Thursday, August 28, 2014

Crank a fish and discover the origins of consciousness at ISE Cultural Foundation in Manhattan

{{{click on images to enlarge them}}}

Spiritual fulfilment has often been represented by the union of the masculine and feminine.  The wandering, tormented male (Odysseus, Dante, Faust) symbolizes the desire for a higher-level life that overcomes the base and animalistic, while the perfect, pure or eternal feminine (Helen, Beatrice, Gretchen) represents the fulfilment to be obtained by that desire.  Mayu Shiomi seems to parody this hilariously at the current ISE Cultural Foundation group show.  To represent the male who desires perfection, she chooses Ronald McDonald. The eternal feminine becomes Wendy from the Wendy’s food chain. Ronald seems enervated and spent, his long dangling schlong having done its duty. Wendy seems to be in an ecstatic trance like the famous Maenad (follower of Dionysus) by the ancient Greek sculptor Skopas. Our heroes are not warriors, poets or scholars – they are fast food icons.

Yutaka Kamiyama has made amazing wooden sculptures of various types of ocean fish for this show.  What is absolutely mind-boggling is that he has cranks and levers and you can turn one of these levers to make the fish move in an uncannily close approximation to its natural movement in the sea.  How did he do this!!!!? I stood there for 30 minutes cranking all of his fish in total wonderment.  Anthony Burgess used the term “A Clockwork Orange” to represent the capacity to turn the natural into something mechanical and we see that process here. The cranks and levers and cogs and wheels represent the immense effort needed to even approximate a natural process. We see an intense appreciation and longing for the natural as well as a Herculean but futile attempt to capture and control these processes ourselves.

Manju Shandler seems to be parodying the concept of nationalistic pride and especially a nationalistic pride based on the concept of a democratic form of government that might be used to justify anything.  You see various ancient Greek busts covered with national flags and even icons of democracy, like George Washington, covered with diverse national flags.  This ancient concept of Greek democracy is often used to justify the corrupt operations of various governments, including, perhaps, our own.  

Truth be told, if you look at history outside of the context of your World Civ 101 class, the “tyranny” of Cyrus the Great and his Persian offspring seems to have been a golden age for most of the world, while Athenian ‘democracy’ was in fact demagoguery which lead to horrors, such as the execution of Socrates and greedy and brutal imperialistic conquest (until the Spartans put an end to all that).

Isa Ho takes photos in which she holds the camera facing upwards so that we often see buildings soaring toward the sky. Yet she also includes some type of visual element as if it is on a horizontal plane through which we are looking at the sky – she might have a fish or cupcakes or other stuff.  The buildings frame the sky in a manner which implies the need or desire for ascendancy while the (often) goofy item or items on the horizontal plane might imply what’s keeping us from that ascendancy.  The cupcakes could be a type of sugary self-satisfaction while the fish is clearly not in any visible water – as if we, like the fish, are submerged and not even aware of the ocean around us. Yet, even though the camera is pointed up in the air, the photo is presented so that we are looking directly at the sky in front of us – the buildings seem to stretch forward and this has a type of tunnel effect.

Shu Ohno uses the accretions of various small objects to create hyper-complex ornamental pieces. The original object is like a center of gravitational pull or one could take a different perspective and draw the conclusion that all the extra stuff has grown from the original item, often rendering it useless – but not in the case of a musical instrument on display or the new type of body armor worn by a male figure.  To me these objects are absurd in the way Meret Oppenheim’s fuzzy bowl is absurd.  Each object seems to be growing a fungus or leprosy of minutiae.  A handgun, for instance, is covered by, among other things, little figures that could be at war.  So each object could be covered by items comprising a narrative of the object so we get what we might call a type of narrative leprosy – the object has lost its meaning and purpose through some entirely theoretical process which has caused these leprous growths.

Finally there’s a very funny and thought-provoking series of videos by Tomoo Nitta in which a string of little golden balls interacts with natto – a bean-like Japanese breakfast food. The golden balls possess a frenetic inherent energy which makes them do all kinds of things to the natto. The natto is, for instance, categorized in various ways by the balls: there is the natto which is “here” and the natto which is “there”. However, despite the wishes of the golden balls, the “here” natto is conquered by the “there” natto and the “here” becomes the “there”.  Nitta even attempts to explain the origin of consciousness through the interaction of the golden balls and these beans.  All in all it’s a pretty funny piece in an amazing show. 

I did not learn of this show until recently and you may only have a day or two to go, but if you get a chance to go, you should.  Crank the wooden fish and witness the birth of consciousness among a Japanese breakfast food. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Symbolism of the Fall of Humanity: Art Show at The Museum of Biblical Art

{{{click on images to enlarge}}} 

Archeologists have found an area in Turkey which might have inspired the Garden of Eden story.  Gobekli Tepe is a region which once had overabundant vegetation and animal life, attracting numerous hunter-gathering bands which lived lives of extraordinary leisure and ease there. This was super-lush, fertile land that naturally provided an excess of food for everyone with minimal labor.  Yet, it is also part of the archeological record that, ultimately, this easy life ended and was replaced by the much harsher lifestyle of farming; it appears that farming, itself, began in this very region.  Instead of nature readily providing the needs for small groups, now men and women had to engage in back-breaking labor in hierarchical arrangements to eat. Folk memory and tall tales being what they are, it is believed this transition from ease to toil became the basis of the story of “The Fall.”

Yet, the Garden of Eden story also contains numerous symbolic aspects which are open to various interpretations.  Jennifer Scanlan compiled the work of 19 artists at the Museum of Biblical Art to explore the various aspects of this allegory. This museum, by the way, is absolutely free and this show is not-to-be-missed.  Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a museum for Bible-thumpers – no way: this museum has amazing and thought-provoking shows.  Please use the free audio guide, when you go, in that you’ll hear actual interviews with the artists. You can easily spend a couple hours at this show and come away having been intellectually, aesthetically and morally engaged.

One of the numerous symbolic aspects of Eden that is open to interpretation is, of course, the snake. In many stories of world mythology the snake represents a type of spiritual thief.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian), for example, a snake steals the flower of immortality from the hero.  In the “Garden” myth the snake is, however, like a traditional trickster figure who literally thinks he is doing something good but just plain gives destructive advice.  There are no sinister, malicious, ulterior motives: the snake wants to be helpful, but his shortcut to salvation is wrong, wrong, wrong.  He seems to represent that capacity we have to take things to another level we perceive to be higher, more efficient and faster, but which is, in reality, self-destructive. The tragedy of the ‘fall’ is that the first humans lacked the capacity to discern bad from good spiritual advice, until it was too late.  Human spiritual history (for a big chunk of the world population) becomes the attempt to reclaim Eden after this horrible but unavoidable debacle. I mean, OK, John Milton, what the hell were they supposed to do? It looked like a damn good deal to me too when I first read about it.

Yet, to Adam Fuss, the story of the snake in the garden “doesn’t make sense”. To Fuss the snake represents life and fertility and any number of positive qualities.  Fuss uses an old daguerreotype method to present two intertwined snakes on a mattress. The mattress can connote a place of rest and reproduction.  He challenges us, perhaps, to see the snake not as a traditional allegorical character but as a pro-sexual, pro-reproductive symbol.  Interestingly, there was a group of ‘heretics’ in France in the 1200s called the Cathars who believed that the universe was so flawed and so evil that the creator god must have been some type of perverse monster.  They deliberately read the Bible as a type of tragedy where the snake was a hero attempting to liberate humanity from the workings of the creator god and Satan became the hero of the entire book. Fuss seems to go in a more ‘pagan’ than Cathar direction though.

Mat Collishaw uses the snake in a somewhat more traditional manner as he presents what appears to be a mirror with the undulating image of a snake writhing and moving about as we look at our own reflections.  According to the audio guide the snake represents something once desirable but now repulsive.  To me, seeing the snake embedded in the mirror with my reflection, wantonly dancing around, leads me to consider the nightmare scenario of possibly discovering that some inner characteristic I’d like to rid myself of might not, in actuality, be possible to eliminate.  Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed!

In a humorous vein, Mark Dion presents a creature which at first sight looks like a dinosaur, but then you learn that according to the Bible not just Adam and Eve were punished.  God removed the legs of the snake after the fall and made it crawl on its belly.  Dion shows us literally what a four-legged snake before the fall might have looked like.  In his interview presented through the audio guide he indicates that one of his purposes in creating the piece was to show the high intelligence of the pre-fall snake.  So we see a four-legged creature brimming with knowledge and confidence (he looked a little like Anthony Weiner to me). This is snake as supernerd, Wikisnake, ready to give you tons of false information with the deepest sincerity.

Lynn Aldrich also presents her version of a snake as a coiled garden hose.  She explains that she wishes to equate the snake to the ‘underlying discomfort’ with urban and suburban life that is often felt by those living in and around  LA.  It’s not a sense of horror or dread, but a subtle sense that something is wrong which often dominates the lives of the more thoughtful inhabitants of the City of Angels.

Among my favorite pieces was Barnaby Furnas’ painting of Adam and Eve in which he tried to convey a sense of Newtonian gravity in the painting through dripping paint.  He feels that ‘the fall’ is best represented by our subjugation to gravity.  Gravity limits our movements, binds us to the ground  and is responsible for the aging process.  Fred Tomaselli takes Masaccio’s Adam and Eve and presents their internal circulatory and visceral systems (in lieu of the amazingly expressive facial expressions in Masaccio’s painting) in his portrayal of the expulsion from Eden.  Posture and viscera speak to us of the inner pain involved in a divorce from the divine.  Tomaselli’s is the most stylish fiery sword I’ve seen in art and the implication is that Adam and Eve simply lacked the cellular wherewithal to resist the advice of the serpent.  As Peter Weiss once wrote: “These cells of the inner self are worse than the deepest stone dungeons…”

Jim Dine shows his fascination with tools in a piece which implies the change in relationship between humanity and nature after the “fall”. Dine obviously loves tools: his dad apparently owned a hardware store.  As the son of a mechanic I can understand his almost fetish-like appreciation for these things. The irony, of course, is that this love of tools belies the stated horror of the consequences of the fall.  The implication could be: maybe the ‘fall’ wasn’t so bad after all. Look at all these cool tools and the cities they built.  What’s so bad about this? 

The answer might be in Alexis Rockman’s piece about the Gowanus canal. In his interview Rockman literally asks, in regard to the environment, “How can you not despair?”  He presents a conglomerate image of this heavily polluted canal inspired by the story of the dolphin that accidentally swam into it and died soon after of toxic shock.  Dominating the extreme pollution of this canal is the image of a cat.  Rockman states that it looks into the polluted canal almost Narcissus-like, and like us, the cat is an innocent looking creature which, in reality, is mischievous, self-absorbed and destructive.

Marina Zurkow shows a similar pessimism in her video Mesocosm (Times Square). You have three screens corresponding to Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.  The left screen shows pre-industrial Times Square, the central screen shows the current area and the screen to the right shows ‘hell,’ a Times Square dominated in the future by the vermin which evolved in response to our existence: rats, cockroaches, pigeons. 

The tree is also a central aspect of the story of Eden.  A tree is a bridge between the earth and the sky or between the earth and God or even between the ‘lower’ and the ‘higher’.  The story of Eden is, basically, the story of choosing between two different bridges. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons uses human hair in an image combining the image of a woman with that of a tree.  The piece is dominated by the color red which can denote both positive and destructive characteristics.  In Rona Pondick’s piece she also presents the combined image of a tree and humans. The tree is a bridge because the roots dig deep into the soil but the branches reach up into the sky.  In Pondick’s piece we see that human heads extend from the very tips of the branches.

Lina Puerta points out that the nature we usually see in cities is highly controlled nature which often denotes affluence and she is more interested in weeds and other forms of vegetation which spread uncontrollably and which are considered eyesores.  You see these recalcitrant forms of plant life spreading unopposed throughout a blank white wall. This would seem to be the ‘garden’ fighting back and trying to reclaim us despite our efforts to remain fallen.  Naomi Reis uses modernist architecture combined with Babylonian hanging garden style vegetation to represent our quest to get back to the garden.  

Modernism and the belief that architecture could be humanistic and inspire positive social change is inherent in the belief in ‘utopia’ that has followed the fall. Mary Temple paints shadows of trees on the wall of the museum which are so realistic you initially think they are actual shadows coming from outside. In reality, they do not correspond to anything from outside the nearby window. The shadow is divorced from real nature, the nature has been lost and in an eerie, supernatural situation we see the empty remnant of the interaction between nature and the sun.

Pipilotti Rist presents a little video piece involving home gardening which questions the social relations involved in servants engaged in the upkeep of the gardens of the wealthy.  The garden in our world is no longer a natural thing but something that must be sustained with exploited labor and the products of industrial production. With the abandonment of a God-provided life, we established hierarchical systems in which nobody truly prospers. The wealthy become corrupted in comfort while the poor become corrupted through physical and emotional pain. Dana Sherwood presents various cooking utensils as apparent evidence of the fall as well as a humorous video in which she presents culinary delicacies from her kitchen to the wildlife around her home.  She discovers that raccoons prefer cookies to the traditional staples of their diets. The fall of humankind has even corrupted the natural tastes of wildlife, which also prefer junk food to the real stuff.

Finally, we might ask, “How could something come from nothing? How could something always be?” Indeed, Emil du Bois-Reymond considered the origin of the universe to be one of the 7 unanswerable questions to which we can only respond by saying: “Ignoramus et ignorabimus.” “We don’t know and we will never know.”  To some extent Sean Capone’s piece “1,000 Paths to the Divine” made me recall that quote.  The origin of the type of spiritual state promised by many of the world’s religions – true altruism, unconditional forgiveness, tolerance, universal love, overcoming our anger and aggression – would be as incomprehensible as the origin of the entire universe.  Where would this state of being come from? The implication in this wonderful video seems to be that our path to the divine is sensory induced, based on the experience of the fall and a quest to understand ourselves and the world as a way to overcome the fall. Our inner experience of this process will be part metaphorical and part unrecognizable - a seamless combination of the inner and outer worlds showing that the mind and nature will be one again when the garden is regained.


If you like non-literal Bible interpretation, please consider buying my e-book:

If It Didn't Happen: Between Literalism and Secularism, A Search for Greater Meaning in the Bible

During one of Mr. Gauss' religious education classes, two students engaged in a heated debate. One claimed that modern science shows that all Bible stories are false and that the Bible is not a work of any significant value. The other student countered by asking, "If the stories are not true, why would anyone write them? Why would they be in the Bible?" 

This is, of course, the central question to be asked. Can we find value in the stories of the Bible in light of current scientific and archeological evidence and if we can, what exactly is that value? Have literal interpretations been completely missing the point of the stories? Have we been teaching our children the wrong interpretations of these amazing stories? Is there a cross-cultural symbolism in the Bible that provides greater meaning to this book than a literal interpretation?

Mr. Gauss possesses a Masters Degree from Teachers College at Columbia University as well as teaching experience at both a Catholic and Jewish middle school. The findings of the book are supported by extensive and surprising research.

Monday, August 4, 2014

6 Korean artists at a group show at Elga Wimmer-Hyun Contemporary

Inside and Out is a group show curated by Suechung Koh at Elga Wimmer Hyun Contemporary. The connecting thread through the show seems to involve the experience of new, immigrant, upwardly mobile New York City dwellers and how their new city provides novelty, excitement, and challenges for growth while also providing experiences of immense anxiety, concern and even defeat.

{{{click on images to enlarge}}}

For this show, Kyunghan Kim has created large pieces which consist of vertical, parallel stitches and groups of stitches, of various lengths. The stitches actually correspond to words and word patterns in specific New York Times articles.  The work was born of Kim’s frustration, after arriving in the USA, of not having a sufficient command of English.  He saw lots of interesting looking folks reading the NY Times and wanted to do it, himself, knowing that there was meaningful and engaging content to be absorbed and he realized that reading the Times was a symbol of enculturation into a certain type of American social class. Unfortunately, like many folks who come to New York looking for a better life, he was initially locked out from this experience due to a lack of English fluency. Indeed, for many ambitious immigrants, being able to read the Times is a measure of full integration and success.

So his pieces can have various interpretations. He shows that, more than anything, integration into a society involves interpreting, embracing and embodying symbols. So, the piece could even be a type of protest – Kim could be saying, “Let these strange symbols of the American dominant culture remain locked. I can live without them.  They are like stitches - too binding and limiting anyway.” The artist could also be making a statement about the nature of language itself.  The stitches are empty proxies for words, sentences and paragraphs. Their emptiness forces us to think about what, exactly, language really is. What can and can’t language accomplish? What is it that gives these alphabetic symbols such engaging potency, and just how potent or limited are these symbols?  What power do these 26 letters have that stitches do not have? Language, moreover, also is a stich-like process…it penetrates and fixes/stabilizes…it kills direct experience to convey this experience in a different form. Language is born from but then divorced from reality but creates a new reality which then influences experience and reality through a bizarre and continuous feedback loop.

Hongseok Kang presents aquarium fish which have died. In Koh’s program notes she states that the fish, to the artist, are like city dwellers dismissed from a company, abandoned by others, lost, forgotten, marginalized. In a large city we become accustomed to viewing each other in such a way – we lose touch with our own humanity and lose feelings of sympathy or compassion for the actual human beings around us. Our sympathy becomes directed toward people on TV thousands of miles away while we have real, significant suffering outside our doors.  So in the piece you see here, we see the dead fish surrounded by a type of now useless medication.  The fish is against a two-toned background signifying an underlying reality of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, perhaps signifying the endless competition we are subjected to in the city, or maybe even the concept of a type of spiritual development that might be possible once one is expelled from the rat race.

Jeonghee Park presents humorous depictions of animals which have transgressed into human spaces. Here we see a group of lions in someone’s posh apartment.  The trappings of our lives are supposed to pacify us – those comfy couches are meant to make us docile and well heeled.  The lions, to me, are our form of protest. Underlying the comfort and self-induced tranquility bought from high end furniture and interior decorators we still retain the capacity to demonstrate moral and socially transformative power.

Heesoo Kim lives in New York City and seems to be following in the Art Brut tradition of presenting child-like drawings/paintings.  Yet, unlike a lot of art brut work, Kim’s stuff is very engaging, bright and optimistic.  This work takes delight in New York City life where, to the newcomer (I am now a grizzled, disgruntled veteran), everything radiates excitement, novelty and passion.

Inbu Pyo’s work contains uncountable small pieces of paper packed together in small spaces.  Like the millions of people who live in a large metropolis the individual pieces of paper can be bent by the wind but not easily displaced.  To me the individual pieces of paper, being potentially moved in relation to the surrounding pieces, represents the communal emotional response often felt by city dwellers.  We are all packed next to each other, we are all connected via TV and the internet, and every world event or crisis has the type of ripple effect of the wind. We all bend and move together – we are temporarily forced to respond, and we often respond uniformly, but resume our normal posture soon thereafter.

If we think of this show as being about the individual in New York City, Inhee Yang’s work seems to represent the permanence and transition that epitomizes the city.  You have strong, stable forms combined with circular lines which seem to imply continual motion.  The constant, apparently eternal forms are the city, or society, we are in the faint lines that intersect or go silently around these sun-like orbs that would seem to represent the structures and institutions that we need to acknowledge for our own survival within a huge social group.