Transcendence, The Goonies and the Unlikeliest Little Art Show

Artist Christian French hoped his buried treasures would be found, but didn't expect one to find its way back to him.

Posted on February 20, 2016, 4:50 pm
16 mins

It has been said a thousand different ways that the littlest things are the most significant, as they refresh our senses or become the seed of something greater. Big discoveries may shape how we view history and the universe (gravity waves detected on an infinitesimally small level, for example), but for the individual, the thrill of even a small find may touch on the more immanent question of, “What are we seeking?” We may want many things passively, but what are we seeking?

We don’t always know until we find it (another sentiment uttered many times over), but I think this seeking is at the heart of wanderlust and other preoccupations, such as metal detecting. For hobbyists, metal detecting is one means of tuning out meditatively while getting light exercise and fresh air and the added excitement of potential discoveries. Over time, hobbyists may accumulate a little trove. Even if not a single bit of it has material value, the objects represent a connection to the past, a glimpse of another life, a metaphorical jewel if not a real one.

In his time using metal detectors, Seattle-based Mark Joseph has placed in his own trove a turquoise ring, a tracking tag that had been attached to a hawk on the east coast, fishing lures, a few coins, etc. When he pinged over something on the shores of Discovery Park, he couldn’t expect to find doubloons, but part of the pleasure for hobbyists is not knowing what one is about to unearth—the anticipation of discovery. Whatever possibilities crossed his mind, it probably wasn’t this:

A mason jar with a crusty metal top. And inside, a message:

This Artwork Buried Here in Discovery Park by Christian French is part of a series of treasures buried June 29th 2006. Please follow instructions on reverse and Return for art work and Reward.

The note was signed only with a red X. Along with the note, there was a lottery ticket from 2006, brown and flimsy as an onion shell, and three dollar coins, patinated by a decade in a humid cell. The instructions were to buy three lottery tickets with the three coins.

Joseph makes shades for lighting in Georgetown, and he began asking a few people in his network if they knew of Christian French. When he asked lighting designer and gallerist Dawna Holloway, she told him that she not only knew French—she had asked him to place a small work at her gallery, studio e.

Things had aligned almost too perfectly, so Holloway asked Joseph if she could display the jar, and he agreed. She then contacted French, coyly explaining that she no longer needed a piece from him; she already had one. Leaving the rest cryptic, she arranged a meeting between the three of them at a cafe.

When Joseph and Holloway presented the jar, French was dumbstruck. When one places objects like this, one can’t expect them to return intact. In French’s artistic exercise, that wasn’t even necessarily the point. In spite of the instructions he left (assuming they remained legible), there was no guarantee that someone would seek him out. The work would come into the possession of another with an air of mystery, a reward for their curiosity.

French grew up in South Florida, where romanticized visions of lost treasures in and near the ocean captured his imagination. The original show in connection with this work, Buried Treasure, was in 2006 at Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), in which French presented simplified versions of maps documenting the location of his buried jars. Others may still lie hidden in the city (near Myrtle Edwards Park, Shilshole) and on Orcas Island.

I think I speak for others who grew up landlocked that the idea of hidden treasure and pirate hoards can fascinate anyone, even far from the sea itself. Here in the the Pacific Northwest, we are in the land of The Goonies, one of the more formative tales of treasure for my generation. As if Cannon Beach and Ecola State Park weren’t magical enough on their own, I am sure that countless visitors who have seen the film have seen Haystack Rock and experienced a reverie—the anticipation of discovery and the peculiar tingle one feels at that moment.

As French puts it, there is “a charge” to things lost and found again. No matter how inconsequential an object may be, when it is recovered, first comes the tingle, then the revelation, and for a melancholy moment, one feels we can reclaim what has disappeared forever in time—that time has its fugitives, still at large.

When there is a material value to the object, past and future are both reckoned differently. Money is also only an abstraction of time and potential—the most arbitrary abstraction. Its material forms (e.g. bonds, bills, patinated coins in a jar) only function based on declared rules of how they are to be valued, time spent to acquire, time acquired (or rather spent by others) when it is spent.

So what of lotteries? What of that old, long invalid ticket in French’s jar and the call to purchase three more?

Evaluating lottery wins in a strictly material sense misses a more compelling psychic event. French identifies it as a “transcendent” event, which I find to be a good framing. “Transformative” falls flat when one evaluates the psychic effects of a windfall that allows one to transcend one’s circumstances. Being born into or amassing wealth over time can kindle feelings of superiority, but when one is accustomed to a less privileged life and fortune shines from out of the blue, there may follow a sense of destiny, the belief that one is special, anointed by providence. In America, land of evangelical Prosperity Doctrines and “bootstrapping” and, to paraphrase Steinbeck, a population of “embarrassed millionaires,” wealth is tied to virtue, and windfalls become a sort of beatification for the living.

Alas, happiness does not continually increase past a certain threshold of wealth, and when the windfall is particularly substantial, it may be too much for the recipient to manage responsibly. Some jackpot winners soon end up broke again, thanks to prodigality and the false promise of that transcendent feeling.

More modest fortunes do not impart this sense of invincibility, but do allow recipients to create a foundation for themselves, improve their lot or pursue a dream without losing a grip on reality. Such was the case with French’s father, who—if one believes in luck—was born one of those charmed individuals. He emerged from the womb with a cowl, an auspicious sign in many cultures, and throughout his life he has done rather well in games of chance. That includes the lottery in Mexico, where French was born. The father won, and used the winnings to relocate the family to America, which makes them a perfect example of the transcendence of circumstances through a windfall. Hence, luck and lotteries were central to French’s work in “Buried Treasure.” The jar and its contents have little inherent worth…but they might bring wealth, if one is lucky.

And who doesn’t want to feel lucky? A wish for transcendence runs deep and in many directions throughout art and literature. In fairy tales old and new (e.g. Cinderella, Harry Potter, etc.) powerful, external forces recognize the singularity, or even the divinity, of the protagonists, and usher them into a more exquisite state. They win an existential lottery. This new state may not be without peril (may even come at other costs), but it is not the mundane world that the character previously inhabited—the world we also know.

As a complement, in adventure stories that dream of lost civilizations or pirate hoards, the drama is propelled by a willful, perilous descent into the unknown, in search of transcendence through hidden wealth and knowledge. It’s a world of cryptic maps, hidden agendas and elaborate traps. The mundane world is left behind from the start, and the transcendence experienced by the characters is at last a more complete vision of self.

Back to The Goonies: The eponymous squad of misfits have a material quest (to save their homes from classist developers), but the deeper emotional quest is to encounter One Eyed Willy, an outcast like them whose transcendent significance is both from normative power systems and from life itself, a grinning death’s head. Thirty years on, economic disparity and classism are ever more apparent, so it’s no wonder that The Goonies remains endearing to so many. It certainly exhibits Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” but it’s also specific to our culture’s current class struggles and visions of youthfulness, the ability to feel a spark of hope by just imagining an adventure, however audacious or absurd.

French’s jars thus encapsulate both the power of the adventure story and the fairy tale. He can’t guarantee that the three coins (a magic number) will be converted into a fortune by luck. They aren’t magic beans. But the truly transcendent is accessed not through fortunes that transform one’s material circumstances. The transcendent is more immediately accessed by contemplation of it. This distinction is what separates fiction that is merely escapism (based on fulfillment of fantasies) and fiction that brings one to contemplate the very act of wishing, desiring and becoming something other. It is by this means that we may begin to answer the question that began this story: “What are we seeking?”

The means by which French distributes his jars will reach and reward a specific audience: those curious enough to go seeking the other and the unknown, even in their own backyard. Across time, perhaps in another decade or even later, another jar may be found intact by a child then or one who is a child now. Perhaps they won’t know what to make of it; perhaps the note will be too decayed to offer any insight or instruction. But the coins will still be there—a modest treasure, but still an abstraction of time itself, all that is lost to it and incipient in it, and a gift from another to the one “destined” to find it. There may be no face to associate with this gift, and the faces on the coins themselves may be unrecognizable in their oxidized state, but on that most fundamental level, there will be recognition.

Christian French’s jar is on display through March 5 in the vatican, studio e’s micro-gallery for small work (609 S Brandon St). No one yet knows what the reward associated with the jar will be, but now others have the chance to find out. The gallery is holding a silent auction for the jar during its display this month. Details from studio e follow:

Auction by Candle, March 5, 2016

On March 5, there will be a closing event at the gallery that will include the ending of the auction, by candle, and a raffle. Since no one knows (other than Christian) what the promised reward and the art are, and in keeping with the spirit of adventure embedded within the piece, we decided to hold an auction for the jar. The winner of the auction will have the right to return the jar and all of its contents to the artist and claim the “art” and “reward” as referred to in the note. They can follow those instructions and receive their reward from Christian, or they might decide to keep that potential in the bottle (like a genie) and save the piece in its entirety.

Some people (like gallerist Beth Cullom) might say the true art is the jar, note, coins, faded lottery ticket, and story. Some people are willing to gamble that there’s more here than meets the eye.

To register for your bidder number please attend the opening this Saturday 6-9pm or call or e-mail the gallery. Everyone who registers to bid will be entered in a drawing to receive a small print, to be held as a part of the closing event.

To place a bid, or find out current top bid please check back here.
Starting bid has been set by the current owner of the piece, who found it while metal detecting in Discovery Park.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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