“What we are sculpting is ourselves” – Duane McDiarmid on Art & Action

Start with two images, both from the Vietnam War, both famous.  One is an Eddie Adams photo of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a man in the head.  The other is Malcolm Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the war.  For Ohio University art professor Duane McDiarmid, these two photos became symbolic of two different approaches to action.  Duane believes that life is defined by action, and that there are always ramifications for the actions that people take.  During our February luncheon, he told the Ministerium that art is the action of the artist, and not only those discreet actions that take place in either the studio or gallery.  Instead, the art is found in any action that an artist takes.  For Duane, this means that no action can go unexamined, and surety is always problematic.  The South Vietnamese police chief is very certain of his point of view, and acts on that certainty.  The Buddhist monk understands that all action exerts a price, and he’s awesomely and terrifyingly willing to feel the effects of his activities on his own body.  Duane aligns himself with the monk.  He wants to acknowledge the effects of his artistic actions on his own person, even as he hopes that they will have effects that reverberate beyond his personhood.
I first met Duane when some of his pieces were featured as part of a social practice art show at the EASE Gallery.  He told me about his “Mismatched Drapes Project,” which began during a long drive from Athens to Santa Fe.  Feeling sleepy, he pulled into an empty lot and fell asleep in his car.  When he woke in the morning, he found that he was parked outside of an abandoned church, and went in to explore.  He discovered graffiti and debris left by a motorcycle gang that was using the church as a headquarters.  He was curious to find himself judging the gang, people he’d never met and knew nothing about, beyond the fact that they littered drug paraphernalia about on the floor and defecated on the carpet.  Noticing some old orange velvet curtains that were torn down from the wall, he acted on an impulse and took one.  Then he got back in his car and resumed his drive to Sante Fe, thinking about what he’d done and why he’d done it.
A little ways down the road, he passed an old abandoned hotel, and decided to stop and check that out, as well.  He found that it was being used by vagrants and by gay men who were seeking anonymous sex.  Again, he found himself facing his own judgement of these men, and again he discovered a found object, in this case a pornographic magazine, that he took without really knowing why.  Back in the car, he thought about judgement, and proprietorship, and the way that groups work.  Who really had ownership of the abandoned church and the hotel?  Weren’t the people who were actually using the spaces the true proprietors?  Could he think of the groups that were inhabiting these places as true communities?  And which of the communities that he belonged to had taught him to look down on and exclude these people?
It was from these experiences and thoughts that the Mismatched Drapes Project was born.  Arriving in Santa Fe, Duane decided that he would make a new curtain for the biker gang, and a quilt for the men in the hotel.  He wanted these objects to refer back to the original proprietors (the church that hung the drapes, the hotel when it was functioning) and to speak to the current proprietors.  When he delivered these two pieces of art, he did so at a time when no one was in the spaces, and with the understanding that he was truly giving them away.  He could have no further investment in where they went or what people did with them.  He wanted the arrival of these objects in the church and the hotel to be seen as a mystery, even as a miracle, to the people who would receive them.  And he designed private rituals that he enacted as he was giving the art objects away.  His intention was to join these communities of bikers and gay men without ever meeting them.  Join them through giving as an act of communion.
Duane told us over lunch that one of the ancient roles of art is “to displace trouble, so that you can look at it and heal it.”  One of the troubles that he’s trying to displace is the kind of deep prejudice we experience when encountering the truly other.  Later, he found an abandoned indian trading post, and found himself engaging in a project that displaced a different but similar trouble, that of the unjust trade relationships that led to the subjugation of Native American peoples.  As he worked on turning a half desiccated God’s Eye that he found in the ruins into a blanket that he would return to the site, he thought about his own participation in these trade relationships, and that the very act of taking an object from a place and making an object to replace it involved him in a kind of trade.  He realized that there is a very thin line between participation and manipulation.
As he talked to us, it became clear that his mind is always dwelling on the ramifications and implications of the actions that he takes.  It’s a very full, and also a sometimes exhausting, way to live one’s life.  It’s also, in essence, a spiritual way of living, as self awareness and examination of motivations are a deep part of any authentic spirituality.  Duane tells his sculpture students that “what we are sculpting is ourselves.”  In the end, that’s true of all of us, and the tools Duane uses – introspection, self-awareness, creativity – are the tools of the Buddhist monk and the saint.

Why do even the poorest people make art?

A year ago, Jim Miner, who’s on the Ministerium planning team, suggested that we tour the Schumacher Gallery at Capitol University in lieu of meeting for lunch this December. He’d recently visited the gallery and was very impressed by their collection of Inuit art. As we talked about it, we began to wonder why the Inuit made art, given that, historically, they were always living on the edge of survival, in one of the harshest environments on earth. Jim set out to find someone who could answer this question, and was fortunate in striking up a conversation with David Gentilini, who is the assistant to the gallery’s director.

When we met in the gallery, David told us that art is the first form of any human tradition. It communicates both practical and religious ideas, and as an example of this he showed us several soap stone sculptures made by Inuit artists in the early twentieth century. These sculptures vividly illustrated some of the religious ideas of the Inuit shamans, whose role was both to pass on practical knowledge, like where to hunt, and to ritualize the lives of their people. The Inuit people believed that human beings were composed of three equally important parts: a body, a name, and a spirit. Some of the sculptures showed all three, combined in amazing, convoluted shapes – a spiritual idea rendered in stone.

In addition, David told us, art can become a way to have control over something, when little else in one’s environment is controllable. Watching as something takes shape in your hands is an incredibly reassuring experience. All of the worries and anxieties of life disappear while one is involved in the act of creation. If this is true for relatively wealthy and secure Americans, how much more true it must be for people who’s existence is always in danger? The artists who made the soap stone statues in the gallery, and the generations of artists who came before them, knew that some part of who they were and what they believed would continue in their work, regardless of what happened to them after they created it.