On Making and Memory

Rudolf Stingel - Untitled 1994 from ArtNet
Rudolf Stingel, Untitled, 1994.

I remembered this sculpture as a Durga holding objects of gendered domesticity. She was red and I encountered her at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I got that part right, at least: it was the sculpture from the Rudolf Stingel exhibition there, one of 24 variants, each a different color. But its persona is clearly Buddha not Durga, and the implements aren’t the feminist commentary I’d recollected but rather a riff on making as a spiritual act.

Art historians will recognize the tools from Stingel’s Instructions –a DIY-ish conceptual print telling the audience how to make one of his abstract paintings. I had to look all that up. What I remembered was the hand mixer, and how it sparked my thinking about domestic goddesses, and how a hand mixer is kind of like a power drill, which was the emblematic tool of my own fixer-upper domesticity at the time.

Learning to use a power drill was a right of passage for me. An electric screwdriver will only take you so far. For big jobs you really need a solid, heavy drill. And the secret to using a power drill is confidence. You can’t be tentative. If you’re too nervous to hold a screw firmly against the wall or if you’re feeling too weak to hold the drill steady it will drag you somewhere you don’t want to go. No, you’ve got to drill like you mean it. You’ve got to be the boss.

Like Durga. Which is how I got to this topic in the first place.

Durga with boons - source Somkuwar Vikram - cropped
Durga enters the battlefield conveying powerful boons and a gesture of peace

I’ve been thinking a lot about Durga, the multi-limbed warrior with multitasking superpowers. A while back I sketched a Durga-style goddess of Administrivia, each hand wielding a symbol of quasi-productivity: the cell phone, the selfie-stick, the donut, the white board marker, the Post-it note pad, . . . . I was being cheeky but the process of brainstorming the objects took me to a darker state of mind to confront my frustration with work that felt superficial.

Durga’s divine gifts are tools of creation and destruction. Her symbolism its own sort of instruction manual for a brave and authentic vocation. Of the boons featured in Durga illustrations–sword, arrows, trident, disc, lotus, mace, bow, axe, conch, and lion–the sword of discrimination seems especially important nowadays if we are so fortunate as to choose how we are spending our time and to remember why we are making that choice.

So I ask myself, why are these images so important to me right now? Why has Stingel’s maker-deity been on my mind–an artwork I encountered a decade ago?

I’m feeling called to clarify and assemble my boons–and how I might best put them to use. In Meditations from the Mat yogi Rolf Gates observes that “most of us live in dread of missing our own lives,” yearning to be the best version of ourselves and to know what that entails–in other words, a recognizable dharma and a means of living it. I think social media makes this even harder. It gives us visions of lives lived better than our own–such images could inspire us, yes, and show us what’s possible, but I’m afraid our consumption of those stories often has the opposite effect, causing us to lament what we’re missing and compelling us to compose stories about ourselves that, in turn, are more about being “relevant” than real.

In my years working as a writer and educator I’ve experienced glimpses of dharma, moments when my whole best self seemed to be present and mattering, when all my tools were needed and used. Reflecting on those moments helps me recollect times when dharma seemed most absent, times when I occupied spaces where mattering could happen but wouldn’t.

Dharma isn’t just knowing your own tools, or having them in hand; dharma is using them. For real.


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