A Q&A by Melissa Gordon
Sidereal Heart does not contain written words, at least as we typically understand them. It does not contain words written by humans…
—Ian Boyden on Sidereal Heart
I attended the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference with Poor Yorick staff member Jeannette Ronson and Poor Yorick advisor Brian Clements. As we set up our table in the book fair, we turned and found ourselves seated next to Ian Boyden and his book made from of a 4.5-million-year-old meteorite. We were astonished at the perfect fit we saw between this rediscovered object and our journal’s mission. Ian Boyden’s work attends to an awareness of ecological patterns. Through his paintings, sculptures, books, and photography, he captures a unique perspective of the world. There is a surreal sense of being combined with a respect for the larger world humans belong to when in the presence of Boyden’s work. He helps guide us toward developing an ecological awareness and appreciation through the materials he uses. The art he creates is rooted in the influence of East Asian aesthetics from his studies in Japan and China. Boyden also works as a curator, and from 1998-2007, he served as Director of the Sheehan Gallery at Whitman College, where he curated numerous exhibitions. Boyden has authored and co-authored several books and is currently working on a book on the history and production of carbon inks. Knowledge can be obtained in many ways; Ian Boyden shows us how we can look beyond words for wisdom.
PY: Ian, the book Sidereal Heart is fascinating. Can you describe your inspiration for its creation? How was this project born?
IB: The idea of making a book out of a meteorite came to me one day in late autumn of 1997 when I walked into the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It turns out this is a room for incubating unusual dreams. At its center rests Ahnighito, a 31-ton meteorite that fell on Greenland about 10,000 years ago. The gravity of such a huge piece of iron does strange things to the mind—especially when that piece of iron has fallen from the sky. That means something is up there. And other pieces might fall! On a wall adjacent to Ahnighito, an interpretive case displays several pieces of different types of nickel-iron meteorites that have been polished and etched to reveal what are known as Widmanstätten patterns. These patterns consist of interlacing octahedral minerals called kamacite and taenite that only form when nickel-iron cools at a rate of about one degree every million years. To me, these patterns look like text, like maps, like blueprints, like some sort of symbolic logic system. I wanted to translate these patterns. That day I lingered in that thought, wondering how I make such a thought explicit. I even wrote down a little note in my journal: “Must make book out of meteorite!” I was emphatic about all sorts of things during that part of my life. But that’s not really what you asked. Arthur Ross Hall was where the inspiration occurred. But how to describe the inspiration itself? This is difficult. From a very early age, I have been attracted to written forms of a variety of languages—Akkadian, Mayan, Egyptian, Chinese, you name it. And I like it even more when it is old—engraved on ancient stele, cast into bronze, written on scraps of papyrus. When I look at these texts, a feeling of wonder washes over me. Part of me wants to know what a given text says. But another part, a bigger part, wants to remain with not-knowing. I have puzzled for years about why I would rather remain in not-knowing. Not-knowing allows these pieces to function as rather pure conduits to meaning, or, better yet, non-meaning. Words rise and wither, but meaning does not. Or, perhaps, not-knowing allows me to remain with something else, and that is the act of attending to details, to subtle traces of the hand that appear to have the capacity to evoke the mind. I love these objects because they evoke a long history of minds, very distant from my own, that share similar appreciations. To describe the inspiration may, in fact, be describing the evolving texture of this experience. When I saw the patterns within the meteorites, I experienced a moment of epiphany. The pattern evoked the presence of a distant mind—and yet it wasn’t human. It was from the beginning of our solar system. All these patterns in my environment came crashing down around me—turtle shells, snowflakes, columnar basalt, the spiral of a storm, and so on. These are all patterns that speak to the dissipation of energy. To read on that level is an ecological opening, and invitation to transformation. I say “ecological opening” as if it were a noun. It’s better to approach this act as a verb. I want to enter into a state of constant opening in which I reside in my relationship to the world.
PY: Does Sidereal Heart continue to function as an ecological opening? And if so, can you describe that?
IB: Yes. But I want to be careful here. Part of opening and transformation lies in discovery—each of us having the delight of the discovery itself on our own, in our own way. I like it when those discoveries involve giant leaps—I treasure these leaps in a work of art, a poem, or piece of music. Sidereal Heart is a leap into deep space and time. For an ecological opening to occur and a concomitant shift to unfold in the mind, there has to be a set of discoveries made on one’s own. My experience is that for each step we take out into our environment, there is another step we take into our imagination. Each cantilevers the other. Each step we take allows for another set of associations to unfold. I don’t want to cripple or cut this journey for others by over-explaining Sidereal Heart. Doing so is taking ownership of something that needs not, should not, be owned. Maybe it is best to remain in the making and what occurred there and allow these to be pointers. Making and designing books, especially artist’s books, I am increasingly aware of the latent or potential ecological invitations they present. It is important to note that there are two large arenas of information within a book. One arena, the most obvious of the two, consists of words, images, or other forms of written language. This is the arena we “read,” to which we assign “authorship.” The other arena, often overlooked, consists of the material and structural content of the book. This is the arena we “feel” and to which we sometimes assign “craftsmanship.” This second arena is ecologically charged. Our decisions in this arena have a direct effect upon the earth. For instance, we cut a tree for paper, we burn oil for the carbon in the inks, mine the metals of a mountain for the printing press upon which the book is printed. This arena makes us aware of our own bodies. For instance, if the spine is too tight, we then fight to read the text as it falls into the gutter. If the type is too small, our eyes tire quickly. There are books that are bound with human skin, and holding one of those is unnerving to say the least. Talk about Poor Yorick! It is also this arena that recalls the larger world and its relationship to the imagination. For instance, the evocative smell of old books transports us to our childhood library or our grandmother’s house. An exposed wooden cover presents us with the pattern language of a tree. Sidereal Heart really mixes these two arenas up. One is, in effect, the other. I am asking you to read the very material of the book, the structure of the material. Whether it continues to function as an ecological opening is, of course, really up to the reader. Such openings by their very nature seem to close rapidly, leaving only a vestigial memory of the experience. To open the door again requires a consistency of practice.
PY: Sidereal Heart does not contain written words. What does this say about the potential experience of a book? What is it you hope to share with those who engage in your work?
IB: Sidereal Heart does not contain written words, at least as we typically understand them. It does not contain words written by humans, or even by what we might consider sentient. It is not a human-to-human transmission in the traditional sense. But, it is not absent of mind. It’s funny, I often try to get myself out of my work, let the art speak for itself. I thought this book was going to be the ultimate statement in this direction. Instead, I find it riddled with the Self; maybe it is a riddle of the Self. I thought the invitation was to engage the core of an asteroid, of a planetary body. It certainly is this, but I have also found that the invitation is to engage the Self. For each person, the reading unfolds as the geography of their own experience, their willingness or openness to take that journey. I certainly don’t want to dictate their journey any further than the structure I’ve presented. What do I hope to share? Of course, I want to share a meteorite and how immensely evocative meteorites are. Sharing links to intimacy. I love books because, in reading, I become intimate with thoughts of others. I also love books for their invitation to intimacy with material. You get to touch the paper, the leather of the binding, the smell of the ink. In this case it is the meteorite itself, a spectrum encompassing intimacy and being present. It allows you to see the bubbling of your own mind. You approach the meteorite and it is a meteorite. Then it becomes a book, a sculpture, a text, a mirror, a scientific instrument, a weight, an extinction, a poem, a piece of music, an emotion, a whatever-you-bring-to-it, and then after a while it returns to being a meteorite. This extends to all things. When I made this book a lot of really fantastic and mostly unanswerable questions flooded over me. Like what is our relationship to the core of a planet? Can we empathize with such vast time, with shifts in temperature like one degree every million years? How does our knowledge reside within gravity? To what extent is the Self a product of gravity? If a stone falls mysteriously from the sky, how does it change our ecology with the sky? What is the boundary between ecology and cosmology? Is that boundary important? Scientists theorize that meteorites introduced the amino acids into our early oceans that gave rise to life. So there is a relationship here to our very origins. And there exists abundant evidence that giant impact events have caused several of our mass extinctions. So, there is also a relationship to our potential demise. Fantastic stuff! Human ecology, the book’s ecology, the meteorite’s ecology—all overlap here.
PY: How were you able to obtain this meteorite? How old is it? I understand there were some issues with obtaining several imposter meteorites before you were able to put your hands on the real thing!
IB: Well, let’s start with the imposters. Over ten years elapsed from the time that I had the idea to when I actually made a meteorite book. When the opportunity finally presented itself, I realized that I didn’t really know how to obtain a meteorite. So, I turned to eBay. I bid on several meteorites without luck. Then, one day I won with a very low bid. I was terribly excited. I couldn’t believe my luck. I waited and waited. Nothing. I contacted the seller who responded in broken English that it was being shipped by sea. But it was theoretically being sold from San Francisco. I became mildly suspicious. About three to four weeks later it arrived. I unpacked it and could see quite clearly the casting line. This thing was a fake. Everyone was angry but me. I loved this thing, this faux meteorite. Meteor-wrong. What it means is that there are guys in China who make fake meteorites. We are living at a time when people are making things and passing them off as fragments from the birth of our solar system. This takes forgery to a whole new level. Talk about chutzpah! So, I bought another. And it was a fake, too. This time, I figured eBay might not be the best place for me. So, I began to write letters and make calls to meteorite collections and laboratories that process meteorites. I got little response. But then I called Marvin Killgore at the Southwest Meteorite Lab. I told him about my project and to my delight he said, “That’s a pretty cool idea. I think I can help you out.” And so started a really great friendship. He introduced me to meteorite hunters from all over the world—Russia, Sweden, Uruguay, Argentina, Morocco. Each and every one of them is a fascinating person, with amazing stories. I purchase my meteorites from these hunters. They all know about my project, and when they find a meteorite they think I might be interested in, they send me an email. And I have remained good friends with Marvin and often travel to Tucson to work with him in the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona. The meteorite used in Sidereal Heart is a fragment from a huge iron meteorite that fell about 4,000 years ago in Argentina. I bought it from an Argentinian dealer who found it. It’s about 4.5 million years old and is known as a polycrystalline coarse octahedrite.
IB: To make it into a book is a complex process. Every meteorite has its own unique shape, which means each book has to be made on its own. When I find a meteorite, I spend a lot of time with it, thinking about what the best orientation is for cutting it. Once I determine that, I build a jig that will hold the meteorite so it doesn’t move and I cut it into a given number of slabs. I then polish and etch each slab to reveal the metallurgical structure. I design the flanges that will hold them and have those cut with waterjet cutters, and I turn the parts of the spine on lathes. Working with stainless steel requires a great deal of precision and heavy machinery. Once the various parts are fabricated, I then begin the process of assembly. It takes many months to produce a single book.
PY: What are people’s reactions to the book when they touch it and turn the pages?
IB: Oh, all sorts of reactions. Most people are delighted by the encounter and are filled with awe, exhilaration, and an attendant disbelief. “Is this really a meteorite?” For the most part the viewers have never touched a meteorite, maybe never even thought of touching a meteorite. Touching the meteorite is one of the mystical parts of this project. In my experience, physical contact with a material changes the mind, but nothing I’ve worked with equals the meteorite in this regard. Almost instantaneously, the mind opens up to a world beyond our own. People who have encountered this book have subsequently gone on to major in astronomy, write me letters about seeing a shooting star, want to talk about dinosaur extinctions, Tunguska explosions, you name it. It is as if all this abstract material suddenly became visceral and personal. My favorite reactions happened when I first exhibited it in China. I was speaking to an audience of about 800 people about my work. The audience was really restless and pretty excited, as I was the first foreign artist to show there who could speak Chinese. They would begin talking amongst themselves until the din made it impossible for my voice to be heard. The moderator kept taking the microphone from me to ask the audience to be quiet and let me finish. When I started talking about the meteorite book, I had an assistant lift Sidereal Heart up, and the TV camera projected a huge image of the book on the screen above me. The Chinese audience went nuts. The moderator again took the microphone. I thought he was going to calm them down, but instead, he too was swept away in the moment and gave a fiery speech about how this was a book that only came about once in a thousand years, that they were in the presence of an immortal from the west, that what they were seeing was, in fact, a tianshu (天書), meaning a “book of heaven.” This is the highest Taoist compliment you can receive. And with that, there was no turning back and I was mobbed. Everyone wanted my signature. It was really terrifying. About thirty to forty minutes later, the crowd had thinned and I was able to breathe. I looked out and there were my Chinese friends laughing at what had happened. There are other reactions, too. I had one guy hold it to his head and declare I was a lizard person. Others are only concerned with the monetary value of the meteorite. There have been a few who have gotten rather surly about it not being a book. What can you say to them?
PY: You have received translations for Sidereal Heart in text from writers and other artists, correct? The variety of reactions must be intriguing.
IB: Yes. The invitation stands to anyone to translate this meteorite and send it to me. I plan to assemble these translations as an exhibition/book/event. I want to understand how meteorites occupy our collective material imagination.
PY: The uniqueness of Sidereal Heart is a representation of the open, explorative, and physical elemental expression that comes through in your art. Can you relate this book to your other work? How does it fit in?
IB: I have noticed a few patterns of thought that seem to surface in my work and process across various media. One that is particularly generative is a return to origins—what I call the Inchoate Zone. I like to see if I can find where an idea began and how it developed over time. What I’ve found is that these early manifestations are often filled with possibilities that get lost as an idea becomes more polished or formulaic. These early forms of ideas are like the bizarre fossils of the Burgess Shale. I love the reverberations of these early states. Closely related to this return to origins is my interest in figuring out how to make my materials on my own. For instance, I love ink on paper. I could easily go and buy ink from the store and did just that for many years. Then, about 12 years ago, I decided to make ink on my own. In so doing, I discovered a whole world I didn’t even know existed. Most recently, this interest led me to China to study with ink-makers in Anhui Province. Not only did this experience change my own ink-making, but I am now writing a manuscript on the subject. The material became the subject itself. My paintings, books, sculptures, installations all attend to material, in some cases to the extent that the material is the subject in and of itself. Sidereal Heart is of and about a material.
PY: The meteorite is almost as old as the solar system. It is a material of “origins.” How does the meteorite place you in a broader lineage of humanity? How does it connect with the history of the book?
IB: I have studied proto books from around the world—China, Greece, Sumeria, Egypt, Central America. Before paper and the codex binding, books came in all sorts of wild forms: stone stele, wax tablets, clay tablets, bronze vessels, cliff faces, and so on. These early books present a wonderful variety of ecological invitations. There are several that informed this book. For example, one of the earliest poems we have is the Song of Aten, inscribed on one of the Amarna Boundary Stele in Egypt. It is not really a stele; it is in fact carved into a cliff face and the inscription is outlined as a stele. It is one of 16 inscriptions that ring the sacred site of Amarna set up by Akhenaten and Nefertiti about 3,300 years ago. Taken as a whole, these 16 inscriptions comprise a “book,” albeit in an inchoate state, each page a cliff face. Reading this book requires you walk maybe 50 miles, up and down dozens of hillsides and cross the Nile River once or twice. The inscriptions are set up with alignments to the sun and to tombs and who knows what else. This “book” of cliff faces presents a magnificent ecological invitation. Its invitation is to skirt the boundary of the sacred site with your body. In so doing you become familiar with the geography, the geology, the crocodiles in the mud, with the seasonal positions of the rising and setting sun. The inscriptions show the sun as a god reaching out with myriad hands. So that glowing ball of plasma up there is sentient. If you travel with others and you chant or sing the inscriptions, you become familiar with the sound of your companions’ voices. Reading the book, therefore, generates a complex set of relationships, many of which are wholly outside the realm of text. And recently a meteorite was discovered in Akenaten’s tomb, and there is speculation that his establishing Atenism and building of Amarna had to do with that meteorite fall. He saw the meteorite as a piece of the sun. The idea of the sun having hands is really marvelous. Each page of a book is a hand reaching out to touch the fingers of the reader.
PY: In researching information on your website about your ink and materials, I stumbled across an image of skeleton in a painting. It is called Stargazer. In creating this piece, you used pigments derived from meteorites. Can you talk briefly about this piece?
IB: When tracing the origins of my materials, I keep ending up in supernovas. You, me, these paintings, the oxygen we’re breathing—all of the atoms were synthesized in super-giant stars and their explosive demise. In 1991, I had a job on the southern end of Baja taking care of 80 astronomers who had assembled there to witness a solar eclipse. It was a great job. I took them snorkeling and fishing during the day and then looked at stars at night. I don’t know why, but I find looking through telescopes really emotional. I hold my breath; I try to still my heart. I move my eye around the periphery of what I’m looking at to see if I can see it better. These are really subtle movements of the eye, but even such minute movements are filled with an intense mixture of awe, frustration, and doggedness. One night one of the astronomers turned his telescope to the Crab Nebula. I looked through the eyepiece and then this happened. The telescope and the group of people I was with dissolved, and I fell in love with a distant cloud of light. I wandered from the telescope down to the beach and found the waves glowing with phosphorescence. The sand was filled with it, and a glowing ring formed in the sand around each step I took. I had this overwhelming sense that these two events were linked but in a way I couldn’t grasp. The pressure of my foot upon the sand made these microorganisms glow not unlike the glow of the supernova shockwave that had just filled my heart. So maybe love is light released by a wave of energy. Years later, I wrote a letter to the Crab Nebula. It’s kind of a love note but intimately related to everything we’ve been talking about in this interview. But I drift. The painting: Stargazer. We are composed of materials generated in the death of a star, something utterly distant in time and space, yet thoroughly everything we are, everything we perceive, the matrix of our memory and consciousness. Whether we are looking at a tree or a distant star, we are what we are looking at. And when we look at material from the standpoint of entropy, we find that it is all drifting toward iron. So, I made a painting of a skeleton out of iron meteorite dust looking back up at its origins. It’s not a memento mori. It’s a memento entropía.
IB: I’m working on several projects. I’m making a set of new paintings featuring pigments sourced from a class of meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites. These meteorites contain materials older than our sun, some of which contain evidence of the supernova shockwave that triggered the formation of our sun. I’ve been painting into that narrative. Here’s a photograph of one of those paintings titled Elemental Mandala.
For more information visit Ian Boyden’s website: http://ianboyden.com. All images courtesy of Ian Boyden Studios.