There is no Place Like Home

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. ~Franklin D Roosevelt

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Image courtesy of http://www.martharosler.net

It is nearly impossible to drive around San Francisco and not see persons living at risk on the streets. This happens not only in San Francisco, this is a concern for the state, the country, and also internationally. I intentionally and purposefully avoid calling it a problem, because it then mistakenly gets misconstrued that homeless persons are the problem, and it is the problem for those living on the street, rather than a problem of the greater community, a societal problem, one facing those of us who are sheltered; and, by sheltering oneself from the problem this can lead to avoidance rather than engagement to finding solutions. Awareness, concern, and support (along with budget commitment) are needed.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Aunt Kitty, 2016, graphite and charcoal on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

Last December when visiting an art gallery where directly across the street was a row of colorful tents lining the sidewalk, ‘tent city’ as many locals call these makeshift communities, I asked if anything could be done to provide support for these neighbors who we observed from their gallery windows. There must be local services in the neighborhood, I inquired. What about holding an exhibition to raise monies for the local services or offering a percentage of art sales to support existing organizations that help those in need? I suggested.

I thought of various other businesses that are successful models for combining consumerism and charity; for example, Patagonia has given to charitable organizations over the years and this last December donated 100% of black Friday profits ($10 million), the small employee-owned Four Sigmatic, a nutritional food supplement company donates a percentage of profits to cancer patients on an ongoing basis and this last January donated 100% of profits to cancer organizations, and this past January Petzel Gallery’s exhibition “We need to talk…” not only donated a percentage of sales to charities chosen both by collectors and artists but also during this exhibition visitors were invited to write their thoughts, feelings and hopes for the future.

Undoubtedly, it is costly to maintain an art gallery and living as an artist has economic challenges, yet I wondered could there be a way for art to be an advocate for change, to make an impact, to support shelters, food banks, or social services, all which help towards improving the lives of those living on our streets? Could this be done with the gallery acting as a catalyst through annual art exhibitions and fundraisers, if not on an ongoing basis?

Fouladi PROJECTS, opened the New Year with an exhibition focusing on homelessness, “Coming Clean: SF”. This group show is co-hosted and curated by Lava Mae, a local organization that provides shower and toilets to persons without permanent shelter and access to the basic need to get clean. Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae’s founder and CEO, took her compassion that all people deserve dignity and the ability to keep clean combined with her creativity and innovation she then looked towards a solution inspired by gourmet food trucks and gaining access to out of service metro busses created mobile bathrooms.

Lava Mae’s team inquired how might they bring greater awareness to their organization and needs of homeless persons. They contemplated alternate ways to think about philanthropy and to engage a community. Art was the answer.

Artists have a unique way of addressing a serious matter and creating an artifice that doesn’t belittle or exploit the difficult subject, instead they create an aesthetic, a fictional rendering, making it easier to access than looking directly at darkness and undesirable realities. Perhaps through art we can feel enticed and invited to experience caringly and without judgment. We are able to see the precarious lives of people living under freeways, in doorways, in tents, and in public parks toting their entire possessions in shopping carts and rolling suitcases; through an artists’ perspective we can look empathetically at these members of our society where we might otherwise have chose to look the other way or cross to the other side of the street in order to avoid coming close to a homeless person, or worse, wanting to displace them to a place not-in-my-neighborhood. Maybe art provides an access for people to face one another, approaching from compassion. I hope art elicits empowerment to be a part of the solution. How we choose to either pass judgment or show empathy towards the disadvantaged reflects on our commonwealth as a society. Just beginning by connecting eye-to eye with people affirms that they exist, are seen, and are humanized. It is a deeply healing, therapeutic experience.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Vicki, 2013, charcoal and graphite on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

In 1989 Martha Rosler created “If You Lived Here” exhibited at Dia Art Foundation, an art project on housing, homelessness, and architectural planning with a collaboration of work from artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, homeless people, community groups and schoolchildren which took the form of town hall meetings and deployed activism and discussion as a form of art. This exhibition has shown around the world, most recently in 2016 on a one-year stint in Seattle funded by The New Foundation and re-titled “Housing is a Human Right”.

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Other artists have used their art to illuminate the homelessness challenges in our society. Michael Rakowitz created paraSite shelters, custom designed inflatable transportable temporary shelters out of recycled zip-lock bags which were inflated and heated by attaching to exterior outtake vents of a building’s HVAC (heating ventilation, and air conditioning system). These ‘art objects’ have been distributed to over 30 homeless persons in Boston and New York City since 1998.

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per owner’s request, designed to look like a rib cage. image courtesy of http://www.michaelrakowitz.com

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle unveiled in an exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery in 1988. It is a hybrid between a shopping cart and a rocket-like-looking sleeping compartment. Wodiczko, like Rakowitz, ‘consulted’ with homeless persons in developing the design for his art piece.Both Rakowitz’s paraSite and Wodiczko’s Vehicle are neither a temporary or permanent solution to the housing problem, nor are they intended as prototypes for mass production, rather they are social/political art raising awareness of the existence of a crisis and calling into question its causes and possible solutions.

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Kryzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle version 3, 1988-89. Aluminum, steel, plastic, plywood, lexan, rubber. Image courtesy of http://www.mca.chicago.org

And, Willie Baronet’s artwork stemmed from a direct purpose to raise funds for his “We Are All Homeless“campaign and exhibitions. He gathered handmade signs, those often seen held by people standing along a busy city street or propped against the leg of someone sitting on the sidewalk with their hand out asking for help, and he collaged these signs together making them into large wall installations. These few examples make clear that this has been a decades long challenge with no simple solutions. I believe with innovative, intelligent community engaged citizens, artists, and local/state leaders we can garner visibility and funds required for developing housing that is connected with social services as a part of tenancy and with upward transition possibilities. We can help give people more stable homes than those made out of blue, yellow, and green nylon. We can start creating solutions, it is happening now, and tomorrow it continues.

In this essay are images from two artists in the fouladi Projects exhibition; Amy Wilson Faville, whose art transforms mobile shopping cart collectives into aesthetically appealing images, she is interested in the tableaux created, the narrative of the contents, and Joel Daniel Phillips, intricately draws portraiture on a lifelike scale, capturing the commonalities we share as humans, exposing visibility to deeper, truthful emotions. “A true portrait is far more than a rendering of physical form-it is the capturing of the vulnerable, un-invented narratives that make us human.” states Joel Daniel Phillips. In addition, the other artists in the exhibition Elizabeth Lo, Danielle Nelson Mourning, Ramekon O’Arwisters,Yon Sim, and Kathryn Spence each in their own words expressed homelessness could happen to anyone, it could happen to them, and they hoped their art would open hearts and minds. The “Coming Clean: SF” exhibition showcases art as an imaginative and compassionate advocate for the precarious and complex issue facing those living on the streets. This is making art that matters!

Please share in comments any other art projects or exhibitions that matter, particularly those addressing homelessness. Thank you!

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Amy Wilson Faville, Pasture, 2007, graphite and collage on paper. image courtesy of fouladi  Projects.

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Beside The River

paro-riverBy the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was        almost a river, and being grown up, it did not run and jump and sparkle as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going and it said to itself, “there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner

Many of us grew up with the tales of Winnie the Pooh, and have relived the stories with our children. There is an ageless wisdom from the characters living at Pooh Corner. I thought of Winnie the Pooh sitting beside the Tassajara Creek. I thought of the simplicity, yet not simpleness, of Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh, and Roo playing the game of “Pooh Sticks” as I tossed two twigs into the creek and watched as the current carried them downstream. It didn’t matter which stick went faster–they will float downstream together for a while, then they may go their separate ways. They will reach their destination, someday, and perhaps meet again in the vast blue sea.

I came to Tassajara Zen Monastery in the Ventana National Wilderness to practice walking meditation and to deepen my meditation in nature. In my hut next to the creek, I woke each morning and drifted into sleep each night listening to the water babbling, constant and calming, like a mantra. During the day, I wandered alongside the creek watching it leap over round rocks and fall down larger boulders. The water deepened my understanding that everything is connected and each of us–my fellow retreaters, the Zen leader, and the Monks living at Tassajara–is alone and yet together, connected: a passing smile along the path, soaking in the hot springs with a calm mind, attending to the current of daily life cleaning, cooking, and caring for the property, or sitting as still as a stone in silence together. We create ripples; we share energy. Being there amongst monks in a working monastery, the importance of ritual made sense to me as I began to embrace the purposefulness of Zen practice. I realize how each person is a part of the whole community; together they sit in silence and together they flow in breath and unity. The creek taught me how all matter leaves traces and that we all influence each other. I realized our interconnectedness with nature.

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From rivers we learn to observe the flux and change of our world both internally and externally. Everything changes, all is in flux, and we cannot stop the current of change—therefore, embrace it. “No man ever steps in the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” stated Heraclitus.

The rain and snow melt runs down the hills and through the plains into rivulets, brooks, creeks, streams, and majestic rivers flowing into the vast blue seas. The water sometimes runs swiftly, crashing with forceful energy into boulders, pounding the rocks into new formations, eventually breaking them down into sediment. At other times, it drifts at a gentle pace, smoothly gliding over the rocks and boulders, creating a mirror to the sky and trees along the way as it travels downstream. In return, the rocks change the flow of the river. Big boulders form walls creating deep pools, scattered boulders create mini waterfalls in the river’s rapids and a fallen tree limb may provide a restful eddy for upstream swimmers where the water curls into a bend along the shore. Its energy and rhythm changes, sculpting with its continuous flow. Whether fast or slow, it carves into the landscape, flexing and shifting the banks creating a new path from the past and a new one for the future. I wonder, do I change like the river, broadening and deepening?

This leads me to think of a poem by David Whyte, “Where Many Rivers Meet”.

All the water below came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains gave it to the rivers
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.

And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
clouds fall and stream rush, tree root and tide bank
leading to the river’s mouths.

And the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back
from the depths
where nothing is forgotten.

Stories of history flow down a river, from exploration to settlement, to trade and transport, to life and death. Water is the lifeblood of our earth. From the Nile, the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Thames, the Colorado, the Mekong, and to the Sacred Headwaters in Canada, around the globe rivers have inspired timeless symbolisms and metaphors. Each river as it winds through the landscape plays a part of human history. In his stirring ode to nature, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, “The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers are not small themes.” And many a writer, poet, musician, and artist has extolled on this theme to reveal both personal and universal meaningfulness to life.

The poet Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an insightful young man with an old soul telling the interconnected story of rivers he had never traveled on yet sharing the interconnectedness they held for him. This poem reflects on ancient rivers, holding a depth of history older than civilization. These four important rivers of the world were important in human existence; they not only provided passageways for people traveling but also served to traffic humans in slavery from Asia to Africa to America. The lyrical lines in Hughes’ poem flows like the water.

I’ve known rivers
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Mary Oliver in her poem “Of What Surrounds Me” sings the praises of the essential presence of nature to inspire her poetics,

Whatever it is I am saying, I always
need a leaf or a flower, if not an
entire field. As for sky, I am so wildly
in love with each day’s intentions, cool blue
or cat gray or full
of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t
say whatever it is I am saying without
at least one skyful. That leaves water, a
creek, or a well, river or ocean, it has to be
there. For the heart to be there. For the pen
to be poised. For the idea to come.

Looking towards visual artists, they too sourced from rivers to create art that shares both a singular resonance as well as timeless messages. From the river they found creative inspiration akin to spiritualism, a sense of identity, nationalism, and union with nature.

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Thomas Cole journeyed up the Hudson River from New York City to Catskill; enthralled by the natural beauty, he painted sketches along the route just as today, passengers taking the Hudson-bound Metro-North train are inspired by the same beauty to snap images of the scenery on their smartphones. Cole’s documentation of the changing light reflected in the wide, watery surface gained popularity and began an artistic movement known as the Hudson River School, which celebrated the splendor of nature as a spiritual renewal. Sunny Morning On The Hudson River (1827) is one example of his paintings in which he romanticizes the sublime American wilderness and the tamed pastoral farmlands by the river. Focusing on the ominous dark mountain, the stark leafless tree, and the windblown limbs of the sparsely leafed tree creates drama depicting a merciless danger within nature’s throes, while at the same time he shows movement in the wispy fog and clouds which offer a sense of passing of the tumultuous weather. There is a promise of peacefulness in the oncoming sunny skies illuminating the river beyond, surrounded by tranquil pastures. Weather, like the river below, constantly changing, constantly flowing.

German artist Andreas Gursky, in his photograph, Rhine II (1999), shows the Rhine from nostalgia. Recreating the river landscape, he allows the viewer to imagine an idyll: a serene, surreal landscape without trees, buildings, or the effects of urbanization. He manipulates the photograph to create an abstract, minimalistic, painterly image with texture and tone. The Rhine River, to many, is associated with German nationalism. Rhineland is a pseudonym for Germany, and Gursky’s Rhine II, with its horizontal stripes of sky, grass, and river could serve as a national flag.

The Rhine II 1999 by Andreas Gursky born 1955Andreas Gursky, Rhine II (1999) c-print. image courtesy of http://www.tate.org

Anselm Kiefer, also a German artist historically considers the Rhine with a nod towards melancholy, in relation to Germany’s history and identity. With dark ash like marks his drawing Der Rhein (1982) reveals the Rhine through an ominous forest of charred, leafless trees, a devastation of the German landscape, ruins from the era of the Third Reich. For both artists, the Rhine holds importance as symbolic in German history, culture and identity.

der-rheinAnselm Keifer, Der Rhein (The Rhine) 1982. woodcut and ink on paper mounted on canvas. image courtesy of SFMOMA

Olafur Eliasson captured on film the entire 100-kilometer length of the Markarfljot River in Iceland as it winds through mountainous glaciers and broadens, spilling out on the plains until mixes in with he waters of the Atlantic ocean in The Aerial River Series (2000). Eliasson’s photographic series reads more as a study documenting a place before time changes its course. One could say it was a sketch leading to his Riverbed sculpture in 2014, where he brought nature into the gallery, recreating a river with snakelike curves, boulders, and stepping stones. It has a direct link to the Earthworks movement (which I discuss in this essay), particularly Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977). Often when looking at a painting, I wonder, what might it be like to enter into the painting; with Riverbed, the viewer is required to enter the art. The viewer, in fact, is a part of the landscape. Yet, what is Eliasson aiming at? I consider the artwork a critique on how one experiences nature in the world, and how man has altered both nature and wilderness. Is going to a manmade manicured park experiencing nature any more authentic than going to a museum and wandering alongside a riverbed?

river-seriesOluar Eliasson, The Aerial River Series, 2000. image courtesy SFMOMA

en-louisiana-dkOlufar Eliasson, Riverbed 2014. image courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (www.en.louisiana.dk)

Susan Derges created photograms of water’s movement and form by submerging large sheets of photographic paper into rivers, using the night sky as a darkroom and the moon and a flashlight for exposure. Within these still images, she apprehends an almost ghostlike effect, the trace of a life within the river that remains as a palimpsest. These photograms capture the dynamic, imaginative, and magical word of nature.

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Susan Derges, Waxing Moon, 2013 30X17 inch digital c-print. image courtesy of Danzinger Gallery

Two British artists, Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, are both considered part of the Earthworks art movement in which the intention is to use material from nature (mud, stone, water, twigs, leaves) to create impermanent sculptures that depend upon earth’s elements to decompose and alter the artwork. Ideally, these works are made site-specific or outside the traditional gallery setting. Richard Long paints on walls using his hands in place of a paintbrush and mud sourced from the Avon River in lieu of paint. The Avon River runs through Bristol, his childhood home; perhaps with each new rendition he is performing a ritual to memorialize his origins, leaving traces behind of his past along with the traces of history residing in the sediment.

richard-longRichard Long, image courtesy of pinterest.

Similarly, there is a form of ritual in his performance and subsequent art piece, A Hundred Mile Walk (1971-72). In this interactional performance within nature, he documents in photograph and words things seen and thoughts evoked while walking a circuitous route along a river in Dartmoor, England. His art is a true discourse between the artist and nature, he records his perceptions, both internal thoughts and external sounds, for example, “In and out the sound of rivers over familiar stepping stones” (Day 5)

hundred-mileRichard Long, A Hundred Mile Walk, 1972. offset printing on paper

Andy Goldsworthy (not unlike Pooh and his pals) gathers leaves, makes ropes or chains from them, and sends them adrift in rivers floating downstream creating a chain that ebbs and flows with the current and eventually dissipates, each leaf eventually going its own journey to the sea. For Goldswothy, nature is his material and he recognizes there is no perfect beyond nature, yet he works with that ideal form to create his manmade ‘natural’ object. This, too, he knows will be reformed and changed by nature. Within hours, perhaps, days, his work leaves little to no trace. In the end, nature claims the process of the artist to change its form. Both artists in their own way express beauty in the certainty of impermanence and, in their manner, a performance or ritual with nature.

goldsworthyHazel leaves each stitched together to the next with grass stalks gently pulled by the river out of a rock pool floating downstream low water. SCAUR WATER, DUMFRIESSHIRE 5 June 1991. Andy Goldsworthy

Albert Einstein advised to “look deep within nature and then you will understand everything.” These artists, in word and image, reveal varied and multiple meanings, metaphors that sprung from observation of brooks, creeks, and rivers. We are reminded of history, of letting go, going with the flow, and allowing everything to drift on by.

Returning to Tassajara, while there I read a Zen proverb about two monks and a woman by a river.

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A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself no longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted to touch a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

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As I sat by the creek watching the two twigs drift downstream, I let go of my thoughts, allowing them to drift away. By letting go of the thoughts from the past and planning for the future, we can better be (inter)connected with the world around us. Most importantly, we should be mindful of the present. What we contribute to the flowing waters have an effect on what is downstream just as those who contributed to the waters upstream affect where we stand now. River time is now time, the water flows by, and each moment drifts by with it. Be with it.

Enya, The River Sings video

Listen to Silence

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.

John Cage, 4'33" (In Proportional Notation), 1952/1953. image courtesy of www.moma.org
John Cage, 4’33” (In Proportional Notation), 1952/1953. image courtesy of http://www.moma.org

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.

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image courtesy of http://www.allposters.com

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.

Keith Haring, Ignorance, 1989.
Keith Haring, “Ignorance=Fear”, 1989. image courtesy of http://www.haring.com

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.

Andy Warhol, "Electric Chair", 1971.
Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair”, 1971.
Andy Warhol, "Electric Chair", 1971. image courtesy of www.propofs.com
Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair”, 1971. image courtesy of http://www.propofs.com

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.

Shea Hembrey, "Dark Rain III", 2012.
Shea Hembrey, “Dark Rain III”, 2012.

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.

Shea Hembrey, "Font", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Font” detail, 2013.
Shea Hembrey, "Font", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Font”, 2013.

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.

Shea Hembrey, "Hush", 2013.
Shea Hembrey, “Hush”, 2013.

Remains of our Day

MASS MoCa, a reconverted factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, with capacious exhibition halls can accommodate large-scale art works, perhaps more than any other art museum. Considering other vast visual art buildings, such as, Dia: Beacon, White Cube in London, the Hermitage in Russia, and Hauser and Wirth’s new expansive gallery in NYC, this is saying a lot. The huge scale of the building and of the immense interior spaces within MASS MoCa create an optical illusion making the works exhibited in them seem smaller than they actually are. As I stand in one of the exhibition chambers, I wonder, how do the artists who exhibit here visualize how their art will fill the spaciousness? I presume not many have studios as large. I ponder, where and how do they find the space to create such massive constructions? And what will become of these large-scale works once the exhibition ends?

In the case of the artist, Xu Bing and his installation Phoenix, he answered these questions. Stepping back for a better vantage point to take in the immensity of the suspended birds, I bumped into a ledge installed along the wall. It held copies of a text that accompanies the art–the story of the creation of the mythical birds. Slowly I wondered the length of the room reading page by page, the start to the present, the birth of the Phoenixes (‘Feng’ and ‘Huang’); and, indeed Xu Bing alludes to them as being born, taking on a life of their own. He relates that within the time of their ‘hatching’ two collaborators who helped create the Phoenixes also gave birth to children. This coincidental occurrence of creating new life offered deep symbolism for Xu. It offered another layer to the materials used for the sculpture, the collaborators, and the resulting art object.

Xu Bing, Phoenix Project (2008-2012). image courtesy of www.nothingmajor.com
Xu Bing, Phoenix Project (2008-2012). image courtesy of http://www.nothingmajor.com

Made from construction-site essentials, such as hard hats and shovels, as well as construction debris like rusted corrugated metal and striped plastic tarp, the two Phoenixes take up the entire length of the main exhibition space, appearing to have been constructed specifically for MASS MoCa. However, Xu’s art journal explains that when he began this art project MASS MoCa wasn’t even a remote contributing thought to his creation. He began this commission for one of Beijing’s glitzy new skyscrapers. Standing under Phoenix, two gargantuan birds suspended from the ceiling, I had the sense the sculpture possessed a spirit, as if alive.

I saw the life within the sculptures that came from all of the people who worked the construction site, who wore the hard hats, who dug the dirt with the shovels, who labored to build both the towering skyscraper and the sculptures. Their toil and sweat are the life within the art. One cultural critic, as mentioned in Xu’s journal, has likened the Phoenix Project to Diego Rivera’s mural of the Mexican laborers.

image courtesy of www.hiffingtonpost.com
image courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com

I also see Vic Muniz’s Wasteland project and JR’s global photomurals. These art projects bring people together as collaborators with the artist and the art creation. Inseparable, the artist, those who inspire, those who work in the creation, and the art all become one.

Vic Muniz, Death of Murat, garbage series (2011). images courtesy of www.sikkemajenkinsco.com
Vic Muniz, Death of Murat, garbage series (2011). images courtesy of http://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com
JR, La Havana, Rafael Lorenzo y Obdula Monano, Cuba (2012). image courtesy of www.jr-art.net
JR, La Havana, Rafael Lorenzo y Obdula Monano, Cuba (2012). image courtesy of http://www.jr-art.net

Soaring with the spirit of the Phoenixes, I cruised down highway 2 to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Entering the museum I detoured through the fenced and roped-off areas surrounding the building and beyond. The Clark Art Institute, like SFMOMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Kimball art Museum, and the Coleccion Jumex in Mexico City is one of the many ever-expanding art museums that are either newly completed, under construction, or about to begin. P1050438 Wandering the galleries in the Clark, I stopped to look out the window to the men in hard hats driving the tractors and pounding the metal stakes into the steel beams. I reflected back on Xu’s artistic monument to the hard working construction laborers. Paradoxically, I couldn’t help but wonder, while considering all this construction done in the name of art, are art museums simply a polished dump for too much cultural debris?

image courtesy of www.berkshireeagle.com
image courtesy of http://www.berkshireeagle.com

With this thought I felt guilty. Even my conscience would persecute me. Maybe it wasn’t an epiphany, but a resonation. Perhaps this is a symptom of an oversaturation of art by attending too many art fairs where there seems to be an abundance of inventory from prolific artists; and, I wonder from all this creative production and consumption what will sustain and remain of value as a cultural recording of this time in civilization? I wonder, in our current prosperous art culture with massively monumental works created by artists, with an abundance of global art museums and private collectors building art sanctuaries or ‘warehouses’ for their collections, are we building temples for our creative consumption?

Andrea Lolis sculptures
Andrea Lolis sculptures

I considered artists who sculpt marble renderings of Styrofoam packaging, cardboard boxes, and plastic water bottles. Discarded debris becomes inspirations for Andreas Lolis to solidify and immortalize into stone, actually turning our debris into marble artifacts. I considered artists who use trash as their medium. Tony Feher I have nicknamed the garbage artist. His material can be foil chip bags to plastic water bottles.

Tony Feher sculptures
Tony Feher sculptures

In Blast From the Past (1972-73), Gordon Matta-Clark swept up all the debris on his studio floor, put the contents in a box with instructions on how to display this dust and cigarette butts; and, even now, from his grave, he asserts an importance to what most people discard to the waste bin day after day.

GORDON MATTA-CLARK Blast from the Past 1970-1972 cut color photograph, 12 inch steel ruler, sheet of text in pencil and floor sweepings dimensions vary with installation
GORDON MATTA-CLARK
Blast from the Past
1970-1972
cut color photograph, 12 inch steel ruler, sheet of text in pencil and floor sweepings
dimensions vary with installation

If art is a cultural recording of our history, what does it say about our present moment that artists like Xu Bing and others create art from our waste, using ever-expanding variations of garbage? Furthermore, if it survives how will future societies interpret these art objects? Hopefully, it may make one pause, to take note of the everyday detritus in our lives.

Tony Feher sculpture. Image courtesy of www.hammer.ucla.edu
Tony Feher sculpture. Image courtesy of http://www.hammer.ucla.edu

Something to think about before you quench your thirst from a single-use plastic water bottle rather than carrying a reusable container, or toss away your plastic straw that you used for two seconds to stir your cocktail.

And, I wonder, what art will remain, which museums will endure over time, and what ruins shall tell our story, many years from now?

Fool For Love

I love my family, I love to run with an ocean view while listening to a good playlist, I love laughing, I love to sleep in and wake up to the sound of birds chirping, I love sitting in a cozy sofa while reading a good book, I love my dog, I love homemade thick tortilla chips with guacamole, I love cycling the Hana highway, I love nature.

Everyday, everywhere, everyone seeks, desires, and even fears love.  Music, literature, paintings, film, opera, poetry, psychology, and philosophy – love is everywhere. Since the beginnings of humanity people have sought an understanding of love, also to define, quantify, solidify, brand, package, and sell love.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss 1881-1882.
Auguste Rodin, The Kiss 1881-1882.

With a polysemous nature, Love is a word that expresses an overwhelming sense of desire, sensuality, inspiration, and ambiguity. Love–how is it one word conveys such varied nuance?  Its meaningfulness pertains to a matter of both volume and intensity. I have heard there are over one hundred ways to express “you” in the Japanese language depending on the region, time, relationship between those conversing, and the social context. Yet, we only have one word for all of love. One word to express the love of nation, spiritual love, platonic love, brotherly love, forbidden love, and passionate love.

Dosso Dossi, Mythological Scene c.1524. Image courtesy of www.getty.edu
Dosso Dossi, Mythological Scene c.1524. Image courtesy of http://www.getty.edu

Philosopher’s have a long-standing dialectic debate between Eros love (ego driven) and agape love (altruistic). Love fills our minds and is felt in our body, it is both rational and passionate. Allusive and alluring, love never ceases to be written about. Some great minds have analyzed and intellectualized love: Simon May, Denis De Rougemont, Roland Barthes, and Robert Solomon, to name a few. Yet, even with all these great minds, love still remains mysterious. Love beckons one into a dream world of imagination. Love, ever changing with multiple open-ended meanings.

Alas! Love is everywhere and yet everyone is looking for it. Why do so many people feel loneliness? Why is divorce increasingly common? Advertisers, moviemakers, and even journalists entice us with promises of love and sex (many conflate the two). And, it sales! In the nineteenth century, just like today’s internet dating web sites, people paid for classified ads, seeking love. (Check out this blog, which cleverly interprets 19th century classifieds. http://www.advertisingforlove.com/). And, today, Internet dating sites are well populated with hopeful lovelorn souls who advertise and seek love.

Dave Muller, Love, Love, Love, 2011 4parts  courtesy of the artist

Dave Muller contemplates life, politics, and humanity through the archives of albums, cassette tapes, and CDs. He captures in his paintings a memory and a history. Art is the cultural recording of our history and Muller sources the musical recording of history and transform this into a visual art form. From past eras, music creates a narration that resonates in our present moment and then recalls us to a nostalgic time. The Beatles, one band of which Muller memorializes in paintings, sang many songs about love. For many, they are the signifier for love. And, Yoko and John symbolize that loving feeling that couples experience, imagine and idealize.

Annie Leibovitz photo courtesy of en.wilipedia.org

“Open” by Julianne Swartz, a sculpture which is a box containing three treasured words “ I Love You”. Upon opening the box, I, the viewer (now, an active participant) cross a boundary of ‘looking’ at art; questioning and wondering if I might be violating a taboo of touching art. Hearing the words “I Love You” I question if I am invading some privacy, and I wonder whom the words are meant for.  I doubt they are for me, or are they? These three words everyone wants to hear as reassurance they are loved in this world, but if they are said too lightly, they become doubted and mistrusted. We bring our own insecurities about loving and being loved to the box. The box is closed and the words carry with us as we question whether we are comforted, confident, or confused with love.

Indulge in your passions. Love. Turn up the volume!

In the end one loves desires and not what is desired. – Friedrich Nietzsche