Moments before the sun rises, very near my open kitchen window, an owl softly hoots in the still morning air. Though I have heard him screech and kill in the night, yet his early morning call soothes me.
As we rotate into our star’s light, color enters our world. Slowly, a dark patch against the grey background of morning takes form from the light and becomes a tree. Every morning this happens, the world already and always there to reveal itself to us.
And every evening after the color of our world first saturates in the late afternoon light, as we rotate away from our star, the light slowly leaves us. We are invited to engage with what remains visible in a more mysterious way as form gives way to shadows which may or may not be a tree, which may or not be in motion. As sight becomes a less trusty guide, hearing quickens. The night deepens and like ancient ancestors we become wary. Does that sound mean danger approaches to leap out of the darkness or is it simply the grass rustling in a soft breeze? Once the light has gone, those of us lucky enough to live under dark skies gaze up to the stars, carried into a yet larger mystery.
In philosophy, a phenomenon (from the Greek phainomenon (thing appearing to view)) is “the object of a person’s perception; what the senses or the mind notice.” The broader definition, the one we most commonly mean when using this word, is that phenomena are events, the cause of which are in question. Perception can itself be considered a phenomenon. What are the qualities, the essences, of perception? To consider possible answers, we must enter the realm of the sensory and put aside judgements.
‘The real is a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgment before incorporating into it the most surprising phenomena…’ — Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Dominion v. Communion
As originally conceived, this post was to be a continuation of a previous one concerning our deteriorating ability to contemplate. I then realized if I were to do that, I needed to address not only our digital age which has been seriously detrimental to our ability to concentrate, but also I needed to write about the how we see ourselves being in the world, our position in it. Basically, this reduces to the difference between perceiving ourselves as the ‘masters of all we survey’ v. the more indigenous view that we are relatives of, and intrinsically woven into all we survey. Slowly some children of capitalism and Christianity are returning to the latter view. My guides in my own recovery process have been David Abram and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The Old Testament god of the Christians came in very handy during the dawning of the industrial age, and now to the oil and gas industry ravaging our planet, to rationalize all manner of abuse.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” — Genesis 1:26.
This belief is so deeply embedded in our Western consciousness that it is possible for some to scrape the earth raw with machinery, to pollute air and water, without any thought or reflection.
Another point of view:
My hope is that people can…learn to see what they have seen as natural resources ever since they were born, to see the land, the trees, the mountains, see all these things as relatives. — Chase Iron Eyes.1
If we are to realize Iron Eyes’ hope, we must first reinvigorate and transform our perception, recover our ability to contemplate and communicate with all that is, and return honor to all that is. We must begin a process of ‘leveling’ by which we become no more nor less important than “the fish of the sea and…the birds of the heavens.” The belief in dominion runs so deep, we must even alter our language by redefining words and creating new ones.
Bracketing and Beckoning
‘Seeing is fogetting the name of the thing one sees.’ — Robert Irwin.
I borrow the word ‘bracket’ from a definition of phenomenology. In part, phenomenology is
a philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins — as an ‘inalienable present; and all its [phenomology’s] efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world.2
To bracket is to concentrate on the essence of a sensory experience, not adding to it, nor taking way from it. By stripping away our beliefs, inherited thoughts, politics, and other forms of mediation, we can lay bare the essence of what is before us, encountered by our bodies in the world. This can be a raw place, unbuffered by the usual, but actually artificial, boundaries we use to separate us from it/them. Yet with these boundaries gone, we find a white bowl with blue rim resting on the table which beckons to us. Our arm reaches out in response to this invitation; our hand forms itself perfectly to receive the bowl’s roundness. Or we find that a patch of soft, green grass along the sidewalk’s edge insists we remove our shoes and, as we do, we already feel the grass’s touch on the soles of our naked feet. And so also a deep blue painting may reach out from the wall on which it hangs pretending to be inert, and ask me to approach. In this place we do not simply look, we see.
If able to re-achieve ‘a direct and primitive contact with the world,’ we can hopefully begin to learn we do not stand apart, we are a part of all that is. And is that not a more joyous place to be?
‘Alive is afoot / Magic never died’ — Leonard Cohen
Footnote: Painting as Phemonena
This from Olafur Eliasson in an interview I stumbled upon at hyperallergic.com (emphasis added)
EWA: The Turner paintings used for the color experiments are inspired by natural phenomena, a relationship found in your work as well. There seem to be a few layers at work here: Turner translated his experiences of nature, and you, in turn, translate Turner’s vision in your paintings. How is the role of nature different for you in this series as opposed to in past work?
OE: That’s an interesting question, which I think touches on something very important about how we understand nature. I do not believe that you can truly separate nature and culture, because there is in fact no outside. As animals, we humans are always part of nature. The science journalist Lone Frank said in a conversation I had with her recently for my Riverbed catalogue that “culture is something that arises from the human brain’s way of functioning, from our way of being animals.” We think we know what nature is, but it has more to do with what we exclude, what we say is not nature.
I suppose that your point is that my paintings are a kind of mediation on Turner’s mediation on an experience of nature. But perhaps we should look instead at the pigments as part of nature, and think of painting as a material phenomenon that can be perceived the way we sense a rainbow, a river, or a volcano.
I have read and re-read this section of the interview, yet only today discovered the subtle shift from ‘translation’ in the question to ‘mediation’ in the answer. Turner’s paintings are an act of translation, not mediation. Mediation is to place a buffer between us and that which is perceived by us. Translation is to convert the original perception from one form or medium to another.
As painting can be said to have a language, a material phenomenon can be said to be its source. We can then use the translation trope to suggest that Turner translated the phenomenon of a roiling sky into the language of paint.
Many reductive artists, myself included, take inspiration from the language of the natural world, its phenomenon if you will, and transform, translate, that into the language of our chosen medium. In many cases, looking at the result of this translation gives no clue as to the original language. Reading a translation of French to English doesn’t reveal the original language (nor does it really matter that much). I believe that this inability to handily map result to source is because it is in the nature of reductive practice to look at essences and materiality. Behind the artist’s translation is intent, and that is a very interesting discussion to have with any of these artists. What does it mean? is not the right question. The right question is how does it mean?
But I digress. My point (and Eliasson’s) is this: can we come to view a painting as phenomena? Can we come to experience a painting’s is-ness, as Buddhists would say, prior to any reflection or judgment. If so, we must first unlearn our unconscious habit of no sooner encountering an object before we instantly begin a process of reflecting upon it (what does it mean?) and from that reflection draw conclusions which are separate and apart from what is before us. Experience becomes thought. But what if we could stop time at the exact moment of perception and draw out that moment in all its spaciousness and wonder before we give the experience a name and thus move it to the realm of mind. Would we then be able to truly contemplate and see an artwork, not simply look then look away, either feeling deceived by lack of a clear meaning or because our smartphone beeped? Reductive artists invite us to engage, to place our body before the object/subject, to shift our angle of view from side to side, to give time for the object/subject to unfold before us, to reach out to us. They ask the viewer to suspend judgment long enough to see.
- Coppola, Jason. “Exclusive Truthout Interview: Sioux Spiritual Leader Speaks Out on Land Sale at Sacred Site.” Truthout. 21 Aug. 2012. Accessed 24 Sept. 2016. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/11035-exclusive-truthout-interview-sioux-spiritual-leader-speaks-out-on-land-sale-at-sacred-site. ↩
- Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge Classics, 2002. ↩