Tag Archives: universe

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.

Stars in Beijing

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During one of my last nights in Beijing, I saw a familiar sight, one not oft seen when moving through the concrete jungles of Asia. All around me were the walls of the dusty hutongs, and as the group walked through a narrow alleyway, I just happened to look up. It was a rare night when the original lights in the dark sky made their appearance and shone their way into the vision of man past its successors which man built before it. It was a sight familiar but foreign, as I had grown accustomed to a life without them. Far above and beyond the touch of my outstretched hands, Orion and his belt reminded me of his flickering existence and told me not to forget his story, as it would not be visible to me for another many days to come. Three weeks have passed without me seeing this constellation.

I remember seeing the full splendour of a star-filled night during a middle school field trip to a distant camp site hours away from the promising lights of the city of Toronto. A group of classmates and I followed a camp counsellor outside, where there was organic life around and the clear night sky above. It was magical, observing the eternity of stars which blew up the heavens, and the vertical white streak of the Milky Way brushed right in the center.

Can you picture the skies as such? A cool midsummer midnight, in an open clearing, with grand trees surrounding cozily, being the edge of a forest whose depth is estimated with the profundity of darkness suggested between its members. All above, a boundlessness of stellar forms, created with chance and divine process, each patiently gliding through a blank black canvass as they head towards individual destiny. All below, man, small against the multitude, the grandeur, the truth. Time stops and so does thought, with only the infinity of the present. Man’s physical form is surpassed and the consciousness spreads whole.

Like many in the world, I am a city dweller who knows little about the awestriking entities sharing their natural illuminations with the world. Instead, I grew up with the lights of man, which are the lights of progress and promise; the lights that we incessantly follow as they blink close to us tantalizingly, blinding us and teasing us towards wishful manifestations of our desires. These reachable lights hang in the controlled environment of the city; the city whose physical representation is that of efficiency and logical conception. It is an environment safe and suffocating, precise and predictable, unnatural.

There was a 高考 (Chinese high school entrance exams) essay question that I read on the Internet one day. It was the following:

A grandfather and a grandson look out of a window in the evening. Lights twinkle here and there, and look like a rainbow. The little boy says, “How beautiful it is; without electricity, modern technology or high buildings, there would not be such beautiful sights.” The grandfather waved the head, fell into reflection, and said, “It’s a pity the sky with studded stars cannot be seen anymore. The ancient people who had bonfires beside the mountain cave, watched the moon and the stars, and could enjoy a more beautiful sight.”

There cannot be a co-existence between the lights of man and the lights of the stars. Although stellar illumination may dance in the background, quietly and steadily, with the same unchanging form of wisdom that intrigued our ancestors through the millennia, the obtrusive lights of man drown out the truth that they have continued to share, in loud, attractive bursts of excitement, competing with each other to call us in with their unique assortment of poisons. They get louder and louder as time goes by, trying to overcome one another, as the greatest and fanciest of lights seduce the greatest number of heedless fruit flies. The stars in the background continue to fade as the lights that are artificial and temporal outshine the lights that are eternal and true.

 

 

 

 

 

Picture is of the Hong Kong “the Symphony of Lights.” No stars were visible