Monday, February 22, 2010
They let me out of my cell at the Bushwick Monastery last week, so I high-tailed it down to Miami. Major fun was had, which just goes to show that, with a little sunshine and chardonnay, even a neurotic nun can cut loose for a few days. Gad, what a good time. I'm still shaking the sand out of my habit.
But now I'm back in my cell and singin' the blues, albeit a cheerier version. Spent the better part of yesterday working on Castle (please see above; detail of work in progress). This is my newest text, long and drear (that St. Teresa, man - she was a talker!), so it's no surprise that today my joints are in traction. The pain found a mountain pass through the knuckles, and is now encamped in the elbow, where it's been for forty days and forty nights. No fun at all, and exacerbated by the reminder that a few days ago I was livin' large in Miami.
As I've mentioned before, I'm interested in piling up the text in my drawings, as I like the interesting shapes and shadows that emerge when the pieces take on dimension, as can be seen here and there in my recent works. Simply put, I find it visually pleasing, and my work is first and foremost about creating interesting visual works. The conceptual underpinning is important only insofar as it keeps me hooked into the process; it takes a back seat when it comes to the finished product. As I've said before, I'm an artist, not a crusader.
This piling up of the text creates some new and interesting shifts for me in regard to my work. In my older pieces, one could read the entire text from start to finish, assuming that one wanted to, of course. It would be a tiresome task, but I suppose there are those who have nothing better to do. But these newer texts don't offer the same opportunity, since the letters are stacked on top of each other. In Castle, one is quickly lost in the fortress, and even I have trouble detecting where a sentence leaves off and then picks up again. With only scraps of writing to feed on, it's a given that the viewer will give up on reading the text, which is partially the point. My work isn't about the text, or the passage, or the holy book from which it was taken. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's about negating the passage–bypassing it, if you will–and moving instead to the faith that it embodies. The passage that I create, as well as the book from which I cut the letters, are negated in their particulars, and point instead to the faith underlying both texts. Why mess around with the middleman, right? Better to go straight to the Source, which is what all spiritual traditions are pointing toward. (Sorta like my tendonitis, which bypassed my knuckles in order to get right down to business in my elbow).
So conceptually, this really works for me. I discourage anyone from taking my work literally by making it impossible to read. And I create blobbish piles of letters that are visually intriguing at worst; orgasmically seductive at best. But that's not the end of it; the WAY cool part about my new exploration with text is that the work becomes process-oriented. The only one who knows (or possibly cares) that the entire passage is there is Yours Truly. Yep, every jot and tittle is cut with an x-acto blade and glued to the paper, and even though the sentences that make up Castle skip from tower to turret, it's all done methodically and meditatively. Why bother, you ask? Indeed, I wondered the same as I reached for the Advil this morning. It has to do with moving beyond. Beyond particulars, beyond beliefs, beyond spiritual grasping, to discover what's at the root of it all. Which is reminiscent of the last verse of the Heart Sutra:
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhisvaha.
(Gone, gone, gone beyond; gone all the way to enlightenment).
So I'll continue to construct my Textcastle, and hopefully have the drawbridge installed by week's end. It's kind of sick. I miss Miami.
Above: WORK IN PROGRESS (detail).
Castle: 'Interior Castle' by St. Teresa of Avila (from the Seventh Mansion), from 'Mysterium Coniunctius' by Carl Jung.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
I'm slowly making my way through Osho's 'The Book of Secrets'. It was recommended to me, and now I'm recommending it to you. Since it's a big book–two inches thick–I can't take it with me when I go anywhere, thus the slow read. But it's just as well, because it's the kind of book where you need to read a chapter, then spend a week thinking about it.
It's a commentary on the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, which I spent last summer working on; you can see it here if you like. Now, I don't know how you feel about Osho. A lot of people have problems with the guy because of his penchant for Rolls Royces and sex. He's Rajneesh, you know; one and the same. Or rather, he was; he died in 1990. Rajneesh got a bad rap, for sure. But we do him and ourselves a disservice if we dismiss him wholesale, because the guy's brilliant. His oratorial style of writing is a bit tedious–the book could easily have been one inch instead of two. So brevity isn't one of his gifts, but he has an amazing ability to penetrate the often difficult writings of Eastern mysticism and make them comprehensible to a Western audience. If you haven't read any of his many books, I highly recommend that you pick one up.
But back to 'The Book of Secrets'. In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, Shiva in the form of Bhairava presents to his wife, Bhairavi, 112 methods for attaining enlightenment. The VBT is written in the form of a conversation, from which we are to greatly benefit if we apply these practices. Not all 112, mind you; that's not necessary. The point is that of these 100+ methods, we ought to be able to find a couple that resonate with us to bring us closer to God, or Consciousness. To be more specific, the methods will dissolve the mental hurdles which prevent us from seeing that we already are pure Consciousness. As Osho points out, we set the hurdles in place that slow down our Self-realization, and it's up to us to remove the hurdles so that we can awaken more quickly. The 'Book of Secrets' contains 112 hurdle-removers, also known as sutras.
Of the 112 sutras, I've found at least one that's pretty effective. It's kind of amazing, actually, because I'm generally pretty skeptical of these things. So here 'tis, my recommended sutra, which is breath-based and breathtaking:
When in worldly activity, keep attention between two breaths, and so practicing, in a few days be born anew.
Osho expounds upon this as follows: between inhalation and exhalation, there's a brief pause where the breath turns. Place your focus on that gap. It's not as easy as it sounds, but if you sit and do it for a while, you'll get it. It may take a few sittings, but once you feel fairly comfortable with it, take that into your daily life. Whatever you're doing, keep bringing your attention back to these two brief moments in your breathing cycle–the pause at the top of the breath, and the pause at the bottom of the breath.
The effect of this sutra is startling. You very quickly become aware that there are two levels of existence: that which is happening outside of you (the 'doing'), and that which simply is (the 'being'). Osho explains that as you become aware of the difference between the outer doing and the inner being, you'll begin to feel like you're watching a movie in which you're an actor. And when you perceive the outer activity as an ongoing drama, it begins to lose its allure, and there is less grasping. You begin to identify with the inner being.
My experience with this breathing technique is that I become hyper-aware of a Presence that is not "me". This Presence is located inside the breath, as it were; it is breathing me. Which brings to mind the following Kabir verse:
O servant, where do you seek me?
Listen, I am beside you, I am not in the temple or mosque.
I am neither in Kaaba nor Kailash.
Neither am I in rites or ceremonies, nor in yoga and renunciation.
If you are a true seeker you shall see me at once,
You will find me in the secret place within.
Kabir says, tell me, what is God? He is the breath within the breath.
So when I pay attention to the pause between breaths, I begin to watch my daily activity through the eyes and breaths of a removed observer. Which is another way of saying that it's like watching a movie, but it's more intimate than that. It's a movie that I wrote, produced, directed, starred in, and am now watching. (Hey! Sounds like a Kevin Costner film).
But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. If a God and a guru (Bhairava and Osho, respectively) recommend a technique, it's probably a good one. And if that one doesn't work, well, there are 111 others to try.
Above: Sleeping Nude, pencil drawing, c. 2000
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The other day I came across Patti Smith's first album, and I was struck by how much she looked like a Bronzino portrait. That cool, contained demeanor of someone who is either aristocracy or, if not, should be. I'm not sure if I'm a Patti Smith fan or not; I'll get back to you on that. But she's definitely got that post-Renaissance thing goin' on.
So, Bronzino. A nice show of his drawings at the Met. A lot of people don't like the Mannerists, but I've always had a thing for them. Pontormo was my favorite; he was Bronzino's teacher. The Mannerist sensibility shows in the eccentric abstractions of the human form: overlong necks, impossible contortions, and idealized portraits so brittle that they look more like masks than mugs.
The Mannerist period officially began with the death of Raphael in 1520, and lasted about sixty years. It came on the heels of the High Renaissance, when Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo perfected the human form in painting and sculpture. How do you follow that? How would you like to be an artist in the generation following Leonardo? The problem with perfection is that in its wake, there's nowhere to go but downhill. So the artists who worked in this period became very self-conscious, something that the good ol' boys of the High Renaissance were decidedly not. The new generation of artists played with perfection, mocked it in a sense, and thereby planted the seeds of Modernism.
I totally get why they did this. The thing about perfection is that it gets boring. Even God, or Consciousness, gets bored with unity. Bliss can get pretty monotonous, and I'd imagine that anyone who's spent half an eternity in ecstasy could use a break. Michelangelo himself is the best example of overripe perfection, as his paintings became increasingly self-conscious and distorted toward the end of his long life (he lived until 1564, and some consider him the first Mannerist). So Pontormo, Bronzino, Parmigianino, et al had to choose between cranking out more perfection, or playing with it and stylizing their portraits. Thus the freakish elongations, technicolor lighting, and Botox-infused faces that permeate their paintings. What a blast they must have had! It's like they were trying to see how much they could get away with by mocking both their predecessors and patrons.
But it all ended pretty quickly, because art about art is interesting only if you're an artist. The mannered, mind-numbing intellectualism of the contemporary art scene is evidence enough that Art is at its best when it alludes to something other than itself. Without anything to support their vision other than the egos of their wealthy patrons, the Mannerists went to seed. And as fate would have it, the next crop of artists were profoundly talented and stunningly bold, thus the Mannerists were filed away as a long footnote in the history of art, only to be appreciated by art history sluts and Arnold Hauser*. (Let's hope that the parallel between Mannerism and the contemporary Post-Post-Modernist art scene is limited in its scope; none of us likes to think that we're footnotes in the making).
The style that supplanted the Mannerists is referred to as the Baroque, and the early major player was Caravaggio. Gad - poor Bronzino. Sandwiched between Michelangelo and Caravaggio? It's a wonder that he had the balls to pick up a brush. Anyway, I'm glad that he's getting some attention now, as he really was a good artist. The brief period of Mannerism is an interesting study of what happens when humankind reaches a zenith, and then has to negotiate the inevitable decay that follows.
* Hauser wrote THE book on Mannerism, called, curiously enough, Mannerism, Highly recommended, especially if you don't have a TV.
Above: Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1550.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
It used to be easy when someone would ask me what my spiritual path was. I'd tell them I was a Christian, they'd nod, and that would be the end of it. But I'm no longer a Christian, nor am I attached to any familiar-sounding spiritual tradition. So when I say "I'm an advaitan" it's a little awkward, because I can tell by the blank stare that they don't know what that means, but are afraid to ask, lest I launch into a sleep inducing explanation.
The thing about advaita vedanta is that there's really no big central idea that one must attach to in order to join the ranks. In fact, it's quite the opposite; there is a distinct detaching that happens, as we let go of the mountains of material that have been lodged in the mind. The number one difference from most world religions is that advaita is not a belief; it's an experience. Beliefs are mind distortions. In the religious realm, beliefs separate and divide, which is readily seen in any particular faith. Just because two people believe in Christ as their Savior is no guarantee that they'll see eye to eye. In fact, they may just kill each other before they can agree on anything. It's kind of amazing, when you think about it.
Beliefs are pretty heavy, and I find it's best to give wide berth to anything that's entrenched in a person's head, religious or otherwise. But experience is another matter. The highly subjective nature of spiritual experience renders it difficult to discuss in pragmatic terms. This can be a drawback, of course. But there's a common experience among spiritual practitioners of every persuasion, and that is the feeling of unity. Not only with those who share the same beliefs, but with all of humanity, no matter their history or caste. There seems to be a depth of spirit that, once reached, lifts the veil of separation and reveals that we are indeed all one. They're merely fine words until that moment of realization is reached and the experience is had.
Advaita vedanta takes it further than that. If you continue down the path toward unity, and continue to remove the veils of separation, you discover - again, experientially - that no separation exists anywhere. It's all connected. The Upanishads (from which advaita is derived) refer to this great big undivided reality as Brahman. I generally try to avoid using that term, since it's based in Hinduism, and that's not where I'm coming from. Instead, it can be expressed as 'awareness' or 'consciousness'. So this consciousness is the same, whether it's in me or it's in you. It's the underlying reality that exists in everything, and all that we see in the world, including ourselves, is illusory. Essentially, all is consciousness, period. When we recognize this, and when the veil finally lifts high enough that we experience it on the big screen, we awaken to our true nature.
Try explaining that in a 30-second sound bite. It's not a great conversation to have at a party, or anywhere else, for that matter. The experiential element is what makes it difficult; how can one be persuasive when the experience is key? Fortunately, I haven't the need to persuade anyone, as I don't particularly care so much what anyone's spiritual beliefs are. But I'd like to at least present my spiritual path in such a way that I don't appear to be a quack. Thus far I haven't succeeded.
So I don't know - sometimes I think it's best to just say that I believe in unity, since any further elaboration only creates duality. A bit ironic, don't you think?
Above: Vajrayogini Mandala, Tibet; 18th century
Monday, February 1, 2010
The other night I was out with a guy friend, and made the mistake of mentioning that I was looking forward to going home, getting into my jammies, grabbing a box of Kleenex, and watching the tail end of Jane Eyre. I was ruthlessly ribbed and ridiculed, and immediately regretted my candor. Jeez, you'd have thought my last name was Bronte, the way he went on.
TIP: Never tell a macho guy with a few beers in him that you're way into period-piece chick flicks, unless you're up for a barrage of cynical banter.
My friend the Marlboro Man basically tore Jane apart from limb to limb, and his parting shot was that it's no wonder that men don't understand women. He simply couldn't comprehend why we like to watch these sappy, irrelevant romances and get all worked up and teary-eyed. What's not to get?? How complicated can it be? We gals like a good cry. In fact, I suggested that it might be beneficial if guys could indulge in the same every now and again, although the source might have to change. I can't see any man I know bawling over Jane Eyre, but there must be some snot-producing equivalent that would induce tears in a male. A Nascar romance? Or maybe eliminate the romance altogether and make it a Nascar horror flick? What kind of film would make a guy cry, anyway? Suggestions appreciated.
See, I think a big part of the world's problems is that men don't cry enough. If George Bush and Dick Cheney had gotten together once a month to have a good slobberfest, the world would be in a different place. I'll bet we'd never have gone to Iraq. I was a Hillary gal, not because she's a woman, and not because she's utterly brilliant, but because she can cry. The ability to indulge in serious eye leakage from time to time should be a prerequisite in running for any political office. The candidates should be required to watch the following, with a film crew getting close-ups of their tear ducts:
(If you're a chick, definitely grab some Kleenex, and make sure you're wearing waterproof mascara).
No cheating, men. You have to watch the whole thing, or you'll miss the point.
Done? How'd you like the soundtrack, btw? I have it on my iPod. Okay, now if you have boobs, you're a snotty mess, and you need to go fix yourself up a bit. If you have a penis, and if you managed to stay awake for the last five minutes, you're feeling squeamish and mumbling macho nonsense. That's fine - I'd worry if you'd actually enjoyed it. We gals don't want you to turn into saps; we just want you to understand something. Pay attention here. Men are supposed to be strong and macho; we like that. But we know also know that you have a soft spot hidden away somewhere, and we like to find it. See, everyone has a soft spot, but men are taught to hide theirs, and it's up to us gals to find it. The harder it is to find, the more we want to be the one to uncover it. Got it? Any questions? Good. We understand each other.
So please, all macho dudes, don't change, and don't start slobbering with us over these sappy movies. We know they suck; you don't have to tell us. You don't even need to watch them with us. But now you know why we love them, right? We love to see someone like Jane, an innocent who has nothing but her massive intelligence and integrity, find the soft spot in Rochester, a cynical bastard if there ever was one, and slowly reel him in. You go, gurl!
Btw, I realize that this post has nothing to do with either art or advaita. Sorry. I'll try to make up for it next time.
Above: A saccharin scene from Masterpieces Theatre's 'Jane Eyre', starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson. The hardest part to digest was the casting of Toby Stephens as Rochester. He's supposed to be homely and revolting! Jane's supposed to take pity on him and love him in spite of his brutish appearance! So why the hell did they cast a total stud muffin for the part?