Monday, October 20, 2014

Ten Bulls- One who is not attached to "form" need not be "reformed."

Rereading the Ten Bulls the Comment from 9. Reaching the Source stuck me and made me review my work in this new light. One who is not attached to "form" need not be "reformed."
Possibilities for our show:

Ten heads in a dish, (Impermanent Foundation Series)
Unfired clay suspended in water
Size can range from miniature roughly 4x4 inches
or can be life-size on dinner plates roughly 11" in diameter

Twelve Dollars (Capital Cleanse)
Cast soap, 2" in diameter, Box of 48 George Washington's
I would provide soap for the gallery bathroom for the duration of the show. $12 represent money exchanged for a girl sold in Nigeria, April 2014.

Gauze, 3x roughly 4x3", unrolled gauze is 4'x3"
These may be nice in dialogue other works in the show.

Just Looking While Breathing, (Anitra Haendel Series)
3 part drawing, ink and graphite on pencil, 26"x40"
Am not sure the gallery has space for these, but was thinking about including Anitra in this group show as the location is so close to where we lived from 2000-2005.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


“For me the important thing was my school, I wanted to learn, I wanted to be a doctor at that time, it was my dream. But in 2009 education was banned and at that time I could not even believe that would it be possible that I would remain just uneducated woman for my whole life and then I would get married and my only job is to give birth to children and take care of my husband and my mother in law and my children and that’s it.

I could never be who I am.”

Ok, now I have the education, but everything (except the mother in law) remains the same. It is a fleeting time and I know this will not be forever. I also want and realize this is an important job. However, I still cannot be who I am (most of the day.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation video

Video for Robert Rauschenberg Foundation from Tereza Swanda on Vimeo.

while reading Where the Heart Beats I question

How is the everyday related to art?
How much of the daily grime, is the beauty?

Awakening to my life:
How is my seeing, smelling, tasting, noticing dust-balls
     the urine in diapers,
     which I have realized is a smell I associate with home
    The hollering of grandma's, the noise, in between the Calm Meditation Radio on Pandora
     the never-ending dishes
     "We are always just doing the dishes" (Emily Orling)
     never-ending laundry
     never-ending food preparation
     Anitra's shit paintings


"It's not what you do, it's how you do it." (RnC)
Am I present? Not often, not during chores, they're never-ending. In this way my process is never-ending.
Everything I do is not art- just moments.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Today I turned 40.

It rained all night and into today; I woke up to the sound of raindrops on the roof.

My parents arrived yesterday, so Ale stayed in his bed with Nonna this morning. We got a reprieve, and actually slept until 7:30 AM. It's their 42nd wedding anniversary as well, so a good time to celebrate together.

Our creek was flowing, instead of being bone dry (its condition for the last 2 months).

The plants and trees looked full, not droopy.
I went to the gym and then helped clean up the garden with my mom. It's still the best way to curb the mounting depression that's making its way out of the periphery and into my center. 
T and my dad moved a huge log to span across the creek so we have a bridge to the other side.

I feel like I'm coming out of my melancholia, even though nothing has really changed.

Everything is fine, it's always been fine. I have nothing to complain about. 

R&C sent out their newsletter - did you receive it?

I found it inspiring - it helped me remember my part of the liver.

...I know I have no right to be sad. Even when I describe what I'm doing to others, I feel ridiculous feeling anything but gratitude. With every terrible thing that is happening in the world, with all the brutality, racism, killing and climate change, I feel incredibly self-centered even writing this entry to you, Tereza. 

But that weight of parenthood is still here. The anxiety of responsibility, the dread of the Domestic, creeps in on me on an almost daily basis. 

These are the questions I want to ask them for my skype crit, but in these questions are the very answers I am looking for:

What am I missing?
What am I not seeing?
What connections am I not making?
What's the "thing" I need to see, need to say?

What are the common threads that can weave through the more figurative work and into this more lyrical work?
I don't know how to convey gesture without being completely literal about it.
What about atmosphere? What I see has so little to do with calm...

How do I work with aspects of the more figurative work with this newer approach?
Without being totally fragmented?

Is this work an extension of the work from SAP 3, or a tangent? I still don't recognize a lot of it, as the more intuitive work has always been kept on the side, in the margins, on the periphery...

What pieces still need to be made?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sometimes repetition feels like walking in circles in jail.
I'm not learning anything.

art in context of life in context of art

I just found these images again going through a "clean-up" of my computer desktop.
Making connections at a glacial pace, I think I understand context in a different way.
My work reads so much better when it's seen in its context.

(I also miss Anitra and wanted to post her image again. From your posts, I can tell you do too).


Friday, October 10, 2014

In my lifetime: projects

Less of a straight line, more of the atmosphere:

Recognize my marks
Don't withdraw
Take responsibility for my place in the (art) world, and all the other worlds.
Support my family
Support myself
Don't procrastinate


...I also realize this stint of self pity has everything to do with staying STUCK to ideas, concepts, perceptions ... about so much. So much VELCRO. Time to unstick!!

Thanks Ann Hamilton

re: Girls series cannot remain Untitled, Love Your Titles

I was taken by the visual analogies you made with our work.
I have been thinking about them in terms of working together in the future - how to make our blog real (in another way)

Using our blog as a starting point, why don't we create work based on the images that resonate with us?
I mean, we've found a way to get our blog to print - very literally.
Are you interested in doing something more lyrical?

Thinking about WSW - they have a regional grant that I could apply for.
Their printmaking studio is amazing, as is their paper making studio.

Initial thoughts: we could create a monoprint edition or body of work based on our blog - working independently but side by side. The residency is for a month. Something you see and want to respond to, something I see and want to respond to. I'm more inclined to follow that thread, based on the visual analogies you put together from earlier last month.
We could use those images as application images...?
Deadline for WSW is October 15. We have five days. Interested?

with love

thank you so much for continuing to post, Tereza.
For the last few weeks, I have felt the crushing weight of my decision to start a family.
And even though this blog was created as an intimate conversation between us, I don't want to take it for granted and spew about my "problems". I'm fine, really, if filled with melancholy.

Thank you for posting
Thank you for posting
Thank you for posting

I am making it back here, slowly

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Conversation at the end of time

Re: Just checking your website!
From: Anitra Haendel
Sent: Mon 10/27/08 4:07 PM
To: Tereza Swanda
oh sweety. I wish I was there for you more!          "I wish I was there" underlined in blue. You are...

Now I can see the details...
and I yours, the small bits of red speckeled on the edge of a torn paper. One Snoopy extending a hand to the other while the other keeps his hands to himself. 

not only are the sanded lines delicate but so are the images in their fleeting lights and structures

                                                                                "fleeting lights and structures" underlined in blue.
The process is still about impermanence, so much so that now I recognize the body as shell, as temporary, as the universe expanding, shifting, changing constant, reading "A Universe from Nothing."

seems like that is part of it - the ephemerality of places - that they can be destroyed so easily via earthquakes, floods, bombs and the like - if they even exist at all outside the memory --

Krauss discusses the view of the universe by future astronomers. They will not see the expanding universe as it will be beyond their view horizon. It will be a view of nothing in one mega galaxy. Will there be a trace of our view, the Big Bang? Our memories? How do we leave a trace, art? 

they are also planetary and of the large picture of the universe - matter and atoms and energy flowing -- cities and places after all are very small - (see Dorothea Rockburne's work - she is into science and whiteness and darkness and fuzz i think)!1972/c76v

energy flowing underlined in blue

i think they are also about your czech childhood. having a clear memory of some place but a fuzz a haze of others - perhaps the feeling of the scratches and the marks of the sand are just the feeling of those memories - - 
feeling circled in blue
my ground- my czech childhood, postcards, sanded
making space, clearing space, a space that is something out of nothing

sand is also pieces of rock and sea and it also is part of erosion - these are maybe a recognition of the natural erosion and fading away of certain feelings places etc - -
underlined in blue
my memories with you, clear and fuzzy, fleeting light in our self-made McKibbin structure
questioning classical analyses bust, in ocean, eroded

and then by you putting them down again in a different way they have been re[con]figured 
but can never be the same...

How do we best preserve you? honor your being, now refigured. unfigured
the shell cracked, energy, nothingness.
Is there something?
"but can never be the same" underlined in blue

just thoughts                                                                                                              just          thoughts

I find the sanding very interesting. the noise of it.                               the sound of it, the pause after
"the noise of it" circled in blue

maybe record the noise. (the scratch, the agitation, the movement,) you have always been interested in sanding and in work. i think the work aspect is important - the basic drudgery of sanding and also the meditative 
underlined blue
Cage's 4,33, record motherhood/cleaning for 4,33
for 5-10 hours a day
5-7 days a week

Maybe instead of making a painting of the postcard like angela suggested, sand off a big picture. You could get a photo enlarged and sand away on your spare time. just be sure to collect the dust and to wear a mask!

Sand a large picture of you, 
fine grit, recording sound, breath
wear a mask of  Mictecacihuatl like you did
I will send you some photos of my new paintings now. 
I love you!

good scissors are such a joy to cut with!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke

Letter Seven

May 14, 1904

My dear Mr. Kappus, 

Much time has passed since I received your last letter. Please don't hold that against me; first it was work, then a number of interruptions, and finally poor health that again and again kept me from answering, because I wanted my answer to come to you out of peaceful and happy days. Now I feel somewhat better again (the beginning of spring with its moody, bad-tempered transitions was hard to bear here too) and once again, dear Mr. Kappus, I can greet you and talk to you (which I do with real pleasure) about this and that in response to your letter, as well as I can. 

You see: I have copied out your sonnet, because I found that it is lovely and simple and born in the shape that it moves in with such quiet decorum. It is the best poem of yours that you have let me read. And now I am giving you this copy because I know that it is important and full of new experience to rediscover a work of one's own in someone else's handwriting. Read the poem as if you had never seen it before, and you will feel in your innermost being how very much it is your own. 

It was a pleasure for me to read this sonnet and your letter, often; I thank you for both. 

And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it. 

It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love. But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who loves. Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves ("to hearken and to hammer day and night"), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough. 

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment... And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement, it also had to give it and easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.

It is true that many young people who love falsely, i.e., simply surrendering themselves and giving up their solitude (the average person will of course always go on doing that), feel oppressed by their failure and want to make the situation they have landed in livable and fruitful in their own, personal way. For their nature tells them that the questions of love, even more than everything else that is important, cannot be resolved publicly and according to this or that agreement; that they are questions, intimate questions from one human being to another, which in any case require a new, special, wholly personal answer. But how can they, who have already flung themselves together and can no longer possess anything of their own, how can they find a way out of themselves, out of the depths of their already buried solitude?

They act out of mutual helplessness, and then if, with the best of intentions, they try to escape the convention that is approaching them (marriage, for example), they fall into the clutches of some less obvious but just as deadly conventional solution. For then everything around them is convention. Wherever people act out of a prematurely fused, muddy communion, every action is conventional: every relation that such confusion leads to had its own convention, however unusual (i.e., in the ordinary sense immoral) it may be; even separating would be a conventional step, an impersonal, accidental decision without strength and without fruit.

Whoever looks seriously will find that neither for death, which is difficult, nor for difficult love has any clarification, any solution, any hint of a path been perceived; and for both these tasks, which we carry wrapped up and hand, on without opening, there is no general, agreed-upon rule that can be discovered. But in the same measure in which we begin to test life as individuals, these great Things will come to meet us, the individuals, with greater intimacy. The claims that the difficult work of love makes upon our development are greater than life, and we, as beginners, are not equal to them. But if we nevertheless endure and take this love upon us as a burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in the whole easy and frivolous game behind which people have hidden from the most solemn solemnity of their being, then a small advance and a lightening will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us. That would be much.

We are only just now beginning to consider the relation of one individual to a second individual objectively and without prejudice, and out attempts to live such relationships have no model before them. And yet in the changes that time has brought about there are already many things that can help our timid novitiate.

The girl and the woman, in their new, individual unfolding, will only in passing be imitators of male behavior and misbehavior and repeaters of male professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions, it will become obvious that women were going through the abundance and variation of those (often ridiculous) disguises just so that they could purify their own essential nature and wash out the deforming influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off  the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.

And one more thing: Don't think that the great love which was once granted to you, when you were a boy, has been lost; how can you know whether vast and generous wishes didn't ripen in you at that time, and purposes by which you are still living today? I believe that that love remains so strong and intense in your memory because it was your first deep aloneness and the first inner work that you did on your life. -All good wishes to you, dear Mr. Kappus!

Ranier Maria Rilke

Monday, September 29, 2014

morning with Ani

Letter, back of Cover

Letter, Cover

Sand, Fall

Reminds me of an X-ray, and your Mother

Feb.20 2009
                Is this the Funniest sandpaper or what?

It was the kind where the sand did not adhere to the paper. Sand was floating between the plastic container and the bottom of the letter. Do a drawing of Anitra’s face, in sand, on paper. Blow away.
It also reminds me of burying her up to her neck in sand at Kalk Bay

I got it at the 99 cent store. When I sanded the gesso, all the sand
fell to the floor and the paper was left w/o sand on it. Try sanding-
it gives “sanding” a whole new definition! For me, it did at least!

Record sanding sound. We discussed how sanding is really what I do. It reminds me of sanding the postcards project we talked about in 2008, first semester at VCFA. Work with her image of particles on surface, falling off.

I see know [now] how you can make your own “sand paper”-
a little glue, sand, + paper.

a little glue, sand, + paper.

I also find these squares aesthetically pleasing…
And the other object in this package is from Jess. From when she went to Peru.
I have taken this long to send it! She stayed at my house maybe 1 year and
Half- 2 years ago after she got back from Peru.

Jonas played with this doll not long ago. Placing her in a doll’s bunk to sleep.

She bought the doll back for Alenka, but then left it [at] my house by accident. And I said I’d send it to you.

Bring the doll with the kids to NY this fall. Picnic on your grave.

I am sorry it’s soooo late! My handwriting is messy with this pen ->
I'm sorry I'm sooo late!
Hope you can read it! I love you Ani
Heart instead of a dot on the i

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lifetime projects

Promote the wants within family
Balancing: male, female
And extended family (strangers, friends, daily encounters)

Especially those on the periphery

Finding safe-houses.
Those with a different structure than patriarchy

 natural, impermanent structure

Teaching art: 
Changing, creative, negative-space of framework
Creative framework, like Kinetic Rain
Especially to those on the periphery- from periphery to center

Be the medium:
Dialogue with establishment

Friday, September 26, 2014

"the subtleties do vary from each perspective", questioning classical analyses

 Here is some more fun analyses. I found many images of the classical bearded guy. (But because he is a sculpture, the nuance is in the perspective from which he is photographed.) Here is your challenge/game for the day.

When looking at the photos do you see any subtleties that vary from each perspective and/or do you have a general read of the guy's microexpressions?

My first impression of your sculpture is: a cross between concentration and worry, maybe slight sadness, but I really need to look closer at it.

When looking at the photos the subtleties do vary from each perspective, This makes it hard to read.  In people, (from what I've seen so far), the expressions are consistent from no matter what the angle, so this form of fine art (and perhaps the lighting/shadows) makes it difficult to read.

I do see underlying emotions of anger and sadness.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

I miss you, all the time, ahoy!

[11/5/2011 5:14:23 PM] Tereza Swanda: ani my love, where are you?
[11/5/2011 5:14:28 PM] Tereza Swanda: I miss you lots
[11/5/2011 5:14:33 PM] Tereza Swanda: hope we can skype soon
[11/18/2011 2:28:56 AM] Tereza Swanda: Hey dear- I miss you lots please send me a note when you can
[11/27/2011 8:56:46 PM] Anitra Haendel: darling hello!! i never check my skype messages! how ARE YOU??? i miss you!! so you have internet and we can sykpe now? hooray!!
[11/27/2011 8:56:59 PM] Anitra Haendel: ahoy!!
[10/28/2012 4:30:21 PM] *** Call from Anitra Haendel, duration 4:41:43. ***
[10/28/2012 9:21:56 PM] Tereza Swanda: Sorry Karl and Annie, It is 3 in the morning and I'm passing out. The alarm goes off in a few hours. I will call back then. Can someone stay with Annie tonight?
[10/28/2012 9:22:08 PM] Tereza Swanda: Sending you my love
[10/29/2012 1:43:44 AM] Tereza Swanda: i'm up here
[10:59:45 AM] Tereza Swanda: I am here when you are.
[10:59:53 AM] Tereza Swanda: Dearest,
[10:59:58 AM] Tereza Swanda: I need to find you again.
[11:00:01 AM] Tereza Swanda: I'm trying
[11:00:22 AM] Tereza Swanda: but for now I find substitutes, even in Will!
[11:00:50 AM] Tereza Swanda: Life takes so many turns- I read on Zen, on Cage, Rilke and think of you
[11:01:53 AM] Tereza Swanda: You were my East, my North, my South and West, my working week, my Sunday rest
[11:02:42 AM] Tereza Swanda: I can review our messaging- it says from the beginning. Here goes

looking together

Hey, can you tell me what you read in G.W's face. - the microexpressions?
especially in the middle image (just the face) I'm sculpting it and want to know more the psychology of who he was.

Looking at the second photo down (just the face)...

First thoughts: It seems to me he has a very 'judgmental/superior' look to his face:

Looking closely: There are signs of a residual smile and/or a slight smile but, he's trying not to show it.
The eye on our right (his left eye), is closed slightly, which people usually do when they're scrutinizing something.
Looking down to our right (his left) corner of his mouth, it seems [to me] that this corner of the mouth is slight pulling inward and slightly upward more than the other side (only very slightly).  These two factors (eye and mouth) show me micros of contempt - the feeling of superiority, usually directed toward a "lower-status" individual.

Interestingly, this photo looks like a mirror image of the one above it and the one below it (just based on the corner of the lips).

Monday, September 22, 2014

From George to Thomas to Jonáš

Hotel Soap

Premium Collection, George
Dirt in soap

 Play With, Jonáš

Chance Game

New, old work



1. Immigrant's America, includes (Empty Shell), 2002
Rock and canvas over individual stretcher bars 


2. Chance game, America, 2014
Scanned flag, new patterns

(in process)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

On love, liberty, and the pursuit of silence.
“Good music can act as a guide to good living,”John Cage (1912-1992) once said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) is a remarkable new intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists — by longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, includingMarcel DuchampJasper JohnsYoko OnoRobert RauschenbergJackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.
The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space, isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
Xenia Kashevaroff
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:
I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.
By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:
Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’
Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage's confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.
Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:
Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?
When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.
So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.
To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?
Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:
Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.
What he found was a language of silence and immanence.
In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men's bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them -- one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts -- which would endure until their deaths.
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:
What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.
My composition arises out of asking questions. I am reminded of a story early on about a class with Schoenberg. He had us go to the blackboard to solve a particular problem in counterpoint (though it was a class in harmony). He said, ‘When you have a solution, turn around and let me see it.’ I did that. He then said: ‘Now another solution, please.’ I gave another and another until finally, having made seven or eight, I reflected a moment and then said with some certainty: ‘There aren’t any more solutions.’ He said: ‘OK. What is the principle underlying all of these solutions?’ I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshipped the man, and at that point I did even more. He ascended, so to speak. I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over. And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions, that the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point. He would have accepted the answer, I think. The answers have the questions in common. Therefore the question underlies the answers.
This profound pursuit of questions, coupled with disinterest in criticism, came to define Cage’s aesthetic. Larson writes:
One of the relentless consequences of the choices modernists made was uproar: the convulsions of fear and loathing that arose whenever a new aesthetic proposition appeared on the horizon. Cage’s own life — hardly immune from controversy even now — offers an object lesson. He learned very early to ignore criticism, since he knew perfectly well his work was not ridiculous. Criticism was of no interest. Nor was praise, which seemed to require that he repeat himself. ‘At every point society acts to keep you from doing what you have to do,’ he said in 1973. From the outset, he set off to find his own answers, and he looked to experimentalists for precedents.
One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:
From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.
Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.
Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:
‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’
(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)
Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:
Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
For Cage, this was tied to bridging the dangerous divide between the conscious and unconscious mind:
There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.
In Japan for the first time, on a trip organized by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono in 1962, Cage immediately set off to D. T. Suzuki's house. Ten years after the debut of 4'33'', Cage honored his ninety-two-year-old teacher and the teachings that had shown him the heart of silence.
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin
By the 1950s, however, Cage had started to drift away from the Indian spiritual traditions as he became more deeply immersed in the work of D. T. Suzuki and, in particular, his Essays in Zen Buddhism. Larson writes:
Cage’s mind is breaking its shell. It’s not that he has walked away from the Indians altogether, Cage rarely abandoned anyone or anything that affected him deeply. Rather, a new thought (or a series of thoughts) is in the process of emerging. Cage has set out to solve the problems caused by love — his love for Merce, his love for music, and a love that perhaps he can’t name, that arises as a mysterious upheaval of the heart, a spiritual fire that is causing an urgent search for solutions.
Suzuki, in fact, taught Cage something essential about breaking the bounds of Western culture’s most destructive paradigm — its toxic ultra-individualismand attachment to ego:
Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It’s the path of great artists, great religious leaders, great social reformers. The problem is not suffering per se, but rather our identification with our own ego: our divided, dualistic, cramped view of things. ‘We are too ego-centered,’ Suzuki tells Cage.’ The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow. We seem to carry it all the time from childhood up to the time we finally pass away.’
This notion of renouncing the ego was comfortably aligned with Cage’s own dismissal of the emotions, so he embraced it:
[Q:] Since your ego and your likes and dislikes have been taken out of your compositions, do you still view them as your compositions, in the sense that you created them?
[Cage:] Emotions, like all tastes and memory, are too closely linked to the self, to the ego. The emotions show that we are touched within ourselves, and tastes evidence our way of being touched on the outside. We have made the ego into a wall and the wall doesn’t even have a door through which the interior and exterior could communicate! Suzuki taught me to destroy that wall. What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished; tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened; all the ramparts have to be razed. You can feel an emotion; just don’t think that it’s so important….Take it in a way that you can then let it drop! Don’t belabor it! It’s just like the chicken I ordered in the restaurant: it concerns me, but it’s not important….And if we keep emotions and reinforce them, they can produce a critical situation in the world. Precisely that situation in which all of society is now entrapped!
To liberate himself from the burdens of ego, Cage turned to his now-legendary chance operations — specifically, using the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes) as a key decision-making tool in his compositions. It helped him, as Larson puts, “ask questions of the most fundamental sort.”
Instead of representing my control, they represent questions I’ve asked and the answers that have been given by means of chance operations. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.
I became free by means of the I Ching from the notion of 2 (relationship). Or you could say I saw that all things arerelated. We don’t have to bring about relationships.
Chance operations offered Cage a chance to change his own mind without intellectualizing but, rather, by immersing himself in experiences without judgment and letting them teach him. Indeed, chance and change went hand-in-hand for him:
People frequently ask me if I’m faithful to the answers, or if I change them because I want to. I don’t change them because I want to. When I find myself at that point, in the position of someone who would change something — at that point I don’t change it, I change myself. It’s for that reason that I have said that instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration.
Cage brought this ethos to his music. Towards the end of 1950, he composed the third movement of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra by asking questions, tossing coins, and turing to the I Ching for answers. He built a chart of 32 moves that would generate sounds (or silences) as the I Ching told him which number to pick. The remaining 32 of the book’s 64 hexagrams were to produce pauses of various durations. Larson sums up the teaching embedded in Cage’s experience with the I Ching:
It was a moral and spiritual teaching: Use your head. Set up your structure as carefully as you can, then surrender to the experience. Accept all of it willingly and gratefully. Be present for whatever comes. Open the heart to chance and change.
Cage himself put it thusly:
I do accept, I have always accepted everything the I Ching has revealed to me….
I never thought of not accepting it! That is precisely the first thing the I Ching teaches us: acceptance. It essentially advances this lesson: if we want to use chance operations, then we must accept the results. We have no right to use it if we are determined to criticize the results and to seek a better answer. In fact, the I Ching promises a completely sad lot to anyone who insists on getting a good answer. If I am unhappy after a chance operation, if the result does not satisfy me, by accepting it I at least have the chance to modify myself, to change myself. But if I insist on changing the I Ching, then it changes rather than I, and I have gained nothing, accomplished nothing!
This relinquishing of the self in the hands of pure awareness is something Cage also found in another of his great spiritual heroes, Henry David Thoreau:
Thoreau got up each morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.
But, for Cage, it wasn’t enough to remove that self-blinding from his spiritual life — he had to remove it from his creative life as well, from his music:
The value judgment when it is made doesn’t exist outside the mind but exists within the mind that makes it. When it says this is good and that is not good, it’s a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. Suzuki said Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego and to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen Buddhism itself, namely, sitting cross-legged and breathing and such things, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely, the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sitting cross-legged, namely, the use of chance operations, and the shifting of my responsibility from the making of choices to that of asking questions.
This ethos also shaped Cage’s understanding of the arts in general, as in this fine addition to history’s greatest meditations on art:
I think the history of art is simply a history of getting rid of the ugly by entering into it, and using it. After all, the notion of something outside of us being ugly is not outside of us but inside of us. And that’s why I keep reiterating that we’re working with our minds. What we’re trying to do is to get them open so that we don’t see things as being ugly, or beautiful, but as we see them just as they are.
But the practice of pure presence was very much a discipline for Cage:
True discipline is not learned in order to give it up, but rather in order to give oneself up. Now, most people never even learn what discipline is…. It means give up the things closest to you. It means give yourself up, everything, and do what it is you are going to do. At that point, what have you given up? Your likes, your dislikes, etc.
The notion of discipline stands at the odd intersection of structure and nothingness, which permeated much of Cage’s thinking. In November 1951, he gave his famous “Lecture on Nothing,” a follow-up to his “Lecture on Something,” which articulates the osmosis between “something” and “nothing”:
We really do need structure, so we can see we are nowhere.
The lecture concludes:
Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing, and when you sing, you are where you are. All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.
Perhaps it was this fascination with method and nothingness that led Cage to his obsession with silence, most famously manifest in his 1952 composition 4’33”, and led him to remark:
Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.
Implicit to this is, once again, the notion of total surrender to what is. Cage:
There is no rest of life. Life is one. Without beginning, without middle, without ending. The concept: beginning middle and meaning comes from a sense of self which separates itself from what it considers to be the rest of life. But this attitude is untenable unless one insists on stopping life and bringing it to an end. That thought is in itself an attempt to stop life, for life goes on, indifferent to the deaths that are part of its no beginning, no middle, no meaning. How much better to simply get behind and push!
At the same time, Cage observed the dynamic rather than static quality of life itself — the fundamental role of change, once again:
You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…. It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say it ‘presents itself'; that means that it is not there, existing as an object.
The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.
Embedded in this process-ness of life is Cage’s heartening relationship withboredom:
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.
In the end, however, Cage’s life — and death — presents us with the grandest challenge to fully embodying his philosophy. In discussing a 2010 exhibition honoring Cage, and the language of its brochure, Larson laments:
The only difficulty with ‘ephemeral and transitory poetics’ is their transitoriness. Exhibitions of Cage’s work seem to be lacking a central core, a cohesion. That unifying voice, of course, was supplied by Cage himself, and he has passed on. We celebrate change and yet we also feel its sting. Zen teachers say, though, just look around you. Where has he gone? He’s still speaking to us.
Cage has become 'the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,' his friend Peter Yates remembered. 'Around him everyone laughs.'
Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:
In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.
There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.
[ ... ]
The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?
Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender.