"catastrophe and the power of art" at the mori art museum

  add color painting: refugee boat ( 1960/2016-2018)   yoko ono

add color painting: refugee boat (1960/2016-2018)
yoko ono

the role of art in catastrophe is not necessarily a moral one— the artist knows the futility of reason or beauty or even thought in the face of pain. it is a point of disillusionment for any artist who is aware of the world around them; this notion of how dare I. how can I. when we awake enlightened of meaningless horrors, the preoccupation of art affecting the universe can seem unbearably narcissistic.

there is nothing moral about painting a starving child, or photographing a city block masticated by floodwaters; there is no fine justification for art. we may look upon the work—the monochromatic mural of ai weiwei or the photographs of the world trade center imprinted upon puzzle pieces by christoph draeger—and understand their message. we receive their intentions and are touched by it. we can—or some may even say, must—use our work as a method for our advocacy, but even if their resonance is measurable, it is ultimately an ambiguous and diluted force against the evils we combat. 

  odyssey  (2016/2018)   ai weiwei

odyssey (2016/2018)
ai weiwei

  sunrise at the world financial plaza. new york, september 2001  (2018) christoph draeger

sunrise at the world financial plaza. new york, september 2001 (2018)
christoph draeger

but in the aftermath of disaster we are left with our humanity. whether it be our own pain or the empathized shocks of another’s pain, it is necessary to reinstate the self, the emotive, uncaptured, living self upon the land that cruelly continues. as we see from the kobe artist horio sadaharu, the work he created after the devastation of his hometown during the hanshin-awaji earthquake kaleidoscopes in the vivid and maddening strokes that glare upon the pages, furious and ruinous. pools of black overwhelm the collapsed urbanity, concrete snapped like matchsticks. the calamity is here, yes, but so is the artist. he has been reborn a witness. it is a creation in collaboration with the pain, and no— not everything has been overcome, not everything has been forgiven, but something has emerged from the self, and it declares itself, triumphant.

there is the question of who “owns” the right to create on the basis of a disaster. is it only the victim? would anything else be considered exploitative? but that notion undermines our capacity to know one another. it dangerously perpetuates notions of property upon the universals of shock, loss, anger, grief. that is not to say that there does not exist work that is exploitative, but that work stemming from empathy should not be invalidated. trauma is not a legacy, and though there are ways to steal it and to tarnish it, there are no limits to its effect. one of the foremost functions of art is to provoke conversation, and one cannot have a conversation without response. 

 from  “earthquake landscapes”  (1995) horio sadaharu

from “earthquake landscapes” (1995)
horio sadaharu

regardless of justification the need to create is indefatigable, and that is a relief. paul celan affirmed; “there is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a jew and the language of his poems is german.” it is an impossibility to be free from the desire to speak, and it is a certitude to which we must give thanks. how much I have learned from those who have conceived from catastrophe. how I have felt myself change. perhaps the ripple that has touched me has failed to further social transformation, perhaps it has failed to serve a purpose, but the movement that has transpired from one mind to another is a force nonetheless. the determination that culture should survive is not narcissistic; it comes from knowledge that the arts are a formidable construction of the world experienced. things did not simply happen; we lived through them. a muteness would be agonizing; it would be lethal.

we make art so that we may remember, so that we may have catharsis, so that we may speak in the name of justice or sympathy, but ground into the foundation of those sentiments is one, pure brightness: the declaration of our consciousness. as jack behar said;  “we have been strangely exhilarated to contemplate a world in ruins in which all that is left is the wayward ego matched to a future it must create out of nothing.” disillusionment will continue, but alongside the conviction that we must not leave ourselves in crisis. it is not nothing. 

a song out of tune

by octavio paz

The day is short,
                          the hour long
Motionless I retrace its steps,
climbing its minor calvaries,
I descend on stairs made of air,
and am lost in transparent galleries
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

The day is short,                                
                          the hour long.
I see my stubborn hand that writes
its circular words on the page,
I see my shadow on the page, I see 
myself falling through the hour's blank center
--but I don't find you,
                                 and I don't see me.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
Time drags on, hides, and peeks,
time is buried, clods of air,
time sprouts up, a column of air,
it bashes my forehead, scrapes my lids
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
I walk through lots and corridors and echoes,
my hands touch you and you suddenly vanish,
I look in your eyes and suddenly vanish,
the hour traces, erases, invents its reflections
--but I don't find you,
                                 and I don't see me.

The day is short,
                          the hour long.
There is a seed asleep in time,
that explodes in the air with a burst of syllables,
it is a word, and it speaks without speaking
the names of time, yours and mine,
--but I don't find me,
                                and I don't see you.

Names are fruit that ripen and fall;
the hours immense, inside itself it falls.

Essentially all this is crude and meaningless. . .as an avalanche which involuntarily rolls down a mountain and overwhelms people. But when one listens to music, all this is: that some people lie in their graves and sleep, and that one woman is alive. . .and the avalanche seems no longer meaningless, since in nature everything has a meaning. And everything is forgiven, and it would be strange not to forgive.”
— anton chekov, "themes, thoughts, notes and fragments"

letters from maine

by may sarton

1

Yes, I am home again, and alone.
Today wrote letters, then took my dog
Out through the sad November woods.
The leaves have fallen while I was away.
The ground is golden, while above
The maples are stripped of all color.
The ornamental cherries, red when I left.
Have paled now to translucent yellow.


Yes, I am home again but home has changed.
And I within this cultivated space
That I have made my own, feel at a loss.
Disoriented. All the safe doors
Have come unlocked and too much light
Has flooded every room. Where can I go?
Not toward you three thousand miles away
Lost in your own rich life, given me
For an hour.

                      Read between the lines.
Then meet me in the silence if you can.
The long silence of winter when I shall
Make poems out of nothing, out of loss.
And at times hear your healing laughter.

keep reading

thank you, dr. christine blasey ford

it’s a warm, wind-full saturday night in tokyo. I’m watching the news and op-eds come in regarding brett kavanaugh’s nomination to the supreme court. most are factual, stating susan collin’s assent or kavanaugh’s inevitable confirmation. some are solemn and reluctant, asserting that despite the outcome, dr. christine blasey ford’s revelation and testimony were not in vain. some are bitter, pronouncing the darkness of this current time. it is impossible, at this moment, to think of anything but dr. ford’s face, her voice as she sat in front of the world, and spoke her truth. truth that has, in the past, been stifled into a screaming silence. been broken amidst tears in a therapist’s chair, been revealed in the dark to a friend, by millions of women.

it is banal to speak of one’s own sadness or rage in response to something like this. and it’s heartbreaking. it’s enraging, that the gates of the supreme court have been opened for a man of such subpar control and open partisanship. it is a familiar feeling, this sense of immense injustice that has become an everyday affair in the trump administration. it is a strong enough hand to bow our heads and turn us forcefully away from that wreckage of a country, the united states. it is an aggressive enough affront to the rights and dignity of women for us to disavow the nation and its offensive pretenses of morality.  this spectacle, this vitriolic, spitting statement on the part of brett kavanaugh and its shameful, dystopic result, is what makes so many of us, foreigners, people watching from the outside, feel terror, and desolation, and the guilty, twisted relief of not being american.

what I want to say is this: the results of the kavanaugh hearing is a synecdoche of forces that have always been in conflict, in politics and in other battles, fought on uncountable fronts, of what is right, and what others falsely believe to be right. it is not a matter to be denigrated by that thoughtless term, “he said, she said”. it is an embrace of the violent. it is hegemonic insurance. it is an exploitation of the pain of others. it is an open contempt of democratic values. it is an act of the war that sectarianism inevitably breeds. the world gives us so little reason to think that truth and justice always outlive the cruel, but I am still young and (perhaps) foolish enough to believe in goodness. in dr. ford, and in so many others, supporters, allies, protestors, politicians, people around the world who watched and felt the sadness, felt the rage, I was once again reminded of goodness, and bravery, and honour.

I read the words of june jordan;

“American existence twists
you finally
into a separatist.”

Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms

by hayan charara

The trees alongside the fence
bear fruit, the limbs and leaves speeches
to you and me. They promise to give the world
back to itself. The apple apologizes
for those whose hearts bear too much zest
for heaven, the pomegranate
for the change that did not come
soon enough. Every seed is a heart, every heart
a minefield, and the bees and butterflies
swarm the flowers on its grave.
The thorn bushes instruct us
to tell our sons and daughters
who carry sticks and stones
to mend their ways.
The oak tree says to eat
only fruits and vegetables;
the pine says to eat all the stirring things.
My neighbor left long ago and did not hear
any of this. In a big country
the leader warns the leader of a small country
there must be change or else.
Birds are the same way, coming and going,
wobbling thin branches.
The warblers express pain, the crows regret,
or is it the other way around?
The mantra today is the same as yesterday.
We must become different.
The plants must, the animals,
and the ants and worms, just like the carmakers,
the soap makers before them,
and the manufacturers of rubber
and the sellers of tea, tobacco, and salt.
Such an ancient habit, making ourselves new.
My neighbor looks like my mother
who left a long time ago
and did not hear any of this.
Just for a minute, give her back to me,
before she died, kneeling
in the dirt under the sun, calling me darling
in Arabic, which no one has since.

to the light of september

by w. s. merwin

When you are already here 
you appear to be only 
a name that tells of you 
whether you are present or not 

and for now it seems as though 
you are still summer 
still the high familiar 
endless summer 
yet with a glint 
of bronze in the chill mornings 
and the late yellow petals 
of the mullein fluttering 
on the stalks that lean 
over their broken 
shadows across the cracked ground 
but they all know 

that you have come 
the seed heads of the sage 
the whispering birds 
with nowhere to hide you 
to keep you for later 

you 
who fly with them 

you who are neither 
before nor after 
you who arrive 
with blue plums 
that have fallen through the night 

perfect in the dew

There is a peculiar quality about being alone, an atmosphere that no sounds or persons can ever give. It is as if being with people were the Earth of the mind, the land with its hills and valleys, scent and music: but in being alone, the mind finds its Sea, the wide, quiet plane with different lights in the sky and different, more secret sounds.
— elizabeth bishop, "on being alone"

IMG_3434.JPG
 

there is the same high ardor
of rhetorical sunsets in sicily as over martinique,
and the same horizon underlines their bright absence,
the long-loved shining there who, perhaps, do not speak
from unutterable delight, since speech is for mortals,
since at the end of each sentence there is a grave
of the sky’s blue door or once, the widening portals
of our disenfranchised sublime.

from derek walcott’s 34: at the end of this line there is an opening door

MY LOVE, DON'T BELIEVE

by bartolo cattafi

My love, don’t believe that today
the planet travels on another orbit,
it is the same journey between old
pale stations,
there is alway a sparrow flitting
in the flowerbeds
a thought grown stubborn in the mind.
Time turns on the face of the clock, it joins
a trace of the fog above the pine trees
the world veers into the regions of cold.
Here are the crumbs of the earth,
the embers in the fireplace,
the wings,
the low and busy hands.

introducing "the nation of aphasia"

I was grateful to receive an award for a poem I wrote about china, the country I was born in, and one I am eternally curious about. it is a place I have come at from a distance, to engage it in conversation, to listen to its stories, its music, and to learn from its seemingly eternal wisdoms. some of my most precious poems have been written with its hand— on the 43rd floor of my uncle’s apartment building in harbin, upon the curb of my grandmother’s house in beijing, in the yellow dust of shandong province, by the banks of the yellow river, looking over shanghai brilliant at dusk, and half-drunk on sweet wine in hong kong. there is no assigning a writer to a singular ethnic literary identity, but in my poems about china, I am proud to be associated with an incredible history of artistic legacy, and am full of thanks for my country, as I know it, to be read, to be spoken to, to be heard.

that being said, the nation of aphasia was written in the aftermath of a case in which five hong kong publishers and booksellers gradually vanished in the winter of 2015. gui minhai, lee bo, lui bo, lam wing-tee, cheung jiping. they were involved in the production and distribution of provocative literature, utilizing the unique “one country, two systems” policy of hong kong-mainland china relations to publish books that would be banned under chinese law. but despite the obviously political nature, this piece is not a call-to-arms. it is not a manifesto. ultimately, it stems from my curiosity and hesitant love for the country I was born in. bao pu, another publisher and victim of the chinese crackdown on “sensitive” literature, said in an interview that he has no ambition to save china. I, too, have nothing so noble to aspire to, but my intent is to give voice to what could go otherwise unsaid. to witness how days pass in china, to be released from presumptions, to deviate from subservient ideologies, and ultimately, to bring a country to coherence, so that we may reach some understanding. this poem did not come out of a desire for justice—a falliable thing—but out of the necessity for scope, some vision. so that one day, perhaps even china, who has remained so silent and so impenetrable for so long, may too open her mouth, and speak.

-

听到了我写的一首关于中国的诗收到了奖,第一个情感就是荣幸。中国是我的出生地,一个让我永远充满好奇的国家,也是一个我是从远处接近的地方。写关于它的诗的目标,就是想跟它谈话,听它的故事,音乐,并从它的永恒智慧中学习。许多我最珍贵的作品都是用中国编的;在我大舅的哈尔滨公寓43楼,在我祖母的北京房路边,在山东省的黄色尘土中,在黄河的岸边,在黄昏时看着上海的辉煌, 在香港的甜酒上半醉。 没有任何一个作家能够分享一个单一的民族文学身份,但在诗歌中,我很自豪能够与这么难以置信的艺术遗产联合在一起。能让我认识的国家被阅读,让她发言,让我们两的故事都被得悉。

话虽如此, 《the nation of aphasia》是在2015年底写完的。在那个失密的冬天,五个香港出版商和书商逐渐消失:桂敏海,李波,呂波,林榮基,張志平。他们参与了生产和分销挑衅性文学,利用香港独特的“一国两制”政策出版中国法律禁止的书籍。但尽管明显的政治性质,我的诗并不是一种檄文。不是宣言。其实,它是用于对我出生的国家的好奇心和犹豫不决的爱,写出来的。鮑樸, 一位出版商和中国打击“敏感”文学的受害者,在一次采访说过说他没有拯救中国的野心。我也没有任何高尚的渴望;我的目的是吧那些原本无法解释的事情说出来。见证天是怎么过得,让这个国家从推定中释放出来,偏离屈从的意识形态,让我们可以对方了解。这首诗并不是出于对正义的希望,是出于联系必要的景况,愿景。所让有一天,甚至是她,中国,保持如此沉默了这么久,也可能会张开嘴,说话。

 

you can read the nation of aphasia here

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.
— donald hall, "the third thing"

on immigration

it is entirely possible for an immigrant to talk about immigration objectively, but why should that matter? despite the dispassionate character of laws and regulations, there is an argument to be made in that emotions should wield only limited sway as a determinant of policy, but that argument is entirely redundant in our current conversation on immigration. we do not resolve sensitive issues by disregarding the reasons we are sensitive to them. this is not an impossible conversation to have. this is not even a difficult conversation to have. it is simply, to use a defeated word, complicated. in order to engage with and understand immigration, one has to be open to complexity, inconsistency, and deadlock— precisely what frustrates us about emotional matters, and tempts us to disregard emotion in favour of logic or exactitude. 

it is difficult to be on the receiving end of media in times like these. the dismal updates keep coming and coming. people express their revolt and distaste in adjacency with updates of their lunch. newsflashes endlessly propagate images and descriptions of the same cruelties until we have lost our taste for them. all the language of reports and accounts serves as variations on emotional manipulation— crying mothers, abhorrent conditions of containment, children in cages, endless bureaucratic incompetencies. we feel hurt. angry. distressed. despairing. and yet, these feelings motivate some to reject and protest zero-tolerance immigration policies, and some to defend them.

I am an immigrant, and I stand with immigrants and refugees not simply because of some personal sensitivity to their stories and plights, but because I am invested in a world that does not measure worth by nationality. because I believe that the return for wanting to live should be life.

homogeneity is a natural preference for humanity. we find it easier to empathize with people who look like us. we form automatic kinship that can be associated with familial intimacy. we find it easier to trust people within our ethnic communities. these are all biases that can be overcome, and they do not determine our behaviours, but they do influence them. interracial conflict is something that may never dissipate, even with a significant portion of the global population touting acceptance and equality. from a national perspective, however, comprehensive acceptance and equality are luxuries that do not compare with the urgency of having to manage the financial and independent well-being of a country. adopting a mass number of refugees or immigrants into a country will force that host to diminish other capitals, at least in the short term. it will be an arduous process. it will be costly in every definition of the word, and it will be worth it. if it teaches us to live alongside one another, that alone would be worth it. if it proves our capacity for compassion, that would also be worth it. if it increases the vibrancy and brilliancy of our culture and our society, if it boosts the economy, if it improves infrastructure and modernizes the state, that would just be a bonus.

I do not speak for all immigrants, but the victims of america’s current immigration policies are not people who have left home on a whim, or to take advantage of america’s presupposed wealth. they may not even be there in search of some vague american dream. we know why they left. we know why they arrive by the thousands, in ramshackle boats and in threadbare clothing and in grief. accepting them is not a kindness, it is a responsibility. 

I am an immigrant, and I know other immigrants who support strict immigration policies. some of them are my parents’ age. we worked hard, why shouldn’t they? some of them are logical. the country can’t accommodate them all. we need to look after ourselves. some of them have no logic. borders exist for a reason. and of course, some of them are just racist. 

when I say responsibility, it is not only a moral responsibility, but a literal responsibility. america is the perpetrator and sponsor of enough violence and horror overseas that it is now indebted to welcome and harbour every individual whose lives have been affected as a result of american errors. the idealistic response to the immigration conversation is that the countries from which people are fleeing should be made habitable again, but those changes cannot come from force or invasion (masquerading as aid or so-called peace campaigns). for the country that has been at the epicentre of global politics for the last century, and that has abused that power to harrowing ends, this is america’s chance to owe up to its debt. 

it cannot be ignored that american-born citizens have things they feel the need to protect. it is not unreasonable that some feel threatened. I would like to comfort them by saying that an immigrant or a refugee will never have an easier life than they do. an immigrant never removes the question mark from their status. an immigrant never assumes home. an immigrant will encounter, all throughout their life, people who resent them for simply being there. 

but they will be reminded, then, that they have a life, and they will be grateful. 

I would also like to ask them about the kind of country they feel is being threatened. if it is a country that operates with the methodology of ruthless erasure, of privilege over decency, of nationhood over humanity, I would say that it is not worth protecting at all. 

“what was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?” 
- omar el akkad