Saturday, December 19, 2015

Landscape as self-sculpture

Some years ago I was playing with clay and I made a small sculpture that looked like a hand. I recognized in that gesture the will for something more than self-expression in art. More of a self-revealing. I produced that hand sculpture, created in a state of conscious unselfconsciousness. That is, I was awake and aware but molding the clay without intent or purpose. The result was a kind of self-portrait or if you will, a self-sculpture. 

On a larger scale I've written a bit about how landscapes reveal what their people are about. Or more specifically, how people model themselves in their landscape. I have used this tool, for better or for worse, to unravel questions about what seem to be otherwise "inscrutable" landscapes I've visited. So for example I found that a Mayan architectural mystery in the Yucatan was nothing more than a self-portrait of a community. Mexico City I came to see as a gigantic sculpture of movement in a state of constant rebuilding and refining. These qualitative conclusions were drawn quite subjectively. My only "proof" of their verity is my own observation, my own conjectures. My ideas are a lot about intangibles. But this may not be such a bad thing. Because embedded within landscapes are many intangibles. Landscapes themselves, though they include walls and paving and stones and hewn wood and tiles and staircases, may be said to be intangible. What can we draw that's "tangible" from our analysis of the intangible?

My Fulbright work in Sri Lanka is the analysis of landscape intangibles (or intangible landscapes) and for that I have to use powers of observation, senses unbiased by expectation, and the kind of unconscious consciousness I experienced during my hand sculpture. You might think of it as a dreamlike state. I think of it as something else. A state of mind that's open to impressions. A consciousness that allows patterns to impress themselves. A way to establish new contacts with the unknown. It's a state I've been trying to induce in my students. Often the work is frustrating. Sometimes the results are remarkable. 

So here in Sri Lanka as I ponder the strangeness of human-built ecosystems that have marked this island for 2600 years I encounter questions that lead in unexpected directions. Considering the complexity of tank function (the "tanks" are ancient irrigation systems that are the centerpiece of human-built ecosystems here) I have run across a dearth of tangible explanations. But there are many intangibles. 

I do know that tanks are personified, that there are many tales of people being buried in their curving dams or sacrificing their own bodies by embedding themselves in breached tank dams. I know that tanks take on names of gods and in many cases lend their names to local gods. I know that some tanks are shaped like human body parts, specifically female breasts, the source of life. I know that tanks are simple-looking but profoundly complex in their functions of storing, filtering, and distributing water. So in many senses they are constructed, or more exactly perhaps conceptualized, like the human body. Or perhaps the human heart, with its chambers, valves, pumps, and carefully controlled openings. 

Until quite recently tanks and the rice fields they nourish were built by human effort and human body parts. Feet and hands did the fine shaping, instructed by brains with centuries of collective experience. I've seen people in action in these arenas. Their bare feet just supplemented by hand-held tools. Elephants, not backhoes were used for the heavy work and for compacting the bunds. But the daily shaping, piling, digging, carrying, constructing, and refining were done by human hands. Tanks are a collective sculpture of each community that built and maintained them. Can we consider the tanks to be a self-sculpture of these communities?

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