Thank you for coming to this artist-talk event and the exhibit Water Flames. I am grateful for this dialogue, and to be on this journey together. I want to thank Sara and Benjamin for their support, as well as allowing me to speak tonight.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
So wrote T.S. Eliot in “Four Quartets.”
In 2002, mere months after September 11th, I began a series of paintings based on T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. The Four Quartets reveal a poet who struggled to understand the darkness of a war-torn world, and yet became a resolute voice of hope despite the darkness around him. His personal journey was one of being “disastrously married, accidentally expatriated, emotionally dependent… “ (Dana Gioia). And yet he reached that place of stillness. I needed to journey with the poet through “The Waste Land” into that “still point of the turning world” in my poet 9/11 experience.
I asked my writer friend who first introduced me to the “Four Quartets,” where the expression “the fire and the rose are one” originated and he kindly directed me to Dante. Apparently, Dante informed Eliot’s imaginative landscape, and Dante was to Eliot what Virgil was to Dante, a poetic and even spiritual guide and a mentor.
I thus began the “Water Flames” paintings wanting to further explore the “knot of fire”. It was an intense, intimidating battle at first, as I began to experience the enormity and weight that this theme brings into my art. It is a fearsome task to deal with fire.
I could find very few paintings of fire in modern times, which depict fire as a source of mystery and life, rather than a source of destruction. There are a few fire images by Ernst, Kiefer or Viola, and yet as a whole modern artists have not been very explicit. And yet, flames, particularly the flames of life, play a central role from Egyptian times to Giotto, with many examples up to medieval times. In Japan, fire images are very present and alive from “Zigoku Zoshi (Stories of Hell for Buddhist Priests)” to Gyoshu Hayami’s “Flame Dance.” Iri and Toshi Maruki’s Nihonga paintings of Hiroshima captured the sinister power of that living hell. After that, I dare say very few, except for the possible exception of my mentor Matazo Kayama, have painted fire as a life force. In 20th Century western works, one can surmise that Rothko’s and Richter’s are all paintings of fire, echoing the reality of an atomic age. In that sense, Eliot’s words “the Fire and the Rose are One” reverberate throughout the metaphysical art of modern times, and I am only starting to grasp the potential of such an expression.
Dorothy Sayers, in her exquisite commentaries of on Dante’s Inferno, states: “it is the weakness of Humanism to fall short in the imagination of ecstasy.” Dante’s works that begin in the perilous seas and a dark wood where “the right road was wholly lost and gone”, ends in “The love that moves the sun and the other stars.” I am aiming for this integration of elements, spiritual and physical, in these works that somehow capture the “imagination of ecstasy.” It is a journey that is driven upward. It is a journey of hope in a midst of darkness.
I use ground minerals and basic earth materials. I mix the pigments with Nikawa hide glue, and paint with water onto Kumohada hand lifted Japanese paper. I realized that, during the process of painting these images, that I had been painting fire all the time, but did not know that. For instance, even if I were to paint a flower, or a bird, or a landscape I was painting a burning rose, burning wings and burning mountains. I want to get at the mystery of what is behind an object or a landscape. And I have increasingly become more and more monochromatic in doing so. But the materials I use will refract, catching the most delicate, complex light, so they are multi-chromatic paintings that look monochromatic.
In the Water Flames, I am focused more intently on the process of creating. I speak about this in the mini-documentary shown here, but there are two sides of experiencing a work of art: process and product. It is interesting to ponder whether Dante’s work is more about the process of that journey, or the final destination. Dante never finished the work (as Sayers never finished the translation), and therefore one might argue that it was process driven – that it was experiential work. But throughout the journey, there is a pointed teleological directive, a type of conviction about the direction of the journey. L’Inferno begins:
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
But even there, lost in darkness,
Then I looked up, and saw the morning rays
Mantle its shoulder from that planet bright
Which guides men’s feel aright on all their ways.
In order to appreciate the experience of the journey, then, we must be convinced, also of the end point. This is what I experienced, as an artist, working on these paintings. There’s a certain way that process driven art relies on the end vision, and without such conviction in resolution, we can’t trust the process of creativity. A creative journey must be both the recognition of what is “lost and gone” in that dark wood, and at the same time be guided by a creative force that transcends our own capacities. We must see the morning rays
Mantle its shoulder from that planet bright, and that requires a kind of faith.
Dorothy Sayers seems to write her commentaries defending Dante from modernist critics who seem to relate to Inferno, and less so with Purgatorio and reject Paradiso all together. But Paradiso imagery is not an afterthought, but an end point of the journey that is necessary to see “the morning rays”. This is one of the keys to understanding Dante:
T.S. Eliot wrote: ".…because he could do everything else, is for that reason the greatest 'religious' poet, though to call him [merely] a 'religious poet' would be to abate his universality. The Divine Comedy expresses everything in the way of emotion, between depravity's despair and the beatific vision, that man is capable of experiencing." (T.S. Eliot on Dante)
Dante wants us to dive deeper into “depravity's despair” by and through the “the beatific vision.” So in that sense, it does not make sense to read L’Inferno without knowing Il Paradiso. There is a good reason why Dante titled this The Divine Comedy, and not The Divine Tragedy. It is from the first page to the last, a teleological journey upward.
This quote by Eliot actually prompts a few questions for me: questions that I have asked myself as I prepared the Water Flames paintings:
"Dante is framing our question for both art and life, and that is why we must see Dante as a universal poet: Eliot unpacks this question to helps us to ask what is our expression of “depravity’s despair and the beatific vision” today? How does our contemporary expression compare to the emotional range of Dante?"
Eric Fischl recently noted:
"Artists connected with the church were asked to imagine four things; what heaven was like, what hell was like and what the Garden was like before and after the Fall. Those are four profound archetypes, and they're part of many cultures. What has happened over the centuries is the artists in the West have become specialized. You still find heaven painters, hell painters and Garden painters, but you rarely find them in the same person. In a way, that denies the full scope of the imaginative world."
Eric Fischl Art in America
We need to recover the “full scope of the imaginative world.” I believe it is possible to develop future art that has the range of Dante. But we must understand, that a different type of journey is required.
Soon after 9/11, I found myself needing to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I suppose being a “ground zero” resident now, I wanted to understand the real Ground Zero. When I was in Hiroshima, I took video footage of the memorial flames there. I used the footage in a post-9/11 installation called “Two-T” exhibit, a collaboration with Albert Pedulla.
Then I had another opportunity to collaborate in a production called Shangri-La, a modern opera composed by Susie Ibarra and written by Yusef Kumunyakaa. For the Kitchen production, Susie asked me to consider doing the visuals. We decided to use in the background images, frozen stills, of the flames of Hiroshima. As I was looking at them from the back of the stage, I realized that the images resonated so much with the direction I was moving towards, and Dante’s universe. So I appropriated these images of flames, and began the last few images of Water Flames.
Fire can be illustrated easily, and the abbreviated forms can be found everywhere, from “explosive content” labels to the Methodist Church’s logo. But how is fire’s essence to be captured? What is its shape? How do you describe its energy? Capture its heat? When fire becomes more than merely a symbol, but a phenomenon, then the depiction of flames become a difficult, if not an impossible, task. The attempt is to capture the essence of something you think you see, but in reality is elusive to capture. Fire is at once recognizable and yet mysteriously abstract at the same time.
The materials I use, mostly derived from the medieval methods of Japan, lend themselves to a subtle intersection between abstraction and representation hidden behind the four basic elements: Water, Earth, Air and Fire. Pulverized precious minerals, gifts from the earth, are layered with water onto Japanese mulberry and hemp fibers, creating a semi-permanent surface. The prismatic semi-opaque layers trap light, creating refraction of light for the eyes to delight in. Paper breathes, accommodating itself to the environment, and thus continues to mold itself to the surroundings, and that process is captured by the watermarks on the surface. Gold powder, mixed with animal hide glue, is the ideal color to be placed on top of Japanese vermillion and cochineal (derived from a tiny insect in India). The surface itself is an ecosystem of colors combining earth with air, and water with, in this new series, fire.
Of course, my paintings of flames could be read as “religious.” I am certainly risking that as I paint these images of Flames of Life. To me, to paint is to reveal the inner most chambers of my existence. Therefore, my work has a specific, transcendent purpose for me. Yes, I do want my art to be the “burning bush” that emits fiery power and yet exudes life. As I stated, I am convinced that our contemporary expressions need to recapture “depravity’s despair and the beatific vision” once again. If not, we incapacitate ourselves to a certain resignation: how would we understand our world of Hiroshima and 9/11 otherwise? How do we express the depth and breath of both our dark realities and resolute hope at the same time?
I find the most intriguing of the three books of The Divine Comedy to be Purgatorio. Why? Well, it is exactly because it is sandwiched between “depravity’s despair” and “the beatific vision.” Any utopian or dystopian vision can lose sight of the significance of suffering: the utopian vision tends to assume that suffering is illusionary, and the the dystopian vision might consider suffering to be the only reality. But Purgatorio assumes that suffering of the journey is very necessary to purify as gold, the divine grace that resides within.
Currently, at Luhring Augustine Gallery, Joel Sternfeld’s “Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America.” His photographs capture the enormous varieties of utopian communities in America, ranging from early Mormonism, Mayor Daley’s attempt to create green rooftops in Chicago to cultish visionaries. What you see in these depictions is the struggle and fascination we have toward our common search for the ideal. But as diverse as they are when you see them, I think you will note how similar they are. They all have common Edenic desires to get back to the Garden of Eden. But we also see that idealism is often met with disappointments. I wonder if in some profound way Sternfeld has captured a part of America that we all struggle with. We are suspicious of anyone who claims to have found the answer. And we are suspicious of Dante exactly for this reason.
But Dante, is not utopian or dystopian. Purgatorio is necessary exactly as a bridge between dystopia of Inferno and what we might see as the “utopia” of Paradiso.
Note that, for Protestant Christians, we need to know that what happens in Dante’s purgatory is not what we often misunderstand it to be: it is not a place for lost souls, or souls that do not know where they will end up. If you read Dante (and Catholic theology), you know that every cornice of the purgatory represents steps of sanctification. Purgatory is a place for those who know their final destination is heaven, and those who know that their earthly journey did not allow, for whatever the reason, the purification from what corrupts a person. I find, as a Christian, these verses of Purgatorio enormously helpful. As I struggle to understand my place in God’s graced Kingdom, I know that my journey needs to be challenged by fire, my inner corruptions exposed, and my convictions tested and purified. Further, I know, as an artist, that this is exactly what is needed in the process of art. There is no easy path. My creative process is filled with encounters with the “heavy cairn of stones.” And I must deal with them, one mineral at a time.
Where he and I burned in one furnace-blast;
The visionary fire so seared me through,
It broke my sleep perforce, and the dream passed.
This dream parallels the journey of a creative artist, who sees the need for “visionary fire” to sear us through. We know that in order to create, we must destroy something. In order for the minerals to refract beautifully, they must be pulverized. So Dante’s dream of purgatory seems apt in light of the process of creativity. It is a journey of beauty that the Japanese of old understood: ultimate beauty is necessarily tied with death, and sacrifice.
T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets:
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire
How can one be redeemed from fire by fire? Well, Eliot suggests that the fire of despair can turn into the fire of sanctification. This is the transition from the fire of the Inferno to the fire of Purgatorio. And as Eliot suggests here, it does lie in our “choice of pyre to pyre.” What exactly is this choice?
In Inferno and Purgatorio, Dante is guided by Virgil, and is devastated to find that Virgil disappears. And yet, at this turning point, is where he realizes that Beatrice (with her eyes and her mouth expressing the beatific vision) is her guide. She represents the vision of sacrificial love (a presence of Christ) that will ultimately guide him to Paradiso. And this transition of vision is given to us as a choice:
The angels cry out:
Do us more grace, and of thy grace reveal
Thy mouth to him, so that he may discern
The second beauty which thou dost conceal.
O splendour of the living light eterne,
What man that e’er beneath Parnassus’ shade
Grew pale, or from its fountain filled his urn…
There where all heaven harmonious shadows thee
Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, 136-141,145
Parnassus’s shade is referring to Apollo, the god of music, poetry and reason. Dante’s encounter with the “second beauty” accompanies the loss of Virgil, and it represents his inner death. Dante is dying to his need for his beloved guide, and his dependence on even Apollo, the god of poetry and reason. All things, even his art, and his own reason, is to be shadowed by this second beauty. Art as a guide can only go so far. My writer friend who guided me to read Dante tells me in our recent email correspondence: “that in the end, whatever our religious beliefs, we're hoping for something like grace to help our work go further than we can intend or achieve on our own” Our art must die to itself, in other words, in order that the fire of destruction can become the fire of life everlasting. And for that, a certain sacrifice is needed, a divine sacrifice of cosmic proportions that pours into us grace.
The upward journey, then, is fueled by this grace alone. These Water Flames paintings trace that journey of discovery, of dying to myself, and even to art. It is an invitation to the viewer to journey with me, with your creative offerings, to encounter this “second beauty” as well. Like Dante, we may need to descend, before we can be brought upward: certainly, we need to recover the language of heaven in our times, in order to understand the dark realm of our own nightmares. We may even be dismayed to find that the guide that we so idealized was inadequate. But if we can journey from “pyre to pyre”, we will recover the redemptive, imaginative landscape. We have to consider the alternative. Do we not have but a limited window of time today to infuse hope in the global dialogue? This is the work of imagination as much as it is a “flesh and blood” struggle. The journey of humility must take place for all of us, or the consequences will be dire. The stewardship of our creative journey, the development of that “full scope of the imaginative world” is needed, or we will succumb to the hopeless futility of the ideological and fear driven terrors of our day. Terror does take away imaginative hope. So the battle does rage in the creative realms dominated by vengeance, fear and despair verses the realms of humility, of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
I hope these images point to the ultimate flames of life, flames that burn and yet do not consume us; and as we find our own dross being purged, and golden fire burn brightly within, may we, with Dante, find the “splendour of the living light” smiling upon us.