November 2009

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Salt crystals on the Spiral Jetty, Utah

When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.

–Christopher Alexander, one of my ideological mentors, as quoted by Edward Hollis in The Secret Lives of Buildings.

A mysterious space exists between the need for control and the need to let go, and navigating that terrain is of interest to every artist. Alexander’s comment about architecture is so succinct and accurate, and it speaks to more undertakings than just buildings.

In fact we live in a culture where the proclivity to masterminding in everything from architecture to film making is almost encouraged. And yet the primary thesis of Hollis’ book is that buildings will, over time, take on a life of their own in spite of all our efforts to control destiny:

At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them. Then, liberated from the shackles of immediate utility and the intentions of their masters, they are free to do as they will. Buildings long outlive the purposes for which they were built, the technologies by which they were constructed, and the aesthetics that determined their form; they suffer numberless subtractions, additions, divisions, and multiplications; and soon enough their form and their function have little to do with one another.

Hollis uncovers the checkered past of a number of emblematic buildings including the Parthenon, The Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Gloucester Cathedral, The Alhambra, among many others. In so many cases these structures survived because they were adapted, reinvented and transmogrified.

This exploration reminds me of a quote by Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame), one that suggests a metaphysical realm for this idea as well: “The artist must go into places where remote futures meet remote pasts”.

I know buildings that feel as if they embody that kind of crossroads of consciousness, spaces that have taken on a life that is so far from what was originally intended. A similar transubstantiation can happen with other art forms as well. Smithson wrote about how he built the Spiral Jetty but then released it into the hands of nature to do with it what it will. For many years it was submerged beneath the surface of the Great Salt Lake. When it re-emerged it was encased in white salt crystals, a very different state from the black, hard-edge basalt rock at its core. And of course the next 50 years will alter its structure even further. Smithson did not mastermind so much as set an energetic gyre into motion.

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songsofacension
Photo: Meredith Monk

A last four minutes of Meredith Monk’s most recent performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of Songs of Ascensionhas been posted on Alex Ross’ (The New Yorker) blog.

From Ross:

The video excerpt…comes from the final section of the work: first Monk delivers a solo, accompanying herself on a shruti box, or Indian drone instrument; then the collected vocal and instrumental forces launch into the climactic “Procession.” Monk has said that “Songs of Ascension” was inspired by Norman Fischer’s Zen translations of the Psalms, by the upward-seeking forms of spiritual structures around the world, and by Ann Hamilton’s Tower in Sonoma, California.

Monk. She is still casting her spell after all these years.

Watch it here.

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Tribute, by Anne Truitt (Photo courtesy of Anne Truitt)

More thoughts about Anne Truitt, mostly through commentary by others:

Her son-in-law, art critic Charlie Finch, wrote an essay about Truitt that brings her work and her persona closer together. He begins the essay by describing Truitt as “the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that ‘it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.’” But he puts her detachment into perspective, and his insights into her work are memorable.

From his article on Artnet:

In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis’ widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg. Precisely because she worked so intensively and personally on her sculptures, Anne was dismissed by Minimalists such as Donald Judd for being too subjective (and, of course, too female) to create true “specific objects.” Anne was deeply respectful of her dealer, Andre Emmerich, who criminally ignored her for a long time, giving her the occasional show, but little practical assistance.

In the studio, Anne was painstaking to a fault, finding the right piece of wood, sanding it for months to the point where it could properly absorb and reflect her chosen color and then applying layer upon layer of paint in order, counterintuitively, to achieve maximum transparency. The tiny bands of color at the base of her sculptures, which were subsequently borrowed by Haim Steinbach for his marvelous series of black paintings, were a clue to their meaning. There are two interpretive elements to Truitt’s sculpture, a forbidding armor which blocks out the viewer at first glance and then a slowly revealed intimacy which invites further discovery.

Another commentary on her work was written by Peter Plagens in response to a show of Truitt’s work in Baltimore in 1992.

Truitt’s work is deceptively simple. Take “Autumn Dryad” (1975), for instance. It’s a boxy wooden column, a little taller than most people, painted entirely orange except for a grayish mauve brand around the bottom. At first glance, it seems like a design fillip for a Scandinavian airport lobby. But as you continue to look at it (and you cannot help but look at it), you notice that the acrylic paint has been lovingly applied in untold coats. Simultaneously, the sculpture looks like it’s solid color, like butter is yellow all the way through. The piece makes your mouth water (which is, by the way, the test of all good abstract art). “Autumn Dryad” is visceral-as opposed to conceptual-minimalism. As Truitt puts it, “Everything is written on the body. Your experience stains your body like color dyes a canvas. [That's why] the paint sinks into the wood. It marries the wood.” In almost all the works on view, the bride and groom indeed live happily ever after.

Additionally, my response to her most recent show at the Hirshhorn Museum can be read here.)

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The Thing Is


The road to High Head Castle, first built in the Middle Ages and then destroyed by fire in 1947.

The thing is
to love life
to love it even when you have no
stomach for it, when everything you’ve held
dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands
and your throat is filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you so heavily
it’s like heat, tropical, moist
thickening the air so it’s heavy like water
more fit for gills than lungs.
When grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
How long can a body withstand this? you think,
and yet you hold life like a face between your palms,
a plain face, with no charming smile
or twinkle in her eye,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

–Ellen Bass

I read this poem every day when I was in Cumbria. It has an incantatory power for me, an extraordinary coupling of life’s deep pain with that “plain face” of hope. Thank you to my friend Linda for passing it along to me.


Remains of High Head Castle, Cumbria

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Other Laws


Spiral carvings on Long Meg, a menhir that sits outside the Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle in Cumbria

Here are a few more thoughts that percolated through me during my stay in the Lake District.

The spiritual meaning of art belongs to the realm of the subjective or superconscious mind. Only when the objective mind is stilled, rendered quiet and receptive, does the subjective mind increase its sensitivity and powers and “make contact” with that which we truly wish to know.

***
In the case of earlier “dark” stages, recognition comes well after the experiences had been fully passed through. Blindness is an occult law of the spiritual path.

***
Visualization in the deepest sense is an occult science.

–Finley Eversole

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J. Smith-Cameron, left, and Matthew Broderick in “The Starry Messenger,” a new comedy by Kenneth Lonergan. (Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times)

News alert: A fabulous review of Kenny Lonergan’s latest play, The Starry Messenger, appeared in the New York Times this morning. Thank you Ben Brantley for giving this carefully nuanced work its proper due.

Here’s a sampling:

[The Starry Messenger] re-establishes Mr. Lonergan, who hasn’t had a new play on the boards since 2001, as a possessor of all the crucial parts of a good dramatist’s anatomy: a critical mind, an empathetic heart and a musical ear that hears whole lives in sentences. And Mr. Broderick delivers his finest, most affecting performance in years.

To read Brantley’s full review, click here.
My November 9th posting on The Starry Messenger can be read here.

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Self Sowing


The landscape in the Lakes, near Hesket Newmarket

One of the reasons I have made repeated visits to the Lake District in England is because the land feels porous. It is as if the barriers are fluid and the membrane between earthness and creatureness has been rubbed into a soft and pliant translucence. Being in the landscape of Cumbria makes me feel as though I have receptivity to a wider band of frequencies, both external and internal.

Over the next few days I will be sharing some of the ideas that floated through my consciousness during my visit and found a berth. In other words, keepers.

Sow yourself, cast the inert part of yourself in the furrow. You will recover yourself later in your work.

–Miguel de Unamuno

What a set of concepts from the Basque sage. Sowing one’s self. Coming to know the “inert” part of ourselves. Furrows as open places in the landscape’s surface. Connecting with a mysterious unknown-ness that appears later, transmogrified. This is worth sitting with for a while, in silence.

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Higher Ground


Flooding in Cumbria


The river claims the road

Higher ground now means something to me that it didn’t before spending 10 days in Cumbria. The natives of this lush and rainy region near Scotland now refer to the days of rain that culminated in 12 inches in just 24 hours as the 1000 year storm. So it is understandable that many were not ready when the rivers everywhere spilled out beyond their beds. On Thursday the town of Cockermouth was under 8 feet of fast moving water, and most of Keswick was awash as well. A member of the emergency crew lost his life when a stone bridge beneath him collapsed. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes.

A thousand year storm is mind bending enough and even more sobering when viewed within the larger frame of Cumbria’s long history of human habitation. The stone circle at Castlerigg just outside Keswick dates back to 3000 BCE. The neolithic sites scattered around the region make the Roman ruins found along Hadrian’s Wall seem recent and comprehensible. Latrines. Bath houses. Grain storage. This I understand. But what our neolithic progenitors had in mind when they demarcated vistas with circles of stone is still unanswered. The mystery of their meaning is part of their power. Like extreme weather, the only response is a speechless awe.


Stone circle at Castlerigg


Roman ruins of a bath house at Vindolanda in Scotland

Other mysteries were braided into our 10 days. After seeing Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, we relied on scholar Kathryn’s deep knowledge of Keats and his milieu to clarify where the film held true and where poetic license was employed. Volumes of his letters and a number of biographies about his life are ready to be referenced on the bookshelves at the Lodge. We heard about how Keats viewed Coleridge and Wordsworth and Shelley. How desperately in love with Fanny Brawne he was. How ill equipped the 19th century world was to deal with a disease classified by the provocative catchphrase “consumption” that flooded the body cavities with blood and took the lives of 1 in 4 Europeans during that era. How 25 years after his death, Keats’ publisher sold off the rights to all his poetry for a pittance, convinced his work would never command a following.

The higher ground Keats needed to be saved from drowning in his own blood wasn’t within his reach. Poor John. Meanwhile I know the difference between being in the water and being in a safe perch just beyond the surge. I also know that the difference between the two can be as slim as a split second, as thin as a paper membrane, as fluid as a river bed in Cumbria.


Rain-soaked road to High Head Castle


Sunlight between rainstorms, Caldbeck

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Taking a Break

LakeDistrict
One of the many lakes near Keswick

I’m in the Lake District in England for 10 days. I’ll be back online after November 22nd.

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Doomsday

The dark that’s gathering strength
these days is submissive,
kinky, silken, willing;
stretched taut as a trampoline.
World events rattle by like circus
trains we wave at occasionally,
as striped, homed and spotted
heads poke out their windows.
Feels like I’m wearing a corset,
though I haven’t a stitch on.
Burn the place setting I ate from,
OK? and destroy the easy chair
I languished in. Let birds
unravel my lingerie
for nesting materials.
Fingers poised on the piano keys,
I can’t think what to play.
A dirge, a fugue?
What, exactly, are crimes
against nature? How many
calories are consumed while
lolling in this dimness,
mentally lamenting the lack
of anything to indicate
some faint mirage of right-
mindedness has been sighted
on the horizon? The world
is full of morbid thinkers,
miserable workers and compulsive
doodlers. Darling, my mother
used to croon, you were a happy
accident, like the discovery
of penicillin. When I sense
the zillions of cells in my body
laboring together, such grand
fatigue sweeps over me.
Once in a blue moon I smell
the future’s breath,
that purgatorial whiff
shot through with the scent
of burnt hair, like when sailors
have been drifting at sea
for a long time and suddenly
they see gulls circling
and the ripe composty odor
of land unfurls in the air,
but they’ve no idea whether
an oasis of breadfruit
and pineapple awaits them
or an enclave of cannibals.

–Amy Gerstler

This poem is so good and so full, I don’t even know where to begin. It is not the last note I want to leave you with however, so here’s something lighter to counterbalance the intensity of Doomsday:

In Kyoto …

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

–Bashō

Amy Gerstler’s latest volume of poetry, Dearest Creature, was reviewed in the New York Times this past Sunday. An excerpt from that review by David Kirby is referenced in this Slow Muse post.

“Known for witty, complex poetry that reflects such themes as redemption, suffering, and survival, Amy Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for the collection Bitter Angel.” (The Poetry Foundation.)

Bashō (1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan.

_____
Amy Gerstler, “Doomsday” from Nerve Storm. Copyright © 1993 by Amy Gerstler. Courtesy of Penguin Group.

Bashō, “In Kyoto,” translated by Jane Hirshfield. Courtesy of the translator.

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