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From the Guardian series, by Budd Hopkins

It Was Like This: You Were Happy

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness —
between you, there is nothing to forgive —
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

–Jane Hirshfield

My weekend was spent remembering the life of Budd Hopkins—artist, UFO abduction expert and father to my friend Grace. Budd’s life was particularly complex, starting out focusing on art making and then shifting to research in the extremely surreal world of abductions and extraterrestrial intruders. Some of his friends were open and credulous to his pioneering work, some were not. He continued on undaunted, authoring some of the first books documenting the horrifying experiences of abductionists, many of their accounts eerily similar.

The following stanza from Hirschfield’s wonderful poem kept coming to mind this weekend as I listened to the memories that were shared about his life:

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

That “blessed rage for order” in us is not a force strong enough to truly unravel and reveal the real mysteries of a life. Yours. Mine. Budd’s. And in Budd’s case, I am willing to settle for just the roasted chestnuts and persimmons.

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Patsy Rodenburg

Patsy Rodenburg, acting coach extraordinare and author of a number of books including one of my favorites, The Second Circle, has a six minute video posted on YouTube. This short piece could be viewed daily, a quick reminder of how to constellate your day. Her message is simple: Show up. Be present. Be in the moment. Engaged. Connected. “I think we are losing our presence as a society,” she warns.

Yes, her focus is on acting and actors. About how they are important in society because they are trained to be in the moment, now. To stay in that “second circle” which is that place of being present. In this clip Rodenburg tells the story of a very successful woman whose son committed suicide and then shared this insight with Rodenburg: “The only people who could deal with me in my loss were actors. They were the only ones who knocked on the door, came in and were present with me.”

My hermetic life in the studio is a far cry from being on stage, but Rodenburg’s message has a universality that inspires: “If you cannot get present, you cannot succeed.”


Melamid in front of his “Art Healing Ministry”

An article from the New York Times provocatively titled Can a Picasso Cure You?, went viral as soon as it was published. References to it were appearing repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter all day.

First of all, the title is just too delicious to not stop and take a read. Charles McGrath is reporting on the latest undertaking of Alexander Melamid, certainly an artist and personality with an extremely checkered past. McGrath’s tone is tongue in cheek and his approach is more novelty than newsworthy. Melamid has opened up an “art clinic” where art is used to heal whatever ails you. Sometimes it is just viewing a Monet, or buying an art candle. The process isn’t described in detail.

Here’s a taste of McGrath’s point of view:

How the art-healing process works is not entirely clear, but it may involve invisible particles called creatons. “The creatons are everywhere, and they go into the human body,” said Mr. Melamid, who is small and animated and has a nimbus of white mad-scientist hair. “If the creatons are used properly and nicely, they can enhance your body functions. They will help you to live happier and will also get rid of impurities. They enter through your kundalini and also into your eyes.”

Reading about creatons in the New York Times is a novelty of its own and yes, just a bit preposterous. But there is some poetry in this “mad-scientist” scheme that brings a sense of delight to me. Creatons! Who knew? And even without any required scientific backup, Melamid goes on to offer up some recommendations that are actually right in line with my own beliefs and practices. For example, there is no question that art heals. How that works is a mystery to me, but it shifts my moods and state of mind. Like magic.

And then there is the issue of limiting your exposure, particularly when you visit a museum or Chelsea:

He [Melamid] went on to explain that a lot of visual information was bad for the patient. “So when you go to a museum,” he continued, “you have to be very discreet. You don’t want overexposure — that’s as dangerous as to take too many medicines. Art needs to be taken in moderation and according to a specialist who can prescribe the right dosage.”

I’ve been doing selective viewing at museums for years now. I highly recommend this approach.

And who knows where this will go? Here’s Melamid’s thoughts on his own role:

“The question is whether I will step over and become real,” Mr. Melamid said. “Whether I will stop being an artist or a conceptualist and become a real healer. That’s what I want to do. I know I’ll never do it, but that’s what I want to do.”

Speaking of his clinic, he said: “Besides being a great idea, it’s something everyone can relate to. It takes art a little bit off the pedestal. You can art-charge your water or your vodka, you can buy an art candle. And it’s funny. I discovered five years ago that the truth is funny. Not everything that’s funny is true, for sure. But whatever is not funny is not true. That’s why truth has never been revealed, because scientists don’t understand that the end product needs to be funny.”

Agnes Martin. Her wisdom and point of view has stepped in and shifted my thinking many times over the years. This week I happened upon an interview with her, and it was like a Heimlich maneuver dislodging a blockage. She is so unabashedly mystical. Some say that she didn’t read a newspaper for the last 50 years of her life. Given her world view, it seems to me that there really wasn’t much need.

She reminds me of my favorite monk who lives in near isolation in Gotsang, a meditation monastery in Ladakh. He has been there for 45 years. We sat with him for most of a day when I was there two years ago. Even with a language barrier it was clear to all of us that he knew so much more about the flinty core of consciousness than any of us ever would. Just sitting with him, something in me shifted.


A furtive photo of the back of the monk at the monastery in Gotsang, Ladakh

Two backs to the world…

A few highlights from the interview with Agnes Martin:

In this world, that’s the only thing you need to know: What you want.

I paint with my back to the world.

Best things in life happen to you when you are alone. All revelations.

What am I going to do next? That’s how I ask for inspiration.

I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for.

That’s the trouble with art today. 50 ideas before you start, and the inspiration disappears.

Art is responded to with emotion. The best art is music, the highest form of art, completely abstract.

Art is not intellectual at all.

You can’t think about beating the rest of them while you are painting. You have to keep a clear picture in your mind.

Don’t let any other thoughts in. The worst thing you can think about while you are painting is yourself.

I wait 3 days before I decide about a painting being done.

I used to meditate til I learned to stop thinking.

Now, empty mind. When something comes in, you can see it.


Seeking enchantment—here, there, everywhere…The Great Haul, a site-specific installation by Anna Hepler at the Portland Museum of Art. The light becomes crystalline and kaleidoscopic through the layered netting of meshed plastic.

_____
We have an innate capacity for remembering and imagining places. Perception, memory and imagination are in constant interaction; the domain of presence fuses into images of memory and fantasy. We keep constructing an immense city of evocation and remembrance, and all the cities we have visited are precincts in this metropolis of the mind.

Literature and cinema would be devoid of their power of enchantment without our capacity to enter a remembered or imagined place. The spaces and places enticed by a work of art are real in the full sense of the experience. ‘Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provide it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, anguish which has turned into yellow-rift of sky’ writes Sartre. Similarly, the architecture of Michelangelo does not present symbols of melancholy; his buildings actually mourn. When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and percepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.

Another memorable quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, from Eyes of the Skin. So many concepts to consider here: Our capacity to imagine, remember and inhabit a space; the metropolis of the mind, built from every city we have ever visited; the power of enchantment that is elemental to art; the aura that surrounds a work of art; the interplay of our own emotions and state of mind with (and on) a work; encountering ourselves in what we see.

And not surprisingly, Pallasmaa’s small book functions for me as a work of art, enchanted, possessing its own aura, providing a reflection that allows me to encounter myself. It continuously speaks to me, holds my attention.


Charles Burchfield, Gateway to September


Tanglewood in Winter


Autumnal Fantasy (This painting was not included in the original Hammer exhibit but was available for inclusion in the Whitney show)

How easy it is to think you know an artist’s work. I’ve seen Charles Burchfield paintings all of my life, but now I know that really isn’t the case. I didn’t see or understand his work until I visited the show currently at the Whitney Museum.

Now I can’t stop thinking about Burchfield. I am sending everyone to see the exhibit so we can do the exclamatories in unison. And to think that just a few days ago I had him squirreled away—as have so many others who have crafted a cursory narrative of American art—in the Regionalist catch all art drawer.

Burchfield (1893-1967) is actually category immune. He had no interest in being part of any school and said so. (Peter Schjeldahl at the New Yorker calls him a “one-man movement,” and Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo refers to him as an “American Modernist.”) He is definitely not a Regionalist, that embarrassingly dismissive term that dustbinned his work for years. In many ways he shares an independence that is also evident in several of his contemporaries like Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1886). But unlike those art superstars, Burchfield has remained below the art alert radar for most of us.

What I discovered is that the quiet and unassuming Charles Burchfield, denizen of small towns in Ohio and of Buffalo New York, father of five and a life long partner to his one and only wife Bertha, was a visionary. While his life’s work moves through a number of styles over time, what holds his oeuvre together is his fierce struggle to represent both his perceptions of the outer world as well as those of his private inner terrain. Using watercolors as his preferred medium, Burchfield’s ethereal and “almost abstract but not quite” landscapes feel as if they have been launched from another dimension, one that is multi-sensory, layered and complex.

This exhibit was the idea of Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. When Philbin saw newly purchased drawings by Burchfield at the home of sculptor Robert Gober, Philbin suggested Gober curate a show of Burchfield’s work. Fresh from his successful adventures in curating at the Menil Collection in Houston, Gober turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant candidate. The choices Gober made in this exhibit allow the Burchfieldian vision to unfold slowly and powerfully. (To hear Gober talk about his curatorial experience, here he is as part of the Hammer’s Watch + Listen series.)

Burchfield is the green man in the lagoon who sees things the rest of us miss. He said that he liked to think of himself “in a nondescript swamp, alone, up to my knees in mire, painting the vital beauty I see there, in my own way, not caring a damn about tradition, or anyone’s opinion.” He also said that “an artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.” Another journal entry gives this advice: “Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”

His work is an exemplary example of the kind of art that Roberta Smith doesn’t see enough of these days: “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.” (For more about the Smith Art Taste Test, go here.)

The most moving pieces in the show for me date from two distinct periods in Burchfield’s life. The first is the year that is referred to as his “golden year”, 1917. The work flowed out of him effortlessly, without constraint. The second period is near the end of his life when Burchfield went through a creative crisis. He returned to that earlier period of time and expanded the vision of those powerful works. His later paintings become increasingly illuminating and illuminated. As Gober writes in the show catalog, “The works from this period of Burchfield’s life are immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature and are often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities. In these large, late watercolors, Burchfield was able to execute with grace and beauty many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man…And in so doing, he transformed himself and his practice, producing one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

Making great art until the end of life—that’s another extraordinary quality that Burchfield exemplifies. This passage is from his journal (which he wrote in assiduously most of his life): “How slowly the ‘secrets’ of my art come to me—it seems to me I have been searching all my life for this motif…; when I said this to Bertha, she said, ‘Aren’t you thankful that at 71 new secrets are being revealed to you?’ And I certainly am.”

I love when this happens, when a mad passion comes from something that was right there all along.


Insect Chorus, from his “golden year” of 1917


Landscape with Gray Clouds, one of my favorites of the later works (Photo: DC Moore Gallery)

04028_marc_chagall

Thanks to friend and artist George Wingate for sending me to Jed Perl’s latest essay in The New Republic, “The Spiritual in Art”. Focusing primarily on the works of George Rouault and Marc Chagall (not two of my favorites BTW) Perl brings some salient issues to the fore, raising questions that concern a variety of artistic concerns that are important to me.

Here’s a helpful suggestion for those of you who, like me, have difficulty with the word “religion”: It is more palatable to use some freely applied word substitution, like “transcendence” or “cosmic consciousness” or even the dreaded “spirituality.”

Here are a few excerpts from Perl’s essay:

Chagall and Rouault, more than any other painters, raise the question of the modern artist’s willingness, or ability, to absorb religious experience, or at least some personal experience that is deeply colored by religion. It is a question to which there is no single or simple answer. In Marianne Moore’s contribution to the Partisan Review symposium, she speculated that “one could almost say that each striking literary work is some phase of the desire to resist or affirm ‘religion.'” Perhaps the same can be said for works of art. Moore’s observation is intentionally elliptical, beginning with the speculative “one could almost say” and closing by putting religion in quotation marks. With those quotation marks she is suggesting how vague and broad a word religion is. What do we mean by religion–a form of social observance? a private faith? a philosophy? a set of rules or laws? Religion is all these things to different people in different degrees at different times.

***

If the post-Enlightenment artist has pursued an unconventional relationship with religion, the even more complicating truth is that the more you look at the history of art, the more you can see that there is not, certainly among the great artists, anything like a standard religious view. Leonardo, who created sublime religious works, was by most accounts not an especially pious man. And Michelangelo, who was in his middle and later years a man of deep and fierce piety, can hardly be said to have produced anything like an official religious art, as he saturated even the tragic vision of the Last Judgment in a Hellenistic fascination with physicality that sits strangely with Catholic dogma. Even the artists of the Renaissance had their ways of resisting or affirming religion, to go back to Marianne Moore’s equation.

***

Considering that Rouault and Chagall and so many other avant-garde artists were born in the nineteenth century, when religion dominated European life to a degree we can hardly imagine today, it is not surprising that some of them were tempted to take another look at the old religious art. Yet more than nostalgia was at work. So much of the great art in the Western tradition, so much of the art that the moderns responded to wholeheartedly, was religious art–and this posed a problem for an increasingly secular age. The moderns wanted the old religious intensities without the old religious forms, or so most of them believed. Kandinsky, in 1912 in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, insisted on this shift in the most radical way, arguing that religion, far from being a spiritual realm, was merely a form of materialism, not much different from politics or economics. Religion, in Kandinsky’s thinking, was a matter of externals, while the new art, the new spirituality, was a matter of perfect inwardness, a search for the essence of a man.

Matisse, who Kandinsky believed had taken some of the essential steps toward the new spirituality, observed in one of his later interviews that “all art worthy of the name is religious.” This was in answer to the question, “Do you think … that there is such a thing as religious art?” Matisse, who never spoke glibly, was acknowledging that while art and religion now lived independent lives, they were nevertheless somehow related–that they were parallel directions in which the imagination might move. With Chagall and Rouault–and Matisse in the Vence Chapel and Bonnard in the altarpiece of Saint Francis of Sales in the Church of Assy–the relationship between art and religion becomes dynamic, dialectical. Even when they fail to make this relationship altogether convincing, they carry us to the crux of one of the enigmas of human history, namely how old feelings become new feelings. Are religious spirituality and secular spirituality so very different? That is the question that Rouault asked with such searching eloquence in Miserere, and that Chagall answered with shouts of joy in the Jerusalem Windows.

This subject has had a kind of history that one might call checkered at best. There’s plenty of vitriol and strong disagreement to go around on the topic of how much anyone can assume about the true intentions of an artist. (Including the artist him/herself. While many people have described their experience with Rothko’s paintings as spiritual and his Houston Chapel is one of contemporary art’s most famous places where people are often moved to tears, Rothko himself dismissed any spiritual intention on his part.) Perl acknowledges in his essay that these concerns are constantly morphing in the prevailing cultural context. (He starts his essay with this: “The wheel of fashion, which turned Marc Chagall and Georges Rouault into has-beens a few decades ago, is turning again. These two misunderstood moderns are being taken seriously.”)

My love of the contrary position, and for concepts that have been dismissed but then come back into prominence, makes Perl’s essay provocative on many levels. It goes beyond an evaluation of the current status of Chagall and Rouault has relevant and respected contemporary artists and touches on much deeper concerns.

I found an article in The Independent yesterday that I posted on my filter blog Slow Painting. It has dominated my thinking all day. In a singularly succinct manner, it captures a core set of issues that are at the center of my disaffection with a number of trends in contemporary art. These are some of the same concerns that drove me to start blogging two years ago.

Two imperatives are identified as de rigeur in the high profile world of contemporary art:

Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it’s about.

Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is “about” anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

The article goes on to elaborate this conundrum:

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it’s concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you’re in its grip.

It’s weird how people can’t resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it’s about. And then note how it is isn’t really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself…

That’s the problem with these meanings. They’re not just highly tenuous. They’re depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay “Against Interpretation”.

“Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us.”

This runs in a similar vein with much of what Lawrence Weschler has explored in my still current favorite book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. What Irwin keeps moving in and out of in the interviews included in the book is related to Sontag’s issue of cutting back on content and getting the viewer closer to what is “real.”

I’ve referenced Irwin’s well known response to a Philip Guston painting in an earlier posting here but it is particularly pertinent to this discussion. He describes going to a gallery and seeing a small Guston hanging next to a large James Brooks. The Brooks painting was big in every way—large shapes, with strong color. The Guston, an early piece, was small, painted in the subtle and signatory muted pinks, greys and greens. But in Irwin’s eyes, it outstripped the Brooks completely.

In Irwin’s words:

My discovery was that from one hundred yards away…I looked over, and that goddamn Guston…Now, I’m talking not on quality, and not on any assumption of what you like or don’t like, but on just pure strength, which was one of the things we were into. Strength was a big word in abstract expressionism; you were trying to get power into the painting, so that the painting really vibrated, had life to it. It wasn’t just colored shapes sitting flat. It had to do with getting a real tension going in the thing, something that made the thing really stand up and hum…Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall…

Not on quality, just on power…some people call it “the inner life of the painting,” all that romantic stuff, and I guess that’s a way of talking about it. But shapes on a painting are just shapes on a canvas unless they start acting on each other and really, in a sense, multiplying. A good painting has a gathering, interactive build-up in it. It’s a psychic build-up, but it’s also a pure energy build-up. And the good artists knew it, too. That’s what a good Vermeer has, or a raku cup, or a Stonehenge. And when they’ve got it, they just jump off the goddamn wall. They just, bam!

What Irwin keeps getting at—that power of the painting itself—lives outside the domain of applied and obligatory meaning. It’s Irwin’s memorable phrase that I referenced in an earlier posting—phenomenal presence. As Weschler posts in describing Irwin’s line canvases:

They only work immediately; they command an incredible presence—“a rich floating sense of energy,” as Irwin describes it—but only to one who is in fact present. Back at home, you may remember what it felt like to stand before the painting, the texture of the meditative stance it put you in, but the canvas itself, its image in your mind, will be evanescent. That is why for many years Irwin declined to allow his work to be photographed, because the image of the canvas was precisely what the painting was not about.

This is the deep furrow I want to plow. The contemporary concerns for obligatory meaning and languaged legitimacy melts away for me in the face of full-bodied power. Overlay and artifice? Enough already.

The work of Hiroshi Sugimoto cannot be comprehended without having been experienced in the flesh. Every artist believes this about their work, but in some circumstances it goes beyond optimal and moves into the imperative. So it is with Sugimoto’s photographs. (I have included this reproduction as an indicator but not the thing itself.)

The first time I saw one of Sugimoto’s photographs, I couldn’t move. I just stood there in front of that large scale seascape and basked. After 30 minutes of Sugimoto, there was nothing else in the museum that could penetrate my perceptions. He had filled up every receptive cell in my body with that one image, so I just had to sit down and be with a presence that was quiet and yet very powerful.

As described by David Ian Miller:

Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon. Sugimoto works on vast projects, each concerned with photographing the essence of time. He coined the phrase “Time Exposed” to describe his work. In his most famous project he photographs film theatres over the course of a movie, the screens turn brilliant white and illuminate the theatre. With his Seascape series he photographs the eternal sea, each frame bisected by the horizon.

His technique is also worthy of consideration, given the powerful results he is able to create:

These pictures have been taken with a technical view camera that shoots huge 8-by-10-inch negatives. It’s the kind of camera that consists of a long bellows, with a tea-saucer lens attached at one end and a ground-glass viewing screen at the other — in use, it looks like an accordion perched on a tripod — and that asks the photographer to stoop under a black cloth to look through it. It produces an ultra-precise, highly resolved image of whatever has been set before the lens, as though the photographer’s dedication to truth-telling won’t tolerate the missing of a single hair or speck of lint. It’s the kind of camera that produces a stunning “reality effect” — an overwhelming sense, even in black and white, that the world must be just the way the picture makes it look. Blake Gopnik

The spiritual dimension to his work is elemental to its presence. In an interview with Miller, Sugimoto had a few modest comments:

Miller: You wrote that artistic endeavors are “mere approximations, efforts to render visible unseen realms.” What did you mean by that?

Sugimoto:Well, this is one of the purposes of art itself. Science tries to understand nature in a logical sense, but there are many, many natural phenomena that cannot be explained by logic and science.

Historically, religion served this purpose. But now, we are getting into the 21st century and the power of religion is fading. People still need another way to understand the world besides logic — and we’re turning to art and spirituality to help us understand our environment and the world.

M: Is there a spiritual dimension to your photography?

S: If so, it is whatever the viewer feels looking at my work. I’m not purposely trying to make it spiritually strong. I’m just practicing my art. If people see it as a spiritual, I’m glad to accept it. But I’m not particularly promoting a spirituality of any kind.

Spirituality is a particular characteristic of the human being that no other animals have. I’m just trying to investigate where this comes from. In that process I sometimes stir up ancient memories and spirits, and maybe people who see my art respond to that.

Yesterday I received an email from a new poet friend, Martin Dickinson. He has written a remarkable ekphrasic poem, “Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan,” which was published in California Quarterly in 2007. He sent it with me along with some insightful words about Sugimoto’s work. I share both with you here.

I find it so amazing that he takes these time lapse photos of films–and all that we see is an incredible burst of white light coming at us. It looks unreal—but of course, on another level that IS reality, we just don’t usually look that way or see that way. Similarly with Sugimoto’s ocean series: superficially every single one of those photos is the same—shot at the same exact angle to the surface of the water and same exact distance above the surface. We see no earth at all, but just the surface of the water. As you look more deeply into these photos you begin to see remarkable and engrossing detail. Every single photo is unique and very unusual.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Sea of Japan

Hiroshi, wave after wave after wave
of endless blue, or rather, endless
black—or is it endless gray?

This is your language.
Dusty parts of the planet are worthless
except as places to plant your tripod—
pedestal for the all-seeing eye,
vantage toward this world
that pulses like a beating heart,
image of the thing becoming the thing,
then ebbing back to its image again,
heard like the slap of water against a pier,
tongued like the taste of salt,
felt like a slosh in the gut.

This instant that’s entered your lens,
ray relating from your retina to mine,
our thoughts electrons, chemicals really.
Is all the world ocean
or silver dots on gelatin, or both?

Truth is beams of light,
and you’ve seen it, alright.
Everything that is is motionless
everything that is is flow
wave after wave after wave, Hiroshi.

–Martin Dickinson

Maybe it is because Harvard has planetary status in the Boston/Cambridge area, but it seems everyone is still talking about J. K. Rowling’s commencement address last week. Her topic–“The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” is delicious just in its titular power. But the speech (which you can read or watch at Harvard Magazine) has lots of wisdom to offer even if failure and Harvard are hard for some people to place in the same sentence.

Of course some of the graduates took umbrage at the choice of having the author of a series of children’s books as the keynote at a school that, according to some students interviewed on NPR, was used to hearing from the intellectually gifted and powerful, like Madeleine Albright. (We won’t even go there, not now anyway.) But most people I know who heard her were moved by her message.

I’m excerpting a few paragraphs about failure. I’ll highlight her second theme, imagination, in tomorrow’s post.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.