“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
— Neil Gaiman
On the drive up to the Griffith Observatory overlooking Los Angeles, my friend Bruno was explaining String Theory. I visualize twinkling stars tracing the outlines of shoelaces, a whimsical cartoon in the night sky for a moment until the robotic voice of the map app interrupts my reverie. “Turn left,” she commanded impassively. Back on route, Bruno has moved on to the Theory of Everything (which sounds awfully comprehensive) and time as a traversable feature in our universe. His words make small cuts to my fragile imaginings of our existence as I navigate, distracted, up a winding hillside in our small corner of it all.
Later, reclining beneath the exquisite fake stars of the planetarium, we hurtle through time and space. The show, titled Light of the Valkyrie, illustrates the science behind the northern lights, weaving in the myths that humans have ascribed to the night sky before science revealed the mechanics of the heavens. Animated gods danced across the faux sky, waging wars, falling in love, living and dying. It was a beautiful testament to both how far we have come in science and mankind’s need – ache – since the beginning of recorded human history to make some sense of this strange life and the twinkling night sky; the way in which our ancestors filled in those gaps in knowledge with imaginative stories is heartbreaking to me. Swayed by the inexplicable beauty of our improbable lives, a word-defying sense of wonder washed over me. The feeling was followed quickly by a visceral horror, for precisely the same reasons. It’s not a place to stay in too long, mired in that bottomless existential night swim.
I closed my eyes, negotiating with the welling tears. When I open them an expressionless eggshell-white dome has replaced the dazzling stars. Bruno glances at me, sensing my quiet, and promptly cracks an off-color, unrepeatable joke about Galileo’s stargazing, which he is uniquely qualified to do, being both a mathematician and Italian, much like Galileo himself. He is being kind to me in this moment. Usually even a simple conversation with Bruno quickly veers towards the piercingly existential, his debate points dissected, trimmed and methodically arranged with a surgical precision.
At times, there is an unspeakable helplessness that comes along with finding oneself alive, in a body that breathes, pumps blood, is outfitted with millions of nerve endings, ultimately deposited as we are in a time and place, with no real choice in the matter. Encased in these glorious meat cages, we are awash in magnificent biochemical cocktails that compel us to weep, laugh, sing, kill, make love, and create life. It is all so simultaneously wondrous and horrifying in that it remains beyond any real control. Sometimes I imagine that there is an alien out there on the periphery of our planet, an anthropologically inclined researcher, tasked with watching us from a some undetected plane of existence. I’ve named her Archie; she’s 2/3 machine, 1/3 organic (engineered), a product of a species that edited out the undesirable genes of disease and certain biochemical recipes, such as murderous rage, long ago. She works in calm solitude in the spaceship, reporting wordlessly to some collective consciousness, still largely unperceived by humans. She has compiled a massive catalogue of our strange human nature that encompasses our extremes of beauty and ugliness, an improbable spectrum spanning from genuine kindness and senseless murder. In this fantasy, when she comes to the human arts she breaks stride ever so briefly, for it is her faintly favorite aspect of the curious human animal, that crystallization of storytelling, commentary and introspection.
Neuroscientists tell us – quietly and gently — that the soul resides in the unique biological wirings of our individual brains. And the astrophysicists tell us that our bodies are made of dead stars, helpfully providing the elemental breakdown of our flesh, blood and bones. Every time I contemplate this, an image of a painter fills my mind first; it is an image of a body in motion, a feeling streaking emphatic color across a canvas; and then, my mind’s eye cuts to a detail of a textured brushstroke, glistening still. The physicality of this gesture reminds me of my own movement within the rectangular confines of a yoga mat – my pseudo-flying carpet. Moving through a simple, yet somehow profound set of movements, some cosmic stardust glitter that had settled in my joints — deep in the infinitesimal crevices of fascia and muscle — stirs magically. Moving through the poses, while most certainly ungraceful to an observer, I am touched by something beautifully existential. As I keep moving, my mind invariably wanders towards a layman contemplation of the biochemistry involved in these movements shaped by intention. I consider the boxer’s channeled rage; a ballet dancer’s gazelle-like grace; or a flamenco dancer’s curious combination of both rage and grace, that untranslatable duende. Finally I am back at the painter’s emotional sweep of color across a canvas.
To wander through an art museum is to traipse through human history as told by the human spirit, a discussion always shaped somehow by the body, the human experience of life on this earth. Deconstructed, an artwork reflects a time and a place with all the attendant social, political and economic systems to some degree. Taken as a whole, all art is an elaborate conversation unfolding across the ages: our ancestors shed nuanced insights on a time past as we create our own commentary for our descendants.
These were a few of the things I was contemplating when I created Louisiana Dream, initially a simple side project to explore a range of mixed-media techniques that could be employed in my ongoing project, American Macondo. After a while, the project took on a life of its own, and I thoroughly enjoyed the thought processes that came with the simple act of painting and drawing on the prints. As for the narrative, I suppose it is half fable (an adult version), half nonsensical cautionary tale, as dreams so often seem to be. And yes, I frequently dream of Louisiana. I have swum the length of the Mississippi many times, wrestled alligators, and encountered many bizarre characters along the way. And I have fire engine red hair in my dreams (residual childhood fascination with Pippi Longstocking).
I will forever marvel at the strange creations of my sleeping brain, all those synapses firing — and maybe misfiring, who knows? In any case, I hope I live long enough to see the rise of dream imaging technology. I suspect that in a future era, I would have loved to be an oneierographer — but more on that another day.
Thanks for reading.