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  • Although we were in the same graduating class in college and frequently crossed social (her longterm high school boyfriend went on to become my longterm college boyfriend), curricular, and extracurricular paths (we were both awarded fellowships in summer 2006…she at the Art Institute and I at the Museum of Contemporary Art), we weren’t really friends so much as acquaintances until after graduation. I barely knew her, but I knew of her, and what I did know was that she was talented, ambitious, precocious, and lived a very glamorous and dangerous lifestyle. At 22, Emma practically oozed sex, drugs, and [punk] rock ‘n’ roll.

    And so it was with great fascination and caution that I pursued a the beginnings of what I had hoped would be a longer and more robust friendship than what became of those last few months leading up to her death in December, 2008. We met for beers, shot photos, talked about our futures, the Internet, Chicago… We made plans to curate exhibits together, to host events, to network, to “make it.” She told me that she and her best friend had a secret band that had been practicing for months; that she desperately wanted to perform in front of an audience, and could I help coax her out of her stage fright and into the limelight? I began to realize that she also had the same trepidations about her new and quickly developing career as I did mine. Trepidation which, up until that point, had seemed utterly unfathomable considering her breeding and brains. And so when she called me, in tears, to tell me she had gotten in a car accident, that she needed to see my mom (who is a neurologist), I sent her to the doctor and thought nothing of it. The trauma was more psychological than physical, and so I assumed she just needed some R&R and would be back to her usual self in no time.

    What happened next, I can’t pretend to know. What I do know is that I wished I had paid more attention to my new friend and not been so quick to assume that she could take care of herself, that she need not be bothered by me and my decidedly more wholesome (read: boring) approach to life. Like, what was I going to do, bake cookies with her? Surely she had more important and exciting things to do (get tattoos, fly to Venice), and surely someone else would be the one to assure her emotional and physical health after the accident, which, in retrospect, must’ve made her very aware of her own mortality, maybe for the first time ever. But she knew practically everyone in Chicago, and she knew literally everyone in New York. Who was I to put my nose all up in her business, when we’d only just begun?

    Well. All I can say now is that I wished I had thought otherwise. I wished I’d had the gumption to ask if she was OK, if she was REALLY OK. I thought all the colorful tumult that surrounded her somehow contributed to her creativity: maybe it inspired her, maybe it energized her, maybe it wasn’t destructive nor distracting for someone who was used to experiencing that kind of thing every day, growing up in New York City. On the one hand, she was someone who never slept; on the other hand, she was from the city that never sleeps! She lived fast; she died young. She is survived by her work, and by the memories of those of us who were lucky enough to know her. All we can do now is look, but not touch. We are left with photos, with a representation of self, with the question of whether or not the representation is the self? This question was at the very center of her artistic investigations. It informs how and why I look at her photos, the puzzle she’s left us all to decipher, for she was so many different things to so many different people. This is the essence of what it meant to be Emma Bee Bernstein, at least for me. Look, but don’t touch.
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