Excitement about Art that Concerns Mortality, December of 2010

It happened one time that I found a new constellation of concepts, well-represented, all in a week (December 2-8, 2010). They are still my touchstones, here described and linked.

A couple things have been very exciting the past few days. I rewatched I HEART HUCKABEE’S, and then I listened to David O. Russell’s commentary, and was struck by his idea of dividing existential, Buddhist thought from its traditional aesthetics and language conventions. Specifically situating two guys’ struggle for meaning in the sprawl of suburban southern California. No one meditates as such, no text or thinker is cited. There are little style nods here and there to the dharma, but basically it completely dislocates that thought from its context, and the ideas speak themselves as if for the first time.

This morning I read about an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in DC where complaints against a piece by David Wojnarowicz resulted in the piece being taken down from an exhibit of queer themed portraiture. The complaint of federal money funding anti-Christian sentiment was false in two ways; one, I watched the video (Fire in my Belly, approx 20 min), and there’s about 5 seconds of a crucifix with ants crawling on it, and some close-ups of a sad Christ-face, but the whole video was going for an aesthetic of grit and suffering, and it seems clear that the identification is with the suffering of Christ and the crucifix, it’s not a denigration. Two, the show was apparently funded privately. Anyhow, the museum capitulated to pressure, and then didn’t do right by two young protestors who brought the piece back into the gallery via an iPad.

So this is the most attention David Wojnarowicz has gotten in years, and even though it’s a predictably stupid series of events, I’m glad to know that a cri de coeur of that intensity can still shock and unsettle. It got me back to thinking about him and why I loved him so much when I found him at the New Museum in high school, and how much I’ve learned since then. Returning to places I’ve been before always feels accidental, as if I wouldn’t give myself permission on purpose to re-read, as if I have to always move only forward like Wojnarowicz’s world-papered shark.


A pal B forwarded Emily Colucci’s good analysis of the body of work Wojnarowicz made upon the death of his lover Peter Hujar. The author digs into Mourning and Melancholia, observing that the AIDS epidemic had created unique conditions that Freud couldn’t have outlined. Being on the periphery of a culture that does not recognize your libidinal attachments and in many cases knowing that you and most of the people you know will die a similar death soon make the process of disentangling your desire from your deceased lover impossible or irrelevant, or anyway fundamentally altered. Without the context of society, one mourns as if for the first time.

This made me wonder if the creative culture of that time in that group could be thought of as a super-accelerated time-table for the interaction of creativity and awareness of mortality in an ordinary life. I’m coming to believe that real, powerful creativity comes from the steady awareness that we will die. I think of the Buddha’s right index and middle fingers touching the ground in Bhumisparsha mudra, earth witness mudra. The other hand is raised, palm open: Abhaya mudra, no fear mudra.

I found a book through a roundabout on the internet that seems to have included a Richard Thompson song; it’s called The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up, by Robert Burton. It might be very very good, or very boring, or both. I have in my notes from Tias Little the title The Emotional Body, but upon googling, this doesn’t seem to be an actual title, just a common phrase in the New Age canon, frequently used by Tias Little. So this other title sounds kind of related. And my pal M turned me on to the work of Meyerhold, soviet actor and playwright who developed systems of movement he called Biomechanics, series of movements that are used to cultivate emotional experiences, particularly for acting. He was tortured and killed by the government, and his ideas passed through a bottleneck. I don’t know how possible it is to learn the Etudes, except by watching grainy film clips, or speaking with his few surviving students. I like the idea that I might have some sequence of movements to learn alongside the many books I’ve found to read. And the tragedy of Meyerhold, killed for his art, makes this feel like profound movement. That you could do something just so, and do it wholeheartedly enough that your mind might line up with your body, is as good a definition of yoga as I’ve encountered, but probably also the height of any discipline.

Then there’s Mark Ruffalo on the Bigger Idea, when acting becomes a communion with the universal, and it’s not so much what he says (that the reminder of death makes us need to live), but HOW he SAYS it that demonstrates how the body pumps the mind, the breath a bellows to the fire in the belly. And although I can’t imitate him, I know that feeling of pleasure in the body when the ideas and words are coming too fast, and lately I’ve known the pleasure and focus of the mind when the body is wholeheartedly just so.

(Image: David Wojnarowicz, Untitled Shark, 1984)

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