There is a lot of art”out there” and most leave the tracks and traces of the artist who made them but what happens when the artist deliberately sets out to leave no trace of their art? When it is an ephemeral piece swept up and destroyed by its creator or by the ravages of time itself – the only trace that may remain perhaps in the form of photographs capturing a temporal fleeting moment of beauty and wonder. Perhaps they exist only in the memories of those who saw it for its brief existence and perhaps it’s there as a history of the landscape in which it was formed. It existed for a time, it was here and then it was gone. There is a unique philosophy to the artists who choose to create such fleeting ephemeral works of art and in this essay we will look at the works of three artists in particular who choose to express their art in this short lived way and that is Andy Goldsworthy, Tibetan monks and Ryan Moule.
What story does the art tell from the artist who deliberately chooses to leave no trace except for photographs and memories. There are actually many forms of art by artists who do this everything from simple sand sculptures and beach art to environmental land art to light painting and the ancient intricate colourful sand mandalas of the Tibetan monks.
Firstly looking at Andy Goldsworthy, he is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist. He produces site specific sculpture and land art in a natural and urban setting. His work is made from leaves sticks stones ice and all sorts of natural material and is often completely transient in nature.
“Anthony Goldsworthy’s work”
He likes to create something from the energy of the landscape, something with rhythm, like a dance “a lot of my work is like picking potatoes you have to get into the rhythm of it” (Goldsworthy 2009). The philosophy behind his work is all about the dance of life which is fleeting and temporary in nature. Time plays a significant role in his work he creates a piece takes a photograph of it in its prime and then leaves it to the elements to decay destroy and “kill” the artwork leaving nothing permanent behind. To Goldsworthy this is important to understand the reality of birth, life and death.
His artwork also emphasises the connectedness of all things and the connectedness of the art and us to nature and the landscape. It and we are part of the natural world. Time is something that connects us all and the environment in which we live which is temporary and not eternal. His ephemeral artwork leaves no legacy except for photographs and memories but this is living the honesty of life on earth and how eventually even the most indelible mark fades to nothing in the end. Its also about treading lightly on the earth as an environmental measure and leaving only a gentle footprint on a delicate planet.
This concept is also found elsewhere in the world with the Tibetan Buddhist monks and their beautiful temporary sand mandalas
In Tibetan Buddhism they have a teaching on impermanence and how everything on earth in this life is temporary. The idea in Buddhism is to become conscious of this fact and live life well and in accordance with what are the known laws of nature. The teaching can be summed up in the phrase “this too shall pass” which is a jewish folktale where a king commissioned a ring to be made that would make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. He was a wealthy man and money was no object to him, the ring that came back was a simple gold ring with the words “this too shall pass” engraved on it. (see story at the end) Which is the essence of impermanence, nothing lasts forever when you have all the riches and wealth in the world, this will pass when you are having the worst experience in your life this too shall pass and so it is with life itself, this too shall pass and whatever life you have carefully crafted for yourself all your achievements and reached goals will one day pass into old age and death. The Tibetan sand mandala reflects this – it is beautifully made and may even incorporate beautiful images of the inner world deities and archetypes but once it is carefully and beautifully created by an expert monk – it is immediately swept up into grey sand and distributed as a blessing to the local people or put into a stream to distribute the blessings to the whole world. This teaches the Buddhists monks and those who see it the lesson of how to live with impermanence in mind – like a beautiful sand mandala life should be a blessing and carefully constructed a beautiful thing for the world to behold, then it is swept away by death and decay. It teaches that although life is temporary it is ideally still worth striving for and a good life is to create a beautiful piece of art from it to bless the world leaving only photographs and memories behind.
These sentiments are also found and echoed in the ephemeral artworks of photographer Ryan Moule in his talk in November 2016 he mentioned how he realised that one day his photographs could end up in a charity shop somewhere after he had died and how he didn’t really want to see this happen so he decided to create a temporary set of photographs in an exhibition called deviated light showing the decay of buildings as a visual and conceptual analogy for the impermanence of photography. It also raises the question of collective memory and whether things are better remembered after they have been photographed. In his talk Moule was quite philosophical about life and he played an ipad air advert which showed his views about how like the Tibetan sand mandala life is an artwork or poem of a greater collective poem of the whole of life in the universe and we have this moment of life short as it is in the scheme of things is to contribute a verse, so he asks the question what would your verse be? His photography will fade to black eventually but that was his contribution to the great story or poem of life as it rolls ever on. The ipad advert was based on a poem found from the dead poets society
O Me! O Life!
BY WALT WHITMAN
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Source: Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51568
The common thread of all these artists are they are approaching and expressing what can be an ugly and uncomfortable truth for us all about the temporary nature of life old age and death, in a beautiful and profound way. It makes us think and reflect on this reality and how to best live our lives without shocking us too much. It also makes us think of those who have passed and the contributions they made before they died. No matter what we do how wise or rich or skilled we become nobody escapes death and when it comes, our body will return to dust leaving only memories to those we leave behind. It helps us appreciate the transient and beautiful nature of life and perhaps makes us value our loved ones or even our enemies that much more because we know they have their time and they too shall be gone like the colourful artworks which leave no real trace behind them.
The King and His ring – jewish folktale
During the festive Passover meal with his ministers, King Solomon teased Benaiah son of Jehoiada, his arrogant Chief of Army.
– “Benaiah, I was told that there is a special ring that has special power. It can change the mood of a person. A sad person becomes happy when watching it and a happy person becomes sad. I know that you of all people in the kingdom can find the ring. Would you be able to find this ring and bring it to me until the eve of Sukkot eve, that is 6 months from now?”
– “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,I will find it and bring it to you”replied Benaiah.
King Solomon smiled as he knew that no such ring existed, but he wanted to give his minister a taste of humility.
Time passed and Benaiah sent soldiers and messengers throughout the kingdom, examined records, consult with elders yet he could not find even a hint of the existence of the magic ring. Spring passed so did summer. The last harvest of the year, and with it the Succoth festival, was approaching. Then came eve of Sukkot day. With only a few hours to go before the deadline, Benaiah was wandering in the streets of Jerusalem. The sun was setting casting a golden light on the city which until today all its buildings are made of stone. All the merchants were busy with the last sale and prepared to close their stalls. In desperation he turned to an old silversmith.
– “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy person forget his joy and the broken-hearted person forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah. The silversmith listened carefully and smiled. He took a plain silver ring from his old and dusty box and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face lighted up as he knew he had found the right ring.“This is the ring!” he cried, and gave the poor jeweler all the money in his purse.“Come to the palace and you shall have more,” he added, “for I cannot thank you enough.”
The sun set. The time for the holiday dinner arrived. That night the palace was full of guests ready to celebrate with the king.
– “Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “Have you found a ring that can make a happy man sad and a sad man happy?” Everyone who knew about the search for the impossible ring laughed and Solomon himself smiled.
But to everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty! I found a ring. It has three Hebrew letters engraved on it: Gimel, Zayin, Yud. Then he whispered the meaning of these initials in the king’s ear.
As soon as Solomon heard the meaning of the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. He looked at the guests filling the banquet hall, the tables covered with shining serving pieces, silver goblets, and the finest food one can find. Tears rolled down his eyes. He felt sad. The entire hall was in total silence. A ring that makes the king cry?
Then King Solomon looked at the ring again and started to smile again then laughed so hard infecting the entire palace with giggles and laughter. Everyone wanted to know the meaning of the initials.
The King revealed to his guests what was written on the ring: “The three letters are ג,ז,י represented three words: Gam Zeh Ya’avor”. It means in English: “This too shall pass.”
In life everything is temporary. In fact, life itself is temporary. In between birth to death we all experience the roller-coaster of life.
King Solomon had everything – power, women and wealth then he realized at the end of his life the illusion to hold on to things as they are not the source of happiness. So he turned to a spiritual search and wrote in Ecclesiastes :
” The words of the Teacher,son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” … “What has been will be again,what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”