Artist statement of recent work — The Triangle & The Temple (CADAF 2020)
When the pandemic began in New York, the first thing that happened was that my shared studio space closed down. The second thing that happened was I lost my job. So, I took home what materials I could to continue working from my bedroom. The pieces that I present for this fair, the Triangle and Temple series, are derived from this extraordinary period of turmoil and anxiety on the one hand, but also of opportunity and growth on the other.
With closure of my studio space, the pandemic gave me an opportunity to do something I had always wanted to, but never had the chance. Living in New York for several years, I had been a regular visitor to James Turrell’s Meeting at MoMA PS1. Inspired by his systematic study of light, I’ve always wanted to set up LEDs to project color fields against the wall as a sort of mini-Meeting where I could study the interaction of color from the sky with LED light.
But in busy-busy-busy New York, I always had other priorities: residencies or grants to apply for, ways of making money, seeing friends, expanding the work I already had, etc — I never made time for it. But stuck in my room 24/7, unemployed, the gift of the pandemic was that I had time to actually do this experiment.
In my practice, I’ve always found that an experiment did not need to be successful to be useful. For me, the primary role of an experiment is to open doors to new ideas and new energy. This particular Turrell-inspired experiment didn’t work as I had thought, because the presence of the black frame of the window disrupted any clear study of color.
Instead, what occurred to me was to position the sticks away from the window, to see how they would look like in the corner of the room.
If I had to describe my attitude toward my practice in one word, it would be: following. My practice is its own animal, with its own instincts and energies, toward which I follow. For me, the task is simply to pour energy into it, and it will move on its own. Often, the next step boils down to simple curiosity: “I wonder how it would look like if I did this…” and that usually leads me to a new place. Like exploring the chambers of a gigantic temple, one leading to the next.
Here, I started to see the possibility of working with color gradations against the wall.
Little by little, the animal moved away from the window, away from the corner, creeping towards the empty space on the wall. It demanded new LED rods to be constructed, and I obliged.
When it reached the blank space of the wall, I started to experiment with different configurations and patterns. Most of it resembled some kind of portal, or threshold into some other reality.
Slowly but surely, the arrangement constellated into a triangle shape. I felt it was necessary to circumambulate the light in order for the structure to feel… complete. The bounded light gradient created a void in the center of the triangle, which felt the most interesting to me. The triangle pieces are not so much about the light itself, but about the void that is created when the light slowly dies off in the gradient against the wall. There was something about the void that seemed to stare back at me, as if there was some silent intelligence living inside.
With the triangle structure, I had a basis in which further experimentation could continue.
Looking back, the triangle was formed during the time of maximum fear here in New York. No one knew how the coronavirus would go, and while I was making patterns, all I could hear were ambulance sirens going off 24/7 for about a week. I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which had one of the highest concentrations of covid-19 in the city. It was a deeply unsettling time and I think I settled on the triangle because of its strength — that I needed a strong symbol to cling to during this time.
In my practice, typically the “doing” comes first, and the “why” comes after. Yet, the “why” is never arbitrary, it always makes sense. Why the triangle? I think the key reason is that the triangle is both the symbol of change and stability. The triangle is the strongest shape on Earth, yet in mathematics, the symbol of change is the “delta” Δ.
Kandinsky uses the simile of the triangle to express his struggle to manifest his vision in society in Concerning the Spiritual In Art:
“The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment.”
For me, the triangle is not about the struggle of the individual artist, but the struggle of the human collective at this particular time of turmoil. When everything external seems to be torn down by the pandemic — jobs lost, plans dashed, futures uncertain — the moving triangle says to me, just like it said to Kandinsky: what is today, we cannot comprehend. But if we give it time, it will reveal itself as the basis of tomorrow. To see this and to greet the uncertain future with open arms is the first thing we must do is endure.
Triangle 1, Triangle 2 and Triangle 3 were originally named “The Life and Death of Stars”, “The Infinite Divisions” and “The Rise and Fall of Empires”. The original names were given in the time when New York became the epicenter. As I began to entertain the possibility of New York City descending into some kind of anarchy, I contemplated how civilization was a thin veneer, and I thought about all the civilizations in our history that came and went, and how they also thought — in their hubris — that it would not happen to them.
As I continued to experiment and make new patterns with the triangle, I started to make animated patterns with a beginning and an end. I started to contemplate our global situation in connection with our experience of time. I thought about the stars in the void of space and how even they, with their monumental life spans (relative to ours), they too will meet their end, after which their supernova’ed matter would become the basis for new stars, new life. We are all star dust, so why should our fate be any different?
In the I Ching (Book of Changes), it is written:
“The light of the setting sun calls to mind the fact that life is transitory and conditional. Caught in this external bondage, men are usually robbed of their inner freedom as well. The sense of the transitoriness of life impels them to uninhibited revelry in order to enjoy life while it lasts, or else they yield to melancholy and spoil the precious time by lamenting the approach of old age. Both attitudes are wrong. To the superior man it makes no difference whether death comes early or late. He cultivates himself, awaits his allotted time, and in this way secures his fate.” (Wilhem translation)
As I gazed into the heart of the triangle night after night, I began to see its deeper meaning. It was not so much that the light made the piece, but it was the gradient of darkness that was projected that really gave the illusion of three dimensional space. In the space between light and dark is where the magic happens, and where the perceptual senses are thrown into confusion — one loses a sense of conventional space while looking at it.
I contemplated the meaning of the light and darkness, and the transition from one to the other. I thought of Goethe, and how in his Theory of Colors, how it was darkness that gave meaning to the light, not just the other way around.
“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color… Color itself is a degree of darkness.”
I felt the transitions from light to darkness was what this piece was really about, what this time we are living in is about. The reassurance in this is that light goes into darkness, but darkness goes back into light. It is a cycle of ups and downs, and in that recognition is the ability to endure and survive.
On an individual level, as I struggled with my own demons during this period of isolation, the light and darkness also took on a personal tone. In Aion, Carl Jung writes about the psychological aspects of light and darkness:
“So far as we can judge from experience, light and shadow are so evenly distributed in man’s nature that his psychic totality appears, to say the least of it, in a somewhat murky light. The psychological concept of the self… cannot omit the shadow that belongs to the light figure, for without it this figure lacks body and humanity. In the empirical self, light and shadow form a paradoxical unity.”
To me this is tremendously reassuring, because it means that darkness makes us human — whether on a personal or a civilizational level. Life is not just sunshine and lollipops, it is periods of struggle and evil — but that one mutually arises with the other to create wholeness. For me this meant that the pandemic, for all the destruction and death it brought, must be compensated by some good to come out of it — by the very laws of the universe reflected in the laws of color, the laws of changes, the laws of the human psyche.
By May 2020, things in New York calmed down and it appeared that we got control over the covid-19 infection rate, to the relief of all. I moved out of my small bedroom in Bushwick and moved into a friend’s much larger place in Williamsburg. Some semblance of stability started to emerge again.
But then came the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd at the knee of a racist police officer, and with it, civil unrest engulfed New York City. Manhattan was ransacked, with looters taking advantage of the chaos to further damage the city. Pitched battles being fought on the street by protestors and police.
Yet as the week went on and the looting was stopped by the curfew, the protest movement continued strong and became a political force across the country. The initial fear I felt was transformed into optimism, as it seemed that real change could occur. But for me, the deeper thing that happened was that the facade of indifference that characterized the old system began to crumble, and what was left was that people started to care about things they were formerly indifferent about.
New York is a place of great people, kind people — but also of great indifference. Like a horse running with blinders on, you’re in New York to focus on your goals, and everything else sort of falls to the wayside. For me, the pandemic began to dissolve this indifference and the extraordinary things accomplished by the protest movement did the rest.
With this feeling, I also had to progress. I could not rely on the triangles anymore, I had to keep pushing and making new pieces, even with the CADAF fast approaching. I felt I would not be honoring the time if I didn’t push. And when I pushed, somehow, the triangles came apart.
The new series, including Temple 1, Temple 2, Temple 3, and Temple 4 were made during and after the unrest that gripped New York. To my surprise, even though I broke with the triangle structure, somehow, triangles of light emerged. It was almost as if the structure was broken, but the spirit of the triangle remained, as if this was always the intended direction.
I name this series Temple, because I felt like I was looking into an imaginal landscape where I approached a gigantic pyramid structure. It was like the spiritual triangle Kandinsky wrote about, pointing onward and upward, freed from its structure. It was like it was something that I always sought, but only now came to.
The name Temple is the name of an arrival. But I just have arrived to its gates.