Up Close and Personal With Carol Armstrong – Part II
“The problem for human beings is that, as conscious animals, we have to think about our own future deaths, and wrestle with the concept of no longer existing, try to wrap our minds around that one. But the problem is a little bit alleviated, as is grief, if we forget about our consciousness, and just realize that we too are part of Nature, which is bigger and more important than us.”
A large smack of translucent jellyfish mechanically undulates in and around the pacific shoreline, cast against the sharp backdrop of a 35 million year old canyon that takes my breath away. It has witnessed far more than I can ever even begin to imagine. As an ancient witness to time immortal, the perilously rocky summit stares into the very eye of the sun itself… and doesn’t blink, not even once. Tired of squinting I am relieved to look away, but it seems to me to be both majestic and fearless and carries traits that humans can only dream of like staring directly into the sun for millions of years without flinching. I know that there must be billions of stories buried within each hard layer of rock just dying to get out…to burst forth in Pandora-like fashion and reach the light of day once more. I can almost hear the compressed echoes of millions of years of life while I imagine stories of exotic animals I have never seen and never will… of distant suns I can only dream of, and of humans I wouldn’t recognize or be able to communicate with. I think of their hopes and dreams, of their loves and lives lost and of all the frail pieces of a billion dramas that I can’t ever hope to pull out as they are stored too deep within the recesses of its hard, tomb-like surface. For the canyon contains but a small snapshot of a much bigger and older story about a universe whose vastness is impossible for me to comprehend in all its entirety. And that thought alone is enough to keep me busy for hours. I wonder what my life would sound like, played back 35 million years later by someone standing on this very same beach.
I look down at the water again somewhat distracted by my intruding thoughts…the jelly fish are still rhythmically moving… now they are ten feet away and float gently with the ocean currents creating the illusion of a large white blanket draped casually across the surface of the sea. The currents are a phenomenon that carry them continuously elsewhere as they scavenge for food in new places. I think of computer programming and binary codes and wonder, what is the code for staying together as a group while at the same time being pushed to drift slowly away and sometimes apart? Their long, razor thin tentacles reach in all directions much like thoughts travelling along a vast continuum might, while searching for a greater truth than itself. My mind then drifts to black holes, worm holes, the speed of light and how it is possible for a subject who travels at the speed of light to reach his or her destination at the very same time he or she departs for it. I wonder then if this could then be the mathematical equivalent of the phenomenon of transcendence. I ponder how to best express this idea thoughtfully.
While the vastness of the universe and its many oceans continuously enthralls me and keeps me wondering about all sorts of things, I am most profoundly moved by the sheer beauty of nature herself and am called up short because of all the questions I have that I know will go unexplored and unanswered because, sadly, even if I am blessed enough to live a very long life, I cannot ever live long enough to know everything I want to know. Yet I still wake up each day desperately yearning to try. Perhaps this is because, I have a driving need to make as much sense of life as I do of its disturbing darker twin: death. And I often think of the words of a famous person who once said, that unlike our birth into this world where we all enter through a mother, when we exit this world, we leave it completely alone. This thought makes me feel very small and insignificant, and yet is somehow strangely comforting as it implies that we belong to a much larger group of almost lemming-like beings who in the end have no choice.
I am half humming half singing the words to a well-known melancholy song by Kansas while a lone guitar slowly plays out the chords in the band of my mind. This time it is a song that was written by Kerry Livgren and released as a hit single in 1977, soaring to number six on the Billboard charts that year. The song, sung slowly and thoughtfully (in case you don’t know it from my brief description) goes like this:
“I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moments gone.
All my dream’s, pass before my eyes a curiosity.
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea.
All we do, crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.”
When these words began to softly spill through my mother’s car radio for the very first time, I was a young girl filled with all the youthful exuberance and feelings of immortality that tend to lustily charge straight up the back of the neck of a young person… so easily like a powerful electrical current, making them feel invincible. I remember manually cranking down the window, closing my eyes and letting the wind push back my long blonde hair until it was arranged well behind my shoulders in a rivulet of tangles. But those lyrics haunted me then as much as they do now because of the underlying poignant universal truth that Livgren so deftly captured in a song with extremely beautiful, well thought out harmonies. We are very small…we think we are big…our problems and concerns which seem looming at the time are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things as we will eventually disappear as quickly as dew does on the early morning grass in what promises to be a hot summer day. And although we may not know that the grass is so green because of the fleeting dew, ultimately we do know that the grass is more beautiful… and this is directly because of the fact that the dew once existed. This is a perfect example of how life presses on with or without us and how our existence on this earth folds and is absorbed into a much greater picture….or as Carol says, “the organic round of life.”
In part II of our interview, the reader continues along the path toward understanding the deeply spiritual mind and vivid world of Carol Armstrong, as she discusses the awesome nature of trees, seaweed, the deeply personal loss of her parents, old tombstones, what makes her a photographer and the sobering fragility of life. I have chosen to open the interview with a poignant piece written by her which I recently came across and found to be as profoundly beautiful as it is fitting for the beginning of this interview. And while flipping through Carol’s different photographs, I am once again reminded of that which draws me most deeply into her work. It is her gift of “vividness”… a gift that she gives the viewer each and every time…be it of shells, trees, rocks, water or a fragment of a stone sculpture. And it is ultimately this gift of “vividness” in which the potential to carry us to a much higher realm of being and understanding exists. And that furthermore, if somehow we can fully absorb the “vividness” in all its trueness, it will be as though we have grabbed life by the heels before it is too late for us to even try.
I found a rib-bone of some unknown creature on a Cape-Cod beach where debris from the sea was strewn. Seaweed of every shape and size, gelatinous filigree and thick straps of underwater frond, drying in salty heaps in the sun, tangled with a thousand other forms of erstwhile life. Serrated pieces of prehistoric crab, almost black against the algae’s crusted green and stinking brown. Delicate shards of calico crustacean, from porcelain pink to coral red. Clumps of mussels, still alive, living on each other, barnacle encrusted. A single half-shell of mussel, showing the iridescent blue of its inside against the fibrous black of its outside, a sudden flash of gleam. A fragment of moon-shell, just a jagged part of its domestic coil left after it crashed on the rocks and its mollusk-creature vanished from the home that it had toiled. An oyster shell sprouting other oysters on its rough-hewn back, chalky and pearly all at once. An ivory curl of egg-sacs from which baby shells had hatched. A dark, horned egg-case of shark or skate, pierced when its infant fled. Here a jelly-fish, there a dead bird, elsewhere a jellied ray. A creviced sponge, a bit of leaf, and the colorful plastic of human junk. The ocean’s graveyard and garbage-dump, the place where the water meets the land and constantly shifts its edge.
Was that rib-bone Adam’s, the one he gave Eve, after they were born together, as one, and then divided into two? Was it hers, before Adam gave her anything? Was it Aphrodite’s, who rose from the sea? Was it Euronyme’s, after she rose naked from Chaos, and divided the sea from the sky? Did it belong to Uranus, after he fertilized his Mother Earth, and his son Cronus threw his testicles into the sea? Was it Ondine’s, after the mermaid climbed from the sea to become a land-animal and mate with man, and then died, because it was an impossible dream? Was it male or female, or both or neither? Or was it just a shark, or fish, or seal? Was it of sea or was it of land? Was it dog or was it bird? Was it the amphibian who became a reptile in the Darwinian march from ocean to sand? Was it even a rib, or was it a wing? Did its creature fly or walk or swim? Was its element air or earth or water?
There are many beaches on the Earth, forming the perimeters of the oceans and seas that divide and join us. They all have their graveyards and garbage-dumps, though some have been scavenged and bared more than others. I’ve been to beaches at the tip of Africa, Caribbean beaches, Mediterranean beaches, California beaches North and South, beaches at the base of rainforests in the Pacific Northwest, Maine and Cape Cod and Jersey shore beaches on the Atlantic seaboard, a single Florida beach, a beach outside of Venice, Rio’s Copacabana beach, Istanbul’s Marmora Sea, and others. I have shells and other ocean oddments from most of them, except the childhood beaches, and the beaches that were bare of almost everything, except people and what they left behind them: in Southern California and Brazil. Each place is different, each edge of water leaves something different on its edge of land, each national shore and continental limit and marine threshold has its own particular combination of dried-up flora and fauna from the sea. Each has its own particular array of mineral leftovers, decaying to form the sand on which they are scattered. Over one of those many beaches I scattered the pale grey cinders of my father’s body, organs reduced to ashes that floated and washed away, his spirit departed. The rib-bone found on the other boundary of the continent was not his.
Let’s say the rib-bone was Aphrodite’s, after Euronyme gave it to her, and before she passed it on to Eve, a baton from one goddess to the other, before all the goddesses passed away. Venus on a half-shell, rising from the sea, scattering foam and seashells and seaweed wherever she went as evidence of her having been there: the foam where Uranus’s genitals fell, the seashells her cast-off embellishment, the seaweed her hair where she came from, in her scallop-shell, her underwater home. Oysters her testimony to the aphrodisia of the salty ocean: their slick venereal interiors her gift and her residue. Chicken or egg, creature or shell, how could she have come second, when the womb that bore hers was the sea, the sea the womb of the earth, and the night-sky the womb of both? Perhaps it was God the Father who divided them, but before they were divided it was the Womb of the Universe that bore them, and bore God too. Euronyme danced until Ophion was moved to couple with her, Mother Earth allowed Uranus to ejaculate on her until Cronus castrated him, Aphrodite rose, died and left her rib-cage on the shore, and then Eve picked it up and decked her insides with it.
But no, that rib was not my father’s, for his body burned, and his bones turned to ashes, and those ashes were scattered, over the Pacific not the Atlantic, and not the Aegean either. They were flung on the wind over the beach that he loved best, over the ocean that was his as a boy, when he was born in Marin County, California. The ocean that I love best is the other one, the Atlantic, connecting America to Europe, the old world to the new, the one that explorers and conquerors traversed from Spain and England and Holland and France and Portugal to lay claims to the shores on the other side. The beaches that I love best are the ones on Cape Cod, where I found that rib-bone. They are the beaches on which the great purple clamshell, the quahog, abounds, rather than the spiral cones and murex you find plentifully on the coasts of the Adriatic. They are the beaches of oysters and scallops and moon-shells and seaweed and horseshoe and calico crabs. They are among the northernmost beaches to which I have been, the beaches with sand-dunes, beach-grass and beach-roses, smooth beach pebbles and blue-grey driftwood, the color of the sidings of Cape Cod houses. They are the beaches on which I left the patriarch behind. They are the beaches on which everything washes up, and everything washes away.
On one of those beaches I found Eve’s extra rib-bone, the one she cast aside because she had too many. Adam did not give it to her, for Adam was both her son and her lover, just as Uranus was Mother Earth’s long before Adam and Eve, and Aphrodite was his great-granddaughter, descended from Euronyme. Mother Ocean, governed later by her son Poseidon, and by the she-ships captained by men that sailed upon her. Oceanic Aphrodisia, the veneration of Venus venera, Ondine of the waves, the siren song of Atlantis, the diastole and systole of the World, the pulse beat of the Atlantic shore. Cast up on the sand, to die there, where the water meets the land.
WRR: You capture trees in a way that allows the viewer to know and experience them all at once…if I lived on a planet without a single tree and wanted to see what one looked like, I’d have to hope that I’d have a Carol Armstrong image thrust before me so that I would not be missing anything after all. What do trees mean to you?
Carol Armstrong: I have been fascinated by trees ever since I first began making photographs, and found myself taking pictures over and over again of tangled branches, palm trees (when I was in California, and rows of palm trees struck me as looking like giant long-stemmed roses), and so on. That has continued. I don’t know what it is, exactly. It’s not that I’m some sort of Druid—though I rather like the idea that the photographs you’re talking about could be conceived of as Druid pictures. But I remember looking out the window one summer not long ago and thinking, wow!, trees are kind of amazing when you think about it: these living things that rise out of ground, and are sort of somewhere between a body and a building, and grow from something so small to something so large, and last so long—often much longer than we do—and yet seem to be insentient and are so impervious to us. They join the ground to the sky. Stuff grows on their trunks, like moss and lichen. And of course, they are so important to us—to life on Earth—in so many ways. And then, I think I’m just fascinated by the patterning of tree branches: the combination of some kind of organic logic of repetition, and apparent randomness, which operates everywhere in Nature, even inside us, in our circulatory systems, for example. I’m even tempted to think of tree branches, sometimes, as allegories for the human mind, or maybe just for my mind: searching through a tangle of thoughts to find some clarity. I like what you said about coming from another planet and seeing my pictures of trees. In my most recent photographs of trees, I wanted to give the sense of looking up in wonderment. I wanted the viewer to actually feel from the photograph how the green of leaves and moss and so on feels on a summer day. I wanted it to be vivid.
WRR: I am recalling a photo series, an “Epitafio” on old tombstones that you did awhile back. I remember how you captured the idea of non-permanence and the passage of time…headstones covered in moss, lichens…leaning forward or backward, partially crumbling stones marking lives long gone with names and dates that lay in partial occluded from our view. There is a poetic nod to the process of decay, both physical and to a large extent spiritual. As human beings, we obviously feel more comfortable with the death of a loved one by marking their grave with their worldly coordinates…name, birth, death, who loved them, etc. But we really can’t stop the whole process of decay or non-permanence, for as we all know, life marches on with or without us…your series really highlights this to me while at the same time it reinforces the very power of life itself because, as we can see, the verdant moss is very much alive, it is a testament to life growing so beautifully across the crumbling stone, weaving in and out of each letter leaving the viewer caught trying to read the names of the deceased…but we can’t as we have to struggle with a much greater reality at work here. What inspired you to do this series?
Carol Armstrong: Actually, “Epitafio” should have been translated back as “Epitaph”: it was just the Portuguese translation of my original title. The trees actually belonged with that series, which was a response to the death of my parents, within eight months of each other, several years ago. Originally, “Epitaph” was the title of a poem I wrote about my father and his death, when I was trying to deal with my feelings about his dying. Then, a couple of summers later, I was wandering around an old cemetery—some of the gravestones in it went back to the 18th century—and began taking pictures of moss- and lichen-covered gravestones, rocks and trees.
And I began thinking that it was, rather than morbid, oddly comforting—more comforting than actually visiting the graves of my parents would have been. (They were cremated, and we scattered their ashes off of some cliffs over the Pacific Ocean in California. I even photographed my father’s ashes, I guess as part of an effort to come to grips with what those ashes were—because they certainly didn’t feel like him, in any way.) In other words, the whole set of pictures together are meant to suggest the idea that this particular cemetery elicited in my mind: that life continues, that death is part of the organic round of life, that the commemoration of past life must always yield to the efflorescence of new life, as it does on those gravestones where the names eventually get covered over by lichen. And it made me realize that even the loved ones who are lost to us, continue in us, in our memories, but also in our bodies, and in the memories and bodies of our children, and so on. The problem for human beings is that, as conscious animals, we have to think about our own future deaths, and wrestle with the concept of no longer existing, try to wrap our minds around that one. But the problem is a little bit alleviated, as is grief, if we forget about our consciousness, and just realize that we too are part of Nature, which is bigger and more important than us.
WRR: In Seaweed I, the observer is able to view the subject, in this case a frond of seaweed, up close and in an entirely intimate way. The whimsical curve of the object is at once sensual, personal…the sand appears as though made from the finest velvet and the stones stand out like fine buttons on a dress. In Seaweed II, we are caught viewing the result of a wave flowing over the sand and pulling everything back toward the sea. The rocks stand out like small islands of hope clinging to ever shifting sands while the now somewhat crumpled seaweed takes on a whole different posture and it is the water that takes on a sensuous form. So in this instance we, the viewer, are left with the notion of ever shifting boundaries. What compelled you to take this series of shots?
Carol Armstrong: Well, that goes back to where we started in this interview. I simply love the ocean, the beach, beach-combing, being near the water, which is calming and self-transcending for me—and for many other people too, I think. I love the sinuousness of seaweed: I like the way you talk about it. I like the back and forth of the ocean as the tide and the waves go in and out—and what the ocean leaves behind. I like searching for lovely little things left behind for free—it’s a bit like shopping, but much better and much cheaper! And ever since I worked on the exhibition and book called Oceanflowers—at the Drawing Center in New York and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven—I have continued to want to do my own versions of what Anna Atkins was up to back in the 19th century with her beautiful blueprint photographs of seaweeds: I guess it started then. Finally, I guess ever since I was a kid and read Rachel Carson, I have been a bit of an amateur ecologist and natural-history enthusiast. Shells, in particular, are fascinating—and have long fascinated human beings—because they are these incredible works of natural art.
WRR: If you could focus on only one artist for the rest of your scholarly career and photograph only one subject, whom and what would you choose?
Carol Armstrong: That’s hard to answer, because I like so many different things, and one’s preoccupations naturally evolve over time. I expect to be working on Cézanne for a long time to come, and I still love Manet, and hope to do further work on his paintings. My favorite artist in the world has long been Vermeer, however, and I don’t expect that to change, though I don’t anticipate working on him. And my favorite art subject has long been still life—that’ll probably continue. But perhaps the best answer is this: I am currently working with a contemporary artist friend, the British artist Craigie Horsfield, on a long-term project, or set of projects, that concern “What Art May Yet Be,” as we are calling the book that we are presently working on together. His art—photographs (portraits, still-lifes, landscapes, street and other kinds of public scenes), photographic tapestries, films, soundworks—is absolutely incredible—I’ve never seen anything like it—and it gives me great hope for the future in all sorts of ways. I’ll be working with him for a long time to come.
*Carol will be having a show at the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers campus in Newark starting January 2010:
To view more of Carol’s art please go to:
Selected Publications Dr. Carol Armstrong:
Women Artists at the Millenium, coeditor and contributor, October Books, The MIT Press 2006.
Cézanne in the Studio: Still Life in Watercolors, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004.
Oceanflowers, The Drawing Center (New York) and Princeton University Press, Spring 2004, co-editor and contributor.
Manet/Manette, Yale University Press (London), 2002.
Scenes in a Library: Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875, M.I.T. Press (October Books), Fall 1998.
Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas, The University of Chicago Press, 1991. Republished as a paperback by Getty Research Center Publications in 2006.
Where Water Meet Land, with Fernando Azevedo and Leonard Kossoy.
Katherine is the host of the Mystic Pen Series. She holds an undergraduate degree from Berklee College of Music and a graduate degree from Harvard University. Her research interests are focused on both the significance and the impact of the aural and visual in cultures and societies around the world (as told through art and music) along with the nature of artistic creation itself. Her area of specialty is the transmission of Near Eastern motifs in Italian art.
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