Maneuvering some residential streets in Azusa, I’m late for my interview with Macha Suzuki, whose show at Laguna Art Museum runs through January 20, 2013 (assuming, of course, we make it beyond the so-called “end of the world” that our linear-thinking culture has historically projected onto the closing of the 13th bak’tun in the Mayan Long Count calendar corresponding to this year’s winter solstice [today!], a date which the cyclical-thinking Maya themselves have never associated with the actual end of the world, but more on that in a bit ...)
And so I’m late and driving. I find the street, see the address, but this can’t be the right place . . . or can it? I roll down my windows and the blare of garbage trucks, concrete trucks, loud conversations, random brake squeaks and all the horns—all of it just makes me think I wrote down the wrong address. But I press on, turn into what looks like a bunch of warehouses or storage garages. I look for the number, peering into spaces filled with boxes, construction tools, racks of clothing, and on and on. Then I think I see Macha with his back to the sun, sitting inside one of these rooms with the garage door all the way up, quietly creating something at a table.
Just knowing this is where Suzuki hones many of the intricate nuances of his work, surrounded by so much unpredictable energy coming and going, says a lot. Not just about his focus, but even more so his ability to transmute the chaos and beauty of life into works that suggest a certain kind of harmony behind all the apparent madness in the world. A certain kind of order. Physicist David Bohm called it the Implicate Order. A Hindu might call it Brahman. The Mayans perhaps tapped into a higher order of reality through their mind-bogglingly advanced calendars, which remain the most accurate system of calendars ever devised (that we know of). Macha Suzuki, who is a Christian, relates to it as God’s just and loving plan. It’s the idea that a higher order exists beyond (or above? or within?) the ostensible fragmentation and decay of the third dimension on Earth. This rather timeless idea is either directly addressed or suggested through context within every piece in Suzuki’s aptly tongue-in-cheek-titled show “This Is The End.”
There’s something unexpectedly uplifting about the show. Every piece eventually puts a smile on your face, but not without enticing your mind to soar wherever the piece persuades your memory to mix with fantastical arrangements of geometric shapes, facts and fabrications, new realities not yet lived, parallel dimensions not quite visible, and whatever else your imagination wishes to conjure up on a whim that feels oddly planned.
All of that transpires while staring at Suzuki’s works.
And then you can’t help but smile.
The name of the show comes from the pieces THISIS THEEND (2012) and THI SIS THE END (2012), two literary proclamations expressed in fiberglass, resin, and enamel paint. In less than obvious ways, these are two of the more amusing works in the show in that they are contradicted by every other piece, none more blatant than the video piece The Last Sunset Again (2012), a minute-and-a-half video loop of the sun setting in a crisp sky behind a grassy knoll where giant letters proclaim in Hollywood sign-fashion on three flatscreen TVs (a screen for each letter): E N D.
“It’s my way of poking fun at all the predictions and prophecies that have been made in the past,” says Suzuki with a smile. “I thought it was funny that the end date of the show is after the end date of the world, but I do like the idea that when something is decaying, it leaves room for something else to sprout out of that.”
Such contradictions render the letters no more meaningful than any of the other false prophecies of the End Times that have spawned out of societies built upon entropic mythologies grounded in linear conceptions of time. These block-lettered works that appear chiseled out of wood remind us that the role of language is to help communicate our understanding of reality, not impose definitive statements onto reality as a means to write-off aspects of reality that defy definitive statements, such as the nature of death, consciousness, time, and God.
Death and Rebirth (2010) shows a white corpse with a peaceful face overgrown with white flowers. Emerging from his heart chakra-region (which is fascinating given that the Maya venerated the heart over the brain) are two black hands and what look like multi-colored rays of light jettisoned through the white museum ceiling, and beyond, forever into the heavens. At once there is biological decay, the thriving flowers, and the continuity of consciousness beyond the body; at once the interrelations between material and spiritual cycles are shown in a frozen energetic emergence, effectively undermining the very notion of “E N D.”
Likewise, Still Burning (2012) is a pair of black and white skull pieces that rest on the ground, both of which are internally illuminated. There is a sense that in both life and death, there is life, there is consciousness, and as Suzuki believes, there is God.
But where there is the idea of God, there is the idea of something beyond ideas, something beyond any language used to address the idea beyond ideas. Impossible Container (2012), in this respect, can be seen as Suzuki’s acknowledgment of how we cope with such an unknowable, inexpressible potential reality by relating to God through a necessarily limited box of ideas.
“My parameters around the idea of God is that God is a loving and just God,” Suzuki explains. “And that’s sort of my humanly interpretation. The difficulty lies in the fact that my definition of love and justice and peace [. . .] isn’t the same definition for God Himself. That’s where the conflict comes in. And so those are things that can’t quite be contained within the box.”
The box itself is mesmerizing, covered in detailed designs that seem to suggest that the path beyond the box—into the unknown—lies in the realm of something like Plato’s Theory of Forms; a realm of geometric harmony. Elsewhere, Suzuki playfully explores complex geometries as a means to express that which is unknown, this higher order of reality, often with one of the most fun materials ever devised by humankind: cardboard.
“I start with an image and a concept,” he says. “I gather the most appropriate materials for the piece, whether its fiberglass, cardboard or even cheerleading pom poms, and if the piece calls for a different move than my initial plan, I react accordingly.”
Suzuki’s use of cardboard for the geometric shapes implies a playful temporality to the unrealized objects they signify. At first this can feel disorienting given that many of the geometric shapes are used in place of heads with faces, such as the figures in Huddle (2012), The Rider (2010), and The Lookout (2010). After a while, however, there is a lingering effect in the mind, as if the brain desires to fill in the blanks. You are inclined to understand these figures through the personality of their outfits and implied actions. It becomes hard not to see yourself in these figures.
The child in The Lookout sits perched on a ledge above a doorway, sporting mittens, a scarf, dangling booties. The child’s head is a pillar of light encased in a eight-sided cardboard column with twelve circles that turn the light yellow, red, and green. Like a traffic light open to all possibilities of traffic, the child takes in the scene like a twenty-first century Buddha who decided to climb the Bodhi tree, filling in the blanks of the lesser understood adult concepts, preferring to observe from a safe distance, lit up with wonder beside the entrance to Permission to Play. You can’t help but have a look.
Permission to Play features CoachArt students’ artwork inspired by Suzuki’s work and process. According to the Laguna Art Museum web site, CoachArt was founded as a nonprofit in 2001 “with the mission to improve the quality of life for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses—and their siblings—by providing free lessons in the arts and athletics.” Macha was able to share his time and experience with these kids who so clearly thrived given this artistic output.
The works by the CoachArt students flow surprisingly well with Suzuki’s work. Each piece is accompanied by these really sweet stories about the inspiration behind the piece.
“The first time I saw a real lion, it was love at first sight,” writes Megan Goodnight, age 11, about her googly-eyed lion sculpture called Love. “Nothing about the lions scares me.” Deaf Music by Carlos Miranda, age 16, is a checkerboard guitar with arms and hands fumbling to play itself. It is about “how deaf people feel music,” he writes. “One of my best memories is playing the guitar, it felt like the music was inside my body.” Another sculpture shows a hand reaching out of a blank white canvas, reminiscent of Suzuki’s If It Even Matters (2008), but with a palpable urgency in the hand’s contortion. “I was thinking about how a painting grabs people when they look at it,” writes Dhanush Karthikeyan about his piece Enthrallment. Some paintings, like the Mona Lisa, have so many details that it grabs people for hundreds of years.” There are several more and they all fun and thought-provoking.
“One of my favorite parts about having a show at Laguna Art Museum was being involved in that project with the kids,” Suzuki says about Permission to Play. “The stories that I heard from those kids, and the way they interpreted those stories into a sculpture, I was really impressed. I think those abstract ideas are difficult to figure out. I tend to think kids don’t have that ability, but when you break them down to these bite-sizes they’re able to do it.”
Pieces such as Just A Tree (2010) stem from Suzuki’s memories of visiting his grandmother’s Buddhist temple in Japan as a boy. Macha and his brother would pretend they were trees while offering bird seeds to swarms of pigeons. It is a simple act of giving, but through the joy of childhood make believe games. Unlike The Rider and The Lookout, which are part of a body of work called Imaginary Exploration, Just A Tree is a sculpture of a full grown adult. And instead of a cardboard head, the man’s head is a tree stump as he leans over as if to offer bird seed, but instead of bird seed he is offering a cardboard geodesic sphere, which could very well symbolize Suzuki reliving his childhood memory through his art, still wanting to be the tree, still unable to be the tree (notice the head is not a living tree, it is a stump removed from a living tree). These unexpected, playful details surprise the eye and the mind in such a way that, again, you can’t help but smile.
“I think Picasso said we’re all born artists, and I kind of believe that,” says Suzuki. “I love the freedom of art making that kids have. I think along the way through school, through adults telling them [what to do and how to do it], kids lose that.”
Macha was born in Japan and lived there until he was nine, before moving to Los Angeles. For seven years now he has taught at Azusa Pacific University. He talked to me about when he used to take his 2D students to a local elementary school, and the general opposition he experienced by the faculty. One time he noticed a student coloring a four-legged pink flamingo, and right after he praised the child’s work the teacher leaned over and said, “flamingos only have two legs.” Apparently the teacher forgot that in art flamingos can have a million legs, and those legs can turn into trees, and those trees can detach themselves and become bridges to the moon, where they colonize before realizing it was all a dream in the mind of a child who fell asleep during a boring class. It’s art. It’s not an encyclopedia. In fact, in art, an encyclopedia can exist without text. An Earth can exist without humans. And perhaps one day kids can exist without well-meaning adults imposing “color within the lines” limitations on the human imagination—limitations clearly not exhibited in the works of the CoachArt students.
As you exit Permission to Play, you find yourself back in Suzuki’s show, when Permission to Fail (2010) catches you off guard. Both Permission to Fail, as well as Fail (2008) give license to the idea that inaction due to fear of failure sows the seeds of a much deeper personal catastrophe than taking those risks in life in spite of the odds of failure. Unfortunately, most education systems fail to place an emphasis on the usefulness of thinking outside the box, taking risks that might put a grade in jeopardy, questioning what is being taught and how, expressing oneself in artistic and playful ways.
The narrow lens with which we view human potential has become too often formed through the repetitive regurgitation of facts and figures aimed to satisfy standardized tests, an indoctrination process that leaves many children either feeling pressured to suppress their creative talents in favor of a more socially-acceptable path through life, or fostering a basic disinterest for the education system as a whole and all the social taboos it professes regarding what is reasonable, practical, rational. Fortunately for us all, the latter was in the cards for Suzuki.
“I was a C-average student in high school,” he confesses. “I was a bright kid, but I didn’t really apply myself because I just didn’t really care.”
According to standards set by a fictional narrative about how good grades in school equal success in life, Suzuki’s high school career would be considered a kind of failure. But through that failure, by virtue of his disinterest in school rather than in spite of it, Macha retained a keen self-awareness of what he enjoyed enough to want to pursue in life, and what he didn’t: art and academics, respectively.
In other words, he had not been indoctrinated successfully enough to forget how to answer honestly a question once posed by philosopher Alan Watts: “What would you like to do if money were no object?”
“I never took art classes in high school or junior high, but I always knew I was kind of good at it,” he explains. “I had a conversation with my mom. She was actually the one who encouraged me to pursue an art degree, which I think is rare.”
And so, as the word “fail” transforms into an organic arrangement, teenage Macha’s lack of academic success was transformed into an organic decision. With the rare support of family, he leapt off that proverbial cliff and attempted to live a kind of life rarely presented to children as a viable path. This path began with a degree that doesn’t exactly pave the way to auto-financial stability, but nevertheless, it served as a nurturing of talent and self-discovery that he could throw himself into reckless abandon.
“Many teachers would say there’s not a lot of value in art education, because it’s difficult, it’s expensive, it’s not lucrative, it’s time consuming, all those things. But at the same time it can be extremely rewarding. So there’s a certain risk there in believing that I’m going to become an artist and live an artist’s life.”
“What about your childhood didn't take that innate curiosity out of you?” I ask.
“Maybe I was lucky and I didn’t really listen to those voices. I hope the playfulness is just an extension of who I am. It’s sort of something that just happens, I don’t really think about it.”
In a way, the differences in the Fail pieces tell a story about Suzuki’s life as an artist in that the 2010 piece, with its bright green healthy leaves, radiates a much more optimistic vibe than the one from 2008. You get the impression Macha has grown comfortable in his societal role and all the risks and sacrifices it has taken to arrive at where he is now.
“The work touches on my personal history,” he says. “Not as just a narrative of what the work is referencing, but also how it’s informed by who I was and what I was doing at that moment.”
Along similar lines, you can see the arrows in the Nice Try pieces—each having missed the bull’s-eye at exactly the same space thereby creating a perfect ring of arrows—in light of Macha’s decision to live an artist’s life where the goal is the moment of creation above all else, and so missing the bull’s-eye in such a symmetrical way becomes the goal thereby transforming the bull’s-eye into merely a reference point for the much more mesmerizing ring of arrows. Again, the ostensible chaos of missing the target is flipped on its head by Suzuki, morphed into a hidden harmonic upshot.
In Minor Threat (2008) you find another ring of arrows, but now they are suspended in mid-flight, a split second before hitting their target: a white sheep. The sheep’s wool is made of white cheerleading pom-poms, a humorous detail that’s easy to miss with the hypnotic arrows hovering. The name for this piece is borrowed from the influential D.C. early '80s punk band who used a black sheep fleeing its flock on the cover of their 1983 album “Out of Step.”
“It’s not a direct reference to the band or their songs,” Suzuki clarifies. “I like that name, I enjoy the sound of it. It seemed to fit the piece really. For me it worked in two different ways. Is the sheep the minor threat that the arrows are trying to take out? Or is the sheep feeling the threat from all these arrows?”
Suzuki returns again and again to this circular shape surrounding a point of interest, whether a bull’s-eye, a sheep, or a mysterious drawing at the center of Huddle (2012). You are reminded of the reality of not just life cycles, but larger cycles in nature, stars at the center of solar systems, black holes at the center of galaxies (actually, most of the show resembles something I wouldn’t be surprised to discover after walking through a black hole); a motif not unlike the Mayan sun god in the center of their calendar disc.
Regarding that disc, the Mayan Calendar and all of the End Time predictions that have been falsely attributed to the closing of this cycle by practically every group on the planet other than the Maya themselves, what is fascinating to me is how Suzuki’s emphasis on the transformative nature of reality confirms what many of the Mayan Elders have been saying about 2012 (to mostly deaf ears) all along. According to Don Alejandro, member of the National Mayan Council of Elders and 13th generation shaman, 12-21-12 is like a grand New Year's Eve for the birth of a new sun. 12-22-12 is like a celebratory New Year's Day for the start of a new cycle, what the Mayans call the 5th sun. The Mayans have no concept of their calendar ever ending; it is a continuation of cycles within cycles ad infinitum. Engravings have been discovered in ruins that date thousands, if not millions, if not millions of millions of years into the future. According to archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas, who deciphered glyphs at the site of the oldest known version of the calendar, deep in the Guatemalan rainforest, “The Mayan calendar is going to keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future. Numbers we can’t even wrap our heads around.”
In this respect Suzuki’s End Time prophecy critique becomes a commentary on our culture’s entropic value concepts brought about by a belief in an expiration date to linear time; manifested through this obsession with inevitable doom that is really just a fear-driven attempt to free ourselves from the burden of having to save ourselves from the seemingly inevitable fall of civilization of which we are all, to some degree, complicit; and of which we are all, to some degree, required to make a turnaround, starting in our personal lives.
Going back to the piece Minor Threat, perhaps the sheep can be seen as a microcosm for the state of the world right now, what with peak oil, perpetual wars, nuclear proliferation, mass shootings, global economic question marks, and on and on. The threat of imminent self-destruction is palpable nowadays, in many ways perhaps more than ever before. But perhaps this threat will turn out to be a minor threat in the grand scheme of things. Not “minor” in a post-human existential sense, given that every mass extinction has been followed by mass speciation, but rather “minor” in a retrospective sense, given how we may one day as a species look back in wonder at how we ever found our way out of the muck.
It may not be as psychologically comforting a prospect as a Rapture for those chosen (assuming you are one of those “chosen”), but at least it’s potentially achievable, something to make real before a big enough asteroid, or simultaneous super volcanoes, or a direct-enough coronal mass ejection, or a local-enough gamma-ray burst goes boom; or until countless other unknowable events that could wipe us from the face of Earth go boom.
What Suzuki’s works suggest for us to consider is that between everything we think we know, everything we actually know, and everything there is to know, exist intellectual-emotional-spiritual impasses impossible to fully fathom as 3D humans on Earth. And so keeping a child-like open mind amidst the chaos, forming fewer entropic conclusions (including doomsday predictions), and playfully basking in the grandest of mysteries about consciousness, death, time, and God, makes the most sense when you really stop to think about it.
You can’t help but stop and think about it as countless beautiful flowers bloom and beams of light emerge out of a corpse in Death and Rebirth; or in the geometric designs on the outside of Impossible Container; or in the persisting light within the Still Burning skulls. Not to mention the two arrows that have struck the sheep in Minor Threat, how they’ve magically not caused it to bleed, instead leaving splotches of orange and pink—the colors of the arrows that struck. The hidden implication is that the arrows about to strike—all of varying colors—as deadly and frightening as they may appear, and certainly the sheep justifiably fears, are actually bound to recreate the white sheep into a glorious rainbow pom-poms mutation.
“At the personal level, I think it’s a choice,” Suzuki says regarding Minor Threat and challenges in life in general. “You can’t control the arrows that come your way, there’s always a choice to react in a certain way.”
And that brings us back to the show’s centerpiece, Huddle, Suzuki’s most recent piece (so recent, in fact, it was assembled for the first time at Laguna Art Museum the day of the opening). For Macha, fatherhood was the arrow that inspired the piece, and juggling countless new roles was how he chose to react. (Untitled Squirrel Drawings, made this year, could be seen as 2D personifications of these roles and reactions.) The interactive piece requires you to walk around in a circle. Peering over one of the eleven figures’ shoulders, down within the huddle there is revealed the reason for their gathering: an abstract drawing by Macha’s one and a half year old daughter (their first collaboration, unbeknownst to her). But do these abstract marking reveal more than apparently random arm movements and color selections? “Is there a hidden intention?” the huddle wonders. I suppose whether the scribbles represent the birth of a plan of action to better reality, or nothing in particular, lies in the eyes of the beholders working together.
Either way, the drawing makes you smile.
“My hope is that all my works come from who I am as a person,” he says. “And so it should be informed by the things that I stand for, the things that I believe in. But I question myself all the time. There’s definitely wiggle room there.”
As I leave the interview, I back up my car, surrounded by endless distractions, the chaos of the world blaring over the engine with all the horns and trucks and the stink of exhaust coming and going. I shift into drive.
In the rearview mirror, I see Macha calmly returning to his table, pulling up a chair, and getting back to work, back to play.
Ex·pose: Macha Suzuki and Permission to Play: CoachArt Students Inspired by Macha Suzuki run concurrently at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. For more information, click up the museum website at lagunaartmuseum.org. ENDS JANUARY 20.
Hours: Monday-Tuesday, Friday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Wednesday. Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Admission: $7 general, $5 students/seniors/active military. Free for children under 12 and museum members. Free each first Thursday of every month from 5-9 p.m.