Friday, January 30, 2009

More Than Just Coping

The sage returns to the original: a block of wood. A block of wood can be made into tools, but tools cannot be made into a block of wood.—Mencius

Before a block of wood is split, it can take any shape. Once it is split, it cannot be round if it is square. It cannot be straight if it is curved. Lao-Tzu tells us to avoid being split. Once we are split, we can never return to our original state.—Sung Ch'ang-Hsing

Of course, it is an artist's (read: human) natural inclination to make things—to split wood, nail it, build it.

It's a complicated business determining What's natural? When is it nature and when is it human? But certainly the split is felt and it is uncomfortable.

In Journey to the Lower World, Marcus Coates takes a shamanic journey on behalf of residents soon to be displaced from their high-rise apartment building. He doesn't find them a protector as hoped, but receives a healing image: a bird extends its wing to show its feathers are separate, not joined together. They are split, not whole. Coates suggests the residents need to band together. I'd suggest they return to their original state.

This unadorned video is part of the fantastic, complex group show at David Cunningham Projects, SF, Trying to Cope with Things that Aren't Human (Part One). Ian Brown out of England (and a member of the juxtapositioning Common Culture) guest curates the show and edits the accompanying book of (mostly) text-works. Journey is the lynchpin of the show and it's philosophical intent. Nothing better conveys the range of emotions caused by the split than the handful of residents trying to cope with the extraordinary manifestation of the non-human right there in in front of them in the innocuous person of Marcus Coates. (Albeit Marcus Coates dressed in full stag skin, complete with rack of horns.) The witnesses to the ritual are at turns nervous, giggling, astonished, serious, and seemingly embarrassed for the hooting and squawking man twirling in their living room.

British NeoHooDoo.

It seems to me we are in general confused by our relation to the "natural" world as much as we are embarrassed by our animality. And then there are those of us feeling alternately guilty or hostile for our collective creations, especially the technological kind. Thus the split and the effort to cope.

One response to guilt and uncomfortableness is to retreat to the meditation mat to redress our imbalance and return to our original nature (as prescribed by Lao Tzu and countless Zen teachers). On the other hand... Another option: get cynical, sarcastic—something smarty-pants humans do when confronted by the nervous-making. The international artists in this group show, happily—oh what a relief—grapple gently with the non-human and mostly make light—with a bit of irony and whimsy. Ian Brown's VW Golf, for instance, parked out front and labeled eventually I will rust and die/ before I go I will take some of you with me. Or is that not irony? Perhaps just too true.

Certainly the works in the show made me happy. The aged parents' deadpan response to living with a new technology in Annika Ström's video Min Mobil/My Mobile made me laugh. Disarming interviews uncovering cell-phone habits (under the pillow, in the closet) spliced with mobile-moments—daily disruptions to animal-like face-to-face, body-to-body contact—showed just how pressed we are, to the wall, by our own invention. Her text-painting Please remove me from your mailing list speaks to the same point.

And then there's Alex Pearl who creates his own cast of characters and plays (while holed up in a hotel room or gallery space). To play is not to complain; is in fact a psychologically healthy response to stress, or at least that's how Jung explained his periodic retreats to play with pebbles on the sea shore.

Pearl makes fuzzy little films of his curious robots: bowls of ping pong balls inching across the room on stilt-like legs, duct-taped square guy clamoring on a pillow, beetle-bug like things scuttling into each other and across the floor. These films are a glimpse into a surreal happenstance world and are completely engaging.

This is Study for Earthwalker (Caribou) one of three Lambda prints on display by Heather and Ivan Morison. They are part of a larger project that, as I understand it, looks at our study of natural history (these caribou are stuffed and on display at the American Natural History Museum) though the lens of a (fictional) alien culture. That's otherness twice removed.

And then, last week, the card, one of a thousand, arrived from England. The Morisons have been sending out bulk mailings of cards since 2001. They're always the same, plain white square cards, 135mm x 135mm, with text printed on one side, sent anonymously to a personal or gallery list. The card reads:
I used to love her, but look what she's done.
I hate her. I hate her.

[in fine print]

The cards used to relay something discovered in their garden project. Something like:
Today Ivan Morison planted six hundred and sixty four bulbs in his garden

And then as things evolved, the cards would report something altogether different:
Chinese citizen Zhou Peikun and his wife have been breeding pigs for many years. Tonight he will stab her twice, attend to the swine and then strangle himself with a silk thread. The couple had no other occupation.
Songinskhairkhan district, Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

I must say, even though that was a clearly distressing story, I felt just as jarred as I read the painful relational turn printed on the card I received. A couple of very effective lines.

In relation to the show, they make me think of two things. First, these lines remind me of Richard T Walker's incredible dialogues which run on just this kind of love/hate hinge. For this show he also produced a letter to be read accompanied by a soaring instrumental soundtrack. His locution is more long-winded than two lines, but I'll share this: The letter ends, "But I also feel that it is my duty to inform you of what could have been." What might have been is always such heady stuff.

The Book

The other thing the Morisons' text reminds me is to say something about the book produced in conjunction with the show. The artists I've mentioned ('cept Coates) each have texts in the publication, and these also happened to be the pieces that resonated with me the most.

Annika Ström's usual statement paintings are here extended entries in block print. They are personal poignant struggles in the busyness of the every-day.

In his introduction, (which is a surprisingly comprehensive inditement of the uncertain position we find ourselves, betwixt and between nature and the human-made), Ian Brown makes the point that "we often hear ourselves 'escaping to' or find ourselves in nature 'getting away from it all'." Get away or get it together. This is one of Stöm's texts:

A long walk. A long rapid
walk. A rapid walk
collecting my thoughts.
Get my thoughts together.
My head together. A long
rapid walk to clear my
head and get my thoughts
together. A long rapid
walk to get my head
together and get all in
place. A long fresh
uplifting walk to get my
thoughts together and get
me focused. A long walk
to get myself together
and get my thoughts
together. A long walk

A series of diary entries by Alex Pearl called Trains excerpts from Alex Pearl is not in Antarctic (which is funny in itself) concludes,
On my way home a woman sitting opposite me was trying to learn Hebrew and reading Psalms. One line read: 'My zeal wears me out.'

That just about sums up the dilemma of making an effort on behalf of art and relationship—or sex at any rate.

There are two first-person entries by the Morisons, one about a tree being felled, and the other about running away and the tension-filled encounters on the way away. Like Pearl, the writer is sensitive to the ugly little hotel, on edge with strangers, and then there's the anxiety of going home, or not. The piece ends with a disturbing near mishap on an escalator, the moving staircase that never stops. There's a sense of anxious fragility these pieces all share.

Richard T Walker is, on the other hand, standing still in his printed piece. Standing still, caught in the moment of holding on (and what that signifies about attachment and togetherness) at the same time as needing to let go. That this precarious moment, with all his signature multifarious particular dialog about it, concerns, in fact, the point in time when he is impelled to let go a leaf (as in the appendage of a plant) in order to scratch an itch is, well, just perfectly, neurotically, wonderful. His discrimination of the layers in the immediate present reveals relational communication between himself and his body, his skin and hands, his hands and the other, the other and the morning, the morning and curtains, etc., etc,. "Although talkative, the itch didn't have a lot to say." And yet, and yet...
I am not sure if an accidental scratch arrived before the itch, and the itch had then taken advantage of the situation, or whether the itch had instigated the whole event merely to distract you and I from whatever might have been.

Walker isn't going to let us get off thinking that there is a split between Things and Humans, let alone anything else. The world is alive and conspires to engage (or disengage) us at every turn. We just need to pay attention!

I loved this show (can you tell?)! There was so much interesting thoughtfulness packed into this—and I haven't even mentioned Mariele Neudecker's resin mountains in water tanks...

This is Heaven, the Sky (as installed in the Singapore Biennale). "Heaven; the sky" is a secondary definition of the noun cope. A perfect metaphor for the show, these humans contending with the issue. Just so, weightiness, under the surface, and the surfaces, water and glass, reflecting, refracting, setting up new images, and meanwhile the water changing, clouding—a whole new world. A really fine show: three cheers! Drinks all around!

Taoist commentary, trans. Red Pine (Bill Porter), 1996.
Coates pic courtesy Facebook.
Morison pic courtesy of Danielle Arnaud Gallery.
Neudecker pic from ArtNet.
The book (recommended) is available via the David Cunningham Projects gallery.