A Thousand Cairns

Installation, Hamta, India, 2017

I put the welder down in favor of some quiet time this month.

My homestay was simple and perfect.  It was in the Himalayan Village of Hamta, north of Manali, in an all-but-abandoned home surrounded by an apple orchard. The gift of time and a place to think, walk, pray, and create.

I told my Airbnb host before arriving that I would spend these ten days in silence, taking my meals at the nearby tea house. 

Two days into the stay, my hands found themselves holding and balancing the pervasive mountain stones. A lot of my work in  sculpture deals with weight and weightlessness. I made Cairns. Unassuming piles of stones, used here in the mountains both for wayfinding and prayer.

From these simple actions, a desire came. I  wanted to make an installation. A thousand cairns. And for the work to hold meaning. I wanted to make a piece that said:

“Alive with basic goodness, may I walk adorned in gratitude, and cheerfully encounter, profound, radiating glory.”

 Can you tell I’m in India? Prayer is the water we swim in here. It informs every facet of  the day. Truck drivers hang prayer flags  along the insides of their windshields. To walk here is to pray. 

So the balance-making became a form of prayer. And there were all these altars.

Safety roadblocks here, on the “holy shit don’t fall” side of the road, take the form of rectangular concrete blocks, waist high. They cry out for sculpture.

I had truckloads of time. Free art materials everywhere. The perfect concrete bases, and nobody looking over my shoulder, at all. It was liberating, to work free of real or imagined gallery/jury/critical scrutiny. I knew nobody here would judge. 

This patently false premise allowed me days of joy. I took balance risks, made the most tenuous arrangements. 

Some Cairns fell just minutes after reluctantly conceding to verticality. 

Mornings found me dutifully rebuilding ambitious arrangements which had fallen under subtle shifts engineered by the moon, or perhaps tumbling from distant mischief initiated by the movements of stars. 

So be it. The test of time was for other days, for different work.

Ephemeral, transitory perfection visited me. I laughed. My actions were in harmony with who I really am.

I was stoked. I made 108 Cairns a day. 

Fast approaching my goal, I wound my way up the mountain, past the Hamta Hydroelectric Project. 

Here my prayers in stone met the unfriendly gaze of a -yikes- manager. Hard hat and all.

He pointed out to me in clear enough English that building these things on top of edge barriers endangers people below. He concluded with a sharp: “You no do this!”

His obtuse blindness to the beauty of the work was matched by his clarity of perception. He was right, of course. Being in silence, I could only nod my head “yes.” Persuasive with stone, compliant with people.

He had backup. That evening, a crew of seven people came in two Jeeps, and removed the dangerous arrangements. The males pointed out the clearly visible structures to the females, who did the work of dismantling.

I shifted gears. Made art in less glamorous, less dangerous places. 

 On a step halfway up a moss-covered abandoned stairway.

Along the top of a small canal.

Deep in the woods.

Along a stone wall marking the monk walk between no-man’s land and no-man’s land.

In my little room.

But I missed those altars.

The work took me where it would. I followed my impulses. 

If it’s true that I am a product of causes and conditions, that I am a changing unfixed non-concrete verb more than I am a noun, then philosophically, there is no actual author to these stone works.

There was not necessarily a specific, defined, linear “me” creating these things. There was a fleeting field of energy and desire which came and changed these exact stones. The poised rocks are not my accomplishment. They are also not my fault. They were or are like me, an impermanent occurance, born of events uncountable. They were or are, like me and every one of us, innocent. Anonymity from the mountaintop is decidedly an option. It’s practically a given.

We are the results of causes and conditions. We are inextricably woven to our environments. We are where we are, we are what transpires around us, as much as “who” we are. This is satisfying news and worth feeling. We are event-entangled. Unstoppably anonymous. It is impersonal.

My hands ask the stones: “Be this certain way for me?” They comply or not as it suits them. Then other forces act on them. These other forces, even my hands, are impersonal.

And so it is with me.

I ask myself: “Be this certain way for me?” And hearing my own sincerity, even recognizing the wisdom in the request, I comply. And then. Subtle shifts from the moon, mischief from the stars, and there I am, overspending again, being self-righteous again. Lusting. Again. Not even knowing I was doing it: asleep at the wheel, again and again.

But for a little while, there is the art. And the work of it. The delicate pile of stones, an afternoon appreciating what I have and wanting nothing. Hands asking please.

Please be this way for me.

A wise woman once wrote that only art can save us. I believed it like gospel. It fit me like a glove. Now I don’t know: absolutes feel too tight for today.

But this much I do know. For now, at least. I know that Art Saves.

I know that making Art is sacred. 

That holding stones in my hands comforts me. 

I know that the making eclipses the falling. That the prayers in attempts at balance are valid medicine, regardless of results. I know I am far from home but I did not need my welder or my angle grinder.

 Not even my well-worn gloves.

I don’t know if people are fools for making art. I don’t know if anything we accomplish ever glows or ripples out beyond the moment of completion. I don’t know if one single thing I’ve given form to in this life is “true.” 

But I know that in the effort, there are moments. Like when three stones are all falling. They lose the invisible spinal chord of connection. What held them together a second ago? They want to fall, and my hands assure them in spite of evidence that balance is possible, it can be found. Hands ask the stones to listen for it and then from somewhere, the four of us find it, using promptings and urges for which we have no language. Moments entirely unforseeable: to me unattainable even, outside of the deeply personal space of making art.

And I know it is not confined  to artmaking. The moments are a result of the intense desire, the untamed listening.  It is like finding a hidden temple, in the woods under a tree. There are these moments. They come. They come if we look for them. Eyes open. Wide open. There are hidden temples. Keep a lookout.

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