peanuts and systematic arrangements of fruits and vegetables. A foundation of three oranges on which are stacked and balanced two to three additional oranges. A precise balancing of five rotting avocados.
Back in Chalco, Jorge introduces us to his manservant, who understands English having lived in Los Angeles for two years. He cooks red sauce, offers tea, and shines Jorge’s brown shoes.
Jorge and Ishmael need to work for a few hours. Philip wants to go to the market to photograph. I am looking to buy a soap to exchange for the pthalo green worn one I spotted earlier on Jorge’s sink.
This notion of trading a new soap for a used one comes as a revelation.
I find stacks of Lux, Zest, and Palmolive. Perhaps Lux is too blue, Palmolive too green. I buy them both and resolve to make a final decision back in the bathroom.
When we return to Jorge’s office, the bathroom door is ajar, but the pthalo green soap is not visible. Jorge is dressed differently. “I take shower,” he announces.
After manzanilla tea I enter the bathroom. I assume the soap has been moved to the stall shower which is draped with large wet towels, which I remove. I mask the clicking sound of the opening of a stall shower door by turning on the water faucets full blast. I enter the wet cubicle in my hiking boots and find the pthalo green soap along with the pthalo green remains of its predecessor stuck to a nearly nonexistent natural sponge. I leave the sponge and take all the soaps, mask the sound of the stall shower door closing by flushing the toilet, and redrape the towels. I slip the soaps into my black backpack, tear the wrappers off the new soaps for a color check. Neither one is a perfect match, but Palmolive comes the closest and I leave it there on the sink.
When I return to the sitting area, Philip points to the unzippered outside pocket of my backpack saying, “You left your soapdish open.”
Later, on the topic of masking sounds, Philip reminds me how my parents had hooked up a radio to the light switch of their downstairs bathroom.
Ishmael drives us back to Coyoacan. On the way we pass the site of a big accident; there are about thirty crosses stuck in the side of the road. A man with a red flag waves us on and Ishmael tips him.
A small lunch in Coyoacan, after which I steal a pale yellow jewel from the unisex toilet.
In the grocery store across the street from Jorge’s apartment are gigantic cakes of laundry soap in three colors. Incised in block letters on the pink ones is the name Norma. On the yellow ones, Leon.
At Pratt, where I work, all the white hand soaps read Lisa.
I recognize the ochre soaps (inscribed Torre) from an extended family banquet in Guadalajara. José left to invite his parents who live nearby. He returned with them and a plastic bag in which was a worn down ochre laundry soap José had lifted from his sick mother in my behalf.
After a failed attempt at the Frida Kahlo Museum, Philip, Jorge, and I take the metro downtown to meet Francisco, who owns a camera shop and runs a photography school, where Philip and José, along with a group of ‘name’ Mexican photographers, are to judge a contest later in the week.
Francisco is the first English-speaking Mexican we have met since we left Chalco and Philip immediately asks him for help as he is sick with rising fever. Francisco takes us to a pharmacy manned by three competent middle-aged women in white lab coats with short hair and gold-rimmed glasses.
Braced with pharmaceuticals, we proceed to the school for a tour. As the others are disappearing into the darkroom, I opt for the bathroom next door, where I swap the large blue-green soap on the side of the sink for the brand-new Lux I’d purchased in Chalco that afternoon.
We watch a seven-minute promotional video from tan metal chairs with attached writing arms after which we return to Jorge’s apartment, where I sift through layers of soap debris leaving only the newest ivory rectangle.
Today we visit the Zocalo. A monstrous Mexican flag doesn’t fly, but just hangs in the sun in the center of this gigantic square. I tell Philip that as I walk through it I feel raisin-little and pulled, as if by magnet, to the open door, to the ‘body’ of the sagging cathedral that covers the entire length of one side.
Inside, green scaffolding -- everywhere, which only serves to enhance the illusion that the interior of this church is literally heaven.
I remember my mother reminding me how much my father liked Mexico and I remember how I caressed and cradled his head the last time I was with him.
We descend to the crypts. There is a kind of office at the bottom of the stairs and a small altar on which there is a package in a plastic bag. I wonder about its contents. Past the office, there are endless aisles with infinite cubby holes, many yet to be filled...
We head across the Zocalo to the multi-level Aztec archeological site. I see the repeated image of the serpent head and, putting myself mentally in the position of the one about to be sacrificed, try to imagine my physical sensations as I move towards the altar.
Behind the Aztec area I hear the steady tap-tapping of archeologists at work. Coming closer, I see about twenty-five workmen under an awning chiseling stone blocks for the restoration of the cathedral.
Later, we visit the Federal Building at the opposite end of the plaza. The guidebook says it houses the federal government defense and treasury departments, as well as some of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals. At one time, bullfights had been staged on the first floor.
Despite the murals, it is a fascist government and the building is patrolled by young Mexican soldiers with machine guns and white-laced black combat boots.
At the information booth I ask directions to the ladies room. To the far side of the building and across two patios, it has marble floors and flattering lighting. Scattered on a counter over the sinks and in front of large square mirrors are a number of delicate pink soaps incised with the words Rosa Venus. I dawdle -- piss and wash my hands. Then, I place a zip-lock on the counter, slide a pink wafer inside, and slip it into my backpack with smooth movements so as not to arouse the attention of the armed guard.
As we leave the building, I tell Philip about my urge to light a candle for my father in the cathedral and realize as I am speaking that, given the fact that my father was an ardent leftist, this pink soap-steal constitutes a far more appropriate prayer.
I also think of Chick who told me one day at lunch that what he feels we have in common is our shared secret capacity for terrorism. For dessert, he handed me a worn green soap, which he later identified as Irish Spring.
Philip and I walk down small back streets and stop in at the art academy, where the courtyard is filled with imposing plaster casts of classical Roman sculptures including Michelangelo’s horned Moses. The navy blue shop-coated faculty make their way to folding chairs for a religious ceremony. A white robed priest officiates. A short dusty accordionist provides musical accompaniment.
Continuing on, we come upon one square block devoted exclusively to the sale of religious articles relating to the baby Jesus: a miniature crown of thorns, tiny vestments, white lace dress-up outfits. Philip buys me a doll’s basket in which Jesus’s dead-white hairless light bulb head rises from the center of a red paper carnation.
Returning through the square a few hours later, I am accosted by a drunk holding a hard-boiled egg.
It’s evening and we take the metro to Viveros in search of the same restaurant we’d been to with Jorge and Ishmael a few days before.
We find it, but it’s early and we are the only customers there. We drink manzanilla tea and consommé de pollo and have a serious discussion about the meaning of communion. Philip says it has to do with receiving consciousness, of becoming one with all that is.
I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, where I find a smoothly worn light pink soap, and I take it home.
Homage to Francis Ponge consists of soaps stolen from public bathrooms. They rest on white linen runners of varying lengths placed directly on the floor, making reference to Japanese dry gardens, concrete poetry, and the Catholic mass. The accompanying text, Incidents of Soap Stealing in Various States in Mexico or Homage to Francis Ponge, chronicles the piece's coming into being. Similarly, Francis Ponge's prose poem Soap is at once a recounting of its own making as well as the final result. It was first shown in a solo exhibition at the Jamison Thomas Gallery, New York, in 1991 and then included in Simply Made in America at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1993. The text was also published separately in the Winter 1993-94 issue of Publicsfear magazine.