Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Moon Temple

Last year an atrocious building was put up in my neighborhood and the feeling of my neighbors is that it is a visual assault and insult to those who have resided here for decades and who have lived with the view the building now obstructs. Its stands on two fat legs that are like the two halves of a split ziggurat set apart but joined at the top by a hipbone bridge, an asexual crotch, like a not yet completed figure of an idol of Capitalism or the bottom part of a crypto-Babylonian monster that was severed at the middle, its top half thrown into the East River, yet still it stands guard mindlessly, an architectural obstruction forbidding my view of the Lower East Side and the river.

Miraculously, I like to think, the queen of the night appeared this morning to claim the alien structure as her own temple and shined her All-Seeing Eye through the gaping hole in Moloch’s belly and looked directly into my broken heart.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Cautionary Advent Tale

Some time ago, long before any of us were born, before TV, before movies and automobiles, somewhere in the vast American wilderness between the Atlantic and Pacific, there was a small desolate town where the industry, whatever it was, had failed, and the crops, whatever they were, also failed, and the people were starving physically and spiritually. Some killed themselves and many became addicted alcohol or to a patent medicine derived from poppies, and these defeated townsfolk loitered in the public square without any hope and full of resentment.

“They call it The Land Of The Free, but we ain’t free. The city folk and foreigners and degenerates and even the slaves are free, but we ain’t free.”

One day, unknown to any of them, a circus train from New York City went off the tracks of the railroad a mile or two from town. This circus might not have been the greatest show on earth, but it was great, it was so great, you wouldn’t believe how great it was, and its main attraction, its star performer, escaped into the woods. It was a rare and rather rambunctious ape of some kind that was covered with remarkable orange hair.

The orange ape wandered aimlessly and free through the woods until it by chance reached the town and immediately caught the attention of the people in the square who had never seen anything like it and who thought it was the biggest man, the manliest man, they had ever seen. The people cheered and laughed at this heroic figure as it howled and swaggered to the center of town. They followed it as it slouched toward the open doors of the church, one of those lovely white country churches. 

The minister had finished his meaningless sermon to his empty church. He was a newcomer and a foreigner and he was much smaller than the ape and not as manly, and when he saw the Beast come roaring in the door he was alarmed. This clergyman was weak in faith, but he recognized an abomination of desolation when he saw one. “God help us all!” he screamed, and fled in holy terror into the wilderness, never looking back.

“What a loser,” the townsfolk cackled.

Meanwhile, the orange ape howled and beat his chest and cavorted around the sanctuary, overturning pews, smashing symbols of faith, greedily slugging down the communion wine, devouring the wafers, and defecating on the altar while the mob cheered.

“BEHOLD!” his followers shouted, “Our Savior will make us great again!”

 Their orange messiah grabbed the big Bible from the pulpit and tore it to pieces, throwing them  in the air,  grunting, “MA-GA! MA-GA! MA-GA!!” 

“MAGA!! MAGA!! MAGA!!” the delighted mob chanted in response
A page ripped from the gospels landed on an Advent candle and caught fire and a burning cinder attached itself to the ape’s orange fur. The flaming beast howled and ran about the church, spreading the fire until the building and the entire town were burned to dust and forever lost from history.
God help us all.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

universal monk in urban desert

This alien planet was getting to be too much for us,
with its stupid politics and insane wars and money gods, and we needed to get away.
We wanted to flee to a desert
and live in a cave and find God and find ourselves.

So I escaped the alien world, and its alienation,
and found a shelter in a rent-stabilized cave in the wilderness of Brooklyn, and I sit in my cell, because my cell will teach me everything,
so I am told,
I sit cross-legged on my futon sofa before sunrise
and stare at the shadow of the candlelit Guadalupe figure we bought,
as it dances on the wall
and contemplate our return to dust,
because it is Lent.

On the Last Day the sun will go supernova and whatever is still alive on this planet will be incinerated,
but that is billions of years away and it’s not my problem.
Global warming might incinerate everything first, but I don’t own a car

so don’t blame me, and that won’t be for a while and it’s not my problem.
My problem is that one of us has already returned to dust, a box of ashes.
Is that you? Art thou that?

I hang my questions on the wall where the shadow dances, because the alien world,
with its stupid politics and insane wars and money gods, is here in this cave,

sitting on the futon sofa,
talking to itself and disturbing the silence.

One day, any day, will be the last day
when the sun in my brain goes supernova and my world is incinerated and I am also reduced to dust.

The candle flame moves and the shadow of the holy mother dances on the wall until sunrise,
when it disappears in the light,
as I will disappear in the light,

as you disappeared in the light, leaving me a box of ashes.

My situation is this:
I live in a loft in Williamsburg. I moved in when I got married. I moved my studio into the space that adjoined my wife’s studio and bedroom. I was 52 and she was 47 and neither of us had children. We were the children. When we were kids both of us wanted to be beatniks. We had different spiritual backgrounds and ideas, but we invented our own rituals that centered on our fanciful notions of Guadalupe as a goddess figure.

Lori died of cancer two years ago. She had home hospice care. A hospital bed, oxygen tank and other equipment were moved into her studio, and we put mylar curtains over her big window to keep out the heat of the sun. Many people volunteered to help us in Lori’s last weeks. People brought food, cleaned the studio, and did whatever was needed. After she died, I invited these volunteers, who I called “the sisters and brothers of mercy,” to come to a gathering at the studio. This experience showed me the importance of compassion, the wisdom in compassion, and the need for community.
Last year I came upon a copy of The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton on a bookseller’s table on Bedford Avenue. I’d read it over twenty years ago, during another transitional phase, and I opened it up at random and read about his meeting with the Dalai Lama. I had been reading about Tibetan Buddhist teachings on death and dying and studying Biblical teachings. I thought the observations of this Christian monk on his journey to the East would help me on my own spiritual journey.
In 1968 Merton took his first extended leave from the monastery, his first time out of the country in decades, to attend a conference in Calcutta where he was to speak to persons representing Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhs, about what the monastic traditions of the East and West had in common.
In his talk he went beyond that to extend the concept of “monk” to include people who were not part of established institutions.

Excerpts from Thomas Merton’s View of Monasticism:
“In speaking for monks I am really speaking for a strange kind of person, a marginal person, because the monk in the modern world is no longer an established person with an established place in society.”
“Thus I find myself perhaps representing hippies among you, poets, people of this kind who are seeking in all sorts of ways and have absolutely no established status whatever.”
“Are monks and hippies and poets relevant? No, we are deliberately irrelevant. We live with an ingrained irrelevance which is proper to every human being. The marginal man accepts the basic irrelevance of the human condition, an irrelevance which is manifested above all by the fact of death. The marginal person, the monk, the displaced person, the prisoner, all these people live in the presence of death, which calls into question the meaning of life. He struggles with the fact of death in himself, trying to seek something
deeper than death, and the office of the monk or the marginal person, the meditative person or the poet is to go beyond death even in this life, to go beyond the dichotomy of life and death and to be, therefore, a witness to life.”
“The only ultimate reality is God. God lives and dwells in us. We are not justified by any action of our own, but we are called by the voice of God, by the voice of that ultimate being, to pierce through the irrelevance of our life, while accepting and admitting that our life is totally irrelevant, in order to find relevance in Him. And this relevance in Him is not something we can grasp or possess. it is something that can only be received as a gift. Consequently, the kind of life that I represent is a life that is openness to gift from God and gift from others.”
“And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible.”
“And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”

I wanted to do this talk, because I wanted to understand why this passage affects me the way it does, why I felt he was addressing me when he spoke of a marginal person living in the presence of death, seeking something deeper than death and beyond the dichotomy of life and death, but also seeking deeper communication with others, deeper communion, and community. And that is what led me to Original Blessing.
Merton says such communion is predicated on persons being “faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God” — and this seems to me to be the deep meaning of “Bring Your Own Beliefs,” and describes the practice of these people I’ve been associating with this past year.
Like you, I am concerned about perpetual war, global warming, bigotry in all its forms, economic inequality, equal rights, and other social justice issues, and I need to know what I can do, what I am most suited to do, what my vocation is.

I have never made a living as an artist. I have sold very little of what I made, so I supported myself in a series of low paying jobs. I was laid off from my last job in 2009. In the last years of her life, my wife became successful enough with her work to support both of us. Now, at age 63, I am looking for a place in this world, with its stupid politics, insane wars, money gods, but I am also looking for a place among people who look for meaning and value outside the marketplace. I am not planning to become a Catholic monk, or a Buddhist monk, or a Unitarian monk.
I honestly don’t have any better idea what my niche could be on the alien planet, with its stupid politics, insane wars, and money gods, now than I did forty five years ago when I registered for the draft. I like reading about fourth century Christian hermits, the first monks, who were not at home in the new Christian empire and sought an authentic experience of God, and an authentic transcendent community.
Merton’s last talk was to an audience of Catholic clergy in Bangkok. It is more of a sketch for a talk, or notes for a future work. He speaks of the monk as a person who “takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structure” and he examines some of the ideas taken up by the counter-culture back in those days. I believe he was on the threshold of a revolutionary message, had he lived long enough to return home and contemplate what he learned in his journey to the East (he died by accidental electrocution shortly after giving this talk).

from Marxism and Monastic Perspectives:
“I think we should say that there has to be a dialectic between world refusal and world acceptance. The world refusal of the monk is something that also looks toward an acceptance of a world that is open to change. In other words, the world refusal of the monk is in view of his desire for change.”
“The whole purpose of the monastic life is to teach men to live by love. The simple formula, which was so popular in the West, was the Augustinian formula of the translation of cupiditas (ambition, greed, lust) into caritas (love of humanity, charity), self- centered love into an outgoing, other-centered love. In the process of this change the individual ego was seen to be illusory and dissolved itself, and in place of this self- centered ego came the Christian person, who was no longer just the individual but was Christ dwelling in each one. So in each one of us the Christian person is that which is fully open to all other persons, because ultimately all other persons are Christ.”

I know not everyone wants to hear that they are “Christ,” and I also know that not everyone agrees on what the word “Christ” or “Messiah” means, and maybe I should go back to his more ecumenical Calcutta talk about an original unity beyond words and concepts. I will call this “X.”

I am waiting for X.
The waning supermoon hangs on the sky, a crumbling white disk in the daylight.
It’s a pretty day in an invisible war,
in the Eye of an invisible storm.
It is early in the morning and I am waiting for X

I perform a mass for X, and contemplate X, and wait for X to speak from the whirlwind
X marks Here or There in my unreliable maps. Here You Are and There is where your treasure is. Your treasure is buried in the abyss.
Your treasure is buried in emptiness.

X holds the fire of creator destroyer
X beats the drum of existence
X says Fear Not, I am unarmed
X indicates the revolutionary situation
X crushes the ideology of power and possession X blows the horn that blasts down the walls

X dances in the temple
X takes a Giant Step into the unlimited

I am watching for X, and I am waiting for X within me, I mean to say within us.
X stands at the Door. 

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Critical Masque at Schema Projects

Critical Masque
Lawrence Swan

March 3 – April 2, 2017 
Opening reception, Friday, March 3rd 6-9pm
92 St Nicholas Ave between Hart and Suydam Brooklyn NY 11237 

Hermetic Memo to Self (and detail) 

Friday, January 06, 2017

Notes on X

The masks and figures I have been making are mostly, but not entirely, related to reflections on images of a certain archetype I refer to as X, and my misreadings of sayings attributed to X and to letters written by a certain revolutionary mystic whose own encounter with X came by way of an altered state experience.
A few years ago I made some paper masks and Fred Valentine asked me if I ever considered using another, more durable, material. As it happened I had been thinking of using coffee cans, cut, flattened, and folded, with eyeholes poked and jaggedly cut. Right away I saw these masks as representations of X. 
The figures are made of scrap wood and the image is derived from drawings of an Everyman character — whose gender is obviously signified — conflated with a familiar archetype of an executed revolutionary or sacrificed deity, depending on one’s projection, and resulting in an image that was startling, but which seemed perfectly truthful to me.
X could be read as a martyred bodhisattva and victim of state violence, but he is also an iconoclastic revision of an iconic image whose representation has historically been regulated by the authority of a patriarchy that I believe is in its last daze.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

six ceremonial masks for the new year

figure weave

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Show at Valentine opens January 6, 2017

This assembled painting is one of the pieces in the show I'm in with Mary-Ann Monforton at  Valentine Gallery in January.

and this is another