Born Old: Joanne Kyger on Bruce Conner

Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, jointly organized by SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), is on view at the CJM through October 27. Open Space presents a series of posts in which invited writers explore various aspects of the exhibition. Today please welcome poet Joanne Kyger.

Bruce Conner, SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, 1974

Bruce Conner, SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, 1974

I am always amazed and moved by an experience Bruce Conner had when he was eleven years old and living in Wichita, Kansas. Writing about it in 1983 he says he was lying on the floor in his room looking at the late afternoon sun when he went into a state of consciousness that changed him: “I changed physically. I changed conceptually, and it took hundreds of years. I changed and grew old, through all kinds of experiences, in worlds of totally different dimensions. . . . Here I am in a room, and I’m enormously old. How can I ever get up? I’m practically disintegrated. I’m an ancient person . . . I can’t move. And then I slowly became aware of the rug. I look at my hands and they’re not old. I knew I was an old ancient person, but I didn’t look that way. . . . I wanted to talk to someone about it. I couldn’t. There weren’t words to describe the experience . . . it was like a dream. . . . There were so many things that were unknown secrets, that adult society knew, that they didn’t let children know about. I thought this was one of them.”

Bruce Conner keeps a very old spirit awake, alive. “Spirit” coming from the Latin “spiritus” means breath. A breath of an alive response, which one finds in all his varied body of work — painting, sculpture, collage, printmaking, drawing, film, and photography.

Amazing! you catch your breath, seeing Conner’s work. I met the first artifact of his presence on the poet Philip Whalen’s desk: a tiny clam shell in a tall glass of water-sprouted flowers topped off by a spirited American flag. Where did that come from! Something from the Bruce Conner museum of oddities, a representation of his world view appearing playfully close at hand.

Two of Conner’s works are shown in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art. Biblical history becomes present when God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and instructs him to lead the Israelis out of Egypt. Likewise the presence of this illumination of history appears to Artist Conner in the Mexican desert on September 3, 1962, as he quickly sketches in ink on paper the vision of a luminous “Burning Bush”— a plant enhanced with spirit life.

In SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL, one of twenty-nine life-size photograms made between 1972 and 1975, the pure entities of darkness and light project a portrait of astonishing energy. This calls to mind Zen teacher Hakuin Ekaku’s koan “Listen to the sound of the single hand,” in which the student BECOMES the koan he is trying to understand: the soundless sound of one hand. The result is a bold, confident delivery of energies and messages beyond questions and answers.

“I don’t have no biographies anymore. I used it all up,” Conner says. “I” has become a shifting identity, an intuitive recognition of self. One has no “final” form. Diverse, unpredictable, change is as present and essential as clarity.

One realizes that the “world beyond” — “the afterlife” — has already arrived and its history is with us. Here we are again, in “the world to come.”

Joanne Kyger has been associated with the poetry community since 1957 when she moved to North Beach from Santa Barbara. Author of over 30 chapbooks and books of poetry she has taught at Naropa University and the now closed New College of San Francisco. She lives on the coast north of San Francisco. Her collected poems AS EVER, is published by Penguin Poets.

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