“Tapping into our discomfort is the most available resource for personal transformation.” Pema Chodron
On our last day in Madrid I went to a very complex and moving art exhibition at the Reina Sophia Museum. The exhibition was called Campo Cerrado. With the intricacies of US politics and the difficulties of inequality pervading our daily life, the show felt timely to me.
Campo Cerrado, which translates to Closed Country, originally comes from the title of a book written by Spanish author Max Aub. He writes of unrest in Spain during its conservative rein and about the liberal resistance specifically in Barcelona. But the story is a tragedy because both offenders and resisters metaphorically suffer from Homonymous. Homonymous is a physical condition that divides the field of vision, right down the center, either the inner or the outer side is blind. You can only see half of what is in your line of sight
In Sanskrit, krouncha translates to heron. Two herons are often inspiration for traditional Indian poetry, most notably the epic poem the Ramayana. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu (the sustainer), Sita (his wife) and their battle to triumph over evil
“Equal to Vishnu in valor; grateful to the sight as the full moon: in patience still as the earth; in generosity like Kuvera; in truthfulness the personification of virtue. Such are his great qualities – Rama.” Valmiki, The Ramayana
Campo Cerrado looks to fill in some of the missing vision surrounding art during the Spanish civil war. It’s hope is to show expression and creation that results when a country is faced with a dictator and his regime. Although the show consists of artworks that date from 1938, the painting, sculpture, and films feel extremely pertinent. How does one find right action in the face of an autocrat while at the same time grieving the ravages of conflict?
The exhibition kept reminding me, through the thoughtful arrangement of works, that perfection and the quest for perfection can be a manipulative action, especially if it is imposed. It is not inclusive. One man's idea of perfection leaves swaths of people, their beliefs, and their ideals out of the picture. To demand one ideology through artwork or anything else is to create a separation and a sense of otherness.
One day the sage and poet Valmiki was walking through the woods and saw two herons engaged in love play. The vision of the birds was beauty beyond description. Then, out of nowhere, a hunter arrives, lifts his bow and shoots the male bird with an arrow. The heron falls to the ground and lay dying in a pool of blood. The female bird let out a cry that was potent and illustrative of her agony.
“Valmiki the poet held all the moving world inside a water drop in his hand. “ Valmiki, The Ramayana
And how easy it is to succumb to propaganda. For example, in 1938 Spain entered idealized art into the Venice biennial. The work was not representative of a modern sensibility much of the country embodied. Many of the paintings and sculptures were completed before the war began and Spain’s contribution turned out to be an attempt to restore academic art. There are films showing the exhibition and the ideal it promotes. The work all looks “perfect” and everyone depicted in the works look “perfect”. But this idealized exhibition suffers from homonymous.
Another part of the exhibition showed works made during the rein of the dictator, Franco. There are cultural propaganda works that illustrate the joys of a simple life, but the people were oppressed. There are also works illustrating the sadness pervading the city of Madrid, often referred to as the city of a million dead. And somewhere in between are artists who are working in a covert subversive manner, hinting at discontent in a language that can slip below the radar of censorship.
Upon hearing the sound of the birds grief, Valmiki was pierced in the center of his heart. He too was overcome by grief and let out a sophisticated curse aimed at the hunter.
“ You cannot count on the proximity of someone you love, all the time. A seed that sprouts at the foot of it’s parents tree remains stunted until it is transplanted.” Valmiki, Ramayana
The exhibition included idealized architecture and housing imposed by the dictator. Old dwellings torn down and futuristic projects were built just outside of Madrid. The projects are illusion and photos showing the key ceremony are set against a backdrop of unfinished homes. These projects were executed throughout Madrid and thousands of political prisoners were responsible for the labor. Spain’s political prisoners were people who wanted to make abstract art, wanted to teach liberal ideas or practice liberal politic. They were prisoners because of who they wanted to love, who they wanted to worship, or whom they wanted to vote for. And yet the resistance continued.
Listening to the sound and the force of his own voice, Valmiki realized he was speaking in verse, 16 syllables per line and 32 per couplet.
“They reached the holy ganges, beloved of the sages. On beholding the lovely river rendered beautiful by swans and cranes. Rama was filled with delight.” Valmiki, the Ramayana
The show also included the work of artists, who during this period were forced into exile: Picasso, Miro, and Dali were just a few. They travelled to places like France and Buenos Aires where they found other exiled artists and made potent work. Many of the pieces from artist-exiles in this show are reflections of grief and loss: loss of country, loss of friends. Lorca, a dedicated Spaniard, poet and playwright, was shot outside his home in Granada when he was still a very young man. Picasso’s police record was on exhibition, it was five pages long and had a terrific mug shot!
Stunned by his impulse to curse another person, Valmiki immediately sits down in meditation. Brahma the creator soon arrives. He tells Valmiki that because the curse arose out of deep grief its form and feeling should become the epic poem, the Ramayana.
“ Be gracious Rama, and allow the worlds to rest from trouble.” Valmiki, the Ramayana
The artists that remained, were either willing to make work that fit into the ideal, some of them subversively, and at great risk. They walked the line of respectability with great risk to their career and their lives.
A big part of the exhibition was the work that came just after the civil war, work imbued with grief and the expression of grief through telling the truth. War and ethnic cleansing ravaged Madrid; the post war painting of artists like Goya was dark and foreboding. Others sought to offer consolation and some humor as a relief from reality. There were artists who were trying to create visual movements and those resisting the pull of it all. The artists of Spain wanted to express their version of modernism. They wanted to be part of modernism that was sweeping the world outside of Spain. Eusebio Sempere and Julio Gonzales were two such artists.
In India, the Ramayana is considered one of the first and foremost of all poems. It contains 24,000 verses. It’s purpose is to awaken the reader spiritually and send them along the path toward liberation. Moksha.
“ Great gifts are not easily given, I waited years before I had you.” Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana, a modern retelling.
Campo Cerrado concludes with the official embrace of the modern in post-war Spain. The art included architectural renovation and healthy, robust figuration vs. abstraction debates.
Every society should have healthy disagreements, different points of view. Diversity is what allows creative fertility to flourish. I feel so lucky to have been taught that the best of yoga happened between the schools. It occurred in the alleys where those who could see the best in individual perspectives gathered and discussed ideas. This is how Buddhism and Vedic thought came together. This is how the hybrid of vinyasa yoga has emerged and evolved today. Ideas and perspectives keep changing; we must continue to let our vision expand, refuse the Homonymous, and see as much as we can see.
As we practice it is important to make space for whatever is, in your body, in your mind, in your spirit. Only when we illuminate "what is" can we begin the process of transformation. Suppose you have a pile of old stuff in your closet. You know you need to sort through it, give some of it away, throw some of it out, and finally fold some of it for use next season. What will happen to that stuff if you never open the closet door and turn the light on?….Nothing, in fact if you leave the pile there eventually dust will gather, maybe even little bugs or rodents will make their home in that pile, have their children there and oh the eco system begins…. what was a pile of clothes now becomes an entire universe, a mountain of detritus, a problem.
My advice: open the closet and turn on the light. Adrienne Rich's potent poem, Our Whole Life, about our imperfect entirety illustrates beautifully the pain that results from the compromises we make. It is seeing the whole that inspires poetry and if you are in Spain, Campo Cerrado is very inspiring.
Our Whole Life
By Adrienne Rich
Our whole life is a translation
Of the permissible fibs
and now a knot of lies
Eating at itself to get undone
Words bitten thru words
meanings burnt-off like paint
under the blowtorch
All those dead letters
rendered into the oppressor’s language
Trying to tell the doctor where it hurts
Like the Algerian
who walked from his village, burning
his whole body a cloud of pain
and there are no words for this