MICHAEL ASHKIN

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GARDEN STATE

Michael Ashkin

Workroom G Editions

(text without accompanying photographs)

 

8.13
So much goes nameless. Out in the grass and mud of the Meadowlands is an uncertain agglomeration which, beyond the words “garbage,” “landfill,” or “rubble,” is largely unidentifiable. Borders remain indistinct. Among these tidal flats it is difficult to tell what is river, swamp, or firm ground.

By habit, my eyes go to the nameable: turnpike, girder, pylon, cable, tire. My eyes jump among these objects, as a rock-hopper crosses a stream, avoiding what lies in between: the unnameable, of which there is so much more.

 

8.18
From a dirt mound above Penhorn Creek, I notice that altitude does not improve my understanding; I see the same quantity of information from any height.

It is often said that the view from above is God-like, but I think not. If God could see, it would be from all positions simultaneously, from the infinity without and from the infinitesimal within, from the beginning of time until its end, an endless number of viewpoints which, when summed, would equal no viewpoint at all. Rather, it would equal a complete knowledge, permanently frozen, devoid of potential and, ultimately, dead. The view from above is the most human of views, where we indulge in the most human of pastimes: abstraction and simplification.

From here, I see only surfaces, not even objects. I retain my mobility, my shifting viewpoint, my ever-changing story, perhaps even my potential. Yet I see only a partial world, and a partial world reveals no truth. I remain isolated, distant from God’s infinite quiet.

 

8.27
Descartes said that visually we can distinguish the size of an object only within a certain not-too-distant range. Beyond that we must rely on judgment. How, he asks, do we determine the size of the sun and moon?

If something as basic as sight beyond 500 yards relies on judgment, and if judgment requires the creation of an abstract understanding, and if that abstract understanding implies the separation of mind and world, then are we not confined to a life of alienation and longing?

 

8.28
Yesterday, from a distance, I photographed a piece of wreckage, only to discover today that, because of its relative smallness, it barely registered in the picture. Yet at the time, it had dominated the viewfinder. My ability to judge size is hindered by factors beyond logical reasoning. Seeing appears to be less about creating an objective map of the world than identifying and magnifying zones of subjective importance.

Each person passing through these Meadowlands, each commuter, each trucker, each outlet-mall shopper, sees a different landscape.

 

9.2
I wonder, what are the dimensions of our world? We seem forever consigned to see in terms of scale, not size, size being the province of certainty and God. Although we measure the world with a ruler, we observe the ruler relative to its distance from our eyes.

From where I stand, these ailanthus trees are taller than the more distant pylon. If I step closer, the trees become larger still, and my understanding is in no way enhanced. My world remains pure aesthetics, pure art.

 

9.20
Wandering along the river near Fish House Road, I see everywhere the vestiges of Vitruvian architectural ideals wherein the human form achieves unity with pure linear geometry. Every nearby structure—the tower and pulley drawbridges, the Pulaski Skyway, the abandoned container carrier, the cloverleaf off-ramps from Routes 1 and 9—seems to involve an orchestrated integration of the circle and the square.

Yet here on Fish House Road, we observe the paradoxical result of transferring ideal geometries into physical form. For now, all around us these forms rust and collapse; the only perfect union we achieve with them is to accompany them on their entropic journey.

 

9.29
Perhaps our only experience of unity comes in fragile, overlooked moments. Today, sitting on the railroad embankment, my eyes drifted in the direction of the unpaved service road and lingered there. For a while, I don’t know how long, I was conscious of nothing, not even of looking.

Then, my eyes moving along the road, I wondered whether there existed a word to describe the grassy strip between worn tire tracks. In that instant, my moment of unity was over; the view became fragmented, a collection of words and geometric forms.

 

10.6
Recently, I have been thinking of the Meadowlands as a garden. If space and size exist only as a function of scale and aesthetics, then I can call a garden any landscape I regard as such—any landscape in which I contemplate the uncertain boundaries between man, nature and God.

Just as geometric forms traced on the earth appear to me obliquely, I do not perceive a garden in its entire or ideal form. Furthermore, a garden easily loses its stability and integrity, becoming corrupted with the growth of a weed, a change in the weather, or a shift in my position, mood, or thinking. A garden acts as a paradigm for all other art, recognizing explicitly what is implicit in all aesthetic experiences: contextuality, mutability, entropy.

 

10.7
Gardens have always been concerned with borders and structure, two issues which relate to the metaphysics of their times. In the Renaissance, gardens began to integrate the world beyond their walls. A belvedere or portico might geometrically frame the outlying landscape, subjecting it to abstraction, admitting it to the garden both visually and symbolically.

Later, Versailles magnified this integration by imposing its layout on the world. From Louis XIV’s château, axes radiated out across all of France. The main axis followed the sun’s westerly path through the king’s vantage point to a vanishing point on the horizon. There, at infinity, aesthetics, mathematics, imperial longing and God converged in perfect abstraction: an attempt to override man’s mortal destiny through art.

Of course, Louis XIV never transcended his mortality. Yet the axes of his garden have proliferated, covering the world, each pointed toward its own infinity.

Today, as I head down the New Jersey Turnpike, I can still experience the Sun King’s longing. At dusk, driving northbound along the straight stretch beside Newark Airport, I feel as if I am moving through a vast subliminal descendent of Versailles. To the left of the axis, incoming jets stack up over the runways; to the right, tall cranes tower above the rows of container ships. Everywhere lights in arrays replace flowers: the lights of the descending jets, the oncoming headlights, the red taillights, the sodium lights at the port, the flashing airport landing lights, the reflections of all of these on my hood and in my mirrors. On the highway itself, the repeating cadences: the dotted lines, the barrier supports, the light posts, the telephone poles, the signs and overpasses. And in between and all around, still undominated, the shining, marshy waters of the Meadowlands.

Here, I experience the seven characteristics of the sublime: obscurity, power, privation, vastness, infinity, succession and uniformity. We remain, as did Louis XIV, more in Pascal’s world than in Descartes':

“[at] a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes: the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from [us] in impenetrable secrecy.”

 

10.9
Yesterday, beyond the Conrail tracks, I wandered out onto a large landfill covered with tall dense reed grass. Within minutes of entering, I found myself disoriented, lost in a labyrinth of meandering, subdividing paths. I encountered few landmarks, only sporadic vehicle carcasses, stripped, battered and ominous. I found my way out only after twice encountering the same green Toyota.

Today, I recall the hedge maze at Chatsworth in Yorkshire. Losing my way in that well-tended garden was a more controlled experience. Yet now I believe stories that those lost in garden mazes have occasionally become paranoid, committing indiscretions and violence. An unmappable world is a terrifying and maddening prospect.

 

10.10
From Snake Hill the Meadowlands spreads before me as one vast irrational site, a garden defying comprehensible structure, borders, or definition, a place of metaphysical collapse.

On the surface I see endless truck lots, railway lines, electric pylons, elevated highways, factory outlets, and several optimistic high-rise complexes and suburbs. Yet in between and down below, sinking slowly into muck hundreds of feet deep, lie centuries of garbage and the remnants of countless agricultural, industrial and personal dreams. The area’s overwhelming characteristic is the coexistence of hasty new development with rapid and terminal deterioration. Hopeful new routes maintain a straight and true trajectory, while others, just a few years older, buckle and sink. I sense that within a few short decades the Meadowlands would, if left to its own devices, devour everything on its surface, churning it under forever.

 

10.11
An ancient Babylonian myth tells how the first three gods emerged from the infinite primordial muck. These gods, whose names translate as “womb of chaos,” “abyss” and “bottomless gulf,” represented only a slight improvement over their origins. Subsequent generations of gods followed, each doing battle with their forebears, each adding additional layers of order to the world. Eventually, Marduk, the Sun God, slew the goddess of the abyss and split her in two, creating from her corpse the separate worlds of men and sky. Nevertheless, the victory over disorder was incomplete, requiring eternal ritual reinforcement. Today, unable to agree on the nature of that reinforcement, we find ourselves again uncomfortably close to that same primordial muck.

 

10.27
Surface, depth, distance, man, nature, God: these are the creations of language. These are words which, like all other words, create their own paradoxes; words separating what is not separable in the world.

For Descartes, space and size exist as a projection of thought. Yet with thought, we have created only abstractions beyond the reach of our corporeal beings. A garden built of words, theories and geometric projections. A garden full of disembodied contradictions, divinities, terrors and longings. A garden wherein the world is seen through our eyes against the scale of our imaginations.

 

© 2000 by Michael Ashkin. All rights reserved

Published as Garden State, by Michael Ashkin, Workroom G Editions
ISBN 0-9677411-0-6
Designed by Peter Rinzler Printed by Oddi Printing Corp., Reykjavik, Iceland

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information retrieval) without permission in writing from the author.