I was a student of Odd Nerdum in the ’90s

In the early 1990s, I was an apprentice of the painter Odd Nerdrum.

In general, I am interested in how it was to be an apprentice of well-known artists. That information is often lost, so I thought I would do those who may be interested a favor and give a brief account of my experience.

THE STUDIO

At the time Nerdrum had a house in Frogner in Oslo, and his studio was in another house (in Kristinelundveien) near Frognerparken in Oslo.

The studio had a large central space two levels high with large windows towards the north or northwest1. The walls were painted dark brown since it’s a good background for looking at paintings. The window had lamps to compensate for the fading sunlight on dark days or late afternoon and to give light at night.

He had a vintage couch there, one or two of his early and especially inspired paintings on the wall, and Persian rugs on the couch and nearby floor. He also had a good stereo where he would often play Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, and similar kinds of music2.

Off that room was a smaller area where we students had our own space with easels and so on. There was a small bathroom there, and stairs up to a balcony around parts of the large space. Downstairs was a kitchen, the main bathroom, and a couple of bedrooms. He often used one, likely because he was in a divorce process at the time. Another was used by a friend of mine, who had been a student of Nerdum before me, and introduced me to him.

NERDRUM IN THE STUDIO

Nerdum would come in the morning, although the exact time would vary. He painted through the day, with brief breaks for food. He was there more regularly and for longer than most of his students.

He painted quickly and would put up the first layer in one or two hours. Most artists today would probably have been happy with that first layer, but he continued. I assume he used roughly a month on each painting, with variations depending on the size of the painting, and with most of the work on the details and texture.

He would work on more than one painting at a time, perhaps two or three, and sometimes also a charcoal drawing or study for a future painting.

He would use beautiful clear colors while painting, and cover it up with a brown varnish at the end. I assume he did it to mimic old paintings, and it was heartwrenching for me.

While painting, he would have conversations with the model and/or students or guests. The conversation was mostly about art, artists, music, or philosophy.

Sometimes, well-known people would come by – art historians, philosophers, TV personalities, adventurers, and so on. David Bowie came by one day to buy one of his paintings. (Unfortunately, I missed it!)

NERDRUM AS A PERSON

How was he as a person?

He was simultaneously an ordinary human being and larger than life.

He was deeply passionate about his art and art in general. I don’t hesitate in calling him a genius in painting and charcoal drawings. He was knowledgeable and unafraid to speak his mind.

He was socially smart and also unafraid of offending people.

He was happy to talk about the art of others, and he did talk about the aesthetic and visual aspects of his own paintings. One thing I never heard him talk about was the symbolism of his paintings. That was likely very intentional. He wanted to leave it open and available to the rich imagination of the audience. (I think he may have mentioned something about that, not sure.)

THE APPRENTICE SITUATION

When I was there, he had about five apprentices3 in the studio. The number was naturally limited by the space available, and he may not have wanted more anyway.

In my case, I was a model for one painting, I mixed his white paint, and I transferred a charcoal study for a painting onto a large canvas (using grid lines) so he had an outline to follow while painting.

My impression is that most students were models for one or more paintings, and they also did other tasks, likely depending on what Nerdum felt they would be good at or happy with doing.

There was no formal teaching. We were there to learn through observation, immersion, and conversations with him and the other students.

I assume most students came through either writing him directly or because they knew someone already a student. In my case, I had a meeting with Nerdum where I showed him some of my work. I also got the impression that he wanted me as a model.

We would occasionally do things as a group with Nerdum. For instance, we went to see a Spanish movie together at the local movie theater. I also went with him to Kjeller where they work with radiation (!). He was interested in knowing if radiation could help some of his paintings where the paint sagged over time.

NERDRUM, MODERNISM & NORWAY

Nerdrum received a lot of resistance to his approach to painting and drawing from the beginning.

His response was to develop an apparently deep-seated aversion to modernism and much of the art community in Norway.

His response is understandable. It’s a response to hurt. And yet, the whole dynamic was and is somewhat baffling to me. Why did he meet so much resistance just because he painted in a more figurative style? Why did he respond by rejecting their approach? Life and art is rich, that’s the beauty of it. It’s very possible to love or appreciate a wide range of approaches to art and anything else.

Appreciating one doesn’t mean you have to reject something else. It’s not a zero-sum game unless you make it so. This is not kindergarten.

MY SITUATION

I had been passionate about learning to draw and paint in a soulful traditional style since my mid-teens, especially the style of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and other Baroque artists. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered the art of Nerdrum.

I went to art school for a couple of years after high school, got to know another student there who was also a student of Nerdrum, and she introduced me to him.

I was an apprentice for about a year (?), and during this time, I started studying at the university. First, art history and then psychology.

THE LIMITS OF MEMORY

I only knew him during this period, so other students at other times will likely have a different experience.

Also, this is the memory of one person, and it’s a memory – which is notoriously unreliable. Over time, some things fade and some things stay, and what stays is filtered by how we see the world in general.

Still, I think most of this is pretty accurate.

NOTES

(1) The light from the north is best for a studio since it’s more stable and you avoid direct sunlight.

(2) I happened to have a very similar taste in music as him, and a very similar taste in art in general.

(3) We were apprentices in the old-fashioned sense, more than students. When some talk about the “Nerdrum School”, they refer to younger artists inspired by his style, of which many were his apprentice at some point.

The painting is the one I transferred from a drawing to canvas so he had an outline to work with to begin the painting.

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Reflections from an abstract expressionist exhibition

I went to an exhibit of early abstract expressionist art at the Munch museum today, and it brought up a few things. These are perhaps not very important but at least slightly interesting to me.

LIMITING WHAT WE DO BUT NOT WHAT WE LEARN FROM

When I was in the art world, in my late teens and early twenties, I noticed a pattern. Some created an identity for themselves that excluded certain categories of art. They rejected whole categories of art and didn’t seem interested in exploring or learning from it.

To me, that doesn’t make sense. Yes, since we have limited energy and time, we do need to limit what we do. (Although we can still explore a range of techniques, styles, and topics.)

But that doesn’t mean we need to limit what we appreciate and learn from.

Personally, I find art across times and cultures fascinating and often beautiful. I find nature in all its variety fascinating and often beautiful. And I find a lot of “accidental” art fascinating and beautiful. (Including urban spaces, junk yards, dilapidated buildings, and so on.) Visually, I learn from all of it.

TIME AND LOCATION MATTER

I posted a detail from an abstract painting on Facebook, and someone commented: “I can paint that”.

Yes, you can paint an abstract painting. But you cannot paint it three generations ago when that one was painted, and it was a new and revolutionary way of seeing and a new and revolutionary of thinking about and doing art.

The art in this particular exhibition is interesting because of the time and place and historical context. It’s interesting because these were the pioneers. I found only a few paintings interesting visually, and even fewer beautiful. But that’s not the point. They are records of a big change in how we collectively look and what we (most of us) appreciate visually.

It opened up a whole new world to us. And I would assume it opened up a lot more appreciation of what we find around us of “accidental abstract art”. I know I have a great appreciation for it, and I assume it has something to do with living in a culture where abstract art has been around for a while.

ABSTRACTION

Abstract art is not new. It’s just new-ish in European art.

We can find abstract art from a range of times and cultures.

And we can find abstract art in any art. If we zoom in on sections of figurative paintings (and sculptures), we find abstract colors and patterns. More in general, any representation is inherently an abstraction. It’s a representation of something else, and it is by necessity a simplification. It highlights some things and leaves a lot out.

The European abstract movement only highlighted and emphasized the abstraction inherent in nature and any art. And by doing so, it expanded the possibilities of how we do anything visual. It added something and didn’t take anything away. All the other ways of doing art are still here.

Personally, I only find a few examples of abstract art very interesting or beautiful. But I am very happy it exists.

MOM, I DON’T UNDERSTAND THIS PAINTING”

I overheard a child say these classic words, unwittingly repeating what thousands of others have said before her.

A response came up in my mind: It’s not mainly about understanding it. It’s about what moods and feelings you have when you see it. Or what it reminds you of. (Perhaps an old painted door or something in nature?) It’s about opening our minds and hearts to the beauty in the visual abstractions all around us, whether we are in a human-made or natural environment. It’s about the historical context of the art and what the artists experienced and responded to.

EXHIBITION SPACES

I have to admit I thoroughly dislike the new Munch Museum building. Not because it’s edgy or innovative or unusual, because it’s none of those. It’s because it’s thoroughly boring. (And it blocks the view of the fiord from certain areas of Oslo which should be forbidden.) Even the Oslo airport and the main hospital in Oslo are more interesting and beautiful.

It is possible to make an innovative and beautiful building that people love. The Oslo Opera House next door, and the Astrup-Fernley museum across the harbor, are good examples. So why did they choose such a boring option? I am not sure. (Perhaps the architects were too persuasive for their own good?)

I would much prefer a lower building, perhaps partially underground. One that feels more human scale. One that uses more natural materials. (Stone, wood.) And one where many of the rooms are smaller and more intimate. I also enjoy spaces that have more angles and/or flowing forms.

The upside is that the curators and exhibition space designers seem to be doing a good job. Several exhibition rooms have low lighting, which creates a more calm atmosphere and highlights the art. And some of the walls are dark in color, which also highlights the art. (Some walls even complement the colors in the painting, for instance when a reddish-orange painting is on a wall that’s dark greyish blue.)

TAKING IT SERIOUSLY?

At the exhibit, they showed movie segments with a few early abstract expressionist artists. What struck me was how serious they all seemed to take it.

Why? It likely has to do with image. Appearing serious signals to others that this is serious business and should be taken seriously by others as well. Since they did go against previous European art, and against what much of the mainstream liked and wanted, that was perhaps even more important to them.

For me, artistic expression is also fun, play, and adventure. And I am sure many of these artists saw it that way as well, at least when they were out of the public eye and the cameras were not rolling.

Images: Detail of an early abstract expressionist painting. Detail from “Vampire” by Munch. (An abstract section of a figurative painting.) And two photos from the exhibit space.

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A few more reflections on AI art

I have explored AI art for about ten days, mainly using Midjourney. (AI art is, in short, software that creates images from text based on having analyzed perhaps millions of images.)

I am not all that familiar with the discussion around this, although I have picked up a few things here and there.

Here are some additional thoughts from my side.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

There is obviously a discussion about intellectual property related to AI-generated images.

Personally, and so far, I am just exploring it for fun and I share a few images on social media. It’s perhaps a bit similar to creating collages using other people’s works, which is what people did before AI art.

If someone makes AI art in the style of a specific artist and sells it for money, that’s more questionable.

But what if the style is a more generic one or one that cannot be pinned on any one particular artist? Is that too a problem? Some will say yes since the AI is trained on the art of many artists who unwillingly contribute to the AI result.

It also seems clear that to many, AI art is an exciting new frontier. It brings professional-grade image-making within reach to more people. And AI art may inspire human artists, just like human art informs AI art. It’s likely not possible to put the genie back into the bottle, and would we want to if we could?

For me, what it comes down to is: (a) It’s good to have these conversations. (b) This is a kind of wild west where the law has not yet caught up with the technology.

CULTURAL BIAS

AI art is informed by images in our western and global culture, and obviously reflects biases from the material it’s trained on.

For instance… Jesus and his human parents are depicted as white Europeans, not Middle Eastern. A secretary is assumed to be female. Unless something else is specified, people come out young, white, fit, and beautiful according to western conventional standards. The default man comes out very muscular. And so on.

Some are concerned that this will reinforce existing stereotypes, and that will probably happen in some cases.

The upside is that the inherent – and quite obvious – AI bias leads to conversations among people and in the public. It makes more people more aware of these biases – the standards, norms, and expectations – in our culture.

EXOTICISM

When I was little, I loved stories about the exotic – other parts of the world, other people and cultures than my own, other landscapes than I was familiar with, science fiction, and so on.

I wonder if this is a natural fascination. We may be drawn to what we don’t know, partly because it helped our ancestors be familiar with more of the world and this aided their survival. The unfamiliar and exotic are also good projection objects, which tend to create fascination.

When I make AI art, I often find I follow my childhood draw to the exotic and unknown: Shamans, different ethnicities, fairy tales and mythology, UFOs, and so on.

Is this problematic? If we exoticize certain ethnic groups and people and think that’s how they are, then yes, to some extent. It’s out of alignment with reality and whether we idolize or vilify, it does these groups and people a disservice.

Is it inherently problematic? Perhaps not always, at least not in the sense that it harms certain groups.

For instance, I have a series of images of neo-druid shamans in the future and make sure to include a wide range of ethnicities and ages. This is a form of exoticism, and I aim at making the exoticism universal and include all types of people.

AI-generated images – blessing or doom?

I have wanted to explore AI image generation for a while and finally got around to it tonight in front of the fireplace and with the neighboring café playing live jazz.

Here is one of my first experiments with Midjourney. A neo-shaman in Tokyo in the rain with dramatic backlighting. I love that he or she is covered in plants and flowers.

I have seen some discussions about AI-generated images.

CONCERNS ABOUT NEW TECHNOLOGY

Will it replace human artists? Will it make it possible for people to make their own illustrations instead of commissioning photographers and artists? Will it ruin creativity?

Yes, some of that will probably happen.

And it’s also important the remember that these are the type of concerns that predictably come up when new technology comes onto the scene. And each time, the new technology finds its place among everything that has existed before and continues to exist.

When photography came, people said it was the end of painting. What happened was that it caused painting to change. Much of it became more free, imaginative, and abstract, and photography and painting not only co-exist but inspire each other. When CGI became viable, people said it would replace practical effects and even actors. In reality, CGI co-exists with practical effects, and it has even led to new types of jobs for actors in the form of motion capture.

I assume something similar will happen now. Some will use AI for illustrations. Some will continue to hire artists and photographers. AI art will inspire human-created art. Human-created art will continue to inform AI art.

It’s not either-or, it’s both-and. And it may well be that the interplay between AI and human visuals will create a kind of artistic and creative mini-revolution.

It’s also very likely that human-created art will be valued even more. AI art will make it more prestigious.

CULTURE MEANS LEARNING FROM OTHERS

Some say that AI steals people’s work to create new work and make money on it.

I understand that argument and concern.

And I also know that that’s culture. That’s what people have done from the beginning. We learn and take good ideas from each other and do something different with it. That’s how we have a culture in the first place.

The AI is just a bit more comprehensive and effective than any human can be, and also a little less creative.

WHO DO THE IMAGES BELONG TO?

Another question is: who owns the images?

In a practical sense, it’s determined by the AI companies and the law.

And in a larger sense, they come from the collective experience and creativity of humanity and really from the whole of existence. It’s always that way, no matter which particular human or technology it comes through. It’s just a little more obvious with AI images.

CULTURAL BIASES

Some also criticize AI-generated images because they reflect cultural biases. They learn from our culture so they will inevitably reflect biases in our culture.

For instance, if I don’t specify ethnicity for a portrait, I get a European person. If I ask for a god, even a traditional Hindu god, I get someone absurdly muscular. If I ask for Jesus or his parents, I get Europeans and not middle eastern people. If I ask for a general person, I get someone unusually good-looking in a conventional sense

I would say that’s equally much an upside since it brings cultural biases – picked up by and reflected back to us by the AI – more to the foreground. This leads to awareness and discussions – in the media and among those exploring AI art and the ones they share these reflections and observations with.

A lot of people are more aware of these kinds of cultural biases now because of these AI images.

MY OWN BIAS

I have a background in programming and in art, so I naturally love AI-generated visuals. I see it as a way for people without too much experience to still create amazing images. It’s a way to generate ideas. And it has its place and will co-exist with old-fashioned human skills and creativity.

UPDATE AFTER ONE WEEK

I have explored Midjourney and AI image generation for a week now, and find it seems to fit me well. It’s fun to see images created that I have had in my mind for a while but haven’t created in pencil or oil. It’s also fun to get to know the AI and sometimes be surprised by results better and more interesting than I imagined.

I also find I cannot really take ownership of the images, apart from in the most limited sense. They are generated by the AI, the AI is trained on perhaps millions of images created by others, and it’s really all the local products of the whole of existence – going back to the beginning of the universe and stretching out to the widest extent of the universe (if there is any beginning or edge). It’s always that way, and it’s even more obvious with AI-generated images.

The images are very much co-created by me, Midjourney, innumerable artists whose works have informed the AI, and all of existence.

I have also started an Instagram account for my AI image experiments.

Note: Specific prompt for the image above -> Neo-druid shaman in Tokyo 2300 rain dramatic colorful backlighting semi-realistic

Art and match with the person experiencing it

There are many ways to evaluate art: skills, technique, heart, humanity, psychology, sociology, symbolism, politics, reflection of society, impact on society, and so on.

In daily life, people often generalize based on how they experience music, paintings, writing, movies or whatever it may be, and say “this is good” or “that’s terrible”, or “these people have good taste” and “those people have terrible taste”.

For me, art is largely about match. How does someone experience and receive it? Do they get something out of it? Does it resonate with something in them? Does it help them get in touch with someting in themselves? Does it add to their life?

I love some music that few others seem to like, and that’s fine. The music means a lot to me, and that’s enough.

Similarly, I sometimes don’t like what some others like, and that’s good to. If they get something out of it, that’s very good for them and it makes the existence of that piece of art even more meaningful (beyond what it means to the one creating it).

This is very simple, and yet I am surprised by how often people seem to generalize based on how they personally perceive a piece of art, as if their individual experience says something inherently about the piece of art, and about the people who either resonate with it or not.

I assume it’s partly because we have trouble differentiating our perception from what it’s about (which we cannot say anything final or absolute about).

We may have trouble deeply realizing that we all have our own biases and backgrounds and so perceive the world differently and uniquely.

We may have trouble feeling relaxed about our own likes and dislikes, and enjoying the enjoyment of others even if it’s about somehting we personally don’t like.

It may also have to do with our identity. We often use our likes and dislikes to create an identity for ourselves, and to filter people into us and them.

The photo is of Huun-Huur-Tu from Tuva, which is one of my favorite bands and the one I have seen most often in concert. It also happens to be music many or most from the western world wouldn’t easily resonate with or like. And that’s understandable and completely OK.

Reflections on society, politics and nature XX

Continued from previous posts…. These posts are collections of brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include a few short personal notes as well.

A more formalized type of mirror. I am not much into astrology or tarot, although I recognize that it can be helpful. At their best, they combine archetypes, projections, and synchronicities in a powerful and potentially life-transforming way.

Both have systemized some basic archetypes and some of their dynamics. And since archetypes are universal, they will resonate with whomever is receptive to it.

Both can serve as very good projection objects. We see ourselves in the astrology charts or a tarot card or layout because we put ourselves into it.

Synchronicities can play a role in both. Something going on in our life – and especially in our mind – can be reflected in astrology and tarot.

In all of these ways, astrology and tarot can serve as a mirror for us. They can help us see and get to know aspects of ourselves.

It seems less useful if we have a simplistic and heavy-handed approach to astrology, tarot, or anything else. For instance, if we think they tell us something that’s going to happen. That can create stress, and even self-fulfilling prophecies (or the reverse).

And it seems more useful if we hold it all lightly. If we consciously use them as mirrors for ourselves. And if we are conscious of the archetypes, projections, and synchronicities.

Of course, the whole world is a mirror for ourselves. We don’t need astrology, tarot, or something similar to see and get to know aspects of ourselves. We just need to recognize that the whole world – and especially what in the world and our life currently draws our attention – is a mirror for what’s here now.

Astrology, tarot, and similar things are more formalized, structured, and explicit mirrors for ourselves. Life is the mirror we live with all the time, and we may need a somewhat structured approach to make use of it. For instance, some form of inquiry.

Unedited photos from Bryant Park, New York.

Editing photos. When I take, select, and edit my own photos, I need one or more pointers for myself to guide me. Here are some of the pointers I tend to use:

Something I would like to look at over time, and again and again.
Something that gives me pleasure.
Something that is interesting.
Something where I can keep discovering new things. 
Something that conveys a certain mood.
Something that conveys a certain way of perceiving the world.

Something that feels right at a deep level.

Of course, not every photo need to satisfy each of these. And a photo can be interesting for other reasons. But these are useful pointers for me, at least for now.

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The saint and the beast: when I modeled for a painting

Twins with knives, Odd Nerdrum

Back in the 90s, I was a student (aka apprentice) of Odd Nerdrum and also modeled for this painting.

I knew he saw me, but I was also embarrassed to admit it. I was embarrassed by the knives and that aspect of me.

If people asked me what the knives represented, I would innocently say “I don’t know”.

So here it is, all laid out.

This painting is of a saint and a beast.

The face is that of a saint, and I have that side of my personality.

The arms and knives are those of the beast.

What is the saint-beast dynamic? And what is the beast? It can be seen in several ways.

The first is one I don’t like to admit to so much. I have a tendency to people-please and set aside my own needs, and that comes with suppressed anger, feeling like a victim, reactivity and so on. The face is the people-pleasing, and the knife is the suppressed anger. (This also reflects a family and cultural pattern.)

More generally, any identity comes with a shadow side, and if I identify as good and “spiritual”, what in me doesn’t fit goes into darkness. It’s more hidden. Not acknowledged. And I have spent a lot of time exploring and owning – or owning up to – those sides of me, even from before this painting was made.

The beast also mirrors a ruthless side of me. If something is important to me (awakening but sometimes other things), I can be ruthless going after it.

And that’s related to another way to look at the knives. Swords and knives can represent cutting through the bullshit. Going for the truth and reality, even if it’s uncomfortable (see Manjushri). (This is best applied to oneself.)

I think this dynamic in me is also why I resonate with characters like Hellboy (especially as depicted in the del Toro films). He is born a beast (demon) but has a pure heart.

Why the twins? I am not sure. If this image was in a dream of mine, I would wonder if it represents a division or kind of a split. The saint on one side and the knives and beast on the other. Something that’s not (yet) brought into or recognized as part of a whole. That was more true of me then although it’s still part of me. I am still working on it.

And the primal clothing and setting? It’s typical for Nerdrum (and one of the reasons I resonate with and love his art). And the theme is primal too, whatever the theme is. That too is typical for Nerdrum.

Most of the subjects have a mythic or archetypal feel to them, and we can have a sense of it, but the exact meaning is hard to pin down. My sense is that by trying to pin it down, we miss the point and the power of the paintings. They are meant to work on us at a more primal level.

Here are some comments about the painting from Alejita, my partner.

The painting: They are two. Two parts of you. Although the clothes and the hair are of a mystic, the look of him (especially in the man behind) is bestial. And with the knife, he is opening the left side of your body, your heart. One of them covers the heart of the other. One, the one behind is more beastly than the one in the front. However, most beastly is the one who opens the heart. The force with which he is taking the knife is abysmal. And the horizon is at neck height, splitting your body from your head.

And what she wrote after reading this post:

I feel that the two of you are both a beast, both have a knife, both are ready to kill the “things” are not any more “useful”. I don’t see the two characters as a separation, rather they are the complete image of you. It looks like the two coexist with the beast, there is no separation. The double image is more the feminine and masculine together, living with the beast that is not a third party. It is completeness, union.

I resonate with that way of looking at it. The one on “stage right” is more masculine (this is the original) and the one stage-left is more feminine (he copied this based on the first). And both have the saint and beast together. It’s all one – feminine and masculine, saint and beast.

Hilma af Klint

Last fall, I went to see the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York.

I don’t know if she did receive her paintings or information about how to paint from the spirit world. But I do know that thinking that’s the case would have freed her up to paint outside of the expectations she and others had about how paintings should look.

Of course, she was still bound by some basic expectations of her time and culture, but she was also able to take several steps beyond. This is similar to the Big Mind process. We shift into Big Mind, see our own ideas and our culture’s ideas from that vaster perspective (in this process, Big Mind is a kind of perspective and also not), and are able to – to some extent – step outside it.

I imagine that Hilma af Klint, at the very least, may have shifted into some transpersonal voice (in the Big Mind terminology) when she painted her paintings. It would have given her the freedom to go a few steps beyond the expectations and confines of her culture.

The photos above are from my visit.

Match

So much is about the match.

The particular match between the person and the art, whatever the art is.

A painting. A movie. Music. Food.

With art, some is inherent in the piece. The skills it’s made with. How universally it tends to speak to people. And yet, what it really comes down to is the match. The match between the person, there and then, and the piece.

Since my teens, I have preferred the rare art critics who speak partly about the skills behind and the universality of a piece, and the type of person the piece may be a good match for. (Most critics tend to generalize from how well the piece matches them personally and try to make it sound universal.)

The match principle can be transfered to other areas of life, incluidng pointers for life or spiritual practice. Here too, the skills and insights its coming from, and how universally it applies to people, plays a role. But it really comes down to the match.

The good guide or teacher will offer pointers that match the person and where he or she is at, as much as possible.

Of course, there are exceptions and extreme cases. Some food may be immediately unhealthy for everyone. Some pointers, if taken literally, may be unhelpful to anyone.

Painting by Mark Rothko.

Tiny public sculptures and alignment with reality

Many of my sculptures I leave on the street, usually pasted on walls. They become part of the ornamentation of some cities. Their survival in the street depends on many factors. Their main predators are cleaning services, weekend thieves (they become an alcoholic’s Olympics games), or curious people who think that street art is only for them. Street art is for everyone, not for one. It is here to stay in the streets.
– from an interview with the artist in My Modern Met.

War with reality: Thinking they should stay in the streets.

Alignment with reality: Conceiving, making and placing the figures, people enjoying them in place, and whatever their next adventure is – someone picking them up and taking them home or putting them in the waste bin etc. – is all part of the process. It’s all part of the art, including the excitement of not knowing what will happen or what happened with the figures, and imagining the many secret adventures of these figures after leaving their initial location.

Meeting people where they are

draft….

This last week, the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Oslo. It is an event that draws a great deal and varied attention, from enthusiastic support to dislike to ridicule to mild amusement.

There are of course many ways of judging music and cultural events. We can look at craftmanship, whether it goes beyond mere craftmanship, where it fits in terms of traditions, if it breaks new ground, if it seems to come from an authentic expression, where it comes from in terms of insight and wisdom, and so on.

We can also take a more pragmatic view and look at it in terms of its function and effects. This can be especially interesting since it cuts through “high” and “low” culture, and bypasses the usual discussion of likes and dislikes.

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Compassion as art

A great piece of performance art: Regina Galindo sits naked on a stone bench in a freezing cold room. Clothes are on the floor in front of her. The audience stands along the walls waiting for something to happen. They continue to wait and tension builds as they realize how cold she must be. Eventually, a woman steps up and starts dressing her. Then others do the same, one at a time.

As she is half dressed, a man takes off her clothes again. Afterwards, we learn that Regina feels offended, and others assume he wants to see her naked. I think he may feel that she manipulates the audience, and wants to give responsibility back to her. Or maybe he just wanted to go against the grain and do something different from everyone else. But do we know? Do we know why he did it?

This video is in Norwegian.

Iconic Obama

No matter what we may think about Obama’s policies, it is hard to deny that Obama is as iconic as only a few others… JFK, Lincoln, MLK, Gandhi, Che Guevara. (Obama was my favorite from the beginning.) And no other candidate has generated nearly as much art work.

There is an inherent occupational risk in being so iconic – when the man becomes mixed up with such a powerful image – but that is another topic.

Bamyan Buddhas

Giant Buddhas - Christian Frei

I watched The Giant Buddhas earlier today, a documentary about the Bamyan Buddhas shown as part of our local/international archaeological film festival.

It is a very well made movie, weaving together several different stories and perspectives: A Chinese monk traveling along the Silk Road around year 630. A woman from Kabul visiting the Buddhas that her father has visited in his youth. A family living in a cave between the Buddhas, and then relocated by the current regime. A French archaeologist searching for the location of a 300 meter long reclining stone Buddha in the same valley. An Al-Jazeera reporter who filmed the destruction in 2001.

Some of the information is not so well known in the west, such as the claim that Saudi Arabian engineers were called in and helped with the destruction. And that the destruction of the statues was ordered in response to western money coming in to restore artifacts, instead of as much needed aid to the people of Afghanistan. (It may be just a way to blame the west for something people in the west were upset about, but there could also be a grain of truth in it.)

When I first heard about the destruction in March of 2001, I thought of how well it illustrates the essential teaching of Buddhism – impermanence.

If we really get impermanence, if we see it and feel it, over and over, not only in stories of impermanence but as it happens here now in immediate awareness, there is no foothold for identification within content of awareness. And this invites a shift into Big Mind, into finding ourselves as that which experience happens within, to and as.

Exploring impermanence, thoroughly, over and over, as it happens in the sense fields here now, is one of the many ways to discover what we really are, and probably a sufficient one as well.

Also, it is an invitation for me – and us all – to see what stories we cling to as true, and examine them and find that is already more true for us.

It is a reminder that iconoclasm is maybe not so useful when targeted at artifacts, but has more value and meaning if we target the real icon worship: Taking stories as true. Making a thought – a story, an image – into a God for ourself.

And a reminder that we all are at different places in regards to all of this. Some of us take a modern western view on it, emphasizing the value of culture, art and tolerance. Others take a more fundamentalist view, seeing literal iconoclasm as a pretty good idea. And others again see it as a reminder of impermanence, and of iconoclasm having its value if targeted with some wisdom and applied with gentleness.

And if we want to be practical about it, we see the validity in each of those views, work on ourselves with impermanence and investigation of beliefs, and in the world in trying to prevent these things from happening using whatever – hopefully skillful – means seem appropriate.

Btw: Here is a link to the German version of the movie, although it is also available in English.

Misunderstanding is sometimes more interesting

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Kazuaki Tanahashi is in town, and I had the opportunity to go to an excellent presentation yesterday on Dogen, and an ink brush presentation today at the art museum.

One of the stories he told today was about John Cage who apparently was influenced by a D. T. Suzuki comment about Zen being complete freedom. Cage had taken it in a more western sense, as a freedom from any rules and traditions, and went on to create some amazing and innovative music.

It was a misunderstanding on his part, of course, as the Zen form of freedom is quite different (although can include the form it took for Cage). Tanahashi commented that misunderstandings are sometimes more interesting.

I can see how that is true in a few different ways.

It is true in that it can lead to some quite different and refreshing perspectives that can lead to new insights for everyone.

It is true in that it gives the person an opportunity to project, notice and get familiar with and explore something alive for them. (John Cage obviously had that form of freedom brewing in him, and took the D.T. Suzuki quote as an opportunity to support it and bring it out in his life.)

It is true in that it is an invitation to notice it as a projection, especially when we realize it is a misunderstanding.

And it is true in that it still leaves the conventional/intended understanding to be discovered. This is interesting in itself, and the process of discovering it can be interesting as well.

Lookin’ good for Jesus

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I thought this was cute. Why not look good for Jesus?

Seems that it would be part of any comprehensive and integral approach 😉

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And it is always interesting to explore where I find the genuine truth in this, for myself. Where do I find the genuine truth in looking good for Jesus?

For me, it has to do with inviting guests.

Any content of awareness is a guest, so if we take a visit by Jesus to happen within content of awareness, we can invite it in.

We can do certain (second person) practices, find receptivity of the three centers, and more. We can invite Jesus in as alive presence in its many forms such just alive presence, or its aspect of luminosity, or infinite love, or wisdom, or the fiery heart quality I find when I do Christian practices, or for others, maybe as a vision or a voice, or something else. Or just the good old taste of an open heart at our human level.

And if we take Jesus, or Christ, or the combination, to be a noticing of what we are (that which experiences happens within, to and as), then that is also something that can be invited in. We can prepare the situation, as best as we can. And that guest may come as well, or not.

So by inviting in Jesus as any or all of these guests, we want to look our best. We want to look good for Jesus, inviting him in for a visit.

Of course, Jesus, as anything else, lives his own life, on his own schedule. And that is also part of the game.

Resistance within experience

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Nothing special here…

Whenever I listen to music, read a book, watch a movie, or similar, I notice the difference between a resistance within and to experience.

When there is a resistance within experience, it usually makes it interesting to me. I am attracted to the experience, and there is some friction there. It feels meaty, substantial, challenging, nurturing.

This is how it is for me with music such as Jaga Jazzist, Meredith Monk, Bulgarian folks songs, and even – for instance – lounge music. Anything that is a little outside of the familiar for me (Meredith Monk), outside of my expectations (Bulgarian folk songs) or shoulds (metal!), or outside of my familiar identity (lounge).

When there is not much resistance within experience, which I experience with Mozart and some writings and movies, there is either not much interest there, or it becomes more of a – sometimes welcomed – relaxation and a vacation.

And when there is resistance to experience, it is quite different. This is when it becomes uncomfortable, and there is a sense of separation and of a separate I disliking an experience.

Buddhist Visions

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Our local art museum has an exhibit on Buddhist art called Buddhist Visions, focusing especially on depictions of heaven and hell.

So as with anything else, as usual, this is about what is happening here and now.

Heaven is here. Hell is here. The bardos are here. Whatever happens after we die, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is here.

It is a projection of stories happening here now, into past and future. And it is a projection of dynamics happening here now, into past and future, or another location in space.

There is a story here, about heaven, hell, creation, what happens after death, and I see it as reflecting something really out there, in the past, future, or somewhere else in space. And I can either recognize it as just a thought, having purely a practical function for this human self in the world, or I can take it as somehow substantial, real, something far more than just an ephemeral thought.

Dynamics happening here now are also projected out, in a similar way, through these stories.

I can find heaven here, when I tell myself what is and what should be are aligned, or when I notice myself as that which all content of experience happens within and as. I can find hell here, when I tell myself that what is and what should be are not aligned, or when I get caught up in beliefs in general.

(For instance, have you ever felt like either or all of the figures in the painting above? I have, and do whenever I get caught up in being right, in a hot anger, creating a sense of being eaten alive. That is one version of hell.)

I can find the layers and processes described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead here now, when I explore the sense fields or use other approaches.

So all of these Buddhist images can be seen as describing something happening here and now, for each of us. And that is really the same with anything else, any other story, in the news, in movies, in books, in dreams, in myths, in fairy tales, in science, in religion. Whatever it is, it is something we can find here now, in immediate awareness.

We can find the story of it here now, as simply an ephemeral and insubstantial thought. And we can find the dynamics it refers to. Any story is a story about what is alive here now.

It has a double practical value. First, as a practical tool for our human self to navigate and function in the world. Then, as a reflection of what is alive here now in our immediate awareness.

Buddha

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I just came across this wonderfully weird and off-beat Buddha by Takashi Murakami.

Buddhist students are advised to see any image of the Buddha as representing the perfect Buddha mind, no matter how weird the image itself is. And it is a great advice.

In fact, can I see the perfect Buddha in any of the forms arising to me? In any sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts… no matter what particular forms they take? Can I see that it is all awakeness itself?

The statue is great material in other ways too… What beliefs come up when I see it? Do I get offended? (No.) Am I afraid someone else may get offended. (Maybe.)

It is a reminder of how Buddhism can be poured into lots of different containers, depending on what culture it is in. (In this case contemporary Japan.) That was probably not the intention of the artist, but it can still be taken that way.

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Marcel Marceau

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It was an unforgettable experience to see Marcel Marceau live a few years back. More than almost anyone I can think of, he was able to remind me of the magic of everyday life, and evoke the wonder and awe of the innocent child that is still here in each of us – revealed when the grip on beliefs and identities are released for a moment.

In the receptive mind and heart is appreciation for life, as it is here and now. And we love those who remind us of that.

Contemperary Jesus

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Jesus spent his days with the outsiders and outcasts of society, so this is a good illustration of how that may look if translated to our contemporary society. (Although not necessarily wearing high heeled shoes.)

He chose to be with prostitutes, money collectors and fishermen, and told stories of good Samaritans… all looked down at or shunned by his community. Who would he choose friends among today? Maybe the homeless, insane, industry workers, truckers, Muslims, turban wearers, gay, transsexuals, hiv positive… not to change them or convert them, but to find friends in them, and show the rest of us our prejudices.

hdr as an anology

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photo by Automatt

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photo by John in Japan

High Dynamic Range imaging is a way of extending the tonal range of a photo, or said another way, to include details in both the highlights and the shadows. It has been used in film for a while, and is now also increasingly used among digital photographers, where three or five or more photos of the same scene, each exposed differently, are combined into a single image with an extended tonal range.

A HDR image itself has a tonal range far beyond what any screen or any paper can represent, so it needs to be compressed and processed down into something that can be represented in these forms. It is similar to a “digital negative” that needs to be developed, and there an infinite number of ways of doing this, and no one set way that works in all situations. The processing is different each time, and tailored for the specific image and its purpose.

This is a good analogy for talking about Big Mind, about finding ourselves as this awakeness and its content, inherently absent of an I with an Other.

Big Mind is beyond what can be touched by words, as a HDR image is far beyond what can be accurately represented on screen or in print. And in each case, there is an infinite number of ways to translate it down to something that can be expressed. There is an infinite number of ways to process a HDR negative, and an infinite number of ways to put an immediate experience of/in Big Mind into words. And in each case, how we do it depends on what we want to express – a particular image, an aspect of Big Mind, and the circumstances – what it is going to be used for and what purpose it is intended to serve.

Any analogy breaks down somewhere, which is why it is only an analogy. And this one breaks most clearly down in that a HDR negative and finished processed image are not different in type, only in tonal range, and that Big Mind is inherently free from anything that can be expressed in words, even as it is (attempted) expressed in words. Big Mind is beyond and includes any polarities, and words only works within polarities.

In the case of HDRs, it is a difference in degree, and in the case of Big Mind and words, a difference in type.

The depth of the shallow

I used to be identified with an identity as cultured, which lead me to read a good amount of literature classics, philosophy and art history, watch obscure and sophisticated movies, listen to music such as Arvo Part, Palestrina, Bach, Philip Glass, and so on, and although I genuinely enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, it was also a one-sided life and identification.

During the dark night this identification, as so many others, wore down, and there is now more of an open space for anything… deep and shallow, artsy and popular… it matters less now.

The irony in this shift is that now, finding more fluidity within the wide landscapes of literature, movies and music, I am also more easily able to find the depth in the shallow, and the same dynamics and patterns in all of it. Popular or sophisticated… it is all reflections of the same basic dynamics and patterns of the mind.

There is a depth in the shallow that, although I was aware of it all the time, I held at arm-lengths distance. Now, that it is right here in my life with no distance, I can appreciate it much more.

Conversely, I guess I can say that there is a shallowness in the deep as well, often an identification with a particular identity which sets up boundaries where there really are none, and a self-congratulatory attitude about things that are really not that sophisticated, and sometimes not even that important.

Art and matching

My teacher's portrait of me at the time

In my teens and early twenties, I was into drawing and painting… especially the style that incorporates and embraces polarities, such as figurative and abstract, colors and shades, aesthetics and content, and so on.

So here is one way of looking at art (as I did back then, and now)…

  • For its own sake, as a local expression of life, existence, God.
  • For the one it is coming through, as an exploration process of life, existence, what is alive here now.
  • For the audience, as a mirror of themselves and a trigger for their stories, whether they feel drawn to it or not.
  • For the audience when they are drawn to it, as a match between the art and the recipient. Any match, even for just one person, and it is worth it only on this level.
  • In terms of conventional quality, as evaluated on skills, content, and so on.

For me, the last point was important only as it related to the second, third and fourth ones. For example, skills enhance the exploration process and can make it more clear and differentiated, and it also aids the mirroring and the likelihood of a match. And a multi-layered content, drawing on cultural references, functioning on many levels of being, does the same.

Precious, because fleeting

I went to a flute and guitar concert tonight, and was struck by how precious every aspect of this life is.

Every moment is fleeting… always fresh, new, different. Dying as what it was, reborn as something else.

There are many moments in my life, but my life itself is fleeting, measured in years or decades. My days are numbered, although I may not know the exact number.

Humanity goes on without me, but humanity itself is fleeting. Everything created by humanity, including all the art, is here now and gone in hundreds, or thousands of years. Even if it lasts for millions of years, which seems unlikely, it will come to an end. This Earth will die, and this universe will die (heat death or big crunch).

From all these perspectives, this moment is precious… it is easiest to notice through what our personality enjoys, such as a good meal, friendship or art… but every moment is equally previous, independent of its content.

It is not only precious because it is precious to this human self. Every moment is a unique expression of God, it is God experiencing itself uniquely.

It is precious, because it is a unique expression of God, of Existence, of life.