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Monologue of Ice, 24 Hours, by Atta Kim

This is a follow on to my earlier post about Grain of Emptiness at the Rubin Museum, a show that features works by artists who have been influenced and inspired by Buddhism.

From the catalog introduction by Mary Jane Jacob:

To make the most of experience and have it be transformative in positive ways, we need to cultivate presence of mind. The presence of mind….not only erupts in the conception of an idea for a work of art but also…is sustained throughout the act of making. The very act of doing cultivates the mind, and not “on some kind of theoretical level”…thus, the process of making is the art as well as the final result, the experience of doing is part of the whole: means and end are one flowing together…

So there is the need on the part of these artists to get the most out of the doing, the fullest experience. This phenomenon is achieved when “your interior and your exterior meet”…then the mind-in-making, being full present in the experience of the process, gives to the work of art its presence, too. It is this quality that draws us into a work that first was a revelation for the artist as it emerged from a process of creative inquiry. At that point the work of art “has its own energy”; “those are the real power objects.”

Wolgang Laib and Milkstone

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is like the pocket-sized Shinto shrines that can be found all over Tokyo—an oasis of calm in a complicated and complexifying urban landscape. I have been a member since it opened in 2004 and spend time there on almost every trip to New York.

The current exhibit, Grain of Emptiness, features contemporary artists who have been impacted by concepts that we equate with Buddhism such as the void, the fleeting nature of life, the power of ritual. The works by these artists—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—are quiet, navigating that space between maker and viewer with dignity and mutual respect. The work ranges from installation to video to painting. An accompanying lecture series that happened over the fall and winter was reason to make me wish I lived in New York City again. The speakers included several from my list of favorites—Bill Viola, Wolgang Laib, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Patsy Rodenburg, Charles Renfro, among others.

Laib’s work has been one I have followed for a long time, and his installations of plates of rice and marble stones that are topped off with milk always move me to some place still in me. The images by Atta Kim are extraordinary as well.

Is it possible to describe what these works have in common or are trying to achieve? Hard to do. Apropos to the exhibit is a passage from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra):

Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form:
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form.

And from the catalog preface by Martin Brauen:

Although, or just because, emptiness is such a central idea in Buddhism, approaching this Buddhist principle is hard for several reasons: first, because emptiness evades definition, it resists description or analysis. Emptiness is beyond conceptuality. It is nonconceptuality par excellence. Second, in the West emptiness tends to be equated with nothingness, a way of interpretation that can scarcely stand up to more precise examination but is nevertheless widespread. And third, even within Buddhism emptiness is a concept that is discussed and described in a variety of ways, which makes clarification more difficult.

One of my favorite phrases is from Wolgang Laib: “The ephemeral is eternal.”

So in the spirit of that ekphrastic urge to use poetry to describe art, here’s Alice Fulton’s contribution to the mystery.

Mahamudra Elegy

Then emptiness grew more empty,
the scent of scentlessness.
How could it be?
When emptiness is that which can’t be

emptied any more, neither malicious nor
a state that welcomes us
with munificent alohas.
I fingered it like an incision, fondled it

like a rosary of thorns, thinking
if every instant holds
the maximum abridged, tranquillity must be
somewhere in the mix. So concentrate.

A live volcano is the recommended site
for certain meditations. Think time
exists because a dropped glass
breaks and here we are existing,

witnessing the ornaments,
decorative yet dear. Mundanities
that dazzling seem extruded by a star.
Stellifactions. Mahamudra.

Words to conjure with. The great
seal, great gesture, the mahamudra
holds snowflakes to their certitudes of lace.
While fire thinks fire

is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks: its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.

–Alice Fulton

This poem appeared in the Atlantic and came to me by way of Carl Belz.

Mandala, a symbol of enduring mystery (Rubin Museum of Art)

A few months ago New Directions came out with a reissue of Jorge Luis Borges’ Seven Nights. Based on a lecture series Borges delivered in Buenos Aires in 1977, the book is full of the themes that will feel familiar to anyone who has read the work of this brilliant writer and towering cultural figure—Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Kabbalah, nightmares, the Thousand and One Nights.

I am still mid-book, so I am sure there will be more to share later on. But for now, here are two passages that struck something in me:

We must reach the understanding that the world is an apparition, a dream; that life is a dream. But we must feel this deeply. In the Buddhist monasteries, the neophyte must live every moment of his life experiencing it fully. He must think: “Now it is noon; now I am crossing the patio; now I will meet the superior.” And at the same time he must think that the noon, the patio, and the superior are unreal, that they are as unreal as he and his thoughts.

One of the great delusions is the I. There is no subject; what exists is a series of mental states. If I say “I think,” I am committing an error, because I am assuming a fixed subject and then an act of that subject, which is thought. It is not so. One should say, not “I think,” but rather “it is thought,” as one says “it is raining.” When we say “it is raining,” we do not think that the rain is performing an act but rather that something is happening. In the same way that we say “it’s hot,” “it’s cold,” we should also say “it’s thinking,” “it’s suffering,” and avoid the subject.

We may draw two conclusions, at least tonight; later we can change our minds. The first is that dreams are an aesthetic work, perhaps the most ancient aesthetic expression. They take a strangely dramatic form. We are the theater, the spectators, the actors, the story. The second refers to the horror of nightmares. Our waking life abounds in terrible moments: we all know that there are moments in which reality overwhelms us. The nightmare has a particular horror, and that horror may be expressed in any story.

Well, what if nightmares were strictly supernatural? What if nightmares were cries from hell? What if nightmares literally took place in hell? Why not? Everything is so strange that even this is possible.

Whatever you may be, you are being ‘lived’. You are not travelling, as you think: you are being ‘travelled’.

Remember: you are in a train. Stop trying to carry your baggage yourself! It will come along with you anyhow.

– Wei Wu Wei, from Open Secret

One of the best things about being online IMHO is the deep network of blog offerings of what I refer to as the “wisdom tradition”. A great place to start is Whiskey River. That’s where I ran into Lacuna Moon who in turn provided me with this nugget of simplicity and expedience.