Tuesday, April 26, 2011

the dusty attics of the internet present...

...a wonderful interior view of The Chapel of The Chimes, which I have mentioned here before, in all its magic and glory, courtesy of this amazingly weird video I had completely forgotten I made my junior year of high school until I googled myself today. (Googling oneself regularly is very useful sometimes, even if you are a relatively boring person as far internet fame goes...) The particular voice of the textual intertitles in the movie bear an eerie resemblance to the stories I wrote around the ages of maybe five to ten, in which a lot of tragic things happened to a lot of bee-yoo-tee-full princesses and unicorns...especially the last card, which has a really wonderful and probably completely unironic twist to it that seems totally typical of seven-year-old me.

The slight cringe factor of the video notwithstanding, I'm delighted that this exists, because simply image searching the Chapel turns up really disappointing results; it's almost impossible to get a feel for the intimate, mystical, reverent silence of the place, strange garden-labyrinth-library full of ashes that it is, unless you've been there, and I think the video does give it something of its peculiar and haunting shape.

Miguel Frasconi
The song that bookends the movie, "Desert Melody," is from an album full of wild music called Song + Distance by Miguel Frasconi -- whom I first heard, in fact, in the Chapel of the Chimes itself, playing an astonishing array of glass vessels, wineglasses and bowls at a summer solstice event held there each year called "The Garden of Memory," in which dozens of local musicians take over the nooks and crannies of the interlocking stone chapels to play wondrous midsummer music you can wander in and out of, lost as our poor princess in the transfiguring fairytale dream of it all. If you're in Oakland come this Midsummer Night, go...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Byzantine Bathhouse of Joseph Cornell

My project for this summer is to transform my entire house into a single, living, inhabitable work of art. Some of you know about the Night Garden, the miniature & mystical greenhouse-cathedral I have been slowly building in my livingroom; a while back it was decided (I hesitate to say that I decided; it felt more like I was the channel for a choice not entirely my own...) that in order to make one room a working, mythic whole the entire house would have to be cultivated in the same spirit. I've been working on the endless task of covering the cardboard bones of The Night Garden with papier mache, trying to get that space finished before moving on to the rest of the house -- but I've been going a little crazy, because it's so daunting to conjure this palatial construction out of the vague resonances of my heart into reality in the first place, and much more so when it takes hours of work with a bucket of wallpaper paste just to make it sturdy enough to start painting. Which it isn't yet, because I'm tired of papier mache! I want to do something fun! (As to why I'm papier macheing with a bucket of wallpaper paste, everything I know about how to make massive magical things for cheap was discovered by stumbling upon Kim Graham's Tree Troll project. She suggested it over that horrible flour-and-water pap.)

So I sat down and thought about a quick and satisfying shift I could make in the house, something I could see. And I thought -- hell, what about the bathroom? It's tiny, after all (barely four feet square, not counting the tub) and surely easily altered into some kind of aesthetic creation. So I went and sat in there with my notebook to think through it. Just perched on the potty and thought, first of all, about paint colors. I'd been vaguely contemplating a nice green, a big pot of ferns, you know, fresh and leafy, whatever. But as I stared at the walls it seemed more and more as if every color I brushed on them with my mind was as cheerfully bland as the next, and no scheme that came to mind could do anything to shift the room from mildly pleasant functionality to art.

Now, I've seen pictures of fabulous bathrooms with hammered gold (!) walls and giant painting, bathrooms in black velvet, graffiti showcases, sleek expanses of marble. But in my opinion there is a vast difference between a well-designed (or just a designed) bathroom and a bathroom that feels like a truly beautiful space in the way that other rooms and spaces often do, and as I sat there it occurred to me that I wasn't sure if I'd ever really seen a bathroom that was more than just decorated, that felt like someone had really put thought into how they wanted the space to shape them.

I think this is because bathrooms are the places where we are closest to our body and its functions: this is the room where we shower and poop and floss, after all, and we Westerners tend to view all rituals of cleansing as distasteful.  If we are not rich, we make our bathrooms pleasantly antiseptic and aesthetically hygienic -- think of all the neutral tones, cool colors, smooth surfaces, the utterly bland spaces, as vague as possible, gently whitewashing all the earthy, sensuous, gritty contact with our dirty (literally and figuratively) naked bodies! And if we are wealthy, we order them made so ostentatiously luxurious as to completely obscure, once again, the actual body itself, this time drowned out by teak and black granite or the aforementioned hammered gold, so immersed in the thick carpet and jacuzzi tub that the realities of dirt, the small, human, hard-working body once again are vanished.

Main bath, Bath, twilight
So I thought about the act of cleansing, and the places and the cultures that placed importance on the ritual and the ceremony of the bath. Like the Turkish hammam, for example -- listen, that's a place where the body just gets to be the body, steamed, dunked, and sweated out next to other bodies without shame or distaste or overwrought anxiety about spotless surfaces. The Romans built stunning bathhouses -- I've been to the baths in Bath, and it's strange to think that nothing like that kind of elegance and attentiveness to the needs of the body could really ever have been constructed in this country except by those emigrating from other places where the rituals of purification are still holy. We just don't do that here.

And I thought, too, about alchemy and its rituals of purification -- the old lead-into-gold adage you may be familiar with from silly stories is only a surface metaphor; the Great Work required purifying the self along with your materials, and comfort with the stages of corruption before you got to get along to the gold. And I thought about the tiny little room I was sitting in with its unseeing cream walls, and an image came to me: a hamsa, a charm you have probably seen, called variously a Hand of Fatima and a Hand of Miriam, an common and lovely amulet with a variety of meanings, my favorite being that (according to Wikipedia, and why not?) that  "many Jews believe that the five fingers of the hamsa hand remind its wearer to use their five senses to praise God." (What the hell else do I do?) Except that I saw not a tiny amulet (and here are three beautiful amulets to look at, while I'm on the subject, and also one that serves as proof that anything, no matter how mystical, from bath house to sacred charm, can be made kitsch if that's what you really long for!) but rather a cabinet: maybe a foot and a half tall, made of antiqued copper, in the shape of the hand. In it, dozens of tiny glass bottles, like Cornell's pharmacy cabinet. Each one full of dung, or sweat, or dance. And strung on the wall opposite, chains of them, actually hand-sized this time, each one a frame for a poem, a picture, a painting of the body in one of its merry stages of dirtmaking and refreshment. And the walls themselves? Turquoise and terracotta, earth and water colors, rich and dark. A room in which to enjoy the magical transition from filthy to freshly cleansed is what I want, not an antiseptic box of tile echoing the lost shape of a space once richly laid with artful anticipation of a plunge into a hot or icy pool. A room that has not forgotten how to embrace the body, where there will be no evil eye to glare at your supposed imperfections, where the cycles of matter through growth and decay, cleanliness and filth, are treated properly with humor and reverence...

Monday, April 11, 2011

On Building Kaleidoscopes

Somewhere in me lives a certainty that creativity is desperately, excruciatingly important to living the kind of life that swells you full of gladness for having had a chance to live it, but why creativity matters has been eluding me....

My father writes:

I'm trying to get away from the fetish that there's a thing at the end of the creative process. Creativity isn't mere manufacturing, not at all. There doesn't have to be a thing at the end (difficult as that is to face in our capitalist universe). No, but I think every creative act does need to include something like this: I glimpse some aspect of the world and I try to imitate that aspect, with my body or my words or my music, or with extensions of my body like paint & paper. As if the essence of creativity is some kind of mimesis. If I'm Shakespeare, I have to walk like Prospero before I can write the speeches of Prospero. To paint a buffalo on a cave wall I have to be the buffalo. When I write a poem, I believe I have the whole poem wordless inside me; the act of creation is copying out the wordless into words, skillfully unfurling the unmanifest into the manifest.

So what's so great about being somebody different (the wordless muse, the buffalo, Prospero....)? Well there's this tremendous relief in transcending my one limited paltry existence. A kind of ecstasy in breaking out of the finite and into unlimited possibility. It's ecstasy, "standing out from oneself" in Greek. I see something that is or could be, and it's beautiful or powerful or different. I let myself embody it, become it; give up being me for a moment, give up being sure and defined. There's a taste of infinity in the process. And the thing that I make, in the creative process, the gesture or poem or circus poster or piece of music - if it really has the breath of the infinite in it, people will recognize that, and they'll be inspired with the beauty and the urge to create, all over again.

He wrote this to me, and I thought: yes. But there's more to it than that, I think. I wrote back to him:

What I struggle with most is a sense that all my creativity is inwards, making of me a kind of hermetic museum inside of which all is dancing and alive but what good is that if I can't return it to the outer world that brought it into being? Only by bringing forth that energy can I feel the world around me to be as miraculous as it is within me. And the great conflict is the certain knowledge that I am full of a sense of powerful and living magic, and the utter fear that it will stay locked in me forever. So this is my great and only work: to make real the essence within me, to know absolutely that the outer world and the inner world flow together, a fountain of cupped hands in the glorious gladness of the rain --

A staircase in the kaleidoscopic Sagrada Familia
And then I went away and thought about it some more, and wondered about that creativity locked away inside me, the thousands and thousands of tissue-fine layers of images and fragments and snatches of daydream: city streets, moonlit gardens of quiet fountains and freesias, the round stone room I built in my head when I was a kid full of cabinets of dolls, spice markets, rain on the roof of a kitchen with stone floors and wood beams and herbs in blue pots in the windows...minarets, mouths on my breasts, my lover's body transformed into a stream full of sunlight, teacups I have never seen. There are worlds inside me that have never known a home beyond the chambers of my heart. The outer world, this world I'm plunged like a fish born underwater, seeps into me, sometimes tears me open and shouts into me, sometimes shines in like the sun in the morning. And it gives me the language, in colors and scents and sometimes in words, of the worlds within me: though they are all made within, I can only dream of the fragrance of unknown streets because of the streets I have seen, shaped by words in my mind or in my eyes by the light, the cardamom and ginger that has been put on my tongue, the knowledge of color, of warmth, of a winding alley, all born inwards on the wings of the senses.

And this inner life, in turn, can find ways to spill back out -- wants to spill back out, wants to become part of the world. The worlds within me are luminous, shivering, iridescent, marvelous. How to let them out? How to make manifest the unmanifest, how to give back to the world around me the shining shadows it has taught me how to weave behind my eyes? I think the answer to this is art -- but not only the simple act of making. Creativity, in the spiritual sense I am giving it, is not about creating a thing but rather about living in the strange swirling space at the boundary of the self and the universe, where the world pouring into me meets up with the worlds that surge and foam only in my understanding. I mean I want to live like a kaleidoscope.

A kaleidoscope is literally an "observer of beautiful forms," from the Greek kalos "beautiful" + eidos "shape" + skopion, from skopein "to look at, examine" -- except that it is not, in fact, a passive observer at all. A kaleidoscope takes in the world and tumbles it through mirrors and glass and remakes it in intricate, magical, chaotically ordered patterns that shift with your breath like light on the water. One half world-as-is, one half the changing assortment of things-in-the-viewer, the result is a kind of living mystic vision. What I am afraid of is living with either the world or the glass beads fixed in place, of seeing only the outer or the inner and not the transcendent dance between them. The ecstasy of breaking out of the finite.

There are acts that are particularly good at reminding us just how thin the borders of the body really are: I would call them eating, dancing, sex. They are not creative acts in the sense of a thing being made. They can easily be boring. But putting onto your tongue something truly delicious, whether flavored by star anise and honey or salted by hunger, especially shared among friends or else prepared lovingly, thoughtfully for oneself -- dancing because the music pouring down into your bones has made it impossible for your hips not to move -- your body moving into another, taking up one another's space, blending in warmth-- in moments like these inside and outside tend to flow completely together, and this we call joy. And here is a poem about that:

By the time I decide to write love poems it's Spring

and the stalks in their green have bloomed to fire and gold
and their fibers are in a language of joy,
and a woman, with hair like the back of a honeybee’s jacket
combs, the comb moves in a language of joy.
There is a gardener, who's thought a fool for tending to dirt,
and his trowel was forged in a language of joy.