As soon as we’ve realized this, we turn around and see a trail of fish behind us. Fish in John Baldessari’s work,
fish in Mark Dion’s work,
and, on page 101 of Supermarket, the name of a fish that’s the name of a town that I’d heard of before.
The town of Cabezon, CA, takes its name from this fish,
which inhabits the reefs in the nearby Pacific. It is entry #420 in the National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Fishes, Whales & Dolphins, which notes that its eggs are poisonous to humans if eaten. Cabezon the town is notable for its Dinosaur diner—Cabezon fish, like dinosaurs, date back to prehistoric times—and the diner
is a regular roadside attraction complete with a “life-size” dino (above left), like the diner animals Steven Izenour found on his treks for Learning from Las Vegas (above right).
Richard Misrach snapped a photo of the murals that adorn the side of the diner for Desert Cantos.
In Supermarket, VanderLans gives us only the dinosaur’s giant feet.
The first time I’d ever heard the word “cabezon” was in Robert Hass’s first book of poetry, a slim volume called Field Guide, for which he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1973.
Hass, like VanderLans and I, is interested in the aura of names. He writes in his introduction to Field Guide of “weird Spanish names for shopping centers contrived by people who knew no Spanish and had no sense either of the place or of its physical life” and explains that “the California landscape shows up so much in these poems because… I had, for whatever reasons, a passion for natural history, but also because it was a place for me where language did not belong altogether to desire, to human intention.” In our travels through VanderLans’s landscape of influence, we have seen this viewpoint expressed before, though never quite so elegantly.
We find the cabezon, or, in Italian, cabezone, in the first poem in the collection. Hass calls it “an ugly atavistic fish / as old as the coast shelf it feeds upon.” The fish is ancient, essential, and out of place today. Later in the poem, it’s caught. Hass writes,
But it’s strange to kill
for the sudden feel of life
The danger is
We seek our origins and we are of our origins. They originate us. What they do not do is offer a lesson. The act of living is not a story but a process, of which dying is a part, a process of aggregating experiences, of forming connections between things and places and ideas that gain in force as we form them.
The origins of design, art, and language itself are shared origins that we can trace back to caves in Altamira, Spain, only several miles from another Cabezon: the tourist respite known as Cabezon de la Sal, nestled on the northern coast. The more signs you look for, the more signs you will find. They are everywhere, teeming, and we struggle just to reel them in.
Today, the video game Katamari Damacy embraces this nonobjective model of making meaning. As you roll a sticky ball through the countryside, you are able to attract greater and greater-size things based on how many things you’ve already managed to attract. The game has no moral: a player simply must grow through the process of interacting with his surroundings, thereby connecting those things to himself and to one another through the interaction.
The danger is
This is our struggle, both as fish and as fishermen, captives of our chosen countrysides and capturers of it, and we struggle, as Hass does, to see things as they are. We have been struggling with this for centuries. But, in the end, things are what they are, and we are who we are, because of the act of looking itself. In what we’ve seen tonight, we’ve learned that a fish’s eyes look wider. I want to suggest to all of you now that our life as designers (and people too) depends on growth: by seeing more in what we know, by seeing more of what we don’t, and by always looking for connections between the two. We will transform ourselves in this process of working.
In his final moment with the cabezon, Hass is transformed in this way. He writes,
Holding the spiny monster in my hands
his bulging purple eyes
were eyes and the sun was
almost tangent to the planet
on our uneasy coast.
Creature and creature,
we stared down centuries.
© 2005 Rob Giampietro