joshua neustein texts
Ash Pieces; An Addendum to The Message in the Ashes.
by Arthur C. Danto

Joshua Neustein's new installation Domestic Tranquillity, makes use of a number of symbols, deployed in similar ways to his earlier works. He refers to these works as "ash-pieces", though each of them, so far, uses, in addition to a field of ashes, a richly elaborate chandelier, dislocated from the ceiling where such fixtures are conventionally placed, to close proximity to the ashfield, near the floor. In each ashfield a map is drawn, on a scale large enough that the streets represented in the map can be used as paths through the ash-field. Light and ashes are powerful symbols in their own right, and their conjunction even more so, but it is evidently important that in these works, the light emanates from a fixture as elaborate and as intricate as a jewel - a fountain of luminous glory - rather than, say, a single bare light bulb, lowered to a point close to the ashfield, or a turning mirrored sphere of the kind that creates visual excitement in a discotheque.   

There is a language of light fixtures, after all. The single bare bulb inevitably connotes abjection, the disco ball is the embodiment of abandon, the chandelier, exemplifying brilliance, declares the brilliance of the event over which it shines: the ball, the reception, the concert, the wedding, the banquet. There is, thus, a symbolic incongruity between the chandelier and the ashfield just beneath it, since ashes have immemorially been the emblem of abjection. It hovers as a luminous, almost angelic presence, an emissary from another sphere of being, bringing to the city in the ashes a transcendent kind of assurance.

For reasons already stated, these works require fairly large spaces. It is important, for example, that visitors be drawn into the work. The paths through the ashes must then be wide enough for persons to use, wide enough, perhaps, that two persons coming from different directions, should be able to pass one another without stepping into the ashes.

But beyond that, the space of the installation must be high enough to convey the impression that the chandelier has descended, dramatically and surprisingly, as if from a higher to a lower realm - to the realm of those who virtually walk the streets of the city sunk in ashes. The two substances - light and ashes - constitute what Suzanne Langer spoke of as presentational form, as distinct from discursive forms as pictures are from propositions. The presentational forms of Neustein's installations demand interpretive response and require some application to the lives of the walkers. They project a message too urgent to be disregarded but too allusive to be paraphrased.

It was as a poetry of linked symbols that I sought to analyze the Message in The Ashes - the work in which the inscribed city was that of Salem, at around the time of its founding - a form and order imposed on the American wilderness by refugees from the religious wars in Europe. What I had not especially thought of when I composed that essay was the possibility of the same work moving from venue to venue. It seemed too linked to the specificities, cultural and historical, of the Moravian Brotherhood, who had founded Salem as a New Jerusalem. I thought of these links as if roots drawing meaning from the soil. And though I realized it was not a permanent installation, it would have seemed to me that the work would be uprooted if moved, and hence torn away from the nourishing soil. If the symbols meant what I supposed they did in Salem, could they have carried that meaning over to Cleveland, where the work was installed in the Institute of Contemporary Art? Neustein replaced the map of Salem with a map of Cleveland to anchor the work in the reality outside the Institute. But would that make it specific to Cleveland as it had been to Salem? It would have seemed to me that the symbolic components were too inter-referential, too organically interrelated, not to sacrifice some portion of their meaning when the work was made to denote Cleveland.

Just the name Salem - a fond diminutive for Jerusalem - has connotations that do not carry over to Cleveland. Named after Moses Cleveland, who led the first surveying party in the Western Reserve, laying down a plan to which downtown Cleveland still conforms. The chief highways of the early settlers were originally Indian trails. So a whole new set of meanings would have to be generated in the new site. There is, of course, a natural connection between ashes and Cleveland, as a city of blast furnaces gone cold, and of prosperous manufacture fallen on harsh times.

Ashes in which the map of Berlin is inscribed must mean something different from those in which Salem is inscribed. To think of Berlin as a city in ashes is natural, in view of the history of World War II - a bombed burnt wreck of city from which the present Berlin has risen like a phoenix. The ashes of Salem imply no such history, nor do those of Cleveland. Nor, of course, do those in which the Israeli city of Bne Brak is to be inscribed in Domestic Tranquillity.

However much one installation resembles another, each entails a different interpretation, drawing on history, on religion, on the meanings of settlement, security and the language of social being. It was the interdependence of its symbols that caused me to feel that Light Over Ashes was specific to its site. And yet, so powerful are the components in the complex - city, lamp, and ashes - that one is given the sense that each installation has some higher and more transcendent message than "The Message in the Ashes" I made central to my analysis of Light Over Ashes.

"The Message in the Ashes" refers to the presence in the ashes of scattered terra cotta letters. Some letters are in the ashes some on top. It is difficult not to believe that the letters hold a message, if we could but put them together to form words. But we know that every text in the language is made of so many A's and B's and C's. Even if we cannot hope to find the text which the letters subtend, the mere fact that there are letters - rather than rocks and roots - in the ashes, assures us that the ashes carry a message, and convey a sense of meaningfulness, though no ascertainable meaning, like the scratches on a bone from prehistoric times whose meaning is irredeemably lost. What is the meaning of our history? Our place? Our lives with one another? Our relationship to the splendor of light? "Meaningfulness without ascertainable meaning" echoes the celebrated formula of Kant in connection with beauty - "Purposiveness with no ascertainable purpose." All we can know for certain is that the components in the work constrain its possible meanings - ashes, city, lamp. Every interpretation must read ashes together with city, and both together with the glamorous light, scintillating so close to where our daily life is lived amidst the ashes.

The letters in the ashes do not belong to this complex of city, ash, and chandelier, which is what all the ash pieces have in common. But they serve as a clue as to what this complex must mean in this specific case. City, ashes, lamp are invariants. But there are in addition, variables which individuate one installation from the others. Where Light Over Ashes has terra cotta letters in and on its plane, Domestic Tranquillity has sunflowers. As an operating principle, we must suppose these flowers point to a locating interpretation. At the very least, we want to know what the connection is between Bne Brak and sunflowers.
There are sunflowers molded in the ashes, clustered together in a space, likened by the artist to a cartouche in a map. Sunflowers appear as well in a video, shown on a monitor inconspicuously placed. The video has two segments. In one, the artist (or some surrogate) is addressing a field of sunflowers, their faces turned in seeming eagerness and interest toward him. It is of course an illusion. Were he to address the sunflowers from the other side of the field, he would see only the backs of their heads. The sunflowers are not listening to him at all. They are phototropic beings, turned always to the light. They follow the sun from horizon to horizon. The artist who believes he has the undivided attention of the sunflowers is profoundly deceived. It is an image of futility, an allegory of the impotence of art to penetrate the consciousness of those whose lives are defined by faith, as for example the devout inhabitants of Bne Brak.

A second video image alternates with the artist addressing the sunflowers. This video shows a woman, wearing some folk costume, ironing letters as if they were garments. Her dress connects to a culture somewhat alien to those who experience the work. The native dress is a declaration of where the woman feels she belongs. Ironing belongs to the fundamental human project of keeping disorder at bay. Ironing is an emblem of domesticity and civilization, so the woman herself is domestic tranquillity personified, performing her indispensable tasks in peace, secure in her traditions. Neustein thought he might put a sunflower in a vase on a shelf behind her. Even if that were a mere decorative touch, it would transcend its meaning. The mere thought of decorative touches goes with a sense of home and of peace. "Domestic" is defined as whatever is of or pertaining to the family or household. Whatever else a city is, even in the ashes, it is an aggregate of households.

Domestic Tranquillity is to be installed in the municipal museum of Herzliya, a prosperous and secular community. Bne Brak is a poor and pious community of Orthodox Jews, dedicated to the principles of a theocratic polity. It is a city of rabbis and seminarians. They have no ears for the artist, supposing him to be attempting to communicate the secular values of Herzliya. They want to be left in tranquillity, to follow out the paths of meaning in a universe in which everything else is ashes, of no significance to their lives. Domestic Tranquillity can be read as an allegory of political conflict, but Neustein claims that "the politics are afterthoughts". His aim is to see "Bne Brak's residence by their own ontologies". The monitor, with its repeated showing of its two segments, is above the plane of ashes, but not in such a way as to interfere with the great chandelier of Venetian glass. It shows the way those who live in Bne Brak view themselves. It is their consciousness from within, as in a vision. Possibly this has a message for Herzliya as well. Whether the two populations can indeed live in domestic tranquillity, independent of one another is - "an afterthought." But insuring the domestic tranquillity, along with justice, defense, and the blessings of liberty, is cited as an intended result of a "more perfect union" in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, and belongs to every constitution written since that time. It is what citizens everywhere hope for.

When I was gathering some thoughts for this piece, I came across a curious photograph in the New York Times. It showed a man and a woman, seated by a street map, painted on the floor of a large room. It is a map of a razed town. The map is in a museum, dedicated to the town's memory. It had once been a neighborhood in which members of different races lived together in domestic tranquillity. And it was destroyed by an apartheid government which decreed that it must be replaced by another town in which only whites were permitted to reside. To this end, the original town was destroyed and new town - interestingly named Sonnenbloem, which is Afrikaans for Sunflower - was superimposed. Sunflower never prospered. Sunflower is today an urban wasteland, but beneath the ashes of its demolition, the old town acquires a deeper and deeper meaning as an emblem of an arrogant disregard for domestic tranquillity. That meaning would have been deepened and raised to the level of moral poetry, had the street map been made in ashes in a large darkened space lit, primarily, by a chandelier suspended just above. Ashes and chandelier do not constitute a formulaic device for transforming tragedy to elegy. But together with the political memory, they would have given visitors to the museum the kind of evocative experience of which art is capable.

Arthur C. Danto, 1999

Professor (Emeritus Dept. Philosophy) Columbia University, art critic to The Nation since 1984 — This essay also appeared in Joshua Neustein Five Ash Cities Domestic Tranquility and Unnatural Wonders, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.