Friday, 15 July 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: 'art & grace'

Continuing our series of New metaphors for sustainability, the ecological artist David Haley looks to the etymologies of two words.

The Sanskrit origin of the word ‘art’ is 'rta'. Originally appearing in the Rig Vedas, rta is still used in contemporary Hindi to mean the dynamic process by which the whole cosmos continues to be created, virtuously.

This noun/adjective also means the right-handedness, righteousness, and the right way of doing things. Here we find remnants of that meaning in modern English in terms like 'the art of gardening', 'the art of football, 'the art of archery' and 'the art of war'.

Rta conjugates into the verb 'ritu' (ritual) that refers to the correct order or sequence of rta (i.e. the cyclical pattern of the seasons, or the progression from seed to leaf and root to tree to blossom to seed). ‘Art’ may have lost much of its etymological meaning, but maybe it retains the potential to re-emerge as a metaphor for sustainability, like a flower waiting for rain in some future desert?

This metaphor comes from my work with the artists The Harrisons, and is taken from their work 'The Lagoon Cycle': 'As the waters rise gracefully, how will we withdraw with equal grace?'

The difference between the Environment Agency's policy of 'managed retreat' in response to sea level rise and our proposals in the work 'Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground Gaining Wisdom' was the EA’s use of engineering and war metaphors to confront a problem, compared with an ethical and aesthetic repositioning of the situation.

‘Tide Turns, Waters Dance’ was one of my own ‘Writing on the Wall’ pieces, this one exhibited in Taiwan. The last of the 27 Haiku-style poems ended with the line, 'water, time and grace'. When a Taiwanese professor quizzed me over the use of the word, 'grace' to end the work, I explained that a meaning of grace was 'becomingness'. 'Aha', he replied, 'so you hope to evolve beyond climate change?'

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