September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
From the beginning artists sourced nature to create art: paint originally made from plants, sculpture formed from stone and clay, and now artist reuse discarded plastic for creating art.
Some artists use this plastic and other trash-destined debris in their artwork for both material and conceptually as embodied points of view onto the world they live in, and a few, ahem…perhaps, one, consider human detritus as simply anart medium without reflecting on or moralizing it’s impact in our world.
Tony Feher’s material is our civilizations toss-a-way packaging. He finds delight in plastic bottles, but also boxes, and bags with labels removed yet easily recognizable by their trademarked shape. With a wink to modernist sculptors before him and well, the public, his audience, he creates serious sculpture (or at least with serious price tags). Is he intentionally drawing attention to the wastefulness of excessive packaging, or is he intentionally drawing our attention to how branding influences our visual vocabulary that consciously and unconsciously manipulates consumer choices. Is he ridiculing our addiction to consumption of both wasteful, trash-bin-destined debris and at the same time passionate global art consumption? My inclination is that he doesn’t think about important environmental issues nor is this what his art is about, in his esteem; but, as they say, when the art leaves the studio, the object takes on its own symbolic in the world, it carries it’s own meaning—the place in which to access the real the imaginary must be conjured.
Another ambiguous work of art by Kris Martin, Water, 2012 an assemblage of various size, shape, and colored glass vessels, each containing water, either half full or half empty, depending on the viewers perspective seems to inquire into the worldly water issue. Does each vessel represent all the nations in the world and our dependence on water for existence? Is the piece questioning how much more time do we have before the half full glass empties? Martin’s art ponders humankinds most vital issues, like the fleetingness and fragility of existence, mortality, time; albeit, he challenges the seriousness of his art with a wink and whimsical playfulness, like an art jester.
Kris Martin, Water, 2012.
On the other hand, Alejandro Duran leaves no ambiguity about the intention of his art. His latest project Washed Up, he states is intentionally to address the issue of plastic pollution. He focuses his lens on the debris from around the world that wash up on the shores of Sian Ka’an in Mexico making Andy Goldsworthy like forms and capturing them in photography.
Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang turned their daily strolls along the Kehoe beach in Point Reyes National Park into a collaborative art project. They consider themselves artist archeologists. Since 1999, they began gathering and sorting by color and or theme the varied thermoplastic junk or our throwaway culture and recreating it into inspired colorful art pieces.
Pam Longobardi’s mind continually analyzes and investigates humans’ relationship with nature. Drifters Project began in 2006 when she came across mountainous heaps of plastic detritus washed up on the shores in Hawaii. She began following the ocean currents to catalog, study, and collect the floating waste from the perspective of a scientist, artist, and anthropologist. She describes her passionate pursuit,
“Traveling expanses of space and time, ocean plastic is a material that can unleash unpredictable dynamics. I am interested in plastics in particular, as opposed to all garbage, because of what it reveals about us as a global economy and what it reveals about the ocean as a type of cultural space and a giant dynamic engine of life. As a product of human consumer culture that exhibits visibly the attempts of nature to reabsorb and regurgitate it, ocean plastic has profound stories to tell us about the interconnectedness of the fate of the planet and our impact on it. “
Pam Longobardi 2013 exhibition image.
Underlying all of Mark Dion’s art is a high-minded ecological agenda. Like the other aforementioned artists, Dion considers himself an explorer, a historian, and a dilettante archeologist. I see him as an intellectual ecological artist. He creates installations or assemblages that are a take on the form of the tableaux-like scientific arrangements found in natural history museums or historical cabinets of curiosities. Like Longobardi he is fascinated by the histories the found objects hold, he treasures the stories a washed up piece of plastic tells us about civilization as much as he would value discovering artifacts from the Antikythera shipwreck.
The common theme connecting many of the artists who use plastic and humankinds detritus as their material is how they begin to look upon their material from the viewpoint of an archeologist and a conservationist, as well as an artist. I, too, find the history of plastics in our civilization intriguing; although, I wonder how future generations will remember us. Just as we learn about the precision of the Incan architecture and the aesthetics of the Greek design, what story will the heaps of plastic and technological debris say of our era?
March 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
Dinner with Marcel Duchamp and On Kawara
Of the twentieth-century art gods (Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol), Marcel Duchamp elicits no middle road. He is either revered as a godlike figure of contemporary art or disdained as a charlatan. Curators, artists, critics, and dealers praise his import in reframing and redefining what is art and how we view it. In fact, the other night at a dinner party seated amongst a crowd of the aforementioned art-world folk, I asked, “Are we done with Duchamp?” Knives and forks dropped from their fingers as their eyes shot daggers at me. The rebuttal that followed began, “ We can never be done with Duchamp!” and “If you know anything about contemporary art, how can you propose such a question?” Indeed, I swear, on a stack of Artforums, I am no art historian or art scholar, nor a curator, critic, or dealer. I am simply and purely an art appreciator. And, I realize by proposing that I see an overuse of art proclaiming a Duchampian lineage or ideal that I am certain to provoke strong opinions from people smarter than I. What has this idealism that Duchamp strived towards done for art? The ideal form, the ideal material, the ideal expression, the ideal truth; these things continue to be sought, but alas, they have all been found! They have all been found in everyday materials (which seems to be the popular medium used in contemporary art), such as trash, used clothing, packaging supplies, broken furniture, and other multitudes of mundane objects thrown together is cast out in the galleries as “Duchampian.” Marcel Duchamp influenced contemporary artists perhaps more than any other master from the twentieth century. He paved the way for pop art, environmental art, assemblage, installation art and conceptual art. Even so, Duchamp is overdone in contemporary art. Art historian and critic Barbara Rose, in her well-written article for The Brooklyn Rail reviewing the recent exhibition of Duchamp’s paintings at Centre Pompidou, commented in her post script: “What Duchamp himself had done was always interesting and provocative. What was done in his name, on the other hand, was responsible for some of the silliest, most inane, most vulgar non-art still being produced by ignorant and lazy artists whose thinking stops with the idea of putting a found object in a museum.” Bravo! I completely agree. This is what I am asserting when I ask, “Are we done with Duchamp?” The products that call themselves works of art copying ideas and images put forth previously are far too numerous, too sporadic, and have been done again and again. Duchamp, by contrast, was compelled or obsessed to not fall into complacency or predictability; he challenged himself to not repeat and reuse the same thing. He disliked reproduction and secondhand experience. From his failures, rebellion, or both, Duchamp emerged successful. He failed at art school, in printmaking, and with painting. Yet, he was not deterred. He could have changed course, pursuing a life as a chess-playing librarian, but he didn’t. He continued to question, “What is art?” and “How do we see art?” In both life and art, he looked beyond what had already been done, rejected conventional conformity, and avoided an affiliation with any group—thus, not claiming to be a cubist, dadaist, modernist, surrealist, of futurist, yet associating with all. He felt it unnecessary to encumber his life with attachments and stated that he chose to live with or without “too much weight, with a wife [although, he was twice married], children, a country house, an automobile.” He was a champion of independent thinking. An evasive, private, elusive man, and often known as a poker-faced trickster, he was a controversial figure with contradictions.
Conceptualism began with Duchamp’s wheel-and-stool sculpture—the first of his thirteen “Readymades” [his term] completed in his lifetime. This revolutionary art form changed everything. Before this, in the 1600s, exquisite Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings glorified everyday objects, and works like Monet’s Haystacks honor forms found in everyday life.
Yet, Duchamp turned over the table; he used the everyday as the material for his ideas rather than the subject of his art. By this bold articulation, he changed what he called ‘retinal’ art and proposed an intellectual art, what today we call conceptual art. He changed how we see art and what we call art. The Duchamp “ideal’ has found the source of art in the mind. Duchamp was interested in the mechanical and the machinery of the industrial age-artists must find their own material to bring forth and start their own machines, instead of relying on utterances which have many times been uttered. And, thoughts abound of every imaginable sort: sociological thoughts, political thoughts, economic thoughts, philosophical thoughts, thoughts on religion, race, and morality. We seek a new language in art. Form, materials, and ideas continue as elements to define and question the nature of art. Warhol chose Campbell’s Soup cans and Brillo boxes, Bochner makes measurements, Flavin uses neon, Weiner and Holzer create works of art from words. And, On Kawara chose dates. Which brings us to the other artist discussed at the dinner table from the other night. Following my bold assertion in regard to Duchampian art overdone like the current kale craze, I stated that On Kawara’s art is the crown of conceptualism, sitting upon a heightened throne, so much so that his art is void of aesthetic appeal. I was stepping outside of popular sentiments with my opinions.
Actually, I believe On Kawara a champion of Duchampian ideals. Duchamp an “antipainter,” On Kawara chose paint as his medium—that, and his day-to-day existence. Both artists steered clear of the intrigues of the art world and remained on the periphery of the art market. Unlike Duchamp who was easily recognizable (and his private life was subject of gossip), little is known about On Kawara’s personal life, and even his work is absent of personal mark-making, using a an ink stamp and telegraphic text rather than pen or pencil to scribe to his correspondents. Life and time were elements in their art. Duchamp would work and deliberate on one piece for nearly ten years. On Kawara would start and complete each piece within a day, ritualistic, Zen-like, a meditative moment beginning with a brushstroke, and once begun, fluid in movement to the end, marking time. With a long period of gestation for his art objects, Duchamp produced far less than On Kawara’s 3000 date paintings. Both were dedicated to thought-out, deliberate, and handmade precision. Duchamp held an excessive, obsessive fixation on the act of seeing and On Kawara held an obsessive fixation on the act of recording.
Bicycle Wheel (1913)-and Fountain (1917), the infamous urinal-both immediately resonate as Marcel Duchamp, and DEC.29, 1977, meticulously painted in white on red, is instantly recognizable as uniquely one of On Kawara’s Today series paintings.
Both artists dared to work outside popular art parameters and became known for their singularity. Both artists are a combination of all of Yoshio Markino’s classifications of modern painters: the humbug, the degenerate, the lunatic, the eccentric, and the genius. After ascending and descending the spiral gallery of the Guggenheim’s On Kawara exhibition I saw more than the singular date of one canvas. I saw the entire body of his work was one piece, an installation work of art. I felt each piece was integral to the whole. I questioned whether an individual work could be realized as what the artist intended. What value could it hold? Like critic Peter Schjeldahl, I thought it would be arbitrary and pointless if ‘the object’ reflected the collector’s birthday or anniversary. I have come to see otherwise. I believe what On Kawara created in his disciplined, diaristic manner of recording his personal life experience touches upon our interconnectedness and interdependence universally. For whatever reason a collector paid more than four million dollars for May 1, 1987, it connects his or her life with On Kawara’s and with everyone else who was alive on that date, reminding each and everyone that his or her existence matters. For this, I find On Kawara’s art revolutionary.
And so, I ask, “Are we done with Duchamp?”
January 13, 2015 § Leave a comment
Cloudy day with veiled sun and humid gleam of light over Puget Sound
When clouds are slivery grey, lying low, I feel introspective. When they are wispy thin like delicate paintbrush strokes, moved calmly by a whispering wind, I feel dreamily contemplative. When the sky is speckled with billowy, fluffy white forms drifting playfully, fantasy floats into my mind. When the sky turns dark with thick looming masses, I am infused with crazed energy. And, on clear, blue-sky days where the sun beams powerful brilliant rays upon me, even though I bask in the warmth and a happy-go-lucky-naught-a-worry-in-the-world glow, I miss the divine afflatus in the clouds. Inspiration, for me, is more easily evoked in a cloudy day.
The artist Vik Muniz, who creates illusionary forms from dust, chocolate, or even garbage, must also believe that a blue-sky day needs a voluminous drifting white puff to loft our spirits. He put a smile on the sunny New York City sky in the form of a cloud. For his 2001 Creative Time project he ‘drew’ clouds in the sky creating vaporous joy, then capturing the transient moments in photographs.
Preceding his Creative Time project, in 1993 he created a series of cloud like forms from cotton, including the below image of praying hands imaginatively referencing the spiritual; perhaps as angels drifting skyward bringing one nearer to heaven or bringing visionary form to the formless as in the Sambhogakaya realm of Vajrayana Buddhism, beckoning one to the goodness within oneself.
Clouds transform landscape and are nature’s most elusive realm. Serving as an awakening for living in the present, confirming that this moment, now, will never come again-take notice. All is malleable; everything is in a constant state of change. What was the past is only a memory, fleeting and altering, like a cloud transforming shapes from a face to a fish, sometimes a serpent, or a rose before my eyes until the wind carries the airy illusion away. Diaphanous clouds metaphorically nod to life’s permutations and impermanence. One need only beckon the natural world to remind us, it is here, right now, that we must pay attention, because in a flash it changes. The present beauty, the present experience, whether joy or sorrow, is evanescent.
Another contemporary artist, Jim Hodges, has been both inspired and daunted by nature’s most elusive realm. He once stated that he missed living amid the closed in caverns of New York City’s towering buildings, and that living up in the Hudson Valley, with its broad, open expanse was “too much vastness and sky”. Even so, those skies brought forth from him great art. Was he paying tribute to nature’s beauty or subconsciously condemning nature for being the master of beauty that no artist can replicate? In one immense piece, Untitled (One Day It All Comes True), 2013, he dramatically recreated a majestic cloudy sky with swaths of denim. In another, Untitled (Scratched Sky, I), 2011, he slashed his photograph of cloudy Hudson Valley skies, gesturally lashing out at nature’s exalting beauty.
Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable arguably may be the most well-known painters of clouds. Turner’s famous mood altering paintings hold an almost divine illumination. They are masterpieces in color and light, calling upon passion in the viewer and inspiring future Impressionistic and Abstract art.
Constable, on the other hand, was known to be obsessed with meteorology. His ‘sky sketches’ were untitled but offered descriptives of the natural weather conditions, such as, “morning under sun-clouds silvery grey, on warm ground sultry. Light wind to the SW fine all day-but rain in the night following.” His cloud paintings were done as studies to hone his painterly skills and represent the shape of looking, a visual truth, while also being aesthetically appealing. Today these works are considered finished paintings, examples of texture, color, and atmosphere, capturing for many dreamy illusions.
Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’s paintings from the late 1700s, whose landscapes are more skyscapes may have inspired both Turner and Constable. The scale of the diffusive clouds in relation to land serve as visual signals to call to mind the humility of self.
Artist Joseph Wright’s dramatic painting Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, circa 1766, renders fantasy, dreams, and Surrealism. Wright captures nature’s dominating power on canvas, the human presence in Landscape, Storm is both diminutive and barely discernible; its appeal as a reminder to what is mortal in us is essential in life’s temporality. Clouds are signs of motion and metaphors of instability.
Wright’s painting brings to my mind a work by Ken Fandell, a contemporary artist who merges science and art in unsettling illusions, Days and Nights, Dawns and Dusks, North and South, East and West, Mine and Yours, 2008. It is dizzying to look upon it, similarly vertiginous as gazing up at a Tiepolo ceiling. Like Constable, Fandell’s sky photos began as a simple exercise in photographing, transforming into a visual diaristic demarcation of time, and evolved into a Surrealistic, mesmerizing, disorientating collage of the sky from hundreds of PhotoShopped digital frames.
Clouds have been muses for inspiration to poets, painters, and great philosophers throughout the ages. Several artists in visual and literary form, before and since the 18th century, including Milton, Thoreau, Whitman, and also Shakespeare pondered, studied, and attempted to capture form from the clouds pregnant with perpetual change.
In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, after Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium and nearing his death, says to Eros:
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air.
Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra (IV, xii, 2-7)
Arousing visions of Eros, The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes the Indian ink, watercolor, and gold drawing Andhrayaki Ragini: Folio from a ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes) ca. 1710. with amorous illumination. “Within the palace interior a lady reclines on her bed, restlessly pulling her hair in frustration at the absence of her lover. Her maids are outside, sheltering themselves with their saris from a great thunderstorm that fills the sky. The dark swirling clouds are riven by bolts of lightening. The drama of the storm serves as a metaphor for the turmoil of love.”
I am continually guided by words from Henry David Thoreau. In an excerpt from his journal, dated 01-June-1852 he expressively contemplates the evening’s transience form…
“The sounds I hear by the bridge: the midsummer frog (I think it is not the toad), the nighthawk, crickets, the peetweet (it is early), the hum of the for-bugs, and the whip-poor-will. The boys are coming home from fishing, for the river is down at last. The moving clouds are the drama of the moonlight nights, and the never-failing entertainment of the nightly travelers. You can never foretell the fate of the moon,-whether she will prevail over or be obscured by the clouds half an hour hence. The traveler’s sympathy with the moon makes the drama of the shifting clouds interesting. The fate of the moon will disappoint all expectations. Her own light creates shadows in the coming (advancing) clouds, and exaggerates her destiny. I do not perceive much warmth in the rocks.”
Amongst the many exaltations to honor mood forming clouds, I must include John Milton who coined the phrase ‘silver lining’ in Comus (A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634).
I see ye visibly, and now believe
That he, the Supreme Good, to whom all things ill
Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistening guardian, if need were
To keep my life and honor unassailed.
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
Thus, I know why I am summoned by the clouds-I believe in silver linings.
November 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
“Police mistakenly shoot 911 caller during manhunt,” read a recent headline in USA Today.
Tension was thick in Ferguson, Missouri, while the citizens awaited the grand jury decision on the case of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenage boy shot in the back by a police officer. Emotions were unleashed with the announcement of the jury’s decision not to indict Officer Warren as the answer to justice.
And then there’s the story of Oscar Grant, the unarmed BART passenger fatally shot by a transit officer, a tragedy that inspired the movie Fruitvale Station. “I made a mistake,” testified officer Johannes Mehserle about the shooting, as reported by Huffington Post contributor Michael McLaughlin, who further stated, “The 33-year-old claims he mistakenly used his service revolver when he wanted to grab a Taser.”
I’ll share my own inane encounter with a peace officer. I often cycle on a quiet, one-lane residential street that is mostly a well-ridden bike lane. There are stop signs at intersections to keep motorists from using this neighborhood side street to bypass traffic on the busier, adjacent two-lane road. Routinely, cyclists do not stop at the stop signs—some may slow down rather than speeding through them, as I did recently. Regrettably.
Passing through this lane, I was overtaken—more precisely, cut off—by a police car with flashing lights. I thought to myself, “Whoa, this is aggressive enforcement for a stop-sign violation.” I abruptly braked, clipped out of my pedals, anticipating my lecture on bike safety. Instead, the police officer stepped out of his vehicle, shut his car door without even glancing in my direction, and went off at a waddling pace holding a gun in his hand. I don’t mean touching his holster, where his gun should have been. I mean he was wielding a gun in the air as he ambled toward the white picket fence in front of his parked vehicle. There he stopped and looked intently, rather nervously, at the house.
I realized then that my stop-sign infraction was not his objective. And as comical as the scene might be to recall—chubby cop, waddling like a toddler toting his weapon—it really did concern me. The police officer could have caused me to crash by cutting me off. If he believed there was imminent danger, his first action should have been to warn me to stay back from a potentially dangerous situation. I feared for any cat that might cross that yard—the officer appeared ready to shoot at anything.
As I cycled away, I could feel the entire scene had frightened me. I considered returning to get the officer’s information and report him, but then the thought of reporting a police officer frightened me even more, the prospect that I could be targeted as a troublemaker. Feeling bothered, I quickly pedaled home.
I am not writing this to ignite a fury against police officers. It is one encounter with one cop. In the larger scheme, I deeply respect the risks that police are willing to face in the line of duty to maintain order in our communities. I surmise they hold one of society’s most stressful jobs. No, I would not prefer to live in a lawless society. I have never been faced with a dangerous, life-threatening experience, and if it were to happen to me, I would like to know the police were there to protect me.
To get a wider perspective, I did a Google search for how many officers die in the line of duty and how many suspects are killed in police pursuit annually. Finding no reports, I inquired from a friend, a magistrate judge, who provided a precise list of officer fatalities, but could not find a good source for suspects who have died while in pursuit by officers. These two links offer some statistics:
They are called peace officers. Yet, why do they illicit feelings of ill ease, tension, power play, or actually confrontation? Police are intended, ultimately, to make us feel calm and safe. They are public servants paid with our tax dollars to ensure peace within a community. But why is it that when I ask anyone, of any age, “How do you feel when you approached by an officer?” they all admit to feeling guilty or nervous. Not once has anyone replied “safe.”
My son’s friend, John, told me a story passed along from his father. When John was a baby, he had difficulty sleeping through the night, crying his lungs out. On one particularly mild evening, his father decided to take him out for a stroll rather than pace the apartment. Not more than three blocks from home, a police car stalked them down. Interrogating John’s father with a harassing tone, the police questioned him whether this was indeed his son and what business he had wandering the neighborhood at night.
It is not that I long for the days of Mayberry R.F.D., a fictional time when life was simple and the sheriff never carried a gun. But I would like to see and read more heartwarming stories where the officer of the peace maintains a calm, friendly vibe.
Not too long ago, I was traveling in Jamaica with my son. We hired a driver to take us to the rural, “road-less-traveled” side of the island to visit seaside villages and local farmers markets. Our driver wanted to take us to his favorite restaurant in Port Antonio. Unfortunately, all the vegetables were in the markets and there was nothing on the menu for me, a vegetarian, to eat. We decided to drive further along the highway to Boston Bay, known for the best jerk chicken on the island. Our driver, worrying we wouldn’t find any fresh plantains, yams, or ackee, waved down a police car to ask the officers if they knew of any restaurant where we might find both jerk chicken and vegetarian cuisine. The officers chatted amongst themselves, made a call, and sent us on our way.
Apparently, they’d phoned their favorite jerk chicken spot to inquire if the cook could prepare a meal for me. When we arrived the restaurant knew who we were (the only tourists) and we didn’t even need menus. They prepared our lunch, and it was delicious! Later, the two officers stopped by to see how we liked our lunch. Bursting with flavor, police officers assist tourists in a unique, delectable local lunch. Wouldn’t it be nice to read more headlines like this? True, they provided an unforgettable experience and a happy tummy. More importantly, I’ll remember their “Yah mon” calm.
November 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
Is silence golden? When I imagine silence I don’t see gold. I more likely see black or even white. How does one visualize silence? And, why do certain images come to signify silence?
Silence is conceptual. Even though, as composer/artist John Cage stated, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” And he sought to prove this in his 1952 performance 4’33”. In fact, pure silence is not obtainable or feasible; even though, we often sense it, feel it, and maybe even see it.
With a constant bombardment of noise–data, images, gossip, news, opinions (including blogs like mine)–hurling at us on our computers and smart phones, silence is precious, like time. I, again, quote Cage: “There is no such thing as an empty space or empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
Silence thus is stillness, calmness. Silence is not necessarily a lack of sound as it is a cultivation of interior peacefulness, a stilled and quieted soul. Silence is the sound of breath. Silence is the sound of the wind, the sound of nature. Silence is an undisturbed, singular focus and complete absorption into something in the present moment.
How does an artist capture the concept of Silence? How does one depict in an image or object the essence of silence? The artist must produce a ‘void’, a feeling, a resonating, a relation to language, something dialectical.
The 1980s Pop artist, Keith Haring, loudly proclaimed a political sound to silence. Influenced by the ancient Japanese philosophy of the three wise monkeys which commonly portray that seeing and saying nothing is virtuous, Haring counters that belief by stating its opposite in a work from 1989: Ignorance = Fear / Silence = Death.
Also politically charged, Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair (1971), a series of 10 silkscreen prints, stages a bleak, empty electric chair in his usual colorful Pop Art fashion. While some see profound silence and emptiness, I hear an echo that radiates of protest, pain, and a dispiriting atmosphere of power instilling hopelessness in the name of justice. Both artists relate silence to death, the former illustrating that by keeping silent you are an accomplice to death and the latter depicting, although ambiguously taking a stand, that capitol punishment shall provide the ultimate silencing of the contrarian, nefarious voice. Yet, even death cannot silence. Through memory and art–the recording of a life–the deceased are not silenced.
Silence can be unsettling. Most surely you have felt that pregnant pause or an awkward silence. Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, an artistic psychological thriller, bares the angst-ridden and mentally tormenting aspects of the act of silence. Marina Abramovic’s performance art channels that same psychologically unsettling feeling, such as in her 1974 work titled Rhythm 0. For six hours she stood silently in a gallery space while an audience of participants chose from a variety of objects ranging from a feather to a loaded gun in which to taunt her out of silence. This performance illustrated both the committed passive/aggressive action by the artist to remain silent, and the audience members reacting from their inner desires (or demons) in response to her silence. Less disturbing, Abramavic performed The Artist is Present in 2010 at MOMA, where she sat face-to-face with a rotation of participants in a silent stare-off. Some say silence is a void. Contrarily, Silence is a presence.
Meditation, mindfulness, and Silence are actions. With attention and focus, one cultivates inner silence, blocking out both exterior and interior noise. In Kimsooja’s videos A Needle Woman (1999-2001/ 2005), A Beggar Woman (2001) and Homeless Woman (2001), all political and peaceful, the artist is seen standing still and silent amidst a sea of people hustling hurriedly down a crowded city street, or lying in a quiet, meditative state amongst crowds of curious onlookers. Watching her videos, I consciously stop; I am present experiencing an almost existential feeling. I, as a spectator become still, mimicking Kimsooja. I completely absorb the moment, not distracted, quietly contemplating and awakening to the beauty of her silence, becoming aware of how inattentive many of us are to those around us as we rush to and fro, day to day.
If Silence is not golden can it be beautiful? Shea Hembrey captures the concept of silence by summoning the beauty of silence–the softness, lightness, and calm—on canvas and in sculpture.
With painterly bravado, Hembrey’s series, When Eyes Are Closed (2012), illuminates what we see when we close our eyes in the night, in the daylight, or in a room with artificial light where dark, light and thought can seep in. These paintings capture the silence when shutting out the world to our inner thoughts. In his canvases we can see, remember, the moments when, if we try, we shut off our mind to the noise of even our inner thoughts into a state of meditation.
Hembrey’s voluminous sculpture made from feathers, Font (2013), captures how I would imagine silence would feel if I were able to touch it. I imagine a calmness of sinking onto or into his feathery sculpture where all else around or inside me rests. I envision a stray feather, shed unawares from a bird flying past, floating down from the sky (in the case of Hembrey’s Font, a mass of feathers from a passing flock). Hush (2013), a smaller sculpture made from hundreds of butterfly wings, withholds the silent sound of fluttering butterfly wings. In form resembling a Chinese scholar stone, an image to inspire dream-like contemplation.
For some silence may be golden; for me, silence is the between; it is essential. Seek silence in art, in nature, in your day-to-day by simply noticing the clock ticking, the whir of your computer’s static energy, the noise of a distant siren, your breath. Be still and notice the silence in the midst.