Hosting the Stranger

Volume 4 ~ 2011

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Embodied Imagination and Engagement with Contemporary Art: The Obligations of the Guest

Sheila Gallagher

Radical hospitality, that which requires the unconditional opening of self, state, home or culture and consequently risks entertaining either angels or assassins, should be viewed as thrilling, terrifying, and transgressive. Where does one begin the risky practice? What is the space that exists between thinking and radical action? I propose the art experience as a liminal encounter where we can willingly seek out strangeness, and create a practice of defamiliarizing, which gets us out of what Jack Caputo, quoting Meister Eckhart, calls “the circle of the same." i Caputo, John. Lecture presented at 'Inter-Religious Hospitality in the Five Wisdom Traditions' Conference, Boston College, March 2009. Perhaps experiencing art, particularly those aspects of contemporary art, which are unfamiliar, shocking or on some level unknowable can be seen as a training ground for practicing hospitality.

The works of art referred to and presented here touch upon or reflect (rather than illustrate) embodied imagination as a way of approaching the other, whether that other is divine, a human stranger, or an alien wisdom tradition. By embodied imagination I mean that part of multi-sensory and active perception which comes with being incarnate– the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory. And is the artwork-- or the viewer-- the host or the guest? The answer is, of course, that in the experience of art we endlessly exchange the roles of guest and host. There is both reciprocity and convertability. If there are difficult questions to be asked in terms of the role the embodied imagination plays in the practice of hospitality they are: What are the obligations of the art/viewer? How should we react to the strange which takes us by surprise? And is art really any good at making invisible meanings visible?

Anyone visiting the Guggenheim Museum from January 29 to March 10th, 2010, who expects to see Picassos or Kandinskys while ascending Frank Lloyd Wright’s signature spiral, will be surprised and perhaps initially disappointed when they find that the entire rotunda has been emptied of all art objects, a first in the museum’s history.

Instead of being greeted by familiar modern masterpieces, the visitor is met by an adorable young child who says "Hi, This is a work by Tino Sehgal . What is your definition of progress?” The conversation with the small stranger /host/Socratic tutor is the first in series of verbal interactions the visitor has as she is guided up the rotunda.

Sehgal's site-specific work, “The Progress,” not only shocks viewers into expanding their concept of what defines the contemporary art object, but challenges museum goers to consider their obligations as guests:

A visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and at times to even contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment. Regardless of whether they call for direct action or address the viewer in a more subtle sense, Sehgal’s works always evoke questions of responsibility within an interpersonal relationship.iiGuggenheim Museum, "Tino Sehdal," http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view-now/tino-sehgal.

While perhaps not as explicitly choreographed as “The Progress”, all art experiences are interpersonal encounters. The video that follows, “The Miracle”, was inspired by my engagement with a painting, Francisco Zurbaran’s “Saint Casilda,”iii According to legend, St. Casilda, the daughter of the Almamun, the 11th c. Muslim king of Toledo, showed kindness to Christian prisoners by sneaking them bread she hid within the folds of her skirt. One day when accosted by her father, she was asked to reveal what she was carrying in her skirt, and the bread was transformed into roses. The video, 'The Miracle," was part of a larger exhibtion entitled, "Flourish" (Nesto Gallery, MA 1999) which combined video, a live flower installation, oil paintings, and laser etched Eucharistic wafers. Images of bread and roses abounded; it was intended to prompt an unselfconscious engagement with multiple senses while questioning the relationship between sight and belief. and a means to consider what I found missing in that masterful portrait.

St. Casilda

Figure 1: Francisco de Zurbaran, "Saint Casilda", oil on canvas, c. 1640.

Of course, the real miracle is the Moorish princess Casilda’s act of charity, through the gift of food, to the strange Christian prisoners. The video seeks to engage ocular metaphors of understanding by actually filming the imagined event where bread flies up and roses rain down from the sky. (I hired planes and skydivers who released baguettes from 7,000 feet.) The video is meant to invite an experience that asks, “Under what conditions will you give your consent for belief?” or, “Can you welcome what you don’t know?” Caputo asserts that “non-knowing is constitutive of the stranger.” Here the video is the stranger. Rather than an illustration of the miracles of hospitality, I present it as an example of the potential of the art experience to be a place where we can take note of the refusal-acceptance-refusal interpretive dance that we do around not knowing.

The “yes” to the other which has deep roots in all wisdom traditions, is artistically perhaps most evident in Mary’s consent, the source of so much western art. As opposed to a pious model of submission, Mary becomes much more interesting when conceived as a radical host embodying a theology of grace. She voluntarily accepts the gift, no matter how alien the messenger. In Mary Ellen Strom’s 2006 video, the artist Strom constructs the space depicted in Allessandro Botticelli’s famous painting and casts contemporary female artists in the roles of Gabriel and Mary. As Mary, Marley Tomic Beard’s body language, which is simultaneously attracted and recoiling, surprised and confused, but ultimately a picture of receptivity, subtly expresses the dual response: Do we see the stranger as hospitable or hostile? Strom’s work addresses the notion of art as gift freely given, a gift that requires an active commitment to engage or entertain odd possibilities if the gift is to be opened at all.

Video still

Figure 2:
Mary Ellen Strom, Video still from "Sheila Gallagher and Marley Tomic-Beard", two Channel Video Projection, 2006

Strom does not seek a connection between artists and angels as divine beings with wings, but teases out the Greek sense of the word “aggelos” as “messenger”: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels (or messengers) unawares.” ( Hebrews, 13:2.) If art is essentially an act of communication, artists make messages.

The “Psychic Chat Room Studio” project seeks to highlight the process by which ideas are exchanged between strangers, and to examine the mechanism by which words are translated into images. The video consists of recorded sessions I had with free online psychics whom I asked to describe their vision of my artwork. I then attempted to create the work which the psychics verbally described. The video uses web conversations to lay bare the part of art practice which is a search for creativity and to unveil the higher truth of art making, the desire for communication.

The video “Lotus Sutra Daily List” explores the limits of what can and cannot occur when a western subjectivity is inserted or rubs up against another wisdom tradition.

The video engages imagery of colored smoke shot in real time billowing fervently, a stream of energy, visible but not material, layered over a soundtrack of me, my husband and our neighbor, chanting. The beginning sequence is a shadow of a figure as a flat and fleeting projection spelling out the smoke signal equivalent of SOS (three long puffs). The colored smoke has a number of potent associations — the stuff of ritual, air force target identification, and the means by which hikers show they are in distress. The video is also a portrait of the self as stranger to self — my desire to live like a chanting monk, and the daily reality of my life which is more like an air traffic controller averting disaster every 15 seconds. The chanting in the video is a compilation of one of my own recent daily “to-do” lists and the second chapter (Hoben) of the Lotus Sutra.iv The following transcription from "Lotus Sutra Daily List" is a compilation of one of my own recent daily "to-do" lists and the second chapter (Hoben) of the Lotus Sutra. This translation of the Lotus Sutra comes from Buddhanet.net and the Buddha Dharma Education Association. Originally drawn to the strange sound and unknown words of the chanted sutra, I am now struck by the hospitality of the Lotus Sutra as both a text and a practice, its open invitation to devotion and assertion that everyone without exception has the potential to attain Buddhahood.

To be able to see engaging with those aspects of contemporary art that are strange as practicing the practice of hospitality obligates the guest/viewer actively to say “yes” to the experience of defamiliarizing. For practice, the reader is invited to view the work referred to in this essay.


Footnotes.

  1. Caputo, John. Lecture presented at 'Phenomonologies of the Stranger' Conference, Boston College, May 2009.
  2. Guggenheim Museum, "Tino Sehdal," http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view-now/tino-sehgal.
  3. According to legend, St. Casilda, the daughter of the Almamun, the 11th c. Muslim king of Toledo, showed kindness to Christian prisoners by sneaking them bread she hid within the folds of her skirt. One day when accosted by her father, she was asked to reveal what she was carrying in her skirt, and the bread was transformed into roses. The video, 'The Miracle," was part of a larger exhibtion entitled, "Flourish" (Nesto Gallery, MA 1999) which combined video, a live flower installation, oil paintings, and laser etched Eucharistic wafers. Images of bread and roses abounded; it was intended to prompt an unselfconscious engagement with multiple senses while questioning the relationship between sight and belief.
  4. The following transcription from "Lotus Sutra Daily List" is a compilation of one of my own recent daily "to-do" lists and the second chapter (Hoben) of the Lotus Sutra. This translation of the Lotus Sutra comes from Buddhanet.net and the Buddha Dharma Education Association.

Myoho renge kyo — The wonderful Law of the Lotus Sutra
Ho ben pon dai ni - Skillful Ways
Deal with Comcast —
Ju San Mai — Quietly came up
Call Mom, call Jane
Make e-syllabus —
Sho Bu' Chi E — The wisdom of the Buddhas
Go to Dick Blick
Go to Mac Store
Write the Essay —
Fix the Website
Hyaku Shi Butsu —— Self-taught Buddha
Grade papers
Sho I Sha Ga — Why is that? (because!)
Butsu Zo Shin Gon — the [present] Buddhas attended on many
Hyaku Sen Man Noku — hundreds of thousands of billions
Mu Shu Sho Butsu — Of [past] Buddhas,
Jin Gyo Sho Butsu — And practiced the many teachings
Mu Ryo Do Ho — Of those Buddhas bravely and energetically
Get prescription
for Wellbutrin —
Parent/Teacher
Conferences —
Zui Gi Sho Setsu — The Law according to the capacities
Put in cat door—
Get babysitter!
Go Ju Jo Butsu I Rai — Since I became Buddha, I also
Go to WholeFoods
Buy milk and juice
and bread and wine
Mu Shu Ho Ben — I have been leading all living beings
In Do Shu Jo — With countless expedients
Ryo Ri Sho Jaku — In order to save them from materialism,
Buy the lego!
Send the j-peg
to the gallery
Return the video
Babysitter!
Call Verizon
Submit receipts
Mu Ryo Mu Ge — They have all the states of mind
Riki Mu Sho I — Towards countless [living beings],
Zen Jo Ge Da's' San Mai — unchecked [intelligence], powers,
Make stencil —
Do new drawing
Mi Zo U Ho — Deep into no limits, and attained the Law which you've never heard before
Babysitter!

Nyo Rai Nyo Shu Ju Fun Betsu — The Tathagatas divide the Law
Go to Soho
Get the show book
Do the logo
Babysitter!
Shu Yo Gon Shi — In short, the Buddhas attained
Mu Ryo Mu Hen — The countless teachings
Mi Zo U Ho — Which you've never heard before
Bus Shitsu Jo Ju — No more
Shi — Will I say Babysitter!
Fold all the laundry
Make the dinner
Sign up Jude for
The summer camp
Nan Ge Shi Ho — To understand
Yui Butsu Yo Butsu — Only the Buddhas attained
Nai No Ku Jin — The highest Truth, that is

Sho Ho Jis So — The Reality of All Things
Sho I Sho Ho - In regards to:
Nyo Ze So - Their appearances (form? shape? size? ) as such,
E-mail Matt
E-mail Tim
E-mail Harry
E-mail Sue
E-mail Liv
E-mail Char
E-mail the dean
Nyo Ze Ho — Their requital (final outcome or return) as such,
Nyo Ze Hon Ma' Ku Kyo To - And the combination of these [factors] as such (over and over again)

Considered by many to be the pre-eminent teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra itself can be seen as a hospitable ext. While originally most likely composed in a Prakrit dialect that was spoken in Kashmir around the 1st century B.C.E., the Lotus Sutra is a linguistically collaged text, one that over many centuries accommodated many languages and grew out of multiple translations including Sanskrit, Chinese in the early centuries of the common era, and Japanese. As Richard St. Clair has written, "The sutra itself represents the craftsmanship of many pious Buddhist writers and translators over the centuries" (http://www.mit.edu/~stclair/lotus.html/).