Friday, September 30, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Finding Unicorns

"9 Unicorns"
Individual vintage bible pages

Large, juried shows are usually confused affairs. "Proof," the latest rendition of Southern Exposure's annual "entry-fee free juried exhibition of Northern California artists," is no exception. Of the 47 artworks (by as many artists), 5 pieces stand out: Kelly Falzone Inouye's "Tagging Sequence 1"; Robert Larkin's "Original Art"; Summer Mei Ling Lee's "Les preuves fatiguent la verite"; Kate Nartker's "West Main 1984"; and Someguy's "9 Unicorns."

"9 Unicorns," in particular, provided much to mull over. Someguy displays 9 pages from vintage Bibles; on each of these, all text except for the page heading and the word "unicorn" is blacked out. On his website, the artist states, "it's not commonly known, but the Bible mentions unicorns 9 times." I suspect that Someguy intends his handsomely presented editing job as a winking critique of religious literalism. By highlighting the occurrence of the word, the artist reminds viewers that mythological creatures populate the tome that literalists insist is non-fiction and most U.S. president-elects place their hands upon when they're sworn into office. Little girls notwithstanding, most of us are informed and sensible enough to dismiss unicorns as harmless hokum. Why, then, doesn't an overwhelming majority also view the Abrahamic narrative as an epic myth (i.e., fiction)?

Religious apologists point out that the Hebrew Bible makes no mention of unicorns. Instead, readers will find an ox, auroch, rhinoceros, or bison, depending on the edition. These more mundane creatures are indicated by the ancient Hebrew term re'em. The word was first translated as "unicorn" by the Greeks who, between 250 BCE and 100 CE, crafted the immensely important Septuagint, bringing the Hebrew scriptures to the Western world. Still, lest we too hastily ascribe an elevated rationality to the Jews of antiquity, scholars believe that re'em was not meant to describe an ordinary animal. The oral traditions of the Israelites and early Jews spoke of a powerful, monstrous auroch, a creature of gargantuan proportion, large enough to be mistaken for a mountain. Because they were unfamiliar with this monster bull, it's only sensible that the Greek translators and editors of the Septuagint substituted another fanciful creature, one better known to their audience; enter the unicorn.

Point being, the Bible, no matter the translation, is chock-a-block with fantasy. Most epic stories (and especially those with the staying power to warrant inclusion in a sacred narrative) are tall tales. Fictional or exaggerated narrative often pushes reality out of popular memory. The rhinoceros becomes a unicorn and the large crocodile becomes a dragon in the same way that the angler's fish grows through successive tellings; generations after the big mackerel was caught, it's Leviathan. But knowing how unicorns came to appear in some translations of the Bible doesn't justify easy dismissal of the sacred canon. Even for secular culture, the ancient stories are the closest approximation of universal myths, and they have much to offer readers with a critical bent -- much more, in fact, than they afford literalists.

Detail of "9 Unicorns"
Individual vintage bible pages

But "9 Unicorns" isn't just about the relationship between religious texts and fairy tales; it's also a critique of our postmodern malady. Today, technology and globalization expose us to a heretofore unprecedented quantity of information. As a result, it's progressively more difficult to wrest fact from fiction. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan quipped, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts." Disappointingly, most of us reject Moynihan's gospel, instead opting to go at our texts with a Sharpie, making of them whatever we wish. This willful shirking of intellectual responsibility is amply on display in the fractious debate about the meaning of the United States Constitution and the legacy of our "founding fathers." Benjamin Franklin, one of those very prophets, smartly observed, "so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Someguy's "9 Unicorns" evidences our species' taste for selective reading, subjective "truths," and rationalizations. Ever more interconnected, such an unhealthy disposition can become dangerous. Someguy's piece is a visual fable of sorts, cautioning us to master our appetites.

Detail of "9 Unicorns"
Individual vintage bible pages

Image credits: all someguy images, courtesy the artist

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Acknowledging Exceptionality

"As glass office and condominium towers have proliferated in the last decade, so, too, have calls to make them less deadly to birds. The San Francisco Planning Commission adopted bird-safety standards for new buildings in July, and this month that city’s Board of Supervisors will vote on making it law. Legislation is pending in Washington that would require many federal buildings to incorporate bird-friendly designs. The United States Green Building Council, a nonprofit industry group that encourages the creation of environmentally conscious buildings, will introduce a bird-safety credit this fall as part of its environmental certification process, called LEED."
- "A City of Glass Towers, and a Hazard for Migratory Birds," New York Times, September 14, 2011
I enjoyed reading "A City of Glass Towers, and a Hazard for Migratory Birds," a recent New York Times article about bird-building collision mortality. Lisa Foderaro's piece is a hopeful account of how a confluence of activism, technology, and regulation can improve the lot of animals, especially in cases where a particular species has been adversely affected by human development.

The comments that follow the article, however, are predominated by doom-and-gloom attitudes. A representative survey follows:
All that matters are people and every little whim. We're a doomed species.
-Karma Every Moment, NY, NY

The people who tell us that evolution and climate change are just unproved theories have no idea how life formed this planet since its inception and no understanding whatsoever of the role of extinction in maintaining the climate within habitable bounds when any one plant or animal breaks the equilibrium. They convinced me long ago that there is no future for my own children.
-Steve Bolger, NY, NY

Yet another example of the consequences of man's selfish and destructive behavior. So sad.
-agetibi, Carrboro, NC
No wonder over 50% of Americans polled by The Nature Conservancy caricatured environmentalists as preachy reactionaries. In the words of the Conservancy's Chief Scientist, Peter Kareiva, most people see members of the environmental movement as "misanthropic, anti-technology, anti-growth, dogmatic, purist, zealous, exclusive pastoralists." Unsurprisingly, this negative stereotype has led to a dwindling of the movement's ranks.

I consider myself an environmentalist, but I distinguish between preservation and conservation (placing myself in the latter camp) and, more critically, I believe that environmentalism needs to embrace a "can do" attitude. If the majority of my fellow Times readers identify as environmentalists, their comments suggest that they're a well-intentioned pox. Wholesale condemnation of our species is as wrongheaded and malignant as exclusive glorification. In order to decry humanity as a "selfish and destructive" brute, one must stubbornly overlook all the evidence to the contrary. I wrote about such oversight in an essay included in the catalog for "A Live Animal," a group show that Selene Foster and I co-curated at Root Division.
"Although 'deep ecologists' and animal rights activists bemoan conservation approaches that prioritize human interests, the fact remains that human beings are exceptional animals. Skeptics and naysayers need only consider our species' biological and imaginative success to find evidence of our unprecedented faculty. But of all our remarkable features and feats, among the most notable examples of humanity's anomalous nature is our interest in and empathy for other species. Although there is growing scientific agreement that some other species possess self-awareness and even a capacity for empathy -- whales, dolphins, elephants, and our ape relatives are especially interesting in this regard -- humans are the only animal striving to learn about and better the lot of other creatures and environments. It's true that we often prioritize short-term, anthropocentric interests and it's also clear that reckless human activity has contributed to dramatic climate change and the ongoing Holocene extinction (our geological epoch's staggering loss of biodiversity), but conservation efforts and legislation, as well as our burgeoning interest in sustainability, speak to another, more hopeful human impulse; we possess an innate ability to see ourselves in other animals and, in turn, to recognize our capability as their stewards and representatives."
In short, we're not all bad. If you believe that we are, then you're guilty of sapping our species' potential. Christopher Cokinos is excellent on this point. I've quoted his terrific "Consolations of Extinction" essay before; I'll do it again.
"Too much grief for the world means less energy to help it along. [When] you find yourself free of the poisons that too much angst can cultivate, then something marvelous happens. You can sense how very old the planet is, how very old life and death are, and you can keep going on, you can keep doing the work you do in this universe, feeling despair when you feel despair, feeling - amazing - joy when you feel joy."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Kija Lucas' Stars & Pillows

NASA and the European Space Agency
"Hubble Ultra-Deep Field"

Glow-in-the-dark star stickers dotted the ceiling of my childhood bedroom. Every night, before sleep, I marveled at the phosphorescent firmament. Over time, however, the stickers' charge diminished and the ceiling's constellations grew dim. Likewise, the burgeoning egocentrism of adolescence dulled my capacity for wonder; for years, I gave little consideration to the night sky. By the time I'd matured enough to be awed anew, adult life had carried me from rural locales to the electric glow of New York City, where all but the brightest celestial bodies were swallowed by our species' illumination.

Today, whenever I find myself in sparsely populated areas at night, I'm startled and humbled by the brilliance of the stars and my relative insignificance. The famous Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF) image evokes a similar awe. The HUDF was produced by compositing visual data from the Hubble Space Telescope, and the colorful result provided astronomers with a 13.2 billion-year-old picture of our universe. The orange, yellow, blue, and purple marks that spot the HUDF are primordial galaxies that formed shortly after the Big Bang. The photograph is attractive, but it appeals more to our imagination; it's capable of elating a viewer as much as the heavens can an enthusiastic amateur astronomer or glow-in-the-dark star stickers can a child. The incomprehensible grandeur of the cosmos is intoxicating.

Kija Lucas
"Origin Story No. 4"
Silver gelatin prints, tape
30 x 40 inches

The HUDF came to mind as I admired Kija Lucas' "Origin Story No. 4," a photogram collage included in Root Division's "Introductions 2011" exhibition, the non-profit's annual survey of a dozen Bay Area emerging artists. Although the abstract imagery of "Origin Story" appears cosmic, the galaxies and gases of Lucas' picture are more earthly. The artist gathered dust from her studio floor, placed it on light-sensitive photo paper, and then exposed the paper. Afterward, she cut the resulting photograms into 2x2 inch squares and rearranged them; the seams of the collage create an unsteady grid, adding to the impression of an extraterrestrial survey. But the white-specks and smears might also be construed as microscopic lifeforms near the deep-sea floor, the products of a particle accelerator's "God-particle" collision, or documentation of activity in another sphere invisible to the human eye. The photogram's easy transition between the unfathomably vast (i.e., the universe) and the subatomic speaks to the mystical notion that scale is Ouroboros-like, that infinite travel "inward" (i.e., moving ever smaller) eventually leads to the infinitely large.

Kija Lucas
"Pillow No. 4"
Archival pigment print
23 x 30 inches

Does Lucas intend "Origin Story No. 4" as a rumination on such matters? I don't know. But the artist also includes another body of work in "Introductions 2011" that invites a complimentary interpretation: a series of photographs of old pillows, presented specimen-like on black backgrounds. The pillows' patterned fabric, stained with mold and sweat, is testimony to their years of service. In the context of "Origin Story," it's hard not to think of these well-used pillows cradling the craniums of people transitioning between waking life and dream, a liminal state conducive to contemplative insight into the incomprehensible. Yet the beautiful photographs are also anthropological documents; Lucas treats mundane pillows as artifacts worthy of sustained consideration. What do they tell us about ourselves? What do the patterns mean: the fleur-de-lis, the crop of diamonds? Specific answers will be provided by viewers, but Lucas' overarching project attests to the human inclination to collect and interpret, to grope for understanding.

Kija Lucas
"Pillow No. 6"
Archival pigment print
23 x 30 inches

Image credits: HUDF, courtesy of NASA; Kija Lucas images, courtesy the artist

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Beautiful / Palace Prayers


Old moons now are dried and crusty
Brittle and as uninteresting as history is
To my fingers and lips.

And yet also, it cannot be denied
That each man
King of his home-throne
Misses something of eternity
When he chomps down on lamb chops
(Which are his reward
For winning the bread)

Each of us misplace the universe
And lose the word
When we get our desires
On plates before us.

There is a grain of rice on the table.
Around it, oil has bled
And spreads

In this way does our egodeath
Halo around us
  And puncture the beauty
    Of clouds
- Yusuf Misdaq

Two years ago this month, I highlighted the poet, musician, artist, and author Yusuf Misdaq's Palace Prayers project. August 21st - September 19th, 2009, was Ramadhan, and Misdaq, a practicing Muslim who, as I noted at the time, "shares my universalistic mystical inclination," created a new work of art for every day of the month-long fast and period of Muslim introspection.

Some months later, Misdaq invited me to contribute a forward to a book of his poetry, prose, and lyrics. That book, The Beautiful / Palace Prayers, was published this year. Visit Misdaq's website for more information.


"Dissolution Is The Whole Show"

When Yusuf invited me to contribute a foreword to The Beautiful / Palace Prayers, I was at first surprised. Although I enjoy reading poetry, my education in literature is wanting, and my tastes run to work that most "serious" critics and scholars deem pedestrian. Who am I to comment on this young artist's latest collection? With characteristic enthusiasm, however, Yusuf's invitation quelled my self-doubt, insisting that The Beautiful is made up of poems "for normal people who do not normally read poetry." Well, in that case, it is a privilege and a joy for this normal person to introduce a collection of poems, verse, and prose written "for normal people"!

        They are a good species.
        Clean and caring;
        Made mostly of water and forgiveness
              - from "The Beautiful"

Normal people are very much in need of poetry, and perhaps especially so today, when the art is generally neglected. Words are powerful entities, every one an invocation, yet we too often use them carelessly. Poetry, like prayer, can serve as a corrective, reminding us that words conjure meaning and that they have a felt, physical component. As critic and philosopher George Steiner writes, "the meanings of poetry and the music of those meanings...are also of the human body." Appropriately, Yusuf refers to the italicized and apparently random words that he includes in some of his poems as "body echoes." "Carbunkle. Crellis. / Pulse-if. peaces." or "Que Que" are not intelligible formulations but, when read aloud, they aren’t exactly jibberish either. They supply somatic meaning, as do the poems’ rhythms. Yusuf's strongest poetry or verse has a perceptible pulse; in some cases, I notice my head slowly bobbing as I read. This is not insignificant. Beat and rhythm are primal properties, manifestations of the infinite, unfathomable being within which we reside and of which we are composed.

        of the original
        From the original
              - from "Ramadhan 26"

Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted that earnest philosophers should "descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there" if they expect to produce worthy work. I extend the same requisite to artists. Yusuf draws pictures, makes films, and writes poems, novels, and songs, but he is, above all, a mystic. And mysticism, in its quest to directly experience elemental truths, necessitates Wittgenstein's appreciation of the primeval and the chaotic; ancient disorder is at the root of everything. In most cases, the mystical perspective is merely an uncommon one; mystics survey and respond to the same earthly, material realm that the rest of us do. But they disregard accepted classifications and train themselves to mindfully observe and reinterpret their surroundings. They locate the extraordinary in the mundane. As Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century mystic, lamented, "All this [splendor] is perfectly distinct to an observant eye and yet could easily pass unnoticed by most." Mystics reawaken their capacity for reflective wonder and, in doing so, experience a kind of rebirth into a vaster dimension of human experience.

        On perfect Spring mornings
        God puts a clear blue sky in our pockets
        Pats us a few times and says
        'On your way!'
              - from "The Merciful Cheerful"

So reborn into sublime beauty, mystics strive toward the transcendent. Both Wittgenstein and Thoreau can be described as transcendentalists; Yusuf qualifies, too. Like the two philosophers, he finds in his observations of the world cause for a fundamental optimism. Unlike them, his writing is generally informal and devoid of pretension. His poems give readers the impression of a devout Sufi Muslim happy at play in our waking, sensual dream. In the collection's title poem, Yusuf writes "Awake in this dream / Where abstract clouds calmly keep us. / Where birds secretly make love in public and / Give voice to the current of joy which / Slices through us in a day." Again, in "Back Amongst Men (Drowned)," he references this dreamed life: "Or as I have also interpreted it / .God is a laughing dream." No doubt, the poems’ author, laughing, singing, eyes wide and sparkling, would appear mad to many of his fellows. This is to their discredit. They have forgotten (or failed to learn) how to look. Mystics, like many philosophers and artists, are too easily dismissed as lunatic or eccentric. Yusuf's ability to see through the veil of our cultural forgetfulness informs his aesthetic imagination and invigorates his art.

        Silk veils, dark and weightless
        Are being removed from her countenance
        Time after Time

        Each day I ready myself to know her better
        Each day, closer
              - from "Wahad"

But not all that Yusuf observes is felicitous. The most biting poem included in The Beautiful, "Ramadhan 23: Only To Be With You And No-one Else," is a reaction against the politicization of Islam and a celebration of his intimate relationship with Allah. After rejecting the "bloody bridge builders / Shmoozers or politicians" and others who "come to the Mosque smiling in your suit," Yusuf writes, "I wish to be alone / And serious / And deeper in love / With the only one who ever matters." The striking seriousness of his personal communion with G-d is important; discipline is one of the central currents running through the poems included in The Beautiful. In “Waiting (A Song for Guitar),” Yusuf writes, “I do believe in magic but first you gotta work at it.” Hope and love, he reminds readers, are nurtured through dedicated ritual and practice.

        Understand, thee
        That tenderness comes not of softness
        But of a firmness
        And of a discipline

        Understand that of discipline
        -Say, the discipline of prayer-
        Comes an enjoyment of that same thing.
        Discipline to run breeds a love for running
        Discipline to practice ones instrument brings forth a love
        for playing it
        Discipline to speak good breeds a love of horses
        And love of all refined things
        Whatever you may find them to be.
              - from "Ramadhan 12: The Vows Revolve"

A visual artist, I appreciate the centrality of discipline in a life committed to aesthetics. Like Yusuf, though, I am also mystically inclined. Paintings, sculptures, and other hand-crafted objects are among my adored icons but, if I work at it, I can find occasion for worship in every place, in every form, in every moment. The European starling that paraded on the sidewalk in front of me this morning warranted exaltation. In his iridescent dream coat and brilliant yellow bill, I see cause for startling, smiling celebration. For some other pedestrians, the bird, a representative of a despised species, may be ignorable or irrelevant. For others, my viewing the starling as a manifestation of the Divine amounts to idolatry. So, too, might the dirty, discolored Queens sidewalk be deemed a cement calf by unimaginative or close-minded "believers." Yet, striding on such a sidewalk today, my thoughts range through eons of geologic time to consider the ancient rock and mud, precursors to and components of the concrete that I now tread upon, from which our kind eventually emerged on crude limbs as a gasping, fish-reptile thing.

        The salt-pepper sugar mills on this table look like planets.
        I want to know the word for planet in as many different
        languages as possible.
              - from "Celestial"

Doubtless some of those who consider themselves religious don't share my enthusiasm for our scaled, long-snouted ancestors. But I'm not concerned with narrow definitions of religion. I believe that humility, wonder, gratitude, and communion are the four pillars of genuine religious practice, and the mental stretching engendered by the work of scientists, philosophers, and artists is an integral part of any intellectually rigorous, honest religious life. And, love, too, is a bit like religion. The same four pillars are fundamental to it. As Douglas Thorpe writes, "[love] demands of us a new way of being in our old world." Religious mysticism is a love affair with The All. It's not always easy, but religious attunement can turn each day, each hour, or each instant, into "a new way of being." Reading Yusuf's poetry, I'm reminded that every step is a psalm, every directed gaze is a prayer.

        Dot-Dot-Purple and Palaces
        Says the starling in approximate translation.
        Star-Star-Chandeliers and
        Bread on the wind-ind-ind.
              - from "The Beautiful"

I'm also reminded that we both enjoy watching starlings.

- Christopher Reiger, May 1, 2010

Sunday, September 04, 2011

"Secret Garden"

Christopher Reiger
"living, moving, in the space between"
Gouache, watercolor, and marker on Arches paper
15 x 14 7/8 inches

Four paintings and drawings of mine from 2010 and 2009 are included in "Secret Garden," a group exhibition opening later this week at Denise Bibro Gallery, in New York City.

From the exhibition's press release:
"Nature plays the perpetual muse for the six contemporary artists in this exhibition. Featuring work by Roberley Bell, Peter Bynum, Sara Crisp, Erica-Lynn Huberty, Ysabel Le May, and Christopher Reiger, each artist offers their own innovative, distinctive response to the sublime wonder of the landscape, flora, and fauna, inviting the viewer into their own secret garden. [...] Contemplating man's mutable conception of nature and our place in it, Christopher Reiger's works on paper incorporate scientific and mathematical symbols, hieroglyphs, animals, and plant life. Mysterious equations are drawn, creatures peer out from unlikely vegetation, and the garden becomes curiouser and curiouser."
I won't be in NYC for the exhibition, unfortunately, but if you're in that neck of the woods, please visit the show.

Denise Bibro Fine Art
529 West 20th Street, #4W
New York, NY 10011

Exhibition dates: September 8 - October 8, 2011
Opening reception: September 15, 2011; 6-8pm