A Poetry of Transience
by Joseph McElroy
Somewhere near the beginning of this experience-this exhibition of largely contemporary art (and on an island I have sometimes visited as a kind of city refuge from the city)-I find in a glass case an 8-inch-high Buddha ("author unknown") and find that it is difficult to tear myself away. Almost silver in the light, this strangely fresh, 16th-century bronze might make of me secretly a connoisseur-but of what? Its tranquility? Its anchored presentness? Its elephant, lotus and moon throne?
This was Friday, November 22nd, 2003, and to get here I had traveled across a chill, bright, windy harbor that I have looked at since I was old enough to look, to open my eyes, to think. You will say, "to feel." Yes; but think. To know what I'm feeling; feeling my way. Which often, perhaps too often, has seemed to be in words. Since my childhood in Brooklyn Heights. And for many decades in New York City. Leaving (for years at a time) and returning. By road, river, bridge, rail, air and by this very harbor with its tugs and oil tankers and container ships, its Statue, and Ellis Island (with that poor, piled, painful mountain of suitcases in the central hall exhibiting the lives of unknown would-be immigrants who came here long ago); and fire boats and police boats and Coast Guard patrol boats that remind me not only that I was a Coast Guard sailor at the time of that Korean War that is weirdly still with us, but that I am a resident of lower Manhattan, a few blocks from Ground Zero.
And let me not leave out of this inventory what I have contemplated from so many distances during my life if not exactly meditated upon-the Staten Island ferry. It will bring you out here (connecting with a ten-minute S40 bus ride) to this Snug Harbor, as they have called the place since 1801, where I find myself walking through rooms that once housed aged mariners but now exhibitions and cultural activities and, since September 28th and until February 29th 2004, "The Invisible Thread: Buddhist Spirit in Contemporary Art." So absorbed in this show of 53 mostly American, mostly contemporary painters, sculptors, photographers, and installation and video and occasionally not quite categorizable artists, I must not forget to say that the gallery is the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, one of several landmark buildings interesting in their own right on the grounds of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island.
To this exhibition I bring an outsider's long-time interests. And I bring questions because I want to understand, because I want to wake up every day of my life. What is Buddhist, what is American? This is what I bring and seek to take possession of and be provoked and simplified by. As if I stand somewhere between the very small Buddha I began with in the south wing-and the very large American Buddha now confronting me, 25 feet long and reclining along a fine old wood floor in the great hall of the north wing of this early 19th-century building.
Based on the ancient, 40-some-foot figure of the Buddha at his death carved out of a rock outcrop in Val Gihara, Sri Lanka, this one is a brand new, air-filled sculpture of painted cloth. Huge but light, it reminds me to breathe, because its audible electric fan seems to pump up its giant breathing presence, so you hear it as almost but not quite a distraction from an imaginary silence where you stand. Or I, since I'd better speak only for myself, accepting a moment's peace like a gift from this transcendent blown-up bag of air, this majestic, shaped balloon, empty and tremendous. The sculptor, Lewis deSota, calls it "paranirvana (self-portrait)," telling us that the inflated face is his own at some future moment of buddhahood, dissolving, it occurs to me, that self that was never more than an aggregate of interactions with others (as the old texts say, and some recent fiction, even my own, might confirm).
Nearby, within earshot of the fan, the northwest corner room has been subtly enhanced by Arlene Schechet's installation, "The Wheel Turns," so that the room recalls this whole place, from the original ceiling frescoes of anchors and ship's lines and knots, to all the meanings of the glinting waters of the harbor I can see through the window. Often more explicitly Buddhist in her sculpture but never more poignantly grounded than here, Schechet continues the ceiling themes above us, positioning at waist height ropes cast of palest bluish crystal so they seem to have been threaded in and out of the four walls, strands at one point broken and frayed. In the center of the floor where we must turn and turn to read them (and with our feet, as the artist invites us to do, help erase them) proverbial words printed in concentric circles speak a poetry of transience-about feeling which is like a bubble of water, perception a mirage, consciousness a ghost, our existence "a sphere which is neither Earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air," nor infinity of space, neither coming nor going, our destination the end of suffering: until we look up from this inscribed whirlpool to find in the center of the old decorated ceiling a captain's wheel to tell us we are somehow on course.
But if art may focus meditation, can you make a religion out of transience? A Presbyterian hymn tune slips into my memory. What were the words? They yield for a moment to T.S. Eliot's in The Wasteland which climactically, and desperately in 1922, invokes the great spiritual voices including that of the Buddha to give meaning back to our civilization, though I am remembering in particular the drowned sailor Phlebas the Phoenician in the next-to-last part, who "Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell / And the profit and loss."
The wheel of birth, death, life, turns often as I pass along these halls and cross thresholds. An intricately, brightly woven 18th-century Tibetan mandala hangs on a wall. Occupying an entire room, "Rose Mandala" (2003) by Chrysanne Stathacos seems casual. She has sprinkled many-colored petals on a circular mirror and beyond its edge, which scatter as I tread carefully and become aware of a rush broom in a far corner and, hung along the wall, bags of sweepings. An effect of everyday work and time and humble art and impermanence. The artist's comments on her intention and sources prove both rich and unneeded; the work works by itself.
Christine Lahaie's motor-driven spindle in "Cam Shaft Padma" turns a double-ended, red-handled paintbrush which, in some fashion free, very slowly pushes outward, again and again before it falls back, a glass panel through which light projects luminous bubbles of shadow on the wall. I am not surprised to learn that the Buddhist word "padma" may mean a possessive passion, here evidently tempered. Less hard-edge than in other work of Lahaie's, the technology and some meditative practice of repetition may touch the viewer's physical rhythm. In her statement the artist stresses breath, like other makers of mindfulness here. The dissolving of conflict (hardly unique to Buddhism) evidently accommodates in art-or does it?-the tensions that make this small-scale mechanical work strong. It builds and releases, turns back upon itself.
By contrast Max Gimblett's black acrylic circle "No Trace," seven feet across, projects the suddenness of the swift stroke. A calligraphic boldness as well as the apparent enso circle symbol of enlightenment might indicate Japanese Zen, as does the artist's elliptical explanation "all mind / no mind." Explicitly an enso, Kazuaki Tanahashi's "Forest Within" circle in green comes with an acknowledgment of the
tradition. Yet "this is America, anyone should be allowed to draw ensos in her or his own way," the artist's statement continues. What he makes of the Lucent Technologies logo I don't know. Unveiling its enso in 1996 acknowledged by the graphic designers as derived from ancient Buddhist and Hindu symbolism, the company elsewhere incredibly claimed that its enso was arrived at independently. Reassociated now with the phone that Lucent manufactures, to say nothing of baseball cap, coffee mug, sports bag, delivery truck, and junk mail, it would surely have resembled for the late (always new) John Cage our ambient noise which is first of all to be listened to as carefully as trash cans rattling, Haydn's Surprise Symphony, a helicopter overhead, or my old hymn.
Of all the work offered us in this exhibition, the least sensuous is the score, or three framed pages anyway, of Cage's early Sixties instrumental ensemble composition "Atlas Eclipticalis." I read the passage posted to the left from his autobiographical statement, and like his books A Year From Monday and Silence, it is fascinating. If Zen is without ritual or sacred text (the better to act)-which is probably a very non-Zen generalization (if not a slappable offense)-Cage spent much of his working life generating unforeseen, indeterminate, direct, and semi-unrepeatable occasions.
Among such other early and distinguished American discoverers of Buddhism as the photographer Minor White, represented in this southeast room of the south wing with Cage, Thomas Merton was better known in the Forties and Fifties as a Trappist poet and the author of The Seven Storey Mountain than for the effect of his interest in Buddhism, which was to strengthen the natural bonds between East and West. His drawings, of the type that appear elsewhere in this issue, make a meditative calligraphy in touch with things all the more real in the silence of his monastic vocation. Cage, who was public, called himself "a ground ... in which emptiness could grow"- in part through, I assume, the silence that can happen not only in those famous gaps and pauses but if you end a musical piece almost immediately upon beginning it, incidentally giving the listener a chance to think. If "the function of objects," as a character of Samuel Beckett's once said, "is to restore silence," the Cage "objects" are not only his revolutionary music but wit touched by that "taste of Zen" he calls an "admixture of humor, intransigence, and detachment."
Approaching him from another angle (or broadside), the nine tiny video screens housed in wooden bird cages by the grandfather of New York video Nam June Paik produce a homage to John Cage with effects theoretically like his but perhaps more pleasurable. Paik runs different sequences of the same shots equalizing the details randomly as we connect from street scenes apparently Asian to the face of a child and of a man (Cage himself, who seems very happy). Paik somehow creates a population without an anecdotal center, with the voices and all other sounds so naturally, easily, visibly absent as to yield an unalloyed and relaxed attention. An object for meditation like so much in "The Invisible Thread," the film also implicitly asks, Why not trust the viewer with something to one side of entertainment and true to how we experience our moments in that emptiness that will form itself?
Where is the boy climbing to in a rare film, "Gabriel" (1976) by the great minimalist painter Agnes Martin? He doesn't need to know, for the unknown easily contains his aim. He walks on and on along an upland trail in orchard and pasture foothills and slowly ascending mountainous terrain. We wait for a similarly steadfast and unchanging man at the edge of Bill Viola's "Reflecting Pool" for minutes emerging in stillness. When at last he jumps, the frame freezing him in midair for a while is eventually followed by his simply vanishing. Into not the water or exactly the woods, so much as his own concentration in the natural scene which was a condition of his being here. As in turn the attentive viewer may also find a place to be absorbed, if not to vanish; or so it seemed to me. In the Hiroshi Sugimoto video "Accelerated Buddha" (1995) time turns visibly and rivetingly timeless in quick repeats of apparently the same image or in cuts and substitutions; and, standing on the threshold of an upstairs room of the north wing, I wonder if the film is multiplying our experience in order to empty it out into some new birth. Here is my black hole again, this concept of "emptiness" which I get and then lose, every day of my life. Sugimoto's staccato texture is irritating, contagious, and hopeful, oddly. It's the electronics of the screen and a curious suspense asking, Am I unique? Hardly.
Twice I went through the show, in the afternoon alone after lunch in a café on the grounds near a quiet garden, and in the morning with one of the curators, Lilly Wei. She is a distinguished critic, a regular writer for Art in America, a contributing editor at ARTnews and Art Asia Pacific, as well as the curator of many shows here and abroad. She it was who decided the sequence of works in this show-all important because of the juxtapositions. A quite swift act of intuition when it came to it (she tells me) after weeks and months of inspired, sometimes precarious preparation. Her essay for the show, "How Buddhist Is It?" surveys the curious congruence of freedoms shared by art with Buddhism itself.
As if Buddhism turns out to be an art of life: for it is life's sake art is for. As Xu Bing's small glass sculpture, (2003) "Sausage, Bean, Worm, Shit, Zen" glimmeringly metamorphic and multiple, tells me. Or as Isamu Noguchi seemed to mean in his remark about art and awakening, which his two bronze "elements" suggest ("Seen and Unseen," 1962)-like actual stepping stones in a garden of consciousness, I think, recalling those Japanese Zen gardens he discovered in 1931.
Andrew Marvell's "The Garden" comes back to me from the 17th century for its nearly Eastern nirvanic poise close to the time of the terrible Civil Wars in England; and now some verses follow from "The Coronet," in which Marvell's speaker, on the thorn of an artist's dilemma, despairs over how to make a matchlessly crafted poem to his Savior without being guilty of the sin of pride. That is a side of Christian thinking not unlike the ancient Hebraic prohibition against any art in competition with God's creation. I watched on television in March of 2001 the dynamiting in Afghanistan layer by layer of the Great Buddha of Bamiyans, carrying out an Islamic edict against religious representational art. It was shameful, and ironic, considering modern Buddhism's generally pacific values, neither competitive nor in fact evangelist if you remember the Dalai Lama's remark, "If the majority of humanity remains nonbelievers, it doesn't matter. No problem! The problem is that the majority have lost, or ignore, the deeper human values-compassion, a sense of responsibility."
The second time through "The Invisible Thread" I found myself connecting works in many new pairings. This is the viewer's imagination or luck alive with the surprises of an original and unprecedented show. The photographer Tri Huu Luu, who escaped from Vietnam and returned to document Buddhist practice, shows us the back of a monk's head: it is the turning away, the human close-up, I think it is really the massed single hairs, that I put beside another work, Hoang Van-Bui's "Unfamiliar Prayers" (2000), a wall of incense sticks massed densely above, sparsely in the lower area, casting their triangular double shadows above a bronze mourning bell, recalling a temple in Hue; somehow recalling for me the self-immolations with which Buddhist monks tried unsuccessfully to have an impact on the war so many Americans experienced at a distance.
Who can know the effect of Buddhist studies on Louise Fishman's insight into the awareness of movement? It hardly mattered to me, in the presence of her rough and vital action-painting, "Lifting, Moving, Placing," an emblem that seems in its simple, stepped structure to narrate gradual knowledge. Is there some Buddhist genre of the Sublime in Pat Steir's sudden, solitary, abruptly abundant red waterfall, the paint pouring as if gravitationally flung? I looked for a human figure and didn't find one, though I felt one there. Philip Taafe's "After Tsuba Colony" belongs, and is, in the same room with Tatfoo Tan's "United We Stand." The first superimposes disturbingly rendered coils of razor ribbon upon block prints to evoke themes of the Buddhist ancestral warrior retaliating symbolically. The second is fierce and perhaps tragic, dynamic in its red strokes across an area that seemed to me mountainous and animate with gold exploding blossoms above. We are upstairs at the southeast corner of the north wing and we are ready for the meditation room furnished with cushions.
But I'm on my way back to Manhattan. That old hymn comes back to me, "For those in peril on the sea." I have to make a couple of phone calls. Is the City encroaching upon all these images I don't want to forget? Richard Gere's photo of people disappearing in a sandstorm; Dove Bradshaw's heap of ordinary salt, a funnel slowly dripping water on it; Tom Friedman's "Cup and Straws," an elegant humorous lightness giving the viewer a luminous lift; Nancy Haynes's visibly changeable glow-in-the-dark acrylic abstraction of monastery courtyards where debates took place. I have to make one last stop to see again the four head-high Buddha faces grouped like aspects around a small central space. Inside it one discovers that the Buddhas are cut spectacularly from hundreds of New York City phone books. Incredibly the inside edges of these palpable recyclings never used for their official purpose emerge like gray stone, a miniature Rushmore containing a cyber-compressed population of metaphors which Long Bin Chen, one of the artists-in-residence here, offers as if it were a token of . . . this show, this community of work, surprising, near, nourishing, to some extent American, touched in its embracing variety by the Buddhist spirit.
Joseph McElroy is the author of eight novels, most recently Actress in the House (Overlook Press, 2003). His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Art International, The New York Times Book Review, Conjunctions and other magazines.