Be Receptive to Change

...within the process I have to accept things, not force something. When you accept things, then things will come... The more I accept, the closer I get to a complete work. 
— Mariko Mori (Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art)

Making art is unpredictable and elusive. That's why an artist can dedicate an entire lifetime to their work and not become bored. Change is sometimes seen as good, sometimes as bad. It will occur whether it benefits you or not; it the impartial law of nature. Change holds our awareness, keeps us expanding and learning. Rather than resisting it, we have to learn how to harness the flow of change and follow it.

In his book, Every Moment is the Universe, Zen master Katagiri Roshi says a day is made up of 6,400,099,180 moments. One moment, or ksana in Sanskrit, is sixty-five instants. Katagiri writes, "The actual numbers are not so important, but [so] we should have a sense of how quickly time goes." Many people experience anxiety or despair when facing this transience. In the Zen tradition the solution to making peace with change (time) is having the "way-seeking mind". The way-seeking mind acknowledges the 6,400,099,180 moments in a day and accepts it as a law of nature. This law is called impermanence - a fundamental concept in Buddhist philosophy. Another fundamental concept are the four foundations of mindfulness; which are aspects of the human in constant flux moment to moment. They are: body, sensations, thoughts and emotions. Imagine every being in the Universe living in this flux of the four foundations - a constant cycle of decay and regeneration. Change and time are just two sides of the same coin.

Because you are changing, your art is likely to change. Not to mention, a plan for your work is likely to bump up against setbacks or unforeseen challenges. Whether your problem is lack of time, money, skills or even technology-related... it's vital that you remain open. Yes, it's important to see the piece come to life, but your art is a being in its own right. You cannot completely control another being. You want it to do this, but it does the opposite. What if your accident or failure is the answer to final product? I hear this from other artists quite a bit: "Just act like it was on purpose!" They are joking, but it's good advice. Better yet, make your accident purposeful and meaningful in the future. If you want truly let change benefit your life, you mustn't control it.

One of my most recent examples is with a body of work I made called, "Circadian". At the time I was meeting with a scientist who shared my interest of artificial light's effect on circadian rhythms, specifically birds. He was going to let me take pinhole photographs in the field where he collected specimens. I wanted to construct a nest box that was also a pinhole camera, to capture the intrusion of light in their private space. Everyone I spoke to was very excited about this, especially me!

Weeks went by, and the scientist did not respond to my texts or emails. I understood the nature of impermanence, and the fact that his needs and obligations had likely changed. This allowed me to release any need to control, and I detached. So, I decided to make my own birdhouse. This was a lot of work for me, as I don't know much about woodworking or birds. After some assistance from a woodworker and bird-house enthusiasts on the Internet, I did make a nest box where there were two compartments, the one on top being the nesting space and the one on bottom being the pinhole camera.

Once the nest box was designed and constructed, I had to find a place to install. Well, that didn't happen. I live in Phoenix, where anything box-like in a public area looks like a bomb. I had nowhere to put it: I didn't personally own a tree nor did I want to go to someone's house to take the film out every night, even if they would let me. I could only take one photo per night, so it would also require a commitment of time and support from the other person.

Eventually I had to look at my options, because the project was due in ten days. I didn't have a tree, a collaborator or any birds. All I had was my apartment complex and myself. With a way-seeking mind, I recognized the transience of time and accepted what was. Then, I constructed three normal pinhole cameras to take three photos per night. Before I went to bed, I set out each one inside my apartment or outside in the common areas of the complex, closing the shutter before the sun came up so only artificial light was used. Rather than the artificial light affecting the bird's domestic space, I exposed the light in mine.

I couldn't have predicted the outcome, but these pieces were my favorite that I made my entire first year of grad school. In the end, the essence of the idea was the same: how does artificial light at night effect a light sensitive surface, whether a bird's retina or a sheet of film? Some plans are merely jumping off points. Many ideas artists have are just warm-ups for something better than you could have imagined. Expect this process to happen, let them go when they don't work out. An important idea in Eastern philosophy we can apply to this lesson is non-attachment. Let go of thinking things would work a certain way, when time didn't unfold as planned. Anticipate something greater will work out when things don't go the way you intended.


A photograph from the  Circadian  series, taken with an eight-hour long exposure.

A photograph from the Circadian series, taken with an eight-hour long exposure.