Interview with Guy Laramée, Artist: Part 3

Here is Part 3 of my interview with artist Guy Laramée. Read Part 2 here.

ANOBIUM: Many of these ‘thinkers’ you mention are definitively ‘eastern’ in their philosophical approach. What do you think about the East vs. West dichotomy (if it can even be called that), and do you feel that you address this question with your art?

Guy Laramée: I think the dichotomy East-West is somewhat obsolete now. Of course we cannot deny that most of this influence came from the East. Thanks to many recent publications – Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Smile of The Buddha, The Inward Eye, and Negotiating Rapture, to name but a few – we are now discovering how vast and profound this influence was among the contemporary and modern artists. This was all at the end of the 19th century. Smile of the Buddha makes it clear that even Monet was doing lip service to eastern influences…

Cloud of Unknowing, by Guy Laramee

However, this not to say that American and European artists have fully assimilated the import of these cultures. This is especially apparent if we consider that the aim of these “Eastern” disciplines was and is to overcome the illusion of the “I.” Nevertheless, the work has begun. Let’s see what happens next. Let’s see if a fringe of the art world succeeds in avoiding the trap set up by the Stock Exchange of Reputation that the art world has become. I’m a bit pessimistic in this regard, but let’s see.

I think the whole problem of “spirituality” in art must be put into a larger historical perspective. I wish I would have a substitute for the word “spirituality.” It has become a mumbo-jumbo of sorts. Let’s use “transcendent” for the time being. What I want to say is that I think that the import of Eastern spiritualties – or “call for transcendence” – acted as a wake up call for the artists so that they would eventually re-discover transcendence in their own culture. (What I just said is an oxymoron, because transcendence is precisely about transcending culture, but anyway…) There were guideposts to transcendence all along Western history and Western art. This is something that Bill Viola understood very well, I think. In Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, he tells the story of how a Japanese friend dealt with Viola’s desire to master the Zen arts while he was in Japan. His friend essentially told him, “You have it all wrong; start by doing Zen meditation and then everything you’ll do will be Zen.” I think this was the springboard for Viola to realize that he had to come back to his own culture and find his inspiration among his own tradition.

He might very well had done his Room for St. John of the Cross following this realization. But anyway, I guess he realized something even more profound: he realized that spirituality is not about the forms that rituals take in a given Zeitgeist. It’s not about being ritualistic in any way. (Someone should tell this to Marina Abramovic before it’s too late…) Rituals are too often a subtle masquerade for the “I” to maintain its alleged grip upon the world. If you think that any specific ritual, or recipe, is going to get you “there” – transcending form – then you’ll never get there. But on the other hand, if you think you can get there by avoiding all rituals, then you’ll never get there either! That’s the artist’s Koan. The Prajna Paramita Sutra says, “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.”

Albert Low, the director of the Montreal Zen Center, had a confrontation with his teacher about this. Kapleau wanted to “import Zen in the West.” Low retorted, “Why don’t you find Zen in the West instead?” In the same vein, when I was studying shamanism in Peru, I met a senior anthropologist in Lima who told me that sooner than later, I would have to go back home and find my referents in “my” culture. He told me that the first cultural imprints that we get are indelible, and mine were – like his – Catholic. I remember how hard I fought this at the time. I wanted to escape my culture, which I found corrupt and evil. (Actually, I wanted exoticism, but that’s another story… Or is it?)

But don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that we should get sidetracked by the forms that the quest takes. That is, if we realize, even at a very primary level, that the quest for transcendence is precisely that and only that: going beyond, beyond form.

If I could barter “transcendence” for “going beyond,” I would do it, but I can’t, it seems, without losing all the magnitude that “transcendence” commands, even at the peril of risking the old Christian associations. And that is the problem: as baptized people, we can’t think of transcendence other than “reaching a paradise somewhere, out there…” It’s fantastic comparing the meaning that my Christian tradition gives to “transcendence” versus the one Zen Buddhists give to the word. They certainly don’t see transcendence as reaching a distant heaven. Quite the contrary, actually. It is about going beyond all identification – the “No God, No Things” of the historical Buddha. And this is also why this notion should be so precious to artists, given our intuitive feeling that we must constantly go beyond the known. If you avoid the known to go to the unknown, you’re back into the same trap, because the whole project of the unknown is to transform itself into the known. But if you grasp intuitively that there is a third option – the “unknowable” – then you’re back to action, to creation, to the infinite, the limitless, the timeless. In other words: true freedom.

And no, that does not mean that from now on, you are exempt of paying your income tax… something that Cage misunderstood completely, in my humble opinion. In a recent video about D.T. Suzuki – the main importer of Zen in the West in the 20th century – Cage is seen as advocating that his “anything goes” is Zen. That’s not Zen at all! Stravinsky was more Zen than him in a way, because he said, “I’m free only when I know my constraints, not when I abolish constraints.” Note the full twist of his saying: not only when I have constraint can I be free, but first and foremost when I know them. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Cloud of Unknowing, by Guy Laramee

To go back to your question, about the eastern origin of my references, I would say that contemplative traditions are similar, Eastern or Western. Take, for example, a classic in western Christian tradition such as The Cloud of Unknowing. An anonymous text written by a 13th-century, English Christian monk. It was the main inspiration for my installation “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Each time you read “God” in the text, replace the word with “Buddha nature,” and you have a perfect Zen text. Contemplative is contemplative, east or west. This why, as Albert Low argued, we should strive to find contemplation here and now, not in a distant past or a distant cultural setting. Ultimately, contemplation is something we ARE, not something we should seek.

A: Have you found your referents?

GL: Sort of. In art: Caspar David Frieddrich and Gerhard Richter in Germany, a century and a half apart. Alexandre Calame, 19th century Swiss painter. Frederic Church in America.

All painters, as you can see. I have a long standing love affair with painting that is hard to explain. Maybe painting is the utmost visual art simply because it is so ambiguous. It brings forward the ambiguity that is, to me, the source of art. It barely can stand the use of tricks. And it is Western. I mean, humans have painted since the dawn of humanity, but the way we paint in the West, landscape in particular, is, well…Western!

It is hard to bring back the question of the spirit of art practice down to a simple question of referents. You need models, of course. But only to get a concrete example of what is already in your mind, which something that Agnes Martin puts very clearly. So yes, I found my referents, and no I did not find them yet, because the ultimate referent is the work to come. Even if this sounds terribly narcissistic, I mean my own work.

A: I want to go back to an earlier point in our conversation and return to the subject of progress vs. primitivism. Now that we’ve spoken in some detail, I’m wondering what your thoughts might be on Time itself. You quote Robert Aitken talking about the loss of the ancient… can anything truly be lost?

GL: Time… The Great Killer. Remember that I quit music – which is essentially a time-based medium – precisely to escape time.

It now seems to me that there are at least two ways to approach the question: the “essentialist” (Indian Vedanta / Advaita, Taoism) and the no-thing way (Buddhist, Zen in particular). But as I will try to explain, both can’t be avoided, they are the two poles of a dichotomy, a paradox or, better said, a basic ambiguity in life, in consciousness. And this applies very well to art.

On one hand, it is obvious that forms don’t last. Things fall apart, always. Take art, for example. Nobody would dare arguing that a period or a style can last forever. We understand that it is in the nature of things to evolve, to mutate, to change. We could also argue that these things from the past are not really dead, since we own them. This is pretty much Richter’s point of view when he argues that a painting from Friedrich is not something of the past, since we own it, we care for it, we go back to see it, in vivo or through images. We own his work because we need it. He goes as far as saying that it is quite possible to paint like Friedrich today.

But of course we have to take extreme care in developing this thinking about what lasts and what does not. The Friedrich of today is not the Friedrich he painted. We see it through our own eyes. We base our worldviews on it, we use it for our own purposes. We have no idea what it was to see this work in Friedrich’s time, even if we might get some cues from the writings of that period. This is something that anthropology warns us about: beware of assumptions you make about another culture, unless you truly gain full participation in it. This is hardly feasible, but you shouldn’t just shut your mouth. Never lose sight of your position as an agent. It is natural for a worldview to forget what it is: a point of view. A myth has to forget that it is a myth, otherwise it collapses. We have NO idea what it was to live in the pre-modern world. Consciousness was completely different, not only in its content, but in it’s very structure. Can you imagine what it is to live without an “I”? Of course you can’t! The “I” is the center of our time, but it is worthwhile to try. Try not to pronounce the word “I” for one day, or even just an hour, and you’ll see. The point of view is all. After this exercise, you might find yourself a bit more sensitive towards Muslims or Jews or whatever.

So far so good. Things don’t last, but we inject them with life by reinterpreting them. And of course, the life that breath in these things is each time a new life, the genetic code might be passed on, but the life itself is new. Take this into the field of natural sciences and it is easier to understand. Dinosaurs. Would you come out and say they still exist? Well, in a way yes, in our books, in the fossils, in the DNA we might find some day, etc. But no, they are in “fact” dead.

The problem is here: “things” do not last, but then there must be “something” that lasts. That is, “something” must escape this life-and-death drama, or the “wheel of samsara” as it is called in the East. This something is God, the Self, or whatever name you give it, but what is “it”?

Zen Master Hui Neng

And that is where – if we are really concerned and serious about these issues and our own life – this is where we come to Aitken and the serious stuff.  A famous Zen master said: “From the beginning, not a thing is.” – Hui Neng (638-713). This means that what you thought was not lasting anyway, because everything dies, that very thing you cared about – it just never existed. So if this conceals some truth, the whole problem of duration in time, the whole problem just flipped.

What is a “thing” in the first place? What is a work of art? We were made aware, through Duchamp, that the context is very important. Then Cultural studies taught us that a work of art is nothing outside the corpus of interpretations it generates. Gestalt psychology and phenomenology taught us something similar when they argued that perception is not possible without expectation, without a project. In fact, perception is a project, an intention. The world needs you to exist; it needs your “will to find meaning.” The dead world of natural scientist is just that: dead. That’s not the world we inhabit.

But the Zen masters go far beyond this. Everything you think exists, it just doesn’t. Time: a concept; nothing is outside your construction of it. Art: again a concept. Ancient: a concept, here and now. Loss: how can you lose what never existed?

So here we can truly measure Aitken’s import. He said that through the ancients we can reach the timeless. In French, we have no word for Timeless. The closest is “eternal,” which in our Western culture we mistakenly take to be infinite duration. The true infinite is dimensionless. Applied to time, it is a lapse of no duration.

The timeless, the eternal, how do we get there? Well, we don’t get there because there is nowhere to go. You could say we are already there, but then that would transform the timeless into a thing, and maybe the timeless doesn’t want you to do that to it…

Anyway, to go back to your question: can anything truly be lost? I would answer no; but not because “anything” found a secret escape door so that it can last somewhere. “Anything” can’t be lost, because it never existed in the first place!

But then, nothing is solved. What does “not existing” mean? What exists then? What is real? And then we go back to the beginning… See? We can’t solve these issues intellectually. We need a practice. Questioning intellectually is a good start, artistic practice is a good start, but at some level, if you really start fearing about your own annihilation, then you need a practice of “no-thing”.

[Concluded here.]

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