West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Some thoughts on Art

My dear readers, I owe you a big apology for not writing for so long. For those of you who’ve stuck with me, thanks. I will endeavor to do better in the future. It’s not that I’ve lacked for things to talk about, but rather for the time to talk about them. Also—though I may be the only one to whom this matters—this is my 100th post. I feel like it should be something profound and momentous. Hence, some thoughts on art (and a brief, scattered update on where the last four months have taken me).

This spring, I’ve become aware that art, in its various forms, enriches and informs my life in more ways than I generally give it credit for. As a scientist, I am constantly seeking the most parsimonious explanation for the way things are. Artists are doing the opposite, in a sense: revealing the implausible, defying explanations, doing away with borders and confines. Artists don’t necessarily even concern themselves with the way things are. But the best art, in my humble and decidedly uneducated opinion, is like a funhouse mirror. Good art throws back a changed reflection of the world, with certain elements exaggerated or distorted or absent, so that you have to think again about the way things really are. And I don’t mean that in a visual sense at all; more in a metaphysical sense. In the scientific, rational mindset, there’s a danger of becoming committed to one narrow view. I have seen many good scientists who get entrenched in one way of seeing things, and can’t admit other possible explanations. Artists help keep the ways of thinking open.

Last week I flew to Scotland to visit my sister Lucy. She’s finishing an MFA in Edinburgh. She started out in printmaking, but she’s moved into sculptures and installation works. The work that I liked best was an installation she called “Winter Memorial,” on the coast just south of Dunbar. In a narrow inlet between sandstone outcroppings, she had hung strings of printed banners like prayer flags. The banners were printed with images of giant snowflakes, in white on white, so you could see the images appear and vanish as the light changed. The idea was to leave them in place and document their slow decomposition in the wind and saltwater.

“It’s about the first things that global climate change will affect,” she said. “Snow and tide lines.” But it’s also about prayer, and hope, and transience. Tibetan Buddhists leave prayer flags in sacred places in the mountains, and when the flags disintegrate in the wind the prayers are gradually released to heaven. For Lucy and me, prayer flags have an additional resonance: our mother always hangs them in her garden and the apple trees in the back yard. Prayer flags, for us, call back the island of our youth, the land to which we dream of returning. A land which could vanish under rising seas by the end of the century. Thinking of all these things, I found myself nearly in tears at the sight of Lucy’s work. I think that pieces like this—things that evoke a visceral, emotional reaction—will be as important as the science when it comes to convincing the public that climate change is happening, and that we need to do something now.

Lucy and I wandered about Edinburgh, with its medieval stonework and narrow streets, taking in about as much cultural life as is humanly possible in a week. We went to concerts, shows, art galleries, bars, shops; hosted several parties and attended many others. Our stepsister Stella is also in the city, studying informatics at the university. Stella and her boyfriend Conrad prepared a marvelous Sunday brunch, featuring a veggie haggis. (For those of you who don’t know which parts of a sheep separate the true haggis from the vegetarian version, count yourself lucky. Google at your own risk.) We read the Robert Burns “Ode to a Haggis” with great ceremony before stabbing the thing. It was actually quite tasty, especially when accompanied with a feast of potato waffles, veggie sausage, fried bananas, mushrooms (almost too charmingly called “mushies”), beans, and tomatoes. I’m probably forgetting something. Oh yes, mimosas. Stella and Conrad definitely know how to put a brunch together.

Conrad also knows how to keep track of what concert tickets are going on sale, which is how we all got tickets to see Mogwai in an unbelievably intimate venue called The Liquid Room. An appropriate name, given the amount of beer on the floor before the night was over—but the show was truly amazing, and we were about four rows back from the stage (four standing rows of solid-packed Scots like vertical sardines, that is; there weren’t any seats). Such energy and depth. For a long time, when I was a kid, I didn’t listen to any music more recent than about 1930. Discouraged by what was on the radio in the 80s, I pretty much gave up on popular music. I’m glad I decided to give it another chance. I don’t know if Mogwai really qualifies as popular music, anyway. They’re one of those groups that skates around the edge of popularity. Seeing them on stage, I got the sense that they’d being doing this whether or not anyone listened. I’m glad they do.

Another amazing group that I got to see this spring was the Arcade Fire. The weekend before I left for Scotland, I drove down to Pennsylvania for a barefoot hike and a book signing. A friend of mine runs a barefoot hiking club in that area. We’ve been trying to arrange a meeting for a couple of years now. I finally found a time that worked, and it turned out to be the same night that the Arcade Fire was playing in Philly. I had just been lamenting the fact that I would miss their New York and Boston shows, since I would be in Scotland, but as soon as I heard they’d be in Philly that weekend, I jumped at the chance for a ticket (mil gracias, Liza!) The barefoot hike was fun, and the concert was simply stunning. I’d seen them play in New York two years ago, when they were just starting out. In the past couple years they’ve become such consummate musicians and masters of the stage, and their new material is really powerful. The song “Windowsill” encapsulates a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. A friend recently asked me, “where are the protest songs of this generation?” I played that in response.

Continuing the theme of “no temporal continuity” ... way back in March, a few weeks after I last posted, I had another art-filled week. At the Wallace Stevens Poetry program on Tuesday night, I met Adam Zagajewski. Seated next to him at dinner, I had the chance to converse with him at length. He is every bit as wise, humble, and empathetic as his poetry suggests. Moving from the esoteric “high art” end of the spectrum to the arena of popular mass entertainment, on Thursday night I went into New York City to see Maná live at Madison Square Garden. Maná is kind of a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Every once in a while you owe it to yourself to go and see men with guitars and big hair strutting around a stage. It’s even better if they’re hot and speak Spanish. And I have kind of a thing for drummers...

I had meant to take the Metro North back on Friday morning, but a horrendous sleet storm shut down the trains. I ended up wandering the streets (all awash in four inches of icy slush) with a charming Dutch girl named Anna, 18 years old, doing her “grand tour” in the US. We met at the wretched youth hostel where we’d both crashed the night before—and to which, sadly, we were forced to return. They even charged special “high season” rates that second night, which I strongly suspect were really “trapped in the City” rates. To escape the weather and the baleful eye of the hostel manager, we went to the Met and spent the entire day looking at art. Usually I can’t take more than a couple hours in a museum before I end up feeling like the kid in that Far Side cartoon, raising his hand in the back of class: “can I be excused? my brain is full.” But somehow on that day, with the sleet tapping ominously on the skylights, I found I could stay all day in the museum. Anna and I talked about life, art, love, friendship, the state of the world; all the things that have been on my mind lately. Somehow the art all around us and the surreal ice-covered city outside brought us as close as sisters for the hours that we shared.

I was a bad grad student that week—I skipped out on our Thursday lab meeting and missed a chance to learn about Ripley’s K and its applications in spatial analysis. Aside from a few hours of grappling with 4D programming when I finally got back to Willi on Sunday, I completely neglected my work. But I returned to it refreshed and renewed, ready to take my tiny place in the parade of human progress.

Well, this entry is far too long already. It would not be complete, though, without a mention of Robin’s Seder. My advisor invited me to her family’s Seder, and it was one of the highlights of this spring. I’d been to a few Seders before, but never one quite so traditional and at the same time completely appropriate to modern times. All the blessings were sung, all the traditional foods set out, and all the rituals followed from the washing of hands to the finding of the afikoman. But the readings were taken from Tikkun, a liberal Jewish quarterly magazine. I’d never heard the Passover story told in quite such terms. The text emphasized the universality of suffering and privation, how all of us make our personal journeys through Egypt. It talked about the importance of learning from the past without dwelling on it. It stressed reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, and pointed out that opposing Israel’s expansionist policies is not anti-Semitism, but rather represents a higher allegiance to the spirit of Judaism. (Kind of like the way protesting the Iraq war is about the most patriotic action an American can take right now, even though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called unpatriotic while protesting.) I’m not Jewish. If more Jews thought this way, I’d consider converting.

After the Seder, I played chamber music with Robin’s teenage kids, Rachel and Charlie. Rachel’s a violinist and Charlie plays cello and guitar; I played the piano. (There’s probably a commandment against it somewhere, but I do covet my advisor’s piano.) Rachel and Charlie have an astonishing rapport. In chamber music, there’s a magical sense that the beat doesn’t belong to any single person; instead, it’s somehow an emergent property of the group. Usually it takes a while to develop this sense. With the two of them it materialized almost instantly. We played some Haydn trios and the Beethoven C minor, and later I played the first movement of the Shostakovich cello sonata with Charlie. That piece is glorious beyond words. We talked about it a little, nonetheless, how the ethereal, improbable cello melody gives way to martial rumblings of staccato octaves in the left hand.

“With Shostakovich there’s always a sense of foreboding,” Robin said. “Underneath the joy, there’s a reminder of darker things.”

“A bit like life,” Rob (her husband, also on my committee) mused.

And it is like life, only more so. The concentrated, unearthly sweetness of that melody, soaring out across three octaves and ending up in a totally different key from where it began—beauty too rich for use. Then the tolling of bells, the inevitable, irrevocable passage of time, the reminder of mortality. Art as a mirror for the world, a mirror that transforms the world and the way we see it.

Hasta pronto, y que les vaya muy bien.


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