I’m a bit frustrated this morning siting in my studio here in India, because my internet connection is horrible: government controlled bandwidth; end of the year hoarding for institutions; lawless construction out on the street (subject of future posts). Who knows! Crap-o-la. Yawn. Pain. I can’t post.
I have plenty to post but can’t seem to get a long enough connection. So, I’ve decided to go out of temporal sequence and write about yesterday. This may be a slight rant and sorry for no images etc … But I’ve been here for 19 days and I haven’t even described my first day in full!
That’s right: I’ve been trying to upload a video of my first day in Delhi for a few days now. Ha!
Here we go. A short summary.
I’m in India on an artist residency and I am working on a new body of work. My main artist trope is the breaking of stone – I deal with this physically with the actual material and conceptually with drawing, writing, performance and video – and I am in India to work with Indian Granite. One goal: to work with blocks of granite in the order of 50 tons.
So that’s one way to put it. Here’s another: I am interested in meta-questions about not just art, specifically, but also knowledge acquisition, or epistemology, more generally. I’ve distilled this down to a framework to understand any thought or creative act, which is the intertwining of agency, contingency and strategy. I’ve written about this before and not going to hash it all out at the moment.
How does one go about making art? There is no set way, but one big danger is to follow. Follow trends, follow markets, follow other’s words and ideas – you can define “to follow” many ways. Another big danger is to be arrogant. Again, you can define arrogance many different ways and there are different words that may, in fact, be more helpful and descriptive: egotistical, conceited, self-obsessed, narcissistic, tyrannical, fanatical, fundamentalist. I know many may see these as the necessary ingredients to make it in the art-world. Different issue, for a different entry.
Anyway, there is a tension, and you could see it as one between listening and doing. When do you listen and when do you do?
What I would have said with conviction even just a year ago is that every artist has to strike a balance between these two things and the success of the art work is a judgment (or acceptance) of how this balance was reached. Today? I don’t know if that is true or even how helpful it is, but I am thinking about it, nonetheless.
Last night I read an old interview of Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith. And Roberta said: “I think each of us has a real capacity for originality, but originality is very, very hard to get to. It takes real work. I think people don’t quite realize how much work it takes to be a good artist—the drive and determination and self-criticism. You have to be harder on your work than anybody.”
That resonates with me, and particularly poignant given the day I had yesterday (or maybe it really is the last 19 days I’ve had). I find it hard to write that that sentiment resonates because it is so self-affirming and aggrandizing – but I did it anyway. So, there. Here’s a confession: That framework and artistic trope I wrote about above – I’m willing to change it all. The meta-concepts I’m more sure about, but I’ve been struggling with all this for … I don’t know … seven years as I’ve continued to make and do. “Is this what I am about? Should I continue with this stone idea? with performance? with art!?!” … and NOT “What’s next? what’s the next big thing!” … it’s “What was I doing then and What should I do, now?” Here. Listen: this is scary.
Getting lost in a strange city – not so scary. (Happened my first night in Varanasi. A 20-minute cycle rickshaw ride turned into an hour and a half through the countryside … at night. Post to come)
Starring down a maurading band of 40 menacing monkey – unsettling, not so, so scary … much. (happened yesterday morning).
Another preliminary question: Why artist residencies? well … many answers and most of which will be more eloquent than what follows, but it’s early and it’s what I got at the moment before I launch into yesterday. A general way to answer this question always seems to revolve around giving someone concentrated time and space to engage with their ideas. This is important. There is another family of ideas that involves gaining new experiences and seeing more of the world and getting out of one’s perspective, building empathy, understanding other cultures or similar forces, explaining what you don’t know and learning more about things you know nothing about and creating change blah blah (see. I told you. that’s it … more and better later, but important given why I am here and processing – if that is even the right word – yesterday).
So, yesterday was taxing in a slow, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts sort of way. In bullet points, really quick:
• woke up early, before everyone else, per usual – walked outside and there was a troop of monkeys on the roof and in the trees, all around. I was warned about this. I walk toward another building and grabbed a stick that was positioned for these occasions. I turn and walk back past my room toward the kitchen. They see me. I wave the stick, pound my feet, give a little grunt. Totally, not good enough. Too passive. A female turns and locks eyes, menacing. I think: “Ok. This is not the zoo.” I keep my eyes where they are and glide back towards my door. She darts forward along the roof edge so she is closer to my door, jumping distance to me. Two other monkeys join her. We are four primates staring at one another. We make our individual guttural noises. Our boundaries are gray. My side outnumbered. Stick in one hand, I slowly unlatch the door with the other and enter and push the door closed and latch it. The kitchen is out of reach for the moment. The three let out howls, screaks and gesticulations as I stare at them through the window. Dozens jump through the trees. Remember my previous post? Well, Round One was a Draw. Round Two: goes to the Monkeys.
• Every Residency has it’s own rhythm, but whenever artists come and go the rhythm inevitably changes and that has a psychological toll. After the Monkey stare-down, I go to the kitchen, make my breakfast and bring it to my room so I can write on my CPU. I go back to the kitchen after everyone is awake and populating the kitchen. Everyone is there. British Artist, Gabby, was leaving in the afternoon. Australian Photographer and Painter, Terry, is leaving in a few days for his opening in Delhi; he’ll be back in two weeks. Amber and Kyle, a dance team from Australia, are sipping tea; can’t wait to see their finished work at the end of January, and they leave in a week for a short trip to trek in Nepal. (Each deserves to be showcased in separate posts). Olga, one the directors of the residency, and her family who are visiting from Austria are enjoying their breakfast. Navneet, another director and whose family owns the property of the residency, is standing by the kitchen entrance. All good people. All pleasant interactions. It’s that nebulous good-bye, mingling time. I had plans to jet into Varanasi and sit at a café with my CPU early in the morning and do some digital dancing through the internet, because I couldn’t get a good connection at the residency. I changed my mind and lounged in the kitchen to catch up and chat with everyone and say good-bye. I even try a few phrases in German, which I found fun and the visiting Austrian’s found amusing and were patient.
• The Kitchen door bursts open. An Indian man with a distressed expression, whom I’ve never met but everyone clearly recognized, speaks in short, rapid fire Hindi right to Navneet, who rushes out of the kitchen. Everyone follows. I lag behind. There was an accident on the road (more about this road later). A couple of injuries to people everyone knows well. Not gonna dwell. It is out of my hands. What I found out in the evening, however, was that one of the difficulties was that … and get this … ALL THE DOCTORS IN VARANASI ARE ON STRIKE …what! So, Navneet, who is well connected, got the injured the care they needed.
• There was nothing for me to do. I said my good-byes and went out to the street to hail a rickshaw, which always requires negotiating a price. And, I just didn’t have the energy to haggle. I hoped I found someone right away who just gave me a fair price and I’d be done with it (will discuss haggling in another post).
• I have been to many residencies and with this kind of transition as artists come and go comes an emotional and psychological shift and re-acclimation. I sit in the rickshaw, put on my dust mask, reposition my sunglasses, hat and scarf and hang onto my laptop. The rickshaw bumps along and I have no problem blocking out all the honking because I am thinking about this transition …
• “What am I doing here?” That’s what this particular transition is getting me to think about. “Why are you here, Sam? Focus on your work, Sam. What is your work? Granite in America. Granite in India. Meta-questions. What’s important to you? Where are you going? Where is this world going?” I see a cow. I see a man urinating in the gutter. I see a disfigured person. I feel small and unimportant.
• I get to Assi Ghat, a central location and a hub of activity. I pay the driver, give him an extra 20 Rupees which means the world to him and 30 cents to me (another post coming, but this discrepancy is getting to me). I don’t have much time to get to the internet café before I am to meet a new friend at 11 am. So, I walk to the river Ganges, the hallmark of Varanasi and the most important site for the Hindu religion.
• I have never seen the river like this: it is stunning. I won’t be able to describe it to you in this short post. Really, beyond words. I had never seen the Ganga so clear. Its winter in Varanasi, which means cold, overcast days and fog, lots and lots of rarified fog that you often don’t realize you are in the middle of. This morning: no fog and I could see farther than I ever could see before! The other side of the river was so bright and the water was alive. The sun was out, the sky was clear. I sat at a bench I had never noticed before and I think I found what is going to be my favorite place to sit in Assi Ghat. I sat and looked for about an hour. I breathed and breathed again. I tried to let the impermanence of the morning go and be comfortable with the doubts of my own life. The view was stunning and the river life moved about me, which requires more something to explain to you … I don’t know … it’s wild.
• I stand and walk to meet Elliot. I met him the day before. Get this: the day before, Sunday, I’m with Gabby walking down the river toward Assi Ghat and I notice she stops and another westerner stops and they have that surprised “I don’t believe it” look that people get when they see someone out of context. They know each from … get this … London. Ha. Disbelief all the way around. Elliot and I decide to meet the next day, the day in question, to explore a part of the Old City that is further north and less filled with tourists. We get a cycle rickshaw north. The driver goes maybe 100 yards and passes us off to another rickshaw. I assumed because of the weight, but found out because he was sick (or drunk or something. I don’t know). This is 11 am.
• The Old City – Now, I know why people suggest not to eat meat in India. Butchery taking place. Flies. Oh, there you can buy a kite with Spiderman on it! And, fabric; and Krisha; and, a large Shrine; and, a small shrine. There’s a cow. “Come. Come here, Sir. Buy some Sweets, Sir.” Innards. Flies. Poop. Oh, now I have good luck. A puppy licking spilled cornmeal. A goat wearing a sweater.
• We get out of there and wind our way to the river and find ourselves at the Burning Ghat. What’s that you ask? It’s where they cremate people and push the ashes into the river, one of the holiest rituals for the Hindu Religion. They build sizable bonfires to burn a body and start the fire using an ember from a fire that was supposedly ignited by Shiva, himself, over 3000 years ago. There are about 15 fires going and at the Ghat they burn about 200 bodies a day. I’ve been here a number of times, and today I realized that continued exposure to this doesn’t bring familiarity, but rather further intensity.
• Elliot and I sit on the steps, watch the fire, breath the smoke. There is a cow that is launching a sonorous bellowing every 30 seconds or so. Think: the T-rex from Jurassic Park. Just like the movie, this cow lowers her head and moves it back and forth as she let’s out this bellicose roar. Phlegm shoots out of her mouth and snot drips from her nose. Her bellowing is rhythmic and continuous for the full 10 minutes we sat.
• A boy (10-13 years, could be 15) walks up to us, arms akimbo, places one foot on a higher step, leans forward onto his bent knee. Supremely cocky and in our face, too close, asks, “Where you from?” as saliva drips from his mouth, which is filled with Paan, an indian leaf that the men chew that is some kind of psychoactive stimulant and that generates massive saliva that they keep in their mouths for as long as they can and even try to talk this way. The boy mimics the men we’ve all seen. This drug is where he is getting his cockiness. I stare at him and don’t answer. This happens all the time; however, this boy is a bit more than I’ve experienced (more of what you ask. This is a subject of another post). This boy stands, just looking at us, too close.
• Another boy approaches with a pole over his shoulder. On the back end hangs a cage packed with about 10 live finch-like birds; on the front end is another cage that contains an owl the size of a wishnik, cute but the cage distresses. He wants to sell us the owl; rather, he wants money and then he will set the owl free. “It will bring you good Karma,” he says. Elliot and I are being blackmailed. Saliva-boy says something, spittle drips, and we ignore. We are four primates with boundaries overlapping.
• The cow roars and is now only feet away. A dog curls up against my back and falls asleep. There is a small falcon that doesn’t move, perched on the cage with the owl in it. I was still processing the owl-blackmail gambit, and I decided to look closer at the falcon. Its eye lids are sewn shut.
• I am angry. I take off my sunglasses and give a look to Bird-Boy that made him flinch. I growl: “Nahīṁ” (No – in Hindi) and then in English “Leave. Take this and get out of here.” “ Leave now.” I then turn to Saliva-Boy and stare. They get it and go their separate ways. Smoke billows. The cow roars.
OK … that’s enough. There’s more. I could go on. Elliot and I had lunch and saw more and more typical Varanasi … I go to the internet café and have zero success at connection. I met an American anthropologist from Wisconsin who knows all about cows: we talk about the water buffalo (one of the subjects I’d like to do a simple google search about, but can’t. Once again, another post on the way.) and we discuss how humans are now a geologic force upon the planet (multiple posts coming on this one). I go back to Assi Ghat and sit in a different place, a more public place, than in the morning. The sun goes down and I have a real conversation with a boy selling these candle/flower bundles that people buy for 5 rupees and light and float in the Ganga as a communication with the dead. I will revisit these children around Assi Ghat, again, in another post.
I get back to the residency. I am beat … No internet connection. I feel removed from everything. The best I can do is post on Facebook:
so frustrated *&^%@! … internet sucks in India … Have videos, pics, essays … can’t post anything! I can barely send an email!
I am heartened by the number of likes that build as I diddle my keyboard and then by the comments that tally up. My spirit is buoyed, which is what I needed after a day like today. These “likes” and comments are a small thing, but I feel grounded. I commented on the FB thread I started:
That’s it. once again, this is longer than I planned and I left out a great many details. Oh, well …. I am now going to try a different internet connection before it closes…. I hope I can post … then, if you can believe it, I’m racing down to the Ghats for more…