Heavy Metal Process

Three thousand pounds of aluminum, vinyl, polycarbonate, and lighting for an upcoming project in Los Angeles with the Annenberg Space for Photography.

James A. Reeves | August 2019

A Ritual for Atonement

On a temple floating in the middle of a lake, an old monk writes sutras on the wooden deck with a cat’s tail dipped in ink, and a student is instructed to methodically carve these characters with the same knife he once used in destructive ways. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring directed by Kim Ki-duk.

Candy Chang | April 2019

Future

A golden Buddha sits at the head of a retrofitted monastery lined with stained glass and Latin. This is what the future should look like: garbled icons and polyglot hymns.

James A. Reeves | April 2019

Veiling

For the first time we encountered the Catholic ritual of covering crucifixes during the last weeks of Lent. It’s a beautifully haunted image, like something from a dream or a cruel national memory. Or a premonition.

James A. Reeves | April 2019

Refuge

Here is a detail from Zhao Yuan’s 14th-century depiction of a tranquil refuge in the mountains. It’s a desire as old as time, this fantasy of retreating from the clamor of an undignified world. We envy cloistered monks and pond-dwelling poets. We nurse elaborate dreams of spartan living, perhaps in a remote cabin lit by a kerosene lamp with a narrow bed against the wall. Even the wealthy are not immune. After deciding that our cities had become “living hells of alienation and consumerism,” the billionaire Soichuro Fututake created a subterranean museum on the island of Naoshima. But is retreating into the wilderness any kind of solution?

Idealizing nature as a panacea has its perils. In The Uninhabitable World, David Wallace-Wells suggests that romanticizing the wilderness as a remote sanctuary has led us to consider nature as something separate from ourselves, that we “see its degradation as a sequestered story, unfolding separately from our own modern lives—so separately that the degradation acquires the comfortable contours of parable, like pages from Aesop, aestheticized even when we know the losses as tragedy.” In these days of scary weather and accelerating change, we cannot afford to compartmentalize or romanticize. Plastic, pixels, and exhaust are nature. There is no retreating from the world. We must find rituals that offer momentary refuge, then return to the fray.

James A. Reeves | April 2019

Station Identification

Test loop for hexagram station identification.

James A. Reeves | March 2019

Postmortem

How would knowing that consciousness lingers while the body goes cold change how we reckon with death—or bear witness?

Maybe there’s music. Faint violins or a favorite tune, something she selected just for this occasion. Or maybe you picked it out yourself after the doctors told you the news, choosing one of those kitschy old radio songs that you knew she really loved, the one with the melody you’d catch her humming in the kitchen. If I had a hammer. Leaving on a jet plane. Now you grip her hand while the music plays from a corner of the antiseptic room, surprised by how quickly her body goes cold. But you hold on tight, determined not to cry. Not until at least an hour has passed since the machines flat-lined, the paddles were put away, and the nurses and doctors left the room. The rhythm of death is different these days, and you know she might still be there, listening.

I keep thinking about an article I read the other night, a study which suggests we will be aware of our own deaths. That consciousness might linger after the last beat of the heart, our minds still working even though blood is no longer washing the brain. “The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated,” says Dr. Sam Parnia, who has dedicated his career to this phenomenon. “Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost.”

This unsettling thought decimates one of the most compelling arguments for making peace with our mortality: the Epicurean assurance that we needn’t fear death because we will not be around to witness it. But now science tells us otherwise. Activity appears to persist in the cells of the brain after the last sign of life is recorded. New ceremonies would develop. Soundtracks and incantations, an extended score for the dying.According to Parnia’s research, 40% of patients who had been declared dead after cardiac arrest reported hearing things they could not have known unless they were somehow conscious in the minutes before they were revived. The dead could hear the voices of the people in the room, the last efforts of doctors and nurses, the wailing of lovers and children.

If there’s any truth to this study, it seems like it should be the most discussed story of the year, perhaps the century. How would knowing that consciousness lingers while the body goes cold change how we reckon with death—or bear witness? How might it change the way we behave in a hospital room? We would need to hide our terror and grief long past the terrible moment we once thought was singular and fixed. New ceremonies would develop. Soundtracks and incantations, an extended score for the dying. I can’t help but remember the weather in the room when my parents died; the animal noises I made after the nurse turned off the machines and closed the door.

And how would we prepare for our own death, knowing it would be elastic and uncertain, that those last five or twenty minutes or longer could be utterly terrifying or possibly transcendent? It would require a strange kind of training, a preparation like no other. The fact of death would no longer be so easy to neglect amidst the daily clutter of appointments and obligations, no longer a thought that could be tucked away like an overdue bill beneath a pile of catalogues and magazines.

Candy and I recently sat in an old monastery, a February wind rattling the stained glass while a physicist and Buddhist monk named B. Alan Wallace described his meditation practice as a preparation for dying. “Am I a short story that can come to an end at any moment?” he asked with a smile. “If so, I can live with that—but is it true?” Although the body rots and our minds will disappear, he said, some kind of awareness might remain. If we do not identify with our body or thoughts but only our awareness, what then? “To go unconscious at death is like reading a great book and not getting to the last page. I don’t want to do that. I want to know how it ends. Perhaps it is possible to let the mind die and still be aware. So keep the light on.”

That night we silently returned to our spartan room and laid down on our cots, listening to the sleet ricochet against the windows. I fell asleep thinking of a candle that remains lit long after the lights of the mind slowly flick off one by one, like the windows of a skyscraper going dark as midnight draws near.

James A. Reeves | May 2018

The Tears of Things

A phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid provides a guide for how we might relate to tragedy.

In the Aeneid, the hero contemplates the tragedy of war. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt: “There are tears for things and mortal thoughts touch the mind.” In the centuries that followed, lacrimae rerum escaped the pages of Virgil’s poem and took on a life of its own. It appears in sermons, symphonies, and epitaphs, and it has been carved into the faces of countless memorials and tombstones. The exact meaning of lacrimae rerum continues to inspire debate among linguists and classicists, for sometimes it is translated as “tears for things,” other times as “tears of things.” Although it’s only a matter of a single letter, the distinction between for and of is crucial—and instructive.

Weeping for something implies that each of us privately mourns the loss of the things we cherish—a person or a relationship, a promise or a dream—and that we grieve alone. The tears of things, however, suggests the world weeps with us. Are we strangers in a strange land, alone in our heads with our personal sorrows, or is melancholia as pervasive as the sunlight or air?

The tears of things. If I squint at this phrase the right way, I can catch a glimpse of a better way that I might relate to death. Maybe the universe is sympathetic, after all. Perhaps the cosmos is aware of the absurdity of our flickering lives. Seen in this light, the devastation I felt after losing my parents is no longer special or an aberration, but an intrinsic element of the world, as necessary as gravity or air. There is powerful alchemy in this simple thought, even if it is fleeting. Lacrimae rerum can become an organizing principle, reminding us that we are surrounded by compassion while we mourn. This might be a sentimental way of thinking that relies on the romantic notion that the wind, rain, and clouds can somehow mirror our states of mind, but it is an idea that makes me feel less alone—and sometimes this can be enough to carry someone through the dark forest of grief.

James A. Reeves | January 2018

The Stellar Sphere

It would be a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought.

It is no coincidence that the first philosophers were astronomers, leathery desert men who squinted into the night and believed the stars were the souls of the wise. “The truly virtuous rise to the stellar sphere,” said Posidonius. “And there they spend their time watching the stars go round.” He wrote this two thousand years ago, describing a sensation deep within our bones: a longing to join the heavens. Perhaps this craving is more than a metaphor. After all, science tells us that forty-percent of the human body is made of stardust. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulphur were forged by the stars—and although we can measure and name these elements, this does not prove they are not souls. As the first cracks began to appear in the Roman Empire, a homesick Egyptian named Plotinus gazed at the sky and decided that the soul must join the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.”

Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead us to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of snark and outrage, these encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to the echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky.

James A. Reeves | October 2017