Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Postmodern Crossing of the River

"Oh Oh, Who Got Wet", 2019, oil on canvas
by Janiva Ellis
I went to the Whitney Biennial in New York City last week. Rather than floors of paintings depicting the western history of white man art, I was bombarded by outsider art: constructions, animations, videos, sculptures, and lots of digital celebrating the diversity and dysfunction of the postmodern world that we really inhabit.

While paintings were in a minority, one was my favorite: A gigantic,  20-foot-wide panoramic, landscape by Janiva Ellis; it was surreal with psychedelic colors and menacing red sky.

An indigenous woman wades toward us through a river, dissolving as she comes closer; she is carrying, a shape-shifting cartoon-like character, perhaps her baby. Awaiting on the shore in front of her is a goddess-like figure, dead or wounded, lying motionless on the ground.

In religious circles, crossing a river represents a major transition. For instance, the Buddha taught that right living and meditation was like building a raft, which if successful, could ferry one across the river of life to enlightenment.

To my eye, this painting depicts the abortive nature of the type of transition that technology – our new god –  promotes today.  It is a betrayal of what is really real. Rather than an indigenous spiritual quest grounded in our own flesh and blood, sense of place, and Nature, this digital transition connects us only to empty pixels.

Technology is like a siren, luring us to cross the river to a digital heaven that dissolves before our eyes like the person in the painting.  Digital paradise turns out to be a chimera, an illusion, a world without substance.

In another vein, perhaps this figure represents a black American slave escaping to freedom; in that case, then today she represents all of us in our fruitless quest for transcendence in the illusionary age of technology. 

Technology is no longer a benign force but a frontal assault on Mother Nature who has taken all the abuse that She can stomach and is now ready to fight back. Perhaps that goddess-like figure laying dead or wounded in the foreground represents Mother Nature!

It’s not a pretty picture: I think the painting is telling us the future is as grim as the prophecy James Baldwin recreated from the Bible in a song of a slave:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,

No more water, the fire next time!”

Finding Sanity

A version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor, May 30, 2019

A Work In Pogress: The Waterfall and Me

Finding myself increasingly lost in the wilderness during these dystopian times, dominated by clashing views on what is the truth, I’ve been urgently searching for familiar landmarks to help guide my way home.

One  landmark came into view from reading the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, who lived through the chaos of the first half of the 20th century: The whole world was in armed  turmoil and his government in transition –   as I fear ours might be now –  from  democracy to dictatorship.

His solution was to take time out to turn inward to find the truth:

Few are the people who in these latter days still enjoy that tranquility which permits one to choose the truth…. Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of… withdrawing into himself to… define what it is that he believes… 

Without such respite, Ortega continues, a person becomes “beside himself,” a zombie, “forced to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.” 

That describes my psychological state, especially since the advent of the present administration: somewhere between zombie and frenetic sleepwalker. 

How do I withdraw inward to regain my tranquility?  That became the question. As I looked back over my long life, I came across another landmark: One other time when I felt as I do now.

The first time was  during the 1960s. After a euphoric beginning when my generation idealistically – but naively –believed that we were the leading edge of a wave that was going to going to sweep in a new era of peace and justice, simplicity and sustainability.

Tragically, the wave stalled as the Vietnam war dragged on endlessly, killing tens of thousands of us and hundreds of thousands of peasants;  meanwhile  our heroes were assassinated, one after another, including JFK, MLK, and RFK; our out-of-control, imperial president then enlarged the war, invading Cambodia and students were gunned down by the national guard. 

Metastasizing polarization turned peaceful protest into armed mayhem.

The feeling I had then was what I feel today and what Ortega y Gasset was feeling in his time and place.  A breaking point comes when it all becomes too much and one must withdraw into oneself.

I dropped out of my sociology graduate program where I felt like a faceless cog in an academic machine and joined the back to the land movement, along with many of my compatriots. 

While still advocating for peace and justice, my personal peace came from being nurtured by nature and the land. We grew what we needed: vegetables, chickens, pigs, and children while I earned my living as a dried-laid stone mason.

That was my tranquility, away from the hustle and bustle of a world gone mad. 
Without forethought or planning, that is what I find myself slipping back into today. 

This realization has become the third landmark back to myself as I find  myself rededicated to my gardens and tree farm, even buying a new tractor. But the final element was a big surprise, even to me.

The germ of the idea materialized when Russet and I were put in an altered state by the patter of a waterfall at a Buddhist retreat two winter’s ago. 

The vision gained momentum  when an old friend recently gave me an eight foot long pane of frosted glass from the door of an old bank. Indestructible, almost one inch thick, it had the makings of a momentous waterfall.

To incorporate the majestic glass into a worthy water feature required some serious stonework. Lucky I have my new tractor.

A final gift came after starting my waterfall: how becoming reacquainted with the rhythm of working with stone in the web of nature erased time back to a blissful era long past.