A student asked a teacher, “What is Buddha?” Yunmen replied, “A dried shit stick!”
~ Gateless Barrier, Case 21
Leonardo’s Mona Lisa smile, Puccini’s Nessum Dorma, Neruda’s saddest lines. Recently I was talking with some artist friends about creative brilliance, about that musician’s chord that is just right, or the painter’s perfect line, a writer’s few words that can touch and move us. There is a shininess about those works that make them stand out, and make them extraordinary. That special shininess, that brilliance, however, is even more inclusive as the “light” we talk about in Zen. As the above koan so well demonstrates, in Zen, even dull and mundane objects in the world are shiny.
Which is why I am interested in the “land art” of Andrew Goldsworthy, who by demonstrating the extraordinary in the ordinary with his sculptures, I think, captures the spirit of Yunmen’s shit stick. Last month, a new documentary on Goldsworthy was released, called Leaning into the Wind, which serves as a sequel to the brilliant film Rivers and Tides (2002). The son of a famous scientist, Goldsworthy quit school and started working as a farm laborer at age 13. “A lot of my work is like picking potatoes,” he says, “You have to get into the rhythm of it.” He creates sculpture out of found earthen objects ~ rocks on the seashore, icicles in the pre-dawn, yellow leaves on the ground near a stream. He takes these things, and piles, stacks or strings them into forms that often vanish with the high tide or melt in the afternoon sun. Or perhaps the just rot into the earth over decades.
“A snowball is simple, direct and familiar to most of us. I use this simplicity as a container for feelings and ideas that function on many levels,” says Goldsworthy. Can a stack of rocks be art? A pile of leaves, or tower of logs? Yunmen would add: “Shit stick.”
Goldsworthy from Leaning: “I think good work is the moment of understanding and clarity in a very chaotic situation, like a shaft of light that just penetrates, and for a moment it is very clear. And then it all becomes unclear again.”
Three of his four works in San Francisco’s Presidio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVs01GCic8U