Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The humble cabbage

What the New Atheists Don’t See Theodore Dalrymple
To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.
In fact, one can write the history of anything as a chronicle of crime and folly. Science and technology spoil everything: without trains and IG Farben, no Auschwitz; without transistor radios and mass-produced machetes, no Rwandan genocide. First you decide what you hate, and then you gather evidence for its hatefulness. Since man is a fallen creature (I use the term metaphorically rather than in its religious sense), there is always much to find.
The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.
A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting, by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window.
Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage —or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life, and as such it arrested people who ordinarily were not, I suspect, much given to quiet contemplation. Autumn 2007 Table of Contents

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The prophet among men is a notion that has come to us from history

Know more about organic chemistry 13 Oct, 2007, 0500 hrs IST, Uma Nair, TNN Write to Editor
Think of an artist who captures the crux of inharmonious discontent within the struggle of everyday existence, who, in the gist of today’s angst-ridden reality, refracts those images back to us using unpredictable and metaphorical materials. The central message of this array of about 13 sculptural installations by Sumedh Rajendran, which opened at Vadehra Grosvenor in London this week is more about an artist’s ability to think out of the box, throw crass commercialism to the winds and incorporate images or objects cobbled together from popular socio-political culture. The very title of the show, Chemical Smuggle, speaks of life’s cacophony and tells us in cynic retrospect that we must look deep inside and around even if it is somewhat the hardest to reach within. It seems as if Sumedh has devoted a lifetime of his artistic intentions to a certain creative surge that seeks to establish this surface reality, attempting to collect, count and order the ways in which conspicuous consumerism and sycophancy has hit humanity. The titles of his works grab you between your eyes: Civilian Clothes (wood, tin sheet and rexin) with Merito on Blue men is an exemplification of “a virtuoso real,” something beyond real that is patently pathos filled. It is as if the brand Merito stuck all over the tin sheet is art that is inherently interrogatory; it eats through the scheme of things because it is the material with which people in the chawls of Mumbai and the huts of Chennai live. The discarded misprint becomes the object of shelter. The irony is mock heavy. The figure of man with the juxtaposed pig is a carefully constructed hybrid that is also some kind of sarcasm, a satirical slant, which is indeed charged by conflicting notions of high and low lifestyles. “I look at the images or imagery in life always in terms of the human body,” says Sumedh who often uses the animal and man to reflect both exploitation and torture.
“Whether I use the body of an animal or of a human being, I try to interpret and articulate my ideas within its structure. I find a strange interaction between the ‘body’ and architectural elements. I see how a work evolves when one sculpts like an architect, how he or she deals with a body as an architect. In my work Long Subsidies I refer to a jharokha, to the body of a donkey, and even an Islamic element of architecture, and I feel that there are inter-linking elements that run through architecture and the organic body — whether it be of man or animal. So you will find that my sculptures are born out of history and its nuances, the melancholy that comes in is the humanist projection,” says the artist deconstructing his works. Well, this show is also about narrative nests and endless allegory, in which the artist’s comment is an echo of classic Calvino’s quest for truth that resides within. Sin Donor with the steel sheet and leather, is a cerebro-artistic dilemma that with its taut steel sheet disturbs, diffuses and then splinters the mind. It somehow allows you to think but even detracts because it recalls an unsettling of sorts specifically about assumptions, originality and value, class and the exploitation of the differences in creativity. In some ways it makes you think of Maya Angelou’s poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: But a bird that stalks/down his narrow cage/can seldom see through/his bars of rage/his wings are clipped and his feet are tied/so he opens his throat to sing.” The human for Sumedh is like the caged bird, trapped in circumstances. So he uses the boxes — the trunk is a metaphor for the traveling multitudes.
“When I create a work, I place it within the context of my existence and my observation of the common people,” says he. “More than mere representational bodies, my works are specific and the intention is to express ideas. So I cut and mutilate them formally, to extract them from their literal context and place it in the time of my art. The idea of using the galvanized metal sheet is because it is used in coolers; it is a comment on the humid conditions that the people have to face and suffer through be it at home or in a train. That angst and suffering is once again shown in the box which is closed with a clasp, it is the human spirit that is trapped.” Stirred by the notion of paradoxes, Sumedh says that his stimulus is the truth within. An ardent reader of poetry and philosophical verbosity his titles reflect the silent philosophical intellect.
“I like the writings of Foucault and Italo Calvino. These writings pose several questions — about reality and illusion, about sanity and insanity, about conformity and conflict. I thought about the hollowness of generic ideas. Hence, in works like Regime or a Ruler and Civilian Clothes the two images are Messiah like. The prophet among men is a notion that has come to us from history, but in today’s world there is a subversion of sorts,” he says. Regime or a Ruler has this image, which holds a cache of leather. While the hand is that of comfort and reflects the Good Shepherd, it is the synthetic leather held in a manner of curious contradiction that arouses intrigue.
“On its own, leather is an innocent material,” says Sumedh, “but when it is used in this fashion it is ingrained with complexities — it holds social conflicts and contradiction, and is also an expression of it. Leather is an organic substance. When processed, it becomes an inorganic material. The manifestation occurs in its transformation from organic to the inorganic. This transformation is all about orientation and manifestation of power. When a product is imagined through a material, it comes to contain power relationships. Attach it to an animal, it stands low in hierarchy. But when it becomes a product, its status is elevated. The imagination of power is mediated through a very simple material like leather and its seasoning.” Satire becomes the signature staple that runs rampant in the show, appearing on modernist products like synthetic leather, the sheets branded with Merito or Kraft, pointing towards social functioning and arbitrary punch lines. In a sense Sumedh’s artistic career has been a process of self-liberation by expanding upon a satiric mode that he invents for himself. The show coaxes subliminal codes and stereotypes. For all its unpredictable elegance, there is also a spindly open-slotted, endgame air that seems to contradict as well as coalesce. Londoners should react after standing and staring because this is sculpture that is a subtle exegesis of the human character of contemplation. economictimes.indiatimes.com

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

An organ of trans-sensory perception is needed

The New Eye: Visionary Art and Tradition Erik Davis
This adaptation of my introduction to True Visions (Betty Books, 2006) first appeared in the COSM Journal, issue 4.

The sad truth about descriptive categories like “visionary art” is that they are both useful and lame. Especially in the art world, the language of genres and styles often has more to do with galleries and critics than with making and enjoying art. But reflecting about categories can also be fruitful, because it shapes the context of our seeing—and more importantly, the way we share and talk about our seeing. So here is my seed crystal: visionary art is art that resonates with visionary experiences, those undeniably powerful eruptions of numinous and multidimensional perception that suggest other orders of reality. Certain individuals have a predilection for visionary experiences, but these luminous glimpses bless us all at some point in our lives—sometimes through intentionally induced trance states or psychoactive raptures, and sometimes through the gratuitous grace of deep dreams or the demented funhouse of a quasi-schizophrenic break. But we also understand and experience visionary experience through visionary culture, those artifacts of human culture with its eyes agog.
From the perspective of the mainstream art system, however, visionary art could be seen as an attempt to broaden and extend the notion of the outsider artist—those creative madmen, religious eccentrics, and poor folk considered to be outside the boundaries of conventional art history. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, for example, describes its collection as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” That’s all fine and well, and the museum is cool, but this definition is pretty lacking. By insisting that visionary artists are self-taught, the AVAM implies that visionary art is not found inside the schools, movements, or lineages that compose the dominant flows of art history. It becomes a purely idiosyncratic affair, reduced to the solitary, obsessive individual, a Simon Rodia or a Howard Finster. But many visionary artists—by my definition—are and have been formally educated. More importantly, many visionary artists self-consciously locate their work within a lineage of inspired image-makers that stretches back through generations of Surrealist dreamers, mystic minimalists, and medieval icon painters. Abstract art, the most exalted and intellectualized gesture of the modernist avant-garde, actually emerged from a lotus pond of theosophy, spiritualism, and occult meditation practices.
The historical lineage of visionary artists masks a deeper and more commanding claim that sets the genre apart from the marvelous idiosyncrasies of outsider art. The claim is that the visionary artist gives personal expression to a transpersonal dimension, a cosmic plane that uncovers the nature that lies beyond naturalism, and that reveals, not an individual imagination, but an imaginal world, a mundus imaginalis. Far from being outside, this world lies within. Henry Corbin, the brilliant twentieth century scholar of Sufism, coined the term mundus imaginalis to describe the 'alam al-mithal, the visionary realm where prophetic experience is said to literally take place. It is a realm of the imagination, but a true imagination that has a claim on reality because it mediates between the sensual world and the higher abstract realms of angelic or cosmic intelligences. The mundus imaginalis is a place of encounter and transformation. “Is it possible to see without being in the place where one sees?” asks Corbin, throwing down the gambit of visionary experience. “Theophanic visions, mental visions, ecstatic visions in a state or dream or of waking are in themselves penetrations into the world they see.”
From the perspective of planetary culture, we might broaden Corbin’s definition to include the visionary domains that are associated with cultural traditions and holy paths throughout (and perhaps beyond) human history. The worlds visited by the shaman, the seer, the sibyl, and the prophet are all outposts of the mundus imaginalis. But this imaginal world is also produced through the labor of traditional sacred artists, who have incarnated these visions in the mythic maps, sacred geometries, and iconographies of tribes and cultures the world over. When contemporary visionary artists appropriate and sample aspects of these different cultural traditions, these different domains begin to appear, for all their differences, as a single space of the transpersonal imagination, an immense vibrating network of sacred zones and forms. That’s how the mundus imaginalis grows truly global.
Of course, the meaning and function of visionary art in the traditional cultures of the premodern world is vastly different than contemporary art practices—something the more romantic proponents of today’s visionary art sometimes forget. The “visions” captured in the premodern era are, with some exceptions (Bosch and Hildegard of Bingen come to mind), collective constructs, rendered by artists working anonymously within highly conservative cultural codes, and with little conception of “art” as we know it. Even in the individualistic West, artists were constrained by strict conventions and ecclesiastic expectations. Here the example of the Orthodox icon painter looms large: though the theology of the icon is one of the most powerful and sophisticated models of visionary art the world spirit has yet devised, the artists who crafted these numinous contemplative portals—even geniuses like Andrei Rublev—were deeply ensconced within formal restrictions concerning color, iconography, and technique.
Today’s visionary artist has been released from the strictures of tradition, and must discover her own peculiar perspective on the mundus imaginalis, often drawing inspiration and insight—and frequently cliché—from the store of traditional art. In other words, rather than rely on a specific religious or metaphysical tradition to ground their visions, today’s visionary artist often looks to the cross-cultural lineage of visionary art itself. Texts like Alex Grey’s The Mission of Art and Laurence Caruana’s vital online manifesto have helped define a visionary canon through and beyond western art history. But this canon, which ties together petroglyphs, tangkas, and Salvador Dali, is more than a genealogy, because—and this is the crucial (and heretical) point—visionary art is not a purely historical form. Visionary art insists on a transpersonal, transtemporal field of resonance, an ever-present origin of spiritual connections and hidden harmonies that shape image-making outside of mundane historical time. The visionary artists invokes her own ancestors, who only demand that she discover the way anew.
In his writings, Henry Corbin is at pains to distinguish the “authentic” mundus imaginalis from the muddier waters of the personal unconscious. Corbin wants to divide true imagination from mere fantasy, or, in more modern terms, the Jungian from the Freudian dimensions of dreamspace. Similarly, some old-school proponents of visionary art want to keep the pure sacred geometries free from the sometimes cloying dreck of psychedelic cliché. But one of the most powerful and confounding aspects of modern psychedelic culture is the erasure of such clear distinctions between high and low; instead we find ourselves in a Dionysian conflation and confounding of sacred and profane, where Islamic architecture and aboriginal glyphs encounter the “low-brow” world of comic books, skateboard stickers, concert fliers, and SciFi paperback covers.
Unlike Corbin, the contemporary visionary artist is rarely grounded in solid metaphysical claims based on tradition. Instead they are feeling their way through the dimensions, and they derive authenticity, when they need to, from their own experience. The most audacious claim of visionary art lies beyond genre or technique or school; it lies in the glittering possibility that artists can capture and communicate forms of cosmic consciousness and traces of otherworldly light that have arisen in their own streams of consciousness. Looking at the swirling mythopoetic gumbos of Luke Brown or the blobular frequencies of Vibrata Chromodoris, it is amazing to consider that these works are, in some sense, documents. In this sense, the quest to capture and reflect visionary phenomena might paradoxically be considered a new naturalism. And while it can be reductive and literalistic to spend too much time arguing about whether or not specific works are directly inspired by particularly visionary experiences, it is a vital question nonetheless, because it grounds the artifact in a living process. This biographical dimension deepens the sense of the artist as a mediator, and the artwork as a transmission rather than an object.
Ultimately, the meaning or reality of the visions perceived may be less important than the organ that perceives them. Discussing Moses’ famous theophany, Corbin writes that “the Burning Bush is only a brushwood fire if it is merely perceived by the sensory organs. In order that Moses may perceive the Burning Bush and hear the Voice calling him…an organ of trans-sensory perception is needed.” In the visionary encounter, a new eye is born, a synaesthetic vector of sound and light, tuning to new frequencies, drawing patterns out of chaos and apocalyptic madness. As Delvin Solkinson and Eve Bradford wrote in a recent self-published catalog, “Visionary art is evidence of a world that does not yet fully exist; a world that we are calling into being through the very act of creating and participating in the Work.” This is where the vast inheritance of the visionary tradition fuses with the intense and restless self-overcoming of the avant-garde: the imaginal world is still virtual, still ahead.
At her most idealistic, the visionary artist insists on an integral connection between the work of transforming consciousness and the work of fashioning the artifact. For many practitioners and fans, this doubled work restores a healing and even shamanic dimension to art, although the shamanic journeys in question may, in the case Giger or Daniel Oullette, dive into the demonic. But slimy copulating aliens are not the nastiest demons that threaten contemporary visionary artists. The real threats lie with the temptations of kitsch, of complacent self-mythologizing, of the rote clichés and easy iconography of most fantasy illustration and New Age pop. Like a good guru, visionary artists should challenge and baffle as well as encourage and amaze. At the same time, the idea of the solitary artist as a modern shaman is also an old and rather tired story. What authenticates the visionary now may be the meanings that emerge though them, as they circulate through communities of perception. Today’s visionary artist is less important than the visionary culture they seed, an expanding planetary web with art as one of its many nodes.