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Part One

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During my first visit to Paris in 1979, a handheld Paris Metro map that I picked up at a metro station reminded me of something other than a metro system. Its shape seemed to suggest a schematically diagrammed brain, the points where metro lines crossed synaptic junctions. Simultaneously inspired by the stunning stained glass rose windows of Chartres, Notre Dame and Strasbourg Cathedral, upon returning home to LA, I devoted the next year to executing a massive free-standing stained glass artwork that became the thematic piece of my several decades long, unending multimedia project, “The Underground Cathedral.”

Les routes de La Grande Odalisque (The Large Brain)

A Parisian friend, Stephane Dwernicki, visited me in LA, saw the glass artwork in the process of being constructed and he jokingly said:

“Why don’t you change the real names of the map and add new ones, for example, “Big Mac?”

At first I laughed at the idea. After some contemplation, I decided to take up my friend’s advice by applying new names to the glass with adhesive vinyl lettering, a process that continued for two years after the the leaded glass construction, wooden framing and its assembly was completed. However, it was too obvious, I thought, to satirically exploit such silly clichés concerning the imposition of American pop commercialism on the great city of Paris. Instead, I embarked on playing a mind game of juxtaposing unusual words, spellings, associations and definitions involving a seemingly disparate spectrum of both historical and contemporary topics, which toyed with cross-cultural associations and the workings of the human mind.

Click here for handwritten notes from 1983 mapping out the chosen terminology

Applying new words to the map became an intuitive free association word game involving choice, fate and destiny. At the highest destination of the map, one arrives at “Enlightenment Forthcoming,” at the lowest, “Diplomatic Trust.”

In the artwork’s adjunct glossary, Trains of Thought, I quoted from Quantum Physicist, Fritjof Capra, who wrote in his book, The Turning Point

Human consciousness plays a crucial role in the process of observation and in atomic physics determines to a large extent the properties of the observed phenomena…The patterns scientists observe in nature are intimately connected with the patterns of their minds; with their concepts, thoughts and values…They may lead us—to put it in extreme terms—to Buddha or to the Bomb, and it is up to each of us to decide which path to take.

This importance of human choice and how we process the decisions we make in our minds became the key determining factor in the words I chose and their relationships to each other on the map. In fact, this was subliminally taught in board games that we played during childhood, such as Chutes and Ladders, a modern derivative of an ancient board game called Snakes and Ladders. As many of my artistic impulses were born in childhood experience, I looked at the mapping of words associated with choice, fate and destiny as such a mental game, similarly to as described in an article, “The Timelessness of Snakes and Ladders,” from the website, Re-form:

Details of Snakes & Ladders, Chutes & Ladders

The game is a potent teaching tool whose simple design has been used for centuries, arguably even millennia, as a way to embody and reinforce religious teachings and cultural values. Along the way it’s evolved and adapted to incorporate the themes and aesthetics relevant to each culture that played it, from ancient India to Victorian England, to the US and far beyond.

Surviving game boards suggest Snakes and Ladders emerged somewhere in Northern India or Nepal. In its earliest identifiable form it was called Gyan Chauper, though other versions have gone by names like Leela, Moksha Patamu, and Paramapada Sopanapata. These titles translate roughly to terms like Game of Self-Knowledge, Ladder to Salvation, or Steps to the Highest Place, showing the weight of the content it was meant to convey.

Bookending each ladder and snake is a moral lesson…in playing, people are also made to experience the course of fate, and the consequences attached to virtues and vices.

There was another method behind the madness of my selection of terminology: to provoke alternative right brain intuition, as opposed to linear left brain ways of perceiving words and information that is received in daily life. Stream of conscious thinking, which I engage in habitually in the act of creative expression, is not based on rules, but rather on following gut instinct. So much of what we see, hear and read is accepted without being questioned. It became my aim to confront one with juxtapositions of unusual terminology, which would provoke asking questions about what one believes one is reading.

Trains of Thought includes thematic cross-referenced categorizations and lists of the sources of the names that I chose. Some are names of race horses, while others, such as, PRPLHAZ, FACELFT and 99NOSES, are unusual abbreviations that I found on personalized California auto license plates.

Words from personalized California car license plates

See the entire mapping of the terminology by clicking here

Click here for photos of the development of the artwork including details of terminology

Trains of Thought in exhibition at the USC Atelier, Santa Monica, 1986

Click here for the glossary of terms, “Trains of Thought”

Click here for a cross-referenced categorization of the terms

It was quite an eye-opener to ultimately discover that I was not the only artist of foreign origins, American or otherwise, to face the guillotine of artistic suppression.

Most of the terms are in English, though I intentionally played with spellings, definitions, and invented a few terms of my own. Other languages included are French, Spanish, Japanese and Russian.

I wished to characterize the Paris Metro map as a universal iconographic construct of both the personal and social unconscious. In creating a game of words showcasing human choice, Marcel Duchamp’s famous artwork, “The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, (The Large Glass),” was my primary source of inspiration. Whatever rules others established concerning what was considered to be relevant or fashionable art, Duchamp rebelled against it. He never followed the crowd, never succumbed to following traditional attitudes, fashionable styles or current manifestos. While others played at the time with ways of seeing, Duchamp challenged the viewers of his work with other ways of thinking, as well as seeing, and he loved playing with words. While working in a library, he took notes that became the inspiration for “The Large Glass,” whereas I spent time in libraries randomly searching through books in search of far from commonplace terminology, often about the function of the brain, for example: PARAFOVEA, FOLIE A DEUX and RECEPTIVE APHASIA.

Unknown to me, at that very time, presiding French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, stoked nationalistic pride by making a big ruckus over what he termed, “American Cultural Imperialism.” Subsequently, in the name of preserving cultural heritage, he attempted to ban the further commercial usage of English-language in Paris, which was infiltrating the city in the form of fast food joints serving “Le hamburger,” the very sort of trite symbol of American-style globalization that my French friend had suggested I satirize.

One online article, “Here’s Looking at You, USA!” put it this way:

Back in 1982, the incumbent French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, gave an incendiary speech in which he blasted the United States’ “cultural imperialism,” and advised that other cultures enact protectionist measures against the way the American cultural/consumer juggernaut “grabs consciousness, ways of thinking, ways of living”…but what do the French now celebrate on Saturday and Sunday?–‘le weekend,’ when they eat “le hot dog.” McDonalds, Starbucks, and KFCs are ubiquitous, and American apparel stores dot the Champs Elysses like chocolate sprinkles on a cappuccino. (Click here for the entire article)

Having already rejected the idea that I intentionally exploit this bastardization of French culture and language in the name of art, there was nothing at all so blatantly commercial reflected in the terminology I chose, for example:

Folie à deux, Nuée ardent, Zavist, Abulia, Obelia, 7AND7IS.

It was quite an eye-opener to ultimately discover that I was not the only artist of foreign origins, American or otherwise, to face the guillotine of artistic suppression, when France was in the throes of preparation for the big party year of 1989, by commissioning monumental public artworks coined, “Des Grands Travaux et du Bicentenaries” (The Great Works of the Bicentennial).

Click here for Part Two: Moral Madness