beyond tonglen: in the garden of yes

12 September – 5 October 2019

domenico de clario
beyond tonglen: in the garden of yes*
mars gallery
melbourne
11 september – 5 october 2019

In 2015 Ross Lake and Helen Vivian began transforming an eight-acre
abandoned vineyard at the back of their property in Irymple (near Mildura in
northwestern Victoria) into a fully reticulated native garden containing
hundreds of species of native grasses, shrubs and trees.
Why was the garden made? To create a habitat for native flora and fauna and
as a consequence a nurturing refuge for humans; to acknowledge how the
land might have thrived long ago; to make something of beauty with love and
care and effort; and to inspire anyone that might wander by.
This transformation included adding hundreds of tons of organic material to
the soil, establishing an intricate series of gravel pathways crisscrossing the
garden and the construction of an artificial lake, fed by filtered water and
designed to become the home of many species of birds.
Ross and Helen named their unique creation the ‘Sky Garden’.
Below is Helen’s description of the garden:

Following the Japanese principle of borrowed landscape, the Sky Garden is a
layered response to the surrounding cultural and physical landscape, drawing
inspiration from the central Australian rippling sandhills, the Murray Sunset
National Park closer to home and the immediate (mainly Italian) horticultural
environs.
Cath Stutterheim (our landscape designer) envisaged the marriage of these
variously disparate elements as symbolically forming a pair of interlocking
hands, which bring together native and horticultural elements in a carefully
considered contrast of texture and form.
We began the garden in July 2015 with earth-scaping to create a series of
dunes that drain to a central dam. Rare and endangered Australian native
trees and a wide range of Australian grasses are the focus of the planting.
The endangered Callitris Buloke woodland community survives in our
immediate environs and these species have been reintroduced in a planting
which connects to existing roadside remnants and surrounds the orchard – as
if the orchard has been carved out of the original woodland.
A precious bequest of seeds of rare and endangered flowering trees and
shrubs, from the collection of Graeme O’Neill, is currently under propagation
by a local nursery and will form the final major planting next year.

*
I moved from Melbourne to Mildura in early 2015 seeking to experience the
vastness of the continent that extends from the banks of the Murray River
deep into its desert interior, and the complexity of its cultural layering, from
time immemorial to the present day.
The burial of various personal objects in the soil of the country I had migrated
to as a child has been an aspect of my artistic practice since the mid-1970’s
when I began to include such processes in my contributions to both the
Mildura Sculpture Triennials and the Mildura Sculpturescapes (1971, 1975
and 1978) as well as to other site-specific installations and performances.
Part of the reason for my move to the country’s interior had been motivated by
my search for a burial site that would finally accommodate the vast majority of
my possessions (including an archive composed of many of the components I
had included in various installations since the 1970’s) and those of my family.
This archive was the subject of a residency project installed at the La Trobe
University Gallery in Bendigo titled, ‘The Question of the Archive’.
In the last months of 2012 the residency allowed me to work through objects
and artworks that dated back to 1971, and consequently identify various
threads in my practice. I resolved to continue the burial sequence that had
begun in 1969 at Cape Paterson beach in southern Victoria, and find a site to
accommodate the entire archive.
When Ross and Helen generously offered me a corner of their Sky Garden in
2015 I believed I had found the ideal context for the burial. The archive was
shipped from Melbourne and various other storage facilities into a large shed
fifty metres from the proposed location of the pit.
After approval from the Mildura Council and the EPA excavation of the site
using large earthwork machinery began in early March 2016. The Mallee soil
was excavated to form a pit twenty metres long, ten metres wide and five
metres deep.
At dawn on the Autumn Equinox of 21 March 2016 I carefully placed the first
of many thousands of objects including furniture, books and magazines,
paintings and other artwork, clothing, industrial components, two automobiles
and a trailer, children’s toys and various other domestic detritus, on the red
soil floor of the pit.
This ritual continued until its completion at sunset on the Autumn Equinox of
21 March 2018. It had been regularly solemnised through improvised
collaborative performances with Tony Yap, Ren Walters, Carmen Chan and
other musicians and performers at each equinox and solstice during the twoyear period.
Once the last item was placed inside the pit the body of objects were covered
by the soil that had been removed to create its void. A mound rising two
metres above the surrounding garden was formed and on its surface seven
trees were planted. Each tree is distinguished by the colour of its seasonal
blooms, destined to regularly reproduce a colour spectrum.
This flowering signals that the life of the invisible body, made up of the
multitude of objects that had been laid to rest below the surface, is ongoing
and evolving. The invisible body nurtures visible life, manifesting its collective
energies flowing from below the earth and emanating both into the day and
night sky.
This project title is tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist term describing the
meditative, cyclic breathing in of distress (both singular and collective) and the
consequent breathing out of ease, as trees and shrubs growing on the mound
and through the entire garden breathe in carbon dioxide, transmute it through
photosynthesis and consequently breathe out life-affirming oxygen.
*
beyond tonglen; the garden of yes, the artist’s project presented at
Melbourne’s Mars Gallery in September 2019, consists of a series of plein air
blindfolded paintings made in the vastness of the Sky Garden.
The 30-day painting journey through the garden began at the precise moment
the full moon reached its cyclic apogee – at 12.38 pm on the afternoon of 17
July 2019.
The making of a blindfolded painting began one hour later on each
subsequent day – at 1.38 pm on 18 July, 2.38 pm on 19 July, 3.38 pm on 20
July, and so on. The journey ended at 5.38 pm on the full moon of 15 August,
again at the precise moment of the moon’s apogee.
Each painting was made at specific intervals located along an elongated
figure of eight following the network of gravel paths winding through and
around the garden. The figure of eight both begins and ends at the tonglen
burial site, located in Sky Garden’s western corner.
*
The paintings were made on small squares of woven carpet. The weave of
the carpet sustains the pigment placed and smeared on its surface during the
blindfolded making of the painting, so that the pigment floats slightly above it
like trees and shrubs and clouds stand and float above the surface of the
earth.
The carpet reminds the artist of many things: of his own footsteps that take
him through the garden; of the encounter between the domestic space the
artist carries with him and the wildness of the native garden: of the magic
qualities that in some cultures carpets have long been associated with; and of
the carpet in his parents’ living room that he crossed numberless times over
several decades, in both anxiety and joy.
Beyond such memories and impressions the carpet is constructed through a
process of weaving – intermingling, mixing, confusing even, perhaps
alchemically transmuting.
And the carpet serves us – softening sustaining, recording, nurturing,
reminding, containing.
The paintings are not representations of the visible world, but simply energetic
expressions of a moment in time, as the blindfolded artist gradually becomes
immersed in the phenomenological world around him.
The artist feels more comfortable touching the surface of the carpet with his
brush while blindfolded than he would if he had been working on a stretched
canvas visible before him.
Why is this? He is not interested in depicting the world around him in an
objective way because he’s convinced that such a world (the world whose
characteristics we all broadly agree on) does not exist, or exists only in an
illusory sense.
He believes that there might be another reading of the world that does not
correspond to what we think we are seeing. So he sits blindfolded inside the
garden functioning as a consciousness-antenna that is both receiving and
transmitting a body of information it cannot decipher, yet firmly believes is
constantly swirling all around it.
Sitting in this way he hopes he will not be distracted by the seduction of sight.
He hopes that the marks he makes on the carpet’s surface will be only in
response to the unmediated information being transmitted directly to the core
of his being.
The information that floods him as he sits seems immensely complex; the feel
of the wind on his face, the timid winter warmth of the sun, the sounds of
trickling water, distant traffic and chattering birds, the penetrating cold seeping
through his clothes, the incessant sound of starlight, the oxygen-rich night air
flooding his lungs, the occasional falling of rain on his hands and cheeks and
of course the constant presence of his own particular anxiety.
The artist’s desire to journey through the garden blindfolded and return with
some evidence of his experience comes from a wish to personally ‘introduce’
the collective energy of the burial site, steeped in his own and his family’s
belongings, to the rest of the growing garden as it thrives intensely with native
plants and trees and birds.
The garden knows little of the energetic narratives that wind themselves
around the myriad objects under the mounded earth. From there they nightly
emanate into the land, far beyond the garden itself and, as they do so, they
confound themselves and the living land because the stories they tell each
other are so different in language, context and content.
The artist comes to believe that the entire garden is a burial mound, whose
surface covers numberless layers of objects, bones, clothing fragments,
implements and tools, body decorations and so on.
He considers that his most useful function might not be as the artist who
makes artifacts, but as the blurrer of lines – as the link between one kind of
recent burial site and an endless other whose contents might date back
60,000 years or more.
The artist hopes that his presence in the garden through a whole lunar cycle,
from full moon to full moon, might soften the boundaries that exist between
what lies under the entire surface of the garden’s surface (indeed under the
entire surface of the land) and what lies beneath the mound.
In that sense the artist does not actually do, nor desires to do, anything in
particular during his inhabitation at the easel, other than simply witness and
record the strangeness of what lies under the mound and the appropriateness
of what thrives under rain and sunlight above it. He hopes that through his
mediating presence the mound and the rest of the garden, both under and
above each respective surface, might eventually become one.
Beyond the considerations outlined above and many others which have not
yet appeared in the full light of the artist’s consciousness, the undertaking of
this 30-day journey also springs from his deeply-held desire to offer to
whoever or whatever in the garden might listen a sense of his most authentic
self, which is nothing more than both stranger and beginner.
*
But what is a stranger?
Beyond Albert Camus’ interpretation of his character Meursault in The
Outsider (1942), of being emotionally detached from whatever unfolds, yet still
firmly belonging to his contextual Algerian culture, to my mind the stranger
lives both an un-belonging and an un-belonged life, as one who is perennially
unhinged from one’s core, the core from which one’s cultural connectedness
both manifests and is experienced, and whose roots can be traced back for at
least a few generations.
The un-hinging of a stranger from his or her original earth can neither be
undone nor effectively re-hinged, and only rarely might a successful
transplantation into new soil be achieved.
Consequently the stranger, for the overwhelming majority of his or her
lifetime, lives virtually, inside a space that can only sustain a single being.
And what is a beginner?
To my mind a beginner does not regard knowledge accrued through previous
experiences as being useful at all when facing whatever unfolds in the now.
The beginner regards such knowledge as a distinct disadvantage, because
knowing seeks only to confirm recognition in whatever flows from the now.
On the other hand, a simple acceptance of one’s ignorance can facilitate an
experience of this flow, as it is, not for how it might reiterate what one
imagines one already knows.
This simple acceptance can encourage a beginner to embrace whatever is
unfolding in the now as authentically as possible.
*
How a painting is made one late evening in the garden of yes:
The artist arrives at the location for tonight’s sitting around thirty minutes
before the scheduled time. He is carrying a torch to negotiate the path through
the garden’s seeming impenetrability, tubes of oil paint, a single brush and his
blindfold.
The palette is decided beforehand. Depending on the time of night or day four
colours will be chosen from Olive Green, Naples Yellow, Payne’s Grey, Dark
Leaf Green, Yellow Ochre, Prussian Blue, Ivory Black and Zinc White.
He uses a single brush for all of the paintings, a small cheap industrial brush
made for painting the sashes of windows and doors.
Long ago, perhaps fifty years ago, the artist borrowed two books from the
Malvern Public Library; ‘The Tao of Painting; A Study of the Ritual Disposition
of Chinese Painting: Volume One & Volume Two’ (1679) by Chieh Tzu Yuan
Hua Chuan.
In a passage early in Volume One there is a description of how aspiring
painters are required to use a single brush to describe endless nuances of
landscape, sky, water and clouds. The aspiring artist must embrace these
changing physical characteristic as the enlightened determinants of a rhythm,
a beat that unites the endeavor much like the percussive elements of a
musical ensemble give shape and space to the lyricism of the various sounds
made by the ensemble’s other musicians.
The artist in the sky garden has come to love the small, non-descript brush
from Bunnings that sheds its hair often but remains moist, pliable, ready to
follow the artist’s suggestions and responses without question.
He doesn’t clean the brush between sittings. It remains moist in between the
short intervals between paintings and the accumulated energy of the painting
act itself is preserved.
Each carpet is a fifty-centimetre square. He places tonight’s carpet on a field
easel against a backing surface and holds it in place with bulldog clips at each
uppermost corner of the carpet. He walks for a while around the immediate
environs of tonight’s sitting taking in the scent of the night time until it’s almost
time to begin.
He then returns to his station and squeezes some paint from each of the four
chosen tubes onto a ply-board palette. Then he sits in a green plastic chair
placed opposite the easel and places the palette on his lap and the brush
near its right hand edge.
He blindfolds himself.
He waits for the appropriate moment to begin, breathing in the cool,
oxygenated night air. What constitutes the appropriate moment? He’s not sure
but with brush in hand and palette on his lap he continues to wait.
Then, something happens and he begins. He continues to respond to the
invitation to touch the carpet’s surface with his brush until he feels that
whatever has been unfolding has ended.
After some time he removes the blindfold, folds it and puts it in the pocket of
his coat. He places the tubes of paint inside a plastic shopping bag and
carries the bag, the chair, the easel and the palette to the next day’s location.
He unclips the carpet square from the easel, carries it back to his car and
places it flat in the rear. How much time has passed from the beginning to the
end of this process? This is something that is not understood by the artist until
much later, when he checks his phone. A few days pass before he stops to
look at the marks on the carpet. ‘Nothing special,’ he thinks.
He particularly enjoys this thought; ‘nothing special…’
His disinterest in the appearance of the carpet’s surface stems from a belief
that it’s the experience of painting itself rather than its production that contains
meaning. He believes that searching for meaning in the appearance of the
painting is like looking at the sea hoping for a particular combination of waves
to appear, and the moment they seem to hold their hoped for shape there is a
sudden shift, and then immediately another, and even the original form is now
forgotten.
He doesn’t want to engage in any speculative correlation, even if accidental,
between the marks he’s made and the visible world’s momentary appearance.
He is bemused by the quaintness of this particular activity called painting, and
its place within the context of our human existence; he finds this bemusement
strangely comforting.
Eventually, some weeks later, after having repeated this ritual each day, the
artist returns to the world outside the garden with thirty paintings on carpet as
evidence of his journey.
He believes that through this journey he has attempted to practice a mindful
search for the exact moment when a certain kind of blindness might finally
becomes sightedness.
Consequently these thirty paintings are an expression of being not of doing.
*
In that sense the carpets are not paintings, but more like musical notations
transcribed from a silent listening. As such he will not hang them on the walls
of the gallery but will place them on sheet music stands, as if they are ready
to guide the viewer’s inner music rather than to be viewed, finally
apprehended through the invisible antennas we carry within. These objects
are not windows through which one may peer into a subjective world, he
believes, but have been generated from under the earth or have somehow
landed on the earth from far, far away…
Conversely some might still describe the carpet squares as paintings, and he
accepts this status quo, like he accepts the word artist as a description of
those who engage in many of the endeavours that have intrigued and kept
him occupied for as long as he can remember.
But, questioning everything as he must, he considers that though that word
might certainly describe certain aspects of how an artist functions, it does not
and cannot describe what or who an artist is.
The Latin root of the word artist describes one who professes a ‘skill method’
or ‘technique’, so reducing the meaning of the word to a physical function akin
eye to hand co-ordination, as a skill that can be learnt, practiced and then
applied whenever necessary. Perhaps the application of a learnt skill is what
an artist might choose to do in order to maintain their practice, but can the
application of a skill reveal what he or she is, the artist’s motivation for
continuing to persevere through the daily arising of numberless unanswerable
questions in order to fashion a practice that might challenge the status quo?
Through considering the above he long ago concluded that what he is (as well
as what he does, because to his mind what he does and who he is are one
and the same) might more accurately be described as an apocalytist, rather
than an artist.
In ancient Greek an apocalytist is one who draws the veil back – the unveiler.
He believes that this is what artist-apocalyptists do – they draw the veil back
on what already exists, what has always existed but is concealed by the
numberless layers of our habitual focus on the illusory visible world,
preventing invisible substance from being seen or heard.
The very first primal manifestation of this invisible substance, which existed
even before light came into being, is sound.
He hopes that contemplating beyond tonglen: in the garden of yes might
reveal for those who consider its implications an aspect of the world that’s
always existed but has been hidden, not so much from our understanding but
simply from our eyes and ears.
And perhaps if we are able to attend to the thirty objects placed on the music
stands with both those senses awakened we might remember something of
what we have always carried within but have forgotten how to see or hear.

Domenico de Clario

*The ‘garden of yes’ in the title of this project refers to the last seven words
on the final page of James Joyce’s masterwork novel ‘Ulysses’ (yes I said yes
I will yes) and their collective opposition to the word ‘no’, which encompasses
the spirit in which the Sky Garden was both initially conceived and through
which it is being nurtured.
in the garden of yes (for j. j.)
From 7.11 pm (twilight) on Saturday September 21 (Equinox) Domenico de
Clario (keyboards and voice), Mindy Meng Wang (Chinese harp) and Tony
Yap (body) will present an improvised collaborative performance in Mars
Gallery titled in the garden of yes (for j. j.) The performance will end at 6.10
am (sunrise) on Sunday September 22.
*
A video documenting both certain aspects of the tonglen burial as well as the
recent painting project will be screened downstairs at Mars Gallery through
the duration of the exhibition. Camera credits: Domenico de Clario and Sonja
Hodge; video editing by Kieran Mangan.
beyond tonglen: in the garden of yes: list of painting dates and times:
1. 17 july: 12.38 pm (full moon apogee) 16. 1 august: 3.38 am (new moon)
2. 18 july: 1.38 pm 17. 2 august: 4.38 am
3. 19 july: 2.38 pm 18. 3 august: 5.38 am
4. 20 july: 3.38 pm 19. 4 august: 6.38 am
5. 21 july: 4.38 pm 20. 5 august: 7.38 am
6. 22 july: 5.38 pm 21. 6 august: 8.38 am
7. 23 july: 6.38 pm 22. 7 august: 9.38 am
8. 24 july: 7.38 pm (half moon waning) 23. 8 august: 10.38 am (half moon waxing)
9. 25 july: 8.38 pm 24. 9 august: 11.38 am
10. 26 july: 9.38 pm 25. 10 august: 12.38 pm
11. 27 july: 10.38 pm 26. 11 august: 1.38 pm
12. 28 july: 11.38 pm 27. 12 august: 2.38 pm
13. 29 july: 12.38 am 28. 13 august: 3.38 pm
14. 30 july: 1.38 am 29. 14 august: 4.38 pm
15. 31 july: 2.38 am (no moon) 30. 15 august: 5.38 pm (full moon apogee)