Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Richard Berger - Part 2: The Prosthetic Temple

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 19, 2020


 

 






This is part two of my conversation with Richard Berger about his project "The Prosthetic Temple."  You can return to part one here.

While putting a new cassette into the recorder to continue our conversation, Berger made an observation about the word “prosthetic” … I picked it up from there.

Richard Whittaker:  Okay. You were saying something about the use of the word “prosthetic” - like it's become fashionable in certain circles.

Richard Berger:   Well, using that word seems to be a convenient way to project a potency that conjures up—I don’t know if they’re fantasies or constructs—in an open-ended way what I think is mostly wishful thinking. This is in terms of the idea of the human intermeshing with the machine—or the anxiety about the machine taking over. There are all those cyborg-type movies with robots that are almost like people. So there’s speculation about what’s the boundary of the self? Where does the self stop and something else pick up that may or may not be benign?—our own stuff turning on us.
     So, there’s a lot of use of the idea of the “prosthetic” to describe this broad relationship of a mechanism to humanity. But it’s being pressed into service, in way that’s impenetrable, to me. There’s a book—I’m blanking on this woman’s name—and it sort of affirms my suspicions about that. She has one leg, too, and she’s saying there’s all this chin music these guys are coming up with about prosthetics, but it has very little to do with me and my relationship with this object that helps me get around.     
     What led me to look into this, was triggered by hearing an interview with William Gibson who was talking about “prosthetic memory.” He was using it the way certain—I'm not sure what to call them—critics at large? describe. And what he said makes sense to me a little bit—the idea of prosthetic memory. It’s generated and sustained by photography. When you have these pictures from the past, like from Dorothea Lange, it conjures up a sense of a collective past— almost a Norman Rockwell kind of deal. I think it sustains some of the more sinister aspects of kitsch, like, “Yes, those were the good old days.” And when we hold ourselves up against this sort of thing, it becomes a leveraged comparison with something that didn’t exist in order to manipulate people in the present. So that one makes a little bit of sense.
     But the long story here is that when I went to the Sun Temple at Konârak in 2001, it was one of the places where the state of the monument seemed like a diagram of neglect. Not all of the structures were the same. They had deteriorated in certain ways. Some seemed like they didn’t exist in this time—like the thing I wrote for you about Elephanta. Some seemed spiritually bereft of any kind of functionality, any kind of metaphysical locus.


Elephanta, photo, R. Berger
RW:   And some didn’t, then?

RB:   Some didn’t, yeah. Then some seemed transformed by time, like the temples at Khajuraho. I compare them to grand sailing vessels that had become landlocked by time. Earlier they’d been surrounded by a city and a whole municipality to sustain these centers of devotion and giant pilgrimages. All of that’s gone now and they are sort of landlocked, but the integrity of the vessel was still there. In other places, the vessel had taken a beating. Sometimes the vessel was immensely humble, but immensely powerful, as well.

RW:   The vessel being these temples?

RB:   The temples, yeah. At Konârak, half of it’s gone. The part that remains was the meeting hall, a standard feature of the temple architecture of that period. They would be lined up in an east-west direction, two or three structures. One of them is the Jagan Mohan, the assembly hall, a pretty cubic kind of polyhedron with the pyramidal roof of a house, in a way. Sometimes they can be more elaborate. That was the entryway and it’s where everybody met. It amounts to a kind of porch for this big tower that was solid except for a tiny chamber.

RW:  The tower itself was solid?

RB:   I mean, it was unused space. There was space within it, but nobody went in there. It was closed off. It was a monumental, phallic thing. And in the bottom, in the sanctuary, was the cult image. So, you had this architectural set up of approach, passage into the vestibule, in effect, and then you would go into the sanctuary and make your offering, and then come out again.

RW:   And the sanctuary is a more holy place?

RB:   Yeah. But see, what it is, is the symbolic passage from one place to the next.

RW:   And from one state to another state.

RB:   Yeah. So, you go in and make your deal with the deity. At the Durga Temple in Benares, this entry thing was not closed-in. It was a roof with pillars. Then the sanctuary was inside. Durga, I guess, is really a fierce character. People would ring a bell and then run in and come running back out. It reminded me of children dodging traffic. It was like a perilous confrontation. So this idea of orchestrating the approach to a deity, grew into this enormous convention, or protocol, of presentation.

RW:   Such a protocol isn't unreasonable, is it?

RB:   It’s everywhere. The sacred portal of the cathedral, the doors— particularly the tympanum over the doors, that semi-circular thing—it’s always got the Last Judgment, and it always faces east to west.

RW:   We don’t know much about this today, do we? I mean, what do we know about a change of state in approaching something which people have traditionally treated with tremendous respect? If we regard that simply as a superstitious thing, aren’t we just missing something? When you’re in the presence of this other state, you’re in touch with energies that… Well, I don't know what to say there.

RB:   Yeah. I know what you’re saying and, certainly, there are the sensations or realizations that are beyond rationality and that go with—I'm never sure whether or not it’s completely my own fantasy. I really am not. I'm having a potent displacement of my normal patterns of expectation and response in certain circumstances, but I've never known what it was I brought there and what was actually there. But I seem to want to keep doing that.

RW:   Okay, let’s stay there. Would you say a little more about that?

RB:   Well, when you come to a monument, for instance like Elephanta… You know, I’d looked at pictures. I’d studied the diagrams of the architectural and cosmological premises for the organization of this space, this temple that was carved inside the mountain top. It was just the opposite of what somebody did when they built a cathedral. Here they went into solid rock and took away everything that wasn’t the temple.
     I mean, that’s kind of an intriguing thing that may not have any reality to the people who used the place. To me, it’s just an incredible inversion of how we think of the idea of construct—to take a bunch of pieces and make an idea. But to go into it metaphorically, to go into solid rock and take away what isn’t… I heard somewhere that Zen guys have this name for the negative space under a chair. There is no insignificant. There is no nothingness. It’s all something.  So, I went into this place loaded with that idea: “Wow, these guys took away everything that wasn’t the temple.” So, I just don’t know.

RW:   You’re saying that you have experiences and you’re not sure where they come from. But you know that something happens.

RB:   Yeah. And I see a continuity. It seems like monuments and great architecture are about—at least diagramming, if not implementing—those kinds of realizations. But you think of the Romanesque cathedral, which I just got interested in, because I got to go to France several times—the Romanesque Basilica.

RW:   Those are the ones with the dome?

RB:   Well, Romanesque is like the pre-Gothic, like 10th century. It’s a simple cruciform structure. But I’m talking about it as just in a time period. Particularly, there was the consistency of the portal—the place where you went from profane to sacred space—being aligned with the cardinal directions. It’s always facing west, so the sun, when it’s setting, is giving you this very dramatic illumination. Also, there’s the symbolism of the directions of summer, winter, spring, and fall.
     There are a lot of things that go into how it’s located. But over the door is the Last Judgment, and it’s vivid and frightening and comprehensive. Here is the sum total of the faith diagrammed pictorially, because when they made this thing, people couldn’t read and this place was probably a destination on a pilgrimage.
     So, you can think of the whole package of trudging through thorns and brambles, coming upon your goal, the destiny, and what you see—what you need to pass through into the sacred space—is the understanding that here it is all measured out for you. Your deeds will be weighed and accounted for, and your eternal fate will be determined by that judgment.
     They always have a bilateral symmetry and everybody who sits on the right-hand of Jesus are good guys, and everybody who’s on the left-side are bad guys. There’s always a vertical hierarchy, too; Jesus is up at the top, and down in the basement is hell. You see sinners being stuffed into the mouth of Leviathan, and strung up and poked by demons, and all this great stuff. And it was all polychrome; it was all painted, too.
     The idea is that you make this passage, which is symbolically enacted—in terms of physical distance—setting the stage for the realization that the real passage is a journey of no distance. It’s from damned to saved. There are no miles involved in that. But you have to go. So, all those kinds of architectural things are about totems or emblems—in terms of a passage.

RW:   Right. That's really a powerful way of putting it.

RB:   So, in talking about what do you bring to these things? Like what are your expectations? The real simple things are dramatic demonstrations of that—like the cave paintings. People see these cave paintings and think it’s sophisticated modeling with dynamism of line, and yadda, yadda. They’re completely immersed in dropping a grid of their own and finding their own affirmation of some of their own values in this thing.
     But you know that the guy in the dark, shooting paint through a tube out of his mouth by torchlight to make this image, was not thinking about elegant modeling and dynamism of line. I mean, the fact that resides there is great, and also kind of problematic, if you want to understand it. I think that’s just sort of everybody’s problem, actually. But it gets more dramatic, in terms of things like big stuff, like monuments and the metaphysical systems that they were based on.
     So getting back to the Sun Temple. When I went there, it was a place where… I’d seen places in disarray, or the subject of neglect as time just passed. It’s all kind of haunting, but this place seemed freshly traumatized. Like this tower fell down in the 16th century at some time. Nobody’s sure why, but the stones, became a kind of giant quarry. “Hey, here are some rocks. Let’s build some walls or something.”

RW:   They’re all gone?

RB:   Much of it’s gone, yeah. The tower there had been huge; it was sixty meters high. So, what occurred to me in seeing that, and just in writing about it—it was an incidental observation—that the place seemed traumatized. The tower was like the missing limbs of the beggars. Because what wasn’t there was all the more there in its absence. That led me to think that the temple was a fairly mainstream consideration of a body image.
     So, I lost my leg below the knee. You’d think that I, as much as anybody, would be kind of inured to that image. But when I see somebody on crutches with a missing limb, it’s always disturbing because somebody isn’t whole in some kind of really potent way. It’s not just what is missing in this picture; It’s not to be confused with a fragment from a statue. It’s much more imbedded somehow, in your sense of completeness and identity.
     I think it’s related to why we make sculpture, the figure mostly—99% of what we think of as sculpture is figurative.
     So in relation to the tower and thinking about what’s missing being all the more there, I started thinking about the missing limb. And you see a lot of that in India, as you probably would in any Third World country. They don’t have the money to have a hot shot $7,000 leg like I do.
     It made me think about okay, what is the artifice that makes me complete on one level? —which is that now I can get around and I don’t have to be limited in certain ways. And as far as anybody in the world is concerned—I mean, I worked at SFAI [San Francisco Art Institute] for 20 years [as head of the sculpture department] before some people even knew I had an artificial limb.
     So, I thought, okay, here’s this construct; here is this thing that’s formulated in lieu of what’s missing. What it’s doing is mediating between the way things are and the way they ought to be, you know? Like here is this thing that you make to fill-in this missing thing so that you can be functional.
     Then I started to think about metaphysical constructs and metaphysical architecture as being that, as well. A prosthetic, to me, is something that we build to make us feel whole, to make real the notion of wholeness. And there’s the idea of the cosmic body and all those creation mythologies that have to do with the sacrificial victim being either immolated or diced up and spread around and becoming the whole world. Then the other reconstruction aspects of that, are that the pieces will come back together at the end, and the body and the soul will come back, and they’re united.
     So, I started to think about the tower and the temple in its entirety, as a kind of collective prosthetic, a cultural prosthetic. If you think of it in terms of maybe the birth trauma as the ultimate; it’s the severance which requires cultural and metaphysical prosthesis to ensure that the individual can prevail or survive.

RW:   This is so interesting. What would you say is the experiential side of this for you?

RB:   You mean…?      
       
RW:   Is there something that affects you on another level than, say, an intellectual level?

RB:   I don’t think in any immediate way. Some of these encounters were physically really arduous, and many times I was thinking, “What am I doing here?”
     This is like the question of the artist in some state of rhapsody in their studio, and sort of communing with the Muse in some kind of transcendent deliverance of the goods from beyond. But mostly, it’s just really terrible, hard work, or huge frustration, but the accumulation, the psychic investment becomes sort of an anchorage for yourself.
     I have no idea why some people are this way and some aren’t. George Bush had all that advantage and never left the country. He wouldn’t have left Texas probably, if he didn’t have to go work in Washington.
     One of the things, like I talked to a group of art students in India at one place. I just stumbled into this art school to see what was going on and ended up talking to a collective group. Somebody asked “Why do you come to India?” and I said, “Ignorance is bliss.”
     When I come to a place where I've no hope of ever—I mean, I was utterly isolated. Even if I was in a crowd of thousands of people, I was forced into a perpetual awareness of difference that turned me inward. That’s a sustaining exercise on some level—whether it’s isometrics-of-the-soul or what, I don’t know; but it’s a way in which you just strengthen yourself. It’s also a way of kind of losing yourself.
     This friend of mine described, when in my usual masochistic ranting, I was asking, “Why do I make this studio stuff and everything?”
     She said, “It’s because it feels slightly worse to not do it than it does to do it.”  So there aren’t enormities there.
     I read this thing about Mother Teresa, who had this talk with Jesus. She was afire. She was ready to go do God’s work in Calcutta, and she expected Him to come back and give her additional… but the turkey never came back! So there she was, stuck with a lifetime of forced benevolence, or something.

RW:   What do you make of that? That in fact, Mother Teresa herself went through a great deal of anguish and suffering, but she persisted.

RB:   Yeah. Somewhere in the depths there, I think people need faith of some sort. What that means is, I think, a momentary, or maybe a compartmentalized, off-loading of accountability as a respite from just the inexorable grinding of life. To the extent that you really live out that faith, there’s a greater something that needs to be attended to.
     A lot of times our misery… I mean, you reflect on yourself and, as anybody who is a believer will tell you, faith isn’t easy. Like there’s the secular, or contemporary, idea—the irony drenched notion—of faith that it’s a mindless abdication of volition and responsibility. But in fact, it’s all kinds of folks. Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote all those Peter Wimsey mysteries, translated the Divine Comedy too, and wrote extensively. She was a Catholic, I think; she was a Christian. She wrote about faith in that way, saying it’s a bitch; it’s work, and it’s questioning and doubt. Faith is doubt.
     So, I think when you thrust yourself into unfamiliar circumstances in an immersion-kind of way, you’re visiting doubt on yourself as a way of affirming your faith. It’s hard to use that word without it becoming synonymous with ritual behavior and mumbo-jumbo or New Age hijinks.
     I think it’s just a very fundamental coping mechanism that’s evolutionarily selected for, and people can be very comfortable and aligned with it; cultures can be comfortably aligned with it, or at great odds with it, but I think it’s a constant. You’re can attribute all human conflict to the differences of opinion.

RW:   Right. Would it be accurate to say that, in a way, what you’re saying… It’s a little difficult to feel that I can quite contain all the thoughts you’re saying rather elegantly.

RB:   Me too. 
    
RW:   So as an educated Westerner, I can’t help being deeply influenced by our scientific materialism, which says that, metaphysically and scientifically, the universe is a random, purposeless reality. Dawkins is sort of the most vocal spokesman of that. But, there’s an Eastern view, that sees the deepest reality as some kind of consciousness and the world kind of flows out of it—that even atoms and everything is related to this conscious source.

RB:   Yeah, yeah.

RW:   And this Western materialist view rejects there being any fundamental meaning or purpose to the whole thing.

RB:   You wish you’d never heard of irony, I guess, is the answer to that. I mean with Dawkins what I hear is a fundamentalist, and I guess I basically distrust fundamentalism. I mean, when I do my art history class and talk about all of these monuments—all of which were the sort of summations of different belief systems—students will say religion is a bunch of bullshit.
     The prevailing idea is that what you’d call religion is a conspiracy by humorless people to keep us from having fun and to control us. What seems to be missing in all of that is that we wouldn’t be here if whatever kinds of mechanisms we inflicted upon ourselves weren’t deployed to ensure our survival. When you think about any kind of belief system in a real traditional way, it’s about insuring unanimity of attitude and purpose for a small and vulnerable group of folks who don’t want to die.
     So, if you have to summon up some kind of god, or you have to insure a kind of lock-step mentality about the world in order to not have somebody in your hunter-gathering band, or your clan say, “Fuck, I think I'll switch to Buddhism,” and he wanders off, then you’re one guy less, and he might be the guy who makes the difference in the survival, or not.
     So, I think those impulses are deep survival impulses. And Dawkins, I don’t know enough about the guy. I've heard him on the radio, and I read part of a book a long time ago, and I thought yeah, he’s another fundo who’s exclusionist.
     There are people who are hugely knowledgeable and colossally ungracious about what they know, using it as a license to be schmucks. I mean, I think, privately, they do their solemn kind of thing, and then go home in the dark and do a Snoopy dance, because they pissed off so many people. I mean the schoolyard dynamic is a cosmic force, as well. The guys who got too many noogies in the schoolyard, end up doing that kind of stuff.

RW:   Well, going back, I was asking you about the experiential side. You referred to something like "being in communion with the Muse" and so on. The way you spoke of it was as if that was an experience you’re not familiar with, would you say?

RB:   Well, I’d say, and this might be a projection of my own, but what I think of when I meet somebody who has this notion of being this driven, singular, self-appointed factory of meaning—I might agree with the driven part—but not to take the world at face value and to go looking for causes underlying something, then to come back from the beyond and deliver that knowledge to the awaiting public—that’s essentially a kind of—I don’t want to say divine—but a kind of separate, outsider, privileged state of existence, and that maybe there are aspects of euphoria mixed in there somewhere. I've just never had that.
     I mean, I’ve had people who I respect and who do great stuff, say they just get into a trance and start painting, and when they’re done at the end of the day, they feel great. I've just never had that experience. Maybe it’s easier with painting. I just end up huffing plastic dust and stuff like that.
     I can say that a few times, when I was pruning my bonsai trees, I've lapsed into a state of mind, which is what I think they’re talking about. It’s when whatever you’re doing is talking back to you in an immediate way, and you’re getting rewarding results, and the world around you drops away. It becomes a focus that allows you to forget more troubling stuff, and when you’re done, you’ve got a nice looking tree. [laughs] Maybe a lifetime of that would produce a being that was more comfortable with himself than I am, but I certainly haven’t had that.

RW:   I suspect there are different ways that we’re put together.

RB:   Yeah.

RW:   But you related a bit to the driven part. It seemed that something was there.

RB:   Compulsion, yeah. I think the compulsion goes back to the faith idea which is, I think, that in the beginning, everyone was an artist—in the sense we think of an artist. That is there was some aspect of objectifying desire and the unknown, in order to understand it. So, everybody did the rain dance. Everybody did the harvest ritual. Everybody participated in mind over matter to effect their faith and their wellbeing—and the complexity of a multi-faceted civilization insures that kind of proto-activity. If you think about what a cave painting is, the kind of amulet you’d find in a Paleolithic site like the Venus of Willendorf or something like that—that’s a tool. That’s not an object of dispassionate contemplation or a great thing on the mantel, or a great place to park your money. It was a tool. This is how you got a job done—with this picture or with this object.
     In a sense, it’s like an axe, but it was also, simultaneously, metaphysics. What you did with these images was try to see the animal you were going to kill, to focus on them as a life source, and hope for ascendency to ensure your own survival. The other thing it was, was more likely the idea of maybe what we think of as art, which is just the notion that here are the traceries of a being that has existed. We can see this like an after effect, almost, of existence. The evolution and refinement of those three functions—and ultimately the breaking away, the fragmenting, of them into technology and metaphysics and art—is how you describe culture or civilization.
     In the caves, you see all these animals and stuff and you also see very intriguing geometric patterns sometimes. One of the things that’s most fascinating is there are places where either people put their hand in paint and put it on the wall, or even more strange, they put their hand up, and then they had the tube with the paint in their mouth, and they blew and made an outline of their hand. To me, it’s saying I was here. It’s more than graffiti. Like if you think of the idea of tracks, like animal tracking, which was central to them, you see the footprint of this animal. But it’s not just a footprint; it’s the animal. It’s the whole thing. It’s got duration. It’s got direction. It’s got the whole future implicit in its formal particularities. But there it is. The imprint is the thing.
     I only saw this in a picture, but I was in the cave where it was and couldn’t find it—it was a place where, in the gooey kind of clay of the interior of this cave, people 20,000 years ago did this finger painting thing. It was like a furious, frantic thing, and then it fossilized or calcified and it’s solid. That came together with this thing that happened with my brother when we were kids. I’d never put this together until I read his account of this event in a museum catalog interview. My folks were having a party, and the kids had to go away, like to the bedroom. So there were all these party sounds going on and then there’s this total silence. I was six year old, and it was like when the gunslinger comes into the saloon and the music stops, you know? So there was this abrupt thing and I came out of my room to see what it was. My parents and their friends were there, and my brother, who is three years younger than me—and he was a good kid; I was always the guy who was setting fires and breaking stuff. He had a crayon between each of his fingers and he was reaching as high as he could on the wall and making these colored rainbow things, and he was completely oblivious to everything around him. I was agog, too, because it was so utterly out of character.
     So, I’d forgotten about it until I read his essay; he talked about that moment. He said he remembers coloring in his coloring book—and since he was a good kid, he always colored inside the lines—and the next thing he knew, he was doing this.
     He said he’s been trying ever since to figure out what happened in between those two states. So, I equate that finger painting thing with what he describes as being entranced by the coherent tracery of his own movement in the world. Because you get those great parallel lines. If you set out to draw that, you couldn’t do that. It’s actually the tracery of his own movement turned to an infographic diagram. I think that’s another way of saying it. I mean, it’s an individuating act, let’s say.

RW:   There’s something absolutely startling about that.

RB:   Yeah, yeah. Well, being equipped to recognize it, I think, is the thing. That's another one of those things where you say maybe human consciousness, as we know it, started here.
     I think definitely, like with the cave image, to have this sort of eidetic outline profile thing that your whole life depends on, appear to you in murky darkness by torchlight—and you outline it somehow—that’s like getting hit by lightning, to see the object of your desire materialize before your eyes. I think that’s what the cave paintings are about.
     The cave paintings were a big problem because when they were first discovered, everybody thought they were fake. Then they noticed that some of the depictions of the animals corresponded with fossil structures that hadn’t been around for a very long time. But the real trauma of those images was that here was an entirely intact, vigorous, formal, visual language that had evolved before any of the structures that we consider to be necessary for the trajectory of progress toward the present—like none of them went to Athens [laughs], nobody went to Florence—and they came up with this whole thing.  
     Picasso went to those caves in 1902 and started painting bulls. So if you think of Hominids as being maybe three million years old, that the gradual evolution of, let’s say, the propensity and the capacity to offload in that particular way as an organizational and focusing mechanism, fosters the dawn of consciousness. Like the idea of correspondence between what you know is out there, the continuum of nature, and then what you have is a symbolic thing in your hands, or in front of you. That’s like a cleavage between the eternal now, the past, and the future. Maybe that pries the window open from a kind of animal consciousness to human consciousness.     

On his website (no longer in existence) Berger had written the following statement about his project:

"I propose that one attribute of the production of those makers we call artists, historically and culturally, constitutes a kind of prosthetic activity to address an unforgettable and irreconcilable absence. To forget would be to surrender to incompleteness, an untenable and intolerable state. This production, the work of the artist, is intended to, however imperfectly, reestablish completeness. This leads to the consideration of cultural, psychic, intellectual and/or spiritual categories of the prosthetic construct.
     The cultural behavior called 'the arts' could be characterized as the manufacture of interrelated tokens alluding to or articulating prosthetic constructs of a collective nature, not to address issues of mobility or appearance as with a bodily prosthesis, but rather to intervene on a number of levels in the very human predicament of what is collectively missing needing to be acknowledged and reconfigured, with the understanding that just like the missing extremity, what is missing is not an experienced recollection, but a gnawing presence. The sculpture titled The Prosthetic Temple constitutes a prosthetic expression of all that I didn’t know was missing, thus far." 

Richard Berger died March 3, 2015.


Photo, R. Whittaker -  Richard Berger's studio, memorial gathering April 9, 2016 -
          
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.        

 

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