Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter X - Zen Philosophies and Buddhism

Johnson had an avid interest in Eastern religion and philosophy.  The ideas of Buddhism and other eastern religions were interwoven in his work.  Nirvana, the goal of all Buddhists is sometimes translated as nothing-ness and this was certainly something that Johnson was aware of when he named his performances Nothings.  Early on in New York, in 1949, Johnson worked at the Orientalia book store which specialized in books on Eastern religion.[1]  This cemented in the ideas introduced by Cage and others at Black Mountain College about the application of Zen philosophy to art and life.  Basically, the Zen philosophy is that enlightenment can be attained through meditation and self-contemplation rather than through devotional acts.  One cannot ignore that the interests Johnson had, such as transformation, rebirth and the concept of nothingness are all major parts of the Buddhist religion.  In a 1984 interview with Henry Martin Johnson spoke about Zen as, “a point I often get to in my work.”[2] 
            The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism deal with the suffering of trying to hold onto something and say that impermanence is a part of life.  Nothing is lasting and it is futile to try to hold onto anything in life.  One has to let go of everything to be free.[3]  This was a substantial piece of what interested Johnson as an artist.  Impermanence, change, transformation; all of these are discussed within the Four Noble Truths.  All are present in Johnson’s work.  The fact that he used performance to get his art out there prominently speaks of impermanence being an important issue that he wished to explore.
An example of how Johnson put the Buddhist lessons about futility to work is talked about in the following anecdote from his interview with Henry Martin:
"I did one of my most bizarre lectures up at the Rhode Island School of Design.  It consisted of me trying to move a piano across the stage, and people kept coming up to ask if they could help, and I said, "Certainly not! I mean the point is that I can't move the piano, and I'm struggling to move it, and it's obviously not going to get moved across the stage, and I'm putting out a great exertion of energy, and I'm on a public platform, and you are all viewing me, which is the whole point of this thing." I said, "you figure it out."[4]  
Johnson’s actions of trying to move the piano across the stage are done in vain.  The piano will never get moved and the desire to move the piano is getting him nowhere, if he lets go of his desire to move the piano and simply walks away, he will be free of that act that was causing him suffering. 
            In Buddhist practice there is the theory that meditation can lead one to “right-mindedness.”  This means that you are always aware of what is going on, always aware of every action you take.  A practitioner starts out by learning to meditate and the goal is to eventually perpetually obtain that mindset.  This can be applied to Johnson’s life/art.  Johnson started out painting and collaging but then through his learning at Black Mountain and continued interest in Eastern religion he was able to apply that philosophy to art.  So his painting and early education can be thought of as a beginner learning to meditate.  Then as time went on he applied art to other areas of his life and at some point he reached the enlightened state of mind where he was always completely aware of art and perpetually in the state of making art.
There are other areas of the teachings of Buddha that are also applicable to Johnson’s work and life.  When the Buddha became enlightened he realized the interconnectedness of all things and the links between life, death and rebirth.  If we take a look at all of Johnson’s work as a whole picture we can see it as one large web of interconnections.  Throughout all of his pieces, whether they are collage, mail art or performance, he is constantly referring back to his own work.  One piece in some way has to do with another; they are all part of a web that makes a whole.
            For instance, in 1969 Johnson participated in Charlotte Moorman's Avant-Garde festival on Wards Island.[5]  His idea was to drop sixty foot-long hotdogs out of a helicopter over the festival, which he did.[6]  Johnson said the relevance of the hotdogs had to do with their length, one foot, which tied into another work he was doing at the time called "feetings" where he would trace peoples' feet.[7]  This demonstrates how Johnson’s works were intricately tied into each other.  Even when the viewer cannot see a connection, there is some connection to something else, even if it is only apparent to Johnson.  That whole idea refers back to Buddhism and other eastern religions.       
In seeming opposition to the solemnity of Buddhism the other principal domain of Johnson’s work was his incorporation of humor.  He was able to combine serious, philosophical religious ideals with the absurd in a way that has yet to be matched by anyone else.  In a conversation with art critic Amei Wallach Johnson said that he managed to, “…combine the tragic with the comic, the ridiculous with the sublime.”[8]  He managed to present serious issues with humor and find sober aspects in the absurd.

[1] Jones, 1999, 202.
[2] Henry Martin, “Should an Eyelash Last Forever? An interview with Ray Johnson by Henry Martin,” La Poetica, Feb. 1984, 1. (accessed June 16, 2007).
[3] Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 59.
[4] Martin, 1.
[5] Walter, Moore, DVD.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ray Johnson,  radio interview by Shirley Samberg for, "That's Interesting," 9/13/84, transcribed by John Walter.
[8] Amei Wallach, ed., “Dear Friends of Ray, and Audiences of One,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1999, 2.  2(accessed January 19, 2008)

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