Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Art Mystic

A couple of weeks ago I read about an artist whose work, in my view, parallels the mystical experience. Wil S. Hylton writes of one of James Turrell’s creations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: 
The room was devoid of boundaries, just an eternity of inky blackness, with the outline of a huge lavender rectangle floating in the distance, and beyond it, the tall plane of green light stretching toward an invisible horizon, where it dissolved into a crimson stripe. … The shapes and contours I saw were made entirely of light. 
It reminded me of the first laser light program I saw in the days before laser light shows became commercial and often tacky. It was truly a work of art on the interior “canvas” of the Los Angeles Planetarium dome, accompanied by music, ranging from classical to jazz. The colors were so intense, I cried.

The only other time I remember crying at the intensity of colors was on a visit to Petra, an ancient and abandoned city in Jordan carved in stone whose mineral composition reveals intense striations of colors. (You will remember its stone temple from the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) I felt so sorry for one of my trip mates who was too sick to leave the bus, unable to join us being led on donkeys through a very long and winding few-feet-wide passageway between sheer stone cliffs to Petra.

Having that experience, I could understand why Zorba would wire the narrator of Zorba the Greek to come see a beautiful green stone he had discovered. Zorba, based on an actual acquaintance of the author, Nikos Kazantzakis, angers the narrator by his seeming obliviousness to the great famine he and his world are enduring on the eve of even greater disasters to come.

“To hell with beauty!” he writes, “She has no heart and does not care a jot for human suffering.” But then his anger dissipated, and he felt drawn to Zorba’s request: “Some wild bird in me was beating its wings and asking me to go. Yet I did not go. … I listened to the moderating, cold, human voice of logic.” In response, Zorba wrote, “You too could have seen a beautiful green stone at least once in your life, you poor soul, and you didn’t see it,” and the bad choice convinces Zorba there is a hell.

Hylton writes: 
The joke among Turrell’s friends is that, to see his work, you must first become hopelessly lost. … Not everyone enjoys the Turrell experience. It requires a degree of surrender. There is a certain comfort in knowing what is real and where things are; to have that comfort stripped away can be rapturous, or distressing. It can even be dangerous. 
Notably, his work is yet wheelchair accessible.

This could describe a mystical experience—becoming hopelessly lost, surrendering, having comfort and certainty stripped away, rapturous, distressing, dangerous. And yet “wheelchair accessible,” which I suggest as a metaphor for available to all.

As with the mystical experience, “a dense and impenetrable vocabulary to describe his work” is needed, like “thingness of light” and “alpha state of mind.” “Without these terms it would be nearly impossible to discuss his work,” Hylton observes.  So too with mystical experiences, for example: “thin places,” “dark night of the soul,” “interior castle,” “showings,” “mindfulness,” “oneness,” “nirvana,” “kingdom of God,”  “in the Word was life, and the life was the light of all.”

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