Neighbors, Strangers, Family, Friends
Four Artists Reflect on Charis
The traveling art exhibition Charis—Boundary Crossings: Neighbors Strangers Family Friends features work by seven Asian and seven North American artists. The show grew out of a two-week seminar in Indonesia sponsored by Calvin College’s Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and led by the Plowshares Institute. Over that period, the participating artists traveled, ate, worked, prayed, and lived together. In the months following, they created work in response to their experiences. The Charis exhibition will travel to ten or twelve venues in North America through 2012 before heading to Asia. We asked four of the participants, Barry Krammes, Emmanuel Garibay, Daniel Enrique García, and Roger Feldman, to reflect on what they learned. Their responses are collected here.
IN HIS BOOK Art and Physics, Leonard Shlain makes the case that when our collective worldview changes, the shift begins with art. Artists, he says, are the first to introduce a culture to new ways of seeing, and only later are these given practical definition by the sciences. Shlain writes:
I propose that the radical innovations of art embody the preverbal stages of new concepts that will eventually change a civilization. Whether for an infant or a society on the verge of change, a new way to think about reality begins with the assimilation of unfamiliar images. This collation leads to abstract ideas that only later give rise to a descriptive language.
It has taken me some time, but I have come to believe there is substance to this view. As an artist, I am one of society’s “sensors.” My work is the perception and transmission of unfamiliar images.
The Charis project further expanded my view of art. During the trip, as we visited a new culture and conversed with artists from other countries, we were constantly taking in new sensory information—and we were each processing it through our own particular grids. My roommate was Daniel García, who originally came from Peru to the US to study film after working in advertising. He was constantly observing through his cameras—and his senses. One day as I was helping him set up for a shoot, I peered through one of his lenses and saw what he was seeing. It was then I realized how similarly we operate. He and I both came to realize that our differences are vast, but that our language, art, is universal.
For all the participants, visual language was a common ground, and so was Christianity. These elements allowed us to communicate, and we westerners began to see a small glimpse of the Asian world through the eyes of our brothers and sisters. Though their priority as artists seemed to be narrative visual language, they were not unaware of contemporary western work, with its emphasis on the conceptual and abstract.
To western-trained eyes, figurative painting can appear deceptively simple at first, even generic. The world over, each culture seems to produce its mountain paintings, seascapes, landscapes, and still-lifes, its images of people in local garb and famous or symbolic places. Each part of the world has its popular visual styles. But the work of the Asian artists we met drew upon multiple cultural layers. It used regional and national images and stories, but also the language of the international art scene. Folk material was blended with the technological, abstract, conceptual vocabulary of Tokyo, Beijing, New York, LA, Paris, and Rio.
As an American sculptor and installation artist, one pretty well immersed in the contemporary West’s conceptual approach, I found their work predictable at first. My initial impressions were that Christian symbolism was being inserted into local cultural narratives and meaning derived through association. Abstraction was minimal, and much of it looked to me like a rehash of the American 1960s scene. I later came to see the ethnocentrism of this. By the end of my time, I realized that our counterparts knew exactly what they were doing, and were quite savvy in their approach to their own cultural context.
The trip gave me a chance to hear the vocabulary of the American art scene from the outside, and I noticed some things I hadn’t before. Why are “provincialism” and “derivative” such dirty words, for instance? And why are American installation artists so comfortable assigning human characteristics to machines? Is it because technology is such a familiar presence in our world? Asian artists, on the other hand, are quite comfortable using direct narrative and representational imagery, something that makes many Americans with a contemporary art education uneasy. The contrast between American conceptual concealment and Asian narrative communication became clear.
Christians living in Indonesia comprise approximately 6 percent of the population. For Christian Indonesian artists, their minority status has a profound effect on the kind of art they make. In such a context, abstract formalist work doesn’t have a lot to say. Its language is empty. Instead, these artists create carefully contextualized narrative work that picks up on stories well known to those in the culture. Nyoman Darsane, for instance, employs Balinese dance to communicate a Christian message, using familiar forms to convey a specific new content. In New York, there’s not much of a welcome for this kind of thing, at least not among art-world elites—which is ironic, given that the same kind of process is in operation there, using the familiar language of conceptual abstraction.
The clash between eastern and western assumptions about what makes good art was undeniable. Our traditions and histories are vastly different. For a while, all we could say was, We are different, aren’t we? After that, the next level of exchange could begin, and for me this was more fruitful. I responded intuitively to the clash we observed between western technology and ancient traditions, and made it a subject for my work.
Western innovations have long infringed on other cultures. For centuries, colonial expansion has resulted in the export of western products and ideas. This is an ancient theme, and a worldwide one. Today, new communications technologies have only increased the pace. Radio, television, the internet, cell phones, CDs, and DVDs have carried the western attack on previously protected cultural and religious convictions—and many Asians don’t like it. Western images of violence, moral decadence, and greed are coming through loud and clear, and they only grow more pervasive. Even the poorest of Indonesian neighborhoods bristle with TV antennae.
With this heightened sense of the contrast between East and West, I went to work. After two weeks together with the Asian artists, we were given about six months to produce art for the Charis exhibition. I found that my work began to change in response to what I had seen. I made over a dozen maquettes (small scale models) for new works. I couldn’t stop. It just kept coming. I felt I had been given an opportunity to go outside my own vocabulary and consider other approaches. In The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, Mitchell Stevens points out that when a new technology appears, its first practitioners begin with what they know. The first motion pictures were made by placing a movie camera at the back of a theater and recording stage plays in a wide-angle view. The big conceptual shift came later, when the camera got closer and panned the stage, following the actors.
I started with what I knew. Working in a shared, open-air studio in hot, humid Bali, I began by creating maquettes for ten installation pieces, using foam core, cardboard, glue, palm fronds, and slivers of bamboo. These models embodied the kernels of ideas and first impressions. After four days of working alongside my Asian artist counterparts and conversing with them, because of their wisdom and experience in the international art arena, my fumbling began to mature, as did my perception of their daily realities. By the time I got back to my own studio in Seattle, where I made a second round of cardboard maquettes, I was beginning to “pan.”
The big breakthrough was giving myself permission to step backward and broaden my palette. I have made kinesthetically driven work since I finished art school in the seventies, almost always in muted tones. Using color and imagery was a risk for me. I tried using color not as a psychological device, but as a symbolic element, with red-orange, white, yellow, and green each representing a major world religion. I also tried using mural-sized representational imagery as part of my architecturally scaled installations.
As I was exploring this new territory, I saw two of my Asian friends make huge leaps of their own, moving away from direct narrative content toward a more subtle conceptual communication model. The risk for them is that they may be read as western, and that may have negative connotations. I admire them for taking a chance.
For me, another shift was working collaboratively. While in Bali I put out an invitation to all of the artists to see if any were interested in working together with me, and Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk of Calvin College was the first to respond. She has an extensive background in fibers and papermaking, and we talked about working together on several pieces. Later, in Seattle, we met in my studio to talk about how our respective media might interface. She had some ideas that led to us using her paper art as wall sections in some of my installations. She was also able to apply her sensitive and delicate basket-weaving techniques to making objects that I plan to place within several future installations. In addition, Jo-Ann gave me the idea of using grids of used teabags affixed to panels as a ground for drawings. I found this material so expansive and rich with associations of Indonesia’s political, social, and economic history, that my studio is still full of teabags waiting to be used for another project. A new appreciation for the symbolic power of materials has begun to take a prominent place in my work.
But perhaps the most important change has been a shift from an individualist to a community orientation. This has been an interest of mine for a long time, but certain buildings I saw in Indonesia brought it to the fore. Along the roadsides of Yogyakarta and Bali, we saw elevated, open-air platforms with roofs. As our bus passed by, I saw people sitting inside, talking, getting out of the hot sun or the rain. The platforms appeared to function as community gathering centers, the way coffee shops sometimes do at home. The image of these raised platforms appealed to me greatly and stayed in my mind. Christianity assumes both community and individual experience, but often the West is consumed with individualism. In Asia, community seems more important.
Several of the maquettes I made, including Inner Conflict, Shelter, and Bridge, incorporate the idea of community gathering places. I also explored this idea in a work called Passages, a series of charcoal drawings on teabags on birch panels. Over the last twelve years, my main interest has been in “individual architectures,” but I’m now thinking about how individual structures might come together to form community. In this, I have been influenced by the community focus of our Asian brothers and sisters. Where will this lead? I do not know, and that is the mysterious edge that keeps the work developing.
Shlain was right. In Indonesia, all of us experienced the “assimilation of unfamiliar images.” As artists, we each worked to make sense of our own realities, then juxtaposed them, putting images together in ways that were not always logical or anticipated. The resulting work causes us to look at the world differently, to see new relationships and connections. What could this kind of thinking lead to?
Roger Feldman’s large-scale, site-specific installation art has been exhibited in North America, England, and Europe, and was featured in Image issue #30. His awards include an NEA grant as well as CIVA’s Prescott Award, the organization’s highest honor for sculpture. He was a professor of art at Biola University, and is now at Seattle Pacific University.