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View of the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake

One of my favorite stories was told by Laurie Anderson about an interview she conducted with John Cage for the Buddhist publication Tricycle many years ago. A great admirer of Cage, Anderson was desperate to ask him the really BIG question: Are things getting worse or are they getting better?

Cage, ever the sage, responded with a gentle assurance. “Of course things are getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”

I have thought of that response so many times over the years. There are small patterns and large ones, and our perceptive skills have difficulty with some of the larger arcs. It’s like the difference between weather and climate: We all know about weather, but we struggle to understand and truly perceive the concept of climate.

One friend refers to this as the “watching the tides” syndrome. As each set of waves comes to shore, big ones intermingle with smaller ones. But the larger pattern of the tides is also happening at the same time. That pattern requires patience and a knowledge of what to look for.

Many arcs of change are operating in our lives all the time. Some have patterns that make them difficult to discern until suddenly they seem to appear fully formed. My personal experience with this kind of surprise is what can happen in the studio. Your old reliable processes can hold you in a perceptual stupor until something emerges that shifts everything. Paying attention to what is a familiar way of working and what is in fact emergent is part of the practice.

This kind of vigilance resonated when I read a recent article in the Harvard Business Review called Understanding “New Power”, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. It’s worth the read in its entirety but here is one passage that spoke particularly to me.

A much more interesting and complex transformation is just beginning, one driven by a growing tension between two distinct forces: old power and new power.

Old power works like a currency. It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

The old way of working becomes currency by default. All the more reason to lean into what is more a current, like water or electricity. And of course the idea of being a channel is right in line with my way of seeing and making.

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Stillness, wherever: In this instance, the sunset from Carmel Beach, California

Pico Iyer is a very known travel writer and observer of the world. His most recent book, The Art of Stillness, is an invitation to his readers to choose the best destination of all—Nowhere. Going nowhere, says Iyer, “just may be the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.”

This may be surprising travel advice from a man who has indulged his oversized Wanderlust for most of his life. But in this slim book Iyer steps away from his adventurous observations of the outward bound life and turns his gaze on his own interior landscape of being a writer.

Writers…are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, it to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.

The battlefield of sitting still is even more complicated by a cultural milieu that increasingly mediates against any stillness in our lives, ever. And yet every maker—writers, visual artists, musicians—knows how essential it is to get there.

Unfortunately, once you do achieve a sitting stillness, that doesn’t mean you’ve arrived.

Nowhere can be scary, even if it’s a destination you’ve chosen: there’s nowhere to hide there…A life of stillness can sometimes lead not to art but to doubt or dereliction; anyone who longs to see the light is signing on for many nights alone in the dark.

One of my running themes on this blog has been the parallels between the creative life and the life of contemplation. Iyer turns to that path for clues as well. He spends time in monasteries and retreats. Drawing from anecdotes of several well known contemplatives such as Leonard Cohen, Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Emily Dickinson and Matthieu Ricard, Iyer learns by studying their patterns.

One of the first insights is that things are not as they appear. Iyer quotes Thomas Merton: “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves.”

Nowhere has its own time zone and climate system, a place where the rules are a bit different. Near the end of the book Iyer shares his own wise advice, words that resonate with my experiences in the studio:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere—by sitting still or letting my mind relax—that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

Making space for the unbidden: That’s a worthwhile mantra for what studio time is all about.

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—”Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

***

If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

***

There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

***

And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

***

“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

***

If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

***

For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

***

“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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When is it too much text? (Photo: bodyartforms.com)

As long as I have been making art—and eight years of writing steadily about art-related issues here on Slow Muse—I still struggle with how words and the visual come together.

One part of me is convinced that the great visual experiences cannot be harnessed into words. That’s the part that finds the current proclivity to align every visual object with an accompanying text just plain tiresome.

From The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones:

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

There is another side of me however that loves words and is so grateful when they open and expand my experience of seeing. My mother tongue is visual, but gratefully I know some word people too. Currently working on a catalog for an upcoming show, I have been completely enamored with the wordsmithing skills of my essayists, Linda Jones Gibbs and Kathryn Kimball. These “word wizards” tend to be writers who love art, not artists who can also write. They know how to craft words that deepen and enhance a visual experience, something I simply am not able to do with a sense of personal satisfaction.

Gilda Williams has written a small and important book that addresses many of these current word and image issues. How to Write About Contemporary Art, published by Thames & Hudson, is smart, fast and well written (but of course). It is also beautifully designed by artist/designer Sarah Praill to be highly readable and visually engaging. (More books like this, please.)

Williams presents the complex landscape of writing about art with the expertise of a seasoned tour guide, breaking the tangles down into comprehensible chunks. There is the issue of art criticism after the Clement Greenberg era. There is the increasing trend to use words to bring conceptually challenging contemporary art closer to larger and less familiar audiences. There is the delineating difference between explaining and evaluating (which, while important, is “in practice, porous” in her view.)

She can also speak about the shortcomings of the art writing without being condescending or unduly harsh. Fear, says Williams, is the real root of bad writing:

Much contemporary art-writing remains barely comprehensible…contrary to popular belief, most indecipherable art-speak is not written for the purpose of pulling the wool over non-congnoscenti’s eyes. On occasion art-impenetralia is penned by a big name, attempting to mask undeveloped ideas behind slick vocabulary or hawking substandard art; but the worst is often written by earnest amateur art-writers, desperately trying to communicate…the cause of much bad art-writing is not so much pretentiousness, as is commonly suspected, but a lack of training.

(Note: What a great neologism, “art-impenetralia.” Sounds like a salacious act!)

Williams also has her list of worn out words and phrases which should be left out of any writing. (We could all add our favorite frayed terms to this list as well):

subversion
disruption
formal concerns
displacement
alienation
today’s digital world

This is a worthwhile read for writers and artists, especially artists who struggle with how words can respectfully and meaningfully coexist with their visual work. This is as close to an art writing style guide as I have seen, and a worthwhile add to my bookshelf.

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Doing a show with artists whose work you admire and who you consider to be your good friends—that’s a sweet spot that doesn’t happen often. Luckily it was the case with this recent show. The four of us conceived of this work hanging together, and we were able to do the installation ourselves. I am so grateful to Elizabeth Mead, Paula Overbay and Jo Volley for being such excellent co-exhibitors.

I’ve included some installation shots below. For those who enjoy reading show statements, I have also included the description of Material and Matter, currently on view at La Grua Center in Stonington CT (location details are included as well.) The show is up through the end of December.

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Sculpture by Mead

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Overbay in the center, with Volley on the left and Mead on the right

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Sculpture and drawing by Mead

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Window well ink drawing by Volley

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Paintings by Barlow

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Barlow (left) and Overbay (right)

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Mead

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Barlow painting with sculpture by Mead

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Detail of Volley ink drawing

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Window well drawing and object, Mead

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Paintings by Barlow, sculpture by Mead

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Paintings by Barlow, window well by Mead

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Right before the reception

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Mead during the installation

Show statement:

MATERIAL AND MATTER
Works by
Deborah Barlow
Elizabeth Mead
Paula Overbay
Jo Volley

La Grua Center
32 Water Street
Stonington, CT 06378
(860) 535-2300

Artists and scientists share a fascination with the world and its multitudinous forms. While they both possess a driving sense of wonder, their approach is very different. Scientists seek to understand the world, and they use instrumentation and methodical procedures to unravel, uncover and dissect. They find the answers to their questions by breaking the world down into component parts and deconstructing the physical world into its primal elements.

Artists are driven by wonder as well, but they are more inclined to approach the world and its complexity with a sense of awe and celebration. They relish the many ways a body experiences the physical world. The complexity of living forms–from the petri dish to a murmuration of birds—is an encounter with an extraordinary pattern rather than a search for its component parts. For an artist working in this way, the expansive space/time multiverse and its cosmic net of connectedness is an endless source of wonder, awe and amazement.

Four accomplished artists living in Boston, Brooklyn, London and Williamsburg will come together at The La Grua Center to explore their common passion for how materiality and the physicality of the world informs their art making. Working in a non-representational manner, they explore material and matter in both 2D and 3D forms. Playful, engaging, provocative and exquisitely crafted, the show brings together four different visions of how to engage with wonder and the world.

The Golden Ruhl

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Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, award winning playwright and member of the genius grant class (it’s a badge you can wear for life), has been the theme of my week. Her recently released book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, is like trailing after a very verbal and intelligent friend who is, at the same time, juggling her three hyperactive small children.

That is the truth of Ruhl’s life right now, and her book has been written with that reality evident. But at no point does her dual citizenship come off as self-conscious, manipulative or fey. The two black holes of her life—those spheres where demand for attention is limitless and never satiated—are art making and parenting. And in the face of those great sucking sounds, she comes to a position I wish I had found when I was struggling with those issues years ago: Quit trying to win and just surrender.

From Rachel Cusk‘s review in the New York Times:

In these short (and sometimes very short — one of them consists of a single word) essays, Ruhl anatomizes the central drama of creativity, whereby the self and the business of living are found to contain the moral structure of everything that lies outside it. The question of gender quickly becomes germane: How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge? It is a question not just of interruptions but of that other Woolfian theme, cultural notions of importance. “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

What follows is a set of observations whose most noticeable characteristic is the freedom of association. Having been left with no choice but to interrogate culture from an autobiographical position, Ruhl discovers there a far greater intellectual liberty. The 100 essays represent 100 different links between art and reality, as Ruhl’s meditations on writing and staging plays find reflection in her experience of family life, friendship, illness and ordinariness.

Ruhl is smart and she is funny. Her insights into theater, writing and what matters are worthy but not overwrought. One essay, “An essay in praise of smallness,” is simply one sentence: “I admire minimalism.” In an essay entitled “Is there an objective standard of taste?” she answers, “No.”

In keeping with this Ruhl-themed week, I also saw a production of Dear Elizabeth, Ruhl’s play about Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Culling through the 400 letters written between these two extraordinary poets over their 30 year friendship, Ruhl portrays a connection that was deeply sustaining to both writers through their trouble-fraught, complex, often lonely lives.

Ruhl has described her approach to theater: “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great horrible opera in them.” Ruhl’s gift is being able to reach into the “great horrible operas” that were the lives of these two poets and pull out the story of a friendship that was so elemental and life sustaining for them both. The sincerity of their affection, the depth of their artistic connection, the innocence and vulnerability they were able to share with each other—this is a rare and extraordinary storyline, one that Ruhl has carefully crafted from their own words.

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Jack Whitten (Photo: Rose Art Museum)

Yesterday I attended a symposium on the “status and stakes” of painting today. Most of the speakers were academics—art historians and curators whose business it is to categorize, systemize and prognosticate on where the world of art has been and where it is trending before it actually does.

These are concepts that hold a kind of intellectual interest for me. But I am also aware that they exist quite distinct from the day-to-day business of my life and work in the studio.

The most heartening takeaway for me was a ubiquitous agreement by all that painting is very much alive, thriving, and once again at the center of contemporary art discourse. For those of us old enough to have lived through the “painting is dead” pronouncements that started in the early 1960s and suffered through years of being asked why we did something so anachronistic as painting, there is bit of a self-congratulatory, “told you so” moment. But as one of the speakers put it, painting never stopped during those years, it just got elbowed out of the art hot seat as new forms like conceptual, performance, installation, new media and anti-art art took center stage. Katy Siegel, Curator-at-Large at Brandeis University, made the point that the popularity of painting today cannot be explained simply by market demand. There’s more to this resurgence than just commercialism and consumer demand. For someone who got the call at age 17 and has spent her life working in this form (that would be me), the answer is obvious.

When theorists gather, a lot of time gets spent on words, meaning, signifiers, subtexts, referents. Discussion about what the term “painting” means today is robust as that category keeps expanding beyond something that exists on canvas over stretcher bars. The usefulness of old standby words like “abstraction”, “artist”, “painter” have changed considerably and may not be serviceable in the current circumstances. ( Siegel said her students today eschew all the existing definitions and simply say, “I make stuff.”) Suzanne Hudson, USC professor and author of Painting Now (available in March 2015), reminded us of Leo Steinberg‘s open definition of painting as “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered.” She also finished her thoughtful remarks with a well known quote by Robert Ryman about how art progresses not through organized movements but because “everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that.”

Energy flooded back in the room for me when artist Jack Whitten claimed his wise elder status and stepped into a whole lot of theorizing to keep the very act of art making central to the discussion. “Painting is hard work. When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there…We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”

Thank you Jack for bringing the essence back into this never ending, multi-faceted conversation. His timely interjection reminded me of another wise elder, John Cage, when he addressed the inchoateness of creation and making:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

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John Cage (Photo: Tucson Sentinel)

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GreatSL

A Message from the Wanderer

Today outside your prison I stand
and rattle my walking stick: Prisoners, listen;
you have relatives outside. And there are
thousands of ways to escape.

Years ago I bent my skill to keep my
cell locked, had chains smuggled to me in pies,
and shouted my plans to jailers;
but always new plans occured to me,
or the new heavy locks bent hinges off,
or some stupid jailer would forget
and leave the keys.

Inside, I dreamed of constellations—
those feeding creatures outlined by stars,
their skeletons a darkness between jewels,
heroes that exist only where they are not.

Thus freedom always came nibbling my thought,
just as—often, in light, on the open hills—
you can pass an antelope and not know
and look back, and then—even before you see—
there is something wrong about the grass.
And then you see.

That’s the way everything in the world is waiting.

Now—these few more words, and then I’m
gone: Tell everyone just to remember
their names, and remind others, later, when we
find each other. Tell the little ones
to cry and then go to sleep, curled up
where they can. And if any of us get lost,
if any of us cannot come all the way—
remember: there will come a time when
all we have said and all we have hoped
will be all right.

There will be that form in the grass.

–– William E. Stafford

Last week my brother Tom passed away after a 13 month battle with cancer. My enormous and sprawling family gathered earlier this week to remember his life. The hole he left will never disappear. You just settle in next to the hole, and every day you remember that it used to be filled with an outrageously alive, hysterically comedic, rascally rule breaking force of nature. In the words of Anne Lamott, master of how to live with loss:

You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly, that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.

Limping along as we are, we also know that nothing stays the same. Groundlessness is life. Flying into Salt Lake, a drought-shrunken Great Salt Lake no longer keeps the shoreline where my partner David’s grandfather could swim from Tooele to Antelope Island. My childhood haunts in Layton and Bountiful are mostly paved over and suburbified. But Stafford helps. It is that form in the grass, as he has written, that thing you cannot see at first but can feel. But then you do see. Then you do get the image.

I believe that comes later.

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Finding Squares

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Marilynne Robinson (Photo: Big Think)

Recently I wrote about Richard Diebenkorn and described how deeply his work and approach to life informed my way of art making and being in the world. In that post I referenced Adam Gopnik‘s description of squareness:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

I am drawn by this contrarian position as a way of navigating (avoiding?) a contemporary world of art that is overly fixated on the cool, the hip and terminally detached. Call me Ishmael? No, I’d rather be Square.

Maybe square is an apt code word for what matters most to me these days. And if square is my tribe, then I I can’t help looking for kinspeople. A high probability candidate is the extraordinary Marilynne Robinson, author of a new novel Lila and subject of a very thoughtful and sensitive portrait by Wyatt Mason that appeared in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday.

Admired by writers and readers for her exceptional literary gifts—she is the winner of many literary prizes for her previous novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home—Robinson is a rather singular figure in literary circles for her unabashed devotion to Christianity (she is a sometimes Congregationalist preacher) and her passion for John Calvin. That interest permeates her novels as well as her non-fiction writing including The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays, and Mother Country.

Mason is a thoughtful writer, and in his piece for the Times he is able to portray both the delicate finesse and the fierce muscularity of Robinson’s mind. These words, elicited from her during the several days he spent with her in Iowa City, are memorable:

“One of the things that bothers me is that there are prohibitions of an unarticulated kind that are culturally felt that prevent people from actually saying what they think.”

“It’s as if when you describe something good, you are being deceived or are being deceptive.”

“Being and human beings are invested with a degree of value that we can’t honor appropriately. An overabundance that is magical.”

“A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world…It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’”

I am drawn deeply to Robinson’s version of squareness and her willingness to “sense a sacredness in things.” But I also resonate with the part of her that stays outside of life just a bit, a tendency to stand apart.

Mason quotes Robinson on this issue:

I have always been—always from childhood’s hour, as Poe would say—in the habit of feeling quite a stark difference between myself and the world I navigated. Which was any world I navigated. And then, at a certain point, I found out that that was a) very formative and b) probably an error, although it was that discomfort that made me feel like writing, the feeling of difference.

To the extent that I was ever an unhappy person, I was happy with my unhappiness…

People do things very differently…And it probably has to do with genes and child rearing and all sorts of things. But you can feel a distance as regrettable and at the same time take a kind of pride in it. The stalwartness of the self. That it can endure. And that even though you can kind of theoretically see how you could be more like the world that excludes you, you know that you can rely on yourself not to be…Somebody who had read ‘Lila’ asked me, “Why do you write about the problem of loneliness?” I said: “It’s not a problem. It’s a condition. It’s a passion of a kind. It’s not a problem. I think that people make it a problem by interpreting it that way.”

In that same vein, Robinson reveals a few of her concerns for constructing the inner life. She shares a teacher’s wise words, valuable advice received when she was quite young: “You have to live with your mind your whole life.” Robinson elaborates: “You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”

Her devotion to building an inner landscape that is sustainably compelling and companionable 24/7 is the essence of the hermit’s creed. And with proclivities towards hermiting of my own, this is just one more reason why she feels like a cotraveler.

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One room from “The Visitors”, by Ragnar Kjartansson

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Installation view (Photo: Agostino Osio, courtesy Fondazione Hangarbicocca)


The Clock, a video montage/art installation by Christian Marclay, artfully stitched together 24 hours’ worth of vignettes with references to time. Stipulated by Marclay to only be viewed in perfect synch with real time, The Clock‘s sequences are extracted from our collective cultural consciousness of movie and television. Those images, as if from a collective dream, are haunting and mesmerizing.

The power and genius of Marclay’s project took me completely by surprise. And like many of my friends, I endeavored to view as much of the full cycle of The Clock as possible while it was available at the MFA in Boston in 2011.

So it is high time—for me anyway—to be seduced and enchanted by another video piece. I have found a candidate for that at the ICA in Boston: The Visitors, by Ragnar Kjartansson.

The set up is simple enough. Eight screens each show scruffy, casually attired musicians in different rooms in a massive, “shabby chic” mansion in the Hudson Valley. (Kjartansson himself is in a bathroom, sitting with his guitar in a tub of water.) Wired with headphones, they collaborate together on one song that winds its way through most of the hour-long video.

Like The Clock, The Visitors is an exploration into the mystery and often ineffable way we humans connect and assemble a sense of ourselves. Both of these projects exist in a zone between the narrative and the non-narrative, a zone that allows for something new to emerge.

In his review in the Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee called The Visitors a generational masterpiece, one that “may even be remembered as having helped trigger a change in the climatic conditions of contemporary art.”

Aside from anything else, “The Visitors” is a triumph of tone. Alive to the preposterousness of its premise—a bunch of hipster musicians from Iceland squatting in a grand home on the Hudson…in order to perform a repetitive, rather unremarkable song—it somehow transforms latent irony into sincere and open-hearted expression…

It presents itself as slackerishly devoid of ambition, but “The Visitors”…actually heaves with a yearning for beauty, an ache for love. The ache is powered, of course, by nostalgia, but also by an urgent, aesthetic desire to throw off something felt as too much in the way of today’s artists: the burden of intellect.

In a setting that is not so much dissonant as ill-fitting—suggestive of an artistic inheritance so grand it can only be awkward—it posits the possibility of an escape from the cul-de-sac of too much history, too much civilization—and not least, too much critical thinking. It posits the possibility of a foray into true feeling.

I would recommend investing the time to watch this entire experience unfold. The last scene is masterfully poignant, and it achieves its finality without dropping into the manipulative or artificed.* That image—and the aura of the entire The Visitors experience—is now mine to revisit over and over again.

The Visitors is on display at the ICA through November 2.

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*I just want to make this point: Artifice is an essential element of any artifact—be it a painting or a video—but it is in the gradations and subtleties that we are transported past that barrier of the craftedness of a work and into experiences that feel real and authentic. That is an issue I believe a maker confronts every day, with every work.

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