Tuesday, April 24, 2012


It’s a little beyond me how I can feel so overextended, when the demands of what I do for a living are so blessedly light right now, but there it is.

I don’t make it to the end of the lists I create for myself. I get tangled in the desire to move on to the next thing, and the next—and lose the satisfaction of what’s before me in the moment. It doesn’t matter that virtually all the stuff on my agenda right now is there by my own choice, an imagined enrichment of my life: the garden work I want to get to, the hour at the gym, the writing project I’ve meant to focus on for weeks, planning the workshop I’ve looked forward for months to leading.

Of course, to fix this, I just need to speed up and get through what I’m doing now so I can focus on the next thing on the list. Just punch through my rising misgivings that running faster on the treadmill will get me nowhere. Right?

Uh, maybe not. Maybe the only way to stop is to stop. So I’ve taken lately to setting down what I’m doing and taking a hundred steps.

That’s it.

I go out to the garden; or to the street; or maybe as far as a wilder place nearby. As I shift my weight from one foot to the other, the only mantra I need, the only one that seems appropriate, is “Here.”

You’d be astounded how slowly you can walk when you notice every step. Balance is no longer a given; you have to attend to where your weight falls under your foot, and you may feel a little daunted, especially on sand or uneven ground, that you’re so unsteady when you’re not barrelling along. It takes time to repeat “Here” and mean it as you look around you. If you use a mala to keep count of your steps one bead at a time, it will slow you down even further.

By the time I’ve made it to my hundredth step, I’m pried loose, at least a little, from whatever it was that I thought was essential ten minutes ago. Maybe I decide to take another hundred steps, make another circuit of the mala. Maybe I can focus on who in my life I might want to pray for. Or maybe, just for a moment, I look up at the impossible blue of the sky, the impossible green of newly burgeoning foliage, or down at the darkness of moist earth, and see it for a miracle, before I go back to business as usual.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Traces of Desire

The stills at left and below from Karl Lakolak's videos.

I’m haunted lately by the videos of French artist, choreographer, and performer Karl Lakolak. Among some twenty clips of his work posted to Vimeo, you can access the ethereal and intensely carnal Poème de Ténèbres at http://vimeo.com/user3595253. (I have my friend Tantrika au Naturale to thank for this new obsession.)

Lakolak paints the human body as a canvas and then sets his subjects moving in space. Colors run, smear, and blend, spreading across the body’s surface a record of its gestures and its contact with others. Patterns that begin like the markings of some unknown rite in an unfamiliar culture turn into abstract-expressionist arcs, disrupting the integrity of the naked skin that intermittently shows through. I watch these very beautiful men walk slowly across a tarp laid down on the floor, lose themselves in moving pigment across their own bodies, wrestle and/or make love with one another, and my desire is both intensified and dislocated. The camera panning in close-up across expanses of hue and texture queers any ordinary experience of looking at the body as an objectified whole. Then gradually, or in a sudden flash, a leg, a forearm, a cock, an ear caressed by a hand emerges as something I recognize and can name. Eyes gaze out at the viewer from an enveloping swirl of white and blue.

Flesh becomes an unfamilar country, seen once again as for the first time. And yet Lakolak’s camera often follows the conventions of gay porn: the fetishizing close-ups, the duplicated slow-motion sequences of skin touching skin, the direct gaze of performers into the camera, the obvious disruptions of linear sequence in the editing. His credits mostly acknowledge his performer/dancers by first name only, evoking the commodified false familiarity of sex films.

Then once again the camera moves on, or the shot is cut. Flickering superimposed images fold the experience of time over itself. As the clip cuts back and forth between later and earlier stages of the process, a smear of rich, complex grey left across a man’s back when his lover rolls away turns in the next shot back into a clean tattooed flank still untouched by paint. I find the erotic charge of my fascination both thwarted and teased on by spatial ambiguity and temporal confusion.

In Décembre, as a man stands absorbed in the diffuse autoeroticism of moving paint across his own body, then of removing it with a cloth, there hovers swaying to his left a figure with a papier-maché horse’s head. The apparition is draped in black fabric painted in white with a looping cursive script, an incantation only fragments of which are intelligible. Such fabric, worn by masked figures, hung at the back of the stage, or laid across the floor, appears as a motif throughout the series. Lakolak assumes the role of a latter-day shaman, dismantling and transmuting ordinary identities, inviting us both to relinquish what we think we understand of the flesh and to lose ourselves more deeply in it.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Photo from Jeremy Kai, Rivers Forgotten.

Cross-hatched across stretches of west central Toronto lies the web of another streetscape. It’s as real as the one I know intimately after years of walking and biking these neighbourhoods; but strangely disarticluated from the predictable, domesticated routes I habitually take to work, to the houses of friends, to shops along not-too-distant thoroughfares. These alleyways behind the streets occasionally extrude onto the named grid sporting streetsigns of their own, vestiges of a largely erased past when a two-story brick garage behind my friend Kim’s back gate in Little Italy was a poultry store; when the lone house opening directly onto an alley down the block from me wasn’t an anomaly.

Turning my bike down one of these alternate routes can be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Harbord Street vanishes behind me, and soon I have no idea where I map onto the familiar street that lies twenty meters to my right. Buildings jutting above the garage roofs reassure me that College Street is somewhere ahead, but none of those I’m sure I ought to recognize quite register as landmarks. Then I make a turn and come out near a familiar intersection of the main commerical strip with Grace.

I’m on the way to Kim’s house with a belated birthday gift, a collection of impulse buys: an orange silk scarf; a chocolate bar; a candle holder of Indian soapstone carved as the footprint of the Buddha; a CD of music from the South African townships; and a haunting little book the staff has placed insidiously beside the cash register in the bookstore I poked into on my way back to my bike from the earlier purchases.

Forgotten Rivers by Jeremy Kai (Koyama Press) is a collection of photographs of the culverts through which flow the city’s long-buried streams. Garrison Creek at one time ran above ground just a couple of blocks from my house; Taddle Creek through the campus of the University of Toronto, a few hundred meters from my office. And so on across the city. A few photos at the beginning of the collection show the portals to these channels, surrounded by reassuringly ordinary vegetation, the concrete around the iron grates sprayed over by street artists.

Then come the more unsettling pictures. The tunnels—sometimes claustrophic, sometimes cavernous—are eerily lit in contrasing colors as they branch off from one another. Sprays of water pour from apertures set high in the walls, or down a flight of steps, turned to a ghostly mist by the long shutter exposure in the dim light. Looking at these images, I’m poised on an edge between attraction and apprehension. In some pictures (as Kim points out when we go through the book together), the presence of a human figure buffers the uncanniness of the spaces.

Kai’s images, like the experience of turning off the familiar streets of my daily routine, but far more dramatically, lead through an ordinary, everyday portal into a parallel world. Think of medieval tales of the Welsh Otherworld, or of latter-day recapitulations like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon or Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Or think of the world of our own unconscious; of the silent water flowing underground through our own souls (with apologies to David Byrne and the Talking Heads).

I find myself strangely prizing this other city, this Otherworld; drawn to the portals where the veil between it and my ordinary perception of place grows thin. Losing myself for the moment—not without a whisper of primal fear that I might not find my way out again—I reemerge after all into a familiar landscape, and in that moment know the place as for the first time. All the more so on this first day of Passover, this first day of departure from Egypt's familar territory; on this Holy Saturday, in the darkness of a tomb that isn't the last word of the story.