Inhabiting Porosity
11.06.2017, 2:48 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“The perfected one said: “The [part of] heaven [where there is] nothing is called space. The [part of] a mountain [where there is] nothing is called a grotto. The [part of] a human [body where there is] nothing is called a [grotto] chamber. The empty spaces in the mountains and organs of the body are called grotto courts. The empty spaces in human heads are called grotto chambers. This is how the perfected take up residence in the heavens, the mountains and human beings.”  — Zhou Yishan, born 80 B.C.E. (aka, Perfected Purple Yang, at the culmination of his quest for transcendence). – from James Miller’s 2017 book, China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future

* unless otherwise noted, all images this post, Super 8 stills from sleeve (無為), FOP/smudge 002017

In mid-September we had the rare opportunity to spend two nights in a house that no one had yet inhabited. The recently completed sleeve house, built by our friend, colleague, and architect, Adam Dayem, is sited on a hillside in the Hudson Valley with views of the surrounding forest, Taconic and Catskill mountains.

The primary materials of this house are raw and elemental: shousugiban (wood), glass and concrete. These same materials are used inside and outside, creating a deep blend between the interior and exterior, which often become indistinguishable. The massive glass windows reflect and project images of landscape and moving shafts of light onto interior walls and, at times, onto facing windows. These reflections can create an infinite mirroring of landscape projections inside the house, further blurring the division of inside and out.

interior glass reflection on left,  view outside window on right

We’ve been struck by the lingering impressions that we gained from this rare chance to inhabit a domestic structure before it’s been domesticated — to dwell there before a particular human experience of living there has “settled in.” There were no clothes in the closets, no artworks on the walls, no family photos, no dishes. There were no personal or family stories residing in the house with us.

Only after spending several hours in the house did we realize how few, if any, architectural spaces (let alone domestic living spaces) we’ve been able to inhabit while they were this “empty.”

Most dwelling spaces mirror human culture back to their inhabitants at nearly at every turn. Even spare architectural spaces such as many contemporary art museums, traditional Japanese houses, meditation centers, or remote dune shacks, hold charged imagery and materialities that pull a human brain, mind, body into culture.

Until residing in the sleeve house, we had never encountered a house that allowed, if not commanded, a certain kind of disappearance by its inhabitants. In the absence of clutter, traces of language (books), habitual ways of seeing (photos), and tools that presume a particular mode of daily living (domestic objects), a human brain/body is prompted to  sense and align with other forces at play in any given moment — such as the movement of the sun.  We slowly realized how deeply, maybe instinctually, we each crave contact with such forces, with emptiness, and with what becomes possible when distractions from within and outside of our own selves disappear.

Time and experiences of day and night unfolded in surprising ways for us during these 48 hours.  What wasn’t there allowed the house’s glass, wood, concrete, light, shadow, and reflection to speak volumes through its expansive soundscape.

We found it hard to stop ourselves from simply looking out the windows and watching  trees wave and light change. We had come with other plans, but the landscape and active building materials were too captivating and engrossing.  We had been given a front row seat with a view onto planetary change and we took it up, alongside local deer, crickets and coyotes.

While the sleeve house is a powerful, even forceful work of conceptual architecture, what it made sense-able to us was highly nuanced and delicate: the fluid relationships among ground, sky, body, and shelter.  For us, this resulted in feeling as if we had no choice but to let ourselves be made aware, 24 hours a day, of our very literal movement around the sun.

Both sun and moon cast sprawling shadows and light on interior surfaces.  The shadows moved through day and night. The absence of curtains or shades on windows made us acutely aware of moments of sunrise, moonrise, sunset, and moonset. From the second floor, the sense of being lifted by the site’s hill was heightened, and we literally felt the sleeve house become toboggan-like in its suspension above the forested landscape.

Despite our fixation on 360 degrees of surrounding views, we managed to take photos and reset the time-lapse on a Super 8 camera several times.  In the moment, we weren’t sure whether what we were making would end up being worth keeping.  But, when the processed film was returned to us, we recognized in the images the powerful and somewhat disconcerting feelings of emptiness that we experienced while inside sleeve house.  Those feelings, and the house, looked back at us through the photographs and film.

Through time-lapse film, we witnessed the ongoing generative power of planetary forces. Clouds and light continuously appeared, shifted, disappeared, appeared again. All is in shape-shifting motion. This is a world where where shadow, reflection and materiality exert the same weight, leave equal impressions.

Earlier this month, we learned of scholar James Miller’s new book (China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future) on Daoist practice and its potential relevance to the age of the Anthropocene.  In it, we found words and ideas that speak to the power of our time at the sleeve house. For over ten years, we have made work that engages forces of change at planetary scales and across immense spans of time.  We have been interested in how to bring these forces and scales into meaningful relation to human life, aesthetic experience, and cognition. The sleeve house was a profound and stark provocation to our work because of the ways it activated emptiness as the medium for our experiences of deep connection with its structure, site, and interactions with time.  This emptiness was the ground for experiences of deep connection.

sleeve house, composite of in-camera double exposures, medium format film, FOP/smudge 002017

Miller writes of Daoist practice in a ecocritical context, and his words about emptiness give us perspective on our experiences of sleeve house:

“The uniting factor of this cosmology is the term wu 無, which is usually translated as “nonbeing” or “emptiness.” The quotation relates three kinds of wu: the emptiness of heaven, or the skies; the emptiness of the mountain; and the emptiness of the body. An ecocritical reading of this text should note two things. The first is that these three dimensions of existence — the sky, the mountains, and the body— can be read fundamentally as locations. … therefore the most significant cosmological details is that these three dimensions of the cosmos — the body, the mountain, and the sky — are to be understood fundamentally as locations in which things take place, most notably the encounter with gods or perfected beings, who “take up residence” in the sky, the mountains, and the body. In order for them to do so, they require an “empty space” in which to be located. The key aspect of this Daoist cosmology, therefore, is that it is the interior emptiness of things that constitutes their ultimate significance. … The kind of emptiness that is significant in this text, therefore, is a locative emptiness: The Daoist relates the body, the mountain, and the sky together because of their foundational spatiality. The body is significant because it contains spaces in which the gods can take up residence and be encountered. The mountains are significant because they contain the caves where gods can take up residence and be encountered. The same is true for the sky, which is also constituted largely by empty space.

The second element of an ecocritical reading of this text would be that this very locative emptiness is what brings together these three dimensions of the cosmos in profound interrelationship. That is to say, because the body, the mountains, and the sky are pervaded by the same “emptiness,” they are ultimately related to one another. In their interior spaces, the Daoist finds the same wu, or empty space. This thus points to the fundamental ecological and cosmological nature of human beings. Humans are pervaded by spaces in which vital energy flows and in which gods take up residence. It is precisely this interior emptiness and accompanying porosity that also deems humans bodies at the same time landscape bodies. Human bodies are ineluctably constituted and pervaded by the same emptiness that lies within the mountains. In this sense, although different from that of mountains, in terms of the internal disposition of bodyscapes and landscapes, humans and mountains are exactly the same. The empty spaces of our bodies are the same as the empty spaces of the mountains.

The same can also be said in terms of the relationship between the human body and the far reaches of the cosmos, namely the stars that occupy “outer space” and the “outer space” that divides the starts from one another. In the Daoist imagination, the stars were understood to be palaces for perfected spirits, occupying the vast “emptiness” or “nonbeing” (wu) of the sky. Just as human bodies are in their interior emptiness identical with the mountainscapes that they inhabit, so also, says Perfect Purple Yang, are human bodies identical with the skyscape of the heavens. In other words, human bodies are not simply the product of their fleshy frames, skeletons and cells. They are also the product of the emptiness within, an emptiness that is identical with that of the natural world, and with that of the heavenly world. Human bodies are, at the level of their being empty spaces, at the same time ecological bodies and heavenly bodies. Their emptiness is the emptiness of their ecological relatedness, a relatedness not constituted by matter but by emptiness.

The emphasis on “empty space” draws on a tradition of Chinese religious practice know variously as “pacing the void” or “flight beyond the world.” (p. 95-6)

What we see in the film and photography we created in response to the sleeve house is an intense event of porosity:  an ongoing exchange; content emptied out; an invitation from a “house” emptied of distractions and channeling elements of the universe through windows and through us. Who was doing the looking?  We, the house, the sun and moon? The sleeve’s porous channel of exchange generated sonic, visual, and temporal shiftings into nameless and moving trans-formations–invitations into mystery, aesthetic experience, wonder, and at times a sense of humbled foreboding at our own apparent porosity.

We read and experience the sleeve house’s commanding disappearance as generative, life-flourishing emptiness.  Arguably, this is a notable turn from contemporary environmental activism and projects of “sustainable” design in the Anthropocene.  It’s the hinge that motivates our current and present projects.

“… ecological relationship from the perspective not of the individual practitioner but rather the physical spaces in and through which such transitions take place. … the important characteristic that this gives to any Daoist ecological discourse is that the transfiguration of the body is seen as the inevitable functioning of the Dao in the world. As a consequence, the goal of any ecological ethic that may derive from such a view cannot focus solely on environmental conservation or preservation of some natural space in an absolutely wild state. The Daoist focus on transformation within nature and the concomitant transfiguration of the body through the porosity of the flesh suggest a radical process of continuous cultivation as the best mode of engagement between the individual and his or her environmental context. In such a context, the individual, the social world, and the cosmos are locked together in a process of coevolution and mutual interpenetration. Subjectivity is distributed radically throughout such an ecological matrix, dissolving the boundaries between self and other in favor of a continuous ecology of transfiguration. 

Such a transfiguration is, in the traditions of Daoism articulated here, an act that takes place in specific locations and requires an understanding of the Taoist construction of space and place.” (p.88)  – James Miller, China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future, 2017.

We offer the resulting film from our inhabitation, sleeve (無為), shot on Super 8 color negative film:

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