Friday, April 03, 2015

Glass Beads and Gun Powder

On Monday, I took my installation down at bkbx.  Another artist's show opened last night (really beautiful - go see it!).  For me, the whole project was about experimenting.  Materials, ideas: none of them were fixed so all of them were open to change.  The thing that began the process ended up being all but invisible.  Some people were disappointed by that, and I had moments of doubt myself, but in the end it was simply how it went.  And I think it left the door open to another project or perhaps to making this one bigger.  Fortunately, I will have that opportunity because the piece will be re-installed (and perhaps re-envisioned) at the end of August as part of an exhibition that I am co-organizing in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  More about that later.

As I reflect on the installation, the process of making it and the feedback from people who experienced it, I find myself thinking about what's wrong when we (I) are (am) timid.  In art, and in life, there is a spectrum of wildness or daring.  I have a friend, Donna Sharrett, who makes gorgeous collaged pieces.  They are exquisite in the purest sense of the word.  I will never forget her telling me about the agonizing she did when she decided to add a new element to them.  For her, adding a glass bead when before there were none felt like leaping off the cliff.

Donna Sharett, Dancing Barefoot, 2014.

At the other end of the spectrum are artists like Cai Guo Qiang.  He thinks big - really big.  What I find remarkable is that, sometimes, his work is just as exquisite as Donna's collages, even when the scale is huge and the materials are gun powder and rockets.  I think of this one, Black Rainbow for Valencia, Spain.  (Link is to a video that it definitely worth watching.)

Being rather a fan, I have gone to several of his artist talks.  I remember one time, I think it was when the piece above was new, it was the aftermath of 9/11 when the US was discovering just how wrongheaded it had been to invade Iraq.  Cai was speaking and someone asked him about George W. Bush and his politics.  Everyone in the audience was waiting for him to eviscerate GWB.  Not just waiting for him to do that but wanting him to do that because, in that audience at least, everyone was so angry about what had happened.  We all felt so powerless and it would have been so gratifying to hear this brilliant artist put poor, stupid George in his place.  But no.  Cai just waved his hand and said something like, "Politicians come and go" and moved on to the next topic.  It really struck me that here was someone who had such a huge vision and had such a broad perspective that the rise and (inevitable) fall of a politician who had an eight-year term limit was not worth spending much time dwelling on.  His ideas were larger than any moment in geopolitical time.

I think it is important to note here that it would be easy to put Cai above Donna and say that his daring is greater.  In a way, it is - his failures are larger and certainly involve more people.  But I wonder if there is another way to see it: that Donna's inverse scale - the drama of adding a glass bead - is possibly just as monumental as rockets firing gun powder over Valencia.  How do we understand our own timidity and hesitations?  What - exactly - is holding us back?

That's what I want to know.

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