Why I Make Art: Part 3

The Mystical Quest – Representing the Unrepresentable




The Doppler effect is commonly heard when a vehicle sounding a siren approaches, passes and recedes from an observer. The received sound grows louder during the approach, is loudest at the instant of passing by, and lessens during the recession.– Wikipedia


In Part 2, I described the effect that the mysterious appearance of the photographs on the cellar floor had on me; I concluded the section by noting that I would shoot for that effect in my art making. The cellar episode wasn’t my only such experience; there were several others just as enigmatic – examples of the mystery in everyday living. The power surge I felt rush into my guts when these events happened was seismic, and prompted my desire to replicate that experience in myself and others: I’ll include three of them here as Three Short Tales and refer to them as Coincidences.


Coincidence 1:  


Many years ago I received a shocking birthday gift: a daguerreotype – one of those antique photographs, bound in brass and wedged into a velvet-padded, hinged case of molded shellac. Now, let me say that daguerreotypes are not inherently shocking, and that the subject matter of the one I received did not in itself startle me.


Yet, what I found extraordinary was some secret connection between the subject of the aged image and me. I perceived this link in a moment that was neither hers nor mine, and which eliminated the space and time that distanced us. Here’s what happened:


On receiving my gift, I opened its case and saw the stern visage of a wizened matron, imprisoned in a black taffeta dress and muffled with a white collar. Immediately I sensed something mysterious about the picture. Daguerreotypes are dramatic in any event, iconic and singular. Formed on a silver plate, they possess the most exquisite image qualities in photography: a range of lustrous, silvery tones unattainable by any other process and completely free from grain. They are the oldest of photographs; and to my mind, the most ghostly. And yet there was something more to the one I beheld than these qualities. Something I couldn’t easily nail down.


I looked and looked, trying to solve the mystery. She was holding something, the old girl. It lay cradled in her hands, resting there in her lap. What was it? The light of her time glinted off its lacquered surface and I had trouble determining what the object was. And finally, the dawning awareness of what she was holding came on like a psychic Doppler effect and zapped me like a thunderbolt. She was holding the same thing that I was holding! And time and space went away in the moment.




Coincidence 2:


In September 2002, I received an invitation to attend a wedding in Israel on October 14. When I began thinking about where I would go in Israel once the wedding was out of the way, I decided:


1) I wanted to go to Jerusalem

2) I wanted to go to Tzfat


Getting to Jerusalem was easy: I traveled there within days of my arrival, and returned five or six times. Tzfat was not so easy to come by, and with less than a week to go in my trip, it seemed doubtful that I would get to visit that precious jewel, high in the hills of Galilee – even though I had been haunted by a recurring dream about it from the very day in Toronto that I decided to go there. Dream wise: there was some mysterious thing that would be revealed to me, about my family. In Tzfat!




Upon my arrival in Israel I set out to find affordable lodgings to serve as home base over the duration of my visit. I found my way to a small hostel, smack dab in the Shuk Ha Pishpishim, in Jaffa, the ancient town from which the modern city of Tel Aviv developed.


Approaching the hostel: I misinterpreted an archeological excavation in the adjacent street as a public works program. I didn’t yet know that the entire country was a dig – how could it not be? There was Bible down there for Christ’s sake. To my dull mind, however, it was an inept retrofitting of water mains and sewage pipes – with far too many supervisors, and too few workers. Shaking my head at this wasteful folly, I rang the bell. A phantom concierge welcomed me through a scratchy speaker, and the wrought iron gates sprang open.


Arnon, the casually-dressed owner and operator of the hostel, greeted me and showed me around:


From: The Lonely Planet Guide of Israel and the Palestinian Territories:


A pleasant Israeli couple have converted a beautiful old Turkish house into the lovely Old Jaffa Hostel … Up the twisting wooden staircase with its walls hung with sepia Jewish family portraits, there’s a large common room and airy dorms complete with armchairs and tables … the hostel is in the flea market area, although the entrance is a little hard to find because it is actually from Ami’ad street. There’s no sign at eye level – it’s under your feet, set in stone at the foot of an unmarked door, though you will see a sign if you look up.



Yep! The Old Jaffa Hostel was right up my alley.


After we had settled on a room and a rate, Arnon said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” I followed him up a staircase, which opened onto a tropical roof garden atop the three-story flatiron building. He walked me to the far railing. “Do you see that?” he said, pointing to the work proceeding slowly in the street below.


“Yes; what about it?” I said.


“That’s your heritage.”


“That’s my heritage! My heritage is shit? What are you talking about?”


He then cleared up my false impression, advised me what was really taking place under the street below us. “Those rooms emerging down there have been buried for eight hundred years. That’s a kitchen coming up now, see it?” We considered this awesome fact in silence for a few moments. Then he began a probe of my personal heritage.


“Where was your father born?” he said.




“When did he emigrate?”


“In 1922, I think.”


“Have you traced your ancestry?” he said.


I explained: No, I hadn’t. When my father’s family arrived in Canada, immigration officials attributed to them a different last name than the one by which they were known in the old country. It was a dead end for us.


“Well, what about people with the same last name you use now, is there a link there, have you gotten in touch with any of them?” he said.


I told him that there didn’t seem to be anyone else with our last name.


“What about your relatives?”


“There’s just me and my cousin,” I said. “We’re the only surviving males. When we go, the name goes with us, I guess.” Silence settled in, until I continued: “You know, my cousin’s quite a famous man in his field. He travels to many countries, giving lectures, and he plays this little game with himself. Once he’s settled into his hotel room, he leafs through the phone book to the place where our name should appear. And he’s never found it. Anywhere! Funny, eh?”


“Still, you should try to trace your ancestry. It’s very important. Maybe try the Diaspora Museum,” he said.


“My cousin’s tried that, as well,” I said. “No luck there, either.”




My friend Sarah, the mother of the bride, came to me with the following bit of information, five or six days before I was to return to Toronto. Her husband would be traveling the following day to Tzfat, for his annual observance of his parent’s yorzeit (mortal passing). Did I want to go with him? Well, of course I did! From the Lonely Planet Guide:


Central Tzfat is small enough to cover on foot. Spread neatly over one perfectly rounded hill the main thoroughfare completely circles a wooded park in an unbroken loop. The bus station is just off Jerusalem St. on the eastern side of the hill, while the old town centre is 180 degrees away, directly on the western side – so, from the bus station head either north or south, you’ll end up in the same place.


Penetrating the town I found my way down an ancient alley to a building barred by a locked iron gate. An incongruously modern digital sign scrolled these particulars:



Ascent Institute of Tzfat … classes in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism … dorm beds – 50 shekels … 20 shekel rebate for those attending daily classes





That evening I attended the scripture class of Rabbi Shaul Leiter, and although the torah-study was essentially at the level of peshat (a discussion of the plain, literal meaning of the text), and failed even to hint at the level of sod (the esoteric, mystical dimension), I decided to be patient. Like a prophet: I’d see what tomorrow would bring.


I left the scripture seminar room, and having nothing to do until the following morning’s class, idly drifted to the reception area. A bulletin board faced the concierge’s desk. At the centre of a forest of notices and messages radiating all manner of matters Judaica, lay a schedule of the week’s classes in Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. I confirmed that I had just attended the class of rabbi Shaul Leiter, and observed that the following evening’s class would be delivered by rabbi Zalman Torneck.


I record the previous sentence casually, flounder in any attempt to describe my feelings at the moment I read that name; my name. I will fudge, say simply that I was thunderstruck, and leave it to the reader’s mind to supply an exclamation mark.




Coincidence 3:


This last of a trio of coincidences begins innocently, with a tiny, irritating speck in the eye, and ends in the most ironic eventuality imaginable. It occurred in 1971.


A friend and I were en route to spend the weekend in Colpoy Bay, in the Bruce peninsula; the purpose of our visit was to see some “unusual work” that Liam Auger – a mind-bending, game-playing, conceptual artist – was doing on his house.


I was in the passenger seat when an airborne speck shot into my eye like a pellet. I tried to work it free by pulling the upper lid over the lower lid to activate the tear duct, but had no luck in this – or the dozen or so attempts at the procedure that followed.


Then, as if sent from heaven, my friend dug out a squirt bottle of Murine from the bottom of her purse and handed it to me: no sooner had I squirted the cleansing liquid into my eye, its crystal goodness flushed away the interloper. Released from my discomfort, I lay back my head and projected streams of the healing liquor into both eyes, slowly opening and closing them till they became drunk with cool pleasure.


I remembered that as a child, I used to put my head out the open window of speeding cars in which I was a passenger. With my eyes closed I would let the cool force of the air’s resistance buffet my face. Now, speeding north, I again put my face out a car window, allowing the opposition of the winnowing air to spread the pools of wash my eyes held, and caress my face in creeping rivulets.




I drifted back from this reverie to the reality of our drive, wondering what “unusual work” Liam was doing on his house. My friend had been secretive.


We pulled into the driveway of Liam’s house, a weathered clapboard farmhouse on several acres of bristled meadowland. The house had two parts: a building with blackened windows into which there was no direct access, and a more homely section, accessible by a back porch with a tattered screen door. We entered the homely section.


The interior of Liam’s house was his personal gallery, each room supporting a separate installation. I’ve described these installations elsewhere and will not do so here – except for the last one, which is germane to my discussions about why I make art and representing the unrepresentable.




I peeped inside the last room. It was a washroom – totally nonfunctional and bathed in black, ultraviolet light. I entered, latched the door, and examined the room. It was stunning!


Shards of shattered mirror had been applied to every surface. The floor and ceiling reflected each other in fractured infinity; opposing walls batted each other’s broken image back and forth in a game of chimerical ping-pong. The ancient claw-footed tub was completely pricked with deadly slivers that would split the flesh of any bather. The toilet, its seat, and the lid I sat gingerly upon, was no less festooned with the silvered and slivered glass. Similarly decorated were the sink and its cabinet. It was as if a machine-gun-toting terrorist had opened fire in a mirrored room.


The washroom and its contents were a tricky blend of homogeneous light that blurred the demarcation of walls and fixtures. But … one small item had been spared the hammer: a tiny wall mirror hung within the choreographed rubble, invitingly. Instinctively, I rose to face the mirror.


Now many things in my life had surprised or shocked me with their unique nature or because of their unexpectedness, but never before had I experienced anything so unimaginable as the reflection the diminutive mirror shot back at me when I gazed into it. Nor have I since.


Bathed in black ultraviolet luminescence, set against a background of faceted silver, a mulatto-toned face looked at me, while an exquisitely webbed, fluorescent yellow mask emanating from its eyes enveloped the entire face! Spiderman to the max! A turn to the left, a quick one to the right, a few nods and shakes, confirmed that the face in the mirror was indeed mine. And a hasty wipe of the reflecting glass revealed that the patterned mask was not affixed to the mirror. I exercised the necessary control over my mind to insure I wasn’t experiencing the effects of a psychedelically-spiked beverage before concluding that I was dealing with something that was basically unaccountable. A bona fide Mystery!


I was weak with shock and uncertainty and sat carefully back down on the toilet to try to reason things out. “That fucking magus,” I thought.  “How did he pull this one off?” I relived every motion and act I had performed since my arrival. When had he done it to me, I sat wondering? It was magic!


I heard the doorknob being jostled, then Liam’s voice, “Hey … you O.K.?”

“Yeah … I’m O.K.” I lifted the latch and stepped back a few paces to await the man’s entrance.


He stepped into the room and approached me. His reaction seemed as disbelieving as mine had earlier been. His eyes bugged, then he turned hastily and, yowling wildly scrambled away, leaving me alone in heightened wonderment.


Now, unless I was mistaken, Liam’s reaction was no act – he had been taken completely by surprise at my spidery visage, hadn’t known a thing about it. It seemed really not to have been his doing. Well, that left one tremendous sucker of a question to be answered then, didn’t it? Whose doing had it been?


We’re speeding towards the wrap-up of this triad of coincidences. The events of the Liam Auger experience happened forty years ago, and I’m not sure at what point the solution to the climax of the story occurred to me. The important thing is that it did. Otherwise, Liam and I might have spent the rest of our lives thinking we each had tried to drive the other mad, one ineffectually inveighing against the innocence of the other. But has the reader guessed? Indulge me a moment while I backtrack to the earlier mentioned incident of the irritating speck in the eye:


I lay back my head and projected streams of the healing liquor into both eyes, slowly opening and closing them till they became drunk with cool pleasure … Speeding north, I put my face out the car window, allowing the opposition of the winnowing air to spread the pools of wash my eyes held, and caress my face in creeping rivulets.


Could anyone have imagined that the dried tracings of Murine on my face would be sensitive to ultraviolet radiation … and that before I would unknowingly wash away the invisible pattern, I would find my way to a black light and a small mirror?




Why I Make Art: Part 4

The Goal – Anatomy of a Revelation



I prefaced the account of Three Short Tales: Coincidences in Part 3 with a definition of the Doppler effect, a term used in classical physics, imprisoned by equations, concerning sound waves and changes of frequency, etc. But, to me, the effect represents something in the psychical realm as well as in the physical one – but that’s just me. I remember that as a child, experiencing it was always a magical happening, both in its arbitrariness (it seemed always to come out of the blue), and its revelatory power, seemingly possessing some secret or hidden truth. If I had to say what was the dominant characteristic of the Coincidences incidents, it would be that feeling – a kind of psycho-physical Doppler effect. And if this is my goal in making art, what I hope to convey in my art, to replicate this revelatory experience and have it resonate in others, I should try to put straight in my mind the anatomy of a revelation.


Let me summarize the episodes in which I experienced the surge of revelation I’m talking about:


1) The photographs on the cellar floor

2) The Daguerreotype experience

3) The discovery of my namesake in Israel

4) The spidery visage in the small mirror


In each instance there were psychical impulses leading to physical sensations (or, physical impulses leading to psychical sensations – who can be sure about such chicken/egg mysteries?) that are analogous to Doppler effect events. In the physical Doppler, a received impulse grows greater until it attains contiguity with the receiver, and then diminishes in recession. That is to say: we notice something, there is a dawning awareness of what that something is that becomes increasingly revealed until, upon realizing what it is, withdraws from our attention. This syndrome is mirrored in the psychic Doppler where we sense something in our depths, feel it welling in our awareness and experience its climax at the instant of total revelation, before it gradually settles down in our subconscious minds. This explosion of consciousness permeated each of the above summarized episodes: The realization that the man and the toddler in the photo were the very ones I was then in the company of; the recognition that the old woman in the photograph was holding the very thing I was holding, one hundred and some years down the pike; the revelation that I had incomprehensibly found my way to a bulletin board in Israel upon which glared my very own name; and, the insight that resulted years after the fact when the mysterious solution to the phantom spider’s mask came to me. “Explosion” is not too dramatic a word to describe the climactic moments of these happenings: they are the peak experiences of a long life; and, the most mysterious. Moreover, they reflect the very condition of existence, the anatomy of revelation and the source of prophecy. They exist in every moment of our lives, behind the myriad veils concealing their secrecy. Every moment of existence contains such an event, laying in wait to ambush us with every drop of blood that beats us. They are the authentic essence of our lives. Or, I hasten to add, so I believe.


Yet, one more incident, perhaps more potent in terms of my artistic development than all of the above, needs inclusion here. But first let me say something about radical amazement, a term I use to describe the extravagant claims we often make for coincidence in our personal lives. As in:


“I was thinking about her, the phone rang, I picked it up, and it was her. Can you believe that?”


Bargain basement scraps of experience that we soon forget. Yet we enthusiastically cite these cut-rate happenings as examples of our specialness and that of our synchronous events.


Now, consider the kinds of incidents I have described above: events that impart their wisdom in such shocking ways as to carve their impressions into our minds forever. They shatter and disorient us in the wildness of their uniqueness. In these instances we really have something to crow about! And here is my point regarding radical amazement: we don’t crow, if we know what’s good for us. We don’t brag and boast about how special our experiences are. We keep mum. We drink our silence in contemplative ecstasy. We use these gifts as opportunities to pray. And later, to endlessly engender them in the transformative visions we express as our art.




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