Nordic Vipassana

When Lars Strandh would spend a few moments each day gazing directly upward into the skies above Sri Lanka in October 2000, it confused those who witnessed this behavior. His seemingly monochromatic, deceptively simple, color-dense and usually square canvases also confused many of the artists from South Asia we were getting to know.  For the young artists of war-torn Sri Lanka, and rightly so one can say in their context, art was, even must be, political.  For Lars Strandh art is a process of awareness meditation.  It seemed odd to me that in a Buddhist country this sensibility was confounding, but then again neither Lars nor I lived in a country where fratricide had been, for all intents and purposes, a daily experience for two decades.  But his canvases also caused out-right aesthetic antipathy.  It dawned on us, as we learned more about where we were, that for many of the artists of South Asia what we in the West called “minimalism” had been completely absent from art education, even art history.  It was a kind of revelation, all around.
Today in Europe and the United States what’s confounding to the contemporary contemporary-art sensibility is that Strandh’s canvases usually are neither gargantuan, nor representational and, of course, they are not consumerist.  For Lars the location of contemporary art is, to use an old term first, existential and, then, also environmental.  I could also use the terms “here and now” and “primal.”  Or further still, “spiritual humanist” or samatha and vipassana.  So, let us redefine contemporary art from a “lifestyle” to a life, from a fashion-style to a process, an embodied process.  None of this is new.  But, keep these terms in mind.

“Scandinavia” as an idea in the United States has an evolutionary history as much as any other imported identity.  The early Swedish settlers along the Delaware River, in what are today the states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, were seen as minor imperial competitors among the others – French, Dutch, British.  Greater success came through Norwegian and Danish immigration to the land jutting (again) toward Lake Superior and points west in the verdant, fertile lands belonging to the upper mid-western Native Americans – Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota.  There “the plains,” whether rolling, undulating or truly flat, replicated some of the terrains of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, were their Lutheranism was successfully planted, and all by the mid-19th century.  Yet, one must wait until the post-World War II period for Scandinavia as an idea in the American mind to truly take form.  Prior to that, the idea was in fact embodied by masses of living, working people – farmers, artisans, clergymen.  The idea per se arrives with the designer and the auteur.  Bruno Matthsson (1907-1988), though introduced to America in 1939 at the birth of the Museum of Modern Art, first formed the aesthetic of smooth, cool, youthful and sensual furniture that became the aesthetic of what later became known to a general audience as “Danish Design.”  His own love for Denmark, particularly Copenhagen, legitimates some connection with the design appellation, but he was a Swede.  And for Americans, the distinctions were unimportant – it was all Scandinavia, and Scandinavian meant perfect coherence with untroubled abstraction and untroubling existentialism: rational, curvilinear, detached, blonde.  Unable to admit it in the burgeoning Cold War climate Americans also attached another affectionate sensibility secretly – if not enviously – admired: functionally socialist.  Probably more so than Matthsson in spreading the Scandinavian aesthetic into American homes was Hans Wegner (1914-2006), an actual Dane, whose fine wood chairs with rounded edges and  bucketed seats became both the standard and the knock-off counterfeits found in dentists’ offices and bomb-sheltered sub-division living rooms.  Watch any TV show or movie from or about the late-1960s and 1970s in America and there you will see them; visit any IKEA today and there you will find their bastardized shapes; try to buy originals on Ebay and you will spend a small fortune.  What carries on as the idea is important though: comfort, elegance, simplicity, spareness, well-thought-out, well-crafted, present, real.  These are the late-modernist furnishings your unrequited Danish love threw her long leg over, tossing back her sun-ripened blonde hair, laughing, even at a place on the Jutland that the rest of Denmark regards as a backwater.  Yet, in that chair in that moment she looked like a goddess and you thought you were in Valhalla because you carried the idea within you.  Such is the power of an idea and an image.

But, it is the auteur who injected the philosophical present tense into the idea, and that auteur is singular of course: Ingmar Bergman.  Yes, there was the odd titillation of “Swedish” movies in the 1960s, anything from real art (“I am curious”) to “Swedish” porn films, but even that only enhanced the idea for its genuinely modern, liberationist effect.  Bergman filmed the kind of Kirkegaardian existentialism that, perhaps, only the son of a Lutheran clergyman could do, whether dealing with the plague and family, faith and lust (both carnal and spiritual) in “The Seventh Seal” or despairing isolation and psychic repression in “Persona” or rather well-earned nostalgia in “Wild Strawberries.”  Because his films are all ultimately about the individual’s death they impressed Americans with an honesty that felt refreshing – so different from our history and cheap mass culture of slaughter of others and gratuitous, depersonalized movie violence.  And when Bergman’s subject was contemporary, Americans got glimpses of both a more refined version of life and a taste of simple, modernist style worn with a self-disciplined glamour more akin to grace.  It was all so secular to see, so sleek, ultimately reasoned and cool like an auto driving through the forested regions or the lone figure standing on glacial boulders emerging from the turf like the backs of primeval whales or the standing runes themselves – never mind the psycho trauma. Or maybe it was all the loss of religious faith per se reclaimed in some kind of integral humanist struggle.  Naturally, there is plenty of pietism among the traditional and devout in the Nordic lands, but where America is cursed with the legacy of Puritanism, Scandinavia is blessed with the persistence of paganism. 
Unfortunately for Norway, the common image of things Norwegian in America is the weekly monologue of Garrison Keillor broadcast as part of “A Prairie Home Companion” on National Public Radio.  The “Norwegian bachelor farmer” has become a trope, occasionally endearing, but usually merely comical for all other regions of the country.  Keillor himself is as cosmopolitan as any Manhattan-savvy writer, but what it takes to make a buck on cultural identity nowadays probably makes Bergman roll again and again in his island grave.  And alas for the descendants of Norway in the Dakotas left for dead as clichés after the movie “Fargo.”  But, it is neither sufficient nor healthy nor helpful to be rather reactionary, hankering for some modernist mythos from one’s childhood going on four or five decades ago.  The point is, we have known all along that even the mid-20th century idea of Scandinavia was not a panacea, but that there were, and are, deeper things calling to deep.

There the work of Lars Strandh carries on the best of that cool modernism his canvases provide a respite from so much kitsch, which is the true ethos of “the contemporary.”  Rather, calming the mind and strengthening the concentration as a preparation for insight, in other words, “stopping and seeing,” this is contemporary.  While it is sufficient for some to worship merely style or irony gone cynical or the truly grotesque, a Strandh canvas does not itself merely carry on a tradition regarded as passé by some others; it is and came into being in harmony with and through a whole person engaged in and with a total environment, an integrated reality.  To observe Lars through the entire process of bringing a painting into being is to see intentionality at its best.  No, he is not “blissed out” as American English disparages the spiritual practices of some, rather to see the movement of the hand preparing the surface and the repose of the face during the application of paint is to witness something connecting with something ancient in the present of a modern Scandinavian man.  Yes, this is hard to explain, but indulge an attempt at interpretation.
Vipassana is the Buddhist contribution to the meditative innovations of humankind.  Emerging out of Indian yogic traditions, the Buddha redirected the foci of meditation to three facts: suffering or “unsatisfactoriness” (dukkha), impermanence (anicca), and non-self (anatta).  Samatha – “calming-down” or “tranquility” – is the inherited foundation of mental practice.  Samadhi (intense concentration) is understood as ridding the mind of distractions allowing, then, tranquility to emerge.  It is then that vipassana may be practiced purposefully.(1)

I will use this framework as a means – just one means, nothing definitive – to interpret the creative process who is Lars Strandh.
I do not make the claim that Lars “entered into” samadhi as, say, Ramakrishna did as an adept, but the process of absorption in what and how Lars observed phenomena around him as an ultimate subject matter was not lacking in concentration.   Indeed, that process of going and seeing, while usually short in duration, was an act of ‘putting-together’ – a more literal meaning of samadhi.
Robert Henri, the American artists and teacher of an entire generation of 20th century painters (Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent to name two) made a point of teaching his students how to see.  This is no great innovation or revelation, but a quote is ready to hand:
"It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist's ability to see well into what is before him;"(2)

“He who has contemplated has met with himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surfaces of his subject.  Nature reveals to him, and, seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.”(3)
What results from Lars’ observational process – his “seeing well into what is before him” – is a higher state of mental acuity.  The artist practices this “going, stopping, seeing” as focusing, as seeing into.  And that practice is samadhi, and practice makes samatha – at least observing Lars observing and then painting reveals tranquility.  So too, the artist contemplating involves a going out, in other words, taking a walk; there is as well in Buddhism walking meditation. 

Where does vipassana enter into this?  If what is at the foundation of vipassana is investigating phenomena as manifestations of dukkha, anicca and anatta how can this have anything to do with a Scandinavian minimalist artist?  Reflecting back on the historical musings earlier, I will hazard the following. 
The heirs of Kirkegaard and Bergman understand existential reality whether we term it, respectively, suffering or unsatisfactoriness.  One can say, for example, cooking is suffering, washing dishes is suffering or at least unsatisfactory because one knows more cooking and eating will only result in more dishes to be washed.  Is being a cook any less a realm of dukkha than being an artist?  Perhaps more people need food than need art per se, but even in Scandinavia there is no guarantee of living off art alone; clearly this is unsatisfactory when one thinks about it for any length of time.  One may indeed derive great pleasure, legitimate happiness (sukha) from “being” an artist, but one knows it is all impermanent in the final analysis.  The painted canvas will someday cease to exist.  Even the sculpted stone is not impervious to damage or destruction.(4) So, the artist is mindful of this as he goes, stops, sees and then paints.  Nevertheless, he paints and that whole process is both the mentally cool idea of Scandinavian life and the trans-national insight of the “minimalist” canvas in the here and now.
But, how can there be no-self in this process, how can the analogy hold up?  Perhaps as a piece of Buddhist doctrine the analogy cannot be made, but there is certainly the loss of self in the process of creating, the diminution of ego, such that one approaches the gradual slowing-down of, so to speak, the great karmic fan spinning in humid air.  Art which is fueled by everything that is celebrated as wandering, illusory, angry has no hope of ceasing its fruitlessness.  But, art which is not merely ejaculation – to the contrary, contemporary art which is born out of mindful, embodied process – can point a way to a kind of nibbana, to a liberation of the self from the self.
So, we return to Sri Lanka.  Each day was immersed in awareness.  And not only mindfulness, but appreciation, gratitude.  Let us not forget joy, too.  In Buddhist thought – especially in the Theravada of Sri Lanka – vipassana is not only the foundation, but also the life-long process of repeated elemental mindfulness.  Lars’ presence did embody the calming of the mind; perhaps this is simply personality, perhaps it is primal.  But, to observe Lars was to observe some kind of Nordic vipassana.

The obvious problem is that the final result of art making is an object or a performance.  Even a minimalist canvas is such, but that “suchness” includes, in the experience of viewing the painting, a revelation of its own demise.  Lars’ canvases embody both the process of coming into being and a message of the ceasing of existence that is not appalling nihilism, but rather that final great release which is a cool, blue liberation.

Even after the Armory Show of 1913, Robert Henri probably could not have imagined most of the trends in the development of what we have called modern, post-modern and/or contemporary art.  Yet, he had a visionary mind in as much as he said:
"I believe the great artists of the future will use fewer words, copy fewer things, essays will be shorter in words and longer in meaning." We can say that a modernist minimalist canvas indeed “copies” fewer things.  And where I did not meet Henri’s standard of being shorter in words, and may not have convinced most through those words of deeper meaning, I believe Lars Strandh’s canvases are much longer in meaning because they are comprehensive, they embody life well-observed, well-discerned, and being such – possessing “suchness” – they are more and most truly contemporary.

R. Byron Breese

(1) Of course, Vipassana alone as a “short cut” practice is popular and not really a short cut at all.  Rather it focuses on the three marks of existence as taught by the Buddha.
(2) Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, (Lippincott: Philadelphia), 1923, p. 28.
(3)Ibid, p. 17.
(4) Consider the Bamiyan Buddhas willfully destroyed by the Taliban nearly a decade ago.  While a crime against true human culture their destruction, nonetheless, is proof of anicca.  From a Buddhist philosophical perspective what is more demonstrative of the dhamma?  The standing image of the Buddha, or the now empty niches?