Heidegger, Harrison, and the art of Dianna Woolley: What do they have in common? It’s a stretch, but it all seemed to flow together for me the other night. I’ve read a little Heidegger. Can’t say I remember much of it, but as it is I have a philosopher friend at Walla Walla’s Whitman College who hosted a gathering of Heidegger scholars last week. To be polite, we attended the keynote lecture delivered by Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison (Stanford) who talked mostly about rivers and time; subjects of his recent writings. Contrary to the little I recall about Heidegger, Harrison was coherent, understandable, and humorous.
Rivers, he said (or at least I think he said), are a dynamic whole participating at once in their origins, endings, past, present, and future. They are, at the same time, a part of the springs that give them birth, and the seas into which they empty. They are part of both without having to leave one in order to become the other. They are part of each place through which they pass, not sequentially but simultaneously, never stopping yet always present. Taken further, they are local manifestations of the greater whole that is the hydrological cycle through which the oceans are the ultimate source of all rivers, and the ultimate receivers of their outflow. One can sit on a river bank watching its coming and going. One can speculate about not entering the same river twice. But the river has other ideas. Always present, always changing, It is all of it in every place at one time, past, present, and future. That resonates with me. Something profoundly theological can be made of it. Contrary to Heidegger, as I vaguely recall him, it’s a workable metaphor for the Triune God of our Christian faith. I’m not sure how much Heidegger Harrison intended, but now and then he attached a string or two back to him with a little Thoreau thrown in, who, I did not know, liked rivers more than he liked ponds, or so I was told.
On the way home I said to Dianna that it reminded me of her art. She’s a gifted artist and student of art, skilled in the crafts of realism, but whose heart is in the abstract. In recent years, much of what she has produced has been inspired by the waters surrounding islands, flowing in glacial fjords, and stretching to the ocean’s horizon. It might seem strange, living as we do in the high desert of the Inland Northwest, but we travel a lot, mostly to islands in the ocean. Following the once wild Columbia through the Wallula Gap, and down the Columbia Gorge that cuts through the Cascade Mountains, is our route to Portland, our takeoff point for islands and oceans. It’s only partially, temporarily tamed by locks and dams. A little farther on where the river meets the ocean at the Columbia Bar, it loses all pretense of civility, with many wrecks to prove it. Sort of like shaking off the constrictions of time and place. What does that have to do with Dianna’s work? Abstract art, at least her art, tends to shun civility for the untamed wildness of a river that can live in the fungibility of time and space, bound only tentatively by banks and levees. It captures something of water’s ability to participate in time and place beyond the limitations of linear daily experience. She captures watery moments, presenting them, as it were, in a collage or mosaic that is not confined to anything but the artist’s skill and imagination. No philosopher she, it did not surprise me that Harrison’s lecture spoke to her own sense of the power of water to bend time and place, although she wondered if he had watered down the impenetrable language of philosophy so she could understand it. He hadn’t.
So there you go. Who knew?