Posts under ‘Musings’

A Burial, A Womb.

wombsLinks below.

TOTEM BURIAL
There is a quiet, dim room in little-traveled wing of the American Museum of Natural History. Behind a glass case, lying on a re-created bed of museum-grade silt and sand, is a little shrouded god. Perhaps one of the first on our planet, certainly the oldest god I’ve ever seen up close: a god so old it belongs to a separate subspecies of sapiens.

“The boy of Teshik-Tash” was a Neanderthal child of 8-9 years of age, buried approximately 70,000 years ago in a cave in what is now southern Uzbekistan. The body was discovered beneath five levels of geologic silt and wash, hundreds of tools, and almost a thousand animal bones, amid a protective ring of ibex horns. It was the only body recovered at the site. The skull alone was reconstructed from over one hundred fragments.

The AMNH has recreated an estimation of the site of this child’s (the gender has recently come under scrutiny) burial. The horns of the ibex rose, sloped and protected the body, while also creating a kind of shrine. The child was wrapped in furs and laid in the fetal position, alone, behind a protective wall, in a cave  not used for any other burial or long-term living quarters. It is worth noting here that Neanderthals were known for–in the rare examples of an actual Neanderthal burial site–laying bodies to rest on their sides and not prone, and they buried individually, not in mass graves or plots.

When I stumbled upon this little Paleolithic child in the museum years ago, I was struck powerfully. This did not read to me as any young loss. I saw a miniature temple to a childlike shaman in those bones and rags. A primitive raiment to house the vessel of their young avatar, someone who symbolized more to those proto-humans than did any other member of their tribe. I saw a child being treated as holy, otherworldly. There’s something pitiful and powerful about seeing it in the museum: the crumpled figure in a sterile vitrine lies largely ignored in a dusty corner, yet it is immediately arresting when you see it. A deep yawning carries across 70,000 years to reach straight into your core.


A DIFFERENT BIRTH
Project Womb is a conceptual funerary service developed by artist and designer Diddo. It features a notional corpse on its side, curled into the fetal position, wrapped in a shroud, encapsulated in an ovoid, wooden funeral “egg”. It’s a comforting, welcoming concept for death, as it offers a sense of finality that all funerary rituals should possess. The project has been slickly designed and executed, so much so that I think I would be very happy were I to be laid to rest in such a way. (I have my own ideas about how that might actually happen, but that’s probably a story for another day) The essential nature of the project is, in the artist’s own words:

“Across cultures, our relationship with it[death] seems based on avoidance and denial. We asked ourselves, why isn’t death treated as naturally and gracefully as birth? Why can’t we perceive it in a more positive way? And redesign its rituals to reveal, rather than conceal, who we really are?”

As soon as I saw the concept, it reminded me of the burial site in the museum; the sideways-facing body, the fetal arrangement. The promises of Project Womb are futuristic and forward-looking, and though it looks to ‘birth’ as the natural and organic answer to death, the ideas and practices behind it are older than perhaps anyone truly knows.

The other service Project Womb would offer is a cloud-based memory archive, including stills and video of the deceased creating a timeline, a memory bank of interviews from the bereaved, and also (most interestingly) your personal DNA archive to be kept on file for 150 years. A truly futuristic take on death, divorced from religion. It reminds me of the beliefs of Germanic paganism; life ends when you die, but your afterlife begins with the stories shared by your loved ones: the best life is the one your descendants will want to pass on.


TRANSFORMATION
Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods has a passage that takes place 16,000 years in the past. A totem of bones and skin is carried by a devoted tribe, and the god Nunyunnini speaks through its followers in many voices. This is an early god, and Nunyunnini works most effectively with primitive components: fungus, blood, piss, smoke. An arresting moment occurs when the god seizes the voice of the tribe’s own holy woman, and she declares herself an unfit prophet who is deserving of death: it is at that moment you believe in the power of the proto-god, for what holy authority would damn themselves to their congregation?

Her own death fulfills a prophecy allowing the passage of native people across the Bering Strait into North America, and pieces of the god and the holy woman accompany the tribe even as they lose meaning in the new world. The symbols and geography Gaiman employs remind me of the same primal theism I felt upon looking at the body of the Teshik-Tash child.

I find myself obsessed with death rituals across cultures: how death is recognized, celebrated, or even ignored. What meaning we inject into our time on this planet; where the human species has come from; where we perceive or imagine our species will go; and our individual, very limited glimpses into the now. How we manage to navigate our lives with any sense of meaningful context boggles my mind; how quickly the concept of life becomes overwhelming in the face of  the enormity of the universe, the vast pool of shared human experience, the gulfs that divide us despite our desires for connection, and how quickly it is all over.

Further reading:
– Reconstruction of the burial site at Teshik-Tash can be found in the Hall of Asian Peoples at the AMNH. Read more.
– Project Womb, by Diddo. Read more. Works by Diddo.
– 14,000 B.C., an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Read more.

Color and Illusion

I’ve long been obsessed with color. It might not seem like it; so many of my works contain washed-out colors, off-whites and off-grays, and brown, brown, brown. It’s true–many of my paintings start out vibrantly, and slowly start to edge toward foggy and vague versions of the once-bold color they started with. It’s a constant push and pull.

Perhaps it would be safer to say my obsession has been with the notion that all color is an illusion. This realization first came upon me in high school, when biology taught me about the nature of sensory organs, and chemistry taught me about spectrums of perceptible wavelengths. The visible light we know represents barely a sliver of wavelengths broadcast by cosmic events daily. We are lucky enough to be able to perceive what we can, with sight and sound, but even our sensory perception is severely limited. Our sensory organs have developed specifically to tell our brains about our surroundings in a manageable way. All color is easily understood as being a molecular material with a particular frequency; it reflects or absorbs photons in a specific pattern and frequency so as to describe color, texture, luminosity, etc.

An arresting idea took hold: if all color is only expressed through our eyes, which not even all animals on the planet have developed as a means to their evolutionary survival, then we humans are alone in our journey to assign color meaning. And with the realization that all color is a convenient lie told to our eyes by our brains, all I could see was a world of gray matter. Gray classrooms, gray people. Gray solid streets, gray liquid shores, gray gaseous air (which just masquerades as a transparent form of matter, of course). Even lightbulbs, emitting photons, were blocks of gray emitting waves of further gray intangibles.

There’s a great video on Youtube about color and perception, which brought a lot of this to the fore of my thinking again. It’s possibly the most worthwhile nine minutes you could spend on Youtube this week:

User Vsauce has lots of great food for thought here, and one of the most compelling to me is the idea of trying to describe sight, or even the nature of color, to a blind person. This kind of question is mostly a thought experiment for me–I do not work with the blind often–but it’s very relevant to my thoughts on individual perception, on the illusory nature of color and light, or the concept of palpable in-between space. For someone who is blind, life is so often about reaching out into areas of in-between. It’s only by finding the boundaries of where one thing ends and another begins, after all, that we find where we are in relation to both.

In addition to the video above, the following readings have been very useful along my journey to figure out the boundaries between our precieved and our real worlds:
“Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees”, by artist Robert Irwin (found here)
“Chromophobia”, by David Batchelor (found here)

BROKEN ANGEL

This entry was originally drafted in 2006. I rescued it from an ancient Livejournal.

You’ve seen Broken Angel, the derelict dream on Quincy and Downing. Multiple levels, impossible angles, architectural ingenuity that’s been slowly shattered by the oppressive grinding onslaught that is the unnatural wear and tear of Brooklyn. One can never see it anywhere other than from the direct front; though it’s the tallest building for blocks in any direction, the neighborhood camouflages it, hides it. As an embarrassment or a precious treasure, you idly wonder. Then a corner is turned and it unfolds its presence, like a chapter out of Lewis Carroll.

Have you seen the old man? His tattered heavy-duty leather toolbelt hanging like a vestigial limb from his hips. He walks toward the door that loudly proclaims 4BROKENANGEL in blazing white on a chipped red surface, the only gloss that remains. His skin, you notice, his hair, his pants, and his belt all settle into a blended shade of gray, as if they all decided as one to assume the tired, faded hue of the sandblasted flagstones across the lower wall.

He moves shudderingly, a subdued jack russel terrier at his side and doesn’t even turn his dusty-eyed glass lenses upward to regard me. His skin hangs in the same manner as the house; once full of dreams, desires and transcendence, long past. He’s used to people looking, used to the house taking the attention so he can avoid being seen. He’s grown tired of the fake interest, the curious stares, the vacuous smiles that encompass nothing but the house.

Windows cemented shut. Windows made from ancient colored glass bottles. Windows torn out, windows gaping open with chicken-wire teeth, windows gutted by age, boarded down, cracked, murky, faded, what was it about.

He sides the mail slot across a way, and doesn’t so much insert a key as perform an arcane gesture of the hand and a nod, a whispered incantation within the hole where a lock should be. I get the impression I am being watched from a thousand small places. As if seeking the invisible doorman’s approval.

The mail slot is replaced. The door creaks open as only a cliché can, accepts its quarry, and shuts imperceptibly, latching twice for good measure. It occurs to me suddenly that I will never see the old man again, hunched, short, and ignorable. The house is too big.

What’s in the Broken Angel?

Sadly, the art-house no longer exists in its original form. The last time I walked by the structure, its top section had been removed. I don’t know what happened to Arthur Wood or his struggle to save it. If you want to read more about the house and its history, check these articles out:

NY Times 1
NY Times 2
Gothamist
Kickstarter (failed)

broken_angel

One Day Soon?

setonhallshow673

Stay tuned for the summer…

Orange Haze

When are we allowed to turn away from the screens?

At which point do we forget to analyze a real thing, something with depth, with clarity, without HIGH DEFINITION, without 1080P RESOLUTION, without a Low-Glare-Back-Lit-Glazed Display? Can we still interpret on our own? How much of us is slush? How often are we allowed to crane our heads skyward again, to tilt our throats upward to the clouds and the sun, to breathe in an atmosphere and suck up and experience, drink it down, not be afraid to let it dribble down our chin with enjoyment?

I have forgotten, beneath an orange haze that knows no dawn, how to find the inky depths beyond the Milky Way. I have forgotten to not be afraid of the utter silence of nature. I only have ears for the holler of traffic, the yammer of the air conditioner. The bellowing belch of grainy-asphalt-black-rubber-dust is what fills my mouth and nose now. I am rendered blind, deaf and brainless.

Perception is an assumption made possible by self-imposed lenses, personally specific filters. How turned on are you by what you see?

Inscrutable Icon

The dumb, mute pillars of my imaginings.

They populate the horizon, bubbling across it like pox. They don’t say anything, they don’t give, they don’t take. They don’t ofer insight, they just are. Like so many other elements in my work, they just are.

They appear and re-appear and promulgate without explanation or reason. What do they represent? What do I have to do with their appearances, if anything at all? What do I have to do with my empty landscapes, my bridges, and my men made of holes? How am I privy to their audience? Why does my inspiration take the form of inscrutable icon?

And beneath the night the shapes of men and sometimes-men haunt my gaze, under a sky lit with halogen and starlight. A roiling, boiling chaos begging for me to joins its tempreate and furious tranquility. We are all being watched. We are all dwarfed. There is no escape, no recourse, no philosophy against the final “IS”.

The Vast Spaces

I am looking for architectural, industrial evidence.

The spaces in-between, all across America. Recognizable elements across an empty panorama. We have created these forgotten landscapes, in-between-scapes of scrap and basic shape, across flatland. Barely connected. Barely connecting one place to another. Globalization, has it created hotspots, and vast, contemplative, ignorable spaces of in-between?

Gravity wells of consumption, artificial human by-ways along the path to real webs of traffic, human piles. Low buildings and high towers and deep warehouses and containers and shallow chasms that are encompassed by the weight of the sky. And the weakness. The insubstantial nature of the ground it’s on. The ground it is on, which is so easy to flatten, to sculpt.

What is so inspiring about a girder? What is behind the secret joy of staring into a web of rusting metal, a tangle of steel and iron? Is it the inspired idea of a husk of industrial civilization, the whispered glimpse of a post-apocalypse? In my mind’s-eye, I skid and slide along endless powerlines. Sledgehammer into concrete to wrench out the rebar. Watch towers of scaffolding fall into piles of skeletal bridges.

It has become so easy to fly by the vast spaces.