Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, featured in the film MANA: Beyond Belief, is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma. Tradition claims that the boulder was placed on the cliff 2500 years ago by Burmese spirits. A gilded boulder sits on top and is believed to contain a hair of the Buddha.
This is a Wonderful Poem
Come at it carefully, don’t trust it, that isn’t its right name,
It’s wearing stolen rags, it’s never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won’t get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn’t decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won’t take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you’ll learn what’s trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?
I am a long time fan of Wagoner’s work, but this morning this poem spoke directly to the tussling I am in with pieces still emerging in the studio. Things we make take on thingness, like the quickening of a babe in the womb. But as a painting claims its thingness, complexities come along as well. Like sweet infants that become rabidly difficult teenagers, I don’t always like where something is headed. Then what?
I recently viewed a film from a few years ago called MANA: Beyond Belief. Mana is a Polynesian word for the power that resides in things. Filmmakers Peter Friedman and Roger Manley have cobbled together a visually stunning collage of images and experiences from all over the world that speaks to the concept of power objects. They describe it as a film about “what makes matter matter”:
All over the world, in every society, there are objects that have special power over people. People climb mountains or make pilgrimages just to see or touch them. They prostrate themselves or engage in rituals in their presence, caress them in the hopes of absorbing some of their magic, they enshrine them in temples or pass them on to descendants; wear them or store them in treasure houses or sometimes burn them. An individual object might hold power over only one group or even just one person, but the phenomenon of “power objects” is universal.
From the breathtaking Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma to the Japanese tradition of O-Hanami (cherry blossom veneration), the film unfolds with almost no dialogue, similar to the hauntingly mesmerizing Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio. One of the most memorable segments for me was watching the meticulously accurate replication of a life sized Mercedes Benz, assembled out of paper and balsam wood. This Malaysian variation on the commonly encountered funereal tradition of making sure the dead has everything he or she will need ends with the entire structure going up in flames.
So yes, there are times when the thought of setting fire to certain pieces of my work feels like the right way to go. A pyre in the streets of South Boston? Not without its appeal at times.
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