John Grade and Anna Livia Löwendahl-Atomic
I met Swedish artist Anna Livia Löwendahl-Atomic over ten years ago in Berlin. We were sat at a little bar called Ankerklause, anchored at the Landwehr Canal, not far from the place of the last sighting of Rosa Luxembourg. While we talked, Anna Livia removed a screwdriver from her petite handbag and, without interrupting the flow of the conversation, skilfully unscrewed one of the screws that held the table leg, replacing it with the one she pulled out from her bag. Not much else transpired: we were still sitting at the same table, now quietly transformed into a locus of a discreet conceptual meditation.
This Too Shall Pass, the piece I witnessed at that table, was conceived in 2006 as a spontaneous artistic action. The artist, leaving a relationship, removed a single screw before departing from her lover’s apartment. She carried it with her until some other moment in the future when, guided by an entirely personal sense of presence, she replaced another screw found at the site with the one in her possession. The exchange repeats infinitely.
This Too Shall Pass describes a specific solitary path taken meanderingly through various intimate and public spaces, via personal homes or darkened restaurant rooms, from the shadows of someone’s doorways to the glare of an Israeli airport, from the cathedral in France to the public library in Berlin – meandering between the beginning and the end, designing thus passing life as a cognitive link that restores sense in a sea of all possible outcomes. This is, after all, the ultimate aim of art-making: declaring a definite out an indefinite, calling out life as spontaneous action, as a coherent, yet mortal particle in a world alive with biological immortality.
This minimal gesture of formal exchange constituting the art piece serves as a reflexive design which remakes the world, a pause in time and in what we call the reality. What is real in a moment that is already passing?
On the other side of the world, another reflective design takes place. John Grady’s Middle Fork is a tactile shell conceived as a reconstruction of the contours of a 140-year old hemlock tree located near the Snoqualmie River, east of Seattle. The shell is huge: made from pieces of recycled wood and with the help of over three thousand makers, it grew into an installation 32 metres long and over ten in diameter, and is still growing. Grade’s intention is that the structure, temporarily installed at the Museum in Seattle, will continue to grow to the exact proportions of the living tree until 2019, and to then be dismantled by its side and left to decay.
These two artistic actions are seemingly methodological opposites – one is a hidden gesture requiring a minimal intervention in space, while the other a totem of Pharaonic dimensions – but regardless of their size, their aim is the same: the experience of knowledge of entropy. Regardless of whether it comes from an installation visible from the moon or from a gesture reduced to whisper, they both represent the contemporary memento mori: philosophical and artistic question about transience of the world.
Memento mori, or anticipation of own disappearance, is one of the enduring themes in art. It reached its famous peak in the Flemish painting of the 16th and 17th century, as a reminder to the enriched Protestants of the transience of mortal life and the punishments of the afterlife. For centuries, the acceptance of mortality has been channeled through spirituality, which was then conducted through standardised troughs of religions and beliefs. This structured process demanded obedience and resignation, and ousted all questionings outside of the canon as taboo.
For centuries, art parries faith in an attempt to pose the questions limited by religion (causing cyclical persecutions of heresy, but also breakthroughs in humanism and knowledge). Memento mori is an antithesis of the religious dogma in that it awakens vivid imagination with an aim to provoke rational, sensual and spiritual understandings of flowering, decay and disappearance.
Like many times before, we live at the times driven by greed, passion and fear of wars, economic extremes or uncertainty, accumulating the sense of emptiness which rarely finds fulfillment. We resign ourselves to the everyday life, falling in step with our community, reconciling with the inevitable and leaving the awareness of transience to the schematics of faith or oblivion. Busy with the rapid pace of mediated events, most artists choose to comment or critique with tabloid mediocrity, leaving little room for the question: and then?
John Grade and Anna Livia Löwendahl-Atomic remind us that the act of creation is also the process of thinking about the passage of time, no matter how bitter or how sweet the moment, and no matter how epic may seem the act of raising the cathedral. In both artworks the final outcome is disappearance, but also the conferring of importance of that which is left behind. The power of memento mori is in imagining of the stream of life with or without us, in the experience of artistic contemplation that rewards us with transformative, ennobling and selfless shared consciousness.
By making peace with time, ageing has no power over us. John Grade invites us to invoke an even longer period of time – the time needed to produce an entire ecosystem, a system of a vast symbiotic and organic complexity which requires a balanced co-existence of entirely different species. Looking at Middle Fork we keep in mind an image of a living system which is possibly much more complex than our own, whose story begins long before ours and ends far beyond us, but whose existence depends on the tolerant coexistence with the human species.
This Too Shall Pass speaks not to our fear of disappearing but to the fear of taking the wrong step: fear that somewhere in our one-way current we may take a wrong turn, camouflaged with joy or pain, which will then go on to define us. Thus each minimal intervention serves as a point at which we pivot and make a decision, with a screw as a metaphorical pawn of the world of mechanical order. This reminds me of the parable about the left umbrella from Borislav Pekić’s epistolary novel “How to Quiet a Vampire”: it is the lowest clerk of the industrial order that often serves as an agent of dystopian absurdity. In a world where every gesture has the potential to mirror the macrocosm, a plain screw easily becomes a noise, a catalyst in the service of interference, irritating systems and processes in which we live thoughtlessly.
“Artists not only witness and articulate the world, they witness the means and process of witnessing”, wrote Hiroshi Sugimoto in “History about History”. Momento mori offers a way to take a reflective step back, not only as a recollection of impermanence, but as the awakening of conscience that life (always a coexistence) is led in flow much broader and more comprehensive than our understanding. At the time when every pause is a luxury, it reminds us to observe those steps that we take through the constellations of bright and terrible illusions, designing our lives and touching the spaces we shimmer through.