Cheimonette

Artwork and writing by Eden Gallanter.

Eden is a professional artist, author, and scientist, and is the creator of the Cheimonette Tarot, sold in over 30 countries, across 6 continents.

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Artifact

This is a monthly art-related (or at least art-adjacent) post about what I've been doing and thinking about. Welcome to the month of August!

General News

1. One of my tarot paintings, "Love" was accepted to a group exhibition at The Studio Door in San Diego! It will be on view from August 3rd to 26th. If you're one of my tarot customers and live in the area, it's really worth seeing the original painting, and it looks like it's going to be a wonderful show!

2. My drawing "The Sparrow and the sparrows" is up on view at Arthaus Projects gallery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania! Exhibition closes on August 11th.

3. I am participating in San Francisco Open Studios this year! Open Studios is a series of five weekends where local artists open their studios to the public and sell their art. The weekends are divided up by neighborhood, and my weekend is November 3rd and 4th. If you're going to be in the bay area, mark your calendars and PLEASE COME! I'll be posting more details as the event gets closer.

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (https://www.jessicapalopoli.com/

Painting in my home studio, photo by Jessica Palopoli (https://www.jessicapalopoli.com/

It's been a weird weekend. Over the last year, I succeeded in tracking down the movie that scared the everloving shit out of me when I was four years old, and I finally watched it last Saturday night.

If you ever have the opportunity of revisiting movies (or stories, songs, amusement park rides, pictures, or any other innocuous thing whose fearsomeness derives from the unformed and imaginative mind of the very young), I recommend doing so. You will find that you remembered some parts with surprising precision, and that other parts (in my case, most other parts) were largely fabricated. It is a glimpse into how utterly unrecognizable the same event can be when experienced by different people. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us can communicate with each other at all.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Me wearing my favorite elephant bathing suit (I still think the Pink Elephants song from "Dumbo" is one of the best things Disney has ever done), summer of 1983.

Now, of course, you would like to know what the movie was.

Embarrassingly, it was "The Horror at 37,000 Feet", widely known (among Shatner fans, at least) as William Shatner's worst movie—a made-for-TV production that first aired in 1973. The plot featured a haunted airplane, and ended relatively tamely, with two gore-free human deaths and one frozen dog. It was apparently still making the rounds on one evening during the summer of 1983, when my parents took me to their friends' home for a dinner party. The household children, who were several years older than me (and I imagine were secretly hoping to be entertained by putting a little kid into hysterics) were clustered around the TV, and of course I joined them. It appears I made it through almost the whole movie before silently leaving the room and rejoining my parents.

I need hardly say that William Shatner's worst movie was not, on second viewing, especially scary. The interesting part wasn't the movie, it was watching prototypes of all my nightmares since age four march across the screen for 90 minutes. Although I had apparently invented several scenes, my inventions had done a strangely excellent job of capturing the story and the characters' state of mind—better, in fact, than the actual movie did.

To conjoin a pair of disparate dictionary definitions of the same word, "artifact" (an unintentional or meaningless by-product of, say, a scientific experiment or photograph) turns out to be a valuable treasure-trove of historic information. Making up stories is an essential part of the pattern-recognition processes of the executive system. Our minds come up with a plausible narrative about what is going on and even who one is. These narratives never quite match with reality, but that is not their purpose. Without our stories, we would not be able to learn, to remember, to sympathize with others, to recover from negative emotions, or even to recognize ourselves. We would have no coherent identity.

I'm not exactly saying that such mental artifacts are either desirable or destructive—it really depends on the mind that's making them, I guess. Although every story we can think of is in some sense true, not every story is equally useful. However, I am surprised by how often our memories turn out to be deeply insightful fabrications, if that makes sense. Because isn't this, too, a form of art? Isn't reconstructing reality in a more human-sized way, in a way that distills its importance and meaning for us, what art is? And our minds do this all the time—it is fundamental to our functioning in the world. Many scientists even argue that this storytelling part of the brain is the cornerstone of consciousness.

LOCUST X LOCUST ( Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia )

LOCUST X LOCUST (Chortoicetes terminifera x Robinia pseudoacacia)

Speaking of finding important truths in trite places, the idea for my latest painting came from a misunderstanding I have always cherished. When I first heard the word "Locust", I thought the teacher had said "hocus" (as in Hocus Pocus). The association is now immovable; I always think of magic—of fairytale, joyfully implausible magic—when I hear the word Locust. Magic then becomes the foundation for all the word's other associations: penny-slice leaves clattering in the breeze (the black locust tree), destruction and ruin (the plague locust insect), species invasion (the tree), the dry, muffled snapping sound of the swarm (the insect), creamy and delicately scented cascades of blossoms (the tree), the judgment of God upon Egypt in the Book of Exodus (the insect), and so on.

The best part of making something new is always over as soon as it is finished. Artists and makers who feel the way I do tend to make the most intricately detailed things, because we don't ever want it to end. More opportunities for new artifacts, too.

The Bridge Between Love and Death

There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.

-Margaret Atwood

Let's say that fiction is a vital component of human existence.

If so, poetry, art, music, dancing, and so forth is all merely part of a natural drive to exalt our limited personal experience beyond what we call real life—the practical parameters of our survival as living, social creatures. Fiction can be created everywhere: putting on makeup, lying to your father, magic tricks, having a crush on a movie star, playing chess. Fiction is ready to come out and play at the least excuse. Fiction is art, it is beauty, it is a wonderful game that everybody wins. Larp (live-action role playing) is literature, except it is created by a group of people in real time instead of by, say, a haggard-looking, brilliant, overcaffeinated, godlike Author who, without involving himself in the convoluted drama of his characters’ lives, creates, peoples, and finally perfects his little world before releasing it into the wilds of the public imagination. In larp, the creator and the beholder are one.

So what do we need fiction for? We need it to fill in the gaps. Even scientists couldn’t do much of anything without theorizing, and nobody could do anything at all without stitching all the bits and pieces of what-we-know-for-sure together with our untested ideas, our wishes, our delusions, or our educated guesses.

The endless procession of marriages between what is true and what is beautiful.

And the one fact of existence that, alone among all others, is surrounded by the widest chasms of unknowability, is that all existence must come to an end.

There are only two views which correspond to the duality that is man: animal and spirit. According to the one the task is to live to enjoy life, and put everything in to this. The other view is: the meaning of life is to die.    

 -Søren Kierkegaard

This year I played two larps about death. The first one, “The White Death”, lasted about an hour. The second game, “Just a Little Loving”, took three days. It wouldn’t be right to compare the two games as equals—while both were extremely important experiences for me, the White Death specifically prepared me to have the incredibly lasting and profound experience I had in Just a Little Loving.

Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

Photograph of an art installation by William Forsythe, photo by Julian Gabriel Richter.

The White Death is about mortality and immortality. It is an abstract, wordless game based on an allegory about a group of settlers trying to set up a community in the mountains, but dying off one by one when winter storms hit. In it, death was a release from suffering and circumscribed consciousness. We all began the game as human beings (miserable, ineffective, and hopelessly restricted to base animal drives), and we were given several props to work with: white balloons, white sugar, and white paper, representing dreams, survival, and faith, respectively. These provided us with a way to develop a relationship to our own death. My character, like all the other “humans”, had a random and unique physical disability, and several meaningless prejudices (mine were a hatred of people taller than me, and an attraction to people with brown eyes). From the beginning of the game, my character had decided that life wasn’t worth living. She clung to her dream and her faith as desperately as the others held onto survival. Standing still in the midst of a cluster of stumbling, moaning humans, she held onto her white balloon gently but persistently.  And when a tall man with blue eyes took it away from her, she began to wail, and then they both wept together, sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, sharing a single dream between them.

In retrospect, I think this character was about my experience with a dear friend of mine, who had been struggling with depression, addiction, and suicide for a very long time. In many ways, she and I are very much alike, and we became close in the autumn of 2013. Life had been hard to her, and I wanted so much to help, and in order to do that I tried to feel for myself that hopelessness and its drive towards suicide. I saw it could be welcomed as the ultimate release from suffering. A life without hope of real human connection, with only the inevitability of suffering and failure, would truly be unbearable. I liked to think that I would find mere consciousness its own reward, even if life held no warmth or happiness for me, but I found out, in the White Death, that of course this could not be the case. I might beguile myself with empty dreams and unwritten beliefs, but it would be presumptuous to imagine that I could generate all my own happiness. My character wanted to be free of the oppressive, meaningless loneliness of life. And when I was finally drawn into the darkness by the dead, I was freed of my human disabilities and prejudices, and the first human I welcomed into the afterlife was the man who had stolen my dream, because he had sat down next to me and wept, too.

The White Death was a truly hopeless world, and I think that’s exactly what major depressive illness feels like. But the world we live in doesn't have to be meaningless, and depression and addiction are not, in fact, hopeless conditions. My friend remains one of the most wonderful people I have ever met—imaginative, creative, curious, brilliant, and breathtakingly artistic. The world is a more beautiful place because she is still here. The White Death was an immaculate death, one that freed us from our suffering, hopeless, and dying bodies. The living color of the mortal world was to us only an impurity, which would be inexorably subducted beneath the perfect, lifeless, crystalline structure of the snow that covered the blessed dead. I grew less afraid of death after this game, more accepting of it, and, I hope, more understanding and forgiving of the darker side of the human mind that seeks to die.

                Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

                Me as Francis, a gay man and professional modern dancer living in New York City. He was age 24 in 1982.

             By contrast, Just a Little Loving was full of life and color. Death was real, but we needed to make the most of whatever time we had left, in order to be together. The very structure of the game was oriented towards living, and even suffering was just another way to interact with others, to deepen a character and add even more meaning to his or her life. Death was not a beautiful release, it was just the end. If you died, your character was gone and a new character would be given to you, with all your former connections effectively destroyed.

And this world wasn’t abstract at all; it was real. New York City, 1982-1984: the specter of AIDS. My character was a young gay man named Francis, who had come from a terrible childhood where he was neglected, abused, and ultimately rejected by his family, but who, in spite of everything, had made a good life for himself. He had a stable relationship and was well-liked among his friends. He had a brilliant dancing career, a close-knit community in the drag scene, and meaningful counseling work at the LGBT Center. When the first rumors of the “gay cancer” arose, he couldn’t run away, as he had from his destructive family life. He had to confront the new danger while remaining devoted to his identity as a gay man and to those he cared about. He had a very fine line to walk between putting himself and his community at risk, and loving the gay community the way he wanted to, using the only the available, insufficient facts about HIV to make such decisions. He lost a great deal to this terrible epidemic, and through no real fault of his own. He lost dear friends, he lost his relationship, and he even lost part of his own identity.

Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis in drag in 1983, with his boyfriend Tony the DJ in back. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis with his "mama" the Queen of Manhattan, watching in front. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

The three days of this larp are really three years—annual 4th of July parties, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, set in Saratoga, NY—and Francis transformed dramatically between that second and third year, when his boyfriend Tony left him without saying goodbye, falling into heroin addiction and HIV, and when the science around AIDS finally produced better prevention data and an HIV test. Francis developed a great deal of courage, and matured from a lighthearted boy, trying to keep the monsters in his past at bay, into a strong young man, more serious about the work and people that matter to him, more generous with his love, and more brave in his vulnerability. On the one hand, he felt he didn't have much more to lose. On the other, further loss would have been devastating. He managed to blend his fierce independence with a beautifully raw emotional intensity. He became strong enough to intentionally lay himself open to being hurt, in pursuit of genuine honesty and generosity towards those he loved.

In the third act Francis tried to give back, not just to the gay community as a whole, which he now did every day in his counseling work at the New York City LGBT Center, but to his friends. Trusting and being trustworthy was both very simple and very frightening. He had an unshakeable belief in those he cared for—the support and love he had to give was always real. This realness was a liability for him, but he took a leap of faith by offering his simple, trustful friendship.

If the community he loved was really going down in flames, than he was going with them, with no regrets. He lit a sky lantern for Reginald with his Club Diamond family, holding hands, helping them let go. He sat with Diane and listened to her romance woes. He kissed Nate, calling him "mama", telling him how beautiful he was. He hugged Marcus and told him he was going to be wonderful up there. He blew kisses to everybody who said hello. He supported his best friend Artie, who always came to him for help and whose loneliness touched him deeply. He promised loyal friendship and assistance to Tony, who finally came to Francis and Artie, apologizing for the way things ended and asking for help getting off drugs and into a better life. He watched every last person at the party seek forgiveness, or resolution, or hope, or redemption, and he felt with them all.

And then he stood up on the stage, and with everyone watching him, sang a love song to Daniel, who had left Club Diamond to work on a cure for AIDS. It was a song without demands or expectations. Francis was offering love without strings attached, without making Daniel have to choose between having a life purpose and living a beautiful life.

Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

Francis dancing with the Club Diamond queens on the last night, 1984. (photo by Petter Karlsson)

"I love you," said Francis, afterwards.

"I'm positive," said Daniel.

And Francis didn't even flinch.

            On the last morning, at the time of the lottery of death, Francis felt absolutely frozen. He thought of Tony, addicted, homeless, and now HIV positive too. He thought of his new relationship with Daniel. He thought of Nate and Walter, his beloved surrogate parents at Club Diamond, both HIV positive. He thought of his dear friend Reginald who he had lost to AIDS the year before. Francis felt like he was looking out of a deep, cold tunnel. In his mind, they had already left him, and he was alone on the grass sobbing, as defenseless as he had once been as an abandoned child. And this time, there was no hiding behind a fortress of ruthless independence, flying free of life's cruelty and insisting that he never needed anything from anybody. He had chosen this community and thus acknowledged his own longing for them.

And it was unspeakably frightening to want something so much.

He walked to the graves, holding the hand of the man he loved, staring at the grass and feeling a million miles away, carrying funeral flowers for as-yet-undetermined fallen comrades, sure that he was about to lose everything and feeling utterly defenseless. He thought, I will die if they die. These people are my life.

He held on to Daniel's hand as if it was the one thing keeping him from drowning.

And then he let Daniel's hand go, and walked among the coffins.

And the names inside did not belong to him or to his dearest friends.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. Maybe he smiled. Maybe he kissed Daniel. Maybe he went to each of his friends and embraced them. Maybe he cried.

I don't think he did any of those things, though—I think he just laid his flowers on the dead, and gently touched the shoulders of those who were mourning, and found Daniel's hand again.

And the funeral song played, and pieces of his heart shattered and flew out to join the bereaved, and Daniel and Francis slow-danced to Dusty Springfield's song "Just a Little Loving", and Daniel said, for the first and last time, "I love you", and the game was over.

The Little Room in the Tower

bridgeIt’s been a while since I posted, and longer since I posted anything personal. The last few months have been some of the most difficult of my adult life. It would not be right to go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that it consisted of a wintertime compression chamber of family disasters, heartbreak, the death of a friend, trauma, career upheaval, leaving my beloved warehome and living for several months on the kindness of my friends. I don't mean to sound overly dramatic here; I know that there is a huge and terrible world of worse things that could have happened, and I have been, and continue to be, very fortunate. However, I cannot honestly say that it wasn't all that bad. It was. I could have gotten through these past months without the support and generosity of my friends, but I am so unbelievably glad I didn’t have to. You all know who you are: thank you times one hundred thousand, with my whole heart. I always thought that an apocalypse would be explosive and full of energy, like the Big Bang or like the beginning of life. Beginnings hurt too—you are so very vulnerable, and in a sense, each beginning is entirely new. In a fundamental way, past experience doesn’t roll over. You have to build it all right from the ground, all over again.

wishing wellThe end of the world, as it turns out, can be very quiet and still. The explosions towards the end are harbingers of the world's demise, but ultimately, everything just freezes out. The end of the world is an artic tundra wasteland. Trauma can be like that: quiet and still and exhausted. There is really nothing left, nothing to orient yourself or build on. Nothing. You have to figure out where and who you even are before you can do anything else.

Of course, my own apocalypse was something I had taken part in, especially the career, heartbreak, and living situation stuff. It wasn't a natural disaster, a thing that happens outside of human control (people running screaming from their homes as clouds of burning smoke pour from the city). Much of the former life I had before so much collapsed was something I had helped to set in motion and worked hard to build. As the months progressed, though, it felt like a floodplain riverbed in a monsoon, as though natural forces had indeed taken over after all. I could see where the river was headed, and all I could do was try to keep ahead of it so I didn’t drown.

The nice thing about a disaster is that it leaves many of the strongest parts behind: the foundations, the well-made buildings, the best salvage, the most resilient materials, the toughest trees, those who were clever or prepared or just plain lucky. The things left behind always mean something. You can read the ruins like a book, and you can build a whole new world out of them.

So that’s what I’m trying to do.  Art has always been at the foundation of my identity, so I am trying to forge a new career, one that synthesizes my interests in math, ecology, cities, literature, mythology, and philosophy. I’m not couchsurfing with friends any more, I’ve got a sublet in a wonderful warehouse in Emeryville full of excellent people: artists, hackers, leaders, organizers, craftspeople, all talented, inspiring folks who have made me feel welcome and at home. It’s a good place to be while I work on figuring out where to live long-term.

I really want a home, as it turns out. I want a place where I can work and live with a handful of friends who are interested in sharing living space, making art, and doing other kinds of creative work in which they find real value. I want to build friendships and partnerships that are about trust and inspiration and adventure and collaborative work and shared ideals and mutual support. I want to bring comfort and happiness to my family without compromising who I am, or the ambitions I have for my life.

towerTowers are symbols of human ambition and achievement. They are frequently torn down by natural disasters and human frailty, but we keep on building them. The risk of danger at the top of a tower is not the same as the danger at the bottom of a wishing well (sitting alone in the dark, in the dust, quiet and safe and dying of thirst). Towers, being as they are the human effort to reach beyond the capabilities of our minds and our mortality and the shortness of our lives, carry the risk of immortality. If you turn into a bird in that room at the top, you can’t turn back. You can never really go back (always the blessing and the tragedy of mortal existence, rolled into one).

So here’s to home, and to the human condition: mostly a matter of negotiating what to build on the forgiving surface of the earth and what to build inside myself. I’m still doing the best I can.

The Artist's Legend

There are some metaphorical concepts at that lie at the core of many of the images than run through the Cheimonette Tarot. I saw René Magritte’s legend last week, at his special exhibit at the MOMA: a mirror, a bird, a ribbon in a bow, an apple, a bowler hat, a candle, all collected on one canvas, for the benefit of his beloved observer. So, here is mine, explained for my best beloved reader, and you can add your own, and we can make our own language together in this way: high:deepThere are deep things and there are high things.

Deep things, being either underground, underwater, or buried burning within the core of some star or singularity, are slow-moving and silent. They take on the aspects (the surge current, the echoing crunch of seismic uplift and subduction, the blinding glow of irradiated atomic fusion) of their environments, and express their identity by a profoundly isolated and recursive imagination. In the way that the infinite field of postulated “collapsed” Calabi-Yau dimensional spaces take up no space and yet exist at every point in the universe, deep things each contain their own, disconnected little internal worlds.

High things have their own mass, their own energy and their own gravitational field. They do not take on the aspects of their environments because those environments have no size or shape of their own. Biological or tectonic forces keep the surface of the earth in a state of flux, and by the time we rise up into the stratosphere and beyond, the crowd of molecules and their motions have thinned out to a bare minimum.

Therefore there are only two directions in the whole world in which we may move: higher and deeper.

X: The Wheel

There are eight spokes in the tenth card in the major arcana, The Wheel. At the end of each spoke, where a limb of an angel terminates, there is an icon. This is the eight-letter pictogrammatical alphabet of the Cheimonette Tarot.

appleThe Heart-Apple: the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  This is the ability particular to human understanding, in which we are able to grasp our position in relation to the world, and exert ourselves to change it. (This tree is also known as the tree of death.)

flowersThe Mandala-Flower: the fruit of the tree of life. This is the temporary escape from the demands of biological existence we find in profound feeling and creative understanding. This flower, when eaten, is also called freedom.

moonThe Crescent Moon: the sign of truth. Not only is truth not always beautiful, it is not always even righteous. It is simply the course of events along the inexorable passage of time.

godThe God Sign: the mark of a divine concept or entity that cannot change or die. Really a rough zero and one, placed together like a phi.

real eyeThe Real Eye: the symbol of life. Life is to be understood as the whole arc, from understanding and joy to suffering and intellectual darkness. Life as an opportunity, life as an adventure, life as a cruel trap, life as a responsibility: all of these.

false eye

The False Eye: the symbol of death. Death may also be understood to be eternal life (in which life is not life, but a changeless observation tower in which the corporeal body transforms into a bird and never returns to the mortal coil of existence and non-existence).

zeroThe Bubble: the number zero. Like all bubbles, zero is a potential event and trajectory that has not yet happened: a star that has not yet exploded, an egg that has not yet hatched, an eye that has not yet opened.

oneThe Helix: the number one. A 1 curled up on itself, this number is both linked with numerical concepts such as zero and infinity, and also the beginning of all real numbers, which constitute the set of the visible universe. One is the integer who makes its debut into the world of flux, change, and chaos in which we find ourselves.

(Author’s Apology:

This world that surrounds us is in fact not self-made, but in our own subversive way we create another world out of differentiated labels (this is how language is made).  We are nothing but helpless children in the midst of the lovely and fascinatingly unfamiliar light projections of our dreams, which we can of course never touch but which we mindlessly worship as the truth.  What we are constantly forgetting is ourselves, holding out our palms sadly to one another and each of us wasting our desire on these things, which have been created by us, after all, and are not in themselves real and cannot compare to the indescribable beauty of their creators.)

Copyright 2014 - Cheimonette