Ask the moon for more time

Promising someone the moon means giving everything you have, right to the bottom. Or offering them something you don’t actually own. But if we follow the spirit-logic of a line from a James K. Baxter poem—The darkness of oneself / Comes from knowing nothing can be possessed—it should be possible to offer someone the moon, figuratively, and deliver.

The work I am approaching draws on the ontology of a cyclical ancient entity that has stood for many things to the evolved primates that have looked up at it; its sense, like its mass, always still up in the air. Its very name comes from the proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to measure’ as the moon’s monthly phases were a way of marking time and seasons. But words that are so much younger and diffuse than it is do not reflect specifically that when the moon is full, we have a greater capacity for intensity.

It has also stood for the phases of womanhood—the waxing moon is the maiden, the full moon is the mother, and the waning moon the crone. It is often considered a feminine force, and its cycles govern many forms of magic, each of its phases having different energy and potential for change or transformation. Limits shift, what may have been obstacles are leapt over—and light is split joyously into its spectrum. Images, here, are not simple representations but wide hallucinations.

Yeats wrote in an essay in 1906 that art can move ‘our thought to rush out to the edges of our flesh, reminding the soles of our feet of swiftness. … Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world and shrinks from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories and sensations of the body.’ Divorced from its pacing as a poem, or a collection of poems, this might seem to be gushy writing, but what it contains is a message to consider how art draws upon that which is imprinted deep in the body’s memory, and how ancient knowledges are passed on and invoked.

Ani O’Neill went to live in Rarotonga, where her mother’s family live, about ten years ago. She was aware that she had been living itinerantly for many years—from one residency to another, projects in many countries, one invitation leading to another. She was also aware that leaving New Zealand was going even further from any centres of the distributed art world. But she mentioned quietly, at the time, that her life was moving to a different phase—from things coming in (gesturing to herself) to things going out, like the tide. A kind of love that was customary.

Love has washed up in the dominant culture a somewhat woolly concept, nice, but a little dim or thin perhaps. But we regard it so at our peril. In his recent dialogical book, In Praise of Love, the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls us to consider love to be as fundamentally vital as politics, being part of the same mechanism whereby we unfold as subjects, beyond ourselves:

Love is not a contract between two narcissists. It’s more than that. It’s a construction that compels the participants to go beyond narcissism. In order that love lasts one has to reinvent oneself… Everybody says love is about finding the person who is right for me and then everything will be fine. But it’s not like that. It involves work. An old man tells you this! My approach is that love is both an encounter and a construction. … You become a subject to the extent to which you can respond to events. …You discover truth in your response to the event. Truth is a construction after the event. The example of love is the clearest. It starts with an encounter that’s not calculable but afterwards you realise what it was. The same with science: you discover something unexpected—mountains on the moon, say—and afterwards there is mathematical work to give it sense. That is a process of truth because in that subjective experience there is a certain universal value. It is a truth procedure because it leads from subjective experience and chance to universal value… Real politics is that which gives enthusiasm. Love and politics are the two great figures of social engagement. Politics is enthusiasm with a collective; with love, two people. So love is the minimal form of communism.

The moon, shining down a column of light into night seas, reminds us gracefully that it wasn’t born yesterday, and that, by extension, we have collective experience to draw on. Similarly, the O’Neill pointed out that they—moon-walkers, data visualisers, primitive accumulators—think they have it all tied down. But we feel the moon. The moon governs tides. You can plant by it. And prune, and harvest, and consecrate.

O’Neill’s Crater—Creator involves the making of many small crocheted circular ‘craters’, which are stitched together and fixed to a large black backing disc. The work is being made over the course of a year by the artist, a small team of dedicated volunteers from the Riccarton Library Knit and Stitch Group, and by the public. When the artist’s moon is full, the surface will be taken down and the process of filling it will begin again.

It is similar in its team-building approach to the work The Buddy System that was made up of thousands of crochet flowers made by the artist and public over a period of months at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki in 2000. They also resemble the rolling crowds of discs—similar in form to the craters, but stretched over metal rings—that made up a series of works that included Rainbow Country (2000-1).

There is also The Kikau Broom Project (2006), a work developed in Rarotonga where school students made island brooms from coconut fronds. Used to sweep out houses, they are particularly good for dusting cobwebs and for sweeping garden leaves (where the sound of them stirs young people into helping action lest the broom whisks a lazy leg).

And then there are the innumerable instances were O’Neill has not made work as an individual, but as part of a collective. The most well-known of these is likely The Pacific Sisters, whose retrospective show opens at Te Papa in March 2018. But there are many more, such as Cuckoo, L’MAK (Lil’ Mamas Art Klub), and Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge Klub and SQUADS, each group working against the individualizing art world as adult female pack-animals.

O’Neill speaks of the moon as a place we thought might be able to populate (it looms large to those born at about the time of the first lunar landing), an alternative to Earth if we found we needed it. But even the idea that we might need something else is a disconcerting one: Why might we need it? Why don’t we just take better care of this place? I am left thinking I have never needed an amulet more.

It is an odd feeling that we may want, at some point in the future, to go to a dusty rock where there is nothing. It seems so inhospitable. It is evidence of a stubborn aspect to human nature that we could follow such a loose televisual science fiction-type idea—we will rebuild him / we are so special / better stronger faster—despite the silliness, the wrongness of such a disturbance. But, the artist maintains, without wacky ideas, things don’t get tested; but if these ideas take you away from what is real, the outcome is not creative at all.

Crochet, to O’Neill, is no inconsequential thing. A lot of the skills she was taught as a child she identifies as survival skills—the older people home in on the things that get you through; that stop you from being cold. Tying things together will make you a net. String—knotting—tying—holding—connecting—learning—teaching—adapting. These things circulate when you undertake repetitive operations with basic materials. Learning to use your hands in a different way.

Crater—Creator fires up connections in the brain again, pulling on our collective techne, on our waning ‘knowing how’. By slowing down, praying to old gods, using female tradition and strong magic in the face of mind-bending change, something is done to limit the pull of disorientation and alienation—the disconnection between generations working like gravity the way we are living. When these long-chain connections are not used there are many who suffer in the same way.

O’Neill says that her move to Rarotonga has meant she has been left behind by technology to some extent. Broadband is very expensive and of variable quality, so browsing, streaming, Skype or free calling are self-limiting. It is also still predominantly a cash economy. A Jurassic Park, a lost technology space, she has called it, but a place where connecting inter-generationally with ancient knowledges in the body is slightly easier.

Over the many years in which she has made participatory works—teaching works, shared works, open works, works where a craft technique is supported and distributed as widely as possible—there is a certain group of people who are attracted to them, strongly, emotionally, who want to say ‘my grandmother tried to teach me this.’ Or ‘My grandmother taught me this.’ Or ‘I used to do this with my grandmother when I was small.’ Men and women.

They come and they stop and they forget what it was that they thought they were doing with their day and they use their hands—crocheting, and the clumsiness leaving them little by little—and talk about the past, and about their family. Here, in the feeling of it, there is different, embodied sense of time in play. Our memories provide us with subtle, old, fluttering data, and a shared counter-social cultural symbolic that poses difficult questions of women. As Julia Kristeva put it, in an essay called ‘Women’s Time’: “…how might we appropriate our own space, a space that is passed down through tradition, and that we would like to modify?

And there is another group that is attracted, hovering, then entering—the older women themselves. Recently retired perhaps, they level with those who can crochet that they feel they should learn because they are expected to know this sort of thing; that their children and grandchildren are asking them to participate. Or participate more. But the framework for intergenerational participation isn’t there, or isn’t easily accessible, or isn’t modeled or scaffolded well.

A community development practitioner and educator pointed out to me recently that during the industrial revolution the operating system for families changed from units of production to units of construction. Anything—gardening, craft, home-schooling of all sorts—that shifts this disempowering reality is radical as a disruption to consumer society’s latent and devastating passivity. We must not only hide nothing from the children, we must try to remember what it is that might already have been hidden and act it out.

The subversiveness of some of these domestic activities is disguised by their apparent niceness (or by their adoption as consumer hobbies), but this soft work can have teeth, strong fibres. They are counter-patriarchal, but it is wider than that—they Ware validation of tactical knowledges, of exploring the brain and rediscovering forgotten communal possessions from below the breadline. And when a work is made communally over the course of a year, as Crater-Creator is, it has potential to pull on the unruly power of the crowd.

O’Neill is clear. Without love there would be nothing. Love is the reason we are all here. There is so much fantasy that distracts from it, from the basic earth. Sharing and generosity are the key parts of cultivating love. And it is the gap in our lives that most needs developing in we humans. One of the artist’s roles is fostering this generative kindness; this realisation that people have something to give. It’s generative, this process, like the way a plant has shoots and seeds, and it disturbs the balance of power.

When we bring into public life that which is not normally visible or sensible, we disrupt systems of power—who customarily gets to speak and what is spoken. Sometimes, tendrils of the less powerful grow across a surface, making it apparent that what dominates is not all there is. How the dominant narratives don’t reflect the interests of all, and how its priorities are narrowly focused on particular areas. How the dominant is just one of many, and the roots of other powers can be ancient, female, nurturing and life-protecting.