There was a recent performance art show in Montreal called Sisyphe, where the artist was moving 50 tons of sand from one pile to another, repeatedly for 30 days, seven hours per day, six days per week. The man would walk between the two piles with a shovel of sand, until one pile dwindled down to nothing, and the other pile was about the size of a large SUV. And then he would start again.
At times, he would throw a shovel of sand high into the air and it would be illuminated by a spotlight. Occasionally he would invite someone from the audience to help him. He would sometimes use a rake to tidy around the sand piles and make patterns and designs. But mostly he just shovelled sand all day. When the 30 days were done, it was estimated he had moved close to 400 tons of sand and walked over 700 kms between the two piles.
As the title of the performance suggests, the inspiration is the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the king who was punished for his misdeeds by the gods, forced to roll a large boulder up a hill, only to have roll down once it reached near the top, repeating this up and down action endlessly for eternity.
Sisyphus has been interpreted to represent the absurdity of human life, our vain struggle for purpose, meaning and knowledge. It has also been portrayed as the natural rhythms of our existence, like the sun’s daily rising in the east and setting in the west, or the repeated rise and fall of the oceans’ waves. Some haven given it an optimistic interpretation, as the philosopher Albert Camus, who described Sisyphus as ultimately being happy, “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart”.
Springsteen has a song that seizes upon this theme:
Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my Daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
While the tone of the song and most of the lyrics seem dreary, it is notable that the factory gives him life. It provides a reason to get up in the morning, to take pride in his tasks, to enjoy his co-workers, to support his family, to keep going.
Years ago I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While I don’t pretend to understand (or remember) much of it, I do recall the description of two types of motorcycle owners. One who always wanted a new and fast one, and if there were ever any problems with it, he would get someone else to fix it or just replace it with a new one. The other took time to learn and understand the mechanics of the motorcycle and spent endless hours fixing and maintaining it himself. He would keep his bike for years, sort of a love affair between human and machine. It seemed that the latter had figured out something about life.
I would have liked to have seen that performance art show in Montreal. The spotlight on the sand thrown in the air - our hope and belief of something special out there. The raking and creating of designs in the sand – our desire to provide order, purpose, and enjoyment to our lives. The audience members offering to help – our need for community, friendship, and family.
Maybe now I won’t be so cranky when my wife reminds me of all the fall cleaning we need to do, every fall, year after year …