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.

Isolation + Convenience = Art

IMG_3578Saturn Parkway feels isolated, even with cars, even during the morning clamor and hustle for lane position beyond the Port Royal merge: commuter frenzy and misplaced rage; Dodge Chargers riding bumpers and Honda Civics with custom exhaust systems buzz-whining from your blindspot like cranky string trimmers; the feeling that no one sees the beauty of the growing light, soft in the treetops: everyone is sequestered in their rolling, windowed cocoons, looking at phones, eating breakfast–angry-seeming, hostile, indifferent, closed-off. I have to ignore the indifference and rage, or else my equanimity erodes–my sense of worldly equilibrium and mental poise; I feel my own rage swell. Pointless. How do people stand it?

But the isolation, I like. It’s false, of course–tens of thousands of people live in Spring Hill–IMG_3579but out on the nearby highways the feeling is there. Saturn Parkway and Highway 840, the two four-lane belts stretched tight across lower Williamson and upper Maury counties and forming the northern and southern perimeters of Thompson’s Station and Spring Hill, are bordered by trees and fields. Broad, shallow-sweeping hills hide the stacked and jagged subdivisions of new and newer construction; a great herd of cattle–Black Angus, presumably–snuff lazily along majestic, Middle Tennessee pastureland, idle as the sun, less than a mile from where construction cannot match demand. Driving into the area, one may not realize that they enter a place where population has outstripped infrastructure, where roads do not accommodate traffic.

The isolation may be false, but its effect on the mind is not. Yet it’s a tricky thing–we Spring Hillians have the option, while driving home from work, to either dwell on this imaginary isolation or remind ourselves that civilization lies just beyond the trees. I doubt that many people think about this at all, actually. I’m a weirdo that has to have a slant way of seeing things, an ethereal territory on which to plant my mind, or else a place will never be a real place for me. When we moved from Nashville’s urbs to its suburbs, I needed to find something about Spring Hill in which to root my imagination–a milieu of my own. Nashville was rich with it; stories dripped from every brick. But what did Spring Hill have? So far I’ve landed on isolation, albeit an isolation with modern conveniences. And isolation can be a welcome thing for an artist.

I wonder what other territories Spring Hill will present. Meanwhile, we’re building one of our own with flowers, trees, and playground equipment. And I’m wallowing in artistic isolation, which is the good kind.

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