Sunday, February 2, 2014

Who's Afraid of Dreaming?

Vija Celmins Working Photos

[On Preparing to Be Criticized for a Forthcoming Work, The Woman Who Planted Dreams, 2014]

Who's Afraid of Dreaming?

I am. We are. There's always doubt. Right now, I'm anxious about my current project, The Woman Who Planted Dreams. I'd rather be free of these questions and onto the path—to be known, knowing and making known. I feel unsure for several reasons. First, it doesn't feel pure. Second, it has no end. Third, I'm coming from a place that doesn't even know itself, let alone its art. It should be easier to leave the self behind, when a serious work is pushing through. Unsure as I am, I must go on because, well, there's nothing left to do. Such is my circumstance.

This is not a pure idea. It didn't burst forth as a passionate life preserver thrown to a storm of circumstance, the way some projects do, yet the circumstances are no less dire than they once were. This idea was, rather, adapted from a real life possibility and question. Can art and life meet here, where I am, in what I'm doing, in what I want to do? My partner was planning a through-hike of two long trails, The Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific NW Trail, back to back. It's the kind of thing I would have jumped at 10 years ago. Such endeavors feel like life to me, like unbuffered contact with the raw energy of life, but now art gets in the way. I'm too busy making art to do real things like hike and sail and climb and travel and cook. I can't afford to take side trips when my art is calling me. I must continue to make work, build my artist, earn a living. Rent is low, but not yet free.

This isn't an aside. Bear with me. For 10 years, I've been both formulating and attempting to articulate a deep-rooted project in me called The Clown. The Clown, as yet unmade, will be a 3-4 year research-journey to Mongolia via Clown School in Paris. I can't explain it yet, not really, not exactly, but I feel it. I feel it deeply and one day will heed it, because if I don't it will eat me. The fusing of life and art meet there for me, in Mongolia, in the Mongolia I will enter through a little door in Paris. That's my dream. It might make sense to someone. It might make sense to no one. Now in the meantime, until I forge on, or find words, I sit and train and struggle to understand my longing. Will the world that makes me an artist endorse me in this endeavor and help me fulfill this dream if I find the right words for it? One reason I give myself for not forging ahead with this dream is that I wish it to be pushed up from within me, not nailed down by or under me. It doesn't matter that I don't have the money to do it. The words are the important thing. And so, with these pressing concerns, I keep myself from living and walking. How can I plant dreams when The Clown is agitating me? That would, ironically, be like loitering. No, I must go on sitting here, in my stupor, banging my head against my notebook, until the words fall out.
Vija Celmins working photo
The many-armed poet, blind and sick, is wobbling, convulsing, jerking about, needing a lathe, a path to be on, while Mongolia, ever foggy, ever distant, as it should be, shimmers on. Who says I can't walk? Who says I shouldn't go? Perhaps I need to. I went out conferring, discussing the idea with artists and friends. In what way can I make this journey mine? I asked them. Am I avoiding The Clown? Are these works the same thing? Might the dream work be my training? I let my peers in. Show me the way, I say. A friend shows me a short film about a man who planted trees. It fills me with an urge to commit to something big and see it through. My spiritual work is far from done. I have for years felt a voyage coming on. Why not this journey? I am still in limbo, once an artist, not yet an artist. Who am I? And why not this journey? Who acts, who decides, in these states, and why not this journey? Perhaps an action will elicit a mantra and that will induce a purpose? Doula work. And why not this journey?

Walking satisfies. When I walk I feel solved, connected, as if I'm creating something, the world, an art form, a self. The idea of rousing dreamers from their sleep as I walk feels right and necessary. How seldom we encounter the dreamer awake on our path. No sooner had I found the idea then relief set in. For the first time in years, things made sense. I'd been struggling, not because I'd found the path, but because I'd left it. Going back to the mountain was the thing to do. Not impure. Adapted.

This work is unquantifiable. It has no end, no beginning. It's middle work. It won't start at the southern terminus and won't end at the northern one. When grantors ask to know the end of the work before you begin, they cut the work out of the work. I pity the grantee. If they are honest, they do two projects to satisfy both the work and the grantor, or they say, How can I know the outcome now, and risk losing their grant.

Planting dreams doesn't respond to an organized need. It doesn't make people feel good about their neighborhood. It only invites people to dream, or to dream again, or to consider what it means to dream an intentional world. In the meantime, it's just me doing the work I need to do, but then that's something, something I learned at Tent City (Song of Tent City, 2010). I can't do your work. I can only do mine. Inspire and breathe. That was a powerful lesson. It makes everyone an artist and everyone a witness and no one a critic.

Vija Celmins
I'm done with clever art. No more injecting good ideas into fertile eggs. I want something simple, personal. What's public about my art is that I say to you, I need you for this work. I need you to become this artist. I want you to make this work. Plumb your soul, as I plumb mine, for a dream, for the faith we need to see it through, for the courage to witness and be witnessed. If you say it's important, then it's important. If you say it's trivial, it's trivial. Or, like me, you can waffle back and forth. One day it is, next it isn't. What does it matter who I am, what my world is, worthwhile or not? Loveable? Loving? Forgotten? Seen? Safe? Wonderful? Wild? Tame?

I've been asked so many times, by so many people, What is a dream? What do you want? Do you mean a sleeping dream or a hope for the future? It seems to me the dreamer is sound asleep. I say to you, dreamers, poets, lovers, friends, wake up! This is about alchemy, emergence, something from nothing, the world we want, the things that stir us. We don't plant dreams alone. We plant them together. Together we find time and space and draw them out and shape our world. The action of bringing dreams to seed is our work. Let us begin!

When they say "living the dream," they mean the standard dream no one really dreams. The dream we sometimes paint over our secret dreams. What's real? What's true? And who's afraid of dreaming? Is there shame in our dream? Awkwardness? Mistrust? Fear? What will they say when they hear about mine? It's too small, too literal, too simple, too complex, too selfish, too vague—it's just not of this world. I ask you, what's simple? What's complex? To what world does your dream belong? I want your input, yes, but moreso, invite you to do the inner work with me and seek the circumstances of life.

Last night, I spent time talking about this work with a dear and gifted friend and artist, Vanessa DeWolf. We spent time organizing our careers into chapters. I decided I was in my third or fourth chapter and Vanessa titled my present one, The Liminal Years. I'd entered The Liminal Years in 2011, while performing a conceptual piece on Mt Rainier (Tahoma Kora, 2011). I left my artist on the mountain and entered a limbo state, a place of healing, a womb. 

I've been confused and struggling and open about it. I don't know where or who I am or what I'll become. I'm not fighting it, but I'm also not comfortable. When I first returned home from the mountain, I felt a deep and decisive shift and a loss. At first, it meant I sat catatonic at my desk for 10 hours, then it meant scratching my head, then just scratching out ideas I had no interest in realizing, then in desperately trying to jump-start a pulse, a new life. I wandered about in this state, attempting to understand who I was, with projects like Sonnets in the Sand (2012), Surrogate (2012), Burden of Purpose (2013) and Hunger (2013). Still no birth. I wait. And wander. And now a new work, which is maybe more wandering. I don't know.

My previous chapter was one of bringing language (poetry) into the physical world (movement). My works came fast and furious, one on the heels of the next. I was full force ahead and knew what I wanted. Works like Poetess at Green Lake (2006), Window Show (2009), Corporate Poet (2010), The Blue Line (2010) and Song of Tent City (2010) attest to this. Then, after the mountain, I began reaching in for my work, instead of out. One cannot do research online when one is reaching in for material. One must do the spiritual work, attend to the body, the soul, the feet. Because the direction of my sourcing changed, my work changed and that changed how I was received. I can still see the worth of my earlier works, but can no longer make them, for it would no longer satisfy and is not worth the grants I could garner.

I was no more the artist I was. I had new and unknown needs. With this transformation underway, I proposed projects to various granting agencies. Not surprisingly, the further I went along, the less attention I got, and the less money. If that said anything, it was that my work was growing less capable of promising something known to my public and more likely to express a doubt about myself and my own ability to do anything, let alone make art. In the past, my audience saw and stepped into my work. Now I am asking them to see me, and teach me, and work with me towards something or step aside and let me in. I spent years facilitating experiences for others and stood by watching them glaze to the profound, feeling exhausted myself. Now I wouldn't think of doing that! It's essential I be in my work and live it.

Vanessa offered a profound new perspective in suggesting that what had shifted was not the artist, but the attention of the artist to the moment in which the work was perceived. If that moment shifted, back or forward, perhaps the art hasn't happened yet, or happened long ago? Looking back to earlier works, I can see the exact moment when the art happened. It was when the receiver fulfilled his or her role by acting out my concept. In this new chapter, there's no saying if or when the work takes place, or if anyone fulfills anything, or what it signifies. There's only wading into space and spending time there. Perhaps an outside source, a shaman or master of ceremonies, could help me understand. I've already consulted two for help. One said I wasn't finished with the mountain. The other said I wouldn't wait two more years. That was 6 months ago.

If my attention to my own work is shifting, my art is now about seeking the moment of art in lieu of procuring it. That means I lose control. I either have to trust some larger force or learn to work with it. The Woman Who Planted Dreams may be one of those works, who knows, where words fail to convey the gravity of the event, where the sacramental and intentional moment the work lives in is all there is, where the work lives in and only in the work, and the work of the work is the only space and time in which to understand the work. The after-words and second sources and stories are all weak substitutes for the work.

Is this training for The Clown or is it The Clown? I don't know. Mongolia long ago transcended real time and geography. It lives in me now as an idea, a place that must be conjured through various rituals and dream states. One day I'll go, or I'm always going, or I'm there. I'm planting a dream in which all art and life fuse, where there's no higher or lower plane, but only life and the will for life, which is love, which is the absence of fear.