Getting into the Spring/Scottish Summer season have been making more work outdoors and doing some long journeys too… the light is super just now, bright from five or six in the morning towards ten at night. Getting into the habit of cycling more (these images grew out of coast to coast movement) with materials attached to the pannier racks and making rapid works in varied types of areas – rural, industrial, infrastructure – and developing later on in the studio with a bit more colour and thinking space to play around with.
I’ve been asked to participate in a Glasgow School of Art Alumni show at Scotland Art Gallery in Bath Street (Glasgow City Centre). One of my darker pieces, ‘Box Two’, a three foot square painting, oil on canvas, will be exhibited. The gallery is in the city centre not far from the art school itself, and the show runs from the 6th June to the end of the month.
My free translation of Master Dogen’s poem Shobogenzo:
In the heart of the dark
The moonlight holding
A small boat drifting
Unmoved by the wind
Unthrown by the waves
Dogen’s poetry – because it is imagistic – makes it easier to express apparent paradox than prose.
We could say that Dogen/The Zen Practitioner (“the small boat”) isn’t moved by the wind and waves (dependent origination) because he isn’t separate from dependent origination/Indra’s Net. But we could also say – reflecting our experience in Zazen – that we sit in the middle (‘heart’) of dependent origination, yet allow it to drop off (“drifting”).
I take “the dark” to be non duality, and “the moonlight” to be the compassionate awareness represented by Avalokitesvara, and so I changed “framing” in Heine’s translation to “holding” to emphasise this.
In the poem, everything is functioning within the whole, yet each is exerting itself completely in its own dharma position.
Second poem with my translation:
summer and winter
so different from my thoughts
of the Koshi mountains
white snow will fall
and thunder will crackle
In this Waka poem (5-7-5-7-7 syllables) Zen master Dogen questions the often inflexible human mindset with this example of viewing nature, time and the world around within fixed rules. In the Koshi hills around him is seen and felt the continual yet spontaneous reality of nature and universe, cutting through a preconceived idea of the seasons in his thoughts as being linearly placed and defined in time one after the other – in the second 7-7 part of the poem he contrasts his stereotyping idea by writing that it can snow heavily or rumble with thunder and lightning at any time of the year. The changing and interweaving elements of nature are beyond thought and language.
The tongue and cheek, playful search and questioning of meaning in life
and art was a major theme in the development of art in the 20th century,
accompanied by a desire, starting with the Surrealists, to really
subvert and later skirt around any kind of categorising of artworks.
I’ve been thinking about the ‘circus’ of fun and hedonistic delight in
the works of a few artists that show some loose connections.
Recently visiting the GOMA (Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow) I was
captivated for the full thirty minutes of ‘The Way Things Go’, a 1987
film by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It takes the viewer
on a comical journey of movement in an old industrial looking interior
between a set up of disparate home and industrial objects, such as
tyres, bottles, liquids, chemicals on benches, ladders and shoes, that
come together after moments of tense waiting for fuses to burn,
ignition, steam or gravity to do its job and for something to crash or
explode into the next in the vaguely circular set-up. Seemingly filmed
in one shot to promote the feeling of a never ending, inevitable
process, the film has several cleverly crafted edits. In the continual
but fleeting meetings and silly interactions between the many parts of
their installation, there is a sense of the circle of life and death and
of the inter-connectedness of all things. The questioning has gone
beyond one of dealing with the traditional gallery system and being
surrounded by the remnants of mass production.
Weiss and Fischli have made a variety of work, often characterised with
humour – one funny little piece is a quick looking, lumpy clay street
with Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home happily satisfied after a
session in the studio doing ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. The popular
film ‘The Way Things Go’ has less narrative but takes forward their
‘Quiet Afternoon’ series of photos from the mid eighties, in which there
is a quirky gravity defying and comical still-life combination in each
piece of some five to ten tattered bits of home furniture or bottles,
packaging tubes, plates, ladles or fruit for instance. The imposed
boundaries between ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ become blurred with one
title in the series ‘Natural Grace’ reminding me also of the impending
collapse of a piece of balanced stones on a hill top by Andy Goldworthy.
In some ways the often used terms ‘land artist’ or ‘conceptual artist’
are truly meaningless and a distraction from seeing work afresh. One
other thing I like about many of their works is the rugged, unfinished
looking aspect that doesn’t value detail and solid compositions too
much. Some later works lose some of the feeling perhaps due to the
visual choices of the artists themselves or curators, (especially the
photography on show at the GOMA) and started to lack that sense of the
fleeting, off kilter aspects.
Two early films (excerpts below), ‘The Least Resistance’ (1980-81) and
‘The Right Way’ (1982-83) capture their energy and half joking, half
serious mood that is full of life. There is a method too in avoiding
factual documentation and underscoring a desire for unsentimental
creative freedom, serving to communicate charged as well as playful
encounters and experiments in various environments. Their work has
obviously spawned a whole array of materially similar pieces over the
years by younger artists, but their overall philosophies give a strong
edge to their interesting body of work. As the Panda said: ‘Such
The sculptor of mobiles and stabiles, Alexander Calder, was also keen on
mesmerising and making the audience laugh with his fun characters and
gravity defying objects. His moveable clowns and animals of tin cans,
brushes and other bits and pieces were performed like puppets in his
‘Circus’ for kids and adults to enjoy, and are quite similar to the
animals and human shaped or characterised objects of the Swiss duo later
in their films and installations, such as their Rat and Bear.
Much of Calder’s work broke the tradition of clunky sculpture rooted on a
plinth and challenged the art world like Panda and Rat did briefly in
Los Angeles (‘The Least Resistance’), before turning to crime in their
case. His mobiles opened new scope for art installations and possibly
encouraged the idea that ‘sculptures’ could be much more temporary works
(seen only as traces in the work of some of the land artists for
example) from cheaper, mass produced materials. Whilst aiming to engage
with themes of the universal and inter-connectedness in a circular
wholeness, Calder like the Swiss artists also looked for ways to
challenge artistic boundaries and have plenty of kicks in the process.
Heading up through Glen Tilt we found piles of old logs and bare wood, massive tyre tracked and gouged layers of mud. A brief glimpse of a spotted woodpecker? Gradually heading uphill over mossy ground with open aspects over the winding river below and to the snow covered tops of Beinn a Ghlo. Memory of a walk around here two years before, creaking down the long quiet slope of Carn a’ Chlamain after a dark blue moonlit midnight walk south of the remote, majestic Beinn Bhrotain. After taking it slow and seeing no one for quite a while, and sitting eating a simple breakfast, we were passed and waved to by some estate workers on Yamaha buggy and shiny Land Rover (carrying another many wheeled vehicle) going uphill out of the forest towards the mysteriously hidden Beinn Dearg. This was the start of a long route which took in a lot of possibilities for drawings too.
green ochre and vandyke, hill dynamic
beware the stacks, sensing the massif beyond
exposed and bleached purple desert of heather
burnt silvers, sudden blue open void
tectonic, pushing back
through to, or across
I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the mindset and visuals of Japanese Waka/Tanka and (the shorter, short song) of Haiku which came later. By good fortune at Zazen recently, during his Kusen my friend John Fraser recited and talked about this poem by Soto Zen Master Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), which takes the image of the shira-sagi (white heron) merging into snow, as suggesting non discrimination and interconnectedness. The poem was possibly written by Dogen near Eihei-ji, founded by him in old Echizen, now Fukui Ken where I visited and sketched. Here is John’s intriguing version of Dogen’s waka with the original, collected by Menzan Zuihou in the Edo Period, followed by John’s Kusen commentary on his ideas rendering the poem and imagery:
The whole grass world cannot be seen
In the snowy field
A white heron is hiding himself
Using his own form
“Dogen reverses the usual metaphor for non differentiation, darkness, by using whiteness, snow, instead [very richly, I think], and shows how zazen is an activity [hiding] from moment to moment, not a state. And also, what is hidden and what is apparent is reversed. Activity and Differentiation are hidden, but not erased, and Wholeness [which is usually hidden, but always there] is visible, and by illuminating what is usually hidden, we can see that these are both part of the same ‘thing’, even though we can only ever express half [as the Genjokoan says ‘one half is illuminated, the other is dark’].
The poem is my free translation which differs from the poem in Steven Heine’s book of Dogen’s poetry, ‘The Zen Poetry of Dogen’, in which he titles it ‘worship’, but the word literally means ‘prostrations’ which I think is more acute. Master Shohaku Okumura (Sanshin Zen Community, Indiana) gave a translation of this poem at Sanshinji Temple, and for him, the most important part of the poem is ‘using his own form’, and so he reversed the order of the poem, putting the winter grasses at the start of the poem, rather than the end. I have re -rendered “winter grasses” as “the whole grass world”, because I wanted to emphasise the wholeness within which differentiation [grasses] occurs, and thus, the non duality of differentiation and One-ness. I also wanted to re-work the first line to infer that the Wholeness of which we are part cannot be ‘seen’, because we are part of it [although it can be experienced], and also [making the same point] to allow the first line to be read by itself, as well as in conjunction with the second line..”
Has been a long winter in Scotland and have been out through various trails. Wandering through these half forgotten, foggy forestry roads in the hills. Spider webs and open voids, condensed silence shattered by heavy wingbeats. Have been thinking more about Matsuo Basho, and Ryokan’s roaming too and mountain living.
dreams lost in the grasses, fleeting glimpses
subtle snow smell, looking up and looking outwards
Ryokan’s twilight climbs, life stirred up in the piles of old leaves, playful signs
Thinking about contrasting essences, empty-full, muddy-untainted, speed-slow, darkness-light
over the winter river
an eagle gives me a sharp glare
from the mountain ridge