Looking: Life as Art
Hasn’t it all been said already? Haven’t we lived the same stories over and over again, history repeating itself? Haven’t we had enough of it all? Enough to make us ready for anything but what we’ve already been through?—Which can only be something beyond our realm of knowledge, beyond our realm of experience, what we know of ourselves. What can be beyond all that we supposedly know of ourselves, of the world, of the universe?—Being.—Things just being what they are beyond our confining definitions of them. Indeed, the truth always spills beyond the narrow frame of our narratives, our television screens, ipads, paintings, photographs.
Picture a big family lunch—it’s a chaotic movie set with too many uncles and aunts assuming the role of Director. Cousins of like ages form their special tribe and begin game, storytelling, and eating rituals. Someone says—Smile!—and snaps a candid shot of plump Aunt Gertrude standing before the stove, a bunch of dark-haired children crowded around her hips. The photographer is inexperienced and captures only the tops of the children’s heads, their faces left up to the imagination. Aunt Gertrude looks quizzically over her right shoulder at the camera, her left arm extended beyond the picture’s left edge. A stranger looking at this photograph might find some humor in it and imagine Aunt Gertrude a genial, motherly figure. Those of us on site, in the unframed space beyond the picture, are privy to a broader truth. For, Aunt Gertrude, in a fit of impatience, with her outstretched hand, has caught the ear of one mischievous boy and is twisting it with certitude. But even this narrative, beyond the picture’s frame, is insufficient, incomplete. For the moment passes, the boy’s ear is released, and Aunt Gertrude, mustering a fresh batch of french fries at the stove, is transformed in the children’s imaginations from an ogre to a fairy godmother. Changing moment to moment in the imaginations of her family and friends, Aunt Gertrude might well ask who or what she is to them. And standing alone at the kitchen sink, she might look down at her hands with a quiet mind, a mind devoid of commentary, and find herself, in that moment of stillness, herself. Herself—her hands glittering in the sunlit water like nothing she’s ever seen—beautiful, mysterious—a happening.—A moment of transcendence. Beyond all notions and narratives, she is what she has always been.
I remember a piece of art titled Clear Sky Black Cloud that I witnessed once on the Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This “sculpture” created by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang consisted of a puff of black smoke—a black cloud—that was projected into the sky above the Roof Garden at a specific time each day. I remember watching the smoke inkblot the sky. I remember watching it change shape second-to-second, so quickly, and then, eventually, dissipate. After it faded, I continued watching, and the “sculpture” became the moment itself being itself—the blue sky, the white clouds. Standing in that moment absorbed by the presence of the absent smoke-cloud, I felt myself with a deeper richness and appreciation than I would have had I not ventured to the Roof Garden that day to witness the appearance of Nothing. For Nothing is what I received—no art object. Just an ephemeral happening—like Aunt Gertrude’s—framed by a moment in time, a context. A happening occurring within myself, delivered to me by looking.
What is looking? We can call “looking” an individual act of creation, for it is more subjective than objective. If you ask ten artists of the same age, of comparable skill and training, to paint the same still life from exactly the same angle, orientation, using the same materials and stylistic methods, you will find that they produce ten quite different paintings. If, seeking to limit physiological variables in order to end up with more similar images, you ask the same of twin artists, you will still find their work nonidentical, for none of us is exactly like the other—we all have a unique point of view, a unique physiology and position in time and space. When we look at objects, we naturally, unavoidably engage our unique point of view—we bring our individuality into our looking. Therefore, looking is not a neutral act. It is a highly potent, highly creative act. As we are—as our lens—so, too, the world. We see what we are.
When we practice Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis, we experience pure consciousness—pure silence, stillness, Beingness beyond definition—and, over time, this pure consciousness permeates our daily activities. As this pure consciousness, stillness, permeates our looking we begin to glimpse or sense in others, in objects of the world, something ineffable—beautiful, radiating, colorless, without taste, smell, or sound. Many of us, even without the practice of Transcendental Meditation, may have sensed or seen a hint of this purity emanating from infants—brightening their eyes, softening their skin and the air about them, giving them a certain irresistible sweetness. It is not surprising that we recognize this level of Being in others—it is more deeply familiar to us than our own body. When Beingdominates our channels of perception for even a split second, we experience a happening. We slip beyond all our worldly experiences, knowledge of ourselves, and experience ourselves purely,incandescently, luminously. The Kena Upanishad, one of India’s ancient texts devoted to the study of pure consciousness, a companion through my youth, describes Being as follows:
Who causes my tongue to speak? Who is that
Invisible one who sees through my eyes
And hears through my ears?
That which makes the eye see but cannot be
Seen by the eye, that is the Self indeed.
This Self is not someone other than you.
That which makes the ear hear but cannot be
Heard by the ear, that is the Self indeed.
This Self in not someone other than you.
Though it is possible to transcend through any sense—through looking—this is usually a lucky happening and offers us only a fleeting glimpse of the truth. It is wonderful, therefore, that we have Transcendental Meditation—a reliable, systematic, effortless mental technique that gives us the daily opportunity to slip beyond our relative experience and unfold our divine nature—Being—more and more clearly.
If any of you have ever experienced a happening, call that experience, that moment of art that you created, Untitled. Or call it nothing at all. Know that you can have this experience again through the practice of Transcendental Meditation.
When you are living established in Being, there you are—Looking looking at itself, creating with each look. Creating beyond what the mind can know of itself. You, a moment of art in life itself—a happening. You, the artist, creator. Art as Life, and Life as Art. Each moment a potential Cai Guo-Qiang “sculpture.” Perhaps this is the Freedom we have all been seeking after.
About the Author
Sasha Kamini Parmasad is an educator, visual artist, and award-winning writer, with degrees from Williams College (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.F.A.). Her novel, Ink and Sugar, placed third in the national First Words Literary Contest for South Asian American Writers (2003), her poetry placed first in the annual Poetry International Competition (2008), and her collection of poems titled No Poem: A Divine Rising will be published this year (2015).