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Lawrence Rinder (Photo by Ben Blackwell)

I was introduced to the writing of Lawrence Rinder through his very unexpected and engaging introduction to the book Tantra Song (and written about previously on Slow Muse here and here.) Although he comes to art writing with serious credentials (he was the curator for the 2002 Whitney Biennial), Rinder’s approach to writing about art is (in my view) a perfect blend: He is globally informed but also willing to take it into the personal; idea- and context-rich in his assessments while leaving room for that which can’t be nailed down or figured out; articulate and persuasive in his writing but also refreshingly self effacing. I immediately felt at home in his view of things. So as is my nature, I am now going through the rest of his books and writings. The enjoyment continues.

Art Life: Selected Writings 1991-2005 includes 18 essays on topics ranging from Samuel Mockbee, the heroic founder and visionary of The Rural Studio, to Luc Tuymans, Louise Bourgeois and Sophie Calle. Every one is worth the read.

Rinder is currently Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a place that played a major role in my early years as an artist growing up in the Bay Area.

Here’s a few highlights to tickle your fancy just in case Rinder’s work is unfamiliar to you:

I have no idea what art is. I can’t think of a less specific term in our language (except, possibly, that often-used and essentially meaningless word “modern”). Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about art is that it describes a zone of permission.

I recently met a well-traveled artist who spoke earnestly of the “one true art world,” a word consisting, he said, of the constellation of newly emergent international biennials within which neo-conceptualism is the contemporary lingua franca. How depressing. After struggling so hard to liberate ourselves from the constructions of the Greenbergian canon we run like sheep into a brand new pen. It is enervating to witness the rush of young artists generating globally-informed, media-savvy, interdisciplinary works that ultimately speak to no one but curators and academics.

Much of Minimalism…is boring to read about, but the experience of it can be great. In space, it acts. It’s crucial to appreciate this acting, this work that the art is doing.

In my professional practice, I have found that it is indeed much more pleasant, and useful, to wonder than to know.

A peculiarity of our time is that while few would claim to know what is going on, even fewer would part with their beliefs. In days past, a worldview that consisted solely of beliefs and little knowledge would have been considered a perilously fragile edifice. Today, it suffices. A world of belief without knowledge comes into being in the absence of doubt. Actually, it’s not that we have stopped doubting; we’ve just stopped caring.

It is surely a unique feature of our aimless age that we fully accept the utility of asking questions without any hope of receiving a reply.

What has made my work in the arts continually exciting and challenging and—I hope—useful, is that I have avoided resting on a comfortable bed of knowledge and instead have followed my heart to richer, if more ambiguous and challenging, territories. If, as Einstein noted, our world of definitions and propositions rests on shaky ground, this should hardly be cause for despair. Rather, it can be an invitation to a life of limitless wonders.

Lights at a roadside shrine

In his introduction to Tantra Song (written about previously here) Lawrence Rinder invites us into the world of Tantric images by describing how he feels when he is out in the countryside, looking at the trees and the stars:

I have little idea what I am looking at, even though I might be able to give it a name, or perhaps recall some principle of nature that has made it as it is. What I see is color, texture, shape. I see energy, evidence of change, and the transforming powers of life and death.

He goes on to draw an analogy to the experience of looking at mystical images such as those contained in Tantra Song:

Franck André Jamme’s collection of Tantric images affects me in a similar way. Just little scraps of paper really with barely a mark upon them. Simple. Anonymous. Repetitive. But utterly riveting. I can’t begin to say what these images are. I know virtually nothing about the tradition from which they spring…In these divine images, I find an echo of art.

It helps that I have a very broad definition of art…Maybe art isn’t quite the right word: let’s call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be.

Rinder’s response to Franck André Jamme‘s collection of sacred Tantric images parallels my own response to those exquisite forms. It also played out for me again during my weeks visiting living Hindu temples in southern India.

Much has been written to denigrate the dark side of our Western proclivity to be idea tourists, shopping for concepts and tokens inappropriately stripped of their sacred cultural context. But there is a significant distinction between insensitive, sacreligious appropriation and the open mind/open heart position that Rinder describes. His words have helped me find a place of integrity to stand as I encountered these deeply moving rituals and celebrations. And even though I am not an expert on Hindu thought and will always be an observer looking in from the outside, I feel the connection to the “transforming powers of life and death” that are played out every day in these ancient shrines.

Inside the temple at Madurai

Chanting in the ancient temples of Hampi

Offerings of coconuts and flowers, ready for the pilgrims at Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Jain priest at the foot of the immense statue of Lord Gommateshwara

Hindu variation on milagros

Temple entrance, Madurai

Altar at Madurai

Nandi in the Shiva temple at Madurai

Generally inclusive, Hindus have their limits too

Puja procession at Madurai

Putting the gods to bed…Madurai

Temple elephant at Thanjavur: A coin offering gives you a gentle tap on the top of the head

Sacred lingam at Thanjavur

Brahmin family’s prostrate offering at Kanchipuram

Gods adorned, a sign of being cared for

Pilgrims in Chidambaram, a part of life

Wise men in the digital age

Ornamenting the tree

Offering to Nandi, in Kanchipuram

Reader at Sri Kanchi Kamakshi temple