Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Without Cause

My attendance record is perfect.  Every day this winter, without fail, I've taken a morning walk along the frozen shoreline of Aboiteau beach.  Silent and vast, the white space extends out over the ice toward a razor thin horizon line.   One has the sensation of walking into an abstract painting.

Agnes Martin, "Gratitude" 2001

The paintings of Agnes Martin evoke the pure serenity one finds in the landscape, while remaining devoid of banal description or direct reference to elements in nature.  Her square canvases structured with grids and horizontal lines and washed with subtle colour have been called "minimalist" and "mathematical". While those terms may apply to the surface of Martin's work, the intent of the artist runs much deeper.  Her aim was to create a sublime sense of beauty.

"My work is non-objective.  But I want people, when they look at my paintings, to have the same feelings they experience when they look at landscape, so I never protest when they say my work is like landscape.  But it's really about the feeling of beauty and freedom that you experience in landscape."
-Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin
In a 1997 interview, Martin stated that she "works with her back to the world" and paints "what is without cause."

A recent article in the Globe and Mail described a study being conducted by a Toronto psychologist who hopes to chart the way in which the human brain perceives beauty.  This area of research, known as Neuroaesthetics is a hot topic today as the scientific community races to find biological explanations for all kinds of responses and behaviours.  Themes that were once the province of philosophy, ethics and religion are now discourse for laboratory analysis.  Can the inner life be measured in this way?

I'm not so sure that beauty can be accurately mapped with an MRI scan.  Stand in front of an Agnes Martin painting and let the work sink in.  It doesn't really matter which areas of your brain are strongly activated - there are profound moments in human experience that just are, without cause.

The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos New Mexico is currently featuring an exhibition of early works by Agnes Martin entitled "Before the Grid".

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Of Myths, Maps and Mi'kmaq

Book cover
There are some theories that you like so much, you deeply wish they were true.  Once embraced, these speculative darlings assume the status of truth in your own mind, and no amount of disproving evidence can fully destroy their attractive aura.  "The Island of Seven Cities" by Paul Chiasson is a work that glows with a wealth of possibilities as it chronicles a one-man search for answers to explain a puzzling archaeological find.  In spite of the critics' heated debate about whether the author's thesis should be classified as well-crafted fiction or ground-breaking historical research, I love this book for its open-minded probing and audacious conclusion.

Paul Chiasson was hiking in a remote area of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, when he discovered an unused road made of cut stone leading to the top of a mountain.  The summit revealed the remains of stone walls and what appeared to be the ruins of a large man made structure.  As a Yale-educated architect trained in the history and theory of religious buildings, he was intent on uncovering the origin and meaning of these fragments.  Through extensive research, Chiasson traced the history of the island back to the early 15th century, a period pre-dating the exploratory trips of Italian seafarer Giovanni Caboti (John Cabot) or the Portugese Corte-Real brothers.  His conclusion about the site at Cape Dauphin is based on evidence gleaned from early maps, accounts written by explorers, settlers and missionaries, ethnographic material and linguistic studies.  It's a conclusion that would require a total re-writing of North American history texts - and perhaps that's one of the reasons why Chiasson's book hasn't been well-received in academic circles.

Map showing the location of ruins
Cape Breton Island's colourful history is layered with nomadic Mi'kmaq natives, Jesuit missionaries, French settlers (Acadians),  British military outposts and a religious settlement led by a Scotsman, Rev. Norman Macleod.   Chiasson works his way systematically through the historical records of each group, looking for references to buildings located at Cape Dauphin.   In the earliest 15th century accounts, European explorers describe an island with seven cities where gold could be found in the sand.  Following John Cabot's voyage of 1497,  the location is pinpointed as being west across the Atlantic, on the same latitude as the Bordeaux River in France, a spot that lines up with Cape Breton Island.

The French, English, and Scottish who came to the island in later centuries exploited fish, lumber, coal, and furs, but left no record of any architectural ruins.  It seems that the coastline's secret, mythical past had been officially forgotten as time went on.  Chiasson realized that he had to look at Mi'kmaq culture to uncover clues about early contact with foreigners.  He learned that the Mi'kmaq people, unlike other native tribes in North America, had a written language. Their mother tongue was extremely complex and expressive, with similes, metaphors and rhyming patterns used in everyday speech.  Mi'kmaq language was unique in these characteristics and showed marked differences from that of neighbouring groups.  They were skilled navigators who knew astronomy and map-making.  They had physicians who were capable of setting bones and treating epilepsy.  What they did not have was also significant - the Mi'kmaq lacked metal tools to cut stone, and being nomadic hunters, they had no reason to build permanent structures.

Chiasson's research leads him to a book by Gavin Menzies entitled "1421: The Year China Discovered the World".  Menzies' book explained that as early as the 12th century, the Chinese had substantial ships with six masts -  vessels large enough to hold 1,000 men and a year's supply of grain. During the Ming Dynasty the Chinese government was intent on global exploration and had fleets of ships travelling across the Indian Ocean and around the southern tip of Africa.  The voyages of naval admiral Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 were well-documented, successful trade missions that aimed to extend China's influence.  Chiasson connects the dots and makes the bold claim that Chinese sailors landed in Cape Breton in the early 1400s, settled at Cape Dauphin, and constructed a series of courtyards and large-scale buildings on the mountaintop.  The Chinese therefore had direct contact with the Mi'kmaq and influenced their culture well before the arrival of Europeans.

Chart comparing symbols from Mi'kmaq and Chinese languages
The idea that the Chinese were the first foreign group to inhabit Cape Breton Island may seem far-fetched, but doesn't it conjure up intriguing cross-cultural imagery?   A Mi'kmaq native child learning to count on an abacus, a Ming Dynasty porcelain plate loaded with cod fish, a beaver hat worn by a Chinese sailor.  If nothing else, Chiasson's theory rattles some of the accepted notions about our history and makes us rethink staid patterns from the past.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


The question posed by a child in a late night phone call was a simple one:  "Why do you do what you do?"  Tony Deifell took that query to heart and started a website where individuals could post an answer using images and text.  WDYDWYD has grown into a collaborative Internet art project over the past 12 years.

When a friend sent an invitation to participate, I wasn't sure how to respond.  I looked at examples submitted by others and noted that the majority of posted responses had to do with self - phrases stating  "I want to ...." "I have to..."  "I need to..." or "I love to..."  dominated the site's content.

Writing about "self" today is like broadcasting a weather report.  Facebook postings and Tweets expose to the world every little detail of individual, personal life, in real time.   What I ate for breakfast or what colour socks I am wearing or what things I am buying now are considered noteworthy and vital bits of information that must be shared with contacts in cyberspace in the form of an ongoing, running monologue that fishes for reaction. There's a general acceptance of the compulsion to fabricate and maintain this day-to-day sense of self with validation via social networks.  Hits for your blog and "Likes" for your Facebook postings count as positive reinforcement for an ego that needs constant attention and boosting.

 Whatever happened to transcendence?   The idea that one can go "beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience" (Oxford dictionary definition)  seems to be passe.  Self-forgetfulness may be out of style, but for me, it's the underpinning and the end goal for creative work.

"When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be." - Lao Tzu

"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on." - Havelock Ellis

"In self-forgetfulness, one draws closer to God." - Henry David Thoreau

"What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration."  - Elizabeth Bishop

"In everyday life, we are always monitoring how we appear to other people: we are on the alert to defend ourselves from potential slights and anxious to make a favourable impression.  Typically this awareness of self is a burden. ... Paradoxically, the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness." 
 - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

"Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.  In doing so, you must leave your preoccupation with yourself.  Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn."   - Matsuo Basho

"To me there is in happiness an element of self-forgetfulness. You lose yourself in something outside yourself when you are happy; just as when you are desperately miserable you are intensely conscious of yourself, are a solid little lump of ego weighing a ton."  - Joseph Priestley 

I had to position myself off-centre, turn away from the camera lens, and reach a little higher to make this self-portrait right.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Memoriam

Memorial Library, Mount Allison University, Sept. 2011

The controversy started when the Board of Governors of Mount Allison University announced in the fall of 2010 that the Memorial Library would be demolished to make way for a $30 million Fine Arts Centre. The Tudor style building completed in 1927 was named "Memorial" in honour of the students and graduates of Mt. A who died during the First World War. Funded by university alumni, the families of fallen soldiers, Sackville residents and members of the Methodist church, this building was intended to be a lasting cenotaph. Here is a paragraph from the 1919 fundraising campaign.

“Those who have been saved the horrors of the battle front should have hearts moved with gratitude toward the men who have suffered and died in their stead. The Mount Allison boys who are out there ‘in Flanders Fields’ to stay deserve all the honours a grateful country can bestow on them. . . . If your friend has suffered, if your boy has died, how could you better honour his memory than to have his name placed where it will go down through the years cherished and revered by successive generations of grateful students.”

It's sobering to think that successive generations are so out of touch with the historical significance and mnemonic role of this bricks and mortar memorial that they lack the impetus to preserve it. The University administration claimed that rehabilitation of the building would strain the financing and compromise the functionality of the new complex. In an interview with Carly Levy for The Argosy, Mt. A's campus newspaper, Director of Communications Tony Frost said, "We have very specific needs for the arts and drama programs and the existing building doesn't allow for the layout we need. Trying to fit (these programs) into an old building that was designed to hold stacks of books is not really realistic."

Not everyone agrees with that viewpoint. Toronto architect Jack Diamond drafted a master plan for the university in 2002 which included the Memorial Library as part of a contemporary arts facility. "It's a sad mistake," he said in an article by Michael Posner for The Globe and Mail. "They're destroying the very thing that they should be trying to preserve. Our feasibility study showed that they could incorporate it within a new performing arts centre."

Interior of Memorial Library Reading Room, 1932

Incorporating old buildings into the fabric of new construction is not a far-fetched or novel idea, in fact it is a sensible solution for the adaptive re-use of existing structures when a new function is required. Consider the story of a decrepit old stone mill in Alton Ontario that was transformed by architect Catherine Nasmith into a functional Arts Centre for the community. Working with the limitations and opportunities presented by an old building that was in bad shape to begin with, Nasmith met the design challenge by preserving the important heritage attributes while adding contemporary elements that were distinct from, but sympathetic to, the original structure. The project is an example of a successful marriage of modern and historical architecture in a building that meets today's needs.

The Memorial Library is gone now - lost forever - just like the 73 young men whose names appeared on a commemorative plaque once mounted on a stairwell inside the building. The levelling of this monument has been damaging and costly for the institution, as many of the alumni who donated funds for the new Arts Centre have become completely disillusioned with Mt A's administrative decision-making. Their money was given to the university's Jump fund campaign with the understanding that the Memorial Library would be retained. In September 2011, 73 white crosses appeared on the lawn in front of the library in protest to the demolition plans.

There was little coverage of the Memorial Library debate over impending demolition on CBC. I watched the Remembrance Day TV program hosted by anchor Peter Mansbridge with interest, hoping that the issue would be mentioned, but there wasn't a word about controversy in Sackville N.B.   By the way, Peter Mansbridge is the current Chancellor for Mount Allison University.

"Lest we forget"