What Rises From RemainsInterviews
[This interview originally appeared in Poor Yorick on January 27, 2016]
What Rises From Remains
An interview with Ian Boyden by Melissa Gordon
A gravitational field has no boundary; there are areas of concentration and areas of attenuation extending out infinitely.
Ian Boyden’s latest exhibition, Tripod Complex, breathes life into a forest ravaged by fire. In 2006, central Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee forest erupted in fire that lasted for months burning over 180,000 acres of forest. Boyden’s exhibition recreates remains of the forest with stunning detail—the images of black spires are printed using ink containing carbon remains Boyden gathered from the forest. These images of black spires from the charred forest allow us to journey both into our interior and out into our environment. Boyden’s visionary artistry allows the trees, through their carbon remains, to “come to life” and inspire us to connect to nature, to each other, to the environment.
I have been following Boyden’s work since I interviewed him for Poor Yorick about his book Sidereal Heart, made from a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. When I found out Boyden was travelling from his home in Washington to his alma mater, Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, to exhibit Tripod Complex, I was ecstatic to be able to view more of his work in person.
Looking back, I see how eager I was to find a story for Poor Yorick and how unexpectedly I stepped into a personal opening: a different awareness of self and my relationship to myself and the environment.
Melissa: Meditation 1
When I walked into the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies on the Wesleyan University campus, I stepped into the room where Tripod Complex was on display and found myself surrounded by the Nirvana Scroll. The scroll, wrapped around three walls, contained images of fire-burned trees from the Tripod Complex forest fire. The images, printed on a white background, use ink made from carbon Boyden scraped from the trees. Magnetic energy clung to the room. I stood in front of the scroll and slowly walked the perimeter of the room. I stood 3 inches from one of the twisted black spires studying the burn lines, scars, knots, and chars. In one of the fire-cut-lines, I saw soft feathers. I saw a knot burned, and I could somehow feel where the fire had taken hold—I was startled. Afraid I might block someone’s view, I backed up and found myself next to a woman bouncing on her toes, her eyes wild. She said, “Doesn’t it feel alive?” I looked at the burnt trees and the carbon ink painting the remains. I was consumed by the invocation of the force of fire and of the charred trees still standing after a ravaging blaze. I looked at the woman, and I said, “This is a map of the brain on fire.”
I walked in the ruins—
ravaged spires turned black by fire.
My brain leapt: alive.
Melissa: How is it that surrounded by death we can feel so alive? Does it have to do with how our brains are wired to consider dichotomy? Does it have to do with the idea of a tree we usually associate as green and alive now standing before us black? Perhaps we are moved by the devastation of a raging fire, a force beyond our control?
Ian: I first walked into the aftermath of the Tripod Complex fire in the summer of 2007. This was a massive fire that burned 180,000 acres of north-central Washington State in 2006. I originally went to this area to hike a trail that a guidebook said was one of the most beautiful hikes in the Northwest. I was prepared to encounter a pristine alpine forest. I guess I was expecting something idyllic. But when I got there, I found much of the forest transformed by a massive fire the year before. No shade. The fire had consumed most of the canopy, leaving only the partial remains of trunks. These were black, their surfaces charred, looking like black scales of a dragon, like some sort of samurai armor. The imagination loves to deform what we perceive, change it into something else, change its agency—that is the mind at play. But in that first walk up Tiffany Mountain, I experienced a really destabilizing reversal—it was as if the imagination had sped before me and deformed the world before I had a chance to see it for myself. And so it was that I spent that first hike walking through a forest and trying to imagine it as green, lichen-encrusted, shadowed and maze-like. I was trying to deform a burned forest into a living forest, or at least what I thought it should be. I don’t know if this speaks to your question about feeling alive, but I hadn’t ever felt alive in that way before.
Melissa: I imagine this experience made you want to explore this sensation more. How did your mind wrap itself around what the environment offered you?
Ian: I’ve returned to Tripod Complex many times since—enough times that I’ve started contemplating the act itself of returning again and again. I don’t think I would question returning to a beach, a waterfall, a redwood forest—any place understood as conventionally beautiful. But I find this charred forest incredibly beautiful, though I would like to use a different word. But there isn’t a word. Tripod Complex is an aesthetic mystery. Tripod Complex is like an inscrutable sage. Again and again, it seemingly refuses meaning, refuses understanding, refuses interpretation. And yet, when there, it is riddled with all these things I have spent my life looking at and thinking about: Chinese paintings, ink, carbon, calligraphy, sculptural form within nature, material transformation, fire, weird light, and so forth.
It’s as if my mind were offering these things up to the forest. Like this? How about this? This? Maybe that’s the nature of something striking the mind and the mind striking back. Sometimes what is struck rings; sometimes it shatters. At times it feels like my mind becomes a kaleidoscope, all of these things in shards, bits joining bits, mirrors within mirrors, some sort of infinite spectral mass. Maybe the environment is not refusing anything. It accepts everything. The landscape is like a giant grouper floating there in the column of it all. Just quietly waiting to inhale whatever my mind throws out. Then silence.
Anyway, I like your question. I’d like to tackle it from a different direction. In these moments when we really feel alive, it seems one or more of our sensory apparatuses are totally on, vibrating, doors are opening. Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin are always on, of course, but at these times the mind is actually receiving the impulses and responding. Something from within is blooming. So let that happen for a while. And don’t say a word! Don’t even think a word. . . ha ha. Hopeless. Inevitably, language creeps in.
Melissa: What words have you tried in the place of beautiful?
Ian: It’s a real challenge to find a word that doesn’t have an aesthetic referent from some other experience, something external that is emplaced on the experience and thereby determining it by something other than what it is. Rather, I’m looking for words that rise out of the specifics of experiencing fire. These are words that we don’t typically think of as aesthetic terms. At first they seem odd or overly private or academic. . . whatever. My hope is that if we practice them, they might take hold. One day, I stood on a ridge leading out to Tripod Peak contemplating what does the green forest share with the burned forest share with the viewer who beholds the burned forest while remembering the green forest. . . when I found myself alternating the words: stand and understand. I return to stand in a stand of trees, of burned trees still standing. I suppose I do so because, as you so rightly state, I feel oddly alive there. I want to understand it.
You know, understand is an apparently odd word. Why would anything be clarified by standing below something? And I initially discarded this word because things aren’t clarified by imposing hierarchy. It turns out, though, that the under– of understand is actually unter– from Latin inter-, so it means not to “stand under,” but to “stand among.” I really love this image and it very much describes the act of trying to make sense of the burned forest—you have to stand within the landscape, stand within that which is still standing, within the memory of that which stood, within the mind that orients vertically through gravity again and again and again. Stand among the trees and hold a cone, some future tree I’ll likely never see. I love that these two words are about the very process of curiosity and observation and not about the result. So often we confuse the effect in our mind of what we perceive with the actual act of perceiving itself. In this exhibition, I want the viewer to experience some of that inter-standing, hence the scroll wrapping around the room.
Melissa: Meditation 2
The trees in the Nirvana Scroll invited me to engage with them. I started by focusing on the black of the spires. The blacker section of the knots, the deepest cut burn lines, the darkest char. I kept thinking about how the black was the actual carbon from these trees. My attention moved to the white sections, the fibrous paper scroll that didn’t contain the carbon, the part that seemed to me to hold air, or hold “absence of fire.” I wanted to crawl into the scroll, climb one of the spires, and sit in the curve of white space. Now my brain, activated by the dichotomy of black and white, turned to Jacque Derrida’s belief in deconstruction, the philosophy that states: we can only derive meaning based on the contrast of two words. Is there a way to obtain unmediated expression of an idea, of an emotion, of life, of death? Boyden suggested yes.
I realized I was standing 3 inches from the scroll, studying, analyzing, searching for the minutest detail of curiosity, meaning, of something outside of me that would alight something inside of me. I needed to take a step back. I walked to the middle of the room and spun around 360 degrees following the unfolding of the scroll. The Nirvana Scroll. Why the word nirvana?
My mind was warm, pliable, and undulating, but at the same time there was stillness. An unmediated expression? All living matter contains carbon. I leaned toward the carbon ink. Life and death suddenly felt like something continuous. Later I looked up the etymology of scroll and “accidently” clicked on a link that led me to the etymology of evolution: the opening of a door, the unfolding, a gradual shift in direction. I looked up nirvana and saw that in the Buddhist philosophy it stands for a subject’s release from the lifecycle of birth and death, for a release from consciousness and desire. I wanted to wrap myself in the Nirvana Scroll.
Mist from my teardrops
unfold, swell, join the rainfall,
and darken the earth.
Melissa: The scroll, as you suggest, gives the viewer an opportunity to experience standing among the trees. I’m visualizing myself back in the room, surrounded by the trees. In fact, I can feel the roughness on my palm of that pine cone you talked about! And the stickiness of the sap. You mentioned gravity and how the mind is oriented vertically through gravity. Your exhibit gives us a way to understand in a way that relies on, as you say, “curiosity and observation” and not on scrutiny and analytic progression. Can you talk about how nirvana is fused into the scroll?
Ian: In 2011–2012, I had a fellowship at Suzhou University to put together primary materials for a manuscript on Chinese ink and ink-making. I took with me a giant bag of carbon from the Tripod Complex fire. My plan was to make traditional Chinese ink-sticks with it. But something else happened. I met some inkjet ink makers in Nanjing, and I commissioned them to make inkjet inks using the Tripod Complex carbon. I used these inks to print photographs of the same burned trees from which I had gathered the carbon. However, when I started showing my Chinese friends and collectors these photographs, one person after another looked at the images and then said this word: nièpán (涅槃), which is the Chinese word for nirvana. I didn’t understand it. Why did they keep saying nièpán? And why did they keep using it as a quasi-verb, nirvana-ing?
When I looked up nirvana, it was as if I were encountering a new world: extinguishing as an act unfolding. All these years, I had unconsciously conflated nirvana with the Judeo-Christian heaven. Instead, here was a philosophical invitation. I love to trace etymologies to see how they might enrich my understanding. In Chinese, this word is composed of two characters: niè 涅 and pán 槃. Together, they’re a phonetic rendering of the Sanskrit word nirvāṇa, but whoever translated it chose characters that had some visual significance that relates to Buddhist philosophy. Niè means to blacken, or black mud. And I liked that, I could see a relationship to the carbonized trees. In pán, you’ve got the circle of life, of the causation of things spinning around on top of a tree. And I thought that had some good resonance with my project as well—if the tree were to burn, the wheel would stop spinning. But there’s an alternate writing of pán, which is totally fascinating. It consists of two circles, one circle within the other. A friend of mine who’s interested in sacred geometry told me, “Oh, this is the self within the universe,” which dovetails rather beautifully with my thoughts regarding the relationship between self and environment. So, I made this seal where you have the self expanding into the universe like the ripples from a stone cast into a pond.
Then I began to wonder if that original Chinese translator had perhaps followed the original Sanskrit etymology? It turns out that even 2,000 years ago, the etymology of nirvāṇa was in contention, but that one of the primary etymologies means “the extinguishing of the forest”—the forest being the forest of perceptions, the forest of desires, the forest of our mental activities. And that totally blew my mind. I couldn’t believe these photographs of an extinguished forest from the Pacific Northwest were burning away inside the minds of my Chinese friends, inspiring them to say nirvana when looking at them. You see, in Chinese, there is no extinguishing of the forest locked up inside the Chinese word nièpán. That etymology is lost in Chinese. Yet, here were these images of an extinguished forest that are visually cognate with the original Sanskrit etymology, so everything had come full circle. When I told my Chinese friends about this connection they were quite excited.
It is hard to dismiss something like that as pure chance. I felt I was given a great gift, that something really large was at play, and I needed to pay attention to it. I felt I must not limit these images to being simply fantastic visual statements of my material exploration of carbon. Instead, I wanted to let them do what they were doing already—and that was leading us into a contemplation of nirvana. Who knew a hike in the North Cascades would result in such a wonderful opening to such a wonderful complex of thoughts?
Melissa: You’ve taken the images of these spires and created them as individual pieces for other exhibits. Why have you chosen to display these spires differently in different exhibits?
Ian: The differences in format can be attributed to my responding to the space where they are exhibited, but more importantly the different formats are a result of my trying to express a relationship to the trees that changed rather radically for me—a developing relationship between idea and the material/format of that idea’s expression.
Many of the burned trees are very powerful sculptural statements, and some of them are wonderfully anthropomorphic. At first, I saw these giant burned sculptures as totem poles—those giant anthropomorphic sculptural carvings that dominate the southwest coast of British Columbia. These are objects of power; you are standing in the presence of gods. It is hard to stand inside a burned forest and not see each tree as some sort of entity, a forest of giant gods, Titans. You are dwarfed in a realm that is so overwhelming—the amount of energy in a forest fire is simply impossible to comprehend. It’s really hard to wrap the mind around the god of fire.
When the images became linked to nirvana, that relationship shifted in an unusual way. The whole forest became flooded with a sense of fundamental equality. Before I had seen totemic gods; now I saw an invitation to see myself in them. The tree is thus. I am also thus. The self attenuating into the trees, embracing the burned forest. I began to look for ways I could bring these images into parity with the viewer to make that invitation to equality clear. Another part of my life is dedicated to books and bookmaking. I really love non-codex forms and the way they shape our experience. With scrolls, you generally experience them horizontally or vertically. And there is a different way of relating to information in a scroll. Unlike a codex, all the information in a scroll is on a single plane.
A few months ago, I had an exhibition at the Anderson Foundation for the Arts where each tree was presented individually as a single vertical scroll. Each tree was an individual within its own separate field. Each scroll was seven or eight feet tall, but the actual tree within was about six feet tall—basically the size of a human. I wanted that correspondence. And it made sense in the space.
The Anderson Foundation for the Arts is a big warehouse space with a giant long wall about 50 feet long. So I lined these scrolls along this wall to make a single giant piece that was 40 or so feet wide presenting ten trees. I loved this piece—austere, muscular, calligraphic, monumental—but something was also missing—you know something is always missing—which is okay. And this is why it is important to allow these ideas to unfold in radically different types of venues. Each place presents an opportunity for different aspects of a body of work to emerge. The gallery at Wesleyan is intimate, really a very human-scale room, domestic. The room presented an opportunity to embrace this experience of standing among, of the overwhelming multitude of the forest. And for that, I really didn’t want the trees to be isolated each in their own separate space of paper. I wanted them all together in a continuous field.
Melissa: Meditation 3
I returned to the exhibit a week later. I wanted to experience it again. I was the only one in the room when I got there, aside from the college student sitting at a desk in the front of the room standing guard. I decided to sit in a corner of the room facing the first third of the scroll. I opened my notebook to write a poem, and I stared at the page. I looked around the room, and I heard this static noise coming from the speakers in the ceiling. I was annoyed by the disturbance of silence until I realized the noise was of a fire crackling, snapping, and roaring. The fire sounded massive. I wanted to throw my water (though I had been asked to leave my water bottle outside the exhibit room) onto the speakers and stop that noise. The black spires stood, already ravaged, and I thought about the noise as a constant reminder of the rape and death they had experienced. Suddenly I felt extremely anxious. Then, I remembered the trees couldn’t hear the fire, and I got irritated by my need to personalize them and give them human emotions and reactions. I got irritated at my egotistic view of the world and building my perspective from only human senses.
As a poet, I’m always searching for what is unseen, what is beyond the capabilities of our five senses to show us. Yet, I don’t often accept what I can’t logically tease out. Don’t we connect with other living things somehow beyond what our ego and our consciousness present to us? In my frustration, I abandoned rationalizing the whole thing and thought, “This recording is the nightmare these trees experienced. This anxiety I’m feeling, this sense of horror… I am mourning for the trees.”
I started drawing. I don’t draw. For the next hour, I drew one of the spires with my pencil. I only cared about drawing the tree, the burn lines, outlining the white spaces inside, shading darker the most charred segments. I drew as I listened to the pretend fire. What was most alive to me was what was on that piece of paper, my drawing, my experience with the exhibit that didn’t have words.
Brains do not come filled
with words that wait to be found:
we put them in there.
Melissa: Is there a connection we see to what is going in our brain, a connection between the black spires and our synapses constantly slow burning (a 90-year roast, give or take, with the span of our life)? Perhaps the black spires are similar to physical shapes our mind encounters in the brain?
Ian: It seems everyone experiences moments when an ocean, the earth, our galaxy, the universe, whatever, becomes a brain: Hey, check it out—there are as many neurons in the human brain as there are stars in the Milky Way! So cool. Can’t be a coincidence. And so forth. . . . And, if that is actually true, that would be really cool—a sublime mathematical fractal where this neuronic mass that generates our sense of self corresponds to this luminous four-armed entity that’s 900-thousand light years across. Oh, and that we’re a part of. I’m open to it. But why the number of neurons in a human brain? Why not a hummingbird brain? Or is the hummingbird’s galaxy different?
What interests me is why we want to see these correspondences. And I think there is something fundamentally really wondrous at play in this desire, and that is empathy. Our brain is wired for empathy, but we don’t really know how to practice it, how to develop it. Our culture isn’t particularly keen in fostering it. Something is in the way. Recent research into the brain has revealed a whole class of neurons that fire in response to what we see, telling us that we are actually experiencing it ourselves. These are called mirror neurons, or empathy neurons. Melissa, pick up that cup of tea and take a drink. Okay, the empathy neurons in my brain are telling me that I am picking the cup up myself. It is the lack of neural response from my own hand and arm, my lips and esophagus that inform my brain that I am not drinking tea. So if I could get rid of this feedback loop of a body, I could be experiencing everything I see, hear, smell, touch as nothing other than my own doing, my own self—only the very sense of self would likely vanish as there would be no need. Once one boundary like that collapses what then, what would our world matrix be like under such conditions? This raises so many crazy questions about what constitutes the self. Am I drinking tea? Or am I not drinking tea? Am I drinking tea and also not drinking tea?
So it is with these trees. My body or reason is telling me I am not a burned tree. But all those trees are standing there, a giant blackened grove in my visual cortex, wind rustling a leafless canopy in my auditory cortex, clouds of smoke roiling around my olfactory bulb. They replicate with every encounter. Perhaps we feel so alive, as you put it, because a vestige of unusual or unfamiliar empathy—of actually being a burned tree—lingers around the experience. A penumbra of empathy.
Melissa: The idea of our brains being wired for empathy is quite intriguing. It’s also intriguing to consider the possibilities of the boundaries of self collapsing. In your gallery talk you briefly mentioned the Buddhist philosophical doctrine of no-self. Can you talk about how that relates?
Ian: Absolutely—there is a profound relationship and it’s one that took me by surprise. This exhibition can be many things; it will exist for each viewer in its own way. But I hope, and without over-determining someone else’s experience, that they understand that this installation is an expression of a set of meditations on the relationship of the self to the environment. In particular, I’m taken with the metaphor of extinguishing, and the rather counterintuitive idea that extinguishing the self is a means for us to recognize ourselves as inseparable from the environment. Anyone familiar with Buddhist philosophy will quickly see this as an implementation of the doctrine of no-self (Sanskrit: anātman; Chinese: 無我). This is the belief that the self is illusory and that we must proceed by throwing it away. So difficult! But I’m jumping ahead. My opening to such thought wasn’t sparked by gazing at a carved Buddha or reading some sutra. Instead, I discovered it through this encounter with the aftermath of the Tripod Complex fire.
As I mentioned earlier, within that environment, I encountered this aesthetic, which was incredibly seductive and almost impossible to reconcile. I returned to it again and again. I felt like a moth flying into the flame of a candle; only my own flight was inverted: I was flying into the extinguished remains of a forest. Pillars of carbon. Twisting black spires. Eventually, I reached a point where I knew if I were ever to make sense of this landscape, I had to shed my self—leave it on some rock, like the exoskeletal husk of a stonefly.
And it was in this context that someone suggested I look into the doctrine of no-self. You can imagine my surprise and delight to learn about it, and it was somewhat humbling to realize it had been there, right under my nose, the whole time. In my experience, it is not really discarding the self so much as it is a recalibration of self. Let me share something that I hope clarifies what this recalibration might be.
Recently, I was talking about this doctrine of no-self with my friend Ron Takemoto who, among other things, is a Buddhist priest, and we began to discuss what the “pure land” (淨土) of Pure Land Buddhism might be. He really caught me by surprise when he suggested “pure land” might not be a place as it’s depicted in so many murals. Instead, it might actually refer to a state of being, or a form of relationship. It might, in fact, be a visualization of the self, or no-self. Tǔ (土) is typically translated as “earth” or “land” and, by extension, a “place.” It has boundaries. It is discrete. But maybe that translation is misleading. What if we translate tǔ as “field”—not a field with grass, but a dynamic field, something akin to a magnetic field, or a gravitational field. A gravitational field has no boundary; there are areas of concentration and areas of attenuation extending out infinitely. Any spot within the field can be understood as relational to all the others. Before, I had conflated the self with the boundaries of the body. I now see the self as a dynamic field. The self blooms in relationship, and each of us resides in such blooming.
I suppose this exhibition, then, is an experiment in Buddhist ecology.
Melissa: You have an interest in carbon and use it to create a way for us to look within ourselves and then turn inside out into the world. What is it about carbon?
Ian: Carbon was the conduit through which I linked a burned forest to nirvana and ultimately realigned my understanding of self. In essence, it’s a material that has led me on a journey inward; it has opened doors to rather beautiful mysteries. Were I alone in this experience that would be one thing, but it’s significant that carbon has been the conduit for untold thousands of people to make similar discoveries. In particular, I’m referring to the literati painters of China, Korea, and Japan; these are the masters of monochromatic art—all rendered with carbon ink.
Within China there is a division between the colorists and the monochromatic painters. Colorists typically concentrate on the outside form of things, the opulence of the visual world. In contrast, the monochrome artists are driven to articulate the kernel or essence within a thing—that’s the qi 氣, the spirit. It’s amazing that they are capturing this essence with carbon, amorphous carbon. It’s possible that there is this unspoken aspect to carbon ink that just leads to a desire to look for the hidden, to use the blackest black to reveal what we can only intuit. It’s as if carbon is a material that incites empathy.
In addition to making all these photographs with carbon from the fire, I’ve also made a large body of paintings using this carbon, which I collectively title Meditations on the Breath of Trees. When you look at these paintings, you’ll see varying concentrations of ink that appear to be moving. The ink moves through capillary forces within the paper fibers—those fibers of the paper are doing what the fibers did when they were in a living tree. The ink is moving through hydrostatic pressure, through positive and negative pressures of whatever binders I’m using. The ink is moving by gravity. I’m painting in collaboration with the entire Earth! I see all of these forces as tools—a lot of the tools I employ are things that we might not actually think of as tools. We always think it’s got to be a brush. What a preposterous position to take. Why can’t I understand my own breath blowing on this thing as a tool? We tend to think of material and process as separate; that boundary has become completely provisional for me at this point.
In these paintings, I used all of these processes using inks made with carbon from the Tripod Complex fire. Eventually, the paintings began to look like forests—forests breathing vapor, forests cloaked in fog, forests walking with legs of ink, forests dissolving in moonlight, inklight, forests on fire. I’m there, not there. No either/or. Just and/and. I think that is more akin to the essence of a forest, of the self. They’re works on paper that grew over time, and they came into being using the same forces that affected the growth and demise of the forest! That was my solution for capturing that qi, that energy, that life force which I think all of us are aware of but we have no way of naming. But to say that I capture it is a folly. The moment you think you’ve grabbed it—it escapes. Quite fortunately, really.
Melissa: Meditation 4
After I was done drawing my spire, I walked over to the image Tiffany Mountain. I looked at the crispy matchsticks, carbon on paper—a forest originally vibrant with life, now a blanket of death. I sat at the front of the room facing the scroll and pulled out my iPhone to look up tree root systems. I was grasping at an idea that there was something alive beneath all the devastation around me. The roots. Could they still be alive? Thinking about roots, I looked down and was distracted by the floor: hardwood, shiny, golden honey brown slabs of dead wood beneath the charred forest of this exhibit.
I did a Google search and came across a fact about aspens—their roots can burrow deep, and though individual trees may live up to 150 years, the roots can live thousands of years and continue to produce shoots that become tree trunks, branches, and leaves. Another Google search helped me learn that the Tripod Complex fire destroyed lodgewood pines that were beetle infested, their roots weren’t as deep. I started to think about the overwhelming complexity of 180,000 acres of forest being scorched. It wasn’t just the trees, but the animals that lived there, the insects, the ecosystem, the landscape, everything changed. How many years before green reappears? Is there anything still alive? I was fascinated by all of the connections I couldn’t see. In further reading about the root system of trees, I read about how different trees reach out their roots and graft with other tree roots to share resources for sustenance. I envisioned the thousands of trees in the forest all physically connected for survival.
When I was done viewing the exhibit, I walked to the desk in the front of the room to thank the student for letting me view the exhibit. I said it was a good job getting to view the exhibits that came through the center, and he told me there was just so much sadness in this exhibit: a dead forest spanning in front of him.
We meet as light deep
in the brain, our eye constructs
such a tiny ray.
Melissa: Can you talk about how you view the root systems of trees and the regeneration of a forest after a devastating fire? Do you think that our brains are aware of “what lies beneath the surface?”
Ian: We are capable of awareness of subterranean mind. But just small slivers of it. And this shouldn’t be mysterious, because we are in a sense of the earth; our bodies are basically sacks of soil that are highly mobile. So it would be really surprising if we didn’t have the capacity of awareness of what we have come from!
My awareness of awareness is often accompanied by a visceral experience of my mind changing shape or structure. I think my first concrete experience with subterranean awareness of self happened when I was ten or eleven. My mom would drop me off at school on her way to work. It was always earlier than the school would open, by 45 minutes or an hour—a really long time when you’re a kid. And it was on the Oregon coast, usually dark and wet, with this salty-fungal atmosphere. And for whatever reason, I began to stand outside of my grade school and image myself as a tree. I would imagine roots growing out of my feet, pushing through the earth, two tap roots, merging to one, and then branching out again—like an inverse tree mirror of me. I would turn into a tree—until the janitor or secretary would poke their head out the door and call me in.
So our mind is really a root system and rooting mechanism. The mind of the forest remains in the ground after a fire. Talk to any mushroom fanatic and they will talk about how they love to wander burn sites the year after a fire because mushrooms are all over. That’s what we see above ground, but each mushroom is just a tiny fruit of a huge subterranean organism. An organism made of thin fibers called mycelium. And I think after a fire these mycelia go into overdrive, preparing the soil for a new aerial expression of forest. They are neurons of the forest. If you were to take a time-lapse, you could watch this incredible structure billowing up out of the ground, billowing and subsiding, a succession of wildflowers, vines, bushes, various trees, and then fire again. And then the billowing begins again. All the while the mycelia are conducting from within the ground. Conducting a great symphony.
Melissa: What strikes me is the contrast of responses I heard while viewing the exhibit. The first time at the exhibit, there was the woman who couldn’t stop bouncing and kept telling me the spires were alive. And then, there was the student who felt like death was staring at him, and myself, a poet, couldn’t find words to describe my engagement while surrounded by the scroll. I’m curious, what have others shared with you about their experiences with your exhibit?
Ian: The burned trees are nothing more than what they are. Their evocative power has to do with their position within our own state of being or knowing. We bring to our experience that which delights us, that which we don’t understand, maybe what we fear, or what we want to avail ourselves to. If I were to choose the association that has posed the greatest challenge for me personally, it would be that of self-immolation. As soon as I began to equate these trees with the self, began to meditate on burning, carbon, and extinction, then the subjects of cremation and self-immolation began to open up everywhere.
I had no idea there was a long tradition of meditating on charnel grounds in early Buddhist tradition. Nor had I ever given any serious thought to self-immolation. But there they are: subjects spread all over the Buddhist world, and self-immolation is certainly very alive today in Tibet. Our news media refers to self-immolation as suicide. But it isn’t suicide. It is sacrifice. It is a catalyst that causes a shift for the betterment of society.
Several years ago, I asked Sam Hamill (the American poet who founded Poets Against War and founding editor of Copper Canyon Press) if he could identify a single moment when he became dedicated to peace. He told me it was reading about Thích Quảng Dúc’s self-immolation in 1963. Hamill was 20 at the time and a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan. And this one act by a Buddhist monk thousands of miles away shifted his mind—for Hamill, poetry, politics, the act of publishing have never been separate since. They are each other. But very, very few people recognize the depth of Hamill’s realization, which is quite a shame. He wrote an extraordinary poem about this a few years ago, “True Peace.” Have you read it?
Melissa: Yes, “True Peace” really is extraordinary. Has self-immolation affected your mind in a similar way?
Ian: For most of my life I was unaffected by these accounts; they all seemed from a distant world. But, then I unknowingly prepared myself to encounter these ideas in a strange way. For the last several years I have been making self-portraits out of food that I give back to the environment. I’ve made self-portraits out of dried anchovies and marshmallows that I’ve given to the night to be eaten by black bears. Seed heads that are eaten by birds. Deer, raccoons, fish, rats, slugs, ants. . . you name it. I don’t see the portraits as separate from myself. They’re an offering.
My question was what sort of material equates with the self? And what I found was there was no material equation, that my question was based on my belief that the self is unchanging and tied to the body. But it’s not. So I threw that belief away. And I began to see expressions of self only making sense when the boundary between material and process dissolves. Never-ending change, billowing cloud, billowing fire. And after that, when I read of Thích Quảng Dúc once again, I saw a thread sewn through that began to have meaning in my own life. And more recently, when I began to read Tsering Woeser’s writings about self-immolation in Tibet, the implications of these acts really began to sink in. I have really felt my brain reorganize around this awareness. I suppose to be aware of the ripple effects, you have to be able to see the water. When you are firmly committed to fundamental equality, each act has political and social resonance.
You see, self-immolation is not suicide because it is not about harming the self. The basis of the act starts from the point of understanding that the self and the body are not correlates, strictly equated with each other. I don’t know Sanskrit, but at least in Chinese there are various terms “abandoning the body,” “forgetting the body,” “relinquishing the body.” My self-portraits (that I talk about in my recent TEDx talk) are a step toward abandonment of the body, as a method of clarifying the self. I think these acts have been the catalysts of very profound shifts in my own mind in the last few years. Enough that my earlier self seems something of a stranger.
Melissa: Meditation 5
At one end of the scroll, sits your self-portrait entitled Half Boat. You took a maple tree stump and carved a self-portrait and then set it on fire. I saw the self-portrait online before I went to the opening reception, and I was careful to walk as far away from the maple figure as possible upon first entering the exhibit room. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able stop myself from touching it. When I first viewed it online, I actually felt myself shift in my seat, and I instinctively reached; I wanted to touch it. When I got to the exhibit, I stood looking at Half Boat from across the room. I could see a knot in the temple that appeared extra charred. Feeling as if I had my physical body under control and clasping my hands behind my back, I walked closer to it for a better look.
There were many people in the room, and I knew I wouldn’t dare touch it with everyone looking. There was a split in the temple by that blackened knot that intrigued me. I could see into the head, just a little: beyond the surface char, into a bit of tan-colored wood, and then a flash of something more, deep inside. I stepped back. I walked back to my spot across the room because now my urge was to touch my lips to the split of the self-portrait to see what the crack in this piece of earth would feel like. I felt confused as my senses were longing to explore, but at the same time, I didn’t have words rushing to the surface of my mind trying to explain what I was feeling.
Upon my return visit, I scoped out the cameras in the room and the position of the student sitting guard in the room. I was trying to decide how close I could get to the split in the temple. After casing it out, I wondered what I was doing. What I had experienced as such a strong urge before, to touch the self-portrait, to FEEL it in my hands, I didn’t feel it anymore. I didn’t feel the need to touch it because, well, I was touching it somehow.
When I walked out of the center, my eyes were filled with the vibrant changing leaves on the maple trees outside. I felt still inside while my optic cones exploded. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t have to.
The senses scream,
we must discover. While deep inside
we already know.
Melissa: That brings us to your piece Half Boat. You carved this self-portrait from the stump of a tree, and then you lighted it on fire, watched your self burn. You gave your self over to the element of fire, the same element that ravaged the forest. Can you tell us about this extension of your self-portraits, the importance of the materials and the interaction with different elements and life forces?
Ian: I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about Half Boat because Half Boat isn’t finished with me. We’re both still green. Seriously. I’ve been asked why I didn’t use a piece of wood from the Tripod Complex fire. The answer is that all of those trees have been dead for nine years and are totally dried out at this point. I really wanted this self-portrait to burn while the wood was green, just like the trees in the forest when the fire struck. It was more important to me that the starting point for the sculpture be green wood.
And, I didn’t want to kill a tree. No one is harvesting trees from that area of the Okanogan National Forest right now. So I got this piece of maple from a guy who was taking out a tree on his property to make way for a shop or something. It was a living tree just a couple of months ago. What this means is that this self-portrait is going to keep drying throughout the exhibition, for many years actually. And as it dries, it will change form, most likely check and crack open. You can already see many cracks opening here and there, and you can see the yellow of the unburned wood is gleaming below the carbon. I don’t really know what will happen. Maybe minerals will encrust the surface as water evaporates. Maybe it will mold. I want whatever happens to happen. I want these surprises.
It is very much a part of the series of self-portraits I was talking about earlier. Only instead of this being made out of food for animals, this one is made out of food that I gave to fire. All of these portraits speak to the dispersion of energy through an environment. Sometime soon, I will calculate how many BTUs this portrait contains. I’d like to present a few equivalents. But I’m not sure what yet. I’d like for them to be atmospheric. Did you know that big forest fires actually create their own weather systems? The heat and moisture from the fire rises up into the atmosphere and at times create giant cumulonimbus clouds, sometimes generating lightning.
Melissa: Why does this self-portrait belong aside the scroll?
Ian: It was a philosophical choice, a bow to the ninth-century Chan master Linji Yixuan (Chinese, 臨濟義玄, d. 866). Summarizing his teaching methods, Linji wrote: “Sometimes I take away the person but do not take away the surroundings; sometimes I take away the surroundings but do not take away the person; sometimes I take away both the person and the surroundings; and sometimes I take away neither the person nor the surroundings.” What a delightful tetralemma! Each of the three pieces in this installation can be read in this light. In the Nirvana Scroll I removed the surroundings from the trees and printed them as a great mass of standing figures on a white ground—a study of their fundamental nature. I printed the images human-sized, so you could stand in the presence of the tree as an equal. I printed the entire scroll with pure carbon, so its surface is the same material as the surface of the burned trees themselves.
In Half Boat fire has taken the person away, rendered the surface such that it became carbonized like the surface of trees. I was looking to empathize with the mind of fire. I wanted to become the tree. But in its burning and the place where it was extinguished, the portrait became more universal: it could be anyone, it is simply a tree.
I named this self-portrait in honor of my teacher Chang Ch’ung-ho (張充和, 1914–2015), who introduced me to the wonders of ancient ink and whose own world was also deeply informed by Chan Buddhism. Half Boat was the name of her studio, and you will see a seal with that name imprinted on many of her works of calligraphy. I love the invitation in this name—the viewer becomes the boat’s other half—once both halves are united, the boat takes float upon the waters of the mind. Ch’ung-ho died a couple months ago, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot. She was a particularly significant teacher and a wonderful friend—I really miss her.
In this exhibition, Half Boat is looking back out across the room, past the Nirvana Scroll to that intimate photograph of the fire’s aftermath on Tiffany Mountain. Pure surroundings. This photograph is also printed with carbon. All of it is carbon.
We are our environment. The self and the environment are inseparable.