Always Already There: Lost Horizon


I wrote the following article for the inaugural issue of Topographies Magazine edited by Rowynn Dumont. I’m pleased to be able to share it here on my blog.

Part of the cast of “Lost Horizon.” From left: Liv Ullmann, George Kennedy, Bobby Van, Sally Kellerman, James Shigeta, and Peter Finch. Courtesy Columbia Pictures. © 1973.

George Kennedy, one of the stars of the box-office bomb, the 1973 film-musical version of the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, died in February in Idaho. He was an iconic character actor who typically played a certain kind of Hollywood hero: unenigmatic, dependable. I remember seeing the movie on television as a kid, and thinking it was amazing: a latter-day Wizard of Oz. In my naivety I saw it as Hollywood meant it to be seen, as a dazzling spectacle not to be carefully scrutinized, in spite of the fact that the film lays on—rather thick—a “philosophical” message about the putative “utopia” of Shangri-La (where white people live in a palace waited upon—or have they been captured?—by Asians). In retrospect, this film is unintentionally postmodernist, although without any sense of irony; our own historical distance from its time make it more “readable.” What it sought to gloss over becomes obvious. The film is greatly entertaining, however, especially if you are an unabashed Burt Bacharach fan like me. Visually, the film is relatively unimaginative, with a too brightly lit Technicolor look, and staid, solid camera angles from the 1940s; but the songs are for the most part irrepressibly upbeat and dynamic, breezy 1970s pop tunes.
If George Kennedy is even by the early 1970’s a throwback to an earlier, seemingly less ambiguous time of manly, gung-ho Hollywood men, his love-interest interest, Sally Kellerman, is suitably beautiful and elegant—but at the beginning of the film in the midst of a Vietnam-era spiritual malaise: pill-popping and suicidal. She recovers, and he, thanks to her love—and Hollywood hokum—becomes more altruistic. I suppose it was—like the visuals and the music—intended as a marriage of Hollywood’s Golden Age and 1970s “counter-culture.” In a marvelous review detailing the film’s numerous failings—but also its definite charms as a “guilty pleasure”—Glenn Erickson tells us:

Initial reviewers of Lost Horizon tripped all over one another to fashion the cruelest put-downs in print. Unfortunately, most of what they complained about is true. The production is tacky in almost every respect, with the High Lama’s palace a poor revamp of a leftover set for 1967′s Camelot. The palace grounds look tossed together by Southern California pool & garden landscapers and the interior sets do indeed resemble generic Holiday Inn décor, with a bland ‘oriental’ theme.

Seeing the film recently I was struck by a sense of nostalgia—as my introduction probably reveals—but also by a sense of the uncanny. In the film a group of what are apparently Brits and Americans find themselves in Shangri-La. Is it real or not? Uncanny in German is Unheimlich—a much more revealing word that translates literally as “un-home-like.” Ironically, I was watching the film at home with my family, but had an odd sort of neither-here-nor-there feeling, a sense of the Unheimlich. I was not sure why. I had in mind (before looking it up) that the “palace” of Shangri-La was on a Hollywood backlot; indeed it was: Burbank. In June I flew in and out of Burbank—my first time in Southern California in many years—so there was a certain familiarity: one can see the smog in the air in the film—worse then probably than it is now. Shangri-La is Burbank—an under-two-hour flight for me. I am almost there already. Yet, there was another more powerful sense of the uncanny: the film opens with an aerial view of the “Himalayas” as the title sequence. A little research revealed that this was the North Cascades of Washington State, my home. Indeed, I think the shot at the beginning of the film is Mt. Baker, easily seen on a clear day from near here. So, this Unheimlichkeit stems from the knowledge that this un-home-like place of Shangri-La—unattainable, a fairy tale—is assembled in my own backyard.
Michel Foucault makes a distinction between utopia and heterotopia. A utopia is literally “without place,” but a heterotopia is a set-aside place, an actual space where things are different from the outside world. For the latter, Foucault uses the example of the religious colonies founded in the Americas. Perhaps Shangri-La means a utopian society in a heterotopia—the Valley of the Blue Moon is the place name in the film—separate from the world but contiguous with it. The film’s setting in the early 1970s makes Shangri-La’s invisibility to the outside world implausible, of course; aerial reconnaissance and spy satellites make the undiscovered place nearly impossible. Yet, what is more interesting is that it exists in the film: various locations on the West Coast are amalgamated—spliced—into something exotic, revealing that I already live there.

Video of “Confessions” mock-up, or a Video of Video

Here’s a short video of a mock-up of one of the figures for the Confessions Project I’m proposing for All Pilgrims Christian Church. Since I’m narrating it “live” I don’t want to write the same thing here, but I’ll give a few more details below. . . .

This figure, which is about 5’5″ tall (170 cm or so) is a single layer of a satiny material (I’m not sure exactly what it is – it was a gift!) attached to a tulle or petticoat-mesh panel. I typically look for a material that will let light through so the image can be seen from both sides, and in this case, I gathered the edges of the fabric randomly to achieve a rippling, water-like surface. I’m planning on making a few more of the figures out of different materials to test them, too. . .
I give more of an idea of the meaning of the project in the previous post, but suffice it to say that I’m grappling with the concept of time and what it means to us as we go through our lives. . .

Preliminary Proposal: Community Art Project for All Pilgrims Christian Church

Preliminary sketch
Preliminary sketch

This is a proposal for a sculptural video installation in which abstracted video images (with accompanying audio) would be projected upon life-size figurative mesh-forms, suspended from the ceiling in either the Sanctuary or Fellowship Hall. My idea is to have guests of the community suppers, which All Pilgrims co-sponsors, tell their own stories of past, present, and future.

Preliminary sketch; Figure  detail
Preliminary sketch; Figure detail

One possibility is to call it “Confessions,” after St. Augustine’s famous book, in which he wrote:

“Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Rather than a literal “confession” of sins, I see this as an opportunity for expression of where one sees oneself in life through Augustine’s anchor of the present.

Through this installation, participants can reflect on the past, report on the “time present of things present,” and project themselves into the future. Intentionally, the potentially unsettling nature of the stories of those who are possibly marginalized will be shown upon pristine, generic forms, conveying the idea that there is both a universality of a particular individual’s plight—and a universality of their hopes. The project will shed a literal light on the struggles of vulnerable populations, and transform personal experiences into a collective one for both the initial creators—the storytellers—and subsequently viewers.

Video imagery for the project could either be collected in “Confessionals” (such as the booths in Roman Catholic churches) in the Fellowship Hall and/or by participants using their smartphones other devices out in the community. The video imagery would be distorted, abstracted, as a result of the projection process and the shape of the mesh-forms; individual identities would not be apparent. Voices, though, might identify individuals, so the voice recordings might need to be altered to assure anonymity, or we could request permission for their unmodified use. Having participants sign a release form would have to be mandatory either way. Assuring that the project be as broadly based as possible is important, as it validates the claim for it being both by the community and for the community.

Due to light levels, a project like this would look best during the darker months or at night. Video projections would be nearly invisible when ambient light levels are high. An option would be to cover windows with something to reduce light transmission. That would allow viewing during worship times, for instance. The length of the exhibition should be several months so as to reach the largest possible audience.

I obviously have an image of this project in my mind’s eye, yet this the visual manifestation of it, not the entire meaning or context. I want to collaborate, to foster an environment of cooperation that ultimately creates the work of art. Might we have a musical, liturgical, or performance component, for instance, or link the project to broader community outreach goals?

Thank you for considering my initial concept for “Confessions.” I look forward to your comments.

The Aevum

Here’s what I’ve been up to recently: Below is an abstract of this semester’s Independent Study Project that I am working on with Dr. Sharon Sieber. I’ve submitted the abstract to the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition conference to be held in Seattle in late September of 2015. I came across the idea of the aevum while researching my previous project on Annunciation paintings last autumn.

“The Aevum: A Medieval Conception of Time to Feed the Soul in Modern Aesthetics”
My study investigates the aesthetic experience in two modernist works of art, Richard Wagner’s Parsifal and Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses. I contend that they bring the viewer into the aevum, or aeviternity, the medieval conception of a “middle-time” existing between temporality and eternity. Both Wagner’s and Serra’s work has sacred themes: Wagner retells the chivalric Holy Grail myth, with a particular emphasis on the “love-meal” or Eucharist with its sustaining power, and Serra gains inspiration from church architecture. My argument focuses on the similarity of the secularized aesthetic theories of Immanuel Kant and Theodor Adorno with medieval theories of the aevum, that is, what we might call an aesthetic temporal reality that draws one out of normal, quotidian time. Despite divergences, modern aesthetic theories posit a kind of middle-state of awareness. Kant proposes a contemplative aesthetic experience as a mode of thought separate from the work of art itself. In Adorno, the aesthetic experience and the work of art that elicits the experience have a closer connection. Both Kant and Adorno address temporality in aesthetic experience, although Adorno does so more directly. Additionally, Micheline Sauvage’s systematic approach posits hierarchical temporal modes to express the relationship between the viewer and the work of art. Her idea that the work of art is both in and with time provides compelling support for the argument that modern aesthetic theories demand a space-time which bears a remarkable resemblance to the medieval exposition of the aevum.
In spite of the overarching demand that ideas conform to Church dogma and tradition, there was still surprising diversity in medieval conceptions of time. While medieval thought regarding time may seem skewed and narrow from our vantage-point, our own contemporary conceptions of time are inseparable from the milieu of modernity: science and industrialization, both of which demand strict accuracy in the measurement of time. Therefore, contemporary thinkers have trouble understanding the subtleties of medieval conceptions of time, ultimately strove to explain hierarchical temporal realities for different kinds of sentience, including the human soul, considered to be everlasting. Medieval thought placed the soul in a special temporality, the aevum, which allows the soul to communicate in both mundane and spiritual time. The loss of the idea of soul in contemporary thought, as described by psychologist James Hillman, portends the loss of part of an individual’s potential psychic development and well-being. Regaining the idea that aesthetics is an inseparable, reciprocal relation of individual experience to the work of art, my investigation concludes that aesthetics exists in the aevum—an intersection of subject and object—in a middle-time between the profane and the divine, a crossroads of seemingly incompatible experiences and modes of existence.

Radio Synchronicity

I had the pleasure of being a guest on Dena Marie’s radio program, “Lift Your Spirits,” broadcast live on KKNW here in the Seattle-area recently. The theme was synchronicity, as there were “coincidences” that led to the interview, especially the “chance” meeting at one of my art openings at Matzke Fine Art, when Dena and I sat down together, not realizing we had been in the same high school class. The interview is 12 minutes long, beginning around 40 minutes into the show, available here. We discuss my studies with IDSVA, and their influence on my creative practice, the end result being (for me at least!) something more spiritual than academic. Below is one of my sculptures in the “Green Art” show at which Dena Maria and I reconnected.

"Grail" Earthenware and Bronze 22" long x 19" high x 11" wide ©2014
Earthenware and Bronze
22″ long x 19″ high x 11″ wide
I mention that for C.G. Jung, synchronicity is ultimately tied to meaning; the “merely coincidental” becomes meaningful when we realize how events, ideas, and people are linked to each other. Synchronicity is not as much a miracle—although it can be—as a revealing of what was always there. I must give mention here of Tammy Montgomery’s The Angel in Annunciation and Synchronicity: Knowledge and Belief in C.G. Jung (Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2013), which was part of my background research for my current Independent Study project described here. I was only vaguely familiar with Jung’s take on synchronicity before reading this book, and I found the mix of the psychological, scientific, and theological to be compelling.

An Annunciation of “The Annunciation”

This semester in my IDSVA PhD program, I have the pleasure of working with Dr. Don Seastrum, Professor of Art at Western State Colorado University, as my Independent Study Director. This means that Don acts as a mentor as I write a term paper. My paper is going to explore heterotopias (basically unusual or incongruous spaces) in paintings of the Annunciation to the Virgin during the Renaissance.

Paintings of the Annunciation depict the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will bear the Christ child. My argument? That these peculiar spaces or divisions of spaces (such as the way a wall or even a pillar separates Gabriel and Mary) are not so much about space as they are about Time. I’m proposing that these strange spaces represent the confluence of eternal and normal time, the heavenly and the earthly.

The Annunciation Sandro Botticelli circa 1485  Tempera and gold on wood Height: 191 mm (7.52 in). Width: 314 mm (12.36 in).  Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Annunciation
Sandro Botticelli
circa 1485
Tempera and gold on wood
Height: 191 mm (7.52 in). Width: 314 mm (12.36 in).
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The late 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault popularized the term heterotopia, but used it in different ways throughout his career. Foucault wasn’t much of a metaphysician. I see him rather as sociological in emphasis. In order to have another important perspective, I am turning to the work of 20th century Romanian-born Mircea Eliade as a way of exploring the mythological and spiritual aspects of the Annunciation. Eliade was a historian of religions, and similar to Foucault, was a kind of anthropologist. Eliade seems to have currently fallen from favor except in theology. I’m happy to bring him back, in my own small way. The concept of the coming together of mythic and normal time when rituals are performed is an idea that I have adapted from him.

I see a painting of the Annunciation as a kind of ritual that shows disparate Time coming together, bringing the mythic and eternal into history.

Don Seastrum will act as an advisor for my paper, but he was adamant that I think about how the entire process of earning my PhD was going to affect my studio work. If I recall correctly, Don’s own PhD was predominantly in studio work, whereas mine at IDSVA is entirely academic (Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory). I thought having a forum on my blog would be a great way to document this process, and Don agreed to chime in, in response my posts.
I’ve been interested in creating my own versions of The Annunciation over the past couple of years, but haven’t gotten beyond preliminary stages. However, I thought to myself, what if I am already creating Annunciations and don’t know it? A recent piece that I was working on therefore became an Annunciation. I’ll write more about it, and some pieces that are under way, as the semester progresses. In the meantime, I’d like to welcome Don, and have him share his comments. I hope others will feel free to comment also.

The Annunciation Mike Adams ©2014 Glazed Earthenware and Artificial Flowers 22" l x 19" h x 12" w
The Annunciation
Mike Adams
Glazed Earthenware and Artificial Flowers
22″ l x 19″ h x 12″ w

Art & Mind in Nature

The following is an artist’s statement that I’m working on for an upcoming show at Matzke Fine Art and Sculpture Park. It’s a group show with an environmental theme. Serendipitously, I had just been reading Andrew Bowie’s Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche for my PhD coursework at IDSVA. In the book there is a substantial discussion of Friedrich’s Schelling’s philosophy, and I was deeply influenced as you can see below. John Dewey echoes Schelling about a hundred years later in Experience and Nature. One wonders why these philosophies that espouse our being part of nature don’t seem to have much traction.

Artist’s Statement

We tend to talk today about our separation from nature. Indeed, it seems to be the case that we see nature as literally outside ourselves: the out-of-doors. We damage the environment without regard for the fact that we are in nature, destroying the very earth of which we are an integral part—like setting fire to a house in which we still want to live. Even very early in the 19th Century, but really before the Industrial Revolution affected Germany, Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) wrote about nature as having two aspects: unconscious forces, what we would call the natural world, and consciousness–including our own sentience–still part of the natural world, but enabling us to be (or to think we are) autonomous. Perhaps this seeming autonomy, our ability to think and act, makes us feel that we are beyond “unconscious” nature, when we are merely an extension of it.
My own sculpture is an exploration of the balance between what I would have previously called the “natural world” and the “man-made world,” but there is an inherent opposition. Instead, I’d like to follow Schelling’s lead and project ourselves within a unity of nature of which we are part. Obviously this does not solve the obvious problem of the divide in which we often find ourselves as humans: seemingly opposed to everything else in the world (and subsequently alienated). Yet the connection we have with art is an example of how we actively engage in a positive way with our world.
My work is ultimately optimistic in that it offers a kind of harmony. I juxtapose incongruous elements, not necessarily to cause a clash, but to create something mythic, something that exists outside of time and the normal rules. A work of art ought to be a bit strange, that place in the world where something new happens.

These Boats were made for Walking, or Heterotopias par Excellence

[The following is a slightly revised version of an artist’s statement that I wrote for a group exhibition that I was in at Anchor Art Space in Anacortes, Washington, USA in June of 2014. Foucault’s term heterotopia really piqued my interest (as it has many other thinkers), yet he wrote very little about it. I’m planning on using the idea of the heterotopia in my autumn independent study paper for IDSVA. More about that later, however.]

"Leibniz' Dog: The Beast of All Possible Worlds" Sculpture in Porcelain and Wood, about 22" long and 30" tall
“Leibniz’ Dog: The Beast of All Possible Worlds”
Sculpture in Porcelain and Wood, about 22″ long and 30″ tall

I recently came across Michel Foucault’s term heterotopia, which simply means “other space or place,” those that are special, set aside from normal life. Examples that he gives are the honeymoon suite, and the colonies of the Puritans in America: places intended to engender a transformation or new beginning. His discussion is literally grounded: it seems he is always speaking of things built upon the earth: rooms in buildings, colonies in a new land. Thus I am surprised when he concludes with a mention not of land, but of the sea: “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.” What particularly piqued my interest is the intersection of land and vessel in Foucault, something that occurs in my own work. I invoke both by combining “what belongs to the land” with the vessel form. Foucault has hit upon something profound and poetic: “The boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.” A cocoon afloat on the abyss; a boat upon the sea, or our earth floating in space, is a mysterious and powerful image.

Dangerous Aesthetics

Well, I thought I’d post my first real term paper of my PhD program. It is entitled “Dangerous Aesthetics.” I have tried to make it as readable as possible, but I’ll let you be the judge! The paper is an exploration of the morality of aesthetics. In other words, is it possible to use those things that give us visual pleasure to manipulate us? The Nazis used visual imagery like it was going out of style. Walter Benjamin called this politics made aesthetic, that is, you turn the regime into something that generates visual pleasure of one sort or another. What I’ve done is to look at the issue from the standpoint of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics, and ask if there is a way of protecting beauty from being used for purposes of terror? I’ll be giving a shortened version of this paper while I am in New York, as part of my IDSVA residency. I’ll add some images for the presentation, and share them with you, too,