From Rilke to Ragnar

“…because truly being here is so much…” (Rilke, Duino Elegies, “Ninth Elegy”)

Today I took in the full sixty-four minutes of Ragnar Kjartansson’s video art installation, The Visitors, at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It is immersive and seductive, the former term being the best I know to describe it, the latter being a word used in the show’s promotional literature with which I cannot disagree. It was both of these things and more. There are nine screens arranged in a large gallery space in such a way that gives the viewer real-time access to several rooms inside an aging mansion in New York state. Each room is occupied by a musician, with Ragnar himself situated in a bubble bath with an acoustic guitar. All of the musicians can hear one another via headphones, and all proceed to play what amounts to one really long song–several movements that continually return to a single, haunting refrain.

I was mesmerized from the start, even having a couple of moments that I can only describe as joyful. In fact, with Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetic cycle, the Duino Elegies, fresh in my head, these moments of joy struck me as pure moments, as pure a moment as we can find in this life. These moments represent the best thing that can happen at an art exhibit, or in any experience, for that matter. For those who have not read Rilke, the poet presents art (specifically poetry, but I expand his thought to include art in general) as a relief from our nagging self-consciousness. You will have to read Rilke to take in the brunt of his thought–there is so much more than what I’m giving you here. To oversimplify, I will say that he specializes in the plight of the human consciousness.

My notion of a pure moment, informed by Rilke’s Duino Elegies, involves both the cessation of time and the suspension of self-consciousness. It is full immersion in an event. For me today, that event was Kjartansson’s The Visitors. It fulfills Rilke’s idea of “hiersein,” German for “being here.” In these moments of intense being, we forget about time, and we forget about ourselves. We are free to be inside a moment, free to experience pure joy.

The Visitors is on-view at The Frist until February 12th.

A Paragraph for the Beginning of November

I turned off my radio because I noticed the tips of the trees were already bare in many places. All across their tops the sunlight was catching them in a way that softened them like the bristles of a baby’s hairbrush, except wavier and stretched wide as the land–an earthwide undulation of soft, orange-pink bristles. And I turned the radio off because I wanted to listen to the trees, which is another way of saying I wanted to listen to nothing, because nature doesn’t talk to us: a leaf falls, and we call it an omen. We pick it up; turn it in our hands; roll our mind over its veins and across its papery flesh behind a dry fingertip, searching and searching for meaning, and when the meaning doesn’t come we create it: this is the sacred work of the artist. And aren’t those bristles lovely.

Natural or Sad?

I used to think we could commune with nature, like the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests in his writings on Transcendentalism; that by virtue of simply spending time in it, with ears, eyes, and mind attuned, something spiritual might pass between us and it.

At some point a break occurred, however, and I find the notion of communion with nature increasingly difficult. Indeed, the word that presents itself to me over and over now is ‘indifference.’ Nature is indifferent to us–I can’t seem to shake this feeling, though I want to. I want that innocence of my twenties, when the woods buzzed with mystery; when a gust of cool wind contained echoes of ancient rituals; when the deep red-orange of autumn maples burned with knowledge of species long extinct; when the molecules of magnificent events lingered inside the furrows of ashes, behind the peels of shagbark hickories, or tight against the rippled trunks of beech trees. But now it all seems like mere vegetation–no less beautiful, just void of the visions it once held; no less a fertile ground for the imagination, just no longer offering transcendence.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Modernist literature, or perhaps it’s an effect of age. I do miss seeing nature through those younger eyes. Oddly, though, the loss is not all that sad. In fact, it feels pretty natural.