Tuesday, May 6, 2008
The pile of autumn leaves you see above is not a pile of leaves. It is a work of art by an artist called Jane Hammond. All too infrequently these days can I lay claim to the experience of art making me sit up and take notice. All too often art is no more than vivid spectacle and not much else. This work is different.
It consists of nothing special: autumn leaves heaped on a white platform. But, despite appearances, these are not actual leaves. They are digitally scanned, perfectly replicated, simulacra of real leaves the artist has painstakingly collected during the autumns of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 from multiple states in New England, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Washington, California, and Hawaii. Each leaf is unique: there are no duplicates.
The latter is important, because Hammond's piece is a war memorial, and the artist inscribes each leaf by hand with the name of an American soldier killed in the Iraq war. The idea came to her in a dream, in which she was walking through the woods, and as the leaves dropped to the ground she noticed they each carried a soldier's name.
The work bears the title "Fallen," perfectly reflecting the dual notion of autumn leaves and fallen soldiers, separated from their families like leaves from their trees. It is a work-in-progress, as Hammond has set herself the task of keeping up with the official body count of names--adding leaves, more than 4,000 at this point, as those who are felled descend into the ground in a war that will have no victory parades, just the chorus of laments and rages, cries, and prayers, of those who have been left behind. The size of the platform changes as needed. The piece has been purchased by the Whitney Museum and is currently on a cross-country tour.
Collage artist that I am, I went looking for a written something, words that might aim at the eternity of death and coincide with the emotions stirred up by Hammond's beautiful piece. I found what I wanted in the war section of "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men." From the introduction by Robert Bly:
"The growth of a man can be imagined as a power that gradually expands downward: the voice expands downward into the open vowels that carry emotion, and into the rough consonants that are like gates holding that water; the hurt feelings expand downward into compassion; the intelligence expands with awe into the great arguments or antinomies men have debated for centuries; the mood-man expands downward into those vast rooms of melancholy under the earth, where we are more alive the older we get, more in tune with the earth and the great roots."
Now, with "Fallen," I no longer have to look away, not wanting to contemplate the shame of this war. There is a resting place for my thoughts.