Awake Youth: Seven Bodies of Liberation at BZC

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The No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center presents seven large collaborative mindfulness drawings created by members of the Awake Youth program in collaboration with artist Noah Fischer. These drawings depict the Seven Bodies of Liberation, as conceived by the teenagers from within an intensive space of meditation and reflection on their lives as part of the Awake Youth Program, now in its third year.

Friday June 14th from 7-9 PM

Please sign up for the event on Facebook.

Zen Monster on the No-Eyes Viewing Wall

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Zen Monster 3 Lunch at the No-Eyes Viewing Wall
readings by:

Barbara Henning, Lewis Warsh, Edgar Oliver, Kimberly Lyons, 
Steve Dalachinsky, Yuko Otomo, Robyn Ellenbogen, 
Fred Dewey, Brian Unger, Anselm Berrigan, 
Ammiel Alcalay, Noah Fischer

music by adam bernstein 
amerigo mackeral & the octave doktors

zenmonster.com
brooklynzen.org

 
the launch event at the brooklyn zen center, 505 Carroll Street, on friday night nov. 4 for zen monster magazine marks our 3rd issue– an unusually strong and clear statement of buddhist, non-buddhist, and trans-buddhist art, poetry, and subversive political statement — our strongest endorsement yet of gary snyder’s landmark essay “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution,” which we printed in ZM#1 back in 2008. our zen buddhist praxis here in brooklyn and n.j. is edgy, overtly political, and aesthetically liberated from any particular form or artistic ideology. we back the Occupy Wall Street movement 100%; our art editor noah fischer has been in Zuccotti Park since day one, even demonstrating as an artist there on wall street before day one with a small group dressed up as currency, as money, and he is there today and every day.

we are a tri-coastal community of poets, writers, artists, thinkers, activists, and people committed to the middle class, to working people, to the 99%. in terms of buddhism, roughly 50% of our authors & artists, in any one issue, are overtly buddhist practitioners — the rest are our secular friends, cohorts, intellectuals, artists, fellow travelers, etc., who do not object to our existential religious ideals — and that is what zen monster is: a space for writers and artists, edited by buddhists, but with clarity acknowledging intellectual, artistic, and political freedom from any ecclesiastical framework or supervision whatsoever. given history, we know this is important.

thank you, and please join us on Nov. 4, 6 – 9 p.m. refreshments will be served. and we will ‘just honor everything,’ as Philip Whalen once advised.

zen monster #3 includes:

Iulia Anghelescu
Diane DiPrima
Tyler Doherty
Brian Unger 
Erica Essner
Fred Dewey
hank lazer
George Albon
Liz Waldner 
giovanni singleton
naja marie aidt
Elizabeth Sylva
Junior Clemons 
Elena Rivera
Norman Fischer 
Laynie Browne
Meredith Stricker
Catherine Spaeth
max gimblett 
michael wenger 
arlene shechet 
claudia viera 
william anastasi 
karen schiff 
ross bleckner 
maggie wells 
dove bradshaw 
carrie fuchs 
robyn ellenbogen 
miya ando 
suzanne lacy 
noah fischer 
hirokazu kosaka 
sanford biggers
Norman Fischer 
Denise Newman
Monica Heredia
Brad Warner
David Chadwick 
jeff burns
steve dalachinsky
victoria dearing 
jesse lee herdman
aaron howard
edgar oliver
yuko otomo 
ned wilbur
heather utah
Noah Fischer
David Silva 
ANSELM BERRIGAN
Donna Stonecipher
Kimberly Lyons 
WANG PING
JAMEY JONES
Michelle Murphy 
Joseph Donahue
Michael Hennessey
Joe Safdie
Jeffery Beam
Kotatsu John Bailes
Charles Thorne
Kyle Waugh

 

Silence and Noise at the No-Eyes Viewing Wall

Bell

The No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center is proud to present Silence and Noise, a new multidisciplinary project that will open on Friday, April 13th from 7pm to 10pm.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, each silent meditation period begins and ends with the striking of a bell. The sound waves emanating from the vibrating body of the bell fill the room, envelop the sitters, and slowly pulse to silence. The silence that abides is in fact not silent at all, but filled with the sound of breathing, noisy thoughts, and street traffic outside of the meditation room. From this non-silence, the bell emerges once more. The sound of the bell, as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi notes, is both objective and subjective. Objectively, it is the movement of the air in the vicinity of our ears and body; subjectively it is the transmitted effort of the bell striker encouraging our efforts to encounter silence, peace, and freedom.

Silence and Noise is a boundary-crossing project for the No-Eyes Viewing Wall. A group of artists that includes sculptors, sound-designers, musicians and researchers has been meeting for several months, meditating and sharing ideas together, and slowly soaking in the unique silence of the Brooklyn Zen Center space. From this experience, they have created a series of organically evolving sculptures that will be displayed on the No-Eyes Viewing Wall from April 13th through mid July. Like the striking of a bell, this exhibition will be being to pulse and resonate on April 13th with a very special evening performance reinterpreting the traditional Zen form for sitting, walking and chanting.

Participating artists: Serra Victoria Bothwell-Fels, Terence Caulkins, Vanessa Cronan, Billy GombergAnne GuthrieElizabeth HendlerRaúl HottLili Maya, Mike O’Toole, James Rouvelle, Mica Scalin.

Curated by Terence Caulkins and Noah Fischer.

please note: Silence and Noise, is also the title of an unrelated book by Ivan Richmond. The full title is Silence and Noise: Growing up Zen in America. You can purchase Ivan’s book on Amazon here.

Occupying Tension-Inquiring Mind

Woman-with-coin

http://www.inquiringmind.com/Articles/OccupyingTension.html

After we were evicted from Liberty Park, I spent the early hours of the morning struggling in the streets of Lower Manhattan with a few hundred disoriented and angry people. Cops in riot gear were turning the streets into a maze of steel barricades. We tried to unify our scraggly numbers and rally, but it became gradually clear that the police had the upper hand. Toward morning, the tension in my body gradually eased into defeat.

Among my company that night was a Chinese man patiently trying to unify the hotheaded crowds. He had been a student protester in Tiananmen Square. He said to me, “Movements do not attract activists, they create them.” So even though we seemed to be losing, we were in fact learning. We were stumbling through the dark that night, searching for a path to walk together, and that’s why this is the beginning of my occupation story, not the end.

The story of my life began at the San Francisco Zen Center. My parents, zen teachers Norman and Kathie Fischer, transitioned from lay practice in Berkeley to a monastic life at Tassajara and Green Gulch Farm in the 1970s. We lived at Zen Center until my brother and I left for college. During these years, I absorbed the rhythms, smells and tastes of monastic California-style zen. Interconnectedness, sangha and non-duality formed the language and spirit of my childhood.

◊♦◊

Coinciding with the miraculous changing of leaves, Occupy Wall Street began in New York on September 17th but was really sparked by demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and in Madison, Wisconsin, months before. The time for transformation was ripe. In the U.S., decades of exponential wealth disparity and war after war against brown people at home and abroad left our society fragmented and spiritually sick. It was not an optimistic time to be a young person.

In the 2000s, as I pursued an art career, I struggled, often painfully, with finding my place in a culture that appeared to revolve around cutthroat competition, celebrity and immense concentrations of wealth. I even felt that creative freedom—the impulse I was following in my art practice—had been confused with greed, privilege and fear of failure. The big picture seemed hopeless. But then, reading about the uprisings in Tahrir and Madison, I began to realize that resistance was possible. Maybe, just maybe, we could heal our world if we woke up and brought our silent struggles into the strong sunlight—if we tried.

In June, I launched an art project called “Summer of Change: a series of numismatic rituals for Wall Street” and with my collaborator, Jim Costanzo, I chanted oratory at bankers and tourists, while throwing hundreds of dollars-worth of U.S. coins on the ground. For the first performance I chanted:

Oh, Wall Street! Your Great Wall is impregnable to marauding Justice, Equality, and Change!

Later, in another of the seven performances, arriving at the Stock Exchange in a wheelchair and wearing a silver mask resembling a giant FDR dime, I pointed at passersby and shouted:

The ship of our great democracy sinks in a rising tide of greed! Working-class Americans are the first to be cast off into the sea. Some stand by and watch this crime from afar. But who will be the next victim?

By the end of the summer, when the Occupy Wall Street protests started, I was all warmed up and right in the center of it.

What was I in the center of exactly? Something new—that was clear from the start. On that September Saturday, hundreds of people came together in Zucotti Park and didn’t go home. This was no ordinary protest. Rather, we were living change in our bodies. We were mending our connection to each other, mending the tender fabric of a society torn apart by emphasis on private space and money markets. We were re-embracing the right to occupy public space and finding our power as citizens in a shared world—the basic power of the people. It was anger that had awakened many of us. But in the park, love reigned. The beginning was wonderful!

There was a daunting task ahead. Inside the park, non-capitalist time and space prevailed: lost souls were meeting like crazy, creative plans were hatching and music rang out. Going a block away you felt culture shock: everything was the same as before in the same old world. And we knew that to get this work done we had to push ourselves, like caterpillars struggling in the cocoon. We had to transform and develop wings. Every day, all day, we marched and shouted and organized, served and ate free food, held assemblies, and struggled with the police. And so we turned from “protestors” into “people acting freedom,” in search of unbroken physical and social space, free of boundaries.

Yet we can’t live in this world without playing roles, like performers on a stage. In our occupy-opera, the NYPD play the role of protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms, with guns, stern expressions and menacing riot gear, or rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades. I know that these men and women are exquisite buddhas, perfectly imperfect as I am, but as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, following commands that lead them to bash heads against the pavement and to put nonviolent people into little cells and slam the steel door shut behind them.

Meanwhile, we who gather together chanting and marching are “protesters.” We seem to be on the other side; we seem to be a menace, even to threaten social chaos. Passersby on the street are our audience. The stage is set and the curtains drawn. We sing our arias through the human microphone. Time and space contract and expand dramatically as these forces dance together.

These tense situations are the jewel of the movement, the master classes that turn us into activists, and we work hard to create them. We have a better chance of dissolving the boundaries that separate us if we first make them visible. But violence can begin here too, so it is important to not truly believe in the roles. I have tried to remember I am not separate from the cops and other actors, even while surfing the tension of these situations.

Early on in the protest I switched sides as an experiment, wanting to explore the limits of this new social space. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to the Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks), I dressed in a business suit and waited with a small group at the Exchange. When the protestors arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young and entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a Job!” loudly in the protesters’ faces, falling deeply into my new role. It felt a little transgressive too, like a man putting on a dress; I hadn’t realized how many unknowns were at play here.

The tension rose, emotions flared. All of a sudden, one of the drummers turned around at me and shouted, “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PTSD and can’t get a job! Fuck you!” He hit me, hard, with his drumstick, which I was not expecting. The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, anger, hurt and aloneness were coming forth. Yes, this was theater, but it was also very real—as real as violence, as real our emotions and bodies. In retrospect, it was like the Shosan ritual in which zen practitioners expose their inner life and pain in ceremony, for the sangha to share and support. In my conflict with the Marine, we shared the sting of disempowerment. Later that day I found him and we both apologized. Now we hug every time we see each other.

A few weeks later, I found a way to protest from my core social and economic struggles as an artist. I helped to organize an action group called Occupy Museums, to bring attention to the ways that major cultural institutions disempower artists and benefit the wealthy. One day we marched to MoMA and found a large police force waiting for us. They herded us into the police pen they had prepared for us. We stepped into the cage, yelling, chanting and waving signs; the tension mounted as our outrage filled the enclosed space. The police ushered away passersby who approached us in solidarity, creating a buffer zone around the magnetic human force of our voices and bodies.

In the midst of the tension, I found energy welling up within, but I let it happen, feeling it as energy not anger. I “mic checked,” invoking call-and-response from the group. “Policemen! (Policemen!)/We are watching you/harass citizens peacefully walking/on New York City sidewalks!/What’s going on here!?” Then my body, compressed in tension, started to move, to stride out from behind the barricades to the sidewalk and into the no-go zone defined by the standing line of cops. This was the corridor of greatest tension, full of the possibility of violence. But I found space, air, and life here! I began to widen my movements—now I was almost dancing—and my language opened: “I am free—I know I can be on this sidewalk!” Pointing to the policeman: “You are free! We all are free, let’s march on this sidewalk, we can be here!” Somehow, all of a sudden, we could be here! A surprise reversal of plot! So we marched out from behind the barricades onto the vast sidewalk.

Two weeks after we were evicted from Liberty (formerly Zucotti) Park, we gathered at Lincoln Center Plaza, a vast open space in New York where protest is forbidden. Lincoln Center was showing Philip Glass’s opera, “Satyagraha,” which speaks about the life of Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King—all nonviolent protesters who have inspired Occupy Wall Street. Lincoln Center is partly funded by Michael Bloomberg, the very man who evicted us from Liberty Park.

Before the end of the performance, hundreds of protesters assembled on the steps of Lincoln Center, blocked off from the plaza by police barricades and heavy NYPD presence. Thus the private and public spaces, which on a normal day would be seamless, were clearly separated. When a few who dared to cross the line were arrested, there were shouts of “Shame, shame, shame!” from some of the protestors. We took off our shoes—a Gandhian symbol of dignity—and stood barefoot on the cold pavement, conducting our assembly.

As “Satyagraha” ended and the elegantly dressed audience finally exited into the plaza, they came upon this strikingly theatrical scene: real life protest at the foot of the grand steps! We called out to them in unison to join us, but the sight of the NYPD barricades seemed to paralyze them.

Then all of a sudden Philip Glass, who had been at the performance that night, popped up in the Occupy Wall Street crowd—he had come to read a statement on the people’s mic. We sat down so that people could see him, and the lights from a video camera illuminated his face. He called out the last lines of the opera, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita:

Mic check!
When righteousness withers away
And evil rules the land
We come into being
Age after age
And take visible shape
And move
A man among men
For the protection of good
Thrusting back evil
And setting virtue
On her seat again.

Chanting along with Glass, whose music had been the soundtrack to my childhood, I melted into the crowd, my body vibrating to the shared voice, deeply encouraged by this ancient text. When I looked up, the opera audience had joined us. The buffer zone was gone. We were one big crowd—the 100%! The physical NYPD barricades still stood among us, but they were no longer barriers, absorbed now into our big warm body. Until late into the night we held our general assembly. The police stood offstage, now relaxed. Two separate spaces had flowed into one, protesters had become people again, and the police could then be people too.

◊♦◊

After the first day of the occupation in Liberty Park, I went home thinking that the scraggly core protesters would be gone the next day, booted out by the NYPD. But miraculously, this was not so, and from that moment on, I learned to suspend disbelief—to not kill off this unfolding moment in my mind. I learned to trust my body, which was responding to a desire for freedom and connection. I learned to trust hundreds of strangers. When we lost the park, this was only a stage in an unfolding movement. A few weeks later, we were all standing euphorically on the steps of Lincoln Center Plaza, 100% human, pointing with our hearts toward each other, and finding freedom in this way. Who knows what happens next?!

Mental City Sutra

Mental City Sutra

Note: this was written as a chant for the opening of the exhibition Silence and Noise at the Brooklyn Zen Center.

New York City, Two thousand Twelve// numerous are the noises impacting our ears// yet when deeply waking to moments of silence// we feel that quiet was always around// Thus we exist between silence and noise// Great rivers of cars, streets beyond streets// restaurants and schools containing myriad thoughts and honking horns// patterns and echoes and sound wave vibrations// caressing our ears, jolt us awake// inside and out, beyond the fuzz of constant white noise// we have therefore decided to jump in the river to honk with the horns to ring with the bell to sing with the air.

O cacophonous afternoon// Buses above and trains underground// under water, under buildings and bridges// under arguments and soft soothing sounds// Ending and beginning of life, hospital hallways// how can silence be found so close to ten million minds// countless thoughts, numberless activities producing// rhythm and texture, trembling the air// Twenty Four hours, awake and asleep// birds behind house, shifting of sheets and clattering of fork against plate// High above ground, away from the street, whistling wind// cuts across edges of buildings, smack up against// billboards and planes, screens are abuzz// The wind moves on.  Walking down streets, two people were discussing// how one of them had dated a man who insisted in splitting the bill at a restaurant// loud laughing, and airplane and song fly through the air.

Thus we proclaim the clatter and chatter// unique sound of rain, the summary hum, of all city sounds// punctuated with honks, pervaded by thinking, washed by the wind// encouraged by silence, inspired by rain.

 

Sweetcake Enso at the Garrison Institute

curated by Catherine Speath
curated by Catherine Speath
Across religious traditions the circle has often served as a symbol of unity and spiritual wholeness.  Indeed today for some in the spiritual community there is an idealization of evolutionary consciousness, to the extent that absolutely everything from the smallest particle to the furthest reaches of the universe might become as though a single living mind.  And yet the circle also serves symbolically as zero, providing a fundamental counterpoint to any such idealized notions of fullness and wholeness.  How might the circle continue to be an adequate expression of spiritual life?
Without arriving upon any one answer, Sweetcake Enso is an exhibit that shows the work of Buddhist practitioners who are drawn to the circle as a form.  It is in the diversity of expressions and the timeliness of provisional views that the circle reveals aspects of our spiritual conditions.
Sweetcake Enso is named for the tradition of one-stroke brush painting in monastic Japanese Zen Buddhism, in which the Enso symbolizes the meeting of form and formlessness.  The spontaneity of one brush stroke is palpably sensed in time.  It is both the expression of an individual, to the extent that connoisseurs are able to tell one artist’s Enso from another, and the sense of that individual as composed of fleeting moments, however solid in presentness at each stroke of the brush.  
Max Gimblett’s Moon Enso is in this sense a traditional Enso painting.  The title, Moon Enso, stems from the practice of categorizing Enso with regard to meaning, and the quality of absorption that the artist would like one to become involved in.  Painter and Zen Master Shibiyama explained that an Enso without an accompanying text was like a flat beer, to view it as a pure abstraction was then to miss its true effervescence.  Accompanied by words these circles are not as abstract as they appear, and the category of the Sweetcake Enso, of which one might take a bite, is particularly related to everyday life.
Noah Fischer, Untitled Coin, vacuum-formed plastic, copper leaf, 20″, 2011
Some of the artists in this exhibit reach for the content of daily life more than others. Noah Fischer’s vacuformed coin enso reflects upon the coin as a sign for sheer emptiness in exchange value, and for a self draped in its purchase, always compounded at once by desire and obsolescence.  The word LIBERTY is declarative, but in this form it appears as though hovering in the present from a bygone era.
Gregg Hill, Enso for Thay, paint on steel, 22″ diameter x 4″, 2010
Gregg Hill’s Enso for Thay is a smashed oil drum.  Industrial 55 gallon drums are visible everywhere on the planet, rusty reminders of the global dependence on oil.  In Gregg Hill’s work this heavy object is transformed in the shift from the horizontal field of distribution and conflict to the vertical field of painting, losing its uniform weight in gravity to become a lighter erotic object imbued with a sense of loss.
Karen Schiff, Grate Weight, graphite on paper, 80×42″, 2006-2011
Karen Schiff’s Grate Weight is a rubbing from a tree grate in the sidewalk – the tree has died and been removed, leaving blank paper encircled at the center.  The artist explains that Grate Weight expresses the weight of love, of respectfully tending to the world in its varying conditions.
Arlene Shechet, Site Circling, hand made Abaca paper, 34×34 framed, 1997
Arlene Shechet’s Site Circling is a stencil print – paper is pressed to paper as skin to skin.  In Tibetan Buddhism votive stupas are often made to be placed nearby a pilgrimage stupa, a large round structure housing a sacred relic.  Clay is pressed into a mold, and this tsa tsa is then pressed to the earth. Stupas are believed to generate a cosmic energy radiating from their centers, like a stone thrown into water.  Here the architectural footprint is oriented vertically, depicting the iris of an eye as much as a blueprint plan.
Suzy Sureck, Chance Operation, sumi ink and dye on mylar, 18×18″ framed, 2010
Suzy Sureck’s Chance Operations are characterized by a slower openness towards her medium than the traditional Enso painting.  The viewer’s absorption in her work is not directed by gesture so much as how pigment takes hold in the process of alchemy.Paper holds the ring of water which in turn receives colored ink, and the artist’s hand leaves the picture, now a field of delicate local incidents that exceed human will.
 Ross Bleckner, Four Locations, from the Meditation series, Color spitbite aquatint with chine colle, Somerset white paper, Image size 30″ x 22″, Paper size 39″ x 30″, Edition of 50.
Finally, Ross Bleckner’s Four Locations is a print from his Meditation Series.  At the center is the trunk of the Bodhi tree, surrounded by radiating leaves.  In the ‘80s Ross Bleckner’s work was understood to be ironic, an expression of postmodern simulacra – the copy of a copy for which there is no origin.  But painter and critic Peter Halley, who most strongly advocated for this understanding of Bleckner’s work, could in the same breath also write that Bleckner’s paintings are an uplifting response to nuclear energy as the superhuman code to knowledge.  Referring to the light in Bleckner’s paintings, Halley wrote: “His work conveys a mood of questioning in the wake of this troubled history, and a realization, relatively novel in Western civilization, that knowledge may be doubt and that doubt may be light – that the reality of disillusionment may also offer the possibility of transcendence.”*

A Walk Through “Third Mind” at the Guggenheim With Sanford Biggers and Noah Fischer

Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now.  What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don’t think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
 

Catherine Spaeth: I am interested in both of your practices in the context of Third Mind. There is Ann Hamilton’s commissioned piece, but the show really stops at 1989. So I’m interested in how the practices and ideas that are coursing through this exhibition relate to your work, as Buddhist artists who are practicing now.  What I notice right away in both of your practices is an interest in meaning that I don’t think the artists in Third Mind engage with in quite the same way.
 
Sanford Biggers:  I think our interest in meaning may be a natural progression from some of the early aesthetic nods and philosophical interpretations of Eastern art by the generations included in the Third Mind.

CS:  And you have had access to those traditions in quite a different way than past generations were able.

SB:  Yes, as you know I lived in Japan for a few years in the early 90’s and went back for a residency in 2004 where I did a project with a Soto Zen temple using singing bowls, entitled Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu (In Fond Memory of Hip-Hop), 2004. A part of the project was to make Shinto singing bowls from melted down Hip-Hop jewelry that I found either here or in Tokyo, where there are several of Hip-Hop jewelry stores.  I worked with several traditional artisans to melt all of the jewelry down into an alloy to make the bowls.  The final part of the project was to actually perform the bells in the temple.  We used some of the temple’s singing bowls along with mine in the final bell chorus. I drew up a diagram for the 16 participants to follow, however, it was largely improvisational.  The head monk rang the final bell.

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva, 2000

One of the things I was interested in and why I did the piece with the breakdancers Mandala of The B-Bodhisattva, 2000, is that sometimes mandalas aren’t formally laid down, they are actually remembered as a dance. 
 
I also have a suite of videos that I call “koan” because they are non-sequitur videos, if you were to try to read them in a narrative they wouldn’t match but somehow there’s an anecdote in each and putting them together creates yet another anecdote. 
 
CS: Yes, at D’Amelio Terras I saw your video Cheshire which is the koan  “Man Up a Tree.” 
 
Xiangyan said: `It’s like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a  
precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and at the  
bottom of the tree someone stands and asks him: `What is the meaning of  
Bodhidharma’s coming from the West ?’ 
`If the man in the tree does not  
answer, he fails in his responsibility to the person below; and if he does  
answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?’
 
 
When you think of Cheshire that way it has a darker inflection on it than the way I saw it described in reviews which was that these professionals  take ownership of the tree by climbing it but, if you think of the koan tradition it’s a little closer to being lynched in that suit, man up a tree. 
 
SB:  Well, do you remember the sculptural component to Cheshire, the smile in the tree?  This completes the double entendre.

 

Sanford Biggers, Cheshire, 2008. Aluminum, plexi-glass, LED’s, timer, 33x8x67″. Courtesy of the artist.

CS:  But your work as compared to Noah’s is more interested in symbols and their interpretation, and I’m thinking of the recent Neo-Hoodoo show at PS1. Unlike in Third Mind there’s a very sort of ‘90s flavor and history in Neo-Hoodoo that’s involved with syncretism and approaching work in an almost shamanistic way. Which I see a little differently in your work, Noah, it’s working differently with interpretive symbols.
 
Noah Fischer: It’s true that in the sense that my work is “Buddhist”, or at least highly influenced by my Zen Buddhist background, that I haven’t used the symbols associated with Buddhism. I do think that the spirit behind Zen practice is perceived by some viewers.  That spirit was present in my recent show “Monitor,”which contemplated the sublime illusion of the computer screen, and the form/emptiness of the hardware.  

 

Noah Fischer, Monitor Family Portrait, mixed media, courtesy of the artist.

But back to your question, I have definitely worked symbols in my work. Particularly in the political work like Rhetoric Machine, an installation which basically remixed known political icons such as the American eagle, and the US president, but the game was to create a lot of space around them, and also make them personal. Because symbols become really heavy, and they they forge (political) identities and condition us. Maybe that is also a Buddhist idea. Sanford, maybe this is something that could be happening with your trees, the idea of a lynching tree can be so heavy for real, historical reason!! Maybe the problem is that there is not enough  space around the symbol to really contemplate it personally. So how do you find the space for a greater complexity?

 

  

Noah Fischer, Rhetoric Machine, detail, photo by Beckett Logan, courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I also am interested in the dual image of the Buddha finding enlightenment under the tree, and the Cheshire cat appearing and disappearing while uttering non sequitors and koans.  I think symbols can visually create koans too. How do you unload or unpack a symbol from all the baggage it already has, and of course, that baggage is usually experientially relative to each viewer.  When these symbols combine, their meanings become further complicated. 
 
NF: It’s interesting to think about the western symbols that we are talking about like the American Eagle and the lynching tree in the context of Eastern thought tools: Zen koans and capping phrases.  Because many of our Western language-based symbols- like “patriotism” or “racism” are based on logic, on not being the same as their opposites.  But with the Eastern language tools such as koans you can possibly find a new way to move around these symbols and again loosen them up.  I’m interested in that and began to do it with language in my recent installation Pop Ark which dealt with the linguistic randomness of the web.  I agree with you that using a visual language art in the West is already concerned with conglomerating and confusing a clear reading of symbols. There seems to be truth in these contradictions.

 

James Mcneill Whistler, Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, 1864, Oil on canvas, 93.3 × 61.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Photo: Graydon Wood

CS:  These two paintings side by side are nice to see.  Here you have Whistler depicting a contemplative mode, and then slipping into something else entirely. 
 
NF:  Well I have a comment about that piece. 

You see this aristocratic woman enjoying the aesthetic space of the East in her parlor, it’s basically orientalist: a fantasy land. This reminds me of a big potential problem with work that has a “Zen” influence because zen is like a brand, it means relaxing time: you’re not at the office working, you’re having your green tea and your spa or whatever.  Number one it’s definitely a type of orientalism: the east in the mind of the west – with an added class thing going on.  This is not a place to deal  with the pain or reality or worldness or trash of the world. But I think that Buddhism, well, at least meditation, really helps with dealing with these things in life and in the work, so the tag Zen can be misleading… 
 
CS:  Orientalism in late nineteenth century painting was tied to the decorative arts and to the feminized domestic interior as a place of restive contemplation far removed from the labor unrest and “urban masses” that surrounded its patrons.  It was a way of domesticating the foreign. 
 
So it is interesting to consider the role of the contemplative mode in these works.  So much is laboring towards that.  One of the things that is depicted in these 19th century pieces is sound, the importance of sound, even Paul Kos’s piece out there is about the importance of sound, so sound has become in a way what emphasizes the contemplative mode that you see here.  Dewing is about sound, that woman is listening , he will also title his paintings Song of a Lark. There’s another painting over here that’s quite beautiful, Arthur Dove’s Foghorns, but also this by Augustus Vincent Tack,  the Voice of Many Waters, it’s an abstraction. So the desire to appeal to sound as a vehicle of contemplation moves from someone like Dewing in the decorative tradition to early American Modernism.

 

 

Arthur Dove, Foghorns, oil on canvas, 54.6×72.4 cm., Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, anonymous gift, c. The estate of Arthur G. Dove.
 

NF:  The work in this show is very soft, it seems to be a theme, this softness.  I see  many washes, not so many hard edges or aggressive moves. Mark Tobey’s work for example was called “miniscule” by Greenberg and you can see how it was so. The problem I find with this softness is that it becomes precious.  So I am happy that there was a Van Gogh and Pollock to bring some fieryness to the canvas.  To help us get over the “pictureness” of pictures. 

 CS: There was a very broad characterization of Abstract Expressionism with Asian calligraphy, even though artists wanted to distance themselves from such ideas, but I think that there are many artists today who medititate and wouldn’t want to put their work out in front as in any way inspired by zen practice, that’s kind of a sticky place, still. 
 
SB: Why do you think that is? 
 
CS:  Well, I think a lot of it is secular modernism, there is a lot of suspicion of so-called spirituality in art, and you can talk about that from the beginning of time, but what does interest me about Zen specifically is that out of all the spiritual practices I know of,  many people who are strong practitioners will back away from defending it as a religion. There’s a kind of objectivity about it, and whether that is something that has been earned or whether that is an illusion is a question – if you’re going to be a secular purist you don’t want to go near that question.

 

Franz Kline, Mahoning, 1956, oil and paper collage on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, NY, Gift of Friends of the Whitney Museum, c. 2009 The Estate of Franz Kline/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

 

SB: I’ve always found it amazing and very self-conscious that so many artists want to deny some kind of link towards things beyond the heady western academic sense of mark/art-making. 
 
NF:  Also, if Kline is denying a connection to calligraphy maybe he’s saying “I invented it myself”, which nowadays we don’t really believe anyone ever did. So then I would pose the question: where does he think these black brushstrokes come from?  Well, probably it came right from  Japanese brushwork whether or not he admits it, but maybe there’s a little Russian Constructivism in there and German Expressionism and some other things (which were probably also influenced by Japan and China). But what he says about the work is maybe just  the game he’s playing.  
 
SB:  The other side of it is to say that it is an investigation of mark-making, which does encompass calligraphy, Constructivism – it covers a single lightening bolt in the horizon, it’s all mark-making, it can be all-encompassing or denial. 
 
NF: That’s fair.  Once it’s in the public realm if too many of those cards are given away people will over-identify with some of those things, so maybe in a way it’s better to leave that to people’s own interpretation.  
 
SB: Fair as well. 
 
CS: This is rare to see.  Pollock has a thing about #One over and over and over again, as though summing up the whole history of painting as #One.  To see an actual series, a row of such calligraphy, by Pollock is very nice.  it also looks as though, unlike the consistently additive throwing of paint so associated with action there’s been some kind of lifting away.   And here’s an instance where you have Philip Guston who abandoned abstraction completely for his Nixon series, all the shoes, and the lightbulbs, and the kkk hood in a very personal symbolism. You know in choosing these early abstractions by Guston, instead of his figurative painting, which completely eclipsed his earlier abstraction, the curators are really saying that abstraction is where the Zen is. 

 

 

Philip Guston, Poor Richard, 1971, courtesy of ubu.

NF: Yeah, I don’t know about that…that’s problematic.  It’s that brand of Zen as a gestural brushstroke. I think Zen can be anywhere- anything, right here! You just have to find the  emptiness in the form. 
 
CS: All of this abstraction is at the center.  But you know, this is an historical show and this is what happened. 
 
 NF:  Do you paint? 
 
SB:  I have a painting background, I used to paint but I just got to a wall where I wasn’t really doing anything interesting, at least in my mind. As I became more interested in the issues behind painting and representation and wanted to go into something that I thought was more experiential. And sculpture, performance, installation etc; all that did a little bit more for me, the physiciality of it and the way it operates in space had more to do with the body for me, I felt more connected to it.  I’ve always, however, maintained a 2-dimensional practice, but right now I’m more interested in drawing than painting, I’m interested in the mark again, but I think it has something to with the mark being less inhibited by history, painting’s got a lot of social, political and historical baggage, I don’t feel that so much with drawing. Sure, you can find baggage if you want, but that dialog is not so interesting to me these days. 
 
I do not want to indict all painting, but it is the poster child for the western bourgeois approach to luxury arts.  It is very much steeped in a dialogue of privilege and class, a dialog that has distanced the artworld from larger society.  Some may argue that’s how it should be, but for me there’s a disconnect, an elitism that is inherent in the way it is traded, not just financially but culturally.  Who has it, where is it, how do you see it, how much was it, how do you understand it?  It privileges certain hierarchies that other artforms may not. 
 
NF: Do you think that installation gets around that problem, the exclusivity problem?  I’m thinking that non-painting forms of art can be seen as even more rarified because most people don’t even know what installations are. 
 
SB:  It’s true that exclusivity is unavoidable in our field to a degree, but I think some of the non-painting forms, because they are less familiar, can be more inviting to new interpretations and readings.  
 
NF: I always get back to drawing. I believe that’s the root of this work, I almost find it hard to relate to artists who can’t or don’t  draw…I don’t want to make a judgment about them , but my feeling is that art kind of starts there.  Here’s a story… my first solo show was actually, at the San Francisco Zen Center which used to have a little gallery room, and they gave me a show before I left and came to the East Coast, and I was like 18 at the time, you know people in high school are always drawing random stuff in drawing class: rendering whatever.  For the show which was called “Objects”, I drew all sorts of things in pen and ink on paper just things around the house, like a Buddha statue but also a trash bin and a stapler, and by drawing these things I began to feel fondly towards them, I realized drawing is just a type of consciousness-practice. When you look at something well enough to render it you are attending to that thing and essentially you’re opening your heart to that thing, your consciousness is channeled at that thing, there is no heirarchy at that point, you could be drawing Bill Gates or a banana or a can of soda or a wooden mouse trap.  Anything.  And it’s the same, it’s all just consciousness.

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, Ink on Dura-Lar, 18×24″, courtesy of the artist.

SB:  I feel that way about process. Labor intensive work takes me away from expectation. I have an idea what direction I may be going, but that is just the set up before I go into autopilot, all actions becoming somehow equal or non hierarchical.    I’m thinking of the large sand pieces, or the glass etching I just did, with the slave vessels. That’s where the good stuff is! – when you’re working in an almost pre-conscious state.

 

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, 2007, hand-eched glass, steel, LED’s, 7′ diameter, courtesy of the artist.

NF: So for you it’s the labor and the repetition?

SB:  At a certain point it’s not even about the object, it’s just about going in there, the feel and sound of the charcoal and the brush against the surface.  For me its like the difference between religions and faith.  Faith is the thing that all religions have, regardless of what form or name it goes under. I think that art praxis may be the same thing, ultimately, regardless of what you ascribe to it it’s more about the act of making it.

Sanford Biggers, Lotus, detail.
 

NF:  Sometimes people use the word commitment with art and I know this has a philosophical history from Adorno which I may be passing over but for now I just mean commitment of the artist’s time, and a lifelong commitment to developing the work.  Like Hsieh in the room with the time clock, what an amazing  commitment! Commitment is a special thing because it requires a focus, as opposed to multi-tasking, or distraction.

 

  

Tehching Hsieh, One-Year Performance, 1980-1981, April 11, 1980-April 11, 1981, installation of documentary photographs and original performance relics, including poster, documents, 366 time cards, 366 24 hour images, 16mm. film, time clock. 16mm. movie camera, uniform, shoes and footprints.  Collection of the artist, c, 1980-81 Tehching Hsieh, Photo, Michael Shen, c. 1981 TehChing Hsieh, New York.

SB:  In that respect, the artwork is just the byproduct of commitment.  Whether it be embodied in a painting, an object, or a repetitive action. Hsieh’s photo documentation is the byproduct of a commitment or praxis, much like a Pollock painting.

CS:  Ann Hamilton is a good model for that here, she also wrote an essay for Buddha Mind and she was very clear that she’s not a practicing Buddhist, but she was included in this exhibition precisely because of this sense of commitment that interests her, that her studio practice is one of attending and being committed to that attending.  So it’s interesting that what counts for you is something you’re calling commitment and that underneath that you can include artists such as Ann Hamilton – or let’s say anyone at all who expresses their work process as an intuitive not-knowing – in an exhibition like this.

 

 

 

Noah Fischer, Pop Ark, nd., detail, mixed media installation, courtesy of the artist.

NF:  Well, what else is there beside commitment, I mean, genius?  I just did this big crazy installation called Pop Ark , and something I keep thinking about…that the main point of it may have been just the doing of it- how crazy and improbable that was, but somebody did it, realized it, spent the time doing this thing.. .

Nobody else could really do it , someone felt the need to put it together.  Most artists aren’t getting rich off of this, but the commitment gives something back to us in its own way I think, and this is similar to a Buddhist practice. But unlike Buddhist practice, the commitment that artists make is quite outward and public ultimately. 

SB:  I was speaking to a group of people the other day about the prayer rug I made at Triple Candie years ago . It took close to two hundred hours to put it down, and from the moment of completion it was in a constant state of devolution. Its visual, physical presence only highlighted its temporal vulnerability. That work was very much about commitment and relinquishment.

 CS: One of the things that I’m hearing here is contentment with a thing done.

SB: Well, a thing gets done but then you’re on to the next thing, so it really doesn’t have an end. Each project is just the artifact of that commitment at that moment, but that same commitment will go into the next project. 

NF: It’s not just about the painting it’s about your life and maybe in the end, the art “career” (for lack of a better word) is about making this commitment in your time, your era.  The commitment is an exchange with people and places around you, as part of the cultural process or self-understanding of your era, therefore each artist is unique. So your work has to be different than Jackson Pollock’s, as he wasn’t around to make that commitment in the ‘90s.

SB:  Practice.  That’s the word.

NF: As an artist you are creating a life of commitment or maybe more accurately as Sanford says- practice, but there is an object-thing attached to it; actually a series of things.  As  a Zen practitioner you are also involved in a life about practice but it’s discouraged to make anything of it.  Things tend to unleash desire.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Me: I have absolutely no idea what part of the world this view of the ocean came from, but it was the Google image link to the following:SuperHappyPuppy

NF: And here’s a beautiful object, they just have to get a bigger wall for that.

CS:  Did you see the show at Gagosian, Seven Days and Seven Nights?  The installation was stunning, you walked to the other side of a long wall and into seven nights and it was so dark that without the help of a guard you had no idea where your feet ended and the floor began, it was disconcerting to be thrown into the ocean in that way.

NF:  He also did the movie screens, so it’s not like he’s walking away from the human world into the natural sublime- he finds it everywhere.   

SB:  These are all taken from different places in the world, they’re different oceans.

CS: And it is as though your feet don’t know where they’re standing.

SB:  It seems to me that to think of this work in terms of East and West kind of takes away from what the work can do on its own. 

NF:  I think that as much as Globalism makes the world more connected, people will always use the mental shorthand of “East and West” because we love to separate things out…but , there is no such thing as East and West really. Depends on perspective.

 

 

Laurie Anderson, In the House, In the fire, courtesy of Obieg.

NF: I remember Laurie Anderson came out to the monastery when I was a kid in the early 1980’s , she came out to have a conversation with the abbott of the monastery Reb Anderson.  It was funny, though.  Because it was definitely like an encounter with a star. In the context of the monastery she just looked like she had been partying too hard!

SB:  I went to a retreat at Green Gulch.

NF:  That’s where I grew up.  You studied with Yvonne Rand, right?

SB:  Yes, and that’s where I met Laurie Anderson, we were all speaking at Green Gulch. That’s where I got the idea for the bell choir, Hip-Hop Ni Sasagu. I learned that different metal alloys made distinct sounds, and that came out of the conversation with Laurie…The other participants who were there at some point realized that their shared interest in Buddhism was not really addressed nor accepted by the art industry, so they made their own community to address that.  A book (Buddha Mind In Contemporary Art) came out of it but not an exhibition.

CS:  At the Bronx Museum of Art you had a piece on Buddhism and commodification, what was that like?

SB:  Well exactly, Noah, you were speaking earlier about Buddhism being a brand and that’s exactly where the idea for that show came from, the commodification of spirituality.  The first piece I did was call The Mandala of Cooption where I cast clear resin Hotei forms with floating fat shoelaces, microphones and gold chains inside the Buddhas.  There were four of them on the outside and one in the center that was robed with multicolored fat shoelaces. Basically, all of the floating objects were intended to represent Hip-Hop or urban culture but are fabricated in TaiWan, Hong Kong and Korea, so there’s no real sense of the authenticity between where these things were fabricated and what they reperesent. Even my original Hotei figure came from Mexico, was white and on the bottom and had horseshoes, pieces of rice and a four leaf clover, among other other symbols of good luck that have nothing to do with Buddhism.  So I was really interested in how commerce ignores origins for the sake of uniformity and consumption. And the mash up of symbols, once again.

 

 

Sanford Biggers, Mandala of Co-Option, 2001, Acrykic resin, fat gold chains, fat shoe laces,microphones, African mask, leather medallions, rotating mirrored turntables. Figures: 8 1/2x6x5.

The project with the singing bowls, which were all made from melted down hip-hop jewelry, was more about distilling the commercial back down and into the singular form of the singing bowl.  The bowls were used in a ceremony where each strike was like a prayer to a dead ancestor, but in this case it was Hip Hop.  An homage to the past.

NF:  Those two projects are so different. With the bell it’s an active thing if you are making a critique in the piece, it doesn’t happen in the mind so much as the body- hearing the sound of the bell and seeing what that does. In the other mode with the Hotei – you are using irony, symbolically highlighting contradictions.

SB:  For me, the Hotei’s are at once both references and things.  But the bells in performance or as sound generators are autonomous and not dependent on a referent. There were three or four years between those pieces and I had become less interested in illustrating a concept than making a sensorial experience from one.

CS:  Picking up on the physicality of it I have this nagging little voice in my head that wants to say, well, there’s something trite about having a nostalgia for something more pure in the context of globalized capitalism.  But when you are working with materials and symbols as physical things that involve people, whatever is trite about that vanishes, there is an alchemy there.

NF:  Definitely.  But people have to be willing to actually participate and do it.  Experience is never trite if people are willing to do it.

 

Linda Mary Montano, Mitchell’s Death, 1979, black and white video with sound,  23 minutes, collection of the artist, c. 1979, Estate of Linda Montano.

CS:  Do you think of what you do as salvific? Linda Montano approaches her work after years of practice as being therapeutic.  Is that a way to talk about your work?
 
NF:  Salvific, you mean like salvation?
 
CS: Salvation, other words people may use are redeeming, freedom is a big word…
 
NF:  There’s a Zen tradition I like which focuses on everydayness- “nothing special” so I wouldn’t say salvific, I would just say practice, which encompasses the work of every artist.  It’s just a matter of deepening the practice, becoming more aware.  For me meditating and then going to my studio, gets me over the general fear of making decisions which can be very real and into the “why not” which is a good place to draw, sculpt, or exist from.  So  ultimately it’s about practice and commitment.  It’s basically about doing but doing it fully aware.
 
SB:  I think that awareness is key, that is something that meditation helps you do is to become more aware and to be able to tap into that awareness.  And if you take that to the studio it’s a dance between making decisions and letting things come through you in a way where it doesn’t get caught up.

 NF:  Meditation is  a way to work through all of these influences that are the landscape of our postpostpostmodern world and avoiding something trite and false , so it’s a careful and joyful tightrope walk.

 

 

Noah Fischer, Laptop Drawing, detail, ink on Duralar, 18×14″, courtesy of the artist.

Zen & the Art of American Revolution

Brian Unger asked me to write “some kind of aesthetic-philosophical commentary on Zen art in America” for this issue of Zen Monster.  It is a daunting subject, but I had actually been waiting for someone to request this. We go on distracted in our lives jumping from thing to thing, and in my case, being a polyglot NYC artist, it’s a constant barrage of people, news, politics, deadlines, concepts, people & more people.  I feel lucky to live for creative ideas yet am often feel scattered; there are richly descriptive details all around, but I’ve frequently lost the plot. Here was a chance to put the pieces back together and find out where they might lead- like an archeologist assembling shards of an ancient map. And Zen, Art, and America are three of major pieces of my life.

I grew up in the Tassajara & Green Gulch monasteries; a world of shave- headed characters moving about within uniquely temperate landscapes, letting us kids grab handfuls of organic dried fruit from the kitchen walk-in fridge whenever we wanted.  Besides grabbing dried fruit, my hands were always drawing (no tracing!) and gradually I became aware that the term “artist” was used to describe what I loved to do. Then, as I got older, as I experienced Ronald Reagan’s cold war (youthful contemplation of annihilation by a flash of light), the first Persian Gulf war (narrated by KPFA radio in Berkeley), the farce of the 2000 election, and so on, and I gradually came to live in a place called America.

Among People of our nation, humanness and wisdom are not yet widespread, and people are warped besides. Even if they are given straightforward truth the elixir would probably turn to poison.

Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)

 I love America and  I’ve got to admit it’s been pretty damn good to me (Zen monasteries, little league baseball, California sunsets, Prospect Park) but there’s been a nagging problem in my life: America smells bad to me.  The new car smell, the air freshener, even the occasional incense may attempt to mask it, but my nose picks up the stink of blood & fear. We hear that the country was built upon a foundation of mass slaughter and a booming slavery economy involving millions of human beings but this barely makes us pause from our ceaseless activity.  How could it? One can’t change the whole world and certainly not events that have already passed, one must be realistic and go on with life and so on. But I have always been sensitive to the present-day legacy of America’s sad past.  The odor nags at me and occasionally it stops me in my tracks.

When I was a teenager and did landscaping jobs in the summers, my vision of the Bay area rapidly changed.  Working alongside a crew of Latinos, I noticed the underclass of nearly invisible Mexicans and Central Americans who do all the manual labor in the Bay Area. The mind is amazing: It was as if this transplanted population appeared to my eyes all of a sudden in white pickup trucks with rakes and shovels and pickaxes in the truck-beds-or standing in working lines on the street.  I then noticed that San Francisco, that shining & foggy city that everyone loves, was clearly and precisely divided along class and race lines. The Bay Area was supposed to be idyllic and progressive, but to me something didn’t smell right, and it made me feel disconnected.

Today, I find these legacies alive and well in my new home: New York, and it’s famous “art-world.”  Art is a calling (I hesitate to say profession) that has no inherent boundaries or hierarchies-I believe this. Creativity opens you up. Yet within the so-called “professional art world” I keep running into walls constructed in the open space. From what I can ascertain, they are medieval attempts by those that got it to keep out those that don’t: real simple stuff.  Is this just the order of things naturally? I don’t think so.  I believe it’s all related to a mortal fear of failure (which I’ve identified in myself) but which is also quite clearly the organizing principle of the galleries, museums, and mental space of so many artists in New York. It’s my opinion that this is actually a temporary state; a weather pattern which is compelling and complete in the way that when you’re in a fog you’re completely in it- but then gradually- or rather quickly-you’re not.

And what a shame about this fear fog, because there could be a vibrant and deep collective practice & flowing conversation using all the visual and conceptual tools at hand. These days rapidly evolving technology could completely revolutionize vision and the senses in the way pioneered by Laurie Anderson. She believes that art will evolve to become a playfully vast space; a pure sense research where we can discover and rediscover the joy of feeling; a few hundred years in the future we won’t need art objects. But in the same recent lecture, Anderson mentioned that invisible dollar signs float above the heads of today’s culture crowd and I agree.  America culture on a big scale devolves into a vapid luxury market, a feeding frenzy obsessed with self-promotion. And it’s addictive.

To evoke Allen Ginsberg, I’ve seen the best minds of my generation… sucked into this BS, including my own.  I believe my experiences in the art world of New York are simply a microcosm of what has become a pretty nasty corporate American culture; a foul-smelling hungry offspring of the Indian murders and slavery mentioned earlier. And it’s long been for export so that when I say America- I mean everyplace. This is why America smells putrid, and that’s my rant. What am I going to do?

America is not a young land. She is very old. Before the white man,

before the Indian, the evil was there, waiting. 

           William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

So that’s the bad news.  The good news is that creativity, wisdom and connection remain within reach. A few years ago, I discovered that I needed to sit, (like many people who grew up inside of a religion, I wasn’t too interested in Zen for many years), and found the Brooklyn Zen Center a few blocks away. In my first sesshin [retreat] there, about twenty people sat together in a small brownstone apartment and I was struck with an art-idea.  First, I should say something quickly about the kind of art I’m involved in.  I build motorized light and sound environments- certainly a low tech way to create spectacle in today’s virtual world, but the point is to jar the mind into really experiencing the machine itself which is so much the backdrop of our experience. We walk the triumphant march called progress in their honor, but machines stink like the shit of ancient dinosaurs and worse- they create and wage lopsided wars, they are the best and worse thing about us, and I’ve been magnetically drawn to them in my artwork.  Anyway, back to the sesshin.  After days of silently grooving-in with fellow sitters for zazen [meditation] tea, meals, and soji [temple cleaning] I realized that we had become basically a human machine. When the sesshin ended with a ceremony, I saw that this was particularly true: everyone in the room whether ringing bells, offering incense, chanting or bowing, became part of a larger structure- a collective body performing in the space. I could describe the ceremony as mechanical and precise, which it more or less was- but the feeling of connection in the room was quite the opposite.  It was light and free and full of wonderful sensual experience- a living work of art.  I wondered whether one might make sesshin-art.  

You were born, and so you’re free, so happy birthday.

Laurie Anderson 

My attempt aimed at the feeling of being in synch.  “Electrical Forest” was a human-powered assembly line that produced leaves. I made it with the help of hundreds of volunteers up in the Rust Belt city of Troy, New York. It required a work shift of twelve people to sync up in a giddy rhythm; a zone where everyone depended equally and totally on the other to keep playing. And it took on a life of its own. Over time I realized that the assembly line was like a musical instrument, and that each shift of volunteers played it with their own pitch and melody. Memories, graceful imperfections and humor added soul and texture to the tune.

At first I didn’t see the political implications of the work but that has changed.  

No one is free until everyone is free.

-MLK 

I made Electrical Forest in 2009 and now it’s 2011, and since then that American smell has taken on an intriguing complex aroma. There are notes of a horrible stench of fear that seems totally out of control.  Teaching in an art school now, I sense that students are preparing for a dog-eat-dog world; quite a different vibe than what I felt only 15 years ago when I was in their place.  They sense that the middle class is disappearing in America- they’d better “make it” into the security bubble or else they’re totally fucked. 

On the other hand, I smell hints of an incense of surprisingly sweet fragrance.  I think it wafted over from the Middle East- ironically the dreadful realm of terrorists in the American mind for many years.  Now a true popular revolution unfolds there: a massive human project to throw off the imposed culture of fear.  And however it turns out, remember that Egyptians did it: they stepped outside of themselves and found each other. Egyptians marched into Tahrir Square as one body, embracing a powerful collective spirit that relates in some ways back to that first sesshin I sat in Brooklyn.  Just as in Brooklyn, the Egyptians practiced soji, meticulously sweeping the square; removing trash; taking care of the space. Volunteers emerged to cook for the protesters. And like sesshin, the protesters had to stay still for a long time to get their work done, and they did by synching up together.

We Americans have a lot of work to do in order to make it to our own Tahrir Square.  I’m about to risk sounding clunky & hardheaded, but my friends already know that I am so, and I want to say the following: I truly believe that justice is a total farce in this country when not a single banker went to jail for the biggest planned robbery in history while jails are clogged with minorities for petty crimes and police set-ups. I believe that the money that you hold in your hand is stolen from the labor of the poorest.

And finally, I believe that democracy may be a thing of the past- elections don’t matter when people’s minds are polluted with garbage.  American’s collective grey matter (my Facebook-addicted cortexes especially) has exploded into a whole galaxy of slow-release marketing concept, celebrity, political ideology & pleasure/anxiety rollercoaster rides- there’s little real-estate left for thought, practically none for intuition. And all this stuff is self-perpetuating & viral which means that bigger problems lie ahead. Our reality is a highly branded, face-lifted terrible smelling delusion coving up a terribly sad world that we must change.  It is not okay to create an ever more fearful world for future generations. To bring down this fear, we’ll have to start working in earnest to change our minds & find more tools to cut through fear so we can inhabit our whole minds, & bodies, & world. Nothing is more important.

Art and Zen are two types of research into the mind’s conditioning.  For millennia, paint, ink and stone objects have revolutionized vision: color and space.  Paintings mocked the aura of powerful personages, film punched holes in movement, time, and national narratives. Revolutionaries found their big voice in the theater, poets used words to fragment and demystify political rhetoric.

Today, when every human quality is commoditized into a potential market, when money and power flow in only one direction — up, when nearly all space is subject to privatization, including social space, we have got to find the free, open,  and public space inside of the mind and out.  We have got to come together be powerful.

Americans, Wake up!

American Zen Practitioners, practice kinhin in the streets!

American Artists, paint on endless Freeways and skyscrapers!

Stand Bravely in the Square!

You are Not Alone!

No-Eyes Viewing Wall

no_eyes

The central practice in Zen Buddhism is called “wall sitting.” One sits in silent meditation, facing a blank wall, for minutes, hours, or even days at a time. While Brooklyn Zen Center offers many such walls for sitting, one wall is different. The

The central practice in Zen Buddhism is called “wall sitting.” One sits in silent meditation, facing a blank wall, for minutes, hours, or even days at a time. While Brooklyn Zen Center offers many such walls for sitting, one wall is different. The
No-Eyes Viewing Wall is a space where artists are invited to exhibit and work for a period of two to three months, and where, at each viewing, the artists and sangha (Buddhist community), as well as the public, engage in a discussion or activity that explores the creative experience.  Like other Zen walls, the No-Eyes Viewing Wall is a place to explore the mind. 
 
Art and Zen are related methods of mind-research. To engage fully in either practice, we must make a sustained effort to focus the mind, so that over time, the meditation or the creative process acts as a mind-mirror: the work shows us who we are. Years of practicing Zen or making art peels back layers of past conditioning, allowing old assumptions that no longer address the moment at hand to drop away. Strong practice may herald the arrival of a more awake, focused “zone,” which artists often experience as a state of mind without self-doubt: action is immediate, paintings paint themselves, and not-knowing is exhilarating rather than scary. The No-Eyes Viewing Wall is a site of not-knowing; it’s an invitation to the many creative discoveries that are possible when one leaves knowing behind. In this spirit, the No-Eyes Viewing Wall promotes artistic collaboration that can take an artist beyond the conception of a singular creator—“I”—to a place of limitless dialogue and connection.
 
Zen is a physical practice: we try to sit still and upright, to stay awake and to notice little changes in the body. Artists, too, must practice a physical discipline by engaging fully and actively with materials and working painstakingly with the logic of the concrete world.  Being in the art zone means that our senses are tuned to act and interact with openness and precision. It may mean that the hand grips the brush in just the right way, and the body dances nearly effortlessly with wood, plastic, paint, metal or video. Art objects document this dance with their many surprising qualities, and like a beautifully honed bell, their presence in the Zen Center inspires people who come to sit.  The works stay on the wall for a few months, where they become an important part of the still, silent, and limitless space.
 
-Noah Fischer, curator of the No-Eyes Viewing Wall

 

 

http://www.brooklynzen.org/no_eyes/shows