Sunday, April 15, 2018

Unconscious Reenactment: Bruegel and the Jolly Bagpipes and Beauties at the Medieval Fair

Dancing to Bagpipes at the Medieval Fair / April 8, 2018 – Norman, Oklahoma
I felt as though I had stepped into a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Granted, he was painting during the Renaissance, and what I was attending was supposedly medieval, but the Medieval Fair is, as far as I can tell, less about historical accuracy and more about imaginative fancy.

On the one hand, it’s performance art. It’s the best kind because it’s intentional and so it’s self-aware as art being created for art’s sake, but it’s infused with fantasy, role-playing, and a deep desire to time-travel, self-invent, imaginatively recreate reality, or at least become the embodiment of a timeless energy that lives in the hyper-oxygenated air of feeling that one has infinite possibilities, and for all the angst and self-recrimination you might feel at times, joyous abundance prevails in a costume you designed just for this moment.

Dancing to Bagpipes in the Open Air at the Medieval Fair, Norman, OK  2018 - photo susan nash
 It was very chilly for an April afternoon, and people were wearing coats, hats, even gloves. It was not possible to see everyone’s costumes because they were sometimes covered up. The dancing girls – half barmaid, half bellydancers – showed midriffs that were red from the cold, sporting goosebumps along with the panoramas of tattoos.

On the stage were four musicians: a person with a drum, a man with a mandolin, and two bagpipers. The bagpipes were of different designs, and so they produced different sounds. All meshed together in an infectious, jolly cavalcade of melody, harmony, and skillful percussion.

The songs were perfect for dancing, and it did not take long for all the lords, ladies, minstrels, waifs, and wenches to dance heartily in the dry grass, much to the amusement of the spectators who were seated on parallel rows of bales of hay.

When I first heard the bagpipes and I saw people dancing, I felt a bit skeptical. Did people really dance to bagpipes?  I thought of them as being used to fan the flames of warrior ardor and to panic the horses in the a Scottish highlands battle, or to play deeply, forlornly at a funeral. But a fair? 

Bagpipes, drum and mandolin - Medieval Fair - Norman, OK  2018
 I took photographs with my phone, and as I was mulling over them on the cloud in Google Photo Gallery, the colors, composition, and shapes of the people made me think of Pieter Bruegels’s The Hunters in the Snow. So, I looked up the work of Bruegel, and imagine my surprise when I encountered the Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566). I had seen it before (it is, after all, a very famous painting), but what amazed me even more than the visual allusion and similarity was the presence of bagpipes.  

All I could think of was that I was of such cosmic coincidence that there must be some sort of meaning in the utterly adventitious visual parallels that I could not have duplicated without having been in the planning of some sort of historical enactment or a pageant or play.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566) - wikipedia
Another stunning coincidence was that I had just left the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus and had decided to visit Reeves Park, which is on South Campus. I went from a very formal museum of “high art” where my mind was definitely shaped into thinking of art in terms of its representational and conceptual aims, to the annual Medieval Fair where it was a living gallery of people exploring what they imagined medieval to be, and to express art by making themselves into works of art. The simplistic side of me would dismiss the Medieval Fair as pure kitsch.

Yes, there was the carnivalesque – the idea of a Dionysian transformation through letting go and entering a kind of divine madness (in Dionysius, the madness of the grape), but the religiosity and the dark skirtings along the edges of death were largely absent. This was not the kind of love/death juxtaposition of a Shakespearean tragedy (Othello and Romeo and Juliet come to mind). Instead, here in Reeve’s Park, with the bagpipes, the 45 F air, the costumes, dancing, with fencing and jousting exhibitions, there was a sense of play, of exploration, and above all, acceptance.

So, perhaps the ritual that was most resonant with the event was the wedding, with the dancing in the open air. Weddings in the Renaissance represented future, prosperity, the prospect of the familial issue, which is to say children and lots of them… with an abundance of good food, good cheer, and good health.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Wedding Dance in the Open Air (1566)
Detroit Institute of Art

Monday, April 09, 2018

Found Installation 1: I Heard the Voices of the Angels

I decided to view the world as a great living art gallery, and things that caught my eye could considered intentional "found art" (l'arte trouvee) of the early 20th century. It is a wonderful way to view the world -- suddenly everything has more significance, and it becomes expressionist, postmodernist, conceptual art.

In 1967, earthworks artist and photographer Robert Smithson put together a series of photos which he called "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," in which he imagined the crumbling factories of New Jersey to be monuments. He was clearly making a critique of consumer culture, modernity, and environmentally damaging industrialization (and its aftermath in decaying obsolescence).  I have admired that work, but what I decided to do was to take it even further and include different types of accompaniments (experiential as well as critical).  It is fun to do, and I would like to encourage everyone to give it a try. This is my first.

Here's my first "found installation," which I call "I Heard the Voices of the Angels" 

Narrative Accompanying the Installation: The Homeless Passerby
And then they lifted me up.

I was seated in a chair nicely placed in the shallows of the Arkansas River, near the 11th Street Bridge in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I was fishing for catfish and the souls of the pioneers (they're hard to catch) when the trumpets sounded, the angels sang (or better yet, roared), and my hard-won body ("hard-won" because it's hard to make one's way into an incarnation of any kind, especially that of a human being, and to finally have my consciousness housed in a skin-and-bone bag has been a tremendous relief) flew out of my hands like a helium balloon caught on the heels of a late-March 55-mile-per-hour gust front.

Photo taken of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, OK near the 11th Street Bridge / photo credit: susan smith nash

I was shocked but not disappointed.

This incarnation has not been easy. To all those who see me, I'm a homeless Native American veteran who lives in basement of the burned-out synagogue near Cheyenne Street, who brings bags of Friskies cat food to the feral cats and kittens who live under the 11th Street Bridge. I'm missing quite a few teeth, and people think I'm addicted to meth, but I'm not. I never do drugs. But, I do hear the angels and I do see messages in the clouds, the wind, the currents in the river, and in the song of the Channel Cat, that great, 40-pound bottom-dwelling riparian saint, whose body takes on the plastics, heavy metal, chicken farm excrement, and fertilizer run-off of the upper Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri watershed.

Note the ridge of resistant sandstone. photo: susan smith nash
The chair warmed up in the light of the Sun. The chair suggests what was there before, but now is gone.

But once the initial intrigue has passed, and you're no longer envisioning what was in the chair and why it was there, your focus directs itself to the platform (the riverbed) and to the water's qualities -- its clarity, its current, its surface expression, with ripples, splashes, and deviations around brush, trash, and trees.

The Arkansas River levels fluctuate based on Keystone Dam flood control activity / photo credit: susan smith nash

Narrative Accompanying the Installation: The Observer
What is foregrounded is the notion of what is relatively permanent -- what stays, what persists, what lives on -- when the body that was in the chair flies up and is potentially lifted up to meet its maker (the Rapture is one possible explanatory framework). What lives on after we are gone? And, what were we in the first place anyway?  The body is the wrapper around a mind that imagines itself to be a self; a package for consciousness.

But perhaps the consciousness is not really confined to that wrapper or package (or human body).

What is also foregrounded is the notion of the edge. Notice how the chair is at the edge of a ridge of a rock formation that constitutes part of the riverbed. The riverbed consists of layers of sediment and rock formations of variable resistance to erosion. The harder layers resist erosion. The softer layers are worn away and their grains are deposited in sand bars, points, and little mid-stream islands.

A Navajo sand painter is usually a medicine man of high rank and respectability in his community. The sand painting is a work of beauty, but that’s just part of the story. The purpose of it is to train the mind and to heal the body by means of aligning energies and pleasing the gods. The different worlds are represented, including the underworld, and the notions of past, present, and future come together. The flowing water, the eroding rock, the sand grains that flow down the river to deposit themselves here, and then redeposit themselves there, are very much a living sand painting, and if we sit in the chair so close to the rock and we let ourselves become one of those sand grains, we can find ourselves taken to where Nature wants us to go. We travel. We flow. We pause to nourish ourselves while we listen, sleep, and consider what we understand as reality in our small nook of the world.

Polysemous Interpretation from the Medieval Cleric
Literal / Historical: We see the literal presence of the chair sitting in the middle of the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Tropological / Metaphorical: We see the metaphorical implications, and the tension between the permanent and the ephemeral.

Allegorical: There are the existential implications, and the issues of our fundamental ontological insecurity, which has to do with how we see beingness, becomingness, and what it takes to be real.

Anagogical: Then there are the anagogical interpretations, the ones having to do with the individual's progress toward salvation (using a model from the Medieval times, the Scholastics' mindset). The afterlife is at issue here, and yet, instead of coming to this interpretation last, as one would normally do, the "I Heard the Angels" refers to the Rapture, and thus the anagogical interpretation is the first one.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Turtle Sanctuary

It was a hot August afternoon, and we were thinking about sitting on the beach at Sayulita. But, it was the final week of summer vacation and Sayulita was bursting at the seams with people who made the 5-hour drive from Guadalajara to enjoy time in the ocean and gorgeous sunsets. Sayulita was more complicated by the storms that washed out the streets and revealed that they were built on a foundation of construction trash, ranging from cement blocks to tetanus-inducing chunks of rusty metal.  

A few years ago, Sayulita was a tranquil fishing, surfer town. In a few years more, Sayulita will probably be a series of one-way flagstone streets with neat sidewalks, and a pedestrian only central plaza / beach area. But, that’s all in the works. Right now, Sayulita has a boom town feeling, and that same scramble for commercialization. If you have land, you can develop it. If you don’t and you are an American or a Canadian, you can add to your portfolio and expect a healthy rate of return. At least that’s what websites promise.  Perhaps they are right. Undoubtedly, they are right.

We are in the land of endangered sea turtles. They live here on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the government of Mexico has put great effort into protecting them, and setting up incubator programs to protect the eggs and then release the hatchlings into the ocean. 

In the meantime, we decided to drive 20 minutes north to Lo de Marcos, a little village town with wider streets and a large plaza. The beach is wide and clean, although it does not seem very good for surfing, and there do seem to be some rather scary offshore currents.  I’m not sure if those aspects will limit growth in the future. It is hard to say. All the attempts to evaluate real estate investment potential starts making my head spin. I’ve spent much time planning, proposing, and making offers on property, without any real results. Now, I just have the dull feeling one gets when looking at the Dow hit 23,000 and you were afraid to get in at 15,000 because you thought it was overpriced.  

What is really endangered here in this gorgeous stretch of beach. Clearly it’s more than the turtles, and it’s also more than a quieter way of life. I think that what is endangered in this gorgeous stretch of land is the world of dreams and fantasy. If dreams are too painful, we try to put them out of our mind. If fantasies no longer motivate, but just remind one of the impossible, then we eliminate our own ability to generate fantasies.


What puts us at risk is what give us true joy and the push to become better people and to have a better world. If the world does not endanger this, we turn around and annihilate precisely those things that make us most valuable, those things that make life most precious.

A small dog is digging in the sand underneath a table at the seaside restaurant. Another dog flops down under our table and falls into a deep sleep. I wonder how much dog poo is in the sand we’re walking in.  There are some questions you just shouldn’t ask.