Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Divine Comedy

Michelangelo, Creation of Stars and Planets, 1508-1512, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome.

Today, April 22, 2008, is Earth Day. Its approach was heralded by Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich and Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who appeared together on TV, warming a park bench as they promoted cooperation on global heating.

Too bad the Pope, while in New York last week, didn’t add his voice to the Green Chorus. Imagine the impact he could have if he would re-write the following critical bit of text and insert it into Genesis.

The original line from Genesis:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’"

And the new Green version:
“God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Plan a small family, so that you don’t kill each other over limited resources, and follow the golden rule when you encounter the creatures of the earth. And remember, the natural world is fine with or without you; the issue is saving yourself from side effects of arrogance.’”

The Pope probably won’t make this re-write, so it is up to a legion of individuals to start making incremental changes in the way people think about the earth. And the artist Justen Ladda is doing his part by creating an instructive, sculptural comedy on Allen Street.

In the Chinese section of the Lower East Side, Ladda has installed a handsome collection of Chinese spirit stones on the narrow traffic median that divides Allen Street, a heavily trafficked artery that pumps buses, cars and trucks into the heart of Manhattan.

Great comedy like this is rooted in surprise. The appreciation of unusual stones in China is an ancient tradition whose earliest known reference is found in an historical text from the third century B.C.E. (before the common era). A stone was not considered a static object, but as a dynamic, miniature universe in which the inchoate forces that formed it could be felt. Unusual shapes and textures that evoked mountains, the course of water and even animals and plants were collected and those which best expressed the exuberance of the natural world were highly prized. Those stones that were not adequately imbued with the power of primordial fire and erosion were enhanced by human hands. Over time a culture of connoisseurship evolved and fine stones became a sign of the social status and sophistication of the owner. As objects of meditation, stones were traditionally mounted on graceful, carved stands for indoor viewing or composed with plants and water elements into serene garden vignettes. But the spirit stones of Allen Street are surrounded by the rushing-smelly-honking chi of New York and it is in this arena, where refined tradition meets the democracy of the street, that the comedy is played.

If comedy is defined as the drama of conflicting expectations, then the effect of the spirit stones of Allen Street is similar to 4’ 33”, the infamous musical composition by John Cage in which a pianist sits quietly at her instrument, so that the ambient, random noise of the auditorium can become the music. Like the dignified, classical musician of 4’33”, the spirit stones of Allen Street hold still so that the contrasting swirl of the New York street can also be felt as art.

By framing the street as a work of art, the spirit stones coax the mind into a pleasantly complex state of awareness that trots between three points. First, one notices the beauty of the stones themselves and the Asian aesthetic from which they derived. Second, one is transported through memory to other landscapes and, finally, one feels the richness of the contemporary, urban moment. This state of perception is comic in its unexpected collisions of time, space and culture, but it also enlightening.

The ideas threaded through Justen Ladda’s spirit stone installation are part of a progressive movement to think inclusively by collapsing a number of opposing ideas into larger concepts. The installation, for example, collages the East onto the West, effectively emphasizing the global nature of this time. Similarly, Past and Present in the artwork are no longer irreconcilable moments on a line of time, but are, instead, floating moments that may cohabit consciousness through memory. It was wonderful, for example, to look at the wild, vertical shape of a stone and remember a family trip down the Snake river through the Grand Teton Mountains of Wyoming, and at the same moment, assess the progress of a Chinese grandmother as she negotiated a pram up the Allen Street median. Landscape and Cityscape, also, are folded into one pot; each no longer discrete but part of a single, encompassing ecosystem. In this new way of thinking, men, mountains and metropolises are part of a single environment that progresses through the laws of evolution. The relationship between Man and Nature is no longer one of dominance and submission decreed by the Divine, but rather it is a search by people to balance and preserve a complex habitat.

The comedy of the spirit stones of Allen Street begins with a laugh at the collision of art and life, but it resolves into a new, complex consciousness that attempts to see the connectedness of things before they are parsed into bits. This new emphasis on inclusive thinking is a hopeful sign. Thanks Justen.

(The information on Spirit Stones was culled from “Spirit Stones of China”, by Stephen Little. Published by the Art Institute of Chicago with University of California Press, 1999.)


john ahearn said...

Dear Mike, I love this blog. I Enjoyed crossing the Williamsburg Bridge with you and walking around Wall St....but especially I am impressed by your observations of Justen's spirit stones. Your point of view is original and beautifully written John A.

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