Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Aesthetics of Poignancy

Dominique Mazeaud

I have been on a quest for the spiritual in art in our time for 30 years. A quest is the pursuit over a lifetime of the answer to one question. The answer (at least a thread of it) comes through a process of listening to outer voices and inner messages.

In October 2009 a word, not unlike a star shooting through the sky, fell into my heart/mind where it ignited a fiery exploration. POIGNANCY. The 'word' came through Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor, who proposes that poignancy might be a better translation of dukkha, the Pali/Sanskrit word usually translated as suffering. Trying to grasp Mr. Batchelor's rich thoughts on the subject, I jotted down in my notebook, “Touch something deeply/ Poignant/ Aesthetic appreciation.” To cultivate my understanding of dukkha, I transcribed the full passage from the Upaya Zen Center podcast. (A central tenet of Buddhism is life is dukkha.)

“Fully know dukkha, turn into it. It's about focusing our attention into the heart of darkness, into the heart of the world. As we do this and as we deepen our embrace of ourselves and of the world, we become more conscious of everything changing, shifting, moving, nothing stands still. There is nothing we can cling to to give us some sort of permanence, it's not going to work. As we deepen our experience, we become more aware of an extra poignant quality. This is why I want to get rid of the word suffering. When we look at suffering we also get in touch with something poignant. I like the word poignancy. We open up to another aesthetic appreciation of life. Some of those beautiful moments which we as a culture we admire are rooted in a sense of the tragic, like the great plays by Shakespeare: King Lear, Hamlet. These are not spin-ball romantic comedies. When we witness these works of art, we experience what moves us most deeply, what is most beautiful, and yet it is also inevitably tied in a sense with what's most tragic about the human condition, to the very core of our human condition. Beauty and dukkha do not contradict each other.”

Feeling an instant resonance upon hearing these words, I added in the margin my own question, AESTHETICS OF POIGNANCY?

What to do with such a resonance? First let it 'vibrate...' By that I mean I let it dwell within myself, simply notice where the energy takes me. A few months later, I got a remarkable echo. I had been invited to participate in MEANDER, an exhibition celebrating the Santa Fe river. To describe “River's Call,” the installation I created for the 8' x 5' space assigned to me in the group show, the reviewer used one adjective, and it was “poignant.”

“...The river has already been the focus of attention by artists like Dominique Mazeaud, who began her project of cleaning the river's banks and its riverbed over twenty years ago. (“The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande.”) Some of the objects Mazeaud collected in her performance-based project - things she tends to think of as gifts from the river - are part of her poignant installation at Meander.” (Diane Armitage, THE Magazine, June 2010.)

When such 'direct' response is given, I take it as a cosmic affirmation, a sign that it is the right thing for me to be pursuing.

In “The River's Call,” I tried to capture the emotions the river awakened in me. Doing the piece every month for seven years, they were many. Was it a new kind of feeling? Rivers were not totally new to me, but how to describe the mysterious something stirring my soul so deeply and kindling the passion that kept me in the river all these years?

It often takes time to name things or to penetrate the deepest reality of life. I feel poignancy includes that level of meaning: the hesitation, the wondering... The “Is it possible? Can there be such beauty/pathos, freshness/decay, light/darkness? Poignant, from the French poignard, dagger, hints at the heart, and we know how many tones of feeling it exudes! “(Poignancy) also specifically implies a power to pierce the mind or heart so that the reader, hearer, or observer feels acutely as well as with aesthetic pleasure the emotion aroused...” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Synonyms.)

My earlier installations were more representative of my outer experience. Not unlike a scientist, I tended to display the artifacts of my work in the river. I had shown the many gifts, especially the children's shoes in prior exhibitions, but now I was ready to share my vulnerability: How one pair of little Mary Jane shoes - white, the leather of their tips worn, abandoned on a sandy patch - affected my core. How that one find opened me up to a transmission of the future. How little children, the children of the world, their innate perfection, the suffering they endure in poverty or war touches our own inner child. How this dual aspect of child became central to my work.

Yes, there was suffering and darkness, but there was also undeniable beauty. For a river that had no water to speak of running through it (the Santa Fe River was named the most endangered river in America in 2006 by the American Rivers Associations,) there were all kinds of little miracles for eyes to see. The green shoots that sprout under the rotting newspaper readying for their journey upward. The new-born snake nestled in the hollow of a dead tree. The miracles were sometimes mysteries of a synchronous nature like finding a copy of the book of “Black Elk Speaks” when a class from the Indian American Institute of Art led by their art teacher Shelley Horton-Trippe came to see and experience my performance. There were numerous encounters that provoked serious meditations, like a statue of Jesus laying in the grass of the bare river or the plastic bags filled with sand looking like glistening body parts, equally eerie and intriguing. What I discovered about my river journey was that both darkness and beauty (in all their shades) were always present. Remembering the pain of the Earth had prompted me to be an artist and knowing that pain and grief had been the hallmarks of my life, this was a major realization that, in the long run, brought me much healing.

To mark my 30-year quest on the topic, I recently wrote a piece titled “What is the Spiritual in Art in Our Time” (see http://dominiquemazeaud.blogspot.com/.) Over the years I noticed that artists and critics have attempted to define the new kind of art being born at this time by giving it specific names. A couple that struck me were “The Aesthetics of Participation” and “Relational Art”, which certainly describe aspects of my work. I don't know if “The Aesthetics of Poignancy” will take hold. The main thing is that it speaks to me. Delving into the meaning of poignancy and its relevance in my path of art is a blessed seed that is growing and taking root, and for that I am deeply grateful.

In 2005, Bill McKibben, the author, educator and world climate activist wrote an article titled “IMAGINE THAT/What the warming world needs is art, sweet art...” At the time, I could not quite get the 'sweet' component of the title. Today, rereading the article I clearly seize upon a particular sentence, “To document the buzzing, glorious, cruel, mysterious planet we were born onto, before in our carelessness we leave it far less sweet...” My new understanding of dukkha resonates so much better, when I understand it within the context of a poignant perception of the suffering Earth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Concerning The Spiritual in Art in Our Time?

Concerning The Spiritual in Art in Our Time?

From Kandinsky's abstraction to ecological art: Imagining an exhibition, 100 years after Kandinsky published “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”

What is the spiritual in art in our time? This is a question that has been burning in my heart since 1979. A few years later, it was my heart again, (a broken heart this time,) that turned me into an artist. I could no longer bear what was happening to the Earth. From my despair came the revelation that my form as an artist would be ritual. Recently, the old question that I first explored as a seeker and a curator was reawakened during a visit to the Wassily Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. The artist's famed essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” published a hundred years ago, is the seminal work on this subject. (1)

In this essay Kandinsky says that interpretations of art reflect the evolution of consciousness and culture. Kandinsky's understanding of the spiritual was rooted in 'perennial philosophy' or 'ageless wisdom'. (2) One of the 'perennial' spiritual principles (whatever tradition it comes through) is that of the oneness and interconnectedness of all things. The spiritual and art do not limit their search to finding interconnectedness among like or similar cultures. Rather, they reveal the oneness beneath apparently disparate and conflicting statements. But how could one exhibition express such complexity and oneness? Today, the global nature of our world makes us aware that oneness must be expressed through multiplicity and diversity. So, to reflect our time, an exhibition on “The Spiritual in Art” would have to include many different approaches and media. As Kandinsky states at the beginning of his essay, “Every work of art is the reflection of its age... It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own...” But beyond the multiplicity of this era, how would an exhibition single out the art movement which defines multiplicity. Can any art find the soul of our complex world?

This is where words can be numinous. While some synonyms of spiritual are oneness, interrelatedness, others are (unconditional) love, compassion. When the impulse for art is compassion and love, the resulting expression becomes universal, no matter how seemingly unique the culture that produced the art may be.

Understanding the spiritual is a process of discovery (re-discovery), uncovering layers. A century ago, Kandinsky was affirming that art should come from an “inner need” which called for the artist to work solitarily. (In retrospect, it is understandable; the beginning of the twentieth century was the time to get away from the rigorist academic directives bearing down on society and souls.) Today, we live in a time when the pendulum swings back, inviting us to reach out rather than draw back. Science is helping us discover the world and the universe as a whole, fluid system. We realize another 'perennial' concept: that the “inner need” is not separate from the need of the 'other.' (3) Science and the shrinking global world are transforming our consciousness. It is not surprising then, that this evolving awareness must foster new form and content particular to our time.

The spiritual today is action-oriented. Some may call it service, which is an intrinsic part of a spiritual path. Artists may not put it in this way, but the heart, speaking in no uncertain terms, seeks a place to express compassion. Kandinsky's “inner need” of one hundred years ago may well be changing into a seed to find the self through service. It may be that art's inherent quality of unifying and healing is only now to be revealed. (Art italicized since the term did not exist at a time when the shaman was the main 'performer' whose task was to create harmony on the personal and communal levels.)

Humanity is reaching a “great turning' by realizing the devastation it has caused to the Earth. Before we lose her, (or we are lost to her,) we are being forced to wake up. In T.S. Eliot's words, we are “to go back to the beginning/And know the place for the first time.” What growing numbers are coming (back) to is that spirit is synonymous with Earth. We are finally understanding the indigenous intrinsic ways of oneness with the Earth. “The Earth and myself are of one mind,” said Indian leader Chief Joseph. (4) In Northern New Mexico, where I live, a statement in the Pojoaque Pueblo Poeh Center contains a profound truth: “Our ancestors' guide for living was to use the natural world as a model for structuring their world, the Tewa world.”

Ten years since the beginning of the new millennium, with the environmental crisis so much more blatant and acute, it is perhaps not far-fetched to conclude that the spiritual in art today may be the work of reconnection with and the healing of our relationship with the Earth. An art movement that concerns itself with Earth has been emerging since the sixties, not unlike a new spring flowing out of layers of humus. This new voice for art is not only about recognizing the oneness of community, be it human, animal, plant, mineral, or all, but also about participating in creating it. In what is referred to as ecological art,“a worldwide art movement that is encouraging the fusion of culture with environmental stewardship,” artists are creating community often by mobilizing it. It's about “the artist act (ing) as aesthetic choreographer of collaborative action as well as premier danseur.” (5) Just by itself the movement, which is leaderless, is a wide field from land art to ecological art.

In my view, to be called to the spiritual in art today is to work consciously toward establishing “the reciprocal connection between humans and the more-than-human world.” (6) Once, there was no separation between spirit and art. Prior to Kandinsky's essay the world had not seen the relationship between art and spirit as a subject for intellectual discussion. The essay revolutionized art. A century later, we are posing the same question in light of our times... our answer growing out of today's need is for humans to see themselves as part of a larger whole. As someone who always tries to grasp the bigger picture, this revisiting to me is a notch up on the spiral turn of evolution.
I am a seeker whose question about the spiritual in art in our time came from a deep personal quest. This journey compels me to send forth a cri du coeur. We must act as artists in service to the Earth. But, first I welcome a dialogue.

I would propose a second round of “Les Magiciens de la Terre,” an exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989, that asked one hundred artists to define art along with showing their work. I would simply change the question and ask artists to offer a definition of “what is the spiritual in art.” (7)
(1) Published December 1911, but dated 1912, from the book Kandinsky published by the Guggenheim Museum.
(2) Perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis “eternal philosophy”, also Philosophia perennis et universalis) is the notion of the universal recurrence of philosophical insignt independent of epoch or culture, including universal truths on the nature of reality, humanity or consciousness (anthropological universals.) (Wikipedia)
(3) Systems theory is the scientific explanation of what 'perennial philosophy' has known. Physics = Metaphysics. Interesting subject to be explored. The one great book about this (“one of the 10 great books of the twentieth century) is “the Dream of the Earth” by Father Thomas Berry.
(4) Quoted in “The Transformative Vision” by Jose A. Arguelles
(5) Marie Jo Aagerstoun, PhD
(6) The term “more-than-human world,” coined by the eco-philosopher David Abram, denotes “Nature” while pointedly including human beings within what people call “nature.
(7) The exhibition “The Magiciens de la Terre” (The Magicians of the Earth) asked the question, “What is art” from the one hundred invited artists (50 contemporary Western artists and 50 traditional non-Western artists) and every answer was different.