Yield to the flood of beauty
Art inspires awe because it can simultaneously humble and intimidate the beholder, and be like gazing into a mirror
As I relished each nourishing spoonful of risotto so generously prepared for me by an artist unknown to me even 24 hours ago, in the company of a curator known and loved by one of my dearest friends in Delhi, I found myself in the midst of a linguistic conundrum.
Marlene Hausegger, maker of excellent risotto with fennel and a brothy stock, and Anastasia Soutormina, who'd come up to me as I was exiting Viennacontemporary driven solely by intuition, had to put me on pause. We were in Marlene's apartment in Neulinggasse in Vienna, a gorgeous, inspiring, large loft with white walls and a large hammock dangling between two corners of the open-ended living room. As German speakers sufficiently fluent in English, they'd suddenly found themselves at a loss.
What was the linguistic equivalent of the word I had so casually uttered. "Awe," I said. "You don't know this term?" I asked as I sipped on my glass of red wine and let the music Marlene was playing slip inside my bloodstream. They looked at each other somewhat cluelessly. "When you find yourself intimidated by something, humbled by something, a person, a work of art?" Marlene walked over to her desktop to look it up in an online English-to-German dictionary. The closest they come to it was Ehrfurcht, I think, which I found when I Googled later, is closer to reverence, which is not necessarily the same as awe. "Sorry," Marlene said. "We don't seem to have this word in our vocabulary." It's like when something radiates an aura... I tried to explain. I should have referenced poetry instead; a fragment from a Leonard Cohen song.... To yield to the flood of beauty.
When I first woke up in Vienna, I knew I'd be overwhelmed by how much there was to see and how vast the city would seem after the relative smallness of Graz. I walked everywhere in Graz. It was possible to. There was a tempting proximity to everything. Here in Vienna, I would have to navigate my way through metros and trams and buses and biking paths. And because I now no longer allow for premeditation when it comes to sightseeing, so my route gets chartered almost entirely by chance and not design, I woke up and soon after breakfast suddenly decided, because the information found its way to me, that the first thing I would do in Vienna, the first thing I would schlep to see was Klimt's 'The Kiss'. The Schloss Belvedere was tantalisingly close to my hotel near the Hauptbahnhof.
I encountered Klimt's 'Judith' before The Kiss. I felt immediate and irrevocable awe, especially in the audacious posturing of Judith's murderous, non-hesitant, unflinching face. Then I found myself in the beaten gold radiance of The Kiss. Instead of photographing it, the general first line of response to situations of awe, I whipped out my phone and sent a WhatsApp text to a friend whom I am accustomed to addressing many of my letters. "I find it impossible to photograph this work. Yesterday I was told I had an aura. He told me this and he pronounced the word with an Arabic accent, so it wasn't anglicised. I'm still wondering what it must mean for anything to have an aura. Whether it is inherent or perceived, or only perceivable because it is inherent. Listening to Ara Malikian as I encounter Klimt. His music, his flair with the violin is totally inflected by aura."
Last night, when Marlene and I left Cafe Malipop, a wonderful one woman-run vinyl bar in Neulinggasse that's open till 2am, we found ourselves in awe of the already waning moon. It was even more resplendent than it was on my first night in Vienna, when I'd spotted it as I was walking by the canal. Its still perceptible globular surface resembled a nipple, and the double aura around it assumed the dimension of a single breast lurking in the cloudless sky. As I thought about how visionary it seemed this afternoon as I walked through Heldenplatz, I realized that the only 'safe' place I have ever known and will possibly ever never quite remember is when I was fed my mother's milk, as I must have latched onto her breast. How foolish it seemed to me then, all my adventuring around the world in an attempt to find or create any other such safe space. I had been falsely investing in the notion of safety when in fact I should have been more actively embracing the risk of the unknown and the unknowable. What if aura is in fact the consequence not of compromising from the vantage of safety but from the cliff point of risk?
I decided to enter the Butterfly house in the city centre before I could write this column. I had this vision of being suspended in my tracks by the fiestiness of flight. And I was. I saw butterflies in different shapes, colours and sizes all arrested by the enormity of the ecosystem that had been built for their sustenance. But then I chanced upon two glass structures and I had no choice but to yield to the flood of the beauty they contained - rows and rows of cocoons in various stages of being and becoming. It was like gazing into a mirror. It was a visual embodiment of the process of graduating from safety into risk. I remembered a line from Tagore's 'Fireflies' that perhaps accounted for the aura these creatures radiated. "The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough."
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to email@example.com
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