Installation view, Broken Nature, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 21, 2020–August 15, 2021

Rob Magnuson Smith’s “Come to Naga”

A fiction writer imagines the secret history of an artwork.

Some years ago, the fiction writer Rob Magnuson Smith visited the Pony Express Museum in Marysville, Kansas. “I was looking through a box and found a photograph of a sharecropper whose eyes overflowed with stories. Once you start thinking about the stories inside museums, you can’t stop.” Afterward, Smith—the author of the novels The Gravedigger and Scorperbegan to set short stories inside museums. On a recent visit to MoMA, he found himself drawn to a large sculpture by the German artist Julia Lohmann; it occupied a section of the exhibition Broken Nature and was made mostly of seaweed. In the coming days, the sculpture, Oki Naganode, began to infiltrate Smith’s imagination, eventually inspiring the story below. “I’ve just finished a novel about the integration of algae and human beings,” says Smith, who lives aboard a 56-foot wooden fishing boat docked in Cornwall, England. “It was only partly my doing, because this one particular kelp kept inserting itself into every scene. When I came across that sculpture in MoMA, it was the same thing all over again.”

Come to Naga

Remember how we got here, dolled up and placed on display? Let’s go back to what you call the beginning.
       Darkness. Then light. Dust around this latest star. Flashes of color and echoes of past beginnings. In the boiling rock we take shape within the gurgles.
       Then, that long pause. Like a placid sea before the next wave.

In Brooklyn just after dawn, he wakes to her voice.
       Carefully, he sits up on his elbows. Sharp tugs at his gut from last night’s pandemic pasta. He must stick to wine, avoid the bourbon.
       Her lips make unconscious half-words. Her eyes shift under their lids as the lines of her forehead join in battle. “I’m here,” he whispers.

Explosions without sound. A tremor at the edge, a tickle of excitement. Gone.
       More inevitable smashing and colliding, as if there’s some sort of rush. A billion years later, what will be called clusters. What will become delight, and what will be dread.
       Naga knows. Naga remembers all our ancestors.

Encased in blankets, she watches him pad into the bathroom and step onto the scale. “What’s it say?”
       He shrugs. “I forgot my glasses.”
       “I bet it says mercy. We haven’t exercised in a week.” The face in her dream returns—her own face, frozen in eternity. “We have to do something,” she says.

These new rocks are older rocks, gusting over from more developed galaxies. A few of them sparkle with light.
       The rocks churn up rumbles of disquiet. They create a frenzy of chemical coupling. Over and over, for millions of years.

In the shower, he notices what’s in the shampoo. Strange—it’s also in their soap. Under the water he stands naked and unnerved, as if he’s being watched.
       Last month, when they decided to go off the pill, they also went organic. So all the futuristic products use ingredients from the past? He studies the label, with its greenish-brown bladders of the sea. They look like human heads bobbing toward land.

The core cools. Finally, an approaching comet. This one’s different—a brighter tail, the promise of a greater smash. As if it carries purpose.
       Clouds and vapour will come. Later, the blessing of water. Yet you will offer prayers to the sky instead of the depths.

“MoMA’s open.” She closes her laptop, searches for her bra in the blankets. Hook the strap, click and snap. Down goes the tee shirt, up slides the jeans. “There’s an exhibit called Broken Nature.”
       Still in his towel, he peers out the window at the empty street. “That about sums it up.”
       Then he looks at her. It prevents her from buttoning her jeans.
       “Well,” she says, pulling back the sheets, “it does count as exercise.”

Waves. Big ones, hundreds of feet high. Every four hours they crest again. The moon tugs and tugs with its looming stare.
       These waves carry your future emperors. Your mathematicians, grandmothers, and composers. You ever consider who composed them?

They open their door to an abandoned planet. Yet the trees shake with life—New York, given up to the birds.
       He’d almost forgotten the smell of real air, even through a mask. She walks beside him with her hair tumbling out of her stocking cap. This limitless love for her, where does it come from? He fears risking what they have for some other future.
       “I checked out this exhibit on-line,” he confesses. “One of the sculptures creeps me out—”
       Straight ahead, there is movement among the garbage bags. A rat, eating off the survivors, scurries down a drain. A dog-walker crosses to the other side of the street. “Who would have known,” she says, “that seeing art could be risky again?”

Naga knows. Naga remembers all our ancestors.

We slither and seep under the crust. Down into the seabed chimneys, hot and sweaty.
       Then—air at last.
       One by one, volcanoes burst through the sea. We grow the stipes, lay down the network. Frond and tassel, bladder and blade. Set the holdfasts in the cobbles. Reproduction in the sand scour. The first bushy reds make for the surge gullies.

She’s time-travelling at last. Checked and ticketed like a couple of suitcases, they enter the freshly ionized lobby. She holds up her sketchbook. “I’m going to try the third floor.”
       “So we split up?”
       She nods and heads for the stairs. “Meet you in Broken Nature.”

Continents form and break apart. Hot acid showers, followed by the dark freeze. Carbon for ozone, coccoliths for chalk.
       Deep in the oceans, reds separate into greens. Much later, browns. Most of life’s erased and still plenty for seaweeds. We farm the armoured sea slugs. We suck marrow out of stone.

Joan Miró. Object. 1936

Joan Miró. Object. 1936

He knows the thing is lurking somewhere below. Its vegetal presence chases him through the higher galleries. He hurries along until he reaches a stuffed bird in a box. It’s been interred with a plastic salmon and random clothes.
       Joan Miró, 1936. Stuffed parrot on wood perch. Stuffed silk stocking with velvet garter and doll’s paper shoe suspended in hollow wood frame.
       Ridiculous. What’s it all for, he wants to know, panting under his mask. Never any decent answers, yet we still become parents? The parrot shifts on its perch, the glass eyes fall.

Ice sheets ten-thousand feet thick. Oh, how we shivered, night after night. We did it for you.
       Spirulina for your protein shakes. Carageenan for your pale ale, plankton for your paint. Broth and brew. Rainbow varieties of umami-rich konbu, named and individually wrapped with birth certificates in calligraphy.

Martín Ramírez. Untitled (Alamentosa). c. 1953

Martín Ramírez. Untitled (Alamentosa). c. 1953

She sits cross-legged across from framed snakeskin patterns and lizard lines: Martin Ramírez’s Alamentosa. A train entering a tunnel. Or, a self-portrait of pathology.
       The pencil slips from her sketchbook and rolls, slowly and purposefully, across the floor. For years she’s drawn the döppelgangers of her dreams. A genetic condition, her mother claims. The so-called human condition, she replies.
       The world needs one more self, and one more portrait? Still plenty of time to turn back. Meanwhile the pencil continues its way toward other drawings.

The seas fall, narrow, and split—only to rise again, up over the land and the bridges between. We beckon nomads and ship captains with our kelp highways.
       It’s true, we had our reasons. We’ve gone two billion years and counting with the same stubborn morphology. Now we may need integration. And for you to find a way out.

He searches anxiously for a docent, or anyone with an explanation. Why stuff animals, why do museums exist, what is art for—when every week, thousands die who shouldn’t?
       He faces the parrot like a grown-up. He tries taking slow breaths. The bird’s glass eyes seem to reflect his dilemmas. The contents of its box are desperate. And that’s when he realizes. What art is for: to fill a man with breath one moment and take it away the next.

An improbable stalk of grass appears in a crater of sand. Up from the seabed, here come our paint weeds. Mid-ribbed. Slippery, slimy, juicy. Fringed and fan-shaped, whorled and bearded—weeds with wings, weeds with tufts and feathery fronds, salt weeds replicating slowly and alone, or in the freshwaters at lightning speed.
       Parasytic? Epiphytic, more like it. Come to Naga and see what’s in store.

He steps way back and still stands in its shadow.

She takes the stairs down through the decades. Past the modern and the post-modern. Then flash bang, just beyond the first floor ladies’ room, she’s in the present, the contemporary, the now. Planning for what’s next. Ovulation, both legs in the air, good and proper.
       One turn through a door. He’s already in the exhibit, back turned and hands on hips. She can still feel his chest against her skin. She doesn’t want to know if it’s happened yet. The way of the future, to be unaware.

An increase in room temperature. Two of you coming, maybe three. Only so much time left for memory lane.
       Getting here, we settled under a bed of clams. Popped our bladders at high tide and launched into the water. Creep and flop, crawl onto the beach. Firm and spongy. Flat and tubular. Remember how we nested with the woolly greens? On the lower shores and subtidal streams, tangled together in clumps.
       We gradually found our way into your ears. Clung to the soles of your flip-flops. Kitchen cupboards and stomach lining. We farmed your little kiddies before their lungs formed.

Please Do Not Touch—the sign halts his outstretched hand. Plastiglomerates on display: lumpy chunks of hybrid waste. Shells, sand, and plastic entangled in a washing machine on constant spin. Long-exposure shots of nuclei caught in their embryo of death.
       The macabre, in miniature. Organic shrapnel at the moment of explosion. Beauty in the last gasp, the frozen experiment, the ended idea.

That’s it. Come to Naga. The topmost browns. We fertilize. We feed your beasts in the morning and temper their farts in the afternoon. Encrusting. Inflated. Feathery fine and smelly jelly. Leathery oarweeds. Bullwhip kelp. Make trumpets of our tubes and blow.
       Stick Naga in the bathtub. Put us in your drugs. Drop us in a bucket and watch us grow. Japanese? Surely. Today’s alien is tomorrow’s native. Place us into your mouths and chew. Familiar flavor, no? Rather like eating yourself. Slip and drown, we’ll bust through your bloody eyeballs. Build a nest in your bowels, plant holdfasts in your teeth.

She stops at a film on a loop—a woman in a dive suit, using an eye dropper to coat herself with shark pheromones. The diver puts on her mask and falls backward into the sea. Soon she attracts a frantic whirl of mako, dancing around her body in olfactory orgasms. The artist’s life—risking death.
       She stands in front of the screen, watching over and over, hands clasped on her tummy.

Such gaudy sex organs, these ones. Not to mention their crude mating displays. That’s it, keep breeding your dog catchers and academics, your inventors of clappable lights. Build a stronger lid for your coffin.
       You shut your beaches because of us? It’s you who reek. Faeces, sweat, rampant fertility. You stink like oysters.
       Patience, naga. Nature keeps all her options open.

Julia Lohmann. Oki Naganode. 2013

Julia Lohmann. Oki Naganode. 2013

The exhibit makes him prickly. Each piece an odd-sized glove, a pebble in his shoe. He longs for the parrot in the box.
       He’s almost made it out, back to the safety of the lobby. Then he sees it. The thing in the corner. Hideous and menacing, raised up on bulbous legs. It looks like an intestine. Nodular, faceless, capable of excreting down and up. He steps way back and still stands in its shadow.
       Oki Naganode. Seaweed, rattan and aluminium. Made of Japanese naga.
       An old smell rises in his throat like reflux. Across the floor it casts a putrid yellow, spreading like piss toward his shoes.

That’s it, grovel. What, you eat us? We drink the blood of bats. For fun, we ride in the anuses of blue whales.
       Your move, good man. Think of how to get out of this fix, then we’ll talk symbiosis. Playing with rocket ships are a start—for a baby in a pram. It’s about time you started to squirm. The way you’re deep in thought, there’s almost reason for hope.

“I never knew,” she says, catching up to him. “Algae produces ninety percent of our oxygen?”
       He’s not looking at her. He’s gone pale.
       “What’s the matter?”
       “That.” He points at the sculpture in the corner. “I get the feeling it wants something.”
       There’s something haunted in his eyes—one of the reasons she loves him—a man forever roaming his dark territories. “Hey. I’m here.” Standing on her toes, she kisses him. Then she takes his hand, and they turn to face the seaweed together.