Nature is Imagination Itself

In preparation for his Curator’s Perspective tonight, Seeing Nature Curator Klaus Ottmann shares some thoughts on the exhibition.

Install shot_dow cezanne

Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Arthur Wesley Dow, “Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona” (1912). At right, Paul Cézanne, “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1888–90)

But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination
Nature is Imagination itself.
As a man is so he sees.
                                     — William Blake (1799)

What is the power of landscapes? What is it that makes the vision of artists applied to canvas able to connect our individual lives with the cosmos itself?

Innate to any landscape are the emotions we feel in its presence. These moods and feelings are not merely in our brains, our heart, and our senses; they are also inherent to the landscapes themselves. For the ancient Greeks, each landscape evoked particular divinities. For the 17th-century English travelers crossing the Alps to Italy, it was the feeling of the Sublime, a “delight that is consistent with reason yet mingled with Horrors, and sometimes almost with despair.”

As William Blake noted in 1799, there is a special connection between Nature and the Imagination. For this exhibition, the Allen Institute for Brain Science has been investigating this special link: “People talk about how our brains are wired to see landscapes, to look at landscapes and to see what’s going on in them—so there’s something about landscapes that seems almost universally attractive,” Paul Allen has said. “It’s a way of looking outward.”

A Wax Room for Anselm

Last month I traveled from Paris to Barjac, a small town in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon northwest of Avignon, to attend the inauguration of a permanent installation by German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib had been working for the last four years on an enormous beeswax room, not unlike the one he created at The Phillips Collection last year, but on a much larger scale—an underground chamber, about 40 meters (over 130 feet) long with many more lightbulbs but equally aromatic and meditative. Laib’s newest wax room, entitled From the Known to the Unknown—To Where Is Your Oracle Leading You (2014), is installed at La Ribaute, on the grounds of a former silk factory that is now the studio of the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Laib Wax Room

Wolfgang Laib in his wax room at La Ribaute. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Kiefer began developing this complex in the mid-1990s. It spreads over 86 acres and includes three 19th-century stone buildings surrounded by fields and woods. Two of the residential buildings are now connected by a industrial-sized enclosed footbridge that Kiefer built for his two young children when he still lived on the grounds (he has since moved with his family to Paris). Kiefer’s Gesamtkunstwerk is now comprised of more than 50 separate buildings out of glass, steel, or concrete as well as a series of underground tunnels—all housing his mostly monumental paintings and sculptures.

La Ribaute

La Ribaute, France. Photo: Klaus Ottmann

Laib’s wax room at La Ribaute is the first of a series of works by other artists Kiefer is planning to commission as he is starting to transform La Ribaute into a public exhibition site. The inauguration, which was attended by 300 guests including artists, collectors, and curators, took place on May 31 with a concert of music by Edgar Varese and Heinz Holliger, performed by the French Classical flutist Sophie Cherrier, a member of the renown Ensemble International, and an opulent dinner in Kiefer’s residential quarters.

One of the most impressive installations by Kiefer is an underground chamber that contains a small version of his work Les Femmes de la révolution (1992), which is comprised of lead beds, one photograph on lead, and wall texts. The work is inspired by The Women of the French Revolution, a chronicle by 19th-century historian Jules Michelet. A larger version of this installation is currently on view as part of Kiefer’s semi-permanent exhibition at Mass Moca in North Adams, Massachusetts.

Les femmes de la révolution

Anselm Kiefer, Les Femmes del la révolution (Installation at La Ribaute). Photo: Klaus Ottmann

The Unattended Moment

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes: “For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time.” (“Dry Salvages”). It is those “unattended moments” that I am in pursuit of, but rarely encounter, when visiting exhibitions. The late American artist James Lee Byars, whose work I have always admired and continue to exhibit (I have a major Byars project underway at the Phillips to be announced later this year), pursued the “perfect moment” for more than forty years.

Klaus Ottmann performing James Lee Byars's The Perfect Smile at the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, December 2004

Klaus Ottmann performing James Lee Byars’s The Perfect Smile at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, December 2004

In the late 1950s, the young Byars left his hometown of Detroit to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he remained, with interruptions from 1958 to 1968. There he learned to appreciate the ephemeral as a valued quality in art and embrace the ceremonial as a continuing mode in his life and work, which became inseparable. During these formative years, he adapted the highly sensual, abstract, and symbolic practices found in Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals to Western science, art, and philosophy. His pursuit of the “perfect” originated from a unique synthesis of Oriental practices, conceptual art, minimalism, and fluxus, infused with aspects of the happening, body art, and installation art. For Byars, perfection was an impossibility, except for the auspicious moment (kairos) where life and death, happiness and tragedy, are one.

In 1994 Byars presented one of his fleeting performances, The Perfect Smile, to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne as a gift with the request that it be exhibited like any other work in its collection. In accordance with his wish, the performance was borrowed and reenacted for the first time since his death, for the retrospective of his works, which I organized in 2004 for the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg. It was performed by me or by the museum’s staff once a day in front of a black wall. The performance consists of a very subtle movement of one’s mouth to indicate the briefest smile possible, before it vanishes.

Two weeks ago, visiting Light Show, an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, I was standing in front of three columns of pulsating light by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, and experienced one of these rare auspicious moments, an evanescent burst of happiness and, yes, love, that lasted no longer than a few seconds as each column grew brighter until it reached an almost religious degree of intensity before slowly fading into darkness.

Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’), 2010. Hayward Gallery, London, May 2013. Photo courtesy of Oli Scarff

Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’), 2010. Hayward Gallery, London, May 2013. Photo courtesy of Oli Scarff

There are three great themes in James Lee Byars’s work: Life, Love, and Death, but it is Love that is at the heart of Byars’s notion of the Perfect. There are two philosophical concepts of perfect love: in Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis, the love of God is the highest form of knowledge, which is accomplished by the simple act of man loving himself; in Kierkegaard, Abraham’s perfect love of God, expressed by his preparedness to sacrifice his son, is at the core of Kierkegaard’s theory of the leap to faith. In both cases, it is a marriage of love and certitude (knowledge that does not require objective proof) that results in a perfect moment.