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.
in the sunlight
no more haiku
just footstep after footstep
First poem and commentary by John Fraser:
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 understated vehemence’.
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.
edges of chaos
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
translation of Ryokan haiku
- 24 March 2013
- Novels and films
The delightful Glasgow Film Theatre has been showing a series of ‘Classic Polanski’ films, going back to his early works. The first was ‘Knife in the Water’ (1962), Roman Polanski’s debut movie, on in a half full Cinema 2 on a Friday afternoon. I didn’t expect to be so enthralled, and was mesmerised by this powerful feature right through the one hour and thirty-four minutes. A Polish psychological drama set mainly on a small yacht with three characters, this is one of those slow burning black and white noirish classics where everything is just right with no unnecessary elements, simply but expertly shot and edited. The modern, catchy jazz score by Krzysztof Komeda runs through the film and echoes the characters’ emotions and the isolated lake vistas, while limiting the need also for much dialogue, of which there is little.
The film starts with this rolling score and a long shot of the comfortable couple driving out to their yacht – but their faces are obscured into dark fluctuating silhouettes by the passing trees reflected in the windscreen, their tense lack of body language suggesting an air of discomfort. After they make a sudden stop and are compelled to pick up a seemingly reckless, free living young hitcher (Zygmunt Malanowicz), husband Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) encourages him on on board the boat and tensions brew as the culture of both men increasingly conflicts and draws in his wife Krystyna too (Jolanta Umecka). The viewer becomes torn between allegiances for each of them as petty acts combine and unfold with the further isolation from dry land.
The movie takes a limited setting and uncomplicated editing, with clever sound and scene changes, to engulf the viewer in the experience of being trapped on the boat, drawn in to the feelings of threat, attraction and discomfort that Polanski is known for in later films such as Rosemary’s Baby. Every detail counts, especially the choice of lens to zoom in on the knife for instance when the story starts to turn perfectly conveys the new level of vehemence. Silver skies and the texture of water ripples, long sharp reeds and the undecorated minimal shapes of the yacht deck stick in my head after this, a really strongly visual piece comparable perhaps with Kurosawa’s Red Beard for strength of composition. Good stuff coming from a thread of serious film-making, but this is not overly heavy either nor boring at all. Not everybody in the cinema seemed to agree at the end of the film though!
After getting plenty of inspiration from the understated and intense ‘Knife in the Water’, I was a bit disappointed with Cul-de-sac (1966), a surreal comedy following the mishaps in an eccentric couple’s English island castle retreat when held hostage by bungling criminals. A lot more complication comes into the editing and sound, plus more characters and 60’s culture, but the high contrast shots of Northumberland and ironic, twisted ending are still worth checking out. Looking forward to see more of Polanski’s early films.