Thursday, February 23, 2017

Five Minutes of Mayhem

Small works, untitled.
Stainless steel, brass, cotton,silk, linen.  























I've been in the studio a lot more lately and am working at a feverish rate, able to focus and concentrate like never before.  I just finished the red and white piece (10" x 6" x 3 1/2") on the top left of the four in the picture, the others of which I have blogged about recently (see my post Cocoons and Artifacts).  I am also finding myself doing a lot more research online, looking up fiber artists old and new, following leads on artists who use light as their medium such as Lygia Pape and Astrid Krogh, and just generally playing catch-up as I find myself coming up for air both professionally and personally.

One article I recently came across on Artsy.net called "What is Fluxus?" has hit home with me in a couple of ways.  I actually wasn't familiar with this movement so it was interesting to learn about it and put yet another piece of the anti-art-world, avant-garde sentiment of the 20th century into place.   In describing Fluxus's roots, author Karen Kedmey writes about John Cage:
"Many were inspired by elder artist, composer, and musician John Cage. Through his work and his charismatic teaching, he demonstrated that art and life could be fluidly interchangeable. He did this, in part, by welcoming chance into his musical compositions—including ambient noises or the sounds of audience members coughing, stirring in their seats, and sometimes even heckling the performers—and by using such things as everyday household objects as instruments. Cage’s drive to find artistic potential in the everyday resonated with the Fluxus artists."
I was instantly reminded of my own personal encounter with Cage, which I wrote about in a two-volume set called Far From the Centers of Ambition, published in 2013 in honor of Black Mountain College's 75th anniversary, where John Cage taught along with Merce Cunningham in the late 1940s. My essay, "Five Minutes of Mayhem: My Remembrance of John Cage", appears in the first volume called Confluence, edited by friend and poet Lee Ann Brown and Rand Brandes.


 I'll include the text below, but the essential idea is that when, in 1986, Cage came to UNSCA as a visiting artist and I, as a student there at the time, participated in one of his Happenings, I was so caught up in the technical production of music that I was unable to access the joy of spontaneous creation that was his sine qua none. Somewhere over the last 32 years, I traded music for weaving but continued holding on to the reins of technique over spontaneity. Until now. I am finally understanding Cage's notion of how to "embark on an artwork without a conception of its end". I am working more intuitively, able to strike a balance between planning out the technical specs of a project and letting it evolve into what it wants or needs to become, and to trust in that process.  I think that as a result my work is now starting to breathe more than it ever has, and in so doing, give back to me in spades forms of new inspiration.  In trying to construct membranes real and imagined that we use to negotiate our inner and outer worlds, in trying weave our "skins", I am finally discovering that the only way to truly know them is to trust my sense of touch.  It's poetic, really.  As sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz wrote:
"After many years soft things of complicated tissue have become my material.  I feel a kinship with the world which I do not want to know but through touching, feeling and relating to the part of myself which I carry deep inside me...There is no tool between me and the material I use.  I choose it with my hands.  I shape it with my hands.  My hands transmit my energy to it.  By translating an idea into a shape, they will always pass on something escaping conceptualization.  They will reveal the unconscious."  


Here is the text for my John Cage essay:

1986.  I was 16 and how sweet it was.  I was living out my fantasy to be a cast member of the hit TV show "Fame" as a classical flute student at the North Carolina School of the Arts.  "Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco was at number 15 on the pop chart, inspired by a movie we at NCSA were all very familiar with, as it featured the highly acclaimed work of recent grad Tom Hulce as Mozart.  My lab bench partner in biology was Eddie Stierle, who would go on to be prima danseur for the Joffrey Ballet, succumbing to AIDS not five years later.  Neither of us knew what highs and lows lay right before us though, and as we carved and snipped away at frog parts, life seemed pretty normal.  Because somehow, right there in the middle of North Carolina tobacco country, a little oasis of some of the country's finest dancers, visual artists, actors, and musicians had come together to form an arts school, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do.

Maybe it seemed normal because, miraculously, it had been done before.  In Black Mountain, a few hours west of of Winston-Salem, Black Mountain College had opened its doors 53 years earlier in 1933.  While the two schools grew out of different educational approaches (collaborative and progressive vs. a strict conservatory model), they shared the mission to teach the arts as a fundamental and serious educational and professional pursuit.  They also, for a few brief hours in November of 1986, shared the hallowed footsteps of John Cage.

We had been prepared, like one of his pianos, and we were all taut strings full of surprises, an unpredictable crew of maybe 50-60 dancers, musicians and actors, ready to participate in our first ever Happening.  We gathered on the grass of the Student Commons, awaiting his arrival.  I'm not sure he had even been out of the car two minutes before he was raising his hand and cueing us to begin, right on schedule with the day's agenda.  The Happening couldn't have lasted more than five minutes.  I played sections of the Chaminade Flute Concertino, and tried to riff a little on the folks around me.  Nevertheless, I must confess that I don't remember any magical moments of spontaneous creation "happening" for me that day.  Nothing in my education up to that point had taught me how to be spontaneous.  I was only 16 but I had already forgotten how to "play."  From morning 'til night I locked myself in the practice room and forced my fingers into predetermined places.  We were conservatory kids, and wrong notes were not okay.

Thinking back on that day now leaves me with a little pang of sadness.  How can it be that I didn't quite know what to do with five minutes of mayhem?  John Cage was in his element though.  The yearbook pages don't lie.  I remember him exactly that way, as downright jolly and pleased as punch.  He didn't seem to mind being shuffled around from one planned agenda event to another.  He just smiled his infectious, "I have the Secret to the Universe," his "I know a joke and ya'll are all in on it" smile, as if to say, "Isn't it cool that we can all just hang out and do this together?"  Oh yes.  Indeed it was.





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