a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Stephen Dydo and Susan Haire
An Audio-Visual Reflection on the Primal Paradox
The philosophical focus in Vanishing Point is on the urgent need for us to learn from the sustainable cultures that are disappearing in the face of resource-devouring development. Our primary method is not to draw attention to the political message – there are organizations that handle that quite well already – but rather to use the special concentrated power of art and music. This article and video are derived from an installation of sculptures with embedded audio. Each sculpture contains a sound-producing mechanism particular to the visual work and is arrayed in the space in a way that provides a special environment for each work. Susan is working on sculpture and photography inspired by vanishing cultures and, in collaboration with her, Stephen continues his development of music based on ancient preserved melodies from China and Japan, as well as complex rhythmic structures gathered from his research on the Tibetan Plateau. The installation is a work-in-progress portions of which have been shown in England.
LEAVERS AND TAKERS
Vanishing Point presents a dialectic between ancient, sustainable cultures and modern, consumerist cultures. We borrow the terms Leavers and Takers from the book ‘Ishmael’ by Daniel Quinn. Here, we are taught that humanity took a wrong turn when Leavers – hunter-gatherers – became settlers and agriculturalists – the Takers. The Leavers had lived in balance with nature for tens of thousands of years; those who still exists live in isolated traditional societies, such as can be found in India, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet – the Leavers’ societies of which the artists have the most personal experience. These traditional societies are changing rapidly and many will sooner or later vanish forever, either through direct Western influence or through the idealised vision some of these people have of Western-style materialism and consumerism.
The Takers are us, Western consumerist, materialist, highly developed technological societies. We are Takers by reason of our consumption of natural resources, including other life forms, without replacing them. We exist primarily for our own enrichment and expansion. We feed off the destruction of our planet.
Vanishing Point is in two parts, representing Leavers and Takers. In this work the Leavers are represented by offerings, traditional music and art and natural objects. The part that represents the Takers uses the analogy of The Tower of Babel whose construction was regarded as an act of defiance against God. The work draws on elements of our industrialised Takers’ world with suspended and freestanding wire mesh towers containing cables, rusty metal and other found metal objects and incorporating photographs of telegraph poles loaded with disordered coils of cable in Kathmandu; alongside are sounds of smashing metal sheets mixed in with rhythms and melodies from remote Himalayan cultures, synthesized metallic and drum-like sounds, and synthesized voices uttering indistinct words of an artificial language.
This duality between Leavers and Takers is an instance of the two faces of the primal paradox. The focus on individualism that is characteristic of developed, Taker, societies manifests itself also as a grasping, acquisitiveness which has led us to a society that is out of balance with the natural world. Granted, there are many instances of societies which, on the one hand, live in harmony with nature but, on the other hand, maintain warlike postures with their neighbours.
LEARNING FROM DYING CULTURES
It isn’t impossible for us to emulate Leavers within our contemporary environment and of course if we don’t we will destroy our planet. When we consider the developments that humanity has undertaken since we have any records at all, the most remarkable ones have been agriculture and industrialisation. Through agriculture, man eventually learned not only to provide a more stable food supply, he also learned to feed increasing populations, and eventually developed the nation states that created things such as the pyramids, control over watercourses, etc. Through industrialisation, he was able to harness energy, build large factories, cover the planet with roads, etc. Finally, large global corporations were able to control large parts of the planet through their financial control, creating a modern global feudal society.
What these developments did not create were language, literature, painting, sculpture, music, dance and a spirituality which lay behind these developments. We now know that even the earliest people were involved in these activities, even as hunter-gatherers. By the Ice Age, humans were playing drums and flutes, painting on caves, carving haunting sculptures, and tailoring clothing. All of this happened when they were having no significant impact on their surrounding ecologies.
What we are studying from the dying cultures, the remnants of these early human societies, is how we can continue to enjoy the greatest things mankind has created – spirituality, literature and the arts – while letting go of the post-industrial activities usually grouped under the heading “Progress” which are destroying the ecology upon which we all depend for our physical survival.
We are using the concept of offerings as the central metaphor for the earliest cultures. The offering of crops, talismans and all sorts of other things continues today across the world; making offerings is representative of our connection to our earlier cultures, ones which preserved the earth instead of destroying it. Susan is particularly interested in Hindu offerings and in the beauty, accessibility and simplicity of daily household worship and the brilliant colour and variety of objects used. In Madurai, South India, there is a Hindu shrine to the Goddess Durga below a peepul tree. Hanging from a branch are strings of small rolls of paper each containing the names of the Goddess written 1,008 times as a gesture of honour. Durga has 108 different names. Susan made a sculpture, Prayers to Durga, using hundreds of rolled up reminder notes to herself that she has saved over a number of years.
Joss paper, sometimes hung on wishing trees, is used as Buddhist and Taoist offerings to ancestors in parts of Asia. Joss paper is printed with images of earthly goods in order to provide deceased relatives with things they might need in the afterlife such as money, credit cards, cars, houses, clothes, toiletries and even Viagra. It is important to avoid having unhappy forebears who might interfere rather than intercede and so they must be appeased.
Offerings often form part of a ritual and in ancient Bon and Vedic rituals human bones were used, for example, the skull cup which symbolizes our earthly mortality and these are still sometimes used in Buddhist rites. Susan has used bleached chicken bones in her sculpture.
Traditional cultures commonly recycle almost everything with very little waste and things are not discarded but adapted and reused in some way or other. We have incorporated recycled materials in our work for a number of years and in 2012 we had a large scale exhibition in Peterborough Cathedral, UK entitled Reflection. Susan collected 3000 water bottles from the London Marathon which formed an installation that spanned the nave, one of 18 installations that ranged across the whole cathedral. Reflection toured to Western Connecticut State University for a visit by the Dalai Lama.
In Vanishing Point the use of recycled materials is symbolic of ways in which we can learn from these cultures and in particular how to save our planet. Susan has made sculptures inspired by offerings and shrines from recycled materials including things picked up in the street and taken out of the rubbish. Some of her photographs span the divide between waste materials and offerings. Last summer Susan photographed dead flowers she came across strewn on the street and sometimes found they looked similar to and might even be indistinguishable from Hindu offerings.
Stephen’s recycling includes the use of music from ancient China (Shixian Cao, or Water Immortals, which he performs on the guqin) and music of the Tibetan culture in the western Himalayas, in Ladakh. This includes some typical Ladakhi drum patterns, using a 14/4 meter (standard there, very unusual here) and solo songs praising the beauties of traditional village life–the beauty of the mountains, the brilliance of the sun, and so forth.
A recurring theme in our work is ‘Indra’s Net,’ a net of infinite size encrusted with jewels that all reflect each other and a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things. Chinese Buddhists developed this concept of interpenetration from The Flower Ornament Sutra, which has the following passage:
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
The conception of a jewel which can, in its every facet, reflect all the other jewels in this universal net, is an early statement of the primal paradox. Such a jewel not only has unique characteristics which give it individuality, it also has a complex connection to all other jewels and,by extension, to everything in the universe. In Buddhism, this net image is used to describe the essential intertwining of all phenomena. Then, by logical extension, it describes the complete absence of independent existence of–you guessed it–all phenomena. Thus, ultimately, the primal paradox is resolved, at least to the extent that it can be seen as mere illusion.
Yet we all inhabit that illusory world. Even the lucky few who may have attained the lofty state of having been able to “perceive emptiness directly” or who have otherwise been able to step out of themselves to finally see things as they really are, still have to function in this world, the world of objective reality. This is all the more so for the rest of us. As artists (and we mean to include those whose art is the perception of the works of others), we take as our work the exploration of what the world might look like if we are able to let go of some of our views of ourselves as independent, self-existing individuals.
The idea that ‘Indra’s Net’ is infinite leads to the acknowledgement that we are part of an unimaginable vastness. Universal Interconnectedness has been central to our work for some years. In Vanishing Point Susan’s work uses the net as the underlying symbol of universal interdependence to tie together images of vanishing beauty, both photography and sculpture installations, and nets will form the a structure from which some installations will be suspended. Offerings are often made in order to fulfil a wish and to propitiate a god and this speaks of a belief in a type of cause and effect that recognizes interconnectedness. Furthermore, the Hindu belief that a god inhabits the idol or a rough stone during worship, the Peruvian belief in mountain gods, the Apus, and for some Buddhists, the belief that even pebbles have Buddha-nature represents an acknowledgment of something beyond the material that connects us to each other, to the most basic inanimate matter and to the whole universe. Rock spirits = physical energy = interconnectedness = intelligent universe = rock spirits.
PARTING THOUGHTS: WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM DYING CULTURES?
How to avoid destroying the planet
How not to lose touch with the spiritual
How not to lose touch with the land or nature, living off the land, on local produce
The importance of recycling
The importance of not being materialistic
The benefits of a self-reliant way of life
The benefits of a low-tech way of life
The benefits of the resourceful use of everything possible in the natural environment
The benefits of not being dominated by consumerism
The benefits of extended families and small communities
That development and progress aren’t automatically good things, often can be/have been the opposite
That over-population is often caused by interference with nature
That a truly spiritual existence provides wealth that transcends material abundance
Stephen Dydo has written approximately 80 works for a wide variety of media, and his works include chamber, orchestral, choral and electronic pieces. He has been collaborating for the last ten years with UK artist Susan Haire in creating multimedia installations in the US, UK and Europe, all involving music unfolding in space as well as time. He has written many works in collaboration with Asian musicians, using ancient Chinese sources, and is the past president of the New York Qin Society. His awards include the Bearns Prize and a BMI award. He developed computer music at the Instituut voor Sonologie in Utrecht for two years under a Fulbright fellowship, and has received fellowships from Weir Farm, Soaring Gardens, Meet the Composer and the Composers Conference. He studied at Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in composition. His website is www.stephendydo.com.
Susan Haire has had over twenty solo shows since 1998 collaborating with composers and has also collaborated with numerous poets and playwrights. Her shows consist of installations with integral music and performances. She gained a BA Hons in sculpture, at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design, London and a postgraduate qualification in painting, PG RAS, at the Royal Academy Schools, London. She was a lecturer in Fine Art for 17 years at Canterbury College of Art, UK, and also at the School of Art, Limerick, Ireland, and the College of Art, Dublin, Ireland. She has been President of The London Group for eight years and recently took it through its very successful centenary. A thriving co-operative of 90+ artists, with a full exhibiting programme, its history mirrored the history of British art for much of the 20th century. Susan has recently been appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Website: www.susanhaire.com.