Saturday, November 29, 2008

argumentation, two

It is almost Advent, and for the Christian world the beginning of the celebration of one of the more spectacular interventions of Otherness into the workaday life of a planet that was once more marvel-ridden than it is now. If angels announced the miraculous birth to sheepherders hanging out keeping the product from getting itself killed by its own stupidity, well, there was another angel who occasionally stirred up the waters of Siloam right in the capital city, to the benefit of the first invalid to slide into the suddenly healing waters.

Nowadays, it seems that the annunciations come from inner voices or invasive insectoid aliens, and the signs from the sky come in the form of elaborate geometries stomped into the flattened stalks of the world’s grain fields.

Hence Robert Cheatham’s ambitious show at Eyedrum (viewable for exactly one more day at the time I finally post this), “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies.”

Cheatham is fascinated by the divisions between the skeptics and the believers, and the nature of the evidence that they confront. Crop circles are sometimes made by teams of artists openly, but the ones that show up in a single night are often so elaborate that it is difficult to believe in the reticence of any artists capable of doing all this in a very few hours in the dark, even with the lights that are sometimes noticed as accompanying the phenomena.

But we have been assured by a quite paradoxical circle-maker that it can all be done under cover of darkness in the time allotted, using simple equipment, so the speculations I wrote in my first draft of this ought to be reproduced in brackets:

[If the crop-circle artists really do work on this scale on a regular basis and remain completely anonymous by choice, we have the equally fascinating question of what they are up to and why they are willing to turn down the chance to make their fortune by replicating the things on global television. Who would kill themselves with the effort season after season for no apparent reason except the enjoyment of bamboozling the gullible? It would require outright psychosis to energize so many artists for so many years for the perverse pleasure of pulling off a long-running joke. And yet not one of them has come forward to offer a reasonable explanation, even though other teams have confessed to creating some of the simpler productions (and of creating some elaborate crop circles over a rather longer stretch of time, with the advantage of daylight in which to execute the mapped-out designs).]

I have belabored the case of crop circles because they replicate the geometry that accompanies today’s reinventions of occult emblems. There is great fascination with the cosmograms of Africa and the African diaspora, which collided in the Caribbean with the geometries of Freemasonry to create still more emblems of the world’s mystery. There is an equally great and longerstanding fascination with the Hermetic emblems of the Renaissance proto-scientists such as Athanasius Kircher, for whom the world could be blazoned forth in diagrams that were meant to be at once a cosmology and an incipient physics and a map of spiritual desire.

And such books as The Golden Game have been rich sources for reproductions of the allegories of alchemy, in which proto-chemistry was symbolized by lions and kings and queens and sexualized vessels and journeys amid the trees of Eden.

But in the 21st century nobody can quite confess to liking all this stuff if they intend to do serious art or even seriously lowbrow art. Irony dies regularly, but sarcasm lasts eternally.

So the spirit of sarcasm reigns brutally over the show at Eyedrum, the ugliness and malproportions of a good many of the works making clear their intent to ridicule the rubes. Others seem interested in what makes people believe in the plainly impossible, and their combinations of imagery are a bit more sympathetic.

And still others seem to be genuinely committed to creating contemporary models for vision.

But nothing lives up to the precursors, or even comes close to comprehending them if we have only the visual evidence from which to judge. We would rather see the originals in ethnographic photos or in the reconstructions that have traveled through the world’s museums, or just page through the books on our own.

If the show seemed to be getting at the depths of delusion, or of transmitting the psychologically charged secrets of sacred geometry, it would be easier to spend time with it. But it seems to be doing none of the above.

Why? How come such a naturally deep topic, from which the Jungians got a whole secularized metaphysic not all that many decades ago, yields such a sparse conceptual and visual harvest in this case?

Have we simply lost the capacity to feel our way into the subject? Do we defend ourselves against the threat of ridicule by going overboard in our own satirizations, or do we try too hard to update the designs that were created for depths of the human personality that probably rest more in slowly changing biological substrate rather than the shifting tastes of personal history?

Tom Zarrilli comes closer to creating something that communicates the psychogeography of dreaming, as he states. But the final category of psychogeographies sits uneasily beside the cosmograms and crop circles, even if the invented inventories of ley lines try to superimpose an occult meaning on the landscapes of Britain that are already charged to the brim with the magic of natural shapes and flora. The fields of Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham are a more magical entity than any crop circles imposed upon them ever could be. (Had I the time and energy, I’d try Photoshopping crop circles into Samuel Palmer’s etchings, and perhaps someday I shall do so. It would be a hilarious way of making my point.)

Anyway, Zarrilli remembers his childhood in an American tropical zone that no longer exists, and offers up visual fragments from which dreams take their beginnings of responsibilities. (Allusion to Delmore Schwartz there, sorry.)

Nigel Ayers’ Bodmin Moor Zodiac is a similar homage to psychogeography, reminiscent of the figures supposedly laid out upon the land surrounding Glastonbury, but once again, the visuals fail us. The black and white photographs in old books about the star gods of Glastonbury are more evocatively uncommunicative than Ayers’ pieces, and Paul Nash’s paintings and photographs of British landscape are more evocative than either.

And Ruth Laxson’s “God Dolls” in her recent show at Marcia Wood Gallery are probably more genuinely deconstructive and reverent when it comes to how and why we shape imaginary structures and the creatures with which we populate them.

For that matter, Marc Brotherton’s works currently at Callanwolde are so much stronger than his pieces in the Eyedrum show that we might profitably wonder what has gone wrong when the topics of imaginative projections of deep meanings enter into the equation—hard to define the problem.

I had originally noticed the accidental closeness and written this post to come out at exactly 1111 words. I am sure it no longer does so.

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