How to Get the Magic Back

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Each weekend of the summer I try to take a long bike ride to some part of the city I’ve never been to.

I do this for three reasons. It’s several hours of exercise that doesn’t feel like exercise. It also gets me out doing and seeing things, which makes me feel like I’ve used the day well.

The third reason is that looking at new things, even if they’re just new streetcorners or deer trails, helps me recover a certain uncomplicated way of looking at things that used to be automatic when I was a kid.

To select a destination, I use an obscure app called Randonautica, which creates an X-marker somewhere on a map of the city. The app’s “About” section says it chooses this location through “theoretical mind-matter interaction paired with quantum entropy to test the strange entanglement of consciousness with observable reality.” It says the app’s users, when they arrive at their prescribed locations, often find “serendipitous experiences that seemingly align with their thoughts.”

I assume this is tongue-in-cheek nonsense and that the co-ordinates are random. However, the place it tells you to go is indeed a real corner of the physical world. When you arrive at the spot, it never looks how you might have pictured it, and usually you witness something there that seems oddly significant.

The first time it sent me to a creekside clearing, where I saw a strange black glob in the water that turned out to be a mass of tadpoles. Another time it sent me to a gravel back lane near where I used to live, at a spot where someone had written “DAD!” on the fence in some kind of white resin. Another day it took me to a book-exchange box containing only children’s books and Stephen King’s Tommyknockers.

Wherever it sends you, there’s always something there that seems charged with a small amount of cosmic significance, even if it’s just a particularly charismatic patch of dappled sunlight, an abandoned shopping list with unusual items on it, or some other superordinary sight akin to the twirling plastic bag in American Beauty.

Waiting for you to look up

The trick here is that there’s always something significant, poignant, or poetic everywhere you look, if your mind is in that certain mode – so rare for adults — of just looking at what’s there, without reflexively evaluating or explaining the scene. A mystery co-ordinate in an unfamiliar neighborhood gives you few preconceptions about what you’re going to find there, so the mind naturally flips into this receptive, curious state that’s so natural for children.

I sometimes call this state “art gallery mode,” because of a trick I learned from an art history major. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, browsing famous abstract paintings by Pollock, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and other artists whose swirls, rectangles, and blobs are regarded as masterpieces.

I said something like “I like some of these but I’ve stopped pretending to know what they mean.”

He told me not to bother figuring out what they mean. “All you’re supposed to do is look at it, and notice the feeling it gives you. That’s it.”

This improved my experience immediately in at least two ways. It relieved a kind of inner pressure, which I hadn’t noticed I was feeling, to understand what I’m looking at. I didn’t have to think about what the artist was trying to say, or even think about artists or art at all. I didn’t have to “get it,” or try to look like I get it. All I needed to do was look at what was there and let it affect me in exactly the way in happened to. This is something any human mind can do –- it doesn’t need to be endowed with any special knowledge or insight.  

Definitely endowed with something

Besides simplifying the activity of looking at art, this way of looking opened a window onto a sort of inner palate -– a field of emotional tastebuds, if you will — that was operating in the background all the time. Everything you look at imparts a unique emotional flavor, which can be noticed only if you’re just looking at the thing, and cannot be noticed while you’re trying to figure out what it means or why they made it or why someone paid for it. 

Looking at things in art gallery mode made the museum into a sort of advent calendar of unique emotions. Each painting or sculpture was a little door with a surprise inside. What feeling will this one give me? What about that one?

I was surprised to discover that this approach worked on everything I looked at in the Met — not just the canvases featuring swirls and blobs, but also stodgy portraits of European aristocrats, white Roman statues, and rococo furniture.

It even worked outside the museum. Art gallery mode can give an air of poetry to pigeons fighting over spilled fries, or make a filthy subway sign look like the opening shot of a movie.

Art gallery mode is mostly just a matter of looking at the form in front of you, and categorically dismissing any trains of thought that come up about the thing – explanations, suspicions, shoulds and shouldnt’s. You just come back to the image itself and let it transmit its impression, if it has one for you. If not, move on. There’s so much else to see, in the museum and in the world.

A thing, seen

I think this is something to play with in an art gallery and then take it into real life. Art is relatively easy to look at this way because it usually comes in self-contained paintings or sculptures, and often doesn’t suggest much about why it’s there or what you might do with it.

Out in the world, the purpose of objects is more obvious, and our inner rolodex of explanations and inferences is easily triggered. An old concrete curb and its spongelike dimples might make you think of public works funding. A mailbox might make you think of letters you have to send. In the gallery, however, instead of familiar utilitarian objects, you see a hot pink railroad tie hanging from wires and you don’t know why the hell it’s there. Once you give up the fool’s errand of “getting it,” you can just see it, automatically feeling any significance it has for you. It becomes that haunting shot in a film again.

What the artist was thinking is mostly trivia. Sometimes there’s some interesting historical and personal context to read about, once you know you like Matisse or Andy Warhol or Frida Kahlo. But in that initial encounter, that information is only going to take away from the raw looking. Read the little plaque beside artworks at your peril. It always turns out that the pink railroad tie is some ham-handed statement about class conflict or consumerism. The official explanation, whenever there is one, is usually a letdown.

Frida, just looking, at you

When you get the hang of art gallery mode, you can flip it on as a comfortable default whenever you’re out and about in the world. It’s certainly more fulfilling than the habitual mental analysis you might fall into otherwise. Art gallery mode can restore much of the majesty of terracotta buildings, murals, and wrought-iron gates — and also of robins, dandelions, and rivers –- which might otherwise feel like old hat to an adult who’s ostensibly seen it all before.

This mode of looking might remind you of the way the world appeared when you were a kid, when long explanations were foreign artifacts from the dry and distracted world of grownups, and it was the shapes and textures of things –- and the feelings they gave you — that mattered.


Photos by Mick Haupt, David Cain, JC Trujillo, Edgar Chaparro, and Tim Mossholder