I think of the blackness in the way I use it as a difference between void and non-void. It’s basically my understanding that we are temporally just a flash of light in the void.—Peter Campus in conversation with Marjory Supovitz, 1976
All creative acts are a kind of dying.—A.K. Coomaraswamy
If you see death in everyday life it will give a foundation to your practice.—Gyalsay Rinpoche
The pain will be born from that lookcast inside yourself, and this pain will make you go beyond the veil.—Rumi
The Japanese haiku poet Masami Kato wrote this poem shortly before he died in 1825:
of the water
mirrors many things.
It is from a long tradition of jise—poems written by Zen monks and poets on the verge of death. Here is another, written by Zen Master Taigen Sofu, who died in 1555:
I raise the mirror of my life
Up to my face: sixty years.
With a swing I smash the reflection—
The world as usual,
All in its place.
These death poems, some written literally on the cusp of the writer’s last breath, often have to do with reflection—the delicate state of being that emerges near the end of life which allows one to seethe past as an infinite cascading reflection of the Self, but does not reveal the nature of existence beyond the mirror.
Peter Campus has been stepping outside of himself for much of his life. More than most, he has accrued personal knowledge about some of what lies behind the veil, beyond the everyday world of duration, materiality and reflection. It is a constant presence in his work, sensed but not seen—latent just beneath the surface in the same way a massive rock lying under the rushing water is revealed by disturbances at the surface. Campus himself faced death. In 2000 he went through several months of radiation treatment after being diagnosed with cancer. He created a three-part video piece about this harrowing experience called Death Threat, a powerful work about the images behind the images of life. It is his visual death poem, but thankfully, without the death.
At the moment I feel odd writing this, and strain to get past the critical distance that texts like this induce, particularly when it concerns someone I know and care about. Art history, generally speaking, is not written by people who make art. Unlike that of critics, scholars or curators, the artist’s journey is not a quest for masterpieces, historical events or definitive works. It is a quest for the authentic and the true in life, not art. This journey takes many paths through an infinite landscape. No two ever are the same, and not one is ever straightforward. For an artist, the path is always more significant and vital than the destination. Arriving somewhere is simply the first step toward going somewhere else. More often than not, this journey, with its twists and turns, is difficult and painful. Occasionally, it is fatal, as the many personal tragedies that lie along the way attest. Failures can at times be more fruitful than successes, and often the struggle endured becomes the grist for the work, the energy source required for a breakthrough.
However, constant confrontation with the Self can take its toll, and in 1979, the year after he made his last video piece for what was to be 17 years, Peter Campus submerged into his “dark age.” “By 1979 my work was severe, high contrast black and white. At that point I had to get out. My studio was oppressive,” he told Barbara Nierhoff in 2003. That work is titled Head of a Man with Death on His Mind, and it is a large projected image showing a close-up of the face of a man in black and white, backlit by over-saturated white light. He stares intensely at the camera—that is, the viewer—for 12 minutes, keeping
the nature of his suffering, suggested by the title, to himself.
one day i was walking by a playing field, fenced off. a ball came over the fence to where i was standing. i picked up the ball to throw it back. at that moment, the moment of the throw, i had a revelation: the important thing is the throw, the body and mind and spirit all come together in an activity. i had the ball in my hand and started to throw. then i saw myself in the act of throwing, the beauty and complexity of the physical act of the moment. it was all there. most of my video work has come from this moment.—Peter Campus, musings,9 June 2003
The way the Self arrays itself is the form of the entire world.—Zen Master Dogen
The body is the soul as perceivedby the five senses.—William Blake
What comes from brightness, I strike with brightness. What comes from darkness, I strike with darkness.—Fuke
Like his projected image on the video screen, Peter Campus is a product of darkness and light. He has inscribed an enigmatic, wandering line on life’s path, with sudden turns, switchbacks and breaks—at times illuminating, at times obscuring, his real identity and true intentions, keeping secrets known only to himself. In preparing this text, I wrote down some of the words that come to mind when I remember my time watching Peter Campus work:
Acute. Aware. Sensitive.
Hidden. Vulnerable. Wounded.