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Kafka Kaffee Kalendar
Kansas City Artists Coalition
Kansas City, Missouri, May 1-30, 1992

He was an artist and a man of such anxious conscience he could hear even where others, deaf, felt themselves secure. – Milena Jesenska’s Obituary for Franz Kafka

The seed for his project was planted many years ago when I first read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot. One line from that poem, "I have measured my life with coffee spoons," seemed to hold so much tacit insight into the human condition, and since then the desire to do a work about coffee-drinking and its endless implications waited patiently for an appropriate convergence of ideas and imagery to do the subject justice. Early last summer I came upon Franz Kafka's "Reflections on Sin, Suffering, Hope and the True Way," a collection of aphoristic statements which reveal that angst-ridden writer's deep and painfully honest thinking about himself and the world around him. One brief example: "The messiah will only come when he is no longer needed." These maxims seemed like strange mutations of the kind of statements used, for instance, in calendars or daybooks intended to inspire the reader to make the best use of his or her time. Typically, these collections contain quotations for each day of the year by the likes of Franklin, Emerson, Johnson, and Whitman, and in general promote a "carpe diem" attitude toward life, as reflected in this cautionary entry from Marcus Arelius: "Be not as one who has ten thousand years to live." I saw the possibility of compiling from Kafka's tortured writings, perhaps the last place in the world one would go for such encouragement, a dark antithesis to such inspirational calendars. A cursory look through some of his lesser-known stories, his diaries, and some personal letters quickly confirmed that notion.

Ambivalence is defined as the simultaneous existence of two conflicting opinions o feelings about something. That word best sums up my personal comprehension of the human condition. To me, there is something inherently sad and pathetic about all of our busy, earthly efforts in the face of certain death. But there is also something inherently heartwarming and noble about it. In m attempts to outwardly project this inner ambivalence through my work, I often employ the interplay of opposites. If I were to substitute Kafka's fearful "seize the day in reverse" quotations for the more expected ones, then what could I do to pull the overall effect back towards the middle? It struck me that the encouragement generated by time-thrift calendars is related to the courage conjured in the morning coffee ritual. For many of us, coffee is not merely about waking up, but about summoning forth the courage and momentum for the day ahead. This stimulating function of the drink is often reflected in coffee cups or mugs, those precious shields which so many of us clutch and raise before us as we prepare to do battle with another day. Many of us have our own favorite, well-worn cup, which often reveals or celebrates some part of our identity (name, initials, family role, occupation, favorite pastime, alma mater, favorite team, political leaning, and so on). One typical coffee mg format is to place a visual image on one side, and then to shed additional information or commentary by means of the written word on the other side. This convention presented me with a bridge for combining the Kafka quotes with the seemingly more prevalent human tendency to at least pretend that everything is okay. The Kafka Kaffee Kalendar combines, then, several manifestations of the same fundamental human impulse via Kafka. Kafka wrote in German, and the use of that language for the title of the project emphasizes the letter of the alphabet which K. would appropriate for his own self-definition and which, as one might expect, he would come to both cherish and despise.

The physical presentation of the cups and quotations is basically that of a wall calendar, only in this case a large, three-dimensional one. 366 small wooden shelves (one for each day of the year, including leap year) are mounted directly to the alls in separate monthly groupings. Within each month, the shelves are hung several inches apart in rows of seven and form a grid pattern typical of most calendars. Each shelf holds one coffee cup or mug. Against the wall at the back of each shelf is a mirror, which enables the viewer to see the back of the cup. Facing the viewer directly is the found imagery of the cups and mugs salvaged from flea markets, rummage sales, and thrift stores; confronting the viewer less directly is the Kafka quote added to the back f the cup. The dated quotations are applied to the cups in mirror-writing to make them readable, but this practical necessity also has, I think, poetic implications. Because mirror-writing relies on a reversal or distortion of "reality to become "meaningful," its use adds yet another ambiguity to a project purposefully blending conflicting perceptions of the world.

Because my work in general impels me to frequent the musty resting places of disowned bric-a-brac, I already had some sense of the breadth of subject matter and human experience addressed by coffee cups. From the beginning, I suspected that a year's worth of one-of-a-kind coffee cups would paint a fairly textured portrait of our world, but the castaways I have accumulated for this project have far exceeded my expectations. Documented by them is every kind of human relationship, from husband and wife to master and pet, and every form of human endeavor, from company picnics to world wars. In them, too, is mirrored the infinite variety of the material world of plants, animals, and objects. The great wide world, I discovered, is reflected in our coffee cups, and as I rummaged through the shelves in New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Orlando, Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis and many points in between, I never reached the point where I was no longer surprised by what I found.

The dual experience of going out into the world in search of coffee cups and of staying at home and combing Kafka's writings for especially affecting quotations was a personally satisfying one. At times I felt that I had achieved the ideal balance of the active and contemplative lie as prescribed by popular Renaissance guidebooks for gentlemen such as Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, which struck me when I first read it as a sensible way to try to live one's life. My two-fold task carried me outward and inward, and stimulated a lively interplay between physical and mental inventories. By collecting cups and quotations simultaneously I was often rewarded with the fortuitous alignment of a cup and almost eerily appropriate quotation. But as a whole I would characterize these experiences as bittersweet. Especially when rummaging through inner-city thrift stores like those fun by The Salvation Army or Disabled American Veterans I was often forced to contrast my own self-absorbed joy at finding a particularly wonderful or surprising mug with the states of mind of people who buy other people's discards out of necessity. I vividly recall, for instance, the young mother in Memphis who asked the D.A.V. cashier for a running total on her purchases, with the hope of having enough money left for the last and only non-clothing item in her shopping cart. But the plastic toy piano didn't it make it home that afternoon. And although it was gratifying to come to know Kafka through his writings, what I learned about him and by extension recognized or at last accepted in myself was often disturbing and sometimes painful.

One thing I learned is that the essence of Kafka is fear. This elusive and nebulous terror permeates his novels (all unfinished) and short stories. What, other than "dread of night, dread of not-night" could inspire a tale like "Metamorphosis," in which the main character awakens one morning to find that he has been transformed into a large and disgusting insect? But as frightening as these works are, their terror is watered down when compared to the fear and self-torment recorded in Kafka's diaries and much of this correspondence. Nowhere is his condition better described than in a letter from Milena Jesenska to Max Brod, two people who loved Kafka deeply and who understood him probably as well as anyone was able to understand him. "We are all capable of living," she writes, "because at one time or another we have taken refuge in a lie, in blindness, enthusiasm, optimism, a conviction, pessimism, or something else. But has never fled to any refuge, not one. He is absolutely incapable of lying, just as he is incapable of getting drunk. He lacks even the smallest refuge; he has no shelter. That is why he is exposed to everything we are protected from. He is like a naked man among the dressed." Coffee, I would argue, is for many of us one of these refuges, an antidote for an unnamable dread. Reading Kafka, in turn, is an antidote for coffee courage.