“As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the upper Paleolithic: the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times.” — Gary Snyder
The natural world expressed itself vividly where I grew up. To quote my catalog essay for the exhibition Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year 1 (2013):
When I was growing up in Hue, Vietnam, in the late 1960s and 1970s, two primordial forces of destruction colored my life. The first force was man. Just as it did the country, the war divided members of my family—after the Geneva Conference in May 1954, one half went to the north, the other half remained in the south. The second force was nature. Because of Vietnam's tropical wet climate, monsoons constantly flooded the land. (I remember on one occasion our family stayed on the second floor of our house for two weeks; after another storm, my siblings and I went to school by boat.) Since then, I've seen many reminders of man's potential for destruction. Endless conflicts have afflicted the world since my departure from the old country and arrival in the US in 1980. But my memories of the potency of nature lay dormant until "Superstorm Sandy" abruptly rekindled them in October 2012.
In the summer of 2015 I first met the artist Lauren Bon, whose neon work Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy caught my attention; I felt it spoke for our time. How do artists meet the destructive forces of society? What must we do to respond to the ever-growing technological and social media landscape, which has such immense power of seduction and increasingly dictates our lives? One answer is create a work of art born out of the artist's imagination, be it made by their mind or hands. This is one of the main reasons why the field of visual arts has reached such a massive, universal popularity that continues to increase in proportion to the concurrent technological dominance. A work of art, while sometimes consumed as a commodity or object of desire, can also be a regenerative framework, be subversive and alter one's personal (and thereby collective) system of meanings.
Two, the name and spirit of Lauren's work accommodates the scale and ambition of innumerable subject matters; "create" and "artists" are open, generous words. In response, Rail Curatorial Projects has curated Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), an official collateral project of the 58th Venice Biennale, which will open on May 8, 2019. Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Occupy Colby, a simultaneous Rail Curatorial Project, opens at the Colby Museum, Waterville, Maine on July 20, 2019. Both will solely focus on the fragility of our changing, natural environment, and what can be done about it. During the Venice Biennale, within our exhibition space, will be the series 1001 Stories for Survival—a robust program of public conversations about climate change with artists, scientists, scholars, poets, and writers over the course of the show.
Meanwhile, April is poetry month and also includes Earth Day. While making the portrait of our guest critic Kyle Dacuyan, the director of the Poetry Project, I was listening to Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder talking and reading their poems in Richard O. Moore's invaluable "USA: Poetry" documentary series (created for National Education Television, PBS's predecessor, in 1966) on PennSound. I was reminded of how both Whalen and Snyder managed to embrace the spiritual principles of Zen Buddhism and other Eastern ideas without renouncing the world around them. They both share a striking ability to transmit the physical nature of the instant, personal insights, communion with love through art and literature, and above all the natural environment. The profound influence of Chinese poetry, especially from the Tang and Song dynasties, Wang Wei, Du Fu, Li Po and Su Shih come to mind, and of Japanese poetry particularly Sesshū and Basho, all deeply felt in their search for plain vocabulary to communicate sublime truth through the mundane events and discrete phenomena of life and nature. Similarly, I recall this poem "Impression of Ngang Mountain Pass" by the 19th-century Vietnamese poet Huyện Thanh Quan:
Having arrived at Ngang Mountain Pass at sunset,
Trees, grasses mingle with the leaves, as pebbles among the flowers.
Below a distant mountain there appear a few lumberjacks.
Across the river a couple lonesome houses are planted.
Memory of heartache is buried deep in my country,
Loving affection has always carried on my lips.
Setting foot here between the virgin sky and water,
It's a mere private affair between me and myself.
How can we forget what Emerson once said, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience!" What about these few lines from Rumi's famous poem, "Eating Poetry":
Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest;
out in the world it dies of cold.
You've seen a fish—put him on dry land,
he quivers for a few minutes, and then is still.
And even if you eat my poems while they're still fresh,
You have to bring forward many images yourself.
Love, peace, and courage,
P.S. We welcome Jonathan Fineberg, Amei Wallach, and Barbara London as our new editors-at-large. We're grateful for their commitment and support to the communal, living organism of the Rail.
Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum
Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti, Fondamenta Cannaregio, 910, 30121 Venezia VE, Italy
Opening reception: May 8, 2019: 5 – 8pm
5 – 6pm: Poetry Reading with Nanni Balestrini, Luigi Ballerini, John Giorno, Vincent Katz, and Mónica de la Torre
6 – 8pm: Cooking Performance with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu
May 11 – 12: A two-day discussion amongst scientist, artists, and philosophers on climate change and the Mediterranean, featuring Lauren Bon, Justin Brice Guariglia, Jar Slav, among others.