Image credit: Front cover of Love and Money, Sex and Death: A Memoir by McKenzie Wark (Verso Books, 2023).
How could I forget this? I forgot, and forgot to tell you: I started writing, really writing, on what had once been your typewriter. I loved your typewriter, a sleek and modern portable, with its light-grey anodized case. A thing that fit in my childhood home like it belonged among the other modern things. I wrote poems on it, and, of course, a poetry manifesto.
I have no memory of you ever using it. Maybe you had to give up all that when you got married. My sister showed me your psychology degree, and some documents about jobs you had during and just after the war. There’s a reference written for you for a job in which some nong of a former boss praised the quality of your typing, and your extensive and “unusual” taste in literature. This was before you became a postwar “homemaker.” Not that there was much choice about that in those days.
In your absence I developed a curiosity about the home you made. What parts of it were you and what parts of it were dad? Aesthetically, I mean. It seemed like your tastes were both modern, but were they the same? The square lines of the Baird television. The Snelling chairs, with their repurposed parachute webbing, left over from the war. Whose choice where they? The ornate crystal sherry decanter looked out of place, a throwback to some other model of the middle-class home to our modest modern one.
This was the home that Ross Kenneth Wark, your husband, my father, the architect, designed. What was it like for you, marrying this man, moving from your home in Sydney up to Newcastle, starting a shared life? It’s hard for me to imagine your love for him. As I now know from the other side, the amorous life of parents is inconceivable to a child.
I grew apart from him, and I didn’t have your hand to hold on to as a guide to life. The conversation I’d started with you as a garrulous child ended. It continued as a dialogue in my head, as I grew quiet, withdrawn. I was told I was “shy.” I took a quiet, solitary interest in this household of things. Your piano, gathering dust in the basement, untuned.
All I can know of you and he as a couple comes from memories of material traces from the life you made together. Your books on his built-in shelves. The house itself expressed the sharp lines of his personality. From him I learned a modernism I sense was different to yours. He believed that things could be made better by being better made. Sitting in his lap as he showed me picture books of modern architecture. Which left such an imprint that when I finally saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, I wept.
The thing about becoming a transsexual is that most of us can’t draw on much of a transsexual culture. We have to sort out ways to be by cutting and pasting from the cultural materials that are around us. Which is not what we were supposed to make of those things. We’re not who we were expected to become.
I’m not anyone you thought would ever be who your child became. I feel like I have to account for how all that came to pass. How I both continued in the slipstream of the modern house, that he designed, that you made our home, that was your life—and diverted it.
I learned modernism indirectly, from living within that house that Ross designed in the late forties, on Main Road, Cardiff Heights. Just outside of Newcastle. A tiny, open-plan, flat-roofed weatherboard box nested snug into the side of a steep ravine, with views across the valley below, to Lake Macquarie beyond. It’s still there, seventy-five years later, much modified, still hidden in green.
From his house itself I learned an aesthetic. One pared of any excrescence. One where form was all. Where anything that wasn’t form was meant to reveal it. This was design through subtraction. That was what made it modern. Aesthetics was a practice of extraction, from all that seemed unnecessary, out-dated, mystified, raw. What it would take to get to the future was a severing of much that bound us to the past.
Not too long before he passed, Ross and I had lunch together in a big new hotel in the coastal town of Terrigal. That hotel sat on the site of the Florida Hotel that he designed. It was the first big commission for his practice, Mayo & Wark. It was famous as the venue where for many years the state branch of the Labor Party held its annual conference.
When I had lunch with him, it was gone, replaced by this bigger one, owned by some Japanese hotel chain. I asked him how it felt that the Florida, his first big job, was gone and replaced. He paused, then said with a shrug: “It’s progress.”
Now that is modernism. Unsentimental. Forward-facing. Best not to think too much about the past.
Did he forget you? I doubt it. But he did forget to tell me much about you. When I was sixteen, I was distracting myself from a masculine puberty about which I was not particularly thrilled by spending a good deal of time with books and bicycles. One evening, sitting in contemplation of the clean, efficient lines of the racing bike I was building, Ross came in and said: “It was ten years ago today that your mother died. She would have been proud of you.” Then left the room. That was it. The only time I can remember when he spoke of you. That, too, is modernism. The spare use of the past, as there to build on, move forward, roll along.
Ours was a provincial, colonial modernism. Its internal contradictions became clearer to me after I left Australia. My paternal ancestors had been in Australia for a long time by colonial standards, which is to say, not long at all. They came as gasworks engineers. They were quite literally gaslighters. They acted like only darkness preceded them. There’s a direct line from that indifference to the past to his, and to mine.
Because I had to get away from him, I took an interest in what he could not abide. What that apostle of high modernism Adolf Loos called “ornament and crime.” All that the modern desire for order as progress excluded caught my attention. All of its bad others, those that universal progress demanded get in line or be pushed aside. All those marked by too much Blackness, queerness, femininity, or just by the pleasures of the moment. Or those whose desire for revolution was, let’s just say, not entirely constructive.
I don’t think you would have been proud of me if you’d known what I got up to without him knowing.
I tried to get out of the sort of modernism that Ross embodied and enacted by reversing it. If, for modernism, form was true and appearance was not, then this metaphysics could be turned inside out. Treat the appearances as real, the inner essence or ideal as an illusion. This was postmodern aesthetics as Oedipal break-up. The joke was on me. To become postmodern was to repeat the modern gesture in a way one’s more open-minded modern ancestors might even recognize. There really is nothing else for someone like me. There’s no past, no arcadia. But no future either. Maybe there’s only sideways time for those of us born of the gaslighters of history.
To be modern is to try to live without superstition, but then how to account for the time I saw your ghost? I was eighteen. Done with school. About to go off to Sydney and university. Deeply depressed, I now recognize, for the only time in my life. Sleeping all day. Waking up on the sofa with a start from a nightmare. Panic, disorientation, loneliness, fear. That’s when I sensed your presence, looking down on me, with compassion, with love, and I felt like I could go on.
My modern self doesn’t believe in ghosts. My modern self might think I took comfort from the material traces you’d left around me. You weren’t there, but certain objects, media artifacts, were left behind as clues, as evidence, of how you lived your life, and how I might live mine. Art, like writing, came mediated through you. A thing I learned when I became a parent too: that to your kids you are—among other things—media.
I was a child of the mass media age, of mechanical reproduction. Thousands had these same artifacts. But for me they all had the aura of home, were part of it, part of the world and part of you at the same time. I became a spy in the house of your absence, in the home you’d made.
The first clue I spied to another sensibility was a big picture book about the Acropolis. In the architectural drawings, the clean lines of classical form; in the photos, the scars of time, dirt, disintegration. And, most shocking of all, images that imagined from the leftover flecks what it all would have looked like painted in the gaudy colors the Greeks actually liked. A clue to the other side of what was supposed to be a modern inheritance. That even the Greeks were about something other than order, unity, form—and whiteness.
Snooping around the bookshelves, I found a series of small paperback books with color plates about artists. Were these the ones you most liked? René Magritte, Raoul Dufy, Joan Miró, Paul Klee. They connect to a vague memory of being in the kitchen with you, painting in watercolors. Orange on the off-white of butcher’s paper. The lines unfurl in these books, break out of straightness, take on color and feeling.
The jazz records in the house were big band swing—Count Basie, Duke Ellington. I thought them old hat, but I investigated them anyway. From jazz, I learned something about ornament that is compatible with restraint. To hear the silence as part of the music. There’s no essence to extract. Form emerges out of details flirting together.
It’s telling that I learned about Andy Warhol from “the box,” as we called television. Of all the glimpses of the other side of the modern, its color and glamour and ornament and play, its appearances and passing situations, Warhol was the one that pointed to the kind of otherness within and against the modern to which I might one day belong: to transsexuality.
More than Warhol, it was the Factory that intrigued me. And in particular, Candy Darling. Of Warhol’s three trans goddesses, she was the prettiest one. I don’t know when her image beamed into my world, but I loved her from the start. A book of Richard Avedon pictures I stole as a teen has a group portrait of Warhol Factory regulars, including Candy. Her naked body, tits and dick, transfixed me.
Transsexuality is technically modern, but I’m starting to feel like it’s something ancient as well. Maybe there’s no essence to the sexed body. Flesh is always-other. It can be diverted, elaborated, ornamented, in different directions, although not without a certain effort. We cut and fold flesh. Like text, like collage.
You taught me something about all this, about form, through your own art. I don’t imagine you had much time for art, pressed into the mold of a postwar homemaker. I don’t imagine you had much time of your own at all. You liked to arrange flowers. Ikebana, the Japanese art of flowers, was popular in the sixties. You had a book about it. I remember the scent of cut stems. Your secateurs, which I was not allowed to touch. The various vases.
I watched as you made such pretty things, out of these few elements, and put them out to see. Bright and shapely against the cool, hard lines around. There for a few days, then gone. If I could just be that. Be a flower you put, just so, held so gently in your hands. Or even just a simple paper princess. Adorning along with all that adorns, that is the world. That would be enough.
My big sister says you were “broad minded.” But I have held the hands and wiped the tears for many transsexuals whose parents had been so too. Sometimes gender is stronger than love. If you’d lived, if I’d come out to you—in my cut and folded form—would you have still loved me? I can’t know. Don’t want to know.
Excerpted from Love and Money, Sex and Death: A Memoir by McKenzie Wark. © McKenzie Wark 2023. Published by Verso Books.
McKenzie Wark is the author of Love and Money, Sex and Death, Raving, Philosophy for Spiders, Capital Is Dead, and other books. She teaches at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City.