Art, Theory, Poetry, and an Airplane Above Some Trees
Artists and theorists in the Western tradition have long fed off one another’s work. Some of the most prominent theorists have themselves been artists—Leon Battista Alberti, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Charles Le Brun, Joshua Reynolds—although few who might have considered themselves principally to be theorists have claimed to make art of any kind. It has not been necessary to be an artist to be taken seriously as a theorist—we might think of figures from Denis Diderot to Michael Fried—but it can help.
The relationship between theory—words—and art—things—has been a puzzle from at least the time of Alberti’s De Pictura (“On Painting”) of 1435 to the present. The recent past was shaped in large part by continental theory. For all of its effect on art practice, criticism, and art history since the 1960s, recently its influence has waned precipitately. In her exemplary book The Melancholy Art (2013), art historian and theorist Michael Ann Holly remarks that “despite deconstruction’s dismantling of the classic yearning in Western metaphysics after some self-authenticating presence, even [Jacques] Derrida, to some extent, has been seduced by aesthetic desire.” Even Derrida seemed to acknowledge an aesthetic remainder in art.
This is not to claim some triumph of unsullied aestheticism. Art practice and theory will surely continue to interact—sometimes fruitfully, sometimes risibly—as they have for at least the last 500 years. Yet the interaction of art-making and language generation has been, and continues to be, far from confined to the realm of theory. I want to mention one striking instance of the marvelous confluence of art-making and creation with language that is not, on the face of it, theoretical 20 years after its occurrence, in May, 1994.
The cast of principal characters is small. It comprises the British artist David Ward, the Italian fabulist, Italo Calvino, and two poets: Sappho, from Greece in the sixth-century B.C., and the Irish poet, the late Seamus Heaney.
David Ward was appointed to an artist’s residency at Harvard University for the spring semester, 1994. Among his remarkable projects was an outdoor installation in Harvard Yard that took place between dusk and darkness each evening in mid-May. He suspended 30 separate sound sources—tape players—in the trees of Harvard Yard. Each played a different individual voice recorded by the artist. Each speaker told his or her own story about place—memories, poems, folk tales—or passages from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Large theatrical lights high in the neighboring buildings gently caught the tops of the newly leafed trees, making the canopy glow increasingly as daylight faded. Beneath, listeners wandered from pool of sound to pool of sound beneath the trees, catching the stories told by disembodied voices. “Canopy”—for this is the name of the work—took first place in the Boston Globe’s list of that year’s art exhibitions in the Boston area. But it was, of course, fugitive, and only an illustrated book of the same name, published in 1997, physically preserves some of its character.
For the opening evening, David Ward contrived a further fugitive artwork, “Air Waves,” which would eventually take its place at the center of a web of poetry. Most people are familiar with small airplanes that fly low over sporting events or above beaches, towing advertising copy or greetings to loved ones. The artist rented such an airplane, and had it tow these words into sight just as the voices began their susurrations from the trees: “WORDS OF AIR OPEN TO THE EAR.” With the help of two enthusiastic young professors of philosophy, he had fashioned this new translation of a fragment of Sappho’s verse for a novel setting: the sky above the canopy of trees in Harvard Yard.
David Ward and I stood on the steps of Widener Library to watch this aerial revelation with Seamus Heaney. When it appeared, looking like a fragile mechanical toy, the three of us turned to each other in delight. It was as though the ancient Greek poet herself was circling above, intervening through the most banal yet spectacular of media. Later, when we were conceiving the book that was to record “Canopy,” Seamus contributed in what to him was the most natural way possible: he offered a poem. Using the same title, “Canopy,” he evoked David’s “tree congregations stirring,” while people were “gathering, quietening,” to hear “words being given new airs.”
David Ward’s artwork, incorporating poetry and poetic prose, had in turn inspired a great poet to make verse that could otherwise not exist. Its life continued. Seamus Heaney included “Canopy” in what would be his 12th and last collection, Human Chain (2010). When, sadly, he died last August, I wrote to David, for he and Seamus had become good friends at Harvard. I recalled the installation, our shared thrill as the airplane flew overhead towing Sappho’s poetic fragment, and Seamus’s response in his own medium of verse. Of “Canopy,” I wrote to David: “That was a wonderful project, from beginning to end (if end there is).”
I doubt that there ever is an end to artworks, however fugitive, whose lives are prolonged through their capacity to evoke wonder and prompt new work. Although this can occur as artworks and theory give rise to and shape one another, just as satisfying—if not more so—is the aesthetic charge that flows between artwork and poetry. That charge exceeds what Derrida in an interview termed the “thematics and semantics” of meaning, constituting an aesthetic excess, which, he acknowledged, “provokes discourse ad infinitum.” “Canopy”—works by both David Ward and Seamus Heaney—is, thanks to both of them, and the connection they fostered between art and poetry, work without end, perduring in wonder.