Shelley Jackson’s winter’s tale

What would we do without Shelley Jackson? A decade or so ago, she launched her project “Skin” — a story told entirely in tattoos, nearly 2,100 of them, etched on the bodies of volunteers she fondly calls “words.” The idea was to create a work of living literature, one that would change, and ultimately disappear, as its participants died, highlighting the ephemeral nature of, well, everything.

“Writers have this great obsession,” she told me at the time, “to create an immortal work. But how immortal is it, really? I worked in used bookstores for 10 years, and I saw how much gets lost and disappears.” It’s a vision that echoes, in some sense, that of the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose sculptures are built out of natural elements and designed to decay.

Art as ephemera, perhaps — but, really, just the opposite, for in its impermanence such efforts hint at our fleeting passage also, the temporary illusion of the world.

Jackson’s latest project operates out of a similar premise: a story (“weather permitting”) inscribed entirely in snow. It’s a work in progress, 200 words or so at present, and it can be read in a series of photographs (one, and sometimes two, words per image) available as a Flickr stream.

“To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,” the piece begins, each word in courier font, as if typed directly on the ground. The settings are different — rural, urban, by turns close-up and panoramic — but in each, we confront a jarring juxtaposition between the landscape, which exists indifferent to our presence, and our need to impose meaning, to say that we were here.


Jackson makes that explicit by rendering snow as not only métier but also subject; this is very much a winter’s tale. “There are snows,” she writes, “made of clock faces and circular slide rules, of maps to undiscovered countries, of the shattered breath clouds of those who have cried out for help unheard on a clear winter day.”

And yet, snow can also offer reassurance, especially when it is “made of the golden crumbs of sleep.” The image recalls a story in her 2002 collection “The Melancholy of Anatomy,” in which sleep falls in flakes from dreamy thunderheads to soften out the edges of our waking lives.

As to whether that’s what Jackson has in mind here, it’s too early to tell. The story ends (for the moment) in the middle of a sentence, leaving us to anticipate the next run of words.

Still, that’s part of the point too, isn’t it — that everything is always a work in progress, that we live at the mercy of the elements, under the very real threat of incompletion, that “weather permitting” is not merely a figure of speech?

This was (and remains) the point of “Skin,” with its loose string of living words, recombinant like errant DNA. And it is at the center of this odd and edgy project also, in which the message cannot be separated from the medium.


Imagining Borges’ ‘Library of Babel’

Does grammar really matter? Yes, it does.

In ‘Dockwood,’ a geography of tiny images