We all need to learn to pay attention. Collectively. As a species. Art can help us do it.
These thoughts occurred as I sat on a panel last night after a screening of Michael W. Barnard's film, "Secrets of the Sun," which documents the origins and creation of the artist Peter Erskine's project of the same name. Here's an earlier, short version posted on YouTube...
Though I have seen various parts of the film in the course of the more than twenty years it took to complete it, this is the first time I had seen the finished version; and I was astonished to find that it starts out with the sound of my own voice, fading to an image of myself talking about the importance--even the urgency--and the complexity of Erskine's ambitious installation.
I still find it unnerving to see myself on screen--to see myself as the camera, and presumably then other people see me. It doesn't look like me; it doesn't sound like me. And of course it's not me, just the projection of an image of a self I happened to be inhabiting at the moment of the interview, and there's now a different self watching. No wonder there's a feeling of embarrassment and alienation.
Still, enough self-consciousness! I enjoyed the film, enjoyed the panel, enjoyed the good crowd of people who showed up. "Secrets of the Sun" tells the story of Erskine's discovery of the ancient mythical and historical power of the rainbow and his exploration of the science that explains the physical phenomenon; and of his subsequent investigation of the role of the sun in the well-being of the planet Earth--and of the dangers it incurs; of the climate change already under way and the pending man-made ecological disaster threatened by the pollution that our fossil fuels produce in the atmosphere; of the already rapid extinction of life's species; of the urgent need for change in our relationship with our only home.
Erskine's obsessive and increasingly anxiety-driven research led him to ask the question all of us must ask ourselves: what can I do? As an artist, he gradually reached the obvious answer. He could make art. The resulting environments that activated light and space with glorious, ever-changing rainbow hues culminated in a huge 1992 installation amongst the ruins of the ancient Trajan's Market in Rome--the wreckage of an empire that destroyed itself, much as ours is destined to do unless we change our ways. Enriched by a voice/sound installation by Bruce Odland, this artwork invited visitors to walk through the great, cavernous halls and corridors, experiencing at first hand, viscerally, the magically beautiful effects of sunlight, even as word-panels and spectral voices gave scientific, factual warning of the already-known dire results of our ignorant neglect of its attendant dangers.
Visitors to Trajan's Markets and to subsequent, too few, venues for the installation were overwhelmed with this "exposure"--I use the word advisedly--to both natural beauty and its dark side. Wearing white "hazmat" suits that challenged attachment to individual identity even as acted as reflectors for the solar spectrum, they became participants in the event, each required to realize his or her responsibility as a part of the whole drama, just as we each contribute to the pollution we deplore.
The experience of "Secrets of the Sun" was one that awakened the eye and mind to a state of alertness to which we normally do not rise. We were asked to pay attention. It's my hope that this filmed documentation will receive the distribution and the response that it deserves. More powerfully than the lecture or the screed, it's through actual experience that we learn best what we need to know--and it's art that can provide that experience in a more powerful, distilled form than any other means of communication that I know.