Having Objects, Having a Body • 29 May 2007

So on Friday, Chris and I edged out of a nighttime reception at San Francisco’s AsianArt Museum and made up the escalator for the South and Southeast Asian galleries. Chris is the best companion for this kind of thing, since strapped with the most serious antiquities fetish I’ve ever witnessed, and because his talk is sharp and attentive and wryly clever. An historian, he’s writing a book on the half-forgotten American plunderer who “discovered” Macchu Picchu and packed off its riches to Yale University. In this age of crocodile tears for colonial sins (Harvard, the Getty, the South), Yale alone knows better than to undo the secrets of its own primitive accumulation, and so sits on its Peruvian treasures with the excuse that it paid for them back in the day. Interesting questions: patrimony and who owns it, the price of culture, the justice of market exchanges between such unequal parties. All this achatter in my consciousness, ascending on the escalator…

…and then we step into the museum-dim that is supposed to hood your perception—curate and domesticate it—and make modern whatever primitive, realer-than-real THING it pretends to offer for our dithering, sentimental edification…

And there’s Siva, four feet tall in sandstone and under those soft supposedly-harmless lights, surely more gorgeous than the first day he was carved. The THING pulls the plug on our banter. Something like nirodhah happens for the duration of a gulp.

O, goddam. Screw curation. That belongs in a museum, my foot.

And screw modernism, for the moment. Smarmy Singer-Sargeant, lame lame Monet: all this stuff intended to look good on the walls of the well-heeled, or in the postmodern cases simply unable to resist their own domestication, despite “subversive” intentions.

How often is it that a thing hits you cold like that? Maybe it’s just that Siva is stalking me now—tomorrow, for the first time in two months, I’ll face up to his terrible aspect, Bhairvasana, and the others—but even if I were safe from Siva, I think this chunk of sandstone would undo me a little. I think the yoga makes me receptive to, even credulous in, what the thing might have to say. For the superficiality of my engagement with the Indian myths (and superficial is all it will ever be), their effect is still interesting—and potent. “Art” doesn’t often know how to go to that place even when we want it to: it’s just there to comment on something, or to be appreciated, or to suggest the brilliance of its “creator,” or—let’s face it—to occupy space. Seriously: claiming to “get” most contemporary art is like claiming to “get” the emptiest passages of Derrida. And the whole stupid anthropology of museumification doesn’t exactly facilitate transformational aesthetic experiences: professional mothballers don’t exactly move from their guts.

Or… maybe I’m jaded, and a good dose of the ancient is my only hope.

I’d think so, but a strange thing actually happened last week between myself and an overt-avant mass of plastic and cardboard at the Brentwood Getty. A gimmicky, pandering installation piece, which left my brother the postmodern artist unmoved, made me want to cry. (Albeit not actually cry: maybe the best that contempo art can do is make us want to feel—itself a mediated response.)

This THING, Tim Hawkinson’s Uberorgan, is so damn wonderful. You walk inside it half-knowing, because it’s suspended in the atrium-now-peritoneum of the hilltop building—where glass and perfect Greek marble reflect and re-reflect the clarified white smog to encase you in unreal, heavenly brightness. In the midst of this, the billowing white plastic bellows of the Uberorgan are just one more strange membrane. But you stand under it, on the marble floor, and its shapes start to seem sensible—you see a giant white liver, an opaque stomach, and a heart. You’re so interested that when the Chuck E. Cheese factor kicks in, suddenly transforming the bodily “organs” into an organ, instead of getting caught in the pun, you yourself are transformed by it. The organ is bellowing, making an ultra-bass kind of whalesong that shouldn’t be possible for air pushed through giant plastic bags fitted with awkward cardboard pipes. The sound makes you be in the membrane, observe the functioning of the organ/organs like a living, digesting thing. It incorporates you, digests you a little. When the music stops, you’re like the idiot in a game of musical chairs, standing under the billows with a stupid wonderment that, like all postmodern experience, turns into an writeoff when you lower your head and make eye contact with all the others who, at the same moment as you, are getting and shrugging off the joke.

So the Uberorgan trivializes itself at the end of the day, but if you are in Los Angeles before September, you must experience it. If you liked Innerspace, you’ll love the Uberorgan.

Anyway, in these cases, there wasn’t much difference in my delight between a dead-serious god statue and a deadpan plastic organ. Odd, really.

I think the common passion here (if passion is a “capacity to be moved,” as the other ancients would have it) is the having-a-body practice: the yoga, for all its tendencies to strip down and dust off my inner and outer life, is shaping my experience of having-a-world. And the art that clearly speaks to the way I have-a-world somehow points to the physical practice—either its evocative history or its more literal inner pleasures.

CJ’s return to Sartre this week reminds me of his associate Merleau-Ponty’s every-other-page refrain: I have objects because I have a body. That may miss quite a bit, considering that M-P’s idea of “body” was purely physical and there’s plenty about a body that’s subtle and energetic too. But there is something to be said for objects that go for the viscera: if a thing cannot go to that place—pity. If it can, I’m ready to call it art.

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