Sunday, May 10

Inanimate exile

I've made a number of works over the years examining what factors constitute an identity. My earliest memories consist of the somewhat uncomfortable realization of difference of my family life to the rest of our upstate new york suburb. It was not so much what my family looked like that seemed markedly different from our friends and neighbors, it was how we did things. The mix of cultural traditions from both my parents combined with a weirdly progressive idea of how children should experience the world made for an upbringing that I was keenly aware of as unique at an early age. I think like most artists, I've looked at the broader scope of traditions and rituals that are in the world to help me understand why that was significant (for both the teachers and the students) and what the place of rituals really is for a group, whether it is an entire country like Japan or just the small group known as my immediate family.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker on the return of the Danilov bells, some of the last church bells to ring in Russia after the onset of Stalin's Great Purge. The bells found a home at Harvard's Lowell House for decades, rescued and moved there by an American philanthropist. As with any cultural object, how the bells were made and how they were used in their native country did not necessarily translate to Harvard campus life. In Russian history and culture, church bells are thought to have a sonic power, not only through their signification of piety but the physical sound's ability to influence the mind and body of the listener. This deep-rooted belief was enough for Stalin to decide to melt most bells down into cannons and have the monks shot. As much as this paranoia sounds like actions of a megalomaniac, it is not the first time that a new regime has decided to establish itself through the eradication of a symbolic person or object, but the forced removal of an everyday sound from the cultural landscape. After the 1917 revolution, many of the Slavic sounds and letters found in Russian were banned by the government in order to erase that history from the new Soviet life.

Despite this, some objects continue to ask to be used in some form and take on a life outside of their original intended one. After they were hung in Lowell house and after a failed attempt to bring a expert Russian bell ringer to Harvard to carry on their original use and sound, a group of students took an interest in the bells and integrated them into their campus life. Klappermeisters, a group of Harvard students who took an interest in house traditions, chose to ring the bells for football victories over Yale, etc. Although it seems ridiculous that these privileged twenty-somethings were using the bells (cast to produce an untuned "voice," an overlay of partial frequencies and vague references to traditional pitches) to play rudimentary tunes like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," the fact that a new group banded together to attempt to create a new tradition with them is significant. It is a testimony to the strange power of the objects and the desire for a commonality that defines a loose association around a common belief or idea. As I stated earlier, the traditions of my family were not quite Irish or Filipino, not quite conservative upstate suburb or off the grid progressive, but they were something we had all organically come to recognize as things we did. Although they did not hold the original significance and were perhaps somewhat silly at times (I'm not sure if it's deeply moving to have a butter lamb, but that is something that we do at Easter time,) I think the comfort of knowing that the ritual is ours and that we all understand that is important.

The Danilov bells made their voyage back to the Danilov monastery and were rung again on March 17. A new set of bells was cast for Harvard's Lowell House and installed in their place, not replicas of the old bells but not traditional western church bells either. Patriarch Kirill I described the return as a transition from "an epoch of destruction and an epoch of creation."

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