Reflections on Lawren Harris

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Quite fortuitously had I been reading Slavoj Zizek’s Event in the TTC on the way to the exhibition “The Idea of North” for the works of Canadian G7 painter Lawren Harris as I read on page 22: “One possibility is that the immensity of the natural world, in its merciless indifference, has nothing to do with the concerns of human beings… the second half of the quote from Job, how the morning stars sing, reminds us that the appreciation of wonder and beauty is also possible. We may lose our ego in nature’s indifference, but we may also lose it in nature’s magnificence. Do we see the world as heartless or as sublime? [italics added]” Quite fortuitous indeed, as these were not Zizek’s words but the words of David Wolpe, who Zizek quoted in one of his stream-of-consciousness like ramblings that demonstrated the breadth and depth of his readings.

Lawren Harris (bear with my dearth of knowledge of his work and Canadian Art in general) experienced and imagined the ‘North’ to be a spiritual milieu in great contrast to the suffering of life in modern cityscapes, like Toronto where he lived. His paintings reflect the immensity of the North, as his tableaus reflect the intercrossings between the artist and the landscape, resulting in strong spiritual shapes of powerful cool colours in conversation with light and darkness. With the light and the darkness I felt both formulations of the natural world described in the first quotation, in the light that of an evocative intersubjective unity and in the darkness a cruel indifference. A painting like Lake Superior (c.1923) (pictured above) contains the contradiction of unity and indifference in a single frame, with the heavens opening up, peeking through the cracks of dark clouds to illuminate the boulders in the lakes in a transcendent oneness, while on the left side darkness reigns, dark shapes forgotten in the non-sight of the obscurity, empty and cold in its separation from the subject.

Both ways of viewing the natural world resonate with my experiences. Following one of Camus’ elaborations of the Absurd as “cette confrontation désespéré entre l’interrogation humaine et le silence du monde,” (this desperate confrontation between human questionings and the silence of the world), there is evidently an uneven separation between the human subject and the natural world. In contrast to this desire for clarity, a desire to move past causal explications towards comprehension, man is left without response. The natural world operates following its own whims forever heedless to our desires. Gazing up at a bed of stars on a clear moonless sky away from the city, face to face with countless glittering lights spread across a pitch black canvass, one can feel the smallness of personal existence under the unresponsive immensity of the heavens. In the grand scheme of things, if we took into account the supposedly billion galaxies in the universe each with (on average) a billion stars each, and in between, nothing but darkness, an unimaginably vast blank empty space, what stops us from concluding that man is only a cosmic accident, an unlikely result of probability, existing without a greater meaning or purpose? Past all my anthromorphic attributions (as I have described the natural world as “operating” following its own whims, and being “heedless” to our desires), the natural world and the universe just is, a constant series of effects and events, in contingent movement.

At the same time, within the same unresponsive natural world one can find acceptance and past separation, unity. A couple of days into a week-long Zen Temple retreat I undertook in the mountains of Korea after graduating high school, I remember suddenly experiencing a shift in the way I experienced the world. Within the horizontal flow of time I felt a vertical, qualitative dimension. In the next few days I lived in brief encounters with the “no-mind” state, the temple’s Head Masters told me about, a state that opens up after one stops thinking and starts being. The “no-mind” state is a shared state with the universe, and in this state I felt unity and harmony and beauty, a lived sense of the sublime.

With these oppositions in mind I enjoyed the rest of Harris’ tableaus of the North, these mysterious cold spaces of emptiness and profundity.

Honesty of the Chinese People

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In China I loved the dingy family owned diners with forgettable names in unremarkable street corners stuck between other unremarkable stores. In entering the store there would be no special recognition from the proprietress, only a “what do you want” barked at your way while she looked elsewhere and attended to one of the many small things that needed to be done. Sometimes you would be able to see the chef in his tiny, sweaty kitchen, cigarette in mouth, wok in hand, cooking in well-practised movements. After eating a bowl of noodles and exiting onto the streets, waiting outside would be the bike taxis where drivers leaning on their vehicles would call out to persuade you to hire them for a ride.

While these behaviours were often described as being uncouth by many foreigners I met, I felt that they were incredibly refreshing, like drinking from a clear mountain spring after being used to murky waters. Entering these diners, interacting with the “uncivilized” Chinese was not entering a stage filled with actors, where I played the role of the “customer,” a figure outwardly cherished while inwardly given no special thought. This game between the “customer” and the “serviceperson” was ultimately a meaningless ritual performed in order to create the semblance of sociality in the process of equivalent exchange between two robots. For the Chinese ouvrier, money and the transactional nature of the relationship did not tarnish the purity of authentic expressions, and both parties resisted self-commodification and self-objectification, remaining connected with their inner being.

Occupying the same streets as the bike taxi driver a Mercedes would vroom and rush past at speeds faster than the bike taxi driver could ever aspire to. Zooming in a fresh red blur past the dusty greyness and general gloom of Beijing’s streets, the motorized carriage of the rich would rush into a gated apartment community, an inaccessible palace with a perfumed and meticulously furnished interior incongruent with the constant stench of corruption emitted by its owner.

Compared to the Stoic Chinese worker, the rich were the vulgar, the many-faced and the shallow who changed and blew away with the faintest breeze. They lacked the deep-rooted wisdom of the Chinese worker whose life expressed an essential and unending truth, whose each and every small action contained a meaning that drew from the bottomless well of authentic self. Meanwhile the desire frenzied, purposeless and paper-thin rich could only express movements that amounted to performances in a vapid puppet theatre. Lacking an essential core and left with a gaping dark void, all the rich could do was decorate themselves with a gaudy, sparkling exterior, which was suffocating and distasteful in its overload of culture.

Returning from China I was deeply influenced by the insouciant anti-commodification of the Chinese ouvrier, whose resistance against the gradual encroachment of capitalist logics manifested as an expression of authenticity, arising out of a deeper inner self unaffected by the exigencies of the commodified world. In Canada I found myself dumped in a society already in a state of advanced commodification, clean and modern but decadent, in contrast to the purity and honesty of the Chinese. I felt myself a stranger in my Canadian home, unable to play according to the script and superficial friendliness that dominated North American commercial behaviour. Why pretend to care about the present well-being of the Starbucks employee when all you want is a cup of coffee? These interactions seemed to be dishonest; a pretty, well-polished veneer that hid a commodified reality and unequal power relations under the false guise of care and friendliness. Commodification entailed a selling out of the authentic self, the constant transformation of external behaviours and skin deep values for the pursuit of external material decorations while the inside rotted away, while the Chinese communicated an authenticity that erupted upto the surface from the profundities of an inner truth…

 

 

Note: I am providing overly thin portrayals of both groups for a reason, to be continued.