︎︎︎ “Gulabi,” Hamster Magazine, issue 6 (Christchurch: The Physics Room, August 2020), 4–7.
The artist had given the iridescent nugget an Indian name: Gulabi. It was the size of a fist and had pinkish patches on its brown body. Like sarus cranes, the students crowded over Gulabi, encircling the tiny body.
“Is it a precious stone?” Kabir hesitated. “Where did you find it?” He thought it was extraordinary, this dappled thing on the linoleum studio floor. It reminded him of finches’ wings. Others were predictably less enthusiastic, wondering more about the classroom’s extraordinary curiosity over this ordinary object.
Ms. Menon reminded her class that it was A Cold Reading, and that although the artist was present—a fellow student of Kabir’s whose artwork was today up for critique—she was not-to-speak. The group, with their heads cocked, began pawing and prodding for meaning, as if to startle Gulabi into saying something for itself.
Searching his affections as he looked at Gulabi, Kabir was reminded of a story he had heard three years ago about how Ms. Menon cried at Ralph Hotere’s painting—the one with the orange cross on a black background—when she’d moved up to Tāmaki Makaurau in the 80s. Kabir had grunted at the time and said that the painting had nothing to do with it. “Besides,” Kabir had said, “she was pretty bummed about her break-up.”
That was a long time ago, when he was an expert on causes-and-effects, and when his thoughts regularly regressed into questioning moods and attitudes—a kind of Global Scepticism, doubting whether anything at all was possible to know. But he didn’t know what to make of that story now because he was also becoming quick to be moved by the littlest artworks like Gulabi.
Art was becoming a matter of faith for Kabir. By that, of course, he didn’t think artists were saintly or their work worthy of worship. After all, this artist was his classmate, not some titanic figure who, by divine inspiration, invited Gulabi to this scene. And he sure wasn’t going to prostrate to Gulabi, though it appeared to be a small goddess of freckled things.
Kabir’s conversion of faith, his kind of belief about art, had nothing to do with faith in things—like altars or artworks—but was rather an experience of fidelity, which was closer to the root meaning of the word. He trusted that if he stayed with it long enough—that if Gulabi somehow became a part of his world and his life-story—then yes, a new experience, and a new kind of knowledge, and a new form of life and living was possible. Anyway, all he meant by Art & Faith was that he could now believe that Ms. Menon was moved by a painting of Hotere’s, just as he thought it possible for him to be moved by Gulabi.
“Matter is Vibrant,” Jimi Hendrix said, bringing Kabir’s mind back into the classroom. Nobody knew Jimi’s real name; he’d named himself when his hero died in 1970. Jimi had signed up to art school in his 60s. He’d taken up container gardening since falling out with his eco-community up North and was trading in exotic succulents from the seventh floor of his Durham Lane apartment.
“Gulabi is a communicable thing,” he continued. (Jimi was a Post-Humanist.) Squatting and hugging his knees to his bearded chin, as if listening in to Gulabi’s own experience of itself and the world, he said, “This is Vibrant Matter. I mean, Gulabi exerts influence on us … you know? Even a stone has Buddha-nature.” (Jimi was also Buddhist.) Trees and trash piles, scrap metal and stacked tyres, spools of thread … these were among Jimi’s favourites in his repertoire of objects that had thing-power. They were his go-tos, which he threw together in a collisionist description of the world to complicate the terms of Life and Matter. He saw the whole world as different modifications of the one same substance—God or Nature. (Jimi was also a Spinozist.)
Only Jimi knew how these theories fit together, how he reconciled whole worldviews that were separated by centuries and continents. But it consoled Kabir, who liked Jimi’s idea that all the stuff of the world—sentient beings and people and all—were just different improvisations made from the same tune.
To Kabir, Gulabi seemed no less or more Vibrant than the speckled floor on which she and Jimi sat. Or the fluorescents flickering overhead, which cast inconstant shadows under Gulabi. And yet, Jimi was uninterested by his linoleum seat or the tiny darkness that cushioned Gulabi on the floor. From what Jimi said, you’d expect him to be euphoric! Excited by everything as if wide-eyed on Yellow Sunshine, twenty-four-seven.
Although Kabir believed Jimi’s borrowed truths—that Gulabi and All Things were “ontologically one, formally diverse”—it didn’t solve for him the problem of how Gulabi the Sculpture was a meaning-making thing. Jimi may have solved the ontological problem of What is Gulabi? But what about the epistemological? What to make of Gulabi? What new knowledge and experiences was Gulabi inspiring? Of motley and miscellaneous things?
Outside the art school, Kabir kept with him a fraternity of the faithless, at least when it came to the experience of art. They were his family and his oldest friends—taxi drivers and teachers, construction workers and computer programmers, accountants and advocates. On their iPads, like illuminated manuscripts, they recited their morning prayers sent directly to their inboxes—news from the World Wide Web. As if counting on their rosary beads, they tallied the daily disasters and the number of deaths. They’d always been enchanted by data neatly organised into tables and graphs, and with these old techniques, they predicted new futures.
Kabir’s schoolmate Chen believed in Progress and saw the mysteries of life as problems-not-yet-solved. For personal motivation, Chen liked to read memoirs of entrepreneurs and sportsmen. “These are True Stories,” he reminded Kabir. Even Kabir’s oldest friend Maya, a medical scientist, saw beauty as part of our evolutionary impulses—something neurological. Maya described the world as a post-truth nightmare, Kali Yuga or an Age of Darkness. She’d returned from volunteering in a devastated United States, helping scientists counter disinformation about disease, disinfectants, and death. To defog her mind and to seize hold of objective truth, Maya stopped reading novels. She gave up poetry as a protest against fiction. She became A Disciple of Evidence and mortgaged her version of truth to facts and figures. In this world of unbelievable reality, ruled by orange-robed and orange-faced men, the fraternity found fiction impossible to accept.
Maya and Chen were not the only ones to denounce art. The less assertive members of their fraternity experienced Art as a form of leisure and light entertainment—something non-committal. Prime Minister John, who they’d voted in previously, declared that fiction writers had little insight on reality. Now their new Government asked them to be Thankful for Art without exactly knowing why. Perhaps the usefulness the fraternity saw in art was the escape it gave them from the drudgery and the dreadfulness of daily life—an ameliorative for troubled as well as ordinary times. If reality belonged to the STEM-disciplines, then unreality was for Art.
Facts hadn’t quite won over fiction in Kabir’s search for truth and knowledge, and ways of existing and relating. It wasn’t that facts did not matter; it was just that wherever Kabir looked, he couldn’t find The Fact of the Matter. Whatever he pointed to as a fact required specifying the terms and the frameworks of interpretation. What he saw was a cloud of fictions from which a fact was made solid, and he sometimes preferred the alternatives: The fact of stars he interpreted instead as the fiction of pin-pricks on a blanket that covered over the sky, or the looseness of a knit that let some light in. The fact of The Big Bang he interpreted instead as the fiction of a collapsing god, who ought to be put back together through ritual. The fact of tides he interpreted instead as the rising and falling of a great being’s breath, and amidst this, a person was an insignificant nose-mite.
The fact remained that in Ms. Menon’s class, Kabir was becoming compelled by the little Gulabi. Was it because of Jimi’s interpretative charity? He felt embarrassed at the thought of sharing with the fraternity the alteration and affection he felt by this dappled thing.
It wasn’t that Gulabi compelled Kabir to see life differently—not exactly, and besides, that would be too much pressure on a single art object. Ongoing and over time, it was a slow and subtle attunement to the world. It was about the training of the imagination for epistemic performance. The cumulative effect of looking, feeling, thinking, relating ... hopefully to make a more sensitive person of him.
It often happened that Kabir entered a critique doubtful and dreading, as if needing to draw blood from a stone. But the alchemical process of attentiveness and the artwork’s influences meant that, like with the grace of the Gulabi, he became enamoured and convinced of the thing’s loveliness. Gradually, the artwork appeared anew. Ms. Menon encouraged a parrying of tid-bits and talk, and the resonances that her students found, she collected and coaxed into a polyphony: A conversation, and in the end, a conversion.
If facts were an orientation to what existed, then the faith in art and belief in fiction that Ms. Menon was cultivating in Kabir was in order to look at the-situation-of-things from the standpoint of That, which did not yet exist or need not exist. And That, which needn’t or didn’t yet exist, was something that could reorganise his experience of the world. After all, Kabir’s search was for an experience of an un-alienated life—this was his version of truth; truth not as correctness but as a disclosure—an experience of intimacy and a true or ethical way of existing and relating.
Ms. Menon often said, “art is not about representing the world; it’s about the experience of truth in the world.” Gradually, the interpretation of such fictions began to soak his experience of life all the way through.
Among his classmates were a few other faithfuls who were all in some way searching for a different way of living, with newfound attentiveness to life and not-yet-existing-things. Jason was knitting scarves the colour of sky, the length of which he determined by measuring the distance from the earth to above the weather. Agnes dressed as an astronaut and was raising geese in moon-like habitats on her farm, taking them on expeditions and training them to fly. Elsewhere, Shannon was speaking the lyrics of a waiata to his geese, and also to chickens, a swan, a rabbit, a wallaby, and a donkey. And Józef was filming happenings on the concrete yard below from the 9th floor window of his tower block—dogs crossing the street, Marian the dentist returning from work, the butcher delivering meat to his neighbours.
In all these instances of artistic adventures, the prerequisite was faith. The faith was that the artists could, through their practices, repair their alienation and restore their presence in the world. Faith was about their inner relationship and orientation to existence, as something operating in the lacuna of becoming. It had to do with the way they re-organised their experiences and made sense out of a world of sensible objects, sentient things, and relationships.
And so, faith underpinned this orientation to Gulabi. Kabir committed to pay attention to the speckled body, to attend to the stone. He trusted Gulabi, not because he already knew what the iridescent stone had to say, but because there was an as-yet-undefined meaning and experience that Gulabi could open him out to. His trust was an entrusting, as an active commitment to the Other. Kabir was The One Who Trusted, and who already ventured, somehow beyond or independently of the available evidence, in his very believing that Gulabi may be relied on for meaning-making.
The artist, if she chose to, could have added one-hundred fictions to the Greatness of Gulabi—stories about the ways in which Gulabi was worlded, stories about her coming-into-being. She could have revealed that Gulabi was a process-driven artwork of casting a rock and carefully replicating it in the thousands. Or that in fact she inherited Gulabi as an heirloom from her late grandmother. Or that it was really a thing uplifted from the Arctic and coloured by the northern lights, a journey taking her a full year. Or even that Gulabi fell from the sky.