I thought that I had come to understand the magic of the matchsticks through this phase of reflection and research. But when I attempted to apply my understanding to a new phase of making I found that I could not work in such a straightforward way.
I began by ransacking the shelves of my workshop anew, this time with a clearer sense of purpose. I was looking for objects that possessed a certain spark; an affordance that was drawn from life itself. But my menagerie remained lifeless, as mute as the smiley faces has once been. Maybe I just needed different objects?
Over the next few months I filled my sketchbook with ideas — lists of objects, metaphors — which unsurprisingly failed to become anything larger than themselves. Perhaps the objects needed systems? I found myself reverting to my spatial thinking, as I tried to design playful distribution networks for these artefacts that didn’t yet exist. But without objects to animate the systems, they too remained inert.
I felt completely stuck. I was tempted to return to research mode, but now my attention was needed elsewhere. I had to pack up for another move — the last one for a long time, I hoped.
My new place was a bright, open-plan apartment on the fifth floor of large building, with sweeping views of my inner-city suburb and the rolling hills beyond. The sky was immense. And after nearly a year of living with friends, the solitude was delicious.
Maybe it was the solitude; maybe it was the sky. Maybe it was the Zen Buddhist ideas I had been researching, after an improbable encounter with experimental music composer John Cage in a book about poetic cartography (Wood 2010). Or maybe it was the simple act of writing to my friend Tassos about being stuck. To which he replied: ‘Try putting the stuck-close-to-inspired moment into a question of less than 100 words, and we can see what response of less than 100 it might dislodge from the brain’ (Stevens 2014, pers. comm., 6 July).
Concise, precise — exactly what was needed. Grateful for the prompt, I tried to answer it. I filled several pages of my sketchbook with inconclusive ramblings. Finally, and rather glumly, I gave up.
The next morning when I woke, before I even rose from bed, I reached for my sketchbook and scrawled: THEY’RE KOANS.
Only now, as I re-read Tassos’ email, do I notice that he never specified whose brain might be prompted to dislodge me from my impasse. T1
T1:The koan is a teaching tool in Zen Buddhism. It is a paradox or riddle that cannot be “solved” with rational thought, but rather must be dissolved by a deeper, more intuitive way of thinking. Contemplating a koan forces one to let go of the intellect, which Zen scholar DT Suzuki identifies as ‘the worst enemy of Zen experience’ (1956, p. 136) because it insists on ‘discriminating subject from object’ (ibid.).
‘On examination we at once notice that there is no room in the koan to insert an intellectual interpretation,’ Suzuki writes. ‘The knife is not sharp enough to cut the koan open and see what are its contents. For a koan is not a logical proposition but the expression of a certain mental state resulting from the Zen discipline’ (ibid. p. 137).
The purpose of koan practice, and all Zen practice, is to realise the state of satori, which Suzuki defines as ‘an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it’ (ibid. p. 84).
‘Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically-trained mind’ Suzuki writes (ibid.). ‘Or we may say that with satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception. Whatever this is, the world for those who have gained a satori is no more the old world as it used to be; even with all its flowing streams and burning fires, it is never the same one again. Logically stated, all its opposites and contradictions are united and harmonized into a consistent organic whole. This is a mystery and a miracle, but according to the Zen masters such is being performed every day. Satori can thus be had only through our once personally experiencing it.’
* (Cage 1958)