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We waste so much of our time hurrying. We hurry to work, we hurry home, we hurry to the store, we hurry through our weekends, and then, when we finally stop for breath, we wonder where the time went. Schedules and timetables, appointments and deadlines, the arbitrary arrangements that order our world, all too often define our experience of time. Even our leisure is tied to schedules (otherwise, TV Guide would be out of business). We don't really experience time, we merely note its passing. In a sense, we are all protagonists in a Proustian novel: We remember time; we experience it only in hindsight.
But Mineko Grimmer's Remembering Plato, an installation of water, light, shadows, stones and sound at the Menil Collection, might slow you down. On the floor at opposite ends of a darkened room are two low wooden containers filled with water. A round metal bar spans the width of one pool; two wires, like piano strings, cross the other. An inverted pyramid of stones frozen in ice hangs not quite three feet above the midpoint of each pool. Two spotlights shine down, reflecting shadow pools onto the adjacent walls. As the ice melts, the stones are released, sometimes singly and gradually, sometimes in a small avalanche, falling into the pools, occasionally striking the bar or the wires.
The title of Grimmer's installation refers to the allegory of the cave that opens Book VII of Plato's Republic. To summarize (and oversimplify): In the allegory, the limitation of human knowledge is likened to that of people who are confined in a cave, restrained so that they cannot look at anything but the wall of the cave in front of them. But, unbeknownst to these poor people, there are others in the cave, hidden behind them. Like puppeteers, the hidden ones hold aloft figures of the "real" world so that the light of a fire can cast their flickering shadows on the wall. These shadows are all that the inhabitants of the cave know of reality, while a purer and truer reality exists outside the cave, forever beyond their comprehension.
Similarities between the allegory and the installation are obvious. The darkened room is cavelike, and the shadows of the pools on the wall tend to fascinate the eye more than the physical elements. But differences are equally obvious. Sitting in the gallery, we are not in the benighted state of the cave dwellers; we see the shadows for what they are, and we see their sources.
Despite the title's nod to the fountainhead of Western philosophy, Remembering Plato has more of an Eastern feel. Grimmer now lives in L.A., but she was born and raised in Japan, and if this work is any indication, her gaze still turns eastward. Stones, water and shadows have an important place in Eastern aesthetics, and even in the cavelike setting, the installation evokes a Japanese rock garden. The gallery becomes a contemplative space with soft splashes of water, random music from the stones striking the bar and the wires, and constant ripples in the shadows on the wall, haloing outward, crossing and recrossing, echoing the moment. It's curious that a work of art that's in constant motion can be so peaceful.
In Eastern thought, there is no distinction between the animate and the inanimate; all things possess chi, a kind of cosmic energy. Water is a magnet for chi, and, for reasons that are rooted in legend, stones and rocks are believed to have an abundance of energy as well. In Remembering Plato, the interaction between these elements animates the gallery; you feel a subtle charge in the air, a quiet energy, an immanence. People entering the space are immediately hushed and attentive. Not reverent, mind you -- there are plenty of smiles and whispered observations. But they do tend to slow down, even stop, and really look. It seems that they feel something.
Mostly they look at the shadows on the wall, much like the inhabitants of Plato's cave. The irregular ripples created by the falling water drops and stones are hypnotic. But Grimmer has noted that Remembering Plato is irregular only on a superficial experiential level. While the artist admits that not even she has sat through an entire "performance," she believes that over the four to six hours it would take for a pyramid to completely disassemble there would be a kind of regularity, a rhythmic symmetry. The implication -- that if one can but take sufficient time to observe the natural phenomena of this world, randomness will resolve into order -- connects this work not only with the philosophies of Taoism and Zen, but with contemporary chaos theory as well. The randomness of falling water and stone is translated into shadowy rhythms on the wall, and a kind of order is revealed by those shadows. Perhaps, in the words of an ancient Zen master, "If we hear the sound through the eyes, we are able to know it." While Plato's cave kept humanity in the dark, Grimmer's installation may bring us closer to understanding.
One final note: Through the generosity of both the artist and outgoing director Ned Rifkin, who's taking over the reins at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., Remembering Plato will enter the permanent collection of the Menil in honor of the museum's staff. Ned, we hardly knew ye, but what a lovely gift to remember you by.