Time Deprived — What We Can Learn from the Gutai
"Circle" by Jiro Yoshihara
I’m realizing it’s not that I don’t like working. It’s not that I can’t stand corporate culture. It’s not even the many long hours I’ve logged (fortunately not as long, recently, as the hours I put in as a litigation associate in some of the more notoriously hard-driving firms). If there were nothing else to do, all of that would be fine. The problem is that my life seems to somehow have gotten lost in the midst of the ladder climbing, off hours networking, and frequent spells of late nights into early morning hours and sometimes all nighters to crank out a brief or Wells submission. All of that compounded so that something also was lost in the wind-down period after work, when I tried to clear my head of memos that needed editing and witnesses to be prepped. I was fortunate enough to leave Big Law before demanding partners and nervous clients had 24 hour access to young associates via e-mail and iPhones. I did have a Blackberry, and a Blueberry (remember those, anyone?), but the technology was still new, and we were all wet behind the ears with it. Back then, it wasn’t yet a given that checking your email would be the first thing you did when you woke up in the morning and the last thing you did at night (and countless times in between). The practice of unfettered access to me and my mind had not yet become normalized, and as taken for granted as brushing your teeth. It was more like flossing — only practiced religiously by some (roughly 50% of all people).
Today is Day Two of being unemployed. Yesterday, a Monday, my mother was still here from her regular Easter visit. So we took the day and went to the Guggenheim on a whim (or instinct – the Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibit dovetailed perfectly with a book I just finished, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which I allowed myself time to read only because it was part of a book club I’ve been involved with for years, which is comprised of the mothers of my older daughter’s classmates, and is my sole source of regular socializing).
I knew we would be doing something but I didn’t know what. Mom has come from Wisconsin to visit several times a year since I moved out here 14 years ago. We’ve never had a day when I wasn’t working. I’ve meant to take time off for her visits, but it just never really worked out. We had weekends together, usually with me slipping in some work when she would go to take one of her long walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood, coming back with all the news of my nabe, and telling me about the people she had met — folks I have lived near for more than a dozen years but rarely had time to get to know. So yesterday, I was looking forward to merely doing anything that wasn’t working. We woke up and she suggested the Guggenheim. I was embarrassed that I had never been — you know, typical New Yorker, surrounded by the coolest stuff in the world and unable to take advantage because of putting in the long hours needed to live here. The eternal New Yorker’s dilemma. As I took care of a bit of paperwork before we left the house, she said that we didn’t have to go if it would be difficult to find the Guggenheim, and that she didn’t want us to spend all day looking for it. While my mother is fairly “hip,” occasionally she says something that reminds me she was indeed born 25 years before me. I reassured her all we had to do was look online and get directions. ”Oh, okay, well only if it’s not a problem.” ”No, Mom,” I said clearly confused by her skepticism — “That’s not a problem at all.”
She’d been to the Guggenheim one time before, an aborted trip 44 years ago. I’d heard this in passing before, but yesterday as we took the F to the 6 then walked up Lexington from 86th to 88th, turned left and continued to 5th Avenue (also known as Museum Mile, I pointed out to her), I collected previously undisclosed details. I guided her confidently on our trip, and she gave color to the trip she and Dad took so many years ago. It turns out they had spent the better part of a day looking for the museum. They got lost in Harlem, somehow ended up in Chinatown and got lost there too, went over the George Washington bridge several times and back (my father added this detail when I talked to him last night, and, typical Dad, pointed out that the toll back then was only $.50, and that now it would have been a very expensive detour). So Mom explained that by the time they got to the Guggenheim, she was suffering from a bad migraine and that by the time she circled around the third level of the museum’s iconic twisting interior, she was throwing up. When my mom throws up, she really throws up. She’s suffered migraines since I was little, so I have been unwilling witness to this more times than I can count. Having now walked the incline of the museum’s levels, I can imagine this particular museum is probably one of the worst places in the world to suffer a vomiting fit. My father is a buttoned-up kind of guy, in his own way. Not one for mess or plans derailed or being lost or inconvenience of any kind, I was thus surprised when Mom told me he offered to carry her in his arms back down the winding walkway. I appreciated hearing this snippet of tenderness between my parents, who have been separated since I was five. She said it with an appreciative kind of tenderness in her voice too. Last night when Dad saw my pictures from the Guggenheim posted online, he called and shared a couple other details of their trip. I told him I was surprised when Mom said they did not necessarily intend to come to New York, that they just decided to “head east,” with no particular destination in mind (again, very atypical of my father). He confirmed this; they left Beloit in their little black 1965 Mustang in September 1968 and ended up in New York. The hotel recommended by Dad’s Air Force buddy, Skipper Smith, who he had been stationed with in Grand Forks (where he met Mom) and later Panama, turned out to be so seedy that my parents slept with their clothes on and over (not under) the blankets. Not surprisingly, their NYC trip spanned no more than a couple days. They left the gritty city and headed for the more hospitable Niagara Falls. Despite their roller coaster trip in a city fully contrary to my Dad’s core conservatism and my mother’s Catholic traditionalism, old video footage of their visit and the stories I’ve heard throughout the years, tells me it was a time they both still cherish. They were free, young, and in love. And I like to think that in some grand scheme of things way, my choosing to make this place home had something to do with their visit. Maybe it was the unlikely sight of my mom and dad, surrounded by Hari Krishnas in Battery Park. If nothing else, I knew the place was interesting.
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Yesterday, Mom and I circled all the way to the top of the Guggenheim, and all the way back down. I took a picture of her near the very top of the circle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such lightness in her eyes before. For her, this was a circle completed. For me, it was one just opening up. Viewing the art was like a salve to my computer weary eyes. I thought of my youngest daughter, Z, who has not yet been to a museum. I thought of my older daughter, A, and wished we had been to more. But, most importantly, I was thinking about the moment. It’s hard not to be in the moment when you’re looking at Franz Marc’s “Yellow Cow,” or Kandinsky’s “Small Pleasures,” or reading the Gutai manifesto, where everything is about being concrete and letting matter and material speak for itself, or standing inside a giant cube made of red vinyl (a refabrication of a work originally by Tsuruko Yamazaki) or looking for a marker (they all had disappeared) to draw on the communal stand-alone surface called Please Draw Freely, originally conceived by Jiro Yoshihara for the outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition in 1956, from which many of the pieces currently on exhibit were drawn. I think my favorite piece of the Gutai exhibit was Yoshihara Jiro’s Circle, made, I noticed, in 1971, the year I was born. It is just a white circle on a black square. But to me, it says everything. Everything that cannot be put into words. And thus we have art.
And, yesterday, for the first time in a very long time, I had time to look at art. My mind was not weighed down with to do’s still undone. I was free, young (it’s all relative), and in love with the moment. The toll that over-working takes on individuals (and, by extension, families) is extensive and expensive. We pay other people to teach our kids art, culture, and music because we don’t have the time (or by the time we do have the time, we don’t have the energy) to do it ourselves. The Gutai movement, which was started in Japan by Jiro Yoshihara in 1954 and was active until his death in 1972, was a collective of artists who believed art was key to breaking the chains of totalitarianism. Its audience was often children, since it was (wisely) believed they held the key to building a future of free thinkers. Play was therefore key in their process and approach, and many of the exhibits and installations encourage play. In the few hours a day most families have together anymore, there’s barely time to take care of the essentials like getting mouths fed, dishes washed, clothes cleaned, bodies bathed, homework done, floors vacuumed (and rarely can we tick all those off the list in a given day or week), let alone add time for play. This loss of play is hard on us, our kids, our relationships, our health.
What may be most damaging to the fabric of us, as a people, is that by the time we get to taking care of the essentials, our bodies and minds are drained, with no built-in charger. Like the Gutai manifesto says, “Art is the home of the creative spirit … .” There’s not time for the things that heal us, like writing, drawing, meditation, music, prayer, gathering for the sake of gathering, long dinners, story telling, breaking bread and sharing wine. Other cultures have maintained some of this social nourishment. Why can’t we? There seems to be a recognition that something has broken and needs healing. There are groups like ArtJamz, a public space that encourages creation of art for art’s sake. And organizations like see.me, which is in the vanguard of democratizing art (and once that happens, hopefully more people will be creating art), and there are still the vestiges of a freer time, like the Lower East Side’s A Gathering of the Tribes, a writers’ and artists’ community started by Steve Cannon, now 78 and still running it from his couch, where everyone, even if you’ve never been there before, is a writer or artist and, if being introduced by Steve, is “the best damn [poet/artist/fill in the blank] around.” Although these places exist, it’s still going to take something more to fix the bigger problem. It will take employers to see the whole person and not just a worker. It will take a movement, the kind that unfortunately doesn’t usually ignite until we’ve hit rock bottom (keep in mind the Gutai movement was born in post-war Japan, and first received widespread recognition when it invited Time magazine to cover an exhibit it put on in a bombed out building), and I don’t know that we’re there yet, even for as exhausted as we are now.
If one thing is clear, it’s that it hasn’t always been like this. My mom and dad’s tale of setting out with “no particular place to go” decades ago is all the evidence I need to know that it’s not my imagination that time is not what it used to be. My dad traveled a lot for his job as I was growing up. He was in the first wave of frequent fliers, who collected their miles and had few restrictions on how to use them. By the time I was 15, he had built up so many miles that we were able to take a trip (back when frequent flyer miles were still transferable to other people) to Japan. I was surprised he chose Japan. He’s a meat and potatoes, ultra patriotic (“U-S-A, U-S-A”) American. I still need to go back to try some sushi. We ate at all the McDonald’s and Red Lobsters we could find. I also need to go back — even if it’s in philosophy and not geography — to see if I can’t find the source of play, and some way to create time for it. This may just be one of the hardest jobs I’ve had. I always have been a firm believer that time is an invention. But life isn’t. And even if we can’t re-create time, maybe we can recreate our lives in it.
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