A Sacred Space 1
Work on this installation began seven years ago as a collection of pieces of wood unworked by human hand, found for the most part in the forests close to the cabins that serve as shelter and stopping stations for the “Cowboy” that I was for five summers between 2006 to 2010 in the Chandolin region of the canton of Valais in the Swiss Alps. These forests are wild and abandoned to the primal forces of nature. Perfect hunting ground for strange, tortured pieces of old broken trees, innocent victims of rock fall and avalanche, of tempest and time. What could be saved and carried down, along steep and slippery mountain paths, slowly began to congregate in my studio apartment in Geneva via short sojourns in the garden of friends in a village called Fiethieren at the foot of the mountain known as Ilehorn, that stands guard over my beloved alp like a monument to the lives that have come and gone in the quest for pasture for a handful of cows that ensured the survival of families in the sun scorched valley below. Some had to be abandoned. Just too heavy to make the journey, they remain as totems, to be flattened each winter and replanted each spring. Five summers living in perfect harmony with nature can make friends of man and wood. It made me sad to have to leave them behind.
It must be said that there was no intention. No goal. No idea, even vague, of what they would become. I loved them for what they were, strangely beautiful natural objects with a story to tell. And so they lay, quietly in their room, to be admired from time to time. One piece, the largest, “Wisdom”, spent three years in my friends garden in Fiethieren, unloved but tolerated, until the inspiration arrived and the installation began to take form. A return journey of five hours on a train and several days pondering its potential position saw it finally stake it’s claim in the corner beside the window.
There was never a grand plan even with regards to the installation. It grew slowly at first, but then as the paranormal phenomena increased so an avalanche of ideas on a tidal wave of enthusiasm saw it very quickly grow into more or less what can be seen today. I didn’t realise it at the time but this episode signalled the blossoming of a spiritual awakening that had been picking up momentum, unobserved, for a number of years. My primary artistic outlet is music and although I had dabbled in other forms of expression, like drawing and sculpture, photography and filmmaking, I had never dreamed of being anything other than a musician. This installation is my first, perhaps only venture into the plastic arts. It is for this reason that I say that I am not really responsible for it. It made itself. I was just the labourer obeying my subliminal cosmic commands. Acting seemingly on instinct but in retrospect, guided every inch of the way. It must be said, in my favour however, that there were problems to be solved and some decisions that were made through a series of trial and error juxtapositions of objects and mirrors. Yes, I played my part, but not as the creator. I had a large say in the aesthetic aspect of the presentation making me perhaps artistic advisor. I remember reading in one of Ekhart Tolle’s books, not long prior to all this, in The Power Of Now or A New Earth that there were basically two sources of creativity. One is the ego, capable of producing works ranging in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous where the artist himself is creator. But there is another kind, where the artist is only the vehicle for a creative energy coming from the source of all creation, whatever that may be. Some would call it God. I prefer The Divine or The Source or Cosmic Consciousness, but only because the word God has religious connotations that have nothing to do with spirituality.
We must make a detour now. A large detour in time but only a few short steps in location because the whole thing began not here in my living room but outside in the staircase and landing.
When I first came to live in this apartment building fifteen years ago there were three large posters, taped to the wall of the staircase by a previous tenant and because of the sorry state of the paintwork I started to add my own images and slowly began to cover the whole surface of the walls. Short periods of activity were punctuated by much longer periods of abandon, and the years passed, until the installation started to take form when I suddenly realised that if I was going to make an exhibition then I should include the staircase as well, at which my ever growing enthusiasm spilled out into the corridor. And so now the two parts were growing in unison and although I was aware of the striking contrast between them the true sense of it still remained a mystery. In fact there was no mystery at all. No question had been posed. They were two separate entities. I saw no reason to connect them.
There are far too many important details to recount here; the full story could and perhaps should be a book but some of them are key moments and so I will mention a few of them. A “chance” meeting, in the summer of 2010 led to the gift of a book. “The Power of Now” by Ekhart Tolle. I had read it three or four years previously in French but it hadn’t struck me as being important. But this time, in English, it had a very profound effect on me. I saw for the first time in my life the terrible truth behind the ego and it's disfunctional role in the behaviour of almost every human being on the planet and recognised myself as well as my own and the world’s predicament on almost every page. From the same source as the book came a quotation by Goethe that I saw printed on a piece of paper pinned to the wall of her apartment. I liked it so much that she took it down immediately and gave it to me. I pinned it to my wall above my computer so I would see it many times a day. My copy is in French but it goes something like this….
“Absolutely no eandeavor can come to fruition without commitment. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitively commits oneself, then Providence moves also. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Although I loved it, my spiritual development still wasn’t at a point where I could totally believe it. The life long skeptic in me was still resisting the magic of the universe and so it will probably remain a mystery as to when exactly I finally said “Yes, I am an artist” and committed myself to that decision. A decision largely intellectual because although there have been some providential events, they have been fewer and less world shaking than the quotation promised. But it must be said that conditioned beliefs and subconscious doubts can scupper the dreams of greater men than I. Even men as great as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe himself.
And so what of the objects, themselves?
There are seven in particular worthy of some kind of explanation. Three of which I regard as, without question, the fruit of divine inspiration, because each has a very profound symbolism that was beyond my capacity to produce at the time without some kind of outside interference. These three carry with them very precise lessons in life. Very powerful lessons in human spiritual evolution! Lessons that I needed to learn. Lessons that I should have learned a long time ago. Teachings necessary to the continuity of my freshly accelerated spiritual growth.
Things were already starting to take shape when one day, a visit to Emmaus, a large second hand depot, with a friend, saw the acquisition of a wooden double-yoke of unknown age and origin. I found it hiding under a table near the used and often abused pianos that we had gone to play. It was love at first sight, although I had absolutely no idea of what purpose it would serve. I just knew that I had to have it. A very tentative question as to it’s price got the astonishing reply of 20 francs. The man’s hand came very close to accompanying the precious object as we left to take the tram home. I became very excited at the tram stop because although I still wasn’t aware of it’s role in the artistic scheme of things I was absolutely certain of one thing and I suddenly couldn’t wait to get home to cut the damn thing in half. I had totems on my mind.
I have since discovered while visiting farms in the area looking for other yokes to develop the theme, that they are highly collectable and as such worth quite a lot more than the 20 francs I had paid for it, but not if they are cut in half, which is regarded
, by people in the know, as sacrilege. I became convinced that this yoke was under that table waiting for me, and that time and space, with a large sprinkling of destiny, had conspired to produce a twist of fate that saw a cash strapped artist arrive on the scene at just the right moment to find a glorious piece of hand fashioned wood and a shop server, blissfully unaware of it’s true value, standing nearby.
Within 30 minutes of arriving home the piece of wood was two and all the better for it. A sculpture was born. It dawned on me very quickly that what I had done was highly symbolic especially so for me at this precise moment because I had already learned without a shred of a half doubt, through the Power Of Now, through my dreams, through conversations and magazine articles, through Youtube videos and a veritable host of different sources, that the root of the problem was the ego. It was being screamed at me from every corner of the universe. The yoke is often used as a metaphor for the ego and of course for any kind of oppression. The yoke cut in half represented revolt. Not yet liberty, because the struggle continues. Though it must be said, that it has become a peaceful Ghandiesque struggle. During that period it was all out war; a fierce and violent interior battle for survival. It was another two or three weeks before the coup de grace in the form of the yellow framed mirror was delivered. A larger mirror had taken it’s place on the main wall where it had hung for at least 15 years and while moving things around looking for the perfect order I leaned it temporarily against the window wall behind the broken yoke. When I saw the effect of object and reflection I immediately saw the stunning symbolism that announced the theme of the installation
. Suddenly it was all starting to make sense. The new “sculpture” Broken Yoke, represented the defeated ego at peace with its new role in the world order, admiring its newfound beauty in the mirror. The ego has, in a way, terrorised mankind for millennia. The time has come, had come, at least for me, to stand up and say “Ok Enough now”. It is the biggest stumbling block to individual and world peace and to spiritual evolution. For the ego the end is undeniably nigh.
The centrepiece of the installation grew in small steps from humble beginnings. First an attempt at raising the lower piece of wood above the surface of a mirror using three six inch nails as stilts, in order to create the reflected under belly effect. If it had been successful The Eternal might never have seen the day. Thankfully it was a hopeless waste of time and energy. For a short while the wood was hung, using ordinary string, from a hook in the ceiling, over a much smaller mirror. The idea for the second mirror came next but with it some serious problems. It became obvious that larger, better quality mirrors were needed and that a hole would have to be drilled in one of them. A small eternity was spent looking for second hand mirrors at an affordable price before realising that, in fact, thanks to modern manufacturing techniques, but especially to cheap Chinese labour, new is sometimes cheaper than second hand. So Ikea supplied the mirrors, although I couldn’t afford the delivery, and I the labour. Three return journeys by tram to the far side of the moon, with a trolley, got me what I needed, and then half a day practicing on old pieces of glass before daring to put drill to mirror. It took two hours of controlled and patient drilling to make the hole. Once the ceiling mirror in place and the wood hung over the floor mirror the artist was happy, for a while. I tried another piece of wood, which worked and so I changed from one to the other at regular intervals before deciding that there was enough space for both. And so both it was. And yes! That was indeed it! Except that the string was ugly. Fishing line was the perfect substitute. Another few days and it was complete, the artist, a very happy man. Many are the hours I have spent meditating on the slow turning of wood and their myriad reflections.
During my research into consciousness and the meaning of life I have often struggled with the concept of infinity. L’Eternel helped me to come to terms with it, not I hasten to add, due to its visual properties but because it was created within a context of blind divine inspiration. If the Broken Yoke was a lesson from beyond then this was also. Disregarding even, that in any case, time and space are illusion, the fractal nature of the material world renders infinity the only coherent solution to the question of boundaries.
The Chakras grew out of a pile of Honeylocust tree seedpods I collected perhaps 8 years ago from two sources in different parks in Geneva. There were about 200 of them at the beginning but their numbers dwindled quickly after coming up with the idea of combining near perfect opposite forms to try and create roughly symmetrical objects. In fact only eight survived the rigorous sorting process, creating three separate pieces, two of which eventually united to form The Chakras. Interesting that despite the all consuming nature of my spiritual awakening and the almost daily discoveries that I was making with regards to myself and the universe I was still highly sceptical towards certain spiritual ideas and beliefs. My motivation was purely aesthetic. I had never regarded the existence of subtle energy and the chakras as anything other than flights of fancy of certain impressionable people. Which is quite incredible looking back from here. And so when seed pod objects united to make one, it was my highly developed aesthetic sensitivity that ruled the sway. Even when the golden globe was created and then later added to the ensemble I still didn’t see anything other than an abstract, aesthetically beautiful object. It was only later, some weeks after the opening of my installation to the public, that a young friend came to visit and on entering the space immediately looked to his right and said “Wow! That’s beautiful. It’s the chakras” with a tone of confirmation rather than of revelation. I immediately saw the thing in another light and quickly accepted that that was indeed what it represented, the chakras and a golden earth, symbol of what would result from worldwide spiritual awakening.
My Guardian Angels
These three come from a wild, forested area only fifty metres or so behind the cabin at the second pasture of the alp where I was summer cowboy. One of them has a particularly interesting story. I had made a kind of open-air art gallery of this cabin, using all the various pieces of wood that I had collected. Nobody was particularly interested or impressed by any of it but that was beside the point. I did it for myself anyway. It was, just as the objects in my installation here in Geneva, a kind of family. It was nice to come home at night after a day with the cows to find my beautiful, broken, twisted “children” waiting for me. The alp season consists of a slow rise from pasture to pasture and from cabin to cabin in four stages starting at 1500 metres ASL and ending at 2500 metres ASL. The descent is much quicker because there is far less grass. The whole journey lasts four months of which ascending lasts about three and descending, one. The length of each stay depends on the availability of grass. The second stage is a wild, rugged, steep and very stony place that can only support fifty cows for about two weeks, before moving higher. So we leave this alp only to return for a much shorter stay six or seven weeks later. Back from the higher pastures we find that the grass has hardly grown at all in the seven week interval, but cows will eat almost anything when they are hungry and there are all kinds of plants, mainly nettles, growing on a rocky, boulder ridden area about the size of a tennis court in front of and slightly below the cabin. It is normally a no-go area for cows and men but when times are hard cows will eat nettles when cut and left to dry out a little. The remains of an older, stone cabin, destroyed by an avalanche some years earlier, lay hidden here and prudence is at a premium when working in this area. Next morning I began the very delicate job of scything while perched on boulders. It is quite dangerous because there are gaps in between that could break a leg. It is hot and difficult work but after a few hours the greater part is done. About to return to the cabin to eat I catch a glimpse of a very interesting and already familiar piece of wood deep between boulder and demolished masonry. I have to climb down into the gap to retrieve it and am astonished to see that it is almost a carbon copy of one of my other “children”. But of course it is too similar to be true. I quickly see that it is in fact one of my pieces, with some minor injuries, more broken than before, slightly shorter and also slightly less impressive. Back at the cabin I run a check on my collection and lo and behold there is one missing.
A group of hunters, well known to me, use this cabin during my absence, to plan their murderous campaign that will begin when the hunting season opens a few weeks later. I can only assume that one of them threw this piece down the mountainside, into the nettles, annoyed perhaps, by its apparent “ugliness”. My initial exhilaration had passed through anger to relief as the prodigal son returned. What is particularly interesting here is that this was a real life needle in a haystack scenario except that nobody was looking for the needle. It is almost miraculous that man and wood were reunited. So strange, and so unlikely this story, that I feel divine intervention at work. There have since been many other strangely paranormal events and synchronicities which render this story perfectly acceptable given the larger context. That piece of wood had a future destination. Three years later it arrived. And the name “My Guardian Angels” came unbidden one day while admiring their strange beauty.
The first born of my twisted, broken children, has been here with me since my first Alp in 2007. It was more fishlike until bad handling by admirers caused damage to its tail and belly fins during a 2011 Pecha Kucha presentation about my alp experiences. The absurd poem was written a year earlier before my spiritual awakening. It was part of an aggressive comic assault on the catholic portrayal of Jesus, of which only this is fit for human consumption. The poem was conceived on the juxtaposition of the Alpfish and a horrific image of a bleeding and apparently drug crazed Jesus that hung in one of my Alp cabins, apparently to scare the children into obedient submission. The emotional, subconscious damage done by that image can only be imagined.
Alpfish Alpfish you’re the boss
Cos even Jesus on the cross
Could never swim as fast as you
With flippers yeah, or a big canoe
But not like that, with nails and shit
With crown of thorns and clothes not fit
For surging up a mountain stream
To heights unheard of
Far less seen…………………..
By fish……… that is.
Guitar And Diverse Body Parts (McGhee/Picasso)
The print of the Picasso painting “Old Guitarist” came into my life mysteriously. I have no idea where it came from or how long it has been here. During the rapid inflationary period, (to borrow a cosmological term), of the early creation of my installation it became clear to me that there would be no rules. Items by other artists, collected over the years, would be fair game as long as a novel means of presentation could be found to justify them. Turned clockwise through 90 degrees, this is far more interesting than the original and the frame does it proud. Such a shame that Picasso didn’t live to see the full potential of his painting. In response to an accusation of plagiarism with regard to another of his many works, Picasso countered with “All artists copy but great artists steal”. Touché Pablo. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
An interesting post scriptum to this story is that during the summer of 2012 my son Sean came from England to work on a record that I would produce here in the sacred place. He is as tall as a building and matchstick thin. He also has shocking posture and was sporting a particularly unshaven look. One day when I came home from a day’s gardening work he was slouched in the swivel chair at the computer playing along to one of our creations and I swear he was the living image of that picture. It was hilarious, astonishing and deeply moving all at once. I just hope that Picasso’s rendition of a poor, ragged, shoeless, guitarist, isn’t somehow prophetic. Because really; the likeness is uncanny. It could easily be my son in 40 years time.
I have lived three separate periods in this studio apartment. I “inherited” it from a casual acquaintance in 1998. I would pay the princely sum of 170 francs a month into his bank account and I would be the new unofficial tenant. Six months later I discovered that not only wasn’t he paying the rent like we agreed but he had never paid any rent at all in the five years that he had lived here. He was in fact a squatter. Divine providence provided me with a dear old lady at the Estate Agent’s offices who, despite my illegal status, arranged for me to become sub-tenant and thus the official, unofficial occupant. Two years later my neighbour from across the hall, Gilbert, an amateur painter of sorts, on leaving, offered me the choice of any of his paintings as a parting gift. The choice was easy because there was only one that I liked, the clumsy but very charming watercolour portrait of a young man that immediately became a member of my small family of prized collected objects.
At about the same time I began to befriend Gabriel, a young, severely autistic boy, the son of a friend, in order to give her some relief and, it must be said, to earn a little money. He was about 10 years old at the time. We made regular weekend bike rides and walks together and over the years we developed quite a rapport. He slowly grew up without me noticing until the day in my apartment three or four years ago when I suddenly saw the incredible likeness between Gabriel and the other charming young man, the one in the painting on my wall. It is in fact a portrait of “Gabriel, The Autist As A Young Man”.
Fast forward to a beautiful autumn day in 2011. A man, this man, possessed by a creative enthusiasm rarely seen here, or anywhere else for that matter, on his knees cutting the head from a poster image of “A Portrait Of A Woman In A Black Tie” the cherished relic of an old love affair, by Amedeo Modigliani, in order to replace it with the portrait of Gabriel which fits perfectly onto the recently vacated shoulders.
Why? There was no plan. The idea arrived and I acted instinctively. If the result hadn’t been aesthetically pleasing I would have abandoned the enterprise, but in fact both images were improved, at least according to my own personal criteria. It was an all win situation. The bloodstain on the woman’s white shirt became the symbol of Gabriel’s inner pain and Modigliani’s liberated head became a mirror image for another “stolen” and “brutalised” modern master, Eduard Munch’s “The Madonna”, relic from the same love affair, which had hung opposite for a long time without me noticing the identical but mirrored, tilt of the head. Everything was just falling into place.