Saturday, March 08, 2008

Flowers & Swords

This photo, of Japanese swords and bright flowers together in a red frosted-glass vase, has been one of my more popular yet also controversial images. It has created its own history, independent of the moment it took me to make the arrangement and photograph.

I was operating a sales booth at a visionary-art show at a well-known new-age center in Minneapolis in 2004, and I had a large print of this photo on a display stand at my booth. It's an image I had taken in the studio about a year beforehand. I didn't sell a single thing at that show, which was my typical experience for doing art fairs and other shows the entire time I lived in Minnesota. My art just doesn't fit with Minnesota, I guess; too visionary, too strange. When I moved to New Mexico and later California, after living and not thriving in Minnesota for several years, it was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds—perhaps literally, but certainly symbolically. I had been personally invited to show my work at this particular show, and gone out of my way to prepare for it; so it was a disappointment to not sell anything. I did do some smalls trades with a couple of fellow artists at day's end, art for art, each of us bartering our wares to the other.

The responses that this image raised at that art fair—the last fair I ever participated in, in Minnesota, come to think of it—were emblematic.

There were during the afternoon two women who kept coming back to look at the photo. Both of them talked to me about their responses.

One woman was a warrior-type, clearly an experienced martial artist who knew how to deal with swords; she was also a drummer in drumming circles, and we had a lot in common. She was intrigued by the photo, and almost bought the print. I didn't mind when she didn't, however, as I had enjoyed the conversation.

The other woman roamed around the room several times, and kept coming back to stare at the photo of the swords and the flowers together. Finally, when I asked her what she thought of it, probably the fourth time she'd been by to look at it, she said, "It really scares me, yet I find it compelling." She was afraid of it, but couldn't take her eyes off of it. I asked why. She said because it was a powerful image that combined both the potential for violence and the present beauty of the moment.

For me, this was profound and valuable feedback, and I said so. I love getting this kind of honest response, even if it's a response not ultimately supportive or positive. That the artwork has gotten under someone's skin, and made them uncomfortable, in my opinion, means the artwork has succeeded—succeeded just as much as if it had been praised or lauded or generated some kind of ecstasy in the viewer. Art is disturbing, and supposed to disturb. Art isn't soothing, safe, or easily digested. Art should make you ask more questions than you have answers for.

This photo of swords and flowers, for me, was about bushido, and the samurai's Zen-flavored awareness of the terrible beauty of life: it's awesome beauty, and it's inevitable ending. There is an awareness of the intense beauty of existence that one feels at the edge of losing life. It's an existential, sudden intense awareness that life is amazingly beautiful and meaningful. As the saying comes down to us from the Native American elders who once were warriors: It is a good day to die. Another similar saying that comes from the samurai goes, When you know you are going to die, you can accomplish anything. One can do the impossible.

All these associations flashed through my mind in the moment it took to originally make the photo, which was in fact a fortuitous accident, as such things often are. A great deal of my artwork arrives like a lightning stroke, like the strobe of a lightbox in a photography studio, and it might be years till I figure it out. If I ever do.

What was interesting to me about the responses these two women gave me at that no-sales art-event was that both of them, in different ways, embodied the ambivalence of approach/avoidance. The first woman was mostly compelled to approach, mostly fearless, still a little hesitant. She seemed clear that she wanted the art, but didn't know how to fit it into her daily life; she acknowledged her inner warrior nature, but didn't know how to display such knowledge in her home, her office, her daily life. Her hesitance was in the area of figuring how to best integrate such art into her regular routines. The second woman was in some ways a classic repressed housewife type, with mousey dark hair and a sallow complexion, whose life was more likely ruled by fear than by sensuality; yet she was drawn again and again, as if desperately seeking out her own inner warrior. I sensed something very strong and unbreakable inside her, even though the face she presented to the world was a shy, fearful, timid, even fragile one. It is always amazing to get those quick glimpses of something behind the eyes, that is indestructible.

This was a lesson for me in some of the ways that art can be transformative; in different ways for different people, to be sure, but speaking to our darker hearts, our inner selves—speaking directly, bypassing the logical coping mind, the conscious ego-interface that drives us from home to work and gets us through the navigable wastelands of the everyday. Art that bypasses the conscious, chattering monkey-mind contains a charge of numinous energy, a dark aura of power. It can raise atavistic fears, as it raises the hairs on the back of your neck; our species was once a prey species, and we still remember those runs for safety. It can also raise the shadows of predation, those darker selves that enabled us to survive, even if we repress them now for the sake of getting along with others in civilized company. Civilization can be a veneer, but it can also be a choice to not-kill, just for today, to not-hunt, just now, just right now.

My own art and music have often been called transformative, archetypal, mythopoetic, shamanic, etc. It's a label that took me a long time to embrace. I'm not into the soothing, almost saccharine visions of much new-age artwork; I spend a lot of time bringing the shadow into the light, and that shows up in the art. You can almost always spot an artist who has been through the dark night of the senses, the dark night of the soul. There's an intangible mark on their artwork, a presence, something mysterious lingering like an aura of light or dark. You want to see what's on the back of the painting. You want to know more, and more, and you never reach the back wall of the cave.

Flowers and swords: the yin and yang of life and death.

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