Sunday, September 26, 2010

Into the Slipstream, The Yoga of Chance in the Photography of Robert Mahon

(John Cage Portrait, Series 3, #22, Robert Mahon, 1980)
“Through chance the possibilities of photography are expanded beyond the limits of individual bias.  The work is experimental; the resulting images become a discovery.  Any moment and any place is as good as another for the making of a photograph.” 
     (Robert Mahon on his work, John Cage: A Portrait Series)

(Embrace, from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)

("Malasana" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stop
Could you find me?
..To lay me down in silence easy
To be born again, to be born again
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks)

It requires a fair stock of bravery; to participate in the play of light and dark, to venture into the slipstream; to trust in the processes of chance, as life dispenses and assigns its cargo without preference. But this is exactly what we do with yoga practice.

I think many of us would agree that those conversations about yoga that circumscribe our experience to bodily practice, as if it were a kind of 20-minute workout, narrow our vision. Some would say those discussions about yoga miss the point altogether. Because, for many of us, yoga has changed our lives. And once our lives have changed, we notice that yoga is not about falling in love with the medium, of growing ever more fond of the body; but a way of seeing the world, and a means of perceiving ourselves. This yoga, this path, has a far deeper reach; one that perforates the boundaries between the practices of the body, and the practices of other instruments of vision, such as the camera, until it finally moves beyond the instrument altogether.

"Chance-process" has defined, mapped and shaped New Jersey based photographer Robert Mahon's lens on the world for several decades; ever since he came under the influence of both Buddhism and yoga philosophy in the late 70's through his close mentorship with composer John Cage. A practicing yogi, whose work resides in the permanent collections of the MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, amongst others, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mahon talks to us about how his yoga practice began to influence his willingness to play with the even, cool-handed, allocations of "chance"; so much so, that the theme of chance would dominate his work.

I first came across Robert Mahon's yoga photographs in an article by Anne Cushman entitled, The Yoga of Creativity in Tricycle, The Buddhist Review. That's when I decided to contact Robert Mahon about his series, Yoga and Trees: Glimpses into Satya Yuga.
The wispy bodies in familiar yoga poses, are but amorphous orbs bathed in diffuse light, interlaced with textual fragments; and then, juxtaposed are vertical strokes, lithe trees, that look like they've swallowed glowing halos. They evoke a sense of both observation and process that are reflective of yoga itself. Furthermore, there was a silence, an internal process to the images that caught my eye. This certainly wasn't photography that intended to document the correct aligment of an asana. What it was doing was evoking an inner space; alluding to a process or a practice; and creating intimate relationships between forms that seem otherwise unrelated.

(Merce Cunningham, Wesbeth Studio, Robert Mahon, 2007)
And this, to me, seemed to be the essence of yoga practice itself. The process of coming to know, through attending to each moment without attachment, was so central to my experience and understanding of yoga, that I had to ask Robert Mahon about his work and find out what was motivating this kind of process in his work. Through several emails and many transfers of biographical background back and forth, I came to understand that the decision to participate openly with "chance" was a means of interrupting the preferential choosings of the eye that is hungry for the object, and possessed by the outcome of practice.

All of our instruments rely on the inner eye and its conditioned perception. So what happens to the inner-eye when you remove your own preferences, your likes/dislikes, your attractions/aversions from this equation of perceiving? What if you choose not to cling, to or control the outcome of your observations?

These questions are the spinal column, the backbone of research into "chance processes" in art; as well as, the exploration of chance and possibility in yoga and meditation. Tapping into chance is the ability to slip into the slipstream, wade into the unknown, the potential and unmanifest, by attending to the present moment.
     “The question of how a photographer can profitably
      collaborate with chance - how to preserve its surprising
      felicities within an order of structure and stability -
      has been a major preoccupation of photography this
      century, I think Mr. Mahon’s work is among the most
      interesting and potentially rewarding of current
      explorations in this direction." 

(- John Szarkowski, Director, Department of Photography, 1962 - 1999, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City)
("Standing Firm" from Yoga and Trees: Glimpses of Satya Yuga, Robert Mahon 2001)

It wasn't long before I realized that I had accidentally bumped into an artist of enormous significance, both in terms of the work he has produced; but also in terms of the strides made in the methods by which he explored chance process. The body of his work is broad, and spans many years; as such, the interview I had with him only considers a few of his photos as a starting point. Namely, Yoga and Trees: Glimpses into Satya Yuga, first exhibited in 2004 at PhilosophyBox in New York City; his 216-image portrait of John Cage, which is now part of the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and, his work entitled Two Children, a large scale work of 80 photographs made from a single inherited negative, which was exhibited in 1993 at The Museum of Modern Art. Two Children was purchased by MOMA for its permanent collection in 1983.

What follows is our interview about working with the yogic process and the use of chance processes in the body of his work. He talks about his long mentorship with John Cage, and the history of Cage's transition into chance processes, through contact with yoga philosophy and Buddhism. In his agile responses, Mahon proves that yoga is best when it's kept close to us; when we dare to travel with it in our carry-on luggage; when it comes with us to the baseball game, and when it lives on and off-the-mat...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Rubin Museum of Art, NYC presents: "Grain of Emptiness: Buddhist Inspired Contemporary Art"

David Byrne in discussions at The Rubin Museum of Art NYC
"poetry makes nothing happen..."

My late friend John used to quote his great-uncle W.H Auden; he, like Auden, I suspect, had a deep respect of the void.

 It wouldn't be the first time an artist considered his/her relationship with "nothing"; or cited "nothing" as the source of a more profound, unfathomable "nothing". Nor is this news to yogis; the stillness of the void has been the wellspring of asana, or seated practice, for thousands of years. As for whether art makes nothing happen, or nothing is the deep wellspring of all else; well, that's a topic that The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City is willing to take on.

Atta Kim, The New York Series, Times Square, 2005

The forthcoming exhibition entitled: Grain of Emptiness: Buddhist Inspired Contemporary Art, which begins November 5th 2010 and runs through April 11, 2011, features five contemporary artists -Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand- all inspired by the Buddhist notions of emptiness and impermanence and Buddhist ritual practice. These artists are from disparate backgrounds and explore a range of artistic mediums, but all have inherited the practice of incorporating Eastern religious beliefs into their works. The exhibition's paintings, photographs, videos, and installations will be complemented by performance art.

This is another opportunity for those of us a plane-ride away, to take a look at contemporary artists' musings on "nothing"; as well as, take in the other "nothingness" programming that the Rubin has arranged to complement the exhibit. Talk about Nothing, is a new series of dialogues being presented beginning in late October at the Rubin, that brings together personalities to discuss the void. Running between October 27th and January 29th, the Rubin presents talks with a diverse group of thinkers ranging from writer/musician Amit Chaudhuri, performance artist Laurie Anderson, to Tibetan lama Traleg Rinpoche.

The Red Book arrives at the Rubin, 2009

I stumbled across this exhibit while I was looking for events based on Carl Jung's richly illustrated, and posthumously published journal, The Red Book; which, I ecstatically received as a gift from my brother and sister-in-law, last Christmas. And as it turns out, the Rubin had presented a similar series of talks about Jung's undiscovered tome called "The Red Book Dialogues" last year. The picture up top is lifted from the Rubin Museum website; and features David Byrne in conversation with psychoanalyst Sherry Salman about the mysterious and wonderful Red Book.

Programming at the Rubin Museum is worth bookmarking.
Tickets for Talk about Nothing are now on sale to members at the Rubin Museum of Art website.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Brooklyn's Body Actualized Control: Building a New Yoga Tribe from the Rooftop of the Market Hotel

Among the instructions on the website of Brooklyn based lifestyle community, Body Actualized Control, is a list of what to bring to a B.A.C yoga party. It reads:

 BRING YOUR! singing bowls, gongs, prayer flags, harmonium, drums, candles, antlers, bear fang, crystals, kale, hummus, quinoa, poetry, tarot, sculpture, spirit books, spiritual devices, new age technology, archetypal objects from the forgotten works, incense, love, positive vibe, compassion etc.
For Body Actualized Control, offering up the yoga-party is an essential in the yoga community toolbox. Along with weekly classes, this tribal gathering of Brooklyn's young subculture,  influenced by post-rock, the new age movement and the good vibes of DIY happenings, puts on numerous artistic, literary and yoga events at its proudly independent hub, the Market Hotel. In this truly tripped-out, yoga cosmos, there  are no justifications of BAC's yoga existence through direct or indirect inheritance of any specific yoga tradition, or lineage. And, to anyone noticing, there are no references to India, the Yoga Sutras, or anything ordinarily deemed "traditional" about yoga. In short, BAC's philosophy is very "here-and-now" driven, and very American in character.

Somewhere in its chaotic explorations of yoga libations under their "healthy hedonism" section of the site, are visions left by the 60's musical "Hair", art pieces made by friends and community members, (my personal favorite is the creep-eyed, zany fox covered with plastic flowers, chomping on wild bark), and youtube posts of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be sure, it's a wild collage of age-of-aquarius dreamstates in hyper-saturated technicolor, driven home with snippets of Robert Anton Wilson, mindfulness meditation, and casual mentions of Heidegger. And, of course, for pure, weird-on factor, there's a blog post on horseback yoga, or "Equiyoga/Cowgirl yoga", as it's variously called.

But wait, there are no mentions of Patanjali??! Or Hatha Yoga Pradipika?

In my interview with BAC staff member and yoga instructor, Austin Samsel, we discuss why BAC overlooks any overt mentions of Patanjali, and opts instead to "taking on reality" in New York City.  We chat about how BAC likes its collisions with its environment, and uses yoga to confront the vital signs, sounds, and energy of the city, by practicing yoga on the rooftop at Brooklyn's Market Hotel. We chat about BAC's existence as an artist-run, not-for-profit, community organization, that combines various forms of artistic output in awareness of health, spirituality, and social responsibility; and whose past events range from late night dance parties, various literary gatherings, and everyday yoga classes. We even talk about a poster on their site for a past yoga party entitled, "EVIL Yoga"...

I think when you come here you end up being friends with us, and it's a relationship. I'm not trying to get anything out of you. We just want to see people having fun, and people coming into their better selves.  

 - Austin Samsel, Yoga Instructor & member of Body Actualized Control

•     •     •     •     •

Sunday, September 5, 2010

YOGA 2.0: Mala 1, by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie - A War-Cry Manifesto for Deconstructing the Yoga Body

Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie's new book is a must-read

"The doors of life must be broken to test the hinges and the doors."
Andre Breton, 1922
wrote eccentric, dissident artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in the Futurist Manifesto of 1908, as he announced a brand new art movement that was daring forward at breakneck speed into the unknown. In a wholescale rejection of the past, he affirmed that the basic structures of the day must be destroyed in order to be put to the test. In 1924, Andre Breton put out an inflammatory piece of writing called Le Manifeste du Surrealisme in which he proclaimed: 
 "The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly"
 In Yoga 2.0, Mala 1: Shamanic Echoes,  authors Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie declare:
"...all yogis must resist Yoga. If you meet the "Yogi",  kill the "Yogi".

In the art-world, this kind of hyperbole may be commonplace. But in the tenderfooted, deferential, and well-mannered world of contemporary yoga, this kind of statement carries a tenor decidedly more sweeping and incendiary. As if that is not warning enough, this book comes with an additional warning. Namely, that this is not a book at all.

Matthew Remski
Scott Petrie
It is not a textbook, or a guidebook, or a warm and fuzzy personal account of the trinkets and prizes hard won by the soul through earnest yoga practice. There are no anatomical drawings; or prescriptions for specific asanas. In fact, by the latter part of the book, the book admits it does not want to be a book. In fact, it's suspicious of book culture altogether. Then you notice that all its careful observation is countered by equal proportion of wild hypothesis and adventurous suggestion. Well then, you think, this is not the work of a neutral observer, or a cool academic, or worthy scientist, is it? And, from the quote above, anyone can see that it doesn't shrink at provocation. So what is this colorful piece of writing... this delinquent, prodigal text written in grand hyperbole and rich allegory?

Yoga 2.0 is nothing short of a yoga manifesto, replete with similar hallmarks, props and literary devices. By the time Matthew and Scott are done with their narrative of yoga, as it ticks through the timeline of evolutionary biology, "Capital Y" Yoga, as a permanent entity, with appeals to scriptural authority and authenticity, is, if not demolished, at least knocked around a bit. By the end of the book,  contemporary yoga practice looks rickety enough that it might be little more than an elegant acropolis built from toothpicks.