“The Emerson Affair is the term generally used to refer to an incident that occurred on July 7 of 2001 in which 32 people lost their life while taking part in an art exhibit inside a submarine which was submerged in the San Francisco Bay. The name comes from the artist who had created the exhibit, Tyla Emerson, who was also killed in the accident.”
Thus begins the Wikipedia article that talks about the day my mom died. It’s so cold and precise that it gives me chills every time that I read it. I hate that this is her legacy. When you type her name into any search engine, this is the first thing that comes up, and therefore the only way most people know of her. As much as I hate it, I know she would hate it a million times worse.
I wasn’t there, so I cannot tell the story differently. I can only talk about the things I have been told by friends, family and her artist peers. And before I get any further into it, I want to acknowledge right up front that, in hindsight, it was a very bad idea. It was not without its merits. Certainly nothing like it had ever been done before. It was completely original, no matter how absurd it was. And it must have seemed like a good idea to others, since the patrons who were on board had paid thousands of dollars to take part in it. Yet from a practical perspective, the inherent danger of the situation should have been more clear at the time. Somebody should have stepped in and explained why it was a bad idea, and maybe they even did, but who can say if my mother would have even listened.
Mom was like that, at least when it came to her art. Completely stubborn. She always found a way to get what she wanted, and she had gotten away with enough risky endeavors prior to this that her confidence got blinded from the odds. If it hadn’t happened, something else probably would have. That is the path she was on, seek and destroy any boundary she came across, even if she had to build it herself. But this is what everybody already knows about her. Nobody knows how she was as a mother or a person outside of her beloved art, nor how she got to be the way she was as an artist. Those things are complex, and people tend to reduce things to something easier to understand. And to judge.
“The exhibit was comprised of four dairy cows on a submarine, which were being milked by mimes, while Tyla stood nude in the center singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic repeatedly. They were joined in the submarines main hull by four animal handlers, and twenty three patrons. The exhibit was only scheduled to last fifteen minutes, but twelve minutes in, a catastrophic failure of the ship’s power and back-up power systems set in motion the cataclysmic circumstances that killed everyone on board except the captain and his second mate, who were the only crew aboard the private vessel.”
Something nobody ever mentions, which makes the whole spectacle more amazing in my mind, is my mother’s singing voice. She had a raspy blues voice, like Janis Joplin. And when she used it, boy did she ever use it. It makes me giggle to imagine that powerful voice echoing that silly song inside that metallic cavern. And mimes milking cows…come on, that is brilliant. The purpose of art is to provide what reality is insufficient at producing otherwise. Where else would anyone ever have experienced that?
“The power outage shut down ventilation systems completely, and within only a few minutes the space had filled with methane from the cow’s emissions. Forensics later determined that one of the mimes had attempted to use a lighter, which ignited the explosive vapors. Experts say the fireball probably only lasted less than a second, but the smoke it produced was enough to lethally asphyxiate everyone in the cabin.”
While everyone always focuses on how easy it should have been to see this outcome, nobody generally mentions how astronomical the odds are that both power sources would fail simultaneously. It was not impossible, but it was highly improbable. I don’t think that justifies it from a safety perspective, but my mom was working from an aesthetic perspective, which she believed was a higher priority. She always said that it was all about the things that make life worth living, not the living itself. And for her, art was that thing.
You might think she is selfish for getting all of those people killed, based on what most people view as skewed priorities, but you probably have no idea how she came to be that way. That is what I want everyone to understand. That is why I am sharing this.
Papa Emerson, my mother’s father, was a strict man. He was both a research scientist and devout evangelical Christian, a combination that produced a person who was adamant about precautions and skeptical of any kind of adornments. The only images to ever hang on the walls of his home were hokey, soft-focus oil paintings of Jesus. Anything else would have been idolatry, and a risk to their eternal souls. He was equally as controlling of their physical safety. To his mind the entire world was one giant booby-trap, waiting to ensnare the unprepared, but not on his family on his watch. Nothing unpredictable was allowed to happen while he was in charge, and he was always in charge. My mother’s childhood was a nightmare constructed from her father’s fanatical paranoia, and it was extremely traumatizing.
This is why art was so important to her. This is why she was abnormally lacking in risk aversion. It is not because she was some careless airhead who didn’t care about life, as she has so often been reduced to in the media. Tyla Emerson was a woman who grew up in a cage, and who spent every moment after she escaped making sure nobody ever put her in one again. If you cannot empathize with that, it’s probably because you are lucky enough to have never had to deal with anything so constrictive and smothering. That is a measure of your fortune, and not just fodder for your dehumanizing admonishments of artistic entitlement.
And I feel like creating a situation which illustrates out how easy it is for people to set aside their own compassion and forgiveness to demonize someone for sport, under the ridiculous and vain pretense of ‘I care more about life than everyone else,’ was truly her final piece of art. Put that in your stupid wiki.