The numbers

Counting syllables, counting on images to carry you, counting the stanzas in the back of your mind, counting on soul to show up in the lines. Do we count the number of fishermen laughing in January chill along the river while on our Sunday walk, and do we count on the river to carry away our cares? Some part of creative work is idle counting; some of it is the core figure of our intention.

But we honor both—exactness and freedom—to keep artistic practice strong, growing, and ever more relevant. It’s the flexible nature of the heart that makes us need contradictions.

So we need to keep exploring. Last weekend, I drove up to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts to visit MASS MoCA in North Adams, one of the top centers in the international contemporary art scene. That’s a 2.75-hour drive north that I’d been meaning to do for a while.

Exterior of MASS MoCA building

My mission was to experience James Turrell’s “Perfectly Clear (Ganzfeld),” a 15-minute light-experience in which viewers perceive perception itself: “a bath of changing color fills the room, punctuated by periodic bursts of strobing light. As the light changes, viewers watch the boundaries of the space disappear before their eyes as if the room has been shrouded in a cloud of mist. Ganzfeld is a German term that describes a uniform or “whole field” which produces a loss of depth perception. This phenomenon can in turn produce an array of effects in the brain.”

James Turrell's "Perfectly Clear" experience at MASS MoCA (from
from the MASS MoCA website, James Turrell “Into the Light”

I got a bit lost in the museum—a complex of industrial buildings converted into art galleries—and so I was one minute late for my scheduled time slot. I had to wait for the group to finish their Perfectly Clear experience, and, as I was the only person who was late, I got the lightbox to myself. It was scary all alone.

But as real as real could be.

In the gallery guide, the curators mention Turrell’s thinking that “in a way, the human eye—because of its dense neural network links to the brain—is almost like ‘the brain exposed.'” There’s a connection he makes between light, time and perception. So he starts with light itself and reaches into the mind to expose the limits and viscosities of perception. The poet and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore wrote “The main object of teaching is not to explain meanings, but to knock at the door of the mind.”

You are here

We've powerful analytic tools to simplify an experience, so we can absorb it emotionally.

There's joy in transmuting a supernova into science and wonder, at the same time.

World's a net of relations in which appearance is one; to correlate the visible with the personal makes it real.

Seeing, a kind of consciousness, materializes form.

Then everything constellates out to the farthest star...

by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, A Treatise on Stars

The last word in this poem is “entelechy” which is probably not surprising— Berssenbrugge is considering forms and the perception of forms. But her invitation is to fullness of potential, not to belief in some new theory of the system of organization of forms.

Art like this, precisely engineered to work the way it does, inspires awe even just as you’re imagining the numbers involved. As a not-so-formal poet, I find the calculation factor in artistic practice difficult and out of scope for the kinds of things I want to say.

But I loved this sculpture and its setting…

“The Couple” by Louise Bourgeois

And this one by EJ Hill…

EJ Hill installation at MASS MoCA, rollercoaster "Brava!"
“Brava!” by EJ Hill, in the exhibit Brake Run Helix at MASS MoCA

The joy of seeing a working roller coaster in an art gallery was hard to calculate. “In Brake Run Helix, Hill inverts the experience of riding a roller coaster, transforming it from a shared ritual of ecstasy and terror to an individual performance: only one person may ride the roller coaster at a time.” (MASS MoCA gallery guide) As performance art, the shift from collective to individual, from experience to perception via spectacle, from monumental-ferocity to a gentle-pink aesthetic involves the viewer in reflective inquiry. What is this joy, you have to ask, when the experience has been turned inside-out.

We are together in being alone, or alone in togetherness. But we have to go the distance.

I’m almost ready to start organizing local writing events again, and to that end, I asked my Meetup members what we should do…

Of course, it makes sense that they—survey respondents in an app dedicated to making community—responded well to collective and social options, like writing groups and author readings. It warmed my heart. In these post-Covid times (though not really over—several of my friends have come down with it this month), the hunger for social connection is high. The need for the warmth that only comes from shared emotion is viscerally real.

I won’t try to put a number to it. But I have been reading some Amartya Sen, and learning to look at numbers without feeling suspicion. The people near us can remind us of our responsibilities in wider circles of connection.

If you want to make… your writing resolutions last longer than the typical end-of-January milestone

Sometimes minutes pass slowly so that we can refresh ourselves in the energy of other artists—by reading, listening to music, or traveling to see artworks. Put some mileage in your writing log this week by writing about works by artists you admire.

2 thoughts on “The numbers

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