Craving wonder

17 April 2012


In the summer of 1997 I went to Switzerland. I was seventeen and awed by everything there: the impossibly green mountains, the richness of the food, the brightly colored money. But by far the most magical experience I had was ice skating through a cloud.

The peaks of the alps are so high that clouds at times will huddle in small hollows on a mountain’s surface. (Little do we suspect, from a distance, this intimacy between clouds and mountains – that despite their seeming aloofness they are passionate lovers sharing high-altitude secrets.) In the town of Leysin, the skating rink sat in one of these catenaries, past the town on a downslope. A covered structure, open on the sides, the rink was positioned so that a breeze would draw wisps of cloud through the space. We looped through them, in and out of the whiteness, enchanted.

To be so close to a cloud, to be literally inside it, is a fleeting kind of joy. Artist Berndnaut Smilde brings something like this to galleries, carefully controlling the humidity and temperature to bring real clouds into being for a few minutes. Watch this video to see the process in action. Indoors, the cloud seems to be many things at once. It’s a luminous piece of sky, yet also an interloper. It feels more precious than it would “in the wild.” And yet it also feels out of place, confused even, like a lamb split off from the flock. It teeters on the edge of joyful and eerie, a conjurer’s trick that we embrace cautiously, with visceral awe.


Joyful and eerie: it’s an odd pairing. How is it possible that joy can come to us bound together with fear? And what determines whether what we end up feeling is wonder or trepidation?

It’s a contradiction many have wrestled with. The philosopher Edmund Burke called it the sublime, and wrote of conflicting impulses towards attraction and fear. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner describe it as awe, an emotion combining the perception of vastness or great power with a need for accommodation, a need to understand the phenomenon and bring it into line with our worldview. Awe creates an awareness that something forceful is at play, something with uncertain mechanisms and consequences, and our natural instinct at encountering such unknowns is to feel fear. But because we are human and inherently opportunistic, and because we are not certain if the unknowns are threatening, we also feel curiosity. It is a state of repulsion and attraction all at once.

Aesthetics have a big say in which force wins out. Imagine you are standing in a field, alone and far from shelter. A great black cloud-like apparition looms on the horizon. It is coming towards you, and doing so abnormally fast. How do you feel? Now imagine yourself in the same field, but replace the cloud with a colorful double rainbow. How would you describe the difference in how you feel? Both are strange events, both vast, both require accommodation. But through the color, form, and mass of each, your unconscious assesses threat level and tips your emotional state towards anxiety or towards wonder.

It’s easy to see why we would feel awe and fear at potentially dangerous things – this feels sensibly adaptive. An emotion that primes us to take cover has probably saved enough necks to earn its right to a spot on the genome. But why have wonder? Why have an emotion specifically attuned to things that are strange and intense, yet benign?

I believe we have wonder because it lets us know when the laws and limits of our world have been transcended, and opens the way to new frontiers of possibility. Wonder is a signal that there has been magic in our midst. It pokes a hole in our worldview, and tempts us to investigate, becoming a powerful spark for curiosity that paves the way towards new discoveries.

As a culture we tend to undervalue wonder, but the craving for it is deeply valid. It is not a distraction from purposeful work – it may instead be the catalyst for starting it. A desire to witness magic is an impulse towards the expansion of the mind, towards the improvement of the human condition. At the root of our love for rainbows, comets, fireflies, and miracles is a small reservoir of belief that the world is bigger and more amazing than we had dreamed it could be. And if we are to be creative and hopeful, then feeding this reservoir is vital.

So go look for impossible beauty, implausible joy. Seek it out even if it doesn’t seem to have an immediate purpose. And then just be curious. You don’t have to control wonder; you only have to seek it, and be open to what it shows you.

Via: Smilde’s Nimbus II spotted by @brainpicker

Images: from here and here


Anticipating the snow…

11 January 2011

I missed the last blizzard, so the forecast title “Major Winter Storm Set to Clobber Northeast” holds a certain kind of poetry for me. I’ve written at length on the joys of snow in the past, from my own personal memories to its more universal attractions, so I’ll try not to be repetitive this morning. I love snow for the very reasons practical people dislike it – it slows things down, confounds our rhythms, accumulates without regard to all the Very Important Things we have to do. It creates new patterns. It opens spaces for indolence, daydreaming, and rediscovery. Yes, it will get wet and grey, it will slosh into your boots, it will calcify into unmelting, inconvenient drifts. But before it does that, it will fall pure and light from cold clouds, and it will be perfect.

Anyway, it’s coming, so you may as well find a way to enjoy it! I’ve been wanting to share this piece for awhile. Called Snow, it is an installation made from feathers by Tokujin Yoshioka exhibited at the Mori Art Museum in Japan. It amazes me how beautifully the feathers reflect the movements of snow, and how deep the simple sensory pleasure of those textures and movements feels. There’s also a video, here. I hope it stirs up some joyful anticipation for the slow, snowy days to come…

Neutral canvas, pops of color

9 September 2009


This house is a great example of the way pops of color on a white or neutral canvas create an aesthetic sense of joy. Writer Douglas Coupland’s polychrome collections could look like a circus in a house with a lot of color. Showcasing them against a mostly white or otherwise muted background creates moments of intense color with enough room to breathe.

In this way, design should mimic emotion. You don’t want to be feeling intense joy all the time — it would be exhausting, and it wouldn’t be possible to appreciate it. As one wave of joy recedes, you want a little bit of stillness, the rest that allows you to rediscover the joy and feel it all over again. This principle echoes the Japanese aesthetic idea of ma, the white space that is essential to any composition or design. Ma can be spatial or temporal, visual or textural, and in all cases results in an emotional feeling that allows a design to achieve the right level of poignancy.

Another joyful aspect is the unexpected nature and placement of these collections. Mundane spools of thread are elevated to high art by their gridded placement on a white wall. Dice, when laid out above an entryway, become a surprising lintel. Taken out of their usual context, these objects become fodder for unanticipated moments of delight.



NYT: The House Next Door, via Ouno

Joyful home: Frazier & Wing mobiles

17 August 2009


I love the contrast between these two mobiles, illustrating different aesthetics of joy. The one on the left is celebratory — vibrant and effusive, a cloud of color. The one on the right layers two aesthetics in one: lightness and surprise — the floating, elevated feeling created by the spacing in the pure white linear structure, coupled with the whimsical burst of texture at the bottom.

And yet there are also commonalities: curvilinear, symmetrical forms, based at root in the circle; harmony and balance inherent in the idea of mobile; light, dancing movements; and of course, intense bursts of color. It continues to amaze me, as I work through this project, how consistent and yet how diverse the elements are that give rise to the aesthetics of joy.

Mobiles by Frazier & Wing
Via Daily Candy

Daily magic

15 August 2009


This calendar works like magic, drawing just the right amount of ink each day to fill out the date. Each month is colored to fit the seasons.

Ink Calendar by Oscar Diaz via New York Magazine