Embracing depth and perspective
There is a knock at the door of my studio. I have been waiting for you. At the end of last year, we had tried to get together but the timing wasn’t working so we decided we would wait after the holiday. While we have been friends for some years, this is the first time that you get to visit my creative den. You had shared with me how you were looking forward to discovering what hangs on my walls, curious to see what a wilderness explorer, artist, and photographer chooses to surround himself with. After a welcoming hug, I invite you in, telling you how good it is to see you. “Come on in, let me show you around then let’s catch up over a nice warm cup of green tea, I got the kettle on the stove.”
As you walk in, you first see the large peaceful, and meditative landscape in the living room, then the hypnotic blue glacial water on the opposite wall. Upstairs I show you the intense abstract sunrise taken on Mauna Kea and the Japanese calligraphy-like photograph of an owl delicately perched on the tip of a long branch. As we move to another room, you find yourself distracted from our conversation as you stare at the art piece on the wall.
Facing you hangs my STOP BREATHE RELAX LISTEN neon installation. Simple in its design: four words, four colors, and one power switch, it is easy to forget the complexity and depth of the art piece. For an untrained eye, the luminous object is a relic of a bygone era, a retro technology that has unfortunately been reduced to a small crafty high-end corner of the interior design industry.
But look closer. Look deeper and passed the neon. Focus on the unseen. Try to understand how did this “colored light” made from tubular glass and mounted on plexiglass get to be created. Think of all the elements that needed to come together, all the technologies that had to be invented.
Then look around. Do you notice anything special? Take a moment. Let your eyes find the subtle. Check those furniture edges and notice the light on the wall facing the neon. Open the cabinet and survey the back wall. What do you see? Yes, rainbows and colors!
Confused, you ask me if these colors come from the neon. I nod. I ask if you want to see something even cooler and with an inquisitive gaze, you reply affirmatively while questioning my intentions. The last time I said something similar, we were out on a trek in the mountain when, after finding some dry bear scat, I had picked it up excited about showing you what the animal was feeding on. I remember your look of disgust! You certainly didn’t share my enthusiasm and thought it was one the grossest thing you had seen! We laugh as the memories slowly come back prompting us to relive the highlights from that weekend trip.
After promising there isn’t any scat hiding, I ask you to open the door next to the neon and to walk into the room. You slowly proceed, skeptical, expecting a prank, like when cranking that music box and knowing the clown will jump out at any moment. Once in, I instruct you to leave the light off and to close the door, except for a tiny vertical slit. As the door closes on you, I hear you whispering that this might be the last time you will ever trust me. I smile. Now that the stage has been set and that your eyes have settled into the darkness, you hear my voice inviting you to look at the wall to the left of the mirror. It doesn’t take long before I hear you gasp and within seconds, the door swings wide open. You come out looking like a kid who just witnessed the coolest magic trick. Your skepticism kicks in and you go back into the darkroom, repeating the experiment but this time with the intent of figuring out the ruse. Confirming there isn’t any magic trick, I suggest we move to the kitchen table. The kettle just started to sing and the tea is calling.
Over the course of the next hour, I tell you a story about fire*, the technology that started it all. How it was our discovery and mastery of fire that reshaped the way we eat, changed the way we live, and allowed us to transform the chemistry that surrounds us. I tell you about glass**, which was invented around 3,600 years ago; then electricity***, Geissler Tubes****, neons*****, plastic****** and Plexiglas*******.
We chat. We pause. We sip. We reflect on all the thousands of people over hundreds of years, researching, experimenting, failing, and finally succeeding. Hundreds of thousands of years for all those technologies to come together. Millions of years for the raw materials to be created. Billions of years that these atoms have existed. You take a deep breath and as you process the depth of the art piece, you now realize that everything you see around you has a similar origin. Even our bodies are the result of a long evolution that started 4.28 billion years ago. The complexity behind the simplicity starts sinking in.
Out of tea, you get up to refill the kettle and are reminded about the rainbows. “Ok” you tell me, “I get the complexity but what is your point with these colors on the wall?”
The art is pretty straightforward – colored lit up words that can be understood by anyone who speaks English. One could think that the purpose of the piece is solely in the interpretation of the words and their meaning. True – it is definitely a cornerstone of the installation. The words represent actions that are meant to create a place where one can overcome the stress and powerlessness of dealing with anxiety, within a world of endless distractions and worries. STOP and create your boundaries. BREATHE and get a better perspective. RELAX so you can see the clarity. LISTEN and make sound choices. The colors stem from evolutionary associations, unconscious reactions our brain has: red for danger, green for the forest, blue for water, and white for emptiness.
But beyond the experience and meaning intended by the creator, there is so much more. There is the meaning created by the receiver: perspectives shaped by our past and framed within a cultural structure where we are driven to belong. There is the experience symbiotically created with the environment. The simplest observation, in this case, is the fact that the neon lights up the room. And finally, there is the most exciting experience – the unknown and unexpected, the stuff you never anticipated or thought of. And this is where the rainbows come in. You see, the rainbows were never intended. They were discovered after the neon piece was installed on the wall. They are created through refraction. First, there were the “obvious” rainbows that appeared around. Then there were the “hidden” rainbows that appeared by accident, as the environment changed, like closing the door behind and not turning on the light.
I share with you how every time I look at my neon piece, I am reminded of all these different realities intertwined: the past, the present and the future; the intended, unintended and unknown; what I see, what I don’t want to see, and what is hidden; what I created, what is received, and what is lost. I ponder about the complexity of everything we take for granted. I realize how everything is connected, how reciprocity and symbiosis are two fundamentals of life. Ultimately I become conscious of the depth that surrounds me.
I once read about a study, where they had looked at how the understanding of life was shaped by the environment. They had discovered that indigenous people who lived in the thick jungles of South America had trouble processing long horizons. Living in a world where trees were constantly in your face, they would perceive what was far away as just simply small, not understanding the correlation between smallness and distance.
I worry that today, living in a thick jungle of engineered distractions, focused on finding shortcuts, and surrounded by technologies that are literally becoming flatter and flatter, we are losing the capacity to see holistically and forgetting the complexity of life. We are experts at zeroing on the minute but have difficulties stepping back, reluctant to take the time necessary to process all that is hidden and connected.
King Midas wasn’t stupid when he wished to turn to gold everything he touched. He simply wasn’t aware of all the complexities hidden in what he took for granted – language is more than letters, it is a social partnership where most of the structure is constructed within an invisible framework – context is everything.
Pouring water from the kettle and refreshing our cup of tea, we are enjoying this moment. As we go deeper into our conversation, the world outside gets farther. You and I are two distinct people who come from different backgrounds and have chosen life paths that are far apart. We agree on much but we also have had our share of disagreements. Yet we value and desire the same things – to care and protect our community and loved ones. We understand our differences and at this table, in this house, we are just two complicated friends who are connecting over the simple pleasures of life.
It is hard to avoid the association of the year 2020 with vision. It might be ironic, but perhaps it is an omen. Maybe it is the beginning of a new era where we begin to change our perspective, choose to STOP BREATHE RELAX LISTEN and start working on a long term strategy, rather than focusing on the short term.
As we enter the 2020s, and as the complexity of life becomes more and more hidden, we must not forget of the depth that life is built upon.
Wishing everyone perspective, strength, foresight, focus, quietude, love, community, and health throughout this new year and upcoming decade.
*Fire: The general consensus is that fire entered our lives 400,000 years ago, but now new evidences suggest it could be almost 2 million years ago.
**Glass: It is made of sand, which is mainly made of silicon dioxide, basically quartz powder produced over millions of years. Quartz is the one of the most abundant minerals on Earth – 12% of the planet’s crust is made of it. It is made of the two most abundant chemical elements on Earth: oxygen and silicon
***Electricity: While the Egyptians knew about electrical charges because of their experience with electric fish, and the Greeks from rubbing fur on amber (fossilized tree resin), it wasn’t until the 1600’s that the word electricus was coined by English scientist William Gilbert. It is Benjamin Franklin, in 1752 who made the famous kite-lightning discovery. And in 1800, Alessandro Volta created the voltaic pile, the first electrical battery. It is Michael Faraday who really pushed forward a new wave of electrical inventions when he created the first electric motor in 1821.
****Geissler Tubes: In 1857, German physicist and glassblower Heinrich Geissler invented the first gas discharge tubes – sealed glass cylinders with a metal electrode at each end and containing rarefied gasses.
*****Neon: In 1896, British scientists William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers discovered neon and tested the gas in a Geissler tube. When the scientists connected the two ends of the neon-filled tube and turned on the power, a bright color red appeared. Travers later wrote, “the blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.” It took another 14 years before French engineer and inventor Georges Claude, often called the “Edison of France”, introduced the neon light, as we know it today, to the world at the 1910 Paris Motor Show. To create colors for neon lights, the gas argon, which creates a blue light, is the starting point. The inside of the glass tubes are then coated with different pigmented phosphors to achieved the desired color. Per instance, blue light plus yellow coating, gives a green light.
******Plastic: In 1839, German apothecary Eduard Simon discovers polystyrene and sets in motion a series of events that ultimately will lead to Parkesine, the first man-made plastic, patented by Alexander Parkes, in 1844.
*******Plexiglas: In 1843, the first acrylic acid was created. A little less than one hundred years later, in 1933, chemist and industrialist Otto Rohm trademarked the name Plexiglas.