“The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. Your are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”
– Jorge Luis Borges, quoted by Austin Kleon
Friday, February 14, 5:15 p.m., Luang Prabang
Today is what the tour operators call “A Day in the Life” of Baan Tin Keo, or Tin Keo Village, around 45 minutes outside Luang Prabang. This series of activities within the village gives a flavor of village life, and shows off some of the good work being done there by the Grand Circle Foundation.
First, though, the day began very early with alms giving, in which we make an offering of sticky rice to the monks of the city, who rely on these donations for both of their daily meals (breakfast and lunch).
We each donned a scarf which we draped over our left shoulder and tied on our right side. This way of tying with the scarf over the left shoulder indicates commoner status – symbolizing that in Buddhism, all are equal regardless of birth status or social or financial prestige. As the monks filed by, we dropped a small golf ball-sized morsel of sticky rice in their baskets. They pass by looking quite somber, not interacting with the alms givers at all. This donation of food isn’t common in the Buddhist world anymore, and is only found in Laos and a couple of other countries.
After our own breakfast, we hit the road. Arriving in Baan Tin Keo, we first visited some weavers using looms that had been donated by Grand Circle, and a metalworker making knives and sickles. Some of us tried out their equipment. Read more
Thursday, February 13, 6:45 a.m., Luang Prabang
I’ll start by catching up on the activities of yesterday. In the morning we left the hotel in Bangkok, headed to the airport, and flew in a relatively small Lao Air airplane to Luang Prabang. After the bustle and commotion and sheer size of Bangkok, Luang Prabang is quite a change. A city of around 40,000, it’s quite rustic-looking and wonderful – in fact, even after just a few hours, I think I’ve decided that I’m going to retire early and come to live here!
The mist-enshrouded mountains (really more like hills, but here referred to as “mountains”) are gorgeous, right out of a sixteenth century Chinese painting. With the Mekong River rolling along side, the city has a very laid-back atmosphere. Its architecture, rustic and vaguely dilapidated, freely mixes Asian and French colonial styles. There are many cafes and temples, an extensive outdoor market, and a comparatively small tourist crowd that is young and vaguely hippie-ish. Even our hotel is lovely. Only the wi-fi leaves something to be desired.
One of our first major stops was the Wat Xieng Thong temple. Elaborate and beautiful, with detailed paintings and glass inlay, the buildings of the complex have an intimacy – as opposed to the grandeur of a place like Ayutthaya or Angkor – that is very appealing.
All the presumably valuable sculptures and art within the temple are freely accessible; apparently theft isn’t an issue here.
It’s a working monastery, too, and we are going to offer alms to the monks tomorrow. Built in 1560, the main temple is possibly the oldest building in the complex. Its elaborate roof, paintings, and glass work both without and within are highlights. Read more
Place: At my main computer. A week ago today I was in the middle of my latest busy San Francisco trip, hence my absence last week from the Sunday Salon.
Reading: Yesterday I completed Indie Spiritualist by Chris Grosso, an impulse purchase in San Francisco. He writes very clearly and intelligently about leading a spiritual life, and I am interested in checking out the interviews and other resources at his website. I am about halfway through Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck, which is serving much the same purpose for me that Grosso’s book did. I’ve also just begun Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; while very anxious to read her latest, The Goldfinch, I wanted to start with her earlier work.
Viewing: Last night I broke a weeks-long movie-less streak with Ahmed El Maânouni’s 1981 film Trances, from the Criterion box Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It was a pretty spectacular musical portrait of the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane. Not only was the film itself great, but the music of Nass El Ghiwane was powerful, and their poetic lyrics politically and spiritually charged. In San Francisco I had a lot of museum time, seeing the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation at the Asian Art Museum (as well as their cool installation Enter the Mandala: Cosmic Centers And Mental Maps Of Himalayan Buddhism), as well as Shaping Abstraction and Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George at the de Young. A return visit to Italian Baroque: Paintings from the Haukohl Family Collection at the Nevada Museum of Art was also welcome.
Listening: Two full hours yesterday were spent listening to roughly half of Longing for the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia, a beautiful boxed set of four CDs discovered in San Francisco last week at the great Amoeba Records. These recordings, mostly made in the 1920s and 1930s, are rare and wonderful, ranging from traditional to popular musical forms. Informing one’s journey through this unfamiliar music is the thorough annotation in the 270+ page book (!) that comes with the set. Also purchased at Amoeba was John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which will no doubt hit my CD player soon. Locally, a few days ago I attended a concert by the Reno Philharmonic that included a rare and grand performance of Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony.” San Francisco also saw me attending three concerts. Two featured Gamelan Sekar Jaya. One included a premiere of a new work, Citrangada, along with other stirring music and dance. The other was a free performance at the Asian Art Museum, with music from their jegog ensemble of bamboo instruments and a meditation led via Skype from Bali itself. We in the audience also took part in a short bit of the kecak, doing the rhythmic chanting (even the simplest of the syncopated rhythmic patterns is fun to perform!) and waving our arms in the air in unison imitating the wind blowing through the trees and the ebb and flow of the battle between Hanuman’s monkey army and the soldiers of the evil King Ravana. Lastly, I went to a performance in Berkeley by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Antonio Vivaldi’s sole surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans. I was taken aback by how great and colorful Vivaldi’s music was, but was not surprised by the incredible quality of the performance. At intermission I purchased the Orchestra’s new recording of highlights from Handel’s Teseo, which their conductor Nicholas McGegan was nice enough to autograph for me – this may be this morning’s listening treat.
Blogging: The main news here is the first installment of my travel journal from February’s three-week visit to southeast Asia. Over the next few weeks I’ll be putting up the rest of the journal, probably in two or three installments per week, along with many of the hundreds of photos I took. I also finally posted my review of Roger Lipsey’s The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art, along with a few further associated notes.
Pondering: I don’t think my brain cells are up to pondering this morning. Maybe some more coffee will activate a few more of them.
Anticipating: The last two weeks have been relatively filled with fun. So I suppose I am anticipating, if that’s the right word, returning to comfortable tedium this week.
Gratuitous Video of the Week: One of the things that made Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans so memorable was the colorful orchestra Vivaldi employs, including, among other instruments, mandolin, theorbos, viol consort, viola d’amore, chalumeaux (the ancestor of the clarinet), and recorders. Each of the work’s arias featured a different, distinctive instrumental backing. One of my favorites was Juditha’s aria “Quanto magis generosa,” featuring the viola d’amore, in which she suggests to Holofernes that mercy, rather than violence, would be the nobler course. This video doesn’t quite evoke how transfixing this music was live, but it’s still lovely.
The following is the first installment of the travel journal I kept during my tour of southeast Asia in February, supplemented by a few of the hundreds of photos I took. For the most part I’ll stick to the day-by-day chronology with which I kept the journal, headed by the day and time I was writing. One exception, however, is the first entry. As you’ll see, I ran into some trouble on the way to Bangkok to begin the trip. My original written account in the journal is pretty detailed, pretty defeated in tone, and, frankly, pretty boring. So my first two air travel days are summed up in a couple of paragraphs. Starting with Day 3, though, you’ll be reading almost exactly what I wrote at the time, so that you can essentially travel around vicariously with me. Also, with consideration given to internet privacy issues, I will allude to my fellow travelers simply with their first initials.
My goal is to put up two or three installments from the journal each week. Enjoy!
Days 1 and 2
The original plan was to travel from Reno to Denver to Tokyo to Bangkok, all via United flights. That first Reno-Denver leg was no problem. The same goes for the first 98% of the Denver-Tokyo flight. However, Tokyo had had a surprise snowstorm the day previous to my traveling, and flights were cancelled or delayed left and right. After circling around Tokyo Narita airport for a couple of hours waiting for the backlog of flights to land, we were diverted to Tokyo’s other airport, Haneda, around 100 miles away. There we refueled, and sat around for a while. By the time we were allowed to fly back to Narita, my connecting flight to Bangkok was long gone. Read more
In looking through one of my notebooks a few days ago, I came across some notes I took at the exhibition Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, works from the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presented at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. These bits and pieces don’t have any narrative thread, and I’ve just written plenty on this subject in my review of Roger Lipsey’s The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art. But I thought I’d preserve a few of these jottings here.
- “Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to.” – Karen Armstrong
- Der Blaue Reiter, or The Blue Rider, was a group founded in 1911 by several artists, including Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, that was dedicated to revealing spiritual truths in contemporary, often abstract, art.
- In his book On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky calls blue the color of spirituality – the darker the blue, the more it evokes one’s yearning for the eternal.
- Marc’s Gebirge (Mountains, 1911-12) hints at a path thru jagged mountains, leading at the end to bright sunshine. The spiritual metaphor is pretty obvious.
- Paul Klee was another member of the Der Blaue Reiter group. His etching Kleinwelt (Little Cosmos, 1914) is a miraculous little world just coming into being.
- Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalent series of the 1920s and early 1930s, a series of photographs of cloud shapes, are among the earliest abstract photographs.
- In the book mentioned above, Roger Lipsey points out the resonances of calligraphy and Islamic art in Jackson Pollack’s work. But there is also a less rarefied, more earthy spirituality in some of his work, perhaps related to his interest in Native American spirituality. In Guardians of the Secret (1943), familiar from SFMOMA’s permanent collection, one can see a fascinating if inscrutable collection of symbolic associations – a dead boar, a chicken, tribal masks, guardian totem figures.
- Abstraction, among other things, provides a separation from the daily, visible world, with all its chaos and violence, and attempts to recapture a sense of the numinous through a regard for pure color, pure shape, pure form.
What does one mean by “the spiritual” when it relates to art? It’s a question that becomes particularly problematic when one considers the creations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many of which are commonly regarded as lacking such values. Art historian Roger Lipsey takes on this big question in his excellent book, drawing on examples from throughout the last century, and giving primacy to the artist’s own words as expressed in memoirs, articles, and public documents as well as private diaries and journals.
Lipsey tentatively defines the spiritual as “when people begin to look beyond or within themselves for a strength to face life or a wisdom to understand it that surpasses their ordinary capacity.” He is deliberately vague about the details, noting that this quest is often, but not exclusively, a religious one. In the artistic context, Lipsey sums up the spiritual as “an idea of vast scope conveyed through an image, not a word, complete in itself, not an illustration but an illumination.” This spiritual element, Lipsey believes, is present in much art of the twentieth century, but has been misunderstood or ignored by many.
The author takes his cue from Wassily Kandinsky’s short book On the Spiritual in Art (1912). In it Kandinsky wrote of a new art that, leaving behind realism and traditional subject matter, would instead, in Lipsey’s words, “be based on an absolutely fresh sensitivity to line and color in themselves, to form as such rather than as description, and to space as such rather than as a setting for events,” drawn from “a new wisdom born of the artist’s awareness of his or her own depths and of the resonant universe.”
Kandinsky incorporated many esoteric sources into his work, like the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and The Theosophical Society, Kabbalah, and shamanism, not to mention his own personal spiritual views and metaphysics. But he also wished to emphasize in his works the primacy of form and color in and for themselves. This tension – as Lipsey describes it, “the struggle between the artist’s delight in form and the seeker’s delight in meaning” – is a significant part of his art. For instance, in Several Circles (1926) one may be looking at a proto-cosmos and a solar eclipse, or a meditation on color and the impact of the circle. Read more