Workroom G Editions
(text without accompanying photographs)
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.
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.
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?
Each person passing through these Meadowlands, each commuter, each trucker, each outlet-mall shopper, sees a different landscape.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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