single channel video (15 min.)
The film graphically displays the words of the Indian poets Kabir, Nammalvar, Basavanna, and Ramprasad Sen and thus enters into a dialogue with poetry, a dialogue between eternal India and the heart of a Western visionary in a “visual rhapsody of exquisite, luminous, slow-motion imagery. The film succeeds as few Western works have in revealing the complex reality that is India.” (Deidre Boyle, author,Video Classics)
Permanent Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1984)
Exhibitions / Featured:
·Selected for “Documenta 7”, Kassel, Germany (1985)
·Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, New York (1985)
Featured Retrospective, “Nouveau Cinema”, Montreal (1985)
Featured at Convergence Video Conference, Montreal
National broadcast on Austrian Television (1984)
National Broadcast on “New Television”/WNET 13, NYC (1991 and 1984)
·Work of Distinction, JVC Tokyo Video Festival
·Blue Ribbon at the National Video Festival, American Film Institute, ·Certificate of Merit, Video Culture, Canada
STEVE SEID REVIEW:
October 2, 2013The Way Forward: Steve Seid on Daniel Reeves from Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, jointly organized by SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), is on view at the CJM through October 27. Open Space presents a series of writings on works in the exhibition. Today’s post is from Steve Seid, who looks at Daniel Reeves’s Sabda in the context of his life and early work.
Everything can change in a moment.
For Dan Reeves, once a Marine stationed along the DMZ in Vietnam, that moment occurred on January 20, 1968, when his platoon was ambushed. Critically injured and witness to the death of many of his fellow soldiers, Dan recovered with difficulty from his wounds, then left the military. But from what god-fearing foxhole had he been birthed back into the world?
By the mid-seventies, Reeves had become an artist with a keen interest in the moving image, an image moving in its poetic departures and far-flung trepidation. His early video works, such as Thousands Watch (1979) and Body Count (1981), were cautionary collages that warned of a cultural proclivity for violence, for war without end. But these admonitions weren’t simply advice to the war-torn. This salve-like artistic impulse to save others also became salvation for the artist, in whom the deep disturbance of combat still festered.
The most remarkable work of Reeves’s martial period, Smothering Dreams (1981), restages the DMZ ambush, transported to some East Coast marsh. The crimson-stained scene is visited by a young boy, drawn to the spectacle of toy soldiers now made life-size. The reasoning is familiar: Our childish fascination with the things of “desperate glory” brings us nothing but suffering, a consequence unforeseen but irrevocably real. In musing further on this cruel tableau, the artist tells us: “It was the proof that God exists. On the other hand, I could look at the situation and say ‘God cannot exist if this can.’”
Inspired by PTSD (post theological simplicity disorder), Reeves embarked on a new and fruitful artistic path, one that combined a heightened visual poetic with the informing beliefs of eastern religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism. A diptych of spiritually sublime video works from 1983 and 1984, Amida and Sabda, was followed by the elegant but elegiac Ganapati: A Spirit in the Bush (1986), an essayistic paean to the majesty and abuse of the elephant (Ganapati is the elephant-headed Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles). All three works address both the woes and the transcendent possibilities of earthly existence. The words of medieval poets, sensual tempos, and lustrous images create a sense that the sacred can be summoned from within the material world.
Amida, says Reeves, “deals with the cycles of existence, with the fact that everything comes into being, is sustained for a while, diminishes, and dies away.” This cycle plays out upon the landscape of India, where fecundity lies beside the fallow, the lush beside the barren — light and dark, and in between, impermanence. A Buddha falls and is held suspended in rushing waters, visible in its impending erosion.
Sabda, on view in Beyond Belief, is another incantation of the sacred, and India again is the secular stage upon which man finds a kind of redeeming resignation. “Sabda,” by definition, is a holy utterance, a call out to the inner ear. If we are mindful, then perhaps the things of this world will become pleasurably light for a moment, one or many.Graphically displayed verse by the Indian mystic poet Kabir underscores the passage from acceptance to salvation.
“All things dying
These things Those things
that other in-between”
Images of ritualized labor, of farmers hand-threshing rice, hammering gongs, lugging loads across the countryside, become symbols of man’s drudgery on the “existence wheel.” The images themselves are processed with subtle digital delays, so that they appear to be phantom-like apparitions of a world suspended in time and drained of substance — a limbo where earthly laborers wait until enlightenment releases them.
“My legs are pillars.
The body, a temple.
The head, a cupola of gold.”
A recurring image, that of travelers lugging great loads along a tree-lined road, reiterates the burdensome nature of man’s — that is, unenlightened man’s — time on earth. “What can the poor road do?” asks the poet. The journey toward knowledge is our obligation, but the road, the path, can only offer its benign direction as “we stumble from wasteland to wasteland.”
This sense is further reinforced by one of Reeves’s most resonant images, that of a lordly elephant moving slowly through the arid landscape, dragging behind it a husky chain, anchored at the ankle. The iron tether (of man’s making) prevents the elegant beast’s liberation. It is this chain of toil that must be severed before its natural gait can be reclaimed.
For Dan Reeves, the artist, Sabda is the summation of an early effort to conjure the sacred in poetic form. For Reeves, the wounded soul, it is part of a practice of reclaiming one’s self from that moment when everything changed.
Steve Seid is Video Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Daniel Reeves reflects on SABDA
"Sabda" is a eulogy to the North Indian Bhakti poet Kabir and other Indian mystical poets. The title refers to "the word,” or the original sound that precedes and creates the universe of name and form in the Hindu cosmological order. Five dynamic Bhakti poems are interwoven with a continuous flow of images and sounds captured on location during a three month pilgrimage in 1983 to numerous sacred sites and ordinary locations throughout Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India. The artist worked in many places including Nasik, Ganeshpuri, Alandi and the Mahabalipuram Shore Temple complex near Madras now renamed Chennai.
Reeves used as his primary instrument an innovative broadcast electronic news gathering video camera and companion video recorder that had been released in 1983 by Sony Broadcast primarily for combat reportage and weighing over 45 pounds when mounted on a backpack. The ¾ “ umatic tapes held 20 minutes of material and were the size of a thick paperback book. Over 33 hours of sound and imagery were recorded during the journey.
Often using a soaring glide movement that dispensed with the use of the cameras view-finder the artist recorded life as he found it; unrehearsed and raw. In this manner he was able to capture details of temples, commercial centers and spiritual icons where beggars and Sadhus subsist on the leavings of the affluent in the golden shadow of opulence cast by towering and exultant architecture.
Sabda posits the coexistent and paradoxical Indian worlds of endless ubiquitous toil and suffering amid the remarkable joy, strength of character and fortitude of those millions who live from day to day with meager and hard scrabble provisions amounting to an enormously lamentable destitution.
As Sabda unfolds the Indian landscape, markets and urban situations and sacred devotional sites are revealed through images of rural Adivasi women and men harvesting rice, a full moon visible between two trees, Elephants and other wildlife in their natural habitats. Scenes showing street life and details of temples and spiritual icons depict elements of Indian life as it was 30 years ago. Special effects render figures in motion as fleeting, almost transparent images.
Sabda’s deepest intention is to pay tribute to the value of unadorned devotion and the tremendous courage of the women and men of the Bhakti movement who have sung that deeply euphoric harmony for over thirteen hundred years. Listen to Kabir in just one of his myriad ecstatic moods:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
you will not find me in the stupas, not in Indian shrine
rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals:
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding
around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but
When you really look for me, you will see me
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.
Trranslated by Robert Bly
Featured poetry is by Nammalavar (880 - 930 AD), Kabir (1398-1448 A.D.), Basavanna (1106-1167 A.D.), and Ramprasad Sen (1718-1785 A.D.).
In memory of my beloved wife Debra Schweitzer (February 1, 1958 - September 15, 2007) who took every dusty footstep and bone-shaking bus ride with me throughout India side by side with undiminished love, courage and joy. May you always be among the blessed dearest Bhavani.