The stones at the base of a mountain or those of a rolling meadow are like a pack of dogs at rest, wild pigs running chaotically, or calves frolicking with their mothers... As a rule of thumb, when setting stones, if one pair ‘flees’ from the group, then seven or eight should ‘chase’ after them, like children playing tag.1
A few days ago, I participated in a project called Phone Call,2 organized by artist Ginevra Shay. Intending to bring people together in an intimate way during quarantine, Phone Call matched readers like myself with people to call and read poetry to over the phone. I tried to choose passages I felt offered some beauty or solace and was most excited about Adrienne Rich’s poem A Mark of Resistance”, and the teachings on stone setting from a Heian period gardening treatise from Kyoto called The Sakuteiki.
What seemed most meaningful to others, however, were Rilke's letters, specifically the descriptions of landscapes he wrote to Clara Westhoff when they were apart. One imparts the snow-filled woods in Sweden. Another written in early April recounts the experience of watching spring emerge into full bloom from a cottage in Northern France.
Day before yesterday we were in the woods and there everything was full of little white anemones, the whole floor of the forest full of anemone-stars and constellation… Here it is spring. There is only one word for it. And already it is not premature to say so.3
The active potential of imagination during periods of isolation is significant. As is being able to relay place or experience to a loved one at a distance. Human beings have long told stories to vivify places or temporalities which we cannot access. Mythical time, origin time, places that have been taken from us. Memories from grandparents, hearing someone describe their childhood home. Trying to share space with another. Keith Basso writes in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, “For it is simply not the case, as some phenomenologists and a growing number of nature writers would have us believe, that the relationships to place are lived exclusively or predominately in contemplative moments of social isolation. On the contrary, relationships to places are lived most often in the company of other people…”
If relationships to place are most significant when they are also social relationships, how can we continue to develop these intimacies when we are isolated from one another and places?
With Covid-19 keeping many of us inside for an indeterminate amount of time, most institutions, artistic and otherwise, are asking whether it is possible to move physical exhibition spaces and objects into the virtual and what it means to do so. I imagine artists around the globe are asking themselves this same question. I am— or was— working on an outdoor installation for Storm King Art Center in upstate New York and am thinking about how to make virtual a sculpture initially conceived around the intimacy a body can form with place. When this work (titled A stone that thinks of Enceladus— a network of cairns made from carved stone and cast glass placed on scattered boulders through a field) and the surrounding programming (a poetry and performance series)— will be possible “in real life” is unclear. For now, it is speculative sculpture.
I learned about the Bruniquel Cave— a Neanderthal construction rediscovered in 1990— when I read Wikipedia’s entry on “sculpture gardens”, listing it as the world’s oldest.
This strange classification held me for a moment— among other burdens, the construction is inside. (I think. Do caves count as indoors?). Does an outdoor sculpture maintain efficacy if the parameters of its exhibition space are definitively altered?
And I’ve always had a soft spot for Neanderthals. The makers of these arrangements scraped over two tons of stalagmites off the cave walls, cut them to equal lengths, and stacked them like vertical effigies into concentric circles. The largest circle is over twenty feet across, balanced and fortified. Areas of red and black soot and pieces of burned animal bones indicate that small fires had illuminated the construction, the cave, and whatever happened within.
Before spelunkers happened upon the cavern by accident, most archaeologists did not think Neanderthals were able to move within subterranean spaces, nor had the capacity for symbolic or ritual thought. Because of this, I find many who refute the claim that this could be an intentional site (“maybe it was bears”). Others counter the counter (“bears are not known to make fire”). Does it make us feel a sense of belonging to be able to discuss the intricacies of beings we see as both related to ourselves and also unreachable?
My chance encounter with the Bruniquel Cave offered me space to think about a site in a way that did not attempt replicated experience. I have no idea what it would be like within the cave walls, and paradoxically the lack of access no longer feels like a hindrance. I get to complete the experience with my imaginative capacity, with my questions, with my own memories of being underground. Mostly, my instinct to sense the aesthetic and spiritual encounters of another- the Neanderthal makers- forms a dialogue that feels larger than the parts of encounter.
All of this focus on one place.
Question: what and who do you miss?
The experience of missing speaks to our ability to hold entities in our minds even with prolonged distance and absence. I think this ability is more innate than many of us give ourselves credit for. How will it emerge now?
I miss the gas station on the mesa near Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico where I stop at, on the way to the airport. Open expanse on purple soil. Hot wind in the summertime with the beginning moisture of rain. A thunderstorm against the Jemez Mountains, and late afternoon sun slanting through scattered billowing clouds all around and up ahead.
I miss talking to the other dog owners in the morning at McGolrick Park near my apartment in Brooklyn. I miss the experience of being with my friend before I knew of his addiction and death. I miss visiting the Han Dynasty ceramic dancer at the Metropolitan Museum whose sleeves swing around her shoulders and down to the floor like grace.
Loving something that you or another cannot access and figuring out how to share it without relying on illusion—this I think is a similar question as how to make art.
What I do:
I wander around. I go to the edge of the ocean. I film myself in shallow water. The reflected iPhone breaks from across the brown rotting grasses underneath the surface. I dig a hole in the sand near the sea’s edge and watch it fill with water. I dig holes farther and farther back until I can no longer dig deep enough to find the ocean. I listen to recordings of the highway that I made in the winter. I collect videos from YouTube of snow falling so heavily you can’t see the land. I carve stone. I draw moths and obsess about infestation. I watch Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and am so homesick watching Brady walk into wide space that I feel as if I could collapse into my own longing.
When someone asks me—as we are all asking each other futilely, but also as if it’s some kind of talisman—if there is anything they can do, I ask them to list to me the things that they can be certain about.
Uh, what do you mean, they say.
I just kinda…can you make a list for me of what you know for sure. Like the Oprah book. Even if it’s neutral. What do you know— what can you count on.
We can’t know anything for sure is the next response.
I know but tell me anyway,
It becomes like my prayer, like a tic, like I am a miner finding one little last glimmer of ore before we close down the mine. I am tricking people into praying with me. So many people I know are sick.
I know that bodies respond to the world around them, and that through these encounters we can form intimacy, awareness, care.
I know that this is a practice we can also call ecology. I know that plants, animals, microbes, and even objects are companions and that they recognize us in the same way we acknowledge them.
I know that the physical world is a vibrant, intelligent, practitioner of compassion, and that we as human beings are a part of it. I know that making is a way that we can feel our shared being.
I also know that experience is phenomenological. That the embodied encounter should not always require a generalized version of access or ability. And perhaps there is no time like the present to explore what this means. How to make a sculpture online.
Let’s not act poorly though and go forth as if we are the first people to make a space for art out of the internet. There is a history here. There is precedence. Rather, how can I identify the precedence that is unique to me and use it to make something of my own even in virtual translation.
Is it the end of the world that we can’t visit art in situ? Of course not. I would, as I think most people would, gladly shut our museums forever if it meant the preservation of life and livelihood. Art is supposed to support life, not the other way around.
But still, knowing that I could go look at the Temple of Dendur for the price of a quarter has helped me get through a lot in the past. Museums are places I love, and I miss them.
I think it’s okay to grieve what the temporary closures symbolize. To grieve unrealized projects, shows installed and never seen. What we are grieving is not just a couple months of separation, but an unknown amount of living in fear. It’s experiencing the vulnerability of our bodies, it’s having sick loved ones whom we cannot reach or touch. It’s emerging into a world that’s financially destabilized. A world in which many people who make art might no longer have the time and resources to do so, a world in which many of the museums we respected fired our friends. To grieve this is not to equate art with life, but to acknowledge that this situation extends far beyond the time we are spending indoors, and to not ask people to pretend otherwise.
I know that everyone is just trying their best—but if you’re trying to offer me a replica, I’d rather accept the loss.
When I imagined A stone that thinks of Enceladus, I saw a space in which visitors felt psychic lightness in their bodies, a sensuous relationship with stone and an intimacy with geologic time. Would the glass crack with a frost? The alabaster erode? Would viewers build their own stacks of rocks in response and collaboration?
I wanted to make a work that spread out across a field while maintaining an intimate scale. I wanted to hear the voices of the invited poets and performers intertwine with sculpture, and each other, to sink together into shared contemplations of place. To see light refracting in the glass as people moved around them. To watch the summer grasses grow, to see what animals came, to sit with scattered boulders as if they were seed pods caught against shrubs in the springtime, the cairns as moments of glistening light reflecting outwards. Like a stone beaming to Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, and reflecting in the planet’s cover of ice back onto itself. The child of Gaia, a giant.
This work may very well still be realized. We are all just navigating our collective unknown, and I am fortunate to work with an institution that has been continuously supportive. At this moment however, in this news cycle, with these deaths, it feels like a foggy dream. It is easy to feel like sculpture is a low priority—many artists I’ve spoken to in the last month have vocalized difficulties around making work. Life feels important. Supporting one another feels important. Figuring out how to pay rent next month, and the month after that feels important. But art that offers guidance and solace I think, is still important. Identifying what art might be responsive to this time, and how to offer it, may very well be part of an evolving job description. I think speaking clearly with ourselves and each other that we are entering into a world that is irrevocably changed might help us figure out what art can do with this time, right now. With what we know is still available.
The Rider follows a young man’s growing awareness that because of a head injury his dream of being a rodeo star is no longer possible. The loss for him includes not only the shifting of his adolescent vigor, but the vision of a stable future riding and training horses, the ability to provide his sister with an easier life. At the end of the film, Brady makes the choice against one last ride, which would have had only the outcome of disability or death, and instead chooses the embrace of his family. We watch as he turns toward his messy, undetermined future, aware that for him the decision will never yield a fairy tale, but that life was probably the better choice, regardless.
Change does not necessarily mean that things will be for the worse, but it’s also okay if it doesn’t mean they will be for the better, either.
Who knows what will happen when the ground underneath the stalagmites is excavated in the Bruniquel Cave? Who knows what our own compressed debris will tell archaeologists 200,000 years in the future? Is survival in that time frame even conceivable? What if the Neanderthal constructions in the cave really were intended as sculpture? What can we possibly know for sure?
The imagined space opens up to the potential space, which I believe is not equivalent to an illusion. Good or bad, it is what is helping me through.
1. Translated by Jirō Takei and annotated by Mark P. Keane, Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese Garden (Tuttle Classics, 2008)
2. Phone Call was organized by Ginevra Shay and facilitated by the arts organization Transformer DC. It took place March 30 to April 3, 2020.
3. Translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M.D. Herter Norton, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke (1892-1910). First published in The Norton Library in 1969.