March 2007

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The multifaceted Ramanujan (see my earlier posts about him) is also a poet. This poem continues to explore many of the same themes as his essay, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?”

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Chicago Zen

i
Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

ii
Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.
The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,
you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,
rapid, silent.
On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls
in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane
from your daughter’s hair
and you drown, eyes open,
towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

iii
Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached
by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,
nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls
on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one
and only blue guitar.
Nor by any
other means of transport,
migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating
without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary
black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,
and answering all calls of nature.

iv
Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high
threshold,
and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,
and watch
for the last
step that’s never there.

A. K. Ramanujan

Bill Viola, artist extraordinare and seeker, was asked to select objects from the Asia Society’s collection a few years ago for a show called The Creative Eye. Here he responds to the 17th century Gandavyuha Manuscript from Nepal:
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If you engage in travel you will arrive.
-Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)

When the need to know becomes stronger than the need to be, when our immediate surroundings cannot fulfill our desire to see beneath the world of appearances, when the comforts of home become oppressive and counter-productive, we have no choice but to engage in travel.

The book tells the story of a young man named Sudhana who is compelled by the very source of Wisdom to set out on a path that takes him through a series of encounters with various teachers and spiritual guides, eventually leading to enlightenment….In the end, none of his teachers have the ultimate answer for him, forcing Sudhana to continually move on and reminding us that incomplete efforts and even failures are priceless elements in an accumulated whole, and that living with a sound question is more important than possessing a temporary answer. The path is always more valuable than the destination.

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The Twins, Castor and Pollux
Dorothea Rockburne

I think the reason I paint, or that I do whatever I do, is to deal with (I don’t think of it as unconscious) subliminal knowledge. And I do think that one has knowledge about things that haven’t occured yet, and I try to work for those kinds of knowledges. For me, these are emotional truths.

[Subliminal knowledge] is what I call developed intuition. What I have found is that when I learn something–while you are using it at the moment, it’s right at the top of your brain. But, as you move on and are using newer information, the formerly learned information goes into a mental file and with time that file goes deeper into the drawer and becomes what I call sublminal information. It is trained intuition because the files begin to combine, all on their own accord.

Dorothea Rockburne, in conversation with Denise Green
Metonymy in Contemporary Art

This is one of the clearest statements I’ve ever read of what it is that compels me to paint. Rockburne’s distinction between “sublminal knowledge” and the unconscious is also a key insight. The visual material that we internalize is a bit like the bubble under the tablecloth–you know it’s there, but it is nearly impossible to nail down. It just pops up somewhere else, having morphed into yet a different shape. As Rockburne suggests, the mixing it up happens with or without conscious engagement.

Another provocative suggestion in this exchange is Rockburne’s reference to prescient information and how, as an artist, she is seeking access to those other “kinds of knowledges.” Now that is a topic for a whole other discussion.

Between the conscious and the unconscious, the
mind has put up a swing:
all earth creatures, even the supernovas, sway
between these two trees,
and it never winds down.

Angels, animals, humans insects by the million, also
the wheeling sun and moon;
ages go by, and it goes on.

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.
Kabir saw that for fifteen seconds, and it made him a
servant for life.

Kabir
(translated by Robert Bly)

Painting by Dorothy Napangardi
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Tree trunks, Alice Springs
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Painting by Johnny Warangkula
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Todd River bed, Gum tree, Alice Springs
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Painting by Kathleen Petyarre
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Simpson Desert, Northern Territory
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It needs to be remembered that Central and Western Desert art works, and the narratives in which they are embedded, comprise high levels of information about the environment, site-specific ‘deep ecology’, interactions between species, as well as offering templates for human intereactions, and ethical and moral guidance. The art work itself acts as a kind of visual shorthand representing these Dreaming narratives, which encrypt Indigenous social memory, or what could be described as ‘cultural DNA.’ Focussing exclusively on the abstract, formal qualities of such art works is ultimately eurocentric, because such interpretations are premised on the suppression or even erasure of this considerable substratum of cultural meaning. This potentially leads to permanent cultural loss on the part of the Indigneous custodians of these narratives.

Christine Nicolls, from Dancing Up Country

The following comment was made by Elatia Harris in response to the posting Bathed in Milk and Honey:

Could it be that the “bathed in milk and honey moment” or better still the “eye-painting moment” for a work of art in the West is the moment it is exhibited before a public? We long so for that, feel that it anoints the art and the artist, and legitimizes her efforts like no other process can. As if by showing art where it can be seen and media-acknowledged we have given it realness, at least the realness of the tree that fell in the forest with someone to hear it fall. In candor, we might say that the important time we spend with our art is the time of summoning something from nothing — creation. And yet it lacks that final realness for us until it is beheld by others, certain others. Maybe we do indeed know the eye-painting moment, and have transferred its power away from ourselves.

This suggests some parallels from an interview with the painter Alex Katz in Metonymy:

I expect other people to tell me what I have painted. I know what I’m trying to do, and the technical aspects of what I am doing, but a big part of the painting, if it’s any good, comes from another part of your person. You create a process that will engage your whole being and release something. When I started out, I had no idea my painting would seem “Oriental,” or calm. I thought they were very lively. In one of my first reviews, Frank O’Hara said the paintings had an Oriental calm. I was shocked at that, but I guess he was right. That ‘s part of my personality that I couldn’t see. It is a bit like a person’s handwriting.

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When the emphasis is on the metonymic, it is not only the mode of appreciation that is different, but the process of creation as well. When Indian artists carve these sacred figures, they proceed by accessing spiritual states of mind in which there is no separation between the creator and the created object. Western artists use symbolic thinking and maintain the separation between self and object. For Pygmalion it took a divine intervention to make the statue come alive, but for Indian artists art works are actual embodiments of the forces associated with a deity…I visited the Dilwara Temple in Mount Abu, a Jain temple which contained the white marble figures of deities called Jinas. Each morning the Jinas were bathed in milk and honey and now I understood why the monks performed this ceremony.

Denise Green, from Metonymy in Contemporary Art: A New Paradigm

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Buddhist tangka painters wait until the very end to paint the Buddha’s eyes, and the actual gesture is done as part of a sacred ritual. It is in that moment of quickening that the tangka becomes embodied and can now serve as a personal spiritual aid for meditation.

What is the Western equivalent to the daily bath of milk and honey, or to the eye-painting moment that annoints–or simply acknowledges–the life force that exists in a created entity? Something happens in the creative expression of every cultural tradition that is of an energetic nature. Just ask anyone who has been deeply moved by an object of art, be it western or otherwise. The descriptions of that visceral response usually identify with an exchange of energy, a connection between the viewer and the viewed.

Perhaps the energetic embodiment of an art object in our culture happens outside of ritual, outside of a tradition that names it and identifies it. Perhaps our western fixation on the meme of the individual prevents us from identifying with a process that does happen at a personal level but is also part of a larger, more inclusive experience.

Continuing on the topic of Denise Green’s Metonymy

One of the seminal influences on Green’s view of art is A. K. Ramanujan. In his essay, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” Ramanujan discusses the differences that exist between European and Indian approaches to reality. Several of his comments suggest parallels between Indian and aboriginal points of view:

Contrary to the notion that Indians are ‘spiritual’, they are really ‘material minded.’ They are materialists, believers in substance: there is a continuity, a constant flow of substance from context to object, from non-self to self (if you prefer)–in eating, breathing, sex, sensation, perception, thought, art, or religious experience…in Indian medical texts, the body is a meeting-place, a conjunction of elements; they have a physiology, but no anatomy.

Ramanujan also references another of Green’s key influencers, psychoanlayst Alan Roland (and author of In search of the self in India and Japan: toward a cross-cultural psychology.) Roland suggests that “Indians carry their family-context wherever they go, feel continuous with their family.” He posits that Indians develop a “‘radar’ conscience that orients them to others, makes them say things that are appropriate to person and context.”

Ramanujan et al see the advantage of an approach that is not trapped by an objectivity that makes distinctions between the self and the non-self, from interior and exterior. As a linguist, Ramanujan borrows from grammarian formulations to describe these differences as context-free and context-sensitive. “I think cultures…have overall tendencies (for whatever complex reasons)–tendencies to idealise, and think in terms of, either the context-free or the context-sensitive kinds of rules. Actual behavior may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor in guiding the behaviour. In cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation.”

That distinction plays out in forms of artistic expression. The western opposition of nature and culture is a culture-bound construct, and it does not make sense in an Indian context. “There is another alternative to a culture vs. nature view…culture is enclosed in nature, nature is reworked in culture, so that we cannot tell the difference. We have a nature-culture continuum…” Ramanujan sees examples of these container-contained relations in culture/nature as well as god/world, king/kingdom, devotee/god, mother/child.

This reframing is powerful in relation to viewing aboriginal art as well. The distinctions that Ramanujan brings to the Indian outlook have many parallels in other non-western cultures, and shifting our view to accommodate those distinctions opens up a whole new set of concerns, opportunities, insights.

I traveled to the center of Australia with the hope that I could step deeper into understanding why I have such a powerful attraction to aboriginal art. For 15 years I have been studying these works, often only in reproduction, and my attachment has only deepened with time. While in Alice Springs, I must have looked at several thousand paintings. Sitting with some of the aboriginal artists, I was convinced that they are feeling and seeing the world in a way that is completely different than me. Their boundaries are different: It feels as if they carry the land inside them. Not the image of the land, the land.

I was struggling with the language to describe this significant difference when I fell onto an extraordinary book–Metonymy in Contemporary Art, by Denise Green. Green is an artist, an Australian, and a cerebral thinker who has articulated some of my own questions about the aboriginal world view as it relates to the context of art making.

Here is how she describes her own work:

Denise Green introduces the concept of metomymic thinking, as developed by the late poet and linguist, A. K. Ramanujan, one that is often different from what is present in Western art critical writing. In Ramanujan’s formulation of metonymic thinking, the human and natural worlds are intrinsically related to one another as are the transcendent and mundane worlds. Metonymic thinking in contemporary art implies that one must take into account the inner world of the artist. When artists create metonymically there is a fusion between an inner state of mind and outer material world.

In her book, Green takes on the likes of Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Both have argued against subjectivity in painting, and Green asserts that the hegemony of their viewpoints in western art criticism has inhibited a deeper understanding of painting. She wants to open up the possibility of viewing contemporary art from a more “global and pluralistic perspective.”

There is much to explore here, and I’m still assembling these ideas into a meaningful relationship for my own understanding. But Green’s book has been a huge step forward in penetrating issues that have been floating around in my consciousness for several years.

I have a lot more to explore on this topic. So more later.

Note: To see some images from my own collection of aboriginal art, go to my Slow Painters blog. They are tagged under the category, “Aboriginal Artists.”

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A dusting of paprika-colored sand permeates every surface of my backpack and clothes. Even the toothpaste tube has a gritty residue. I’d like to think these particles are on assignment, carrying out an esoteric mission that only the small entities in life can undertake. (According to the ancient hymn/myth, Inanna is rescued from the underworld by fingernail clippings whose insignificance enables them to pass through the gates of hell without notice.)

I’m still struggling from the straddle of a 14 hour time zone shift between Australia and Boston, but I don’t think that is the only reason for my struggle to language the insights from these last 4 weeks. I may be in a kind of white light over exposure, the way you feel when you’ve been in extreme reflectional conditions like sun on snow or sun on sand. But as my vision and clarity return, I will post those impressions here.