Keeping Ithaka Always in Mind

Photo by Kathryn Fanelli

John Berger described drawing as something done “not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”

For so many of us who write, compose, paint or draw, Berger’s sentence brings to mind familiar experiences:

  • Starting with something we see that we want to make comprehensible to others.
  • Being taken on a journey that is already in motion, one where the directionals have been encoded into a mystical GPS.
  • Feeling the power of the invisible and its undaunted determination to reach a destination we can neither predict nor envision on our own.

These are the experiences I am longing for, not a life trapped in a 24/7 relentless loop of bad news, then good news, then more bad news.  In between small slivers of hope, I am reminded on a regular basis that almost half the United States population is operating in a reality that is unrecognizable to me. We have become a null case nation, a Venn diagram of disjoint sets. No overlaps or intersections.

Meanwhile we are all collectively living through a triple-threat reality:  a fractured political system with no agreement on what is true or false, a global invasion of microbe biohackers (“we have your passwords, humans!”) and climate-related catastrophes that are increasing in intensity.

Breathe. Again. And again.

For all the chaos of the exterior world, the landscape of the interior is a domain of another kind. Of utmost significance is that this environment comes with a thermostat, and we have access to it. Consciousness is everyone’s most sacred task after all, whether or not you follow a religious path, philosophical precepts or rely on entheogenic aids.

Contemplation is part of the consciousness songline. And as soft as that word may sound, there is more to it than being quiet. “Contemplation is always a revolutionary act,” Beverly Lanzetta aptly wrote.

The visual has a role to play in this gambit. While the art we each find to be contemplative is often personal and self-determined, it is also a term that describes an approach to artmaking and art viewing. Doug Westendrop has assembled a good list.

Contemplative art is…

  • Meaning-ful without necessarily having a particular meaning
  • Quiet-voiced and non-demanding
  • Not about the artist, more often a self-less expression
  • Not aggressive or neurotic, considerate of the viewer
  • Not strident, without an “attitude”
  • Non-political…It has no agenda
  • Not ironic… not clever, tongue in cheek, or insulting to the viewer with hidden messages only the in-crowd will “get”
  • Non-confrontational without being innocuous
  • Attentive but not to the usual distractions of the prevailing pop culture or “art world” concerns…not mindless, but its mind is elsewhere
  • Humble (like the Japanese word shibusa, the “spirit of poverty”)
  • More interested in residual impact than immediate impact
  • Simple on its face but never simplistic… it might take time to really connect
  • Interested in the specific and the particular, as opposed to the general and the typical
  • Interested in the object itself, as if unique in the world
  • Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary

These terms could be used to describe most of the work I have chosen for in my personal collection (Slow Painters) as well as the work being produced by the artists currently in the artist collective, Pell Lucy. It also fits the force field I sensed when I encountered a few photographs posted by Kathryn Fanelli on Instagram. Over the last two years, Kathryn has been engaged in an art project to reclaim and reassemble a 100 year-old children’s carousel. By hand.

Fanelli is a wonderful artist—I have had one of her pieces in my collection for several years—who also has a long-standing meditation practice. She has spent years exploring ways to interweave these two threads in her life. Like many who have made a life long commitment to a disciplined meditation practice, she has a presence that feels soothing, wise and open. But under that hard won calm, a tenaciously determined artist exists. “I’ve never been intimidated by hard work,” Kathryn told me.

I knew about Kathryn’s unique childhood growing up in a traveling carnival family, so the connection between her personal history and this project is not as farfetched as it might seem. Through her carnival legacy, Kathryn came upon several containers that housed the component parts of a children’s merry-go-round. Given the decrepit state of the contents from years of neglect (documented in photos taken by Kathryn,) most of us would have taken one look and walked away. Some projects look promising but are too overwhelming for a single person to undertake. Kathryn was undaunted.

A fascinating “This Old House” narrative could be told about how Kathryn brought each component back to life. But for me it was seeing the photograph of the carousel, assembled in all its fullness—an exquisite blend of elements from the past and the present—that caught me completely.

What does it mean to be caught by an object that has only been seen in a photograph or digitally? Is it because objects have a power that cannot be flattened or silenced?

Covid has driven so much art viewing into the digital domain, and it has changed that landscape considerably. Artsy, Instagram and other platforms are increasingly being used to expand the reach of art and to sidestep the gatekeeping that has limited access in the past. Connections are also much easier to make in these new spaces. I now have many enriching and intimate relationships with artists I originally met on social media.

But I am still a devout believer that being with a work of art is like making love: It is something you do in person. The digital can never be a replacement for that experience.

As a wise friend wrote to me recently:

I am ambivalent about digitopia. I am a fan of cutting out the middle man, leveling the playing field of the pretensions of the galleries. And it is very dangerous at the same time. I think McLuhan and Ong’s work is perennial wisdom on this and can’t be heeded enough. The medium is not only the message, it reprograms our perception. I do not want to live according to the screen, but according to the flesh. The limits of the new technology must be seriously considered and their lacks compensated for with intensification of what is missing: touch, body language, light, skin, resistance. This puts more pressure on art and architecture to materially compensate for what is missing.

She is right, and there is even more to be considered about how to connect with art that was created with the intention of being experienced “in the flesh.” The digital is the menu, not the meal, and it needs to be closely coupled with that embodied experience.

It was my longing for an in person experience that drove me to contact Kathryn about seeing her installation firsthand.

Kathryn’s project, The Passing Show, is situated in a second floor atrium at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Driving towards the campus, it came into my view from quite a distance, a singular object seen through a large bank of windows. (How Kathryn came to install this in a second floor space is another tale of herculean determination.)

The grounds were empty, the campus closed because of Covid. With her key in hand, Kathryn led me inside to the silent presence of Vimoksha, the name Kathryn has given to this structure.

Vimoksha: A term in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism for various forms of emancipation, enlightenment, liberation, and release. It refers to freedom from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.  In its epistemological and psychological senses, moksha is freedom from ignorance: self-realization, self-actualization and self-knowledge.

In Kathryn’s words:

The Passing Show examines the interface between contemplative practices and the destabilizing effect of the carnivalesque. A repurposed early 20th century merry-go-round is reconfigured as a conceptual vehicle for renewing our attention to removing hindrances.  The site-specific installation, titled Vimoksha, is viewed through the lens of the radical imaginary, investigating notions of karmic inheritance through a heuristic approach to material processes, personal history, kinetics and sound.

These are the essential elements that brought this object to life. But Vimoksha is available to everyone, on many levels. For some it is a celebration of an extraordinary feat, the way Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo exposes a task that seems impossible. For others it is a reminder of childhood and the power it holds on us, even in adulthood. For some it is the signifier and the signified, full of symbolism and innuendo, an experience suggestive of Robert Wilson’s 2013 installation at MassMOCA, 14 Stations, a contemporary retelling of on the Christian stations of the cross. For others it is a metaphor for the great wheel of life and our place in the cosmos, a playful and very American version of the Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel. And for some it is a pure and transcendent object, empowered and alive on its own terms. No one response is prescribed or required.

We sat together in the presence of Vimoksha for several hours. Slowly its many elements began to emerge and to speak. The horses, freed from colored coats of paint to allow their elemental metallic essence to be exposed, are ghost-like and mesmerizing. Where sylvan scenes once graced the rounding boards, Vimoksha now has a custom collar of mirrored panels that combine a nod to the past with a stripped down contemporary minimalism. The benches still have evidence of the many layers of paint they have endured, a fitting reminder that this is not a renovation but a reimagining. The naked wood of the platform still carries the worn evidence of small feet clamoring aboard for a moment of delight 100 years ago.

Using the strength of her own body, Kathryn set Vimoksha in motion. The horses lope up and down, and the encircling lights enchant. The sounds that emerge are otherworldly, a haunting cacophony of creaking parts that have been brought back to life after a long sleep. Cosmic gears turning come to mind, a transcendent reminder of the larger themes at play in our lives. (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre”…)

W. S. Di Piero, a poet who writes exquisitely about art, described the work of Giorgio Morandi in terms that feel very close to the bones of this project:

He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.

My two hour pilgrimage to be with Vimoksha is a personal and visceral reminder of the many ways our visual needs can be nourished and fed. Perhaps we need to state a set of guidelines for our viewing modalities, like the lifestyle advice to eat a balanced diet and to get plenty of exercise. The digital cannot replace the thing itself, but it a river system that makes travel, exploration, commerce and connection possible. The relationship with this waterway is constantly in flux: it is prone to floods, erosion, pollution, invaders, flotsam and jetsam, even deluded cargo cultists. But Vimoksha now serves as my personal compass rose, a way to keep these elements in relationship and in perspective.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

(From Ithaka, by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley)

16 Replies to “Keeping Ithaka Always in Mind”

  1. Deborah – as one who has a hard time articulating the inner process/experience of art work I find your words to be astoundingly accurate. Reading this I felt included in an artists’ community I rarely see represented in the “art scene.” Thank-you so much for your work.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Dara, Thank you so much for your words. Even though we are geographically distanced and our encounters are rare, I feel a companionship with you and your work. I so appreciate you reading and responding.

  2. Thank you so much for such a moving report !
    To me, what will remain after reading, is that at the start there is absolutely no path.
    The more we walk upon, the more paths exist and become visible !
    So obvious, but yet so often left behind !

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      You capture the mystery and the magic so well. Thank you for your reading and for commenting. It means a lot to me.

  3. Such an insightful examination of the elevating process of art and the miraculous reconstruction of Vimoksha. Like the past returning back as a vivid dream

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ananda, There is a small delay in getting comments to post so I am sorry for that inconvenience. Thank you so much for your words. This is a miraculous reconstruction and reimagining. I hope it can find a home where others can sit with it too. Thanks again.

  4. Delays are not inconvenient in a blog titled ‘slow muse’ 🙂

    Sharing an older post of mine. Do read it when you can

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for sharing this Ananda. Very well done. Please keep in touch.

  5. A wonderful post! So many things do dive further into, will have to come back again … and again. Just the first few lines made my mind stumble: “… to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination”. Thank you!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Sigrun, Thanks so much. I love that Berger quote too. (He did that a lot, masterfully move ideas into words.)

  6. How I loved carousels when I was a child. This (meditative) re-imagining feels compelling. I’m glad you got to witness it in person! It does make a difference.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ann, the “in the flesh” experience matters. Thank you for your words here, so welcome as always.

  7. Imagine I’ll be contemplating all the connections so beautifully scripted here for some time. Made me delve into Kat Fanelli’s work. The Carousel is such a labor of love: fond memories of how exciting it was for me to be so high up, twirling around, trying to capture the ring, and then it was over. The ghost-like figures and mirrors are the memory, for sure! While looking at all of Kat’s work, I came across one from 2016: a painting from her residency in North Adams in 1992: drawing and painting all the captured insects, flies left on the windowsill. In 1995 I was awarded a residency there, and found an old sugar bowl on the windowsill with beautiful, dead butterflies inside (which I took home with me). I asked her if she left it for me? The digital world takes you on a journey, and from there you meet your friends..Thank you, Deborah!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I am not surprised by this connection with Kathryn but delighted nonetheless. Thank you so much Ann for sharing this here.

  8. Deborah, thank you for offering us beauty & wisdom & playfulness at a difficult time.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much Michael. It really is all those things: Wise, exquisite, playful and larger than life.

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