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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #445
Gunung Santubong
David Gunn

Jerome was in the Castelli Gallery on East 79th Street in New York standing before Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup can and wolfing down a lamb brains burrito when the O in the word Soup winked at him. He momentarily stopped eating, checked his eyes for blepharospasmic activity, found none, and winked back. Slowly the U in the same word widened into a broad grin. The S slithered sinuously around the O and U, alighting atop the P and creating the Malay ideogram for Gunung Santubong, the mysterious mountain of the Damai Peninsula in Malaysia, a fact that Jerome was heretofore unaware of. Then the crossbeams of both of the Tomato's Ts wriggled, beckoning him closer. Jerome carefully slipped the remains of the burrito into his pannier, glanced around the room--he was quite alone; even the door to the adjoining gallery had vanished--and sidled up to the famous silkscreen. An eyeball suddenly appeared in the winking O and a small, thin tongue slid from between the U's parted lips. The tongue seemed much too long in proportion to the U--it reeled out nearly to the floor. Then it wrapped itself around Jerome's left leg and firmly pulled him closer to the Warhol. It pulled him so close that his body heat activated the scratch-and-sniff patches, and abruptly the whole room smelled of canned tomatoes. Meanwhile, Jerome was getting an earful from the eye in the O. It was blinking furiously at him in Morse code: dit dah dit dit, dah dah dah, dah dah dah, dah dit dah, dah dah dah, dit dit dah, dah, dah dit dit dit, dit, dit dit dit dit, dit dit, dah dit, dah dit dit, dah dit dah dah, dah dah dah, dit dit dah! Jerome wrote down the letters: L-o-o-k o-u-t b-e-h-i-n-d y-o-u. Look out behind you?! Apprehensively, he spun around. In front of the opposite wall was Red Grooms' pop art sculpture, New York Subway. The cartoonish riders--which had been seated when Grooms built them in 1987--were out of their seats and lurching towards him. Jerome instinctively recoiled from the papier-mâché golems, and he backed into the Warhol silkscreen, which forthwith assimilated him.

The mystery surrounding Gunung Santubong is of its origin. Geologists have been unable to determine any orogenesis for the mountain at all! The earth's crust surrounding its base didn't fold, it didn't fault. There was no trace of proximate volcanic activity, nor was there any sign that it fell out of the sky during the early Cambrian Period's Big Rain of Mountains. The prehistoric Malay Chieftain, Ood-nan-tunk, didn't grow it from a magic caraway seed, and it didn't contain sufficient striations of ambergris to qualify as a giant petrified whale. But what couldn't be explained by the Scientific Method was easily justified by good old superstition. The legend most in favor these days was of the quarrelsome sisters, Santubong and Seijinjang, two princesses in the mythical Kingdom of Bengazegath. Santubong was beautiful, and much sought after by handsome suitors from all over the earth; Seijinjang had what was known in Bengazegath as "a nice personality." Not nice enough, however, to rein in a deep-seated jealousy, and one day Seijinjang took the giant swizzle stick that she had whittled in her industrial arts class at school and skewered her sister with it. Santubong collapsed onto the ground, turned to stone and, in time, into the mountain that bore her name. Its distinctive profile, like that of a whale with a huge goiter, became the subject of dozens of indigenous folk songs. It was one of these melodies that nudged Jerome to consciousness. During the refrain, he heard, but did not recognize, a mélange of aboriginal Malay instruments, including serunai, gambus, caklempong, sundatang, gambang, gendang, ghatam and burritophone. However it was the thwacking of the mrdanga seemingly next to his head that turned the nudge into a full-blown wake-up wallop. Jerome sat up and looked around.

Nothing that he saw suggested that he was anywhere near East 79th Street in midtown Manhattan. He sat on a multihued carpet of moss and vetch at the edge of a clearing amidst a forest of soaring, spindly trees. Ferns of all shapes and sizes surrounded him. One patch bore an uncanny and somewhat disturbing topiarial resemblance to a locomotive stalking a leopard in a china closet. Nearby, a giant pitcher plant that had apparently metamorphosed from insectivore to frugivore was ardently devouring a watermelon that had wandered too close, distracted by the same folk melody that had awakened Jerome. And floating two meters above his head was a large mrdanga, a double-headed barrel drum popular in Carnatic music. But it wasn't the instrument's repudiation of the law of gravity that precipitated Jerome's double take. Rather it was the winking O, bordered on one side by the S and on the other by the U and P that looked down at him from the drum's side that gave him pause. On closer inspection--a cinch at two meters--Jerome deduced that the Castelli Gallery's Campbell's Soup can had somehow added the dimension of depth and followed him here ... wherever here was.

[Editor's note: For those of you without ready atlas access or who weren't paying attention earlier, here is Gunung Santubong, a rainforest-covered mountain in the state of Sarawak on the northern part of the island of Borneo.]

The folk song filtered through the trees again, unseen hands smacked the Campbell's Soup mrdanga, another melon meandered unwittingly towards the pitcher plant, the ferns hulaed in time to the rhythm, and the remains of the burrito slipped out of Jerome's pannier and crept silently off into the forest. Jerome had reasons aplenty to be dissatisfied with his present version of reality, and yet he chose to embrace it and just see where the story would take him next.

Like most Malaysian myths, the legend of the quarrelsome sisters wrapped up with a moral quid pro quo. The jealous sibling didn't just waltz away scot-free from her wicked deed. No, Santubong's swain, who happened to be Bengazegath's Crown Wizard, angrily transformed the sororicide into the adjacent mountain, Gunung Seijinjang, and forever blanketed it with clouds of annoying chiggers. And while he was powerless to revivify his sweetie, he did see to it that a little likeness of her sprouted eternally from a field at the bottom of the picturesque goiter section of Gunung Santubong.

Over time, the mountain soil turned alkaline, and so the princess' facsimile evolved. Where once it was visibly zaftig, now its appearance was of a studied cylindricality. Its coloration, too, changed from rich earth tones to contrasting bands of red and white. The side that faced the south developed blotches that looked remarkably like the English words "Soup" and "Tomato." So when Andy Warhol's flight from Omaha to Paris was inexplicably diverted to Santubong Village and he opted to trek up the mountain during the protracted refueling procedure, only a supreme act of Anti-Destiny could have prevented the little image that greeted him by the bottom of the goiter to be embodied in the silkscreen that hangs in the gallery on East 79th Street.

Except for leaving Jerome on the Damai Peninsula alone and burritoless, this story, which is moonlighting as the opening act of Kalvos & Damian's 445th New Music Bazaar, has somehow come full-circle. Why, even as we speak, the eye in the O of the Soup on the gallery wall is nictitating dah dit dah, dit dah, dit dah dit dit, dit dit dit dah, dah dah dah, dit dit dit, which in almost any language spells "Kalvos."