A Plea For Mercy In A Time Of War: John Lyon Paul’s Work In Progress
by Paul Sawyer
In the center of the workshop, three pale, massive wooden shapes hover together, bound by iron. They are shackled by hoops, pierced by spikes, garlanded by chains, overtopped by clamps and a shape that looks like a scythe. One of the tree trunks has been sawn asunder, its two halves standing eternally ajar. The sense of constriction is reinforced by the base: six visible iron wheels enclosing six others within, which if they moved could only move in an endless circle, like an infernal machine.
More than any of his other works, this sculpture reveals John Lyon Paul’s gift for endowing abstract forms with metaphorical richness and uncanny affective power. The iron elements seem to gesture to all experiences of public torture and huddles pain. One thinks of Northrop Frye’s catalogue of demonic imagery in literature: “engines of torture, weapons of war, armor, and images of a dead mechanism which, because it does not humanize nature, is unnatural as well as inhuman… Here too are the sinister counterparts of geometrical images: the sinister spiral…the sinister cross, the sinister circle, the wheel of fate or fortune.” By contrast, the three shapes, sanded and smooth and gently undulating, seem to be made of human flesh (even the knots look all-too-human, like blemishes of bruises). Are they victims bound on a cart headed for the guillotine? Or are they enduring an endless imprisonment? When only two shapes are visible, they unmistakably resemble the Twin Towers.
In fact John conceived Many Thousands Gone during a visit to New York City – but eighteen months ago – well before September 11. As the accompanying sketch shows, he scribbled out the basic design on hotel stationery. His title is the famous, haunting refrain of the Negro spiritual No More Auction Block; the primary reference, therefore, is to the American national tragedy of slavery, and the trunks suggest a family shackled together. Thus, while the iron elements suggest all forms of bondage and torture, the whole structure suggests the public side of victimization – the body offered up to view. Most broadly, as John describes the work in a portfolio, it stands as “a remembrance of and tribute to all those named and unnamed individuals who were victims of another’s violence.”
In its emotional eloquence, Many Thousands Gone recalls a number of John’s earlier works. Next door, for example, is Momento Mori (Moment of Death) – a pair of rough-hewn beams mounted on an iron platform and secured at the ends by iron hoops; there too, the pathos derives from the formal contrast between iron and wood (see Bookpress, February 2002, pp 6-7). And in St. Francis’ Shrine, the central figure – constructed, among other things, out of a target used for rifle practice, with an exploding crimson orbit in the area of the hear – confronts the viewer who in turn confronts the saint through a glass plate etched with cross-hairs. Subtly, John positions the viewer as potential participant in the endless cycle of violence. (The Shrine, though dedicated to peace, bristles with arrows and dances with the red dots of the stigmata.)
Many Thousands Gone also positions the viewer, but in a more dramatic way. The work is in fact unfinished. In its final form, the bare tree-trunks will be covered with a ruddy pelt of nails. John in inviting each visitor to his studio to drive a nail into the wood using specially prepared hammers, to be forged from actual artifacts of violence – hand guns, land mines, animal traps, a shard of the World Trade Center, a piece of a Nazi submarine, and so forth. Visitors will therefore participate in a double action: completing the sculpture, and performing a ritual that is central to the total aesthetic experience. That gesture is as rich in metaphor suggestion as the artwork itself. The act of hammering a nail into flesh obviously recalls the Crucifixion, but at the same time, the vast number of nails needed to cover the work – about half a million – points not to a single emblematic event, but to the sheer multitude of history’s victims, the unnumbered who have gone before. John writes: “Each nail may be driven as a prayer, a blessing, a vow, or in remembrance of an individual, a group, or an event in which there was a willful violation of another being.” Thus, in its monumental simplicity, Many Thousands Gone, like St. Francis’ Shrine, focuses on the intersection of love and destruction; violence, symbolically re-enacted, turns into its opposite, and a monument of pain slowly metamorphoses into a prayer for peace. The work therefore surveys all time, but belongs urgently to our dangerous present moment. The words incised on the steel base read: “May the closed fist of violence become the open hand of mercy.”
Several people have begun to record the strong emotions evoked during their visits. Helene Hembrooke wrote: “The physical force and motion [of the hammer] coupled with my own anger, felt momentarily like retaliations…which was at once both sickening and satisfying. Those blows were for my pain. With successive blows I was reminded of all the others who would drive their nails to represent their stories of violence…Driving my nail was a statement of permanence, recognition, and, ultimately, forgiveness.” Carri Jean, another visitor, wrote: “Blow after blow I felt some sense of atonement as the nail pierced deeper and deeper into the soft tissue of the massive trunk. Acknowledgement. Sadness. Release. Relief. Like a deep cry all cried out that leaves nothing left, but room for Grace.”
In its final form, John plans to surround the present structure by six “witness” figures of similar design, also perhaps covered by nails, in a hexagonal room whose walls will bear five Peace Tablets (a door will be in the sixth wall). The tablets are already in place. These five low-relief sculptures of black concrete, shaped like gravestones and decorated with varying patterns of circles and extending rods, form a stark contrast to the overpowering expressionism of the central group. In their somber beauty and classical understatement, the Peace Tablets seem at once to denote and confer the peace that passeth all understanding.
Bookpress, vol. 12, No. 6, October 2002, Ithaca, N.Y.
Paul L. Sawyer, PhD, is a professor in the English Department and director of the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell University