Inspiration

Off the Grid

J. and Untitled #12 by Agnes Martin at the Art Institute of Chicago

“She lived alone on an isolated mesa in New Mexico with no running water or mains electricity… It’s been said that neighbours who popped round offering cake and cookies were welcomed with the business end of her gun.”

Will Gompertz on Agnes Martin, BBC

Inspiration

The Alphabet

Origins of the letters “A” and “B,” circa 1850 B.C., Serabit El-Khadim, Egypt. Screenshot from The Secret History of Writing, BBC4.

“Almost all the world’s alphabets share the same root—scripts like Hebrew, Armenian, Cyrillic, Tibetan, Devanagari, Gujarati… All the alphabets of Arabia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East go back to one original prototype. It seems that the alphabet, that idea, as simple as it is, was only invented once.”

The Secret History of Writing, BBC4

Inspiration

Future Koan

Utö, Finland

The weather reporter said, “Enjoy tomorrow while it’s still here.”

Inspiration

The Sand and Grit of Selfhood

RiSE Festival 2023, Nevada

“Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological wonder, cosmic emotion, are all unifying states of mind, in which the sand and grit of the selfhood incline to disappear, and tenderness to rule.” 

The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by William James

Inspiration

Standard Loneliness Package

J. and Liquid A Place by Torkwase Dyson, Desert X 2023, Palm Desert, California

“They have gotten it down to a science. How much a human being can take in a given twelve-hour shift. Grief, embarrassment, humiliation, all different, of course, so they calibrate our schedules, mix it up, the timing and the order, and the end result is you leave work every day right about at your exact breaking point.”

Standard Loneliness Package by Charles Yu

Inspiration

Technology

Nixon (1965-2002) by Nam June Paik at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“I use technology in order to hate it properly.”

Nam June Paik

Inspiration

The Valley

End of the Calico Tanks hike, Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, Nevada

“In Ancient China, it was believed that at the eastern and western extremeties of the Earth there were valleys from which the Sun rose and into which it set at either end of its visible transit.”

Dictionary of Symbols (1994) by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

Inspiration

Perspective

Wangchuan Villa by Zhang Jisu, 1600s, at The Met, New York

The table lamp in my childhood bedroom saved my mind. It was shaped like a vase and painted with a traditional Chinese landscape featuring tiny, contemplative people amidst massive mountains. When I was a stressed out teenager, I would stare at that lamp and it always knocked me out of my myopic thinking and put my worries in perspective. It still works.

Inspiration

Contempt

Closeup of Portrait Müller (1965) by Gerhard Richter at SFMOMA, San Francisco

Contempt [directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1963] is about men and women rendered graceless by their times… It’s one of the few movies of the anxious past half-century that seems equally at home with history and modernity. It might once have looked conventional, but its audacity, we now see, is breathtaking. The world of Contempt is epic in a new way: a world growing in harmony, not opposition, with artifice.”

Man, Godard, and Nature (and Bardot too) by Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times, Mar 9, 2008

Inspiration

The Desert

J. and Kelso Dunes, Mojave Desert

“One can enter the desert as much to lose as to find oneself… As a psychic landscape the desert often exemplifies protracted periods of alienation, spiritual thirst, redemption, and initation… Or the desert was a transitional space of wandering, exile, temptation and waiting for promise.”

The Book of Symbols by The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)

Inspiration

Hell Money

Yangmei, Taiwan

Legend goes when missionaries told Chinese non-believers they were going to hell, they thought hell = the afterlife. They gladly added “hell” to their traditional ghost money, symbolic money burned to send prosperity to ancestors. So that’s how it came to be called hell money, and now I get to recognize my elders and the dark side at once.

Inspiration

Dream State

West Pier, Brighton, England
Tomorrow is Never (1955) by Kay Sage at The Met, New York

Process

The Nightly News

Behind the scenes of The Nightly News in London in 2022. We called the space the Tarkovsky Box because it dripped with rain like Stalker.

Inspiration

The Punk Trees of London

Aggressive pruning called pollarding creates streets lined with gnarled fists and statement hair.

Process

Gods

“Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God… This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.”

Jorge Luis Borges

Process

After the End

Photo by James Reeves
Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk

Behind the scenes of After the End at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York in 2021. James and I were miffed by the seams in the altar, so we decided to seal them with caulk and paint. The altar could potentially collapse under substantial weight, so I slithered onto it like Mission Impossible as everyone watched with bated breath. It worked out.

People often asked us how we got responses to the center of the altar. A very unfancy four-foot-long grabber tool.

Process

Emotional Granularity

“Emotional granularity isn’t just about having a rich vocabulary; it’s about experiencing the world, and yourself, more precisely… According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them… It gives your brain more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett 

Inspiration

The Handwritten Word

Jianguo Holiday Flower and Jade Market, Taipei, Taiwan

Growing up surrounded by Chinese calligraphy inspired my love for the handwritten word. My uncle took me to an art market in Taipei to gift me his favorite melancholy poem, written on-site by a local calligrapher. There’s a reverence for meaningful sentiments written by hand, and I carry that through all of my participatory installations and paintings. It’s an act of devotion to these writers and their scribbled aches, like composing a hymn of our psyches in the early 21st century.

Inspiration

Grief and Humor Smashed

A family wails into a vulgar pile as cameras flash. From The Host by Bong Joon-ho.

Inspiration

Sad Astronaut Movie Marathon

Ad Astra directed by James Gray, written by James Gray and Ethan Gross
Solaris (1972), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, written by Andrei Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein, based on a novel by Stanisław Lem
Solaris (2002) written and directed by Steven Soderbergh, based on a novel by Stanisław Lem
Interstellar directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan
2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, inspired by a short story by Arthur C. Clarke

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Arthur C Clarke

Inspiration

Sad Priest Movie Marathon

Calvary written and directed by John Michael McDonagh
Winter Light written and directed by Ingmar Bergman
First Reformed written and directed by Paul Schrader

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair… Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

First Reformed by Paul Schrader

Inspiration

Devastating last sentence

A Bird in the Room (1955) by Kay Sage at the Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio

Inspiration

To Live Without God

Iceland

“The greatest question of our time is whether men can bear to live without God…. I cannot believe, in the face of biology, in the eternity of the individual self; nor, in the face of history, can I believe in a personal anthropomorphic God. But unlike the tougher minds of my time I miss these encouragements, and cannot quite forget the poetry with which they surrounded my youth… What immortality means to me now is that we are all parts of a whole… the whole is made forever different by what we have done and been… Perhaps the greatest Whole, to which in all generations the greatest souls have devoted themselves, will, in tomorrow’s religion, be called God.”

Will Durant, 1932

Inspiration

Every Man is a Mob

Lisbon, Portugal

“Every man is a mob, a chain gain of idiots. This is the tragedy of life. Because for a few minutes of every day, every man becomes a genius… But then the genius has to hand over the controls to the next guy down the pike, most likely the guy who just wants to eat potato chips… The only way out of this mess, of course, is to take steps to ensure that you control the idiots that you become… The best way to do this is with a list.”

Memento Mori by Jonathan Nolan

Inspiration

Who She Is, Where She Belongs

Two Guns, Arizona

“In the thirteen years since Zema came to America, she has never had any idea that having no idea who she is and having no idea where she belongs makes her more American than anyone.”

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Inspiration

Memories in Circulation

Me and Invisible Line (collective) (2010-2011) by Julie Mehretu at the Whitney Museum of Art. Photo by James Reeves.

“Strangely, the memory of eating eggs on Chinese New Year was one that my mother later told to me as well, except in this version, it was she who had grown up in the countryside—even though she had actually grown up in Fuzhou city proper. It was as if she had absorbed her husband’s memories as her own. Or maybe she was trying to speak for him, to keep his memories in circulation.”

Severance by Ling Ma

Inspiration

Small Dull Smears of Meditative Panic

Medan, Indonesia

“He said we do this all the time, all of us, we become ourselves beneath the running thoughts and dim images, wondering idly when we’ll die. This is how we live and think whether we know it or not. These are the unsorted thoughts we have looking out the train window, small dull smears of meditative panic.”

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

Process

Lighting for the Nocturnal

Korpo, Finland

In the nearby city of Turku, grids of these now-secular Swedish Advent candelabras line the windows of apartments and office buildings alike, casting a meditative and communal mood on the streets like a temple.

Inspiration

Public Art + Time

Tuscan Girl Fountain by Oskar Stonorov and Jorio Vivarelli, Philadelphia, PA

This is one of my favorite public art projects of all time. A 1965 sculpture once under a waterfall is now a motif of people scrambling the hell out of TGI Fridays Restaurant. The city goes on. Change is inevitable.

Inspiration

Pliancy and Weakness

Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky

“Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”

Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky

Inspiration

Confusion

8 1/2 by Federico Fellini

“But this confusion is me as I am, not as I’d like to be. I’m no longer afraid of telling the truth about what I don’t know, what I’m looking for, what I haven’t found. Only this way do I feel alive.”

8 1/2 by Federico Fellini

Process

Light the Barricades

First sketch

Behind the scenes of Light the Barricades in Los Angeles in 2019. When it traveled to Charlotte, the Doubt lightbox happened to stand in the backdrop of a wedding ceremony. They covered the word.

Inspiration

The City of the Dead

New Orleans, Louisiana

“Soon after one picks up man’s trail in the earliest campfire or chipped-stone tool one finds evidence of interests and anxieties that have no animal counterpart; in particular, a ceremonious concern for the dead, manifested in their deliberate burial—with growing evidences of pious apprehension and dread… Mid the uneasy wanderings of paleolithic man, the dead were the first to have a permanent dwelling: a cavern, a mound marked by a cairn, a collective barrow. These were landmarks to which the living probably returned at intervals, to commune with or placate the ancestral spirits… The city of the dead antedates the city of the living.”

Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961)

Inspiration

A Ritual for Atonement

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring directed by Kim Ki-duk

On a temple floating in the middle of a lake, an old monk writes sutras on the wooden deck with a cat’s tail dipped in ink. A student is instructed to methodically carve these characters with the same knife he once used in destructive ways. From the film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring directed by Kim Ki-duk.

Inspiration

Chinese seal

Xi’an, China

Inspiration

At Age Fifty-Nine

J. and Night Zag Wall (1969-1974) by Louise Nevelson (when she was age 75) at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

“For twenty-five years, from the time she began to exhibit her work, critics praised her art but she sold almost nothing. Then in 1958, at age fifty-nine, she hit the big time. And during the next twenty-eight years of non-stop work she churned out thousands of sculptures, collages, drawings, and prints, and she became a star… Long before the women’s movement got underway, Nevelson was living the life she wanted, sleeping with the men she was attracted to, swearing like a sailor, and never taking a day job… ‘If you have talent and don’t use it, it makes you neurotic and you die.'”

Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow by Laurie Wilson

Inspiration

In the Sky Suddenly Divested of its Sun Something Relaxes

New Orleans, Louisiana

“The loves we share with a city are often secret loves… In the sky suddenly divested of its sun something relaxes… To feel one’s attachment to a certain region, one’s love for a certain group of men, to know that there is always a spot where one’s heart will feel at peace — these are many certainties for a single human life.”

Summer in Algiers (1936) by Albert Camus

Inspiration

Tiny Frightened Animals

Hawaii

“In the end, we are only tiny frightened animals, doing our best to survive amid other tiny frightened animals.”

James Hollis

Inspiration

Walking

Prague, Czech Republic

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Inspiration

Passengers of Houses

New Orleans, Louisiana, 2016

I once read an old book about New Orleans that called residents “passengers” of houses. I like that.

Inspiration

Cities

Crete, Heraklion, Greece

“But as the city has been losing functions it has been reasserting its most ancient one: a place where people come together, face-to-face. More than ever, the center is the place for news and gossip, for the creation of ideas, for marketing them and swiping them, for hatching deals, for starting parades… This is the engine, the city’s true export. Whatever makes this congress easier, more spontaneous, more enjoyable is not at all a frill. It is the heart of the center of the city.”

City: Rediscovering the Center (1988) by William Whyte

Inspiration

A Tear of Petrol in Your Eye

Carhenge by Jim Reinders, Nebraska

“A tear of petrol is in your eye. The hand brake penetrates your thigh. Quick – let’s make love before you die.”

The Normal

Inspiration

Inward and Outward Life

American Address by Douglas Bourgeois

“To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: the introversion, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner life of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values.”

Vladimir Nabokov

Inspiration

A Certain Alienated Majesty

Dad and Gaomei Wetlands, Taichung, Taiwan

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inspiration

Traveling Alone

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

“Spells of acute loneliness are an essential part of travel. Loneliness makes things happen.”

Jonathan Raban

Inspiration

To Live Without Certainty

J. in New Paltz, New York

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”

The History of Western Philosophy (1946) by Bertrand Russell

Inspiration

Form Follows Tax Laws

The Marigny, New Orleans, 2010

Shotgun houses are so damn cute I want to pet them. They say it’s thanks to New Orleans’ tax laws and people trying to get Best Value. The government taxed property based on lot frontage, so people made their houses as narrow as possible. The government taxed two-story houses more, so people added second floors to the rear, where it didn’t count. The government taxed houses based on the number of rooms, so people didn’t make closets or hallways, which counted as rooms. And presto, the Best Value House looks like this:

The Marigny, New Orleans, 2010

As wide as a room, up to a half block long, made of consecutive hallway-less rooms, and sometimes with second floors in back (like above, a typology now know as the Camelback). Doors are arranged so that in some homes you could potentially shoot a shotgun straight through from the porch to the backyard, hence the name. Or in more peaceful terms, you could line up seven Slip-n-Slides in a row and have the ride of your life.

The Marigny, New Orleans, 2010

And in more Best Value strategies, people often joined forces to save on property width. Known as a Double-barrel Shotgun, two homes share the same roof and a central wall (above). This is the kind of house I now live in, owned by my friends next door. Our homes are each one room wide and a half block long (12.5 ft x ~120 ft) and completely separate except for the backyard and the porch, where we open our wood shutters every morning and say “Damn it’s hot!” and chat with passers-by and feed the neighborhood cat. Interiors are wood-floored and a grand 13′ tall to keep it cool, and ceiling fans add a classy breeze. Everyone is sitting on porches and riding their bikes and saying hello next to little houses and storefronts painted green, pink, and yellow. It all adds up to a neighborhood that feels like it was drawn by a five-year-old, in the very best way.

P.S. Here’s a beautiful and insightful map of plantation plots along the Mississippi River. Same skinny lots but on a way bigger scale. Thanks Dave Tufte for pointing out these origins of the frontage tax:

Image from USGenWeb Archives

“The frontage tax, in turn, had its origins in the plantation and river transport system of colonial Louisiana… Each plantation had a small waterfront – to ship out sugar or whatever, and deliver supplies – and a very deep farm. This was so that every owner could have access to cheap transportation. Since operating the plantation on cleared land behind the levee was problematic, it didn’t make much sense to tax its value. Instead, the frontage could be taxed since it was representative of the number and size of ships that could dock for transsshipment.” – Dave