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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

durian_main
Smells like hell but taste like heaven, or as one writer aptly described the dual pleasure and pain of the durian fruit: “It’s like eating the most delicious custard out of a toilet bowl.”

It’s something I think about frequently: What if you really dislike an artist—or a thinker—in their real life form but you admire their work?

This morning the New York Times’ The Ethicist addressed the question, “Can I politically disagree with an artist and still love the art?” (In this case, posed by a political conservative who is troubled about liking the music of Bruce Springsteen.)

That’s an ongoing issue for me with the inimitable Nassim Nicholas Taleb*. His ideas provoke, excite and expand my thinking. I loved reading The Black Swan, and now I am winding my way through his latest, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

Here’s a brief description of his latest all consuming theory from the Guardian‘s recent review:

The core idea behind this book is simple and quite enticing. Nassim Nicholas Taleb divides the world and all that’s in it (people, things, institutions, ways of life) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. You are fragile if you avoid disorder and disruption for fear of the mess they might make of your life: you think you are keeping safe, but really you are making yourself vulnerable to the shock that will tear everything apart. You are robust if you can stand up to shocks without flinching and without changing who you are. But you are antifragile if shocks and disruptions make you stronger and more creative, better able to adapt to each new challenge you face. Taleb thinks we should all try to be antifragile.

While the ideas presented are provocative, the book itself does not offer a crisp delivery. I agree with reviewer David Runciman who describes it as a “big, baggy, sprawling mess.”

And it isn’t just the book structure that detracts from the content. It is that damn persistent Taleb personality thing. This is a game of whack-a-mole where that annoyance won’t stop showing up. The title of John Horgan‘s review for Scientific American says it well: Nassim Taleb Is Annoying, but ‘Antifragile’ Is Still Worth Reading.

This isn’t a new problem of course. Horgan offer up a list of similarly difficult but provocative thinkers, many of whom I too have found compelling:

Reading Taleb, I am reminded of other big-egoed thinkers: The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who like Taleb emphasized life’s randomness, or “contingency,” as Gould put it. (I summed up Gould’s view of life as “shit happens.”) The mystical philosopher Ken Wilber, who fashions his neologisms into grandiose diagrams of existence. The anarchist Kirkpatrick Sale, who rails against the tyranny and corruption of big governments and corporations. The journalist Kevin Kelly, who extols the chaos and freedom of decentralization over top-down control. The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who cherished his status as a cross-disciplinary maverick and had a knack for gnomic aphorisms. The psychedelic visionary Terence McKenna, who shared Taleb’s obsession with novelty.

In short, Taleb resists categorization. If I had to pigeonhole him, I’d call him an anti-guru guru. That is, he mercilessly bashes other gurus, pundits and prophets and warns you not to fall for them. He depicts himself as a brave, lonely truth-teller in a world of fools and frauds. In so doing, he becomes a guru himself, with a cult-like following. Many gurus—from Socrates to Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the most successful gurus of the 1960s—have successfully employed this anti-guru schtick.

I have come to refer to this twosidedness as Durienism, named after that unforgettable Asian fruit that both delights and disgusts.

Even so, I am already aware of how much this book has shifted my thinking about the way things unfold in my studio. What ways of working are fragile and easily destroyed? What thrives on change and disruption? As Taleb writes, “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes a fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them.” I’m no fragilista, but I am also looking for even better ways to explore and play with that edge of uncertainty.

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*Previous Slow Muse posts about Taleb:
Tinker Away
Kahneman, in the Studio

bubblewrap
All the world as seen through the lens of a crystalline polythene grid of air pockets

“Of course one always has the same theme. Everyone has her theme. She should move around in that theme.”

So claims Austrian author Thomas Bernhard. Similarly, artist Lucian Freud was reported to have said, “Everything is autobiographical, everything is a portrait, even if it’s only a chair.”

One last example, and a memorable one: Willem de Kooning, suffering from dementia at the end of his life, continued to paint in that de Kooning signatory style. Brain dysfunction be damned, his work was coming up from somewhere deeper. Or different.

Be like me. See the world through my eyes. It is an elemental aspect of an artist’s consciousness. And the edge between objective and subjective is often an invisible boundary. Can we ever see it, that line where our own proclivities end?

After all, there is a long list of behavorial biases that can alter our ability to see/understand/perceive/comprehend with clarity. Here’s just a few from Psy-Fi’s much longer list:

Ambiguity Aversion: we don’t mind risk but we hate uncertainty
Babe Ruth Effect: winning big but rarely beats winning often and small
Bias Blind Spot: we agree that everyone else is biased, but not ourselves
Confirmation Bias: we interpret evidence to support our prior beliefs and, if all else fails, we ignore evidence that contradicts it
Familiarity Effect: being familiar with something makes you favour it
Fundamental Attribution Error: we attribute success to our own skill and failure to everyone else’s lack of it
Galatea Effect: some people succeed simply because they think they should
Hindsight Bias: we’re unable to stop ourselves thinking we predicted events, even though we’re woefully bad at predicting the future
Inter-group Bias: we evaluate people within our own group more favorably than those outside of it
Introspection Illusion: we value information gleaned from introspection more than we value our actions
Sharpshooter Effect: beware experts painting targets around bullet holes
Survivorship Bias: this is an error that comes from focusing only on the examples that survive some particular situation
Titanic Effect: if it can’t sink you don’t need lifeboats
Tragedy of the Commons: we overuse common resources because it not in any individual’s interests to conserve them

During the last few months I have been tunneling deeply through a massive project. An intensity of focus has been needed to get it done, but it comes at a cost. During times like these, my ability to parse the world in general becomes impaired.

I’ve been in that place before. When I had my first child, the world outside my home ceased to exist. If you didn’t wear a diaper and weren’t sleeping in the crib in the room next door, you just didn’t get any air time. I am grateful for the remembrance—and reassurance—that normalcy does return. Eventually.


Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting

I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.

I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.

It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.

From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:

If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…

Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.

___
*More about Nesting here.


The pleasures of making marks

In writing Bento’s Sketchbook: How does the impulse to draw something begin?, John Berger has fashioned a book that is a hybrid cobbling of many facets of the his persona—memoirist, philosopher, art historian, artist, political essayist, cultural critic. Berger has a long history as a writer and a well recognized voice, so creating a category-busting book like this one is in some ways a perk that comes with his success. This is Berger doing his “the world according to me,” and the result is a quirky and very personal patchwork of stories.

In many ways Berger’s approach is more blog-like than it is book-like. The reader is invited to roam through Berger’s life and insights without the artifice of a recognizable template or format. Some parts are better than others, but there is much to recommend this unexpected blending of Bergerian insights and ideas.

(Note: Another very successful example of this wide angle viewing is Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting which I wrote about here.)

The fundamental armature of Bento’s Sketchbook is the writings of Spinoza. The Bento of the title, Spinoza spent most of his life—when he wasn’t working as a lens grinder—contesting Descartes’ mind/body duality. And sketching. And in spite of his refusal to publish his works during his lifetime, Spinoza’s writings survived (and ended up playing an influential role in bringing about the Enlightenment.) His sketchbook(s) however did not.

Berger steps in as if to offer himself as a proxy for Bento’s lost visualizations by assembling sketches from his everyday life. In the words of Colin McCabe: “What [Berger] is trying to do is produce an equivalent, in pen and ink, of Spinoza’s attempt to join the particular with the universal. It is from the mundane details of daily life that Berger creates an image of the world.”

In an interview with Berger in the Paris Review, he described his own intentions for this book:

I never really thought of myself as an art critic. I mean, I wrote a lot about art, particularly visual art, but my approach was—how to put it? The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with. In some very small and personal way, that’s what I wanted to address with this book.

Spinoza gets embedded in the warp and woof of Berger’s personal encounters and stories. In an unexpected turn, those 17th century passages offer up a more optimistic view than Berger’s harsher personal sense of a world gone wrong, one that is neither fair nor hopeful.

But from time to time Berger steps away from the world’s troubles and contemplates the simple act of drawing. It is at those moments that he is at his most expansive.

When I’m drawing—and here drawing is very different from writing or reasoning—I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function, such as digestion or sweating, a function that is independent of the conscious will. This impression is exaggerated, but the practice or pursuit of drawing touches, or is touched by, something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning.

Thanks to the recent work of neurobiologists like Antonio Demasio, it’s now known that the messages which pass from cell to cell in a living body do so in the forms of charts and maps. They are spatial arrangements. They have a geometry.

It is through these ‘maps’ that the body communicates with the brain and the brain with the body. And these messages constitute the basis of the mind, which is the creature of both body and brain, as you believed and foresaw. In the act of drawing there’s perhaps an obscure memory of such map-reading.

As Damasio put it: ‘The entire fabric of a conscious mind is created from the same cloth—images generated by the brain’s map-making abilities.’

Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be compared with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.

When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells…

Drawing is a form of probing. And the first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things and to place oneself…

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisibile to its incalculable destination.

The freeform (non)format of Bento’s Sketchbook is appealing on many levels. But may I confess to a wandering eye? While reading Berger’s book I kept fantasizing about how much I would love to see a version of this from some of my most thoughtful artist friends. Berger is first and foremost a writer, and his drawings are uneven at best. A more gifted hand could shift the balance to equal parts words and images. Hey there Altoon Sultan, George Wingate, Miriam Louisa Simons, Sally Reed, Tim Rice, Rachael Eastman, Riki Moss, Holly Downing, Elizabeth Mead, Luke Storms, Holly Friesen, Walt Pascoe, Pam Farrell, Paula Overbay, Nancy Natale, Lynette Haggard, Tamar Zinn, Filiz Soyak, Ramah Commanday, Amani Ansari—something to consider?


Lupulnga, by Makinti Napanangka

I was first introduced to Aboriginal painting in the early 90’s when my friend Colleen Burke returned from the Australian Outback with a cache of gorgeous pieces on bark and canvas. I sat for hours with her paintings and searched constantly for what few books were available in this country (it was, after all, back in the primitive B.I. era—Before Internet). And finding original works from these desert artists that could be seen in person was rare in North America. Scattered small shows happened here and there. I drove down to New York to see one, a group of Aboriginal paintings hanging at the United Nations which was really more of a cultural/anthropological event than an art exhibit. A gallery featuring Aboriginal work sprang up in San Francisco for a period of time and then disappeared. It was the inaccessibility of seeing this work in person that drove me to finally make an art pilgrimage of my own to Alice Springs. That trip was a life changer for me.

Much has changed over the last 20 years. First and foremost is access to the work. This year alone I have seen two major exhibits of Aboriginal works here in the U.S.: Ancestral Modern, Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi‘s collection at the Seattle Museum (and written about here), and more recently, Crossing Cultures, the Will Owen and Harvey Wagner collection at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Both collections contain extraordinary works and have both been promised to the respective museums. Great paintings from this region live here now.

Second, the work itself has evolved. Aboriginal painting began at a very specific point in time—in the early 1970s. A young art teacher from Sydney, Geoffrey Bardon, brought the first acrylics and canvases to Aboriginal communities. The time between those first brushstrokes and a major art phenom was as close to overnight as success can be.

Many of the works in both of these shows are by artists who are second (and even third) generation, following on the path laid by those first pioneering elders 40 years ago. The lineage in the work is evident, but these younger painters are not caught in a derivative loop of tradition and style. The work feels fresh, exploratory and yet still elementally Aboriginal. I connect deeply with the old as well as the new.

For those of you living in the Northeast, the Crossing Cultures exhibit at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum runs through March 10, 2013.


Hood Museum


Political Storm Brewing, by Clinton Nain


Yunala, by Yukultji Napangati


Pukaratjina, by Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri


Close up view


Untitled, by Freda Warlapinni


Blue Water Hole, by Rosella Namok


Close up of the signatory dot technique


White Painting, by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (on bark)

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Previous Slow Muse posts on Aboriginal art:

Aboriginal Art, Sacred Land and Becoming Visible

Art and Meaning

Explorations in Landscape and Art

Ancestral Modern

The Brush is the Least of my Weapons

I Feel You

Icons of the Desert

Threading Through Abstraction, Micro and Macro

Spaciality and Language

Barbara Weir: Grass Seed Dreaming

Breast, Bodies, Canvas

From the Dreaming, It Became Real

Contexts: The Museum vs The Gallery

Painting, in the Larger Context

Ocularcentrism

Ramanujan

Metonymy

I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.

But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.

Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:

***
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.

***
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.

***
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.

***
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.

I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.

***
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)

***
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.

***
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.

***
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?

The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.

***
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.

***
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.

And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.

Corinna Belz‘s remarkable documentary about Gerhard Richter, Gerhard Richter Painting, is one of those films you can watch over and over again. Maybe I should be more direct: One of those films I can watch over and over again. Released on DVD in September, Gerhard Richter Painting has already enchanted me two times through, and don’t feel the least bit finished. Like that inexplicable experience when a particular landscape reaches out and grabs you from your very first encounter, Richter is pure resonance for me and was from that first exposure to his work many years ago.

One of the world’s most famous living artists, Richter is now 80 years old and still working. His paintings require physical strength as well as a finely tuned aesthetic. Belz captures both parts of his signatory art making—Richter dragging an oversized squeegee across the painted surface as well as the way his eyes engage with and interact with a work in progress. As a filmmaker, Belz is masterful at walking the line between being there and becoming transparent. After a while I am caught up in the illusion that I am alone in the studio with Richter, a respectful witness to a ritual that feels deeply personal, profound and inviolate.

A few passages from Kenneth Turan‘s thoughtful review in the Los Angeles Times rang true for me:

A serious man but playful, deeply thoughtful with a bit of a leprechaun quality, Richter pointedly wonders if “to talk about painting is perhaps pointless. You can only express in words what words are capable of expressing, what language can communicate. Painting has nothing to do with that. Painting is another form of thinking.”

As if to amplify that thought, we see Richter working on a series intended for a New York City gallery opening. We watch as he first applies paint in broad yet meticulous strokes and then uses an enormous metal squeegee, so big it looks like a piece of aluminum siding, to confidently scrape away parts of what he has painted on.

Unlike his figurative work, Richter considers his abstractions to be more instinctual than planned. “Something just happens” is how he puts it. “They do what they want,” he adds, smiling. “I planned something different.”

Continuing with this theme of personification, the artist quotes the philosopher Theodor Adorno about individual works of art being mortal enemies. “Each painting,” he says, “is an assertion that doesn’t tolerate company.” So how does he know when a painting is finished? “When nothing is wrong anymore, then I stop…”

One of this film’s most intriguing moments has Richter quietly confronting Belz and wondering whether giving her this kind of carte-blanche access was a good idea. Painting under observation, he says, is “the worst thing there is, worse than being in a hospital. The camera makes everything different, you feel so exposed.”

“Painting,” he says finally, “is a secret business, something you do in secret and reveal in public.” It is the achievement of “Gerhard Richter Painting” to shine a light on that hidden, private act as few other films have done.

At first I assumed that the seduction of this film was just my Richter thing and the long standing connection I have to him and his work. But when I encouraged my studio assistant Brandon—an artist from a completely different generation and orientation—to watch it as well, his email response that night was heartening: “That documentary was amazing. I will probably have watched it three more times by the time we meet again.” Yes!

And one more homage to Richter, this one by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian:

Gerhard Richter is a great artist. I don’t mean that lightly. The German painter is sublime, profound, and authoritative in a way that invites high-flown comparisons and invocations of art history. And yet, his own utterances on art would suggest he finds such hyperbole repulsive, and is suspicious of anything that romanticises the creative act…

Reality is profoundly ambiguous, modern physics tells us. An electron can be in two places at once. These paintings describe a world of uncertainty, without surrendering to despair. Richter is alive to the play of chance, the randomness of nature, the complexity of experience – yet proves that art can still bring something serious and beautiful out of the chaos. He towers above the artists of today.

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Richter and his work:

Enchantment

Reporting In on the Other Coast

Luc Tuymans

Ocularcentrism


William Stout Books, San Francisco

San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.

This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.

And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)

The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.

And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.

That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:

***
Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.

***
Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.

***
Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.

***
Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:

“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”

More, much more, to come.


Sarah Robinson

More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.


Hurricane Sandy (Photo: NASA via Getty Images)

Storms, especially the ones as enormous as Sandy, move me to sober. Serious circumspection seems appropriate as my friends in New York and Virginia get dropped from the grid and swamped with water.

But it is also a humbling reminder that we can never step out of the complex and extraordinary life of this planet, this place we call home.

I didn’t know about nature writer Ellen Meloy until after she passed away in 2004. Her books include Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild and The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. Her quiet wisdom about our right relationship to earth rings true for me again and again.

Here are a few words from her that have helped me reset my dial this morning:

***
Of all the things I wondered about on this land, I wondered the hardest about the seduction of certain geographies that feel like home—not by story or blood but merely by their forms and colors. How our perceptions are our only internal map of the world, how there are places that claim you and places that warn you away. How you can fall in love with the light.

***
For a homebody surrounded by the familiar or a traveler exploring the strange, there can be no better guide to a place than the weight of its air, the behavior of its light, the shape of its water, the textures of rock and feather, leaf and fur, and the ways that humans bless, mark or obliterate them. Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.

I think about home and what it means a lot, and that thinking informs my experience of painting both consciously and unconsciously. It feels like it deserves to be part of one’s daily ritual, to remember what place is and where we fit in it.

In a review of Meloy’s The Anthropology of Turquoise, another thoughtful writer Chelsea Biondolillo catalogs ways of writing about nature and how they reflect on our condition:

Near the end of the series of essays which make up The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy gives a few descriptions of nature writing which serve to position her work in the larger context of naturalist literature. The first, “The literature of loss,” is exemplified perhaps most beautifully in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. The second, “An ‘antidote to despair,’” brings to mind David Quammen’s humorous pieces for Outside Magazine, collected in part in The Flight of the Iguana. The third is where Ellen herself fits in: “The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them.” She joins Diane Ackerman and Thoreau in this category.

The antibodies to doom, words and experiences that remind us of our vital connections to the natural world so that we might repair and revere them. That’s a mantra for any day, post Sandy or otherwise.

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