ECSTATIC UPHEAVAL: A conversation with artist David Chaim Smith (from Arthur No. 34)

Originally published in Arthur No. 34….


Is there a way to examine the nature of existence at its very foundation? Esoteric mapmaker DAVID CHAIM SMITH say yes—but there’s a price.
by Jay Babcock

I first encountered David Chaim Smith’s remarkable, bewildering work through Pam Grossman’s Phantasmaphile newsletter, a daily email bulletin spotlighting a contemporary or historic personage up to something witchy and beautiful, usually in the visual arts. Smith’s work was particularly striking in its unusual combination of diagrammatic composition, simple media (pencil!?!) and unapologetically rarefied Kabbalistic-Gnostic content. Generally that would be more than enough to warrant further investigation, but it was the work’s difficult-to-grok provenance that intrigued me the most: these pieces looked like plates that could have been included in Alexander Roob’s Taschen compendium of dazzling Medieval alchemical artwork, The Hermetic Museum (alternative title, courtesy of Adam Egypt Mortimer: The Original Face Melter Times A Thousand). They seemed like the kind of work that’s usually brought to light by accident, decades after the a recluse’s death or disappearance (or committal to a mental ward): strange, highly charged devotional work rescued from a trashbin, the details of its artist’s life and practice gone to dust, Iain Sinclair on the case.


And yet, the author of these stupefying drawings is alive and well—David Chaim Smith [above] is a contemporary New York artist with an MFA, a publisher and (until recently) a gallery. Despite living a semi-monastic life, Smith seems eager to engage with a curious public. He has a website. He’s on Facebook. Dig a little and you’ll find a few occultist-oriented podcast interviews and accounts of public talks he’s given in the last few years around the publication of his two books—2010’s esoteric exegesis The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on Genesis 1-3 (Daat Press) and 2012’s massive art/text collection The Sacrificial Universe (Fulgur)—and a 2010 gallery show. And now, here he is on the other end of the telephone line in late January, just days after completing his new book, Blazing Dew of Stars, set for publication this springOctober 23, 2013 by Fulgur. A surprisingly garrulous fellow, Smith spoke frankly about who he is, where he comes from and how his day-to-day life and spiritual practice generates such artwork. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

Q: What were your circumstances growing up? I assume you’re Jewish…
A: I’m ethnically Jewish, I’m two generations from the shtetl in Eastern Europe, which was a kind of religious peasant culture. My parents were completely secular, so there was no presence of religion, growing up in my home whatsoever. I was never Bar Mitzvahed. I was raised by people whose religion was probably science.


I was born in 1964 with what we call in Kabbalah a very strong yetzer hara, which essentially is an urge to destroy. And it was not a result of my circumstances as a small child, or my upbringing—nobody did anything bad to me, I didn’t have any reason to act the way that I did. There’s a picture of me [above] at one and two days old, and there’s definitely something wrong with this kid. I was born…angry, and wanting to burn down the universe, preferably with me in it!

I caused so many problems as a small child that I was put in the place where they warehoused every kid with problems, kids that were retarded, kids who were antisocial as I was, kids with learning disabilities. The archetypal short little yellow bus came and picked me up in the morning. Now this was the late ‘60s, before the drugging of children—certainly if I was behaving that way as a child today that would be what would become of me.

dave 1969

So I was just kept in a place, a dayschool, where the goal was to keep us quiet. I wasn’t taught to read—I wasn’t taught anything much at all! I was basically left to my own devices, and went very deep into my own imagination. I was there for a long time and I grew extremely restless, grew more and more virulent in my antisocial pursuits, until I was eventually released out into the world, in 1976.

And then…?

When I was about 12 years old, I found a copy of Timothy Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy and that was, for lack of a better term, my spiritual path as a teenager. I digested all the Carlos Castaneda books and all the literature that was around surrounding the subject at that time. My use of LSD was extremely extensive—several times a week, for several years. And I also managed to get into some fairly extreme and esoteric psychedelics, such as DMT. I dropped out of high school in ninth grade to pursue this [laughs] this path, and it was always inseparable from my pursuit of visual art. At the time I was doing drawings which were conveying or reflecting my inner exploration through psychedelics. I was put into a program where one could come and go, it was sort of early alternative education where nobody really learned much of anything and nobody was minding the store, so to speak. I was allowed to roam free, in inner space. I had more time to draw than anybody who went to a regular high school, so I developed quite a nice portfolio and I got into the Rhode Island School of Design. I got my BFA there, and eventually got an MFA from Columbia, here in New York.

Starting in the mid-’80s, I became addicted to cocaine. Eventually I was freebase smoking it to the point that it dominated my life. I was about as severe a cocaine addict can be, and developed cocaine psychosis. I started using heroin, as an adjunct, to come down off off three and four-day cocaine binges. Because of the way that I’m wired, I’m not looking for any type of euphoric depressant, I’m only looking to hike my nervous system up to the point where it blasts through the roof. I had two heart attacks, and almost died, but luckily…I was young. In 1987 I quit hard drugs completely and never relapsed. Then I spent two years smoking an incredibly large amount of marijuana. Without it, I think I would’ve ended up in a mental institution. In 1990 I stopped smoking marijuana entirely and never took a hit off of a joint ever again. I got a job at a methadone clinic in the South Bronx, where I worked for three years. I was fascinated by the process of addiction, and I really wanted to know what it was that I had been doing with myself.

You got involved in practicing magick then, right? Was that something new for you, or was that a carry-on from your teenage Leary-Castaneda years?

I was involved with forms of ceremonial magick most of my life growing up but it wasn’t a terribly serious pursuit and it was mostly in the realm of fantasy, because my use of drugs displaced the discipline of practice and the discipline of cultivating a truly solid foundation on which to base further work. So I was familiar with the occult literature by the time I was ready to become a serious practitioner. I did work with two Golden Dawn offshoot orders, extensively, from 1990 to about 1997. They also overlapped with Freemasonry. What these forms of ceremonial ritual magic do is they use alchemical forms of symbolism, but you don’t necessarily learn much about the application of the alchemical process. You have to sort of fill in the gaps yourself. So, I started devising experimental hybrid systems, in which the process of internalizing symbols tried to adapt itself to the alchemical processes that I was reading about in the classic 17th century texts. I developed certain relationships with symbols and alchemical terms, and alchemical descriptions of processes that were not really contained in Golden Dawn literature, or any of that stuff that comes out of the 19th century.

Looking back at it from now, what do you think you were up to with your practice? Was this an attempt at self-healing after years of serious drug addiction and misery?

I think that I was through with my addiction and there was no more healing necessary. On the day that I stopped smoking marijuana, I knew that I would never do it again and I wasn’t in danger of any relapse. Spiritual practice doesn’t heal the psyche as far as I’m concerned. Serious spiritual practice is tangential to it. You could still remain an extremely psychologically flawed individual and accomplish quite a great deal in spiritual practice at the same time, without one necessarily affecting the other. There’s a certain gross level in which they overlap, and the really severe distortions do become tempered, but at the subtle level, you can remain, as I did, extremely neurotic while you’re building up the resonance of practice accomplishment. I think that when spiritual practice becomes psychologized, it’s a very poor substitute for therapy, and it’s very poor psychology. It’s a different field. I think that the confusion between the two is largely due to a misreading of certain Jungian ideas, and other early 20th century ideas, that need to be sorted out. And I don’t feel that it is terribly sorted out in the literature. The New Age movement certainly has made matters much worse, where spiritual practice almost becomes synonymous with self-help, and self-healing. And I don’t think that they are. I think spiritual accomplishment has to do with the nature of consciousness and how it “en-worlds” an individual—ultimately, in the mystical sense, how an individual moves beyond the reification and division of a knowing subject and a known object, whatever that object might be.

And you would want to do that because…?

[pauses] The basic intention in my own practice, as the basic intention would be in my artwork, is to reach beyond conventional understanding and distill the resonance of that reaching — for no reason whatsoever. There’s a term in kabbalah, it’s a Hebrew term, lishma, which means ‘for its own sake.’ Meaning that something that is truly good, is a good in and of itself. There’s no reason needed. It’s based on its own inherent, innate goodness, which ultimately is the root of beauty. Spiritual aspiration is nothing other than a thirst for this purposeless, inherently beautiful, and inherently good, direction in one’s life. Ultimately, the more one acquires, builds up this resonance, the more one contacts the ultimate sacrament of the mind, which breaks down this dichotomy between the offerer, the practitioner and that which they are offering, which is their time and their effort, and ultimately the illusion that there is a recipient of the offerings that have been made…which in religion, is God. But, I am not a theist. So I don’t posit a creator god. The offering is made just simply based on its own inherent goodness for no reason whatsoever to nothing whatsoever.

One only becomes a practitioner out of love. It is undifferentiated, like the vastness of space, and it embraces everything through the direct recognition of beauty. This is the basis of the gnosis. To make a conceptual object out of that love, even one that encompasses everything within itself, defeats the purpose. It must remain open and pure, so that anything, everything, or nothing at all can unfold without ever leaving its essence. To dedicate yourself to the pursuit of this requires discipline, clarity, and persistence. The goal is the absorption of the whole of your being, and the enworldment of that being, into the heart of sublime beauty. This is not a thing that can be calculated or reasoned out. It is a wild, crazy way to live. However there are those who have burned down everything else. We can’t live in society anymore, its too late. For us, the hardness of these disciplines redeem what would otherwise be total oblivion.

What is your daily life and practice like?

I live and work on retreat. The word ‘retreat’ implies ‘a boundary.’ The boundary that I have is to focus single-pointedly on the work that I do, which includes the technical aspects of my spiritual practice and magical work. My wife and I have separate apartments so that I can accomplish this. She’s dedicated to helping and supporting me in this endeavor, and she’s got a regular job. She cooks my food and helps me with all the things that I couldn’t do for myself. In general, I don’t do very well in the world of people. I do better off by myself. I learned that a long time ago. Why fight it? You gotta be yourself. And for me, being myself means working alone, mostly in silence—when I say ‘silence’ I mean not speaking. There is sound, as I listen to music continually—and I rarely leave. I go through periods of time where I don’t even have contact with my wife or anyone; I’m in solitary retreat mode for about half the week, every week.

The type of practitioner that I have become can really be termed an “ecstatic contemplative” style of mysticism….within the context of Western esotericism, which overlaps with what people would call the magical tradition. My main influences that brought me to this place are really early Kabbalah, what’s specifically referred to as the Iy’yun school of the 13th century, and also the mid-period to late-period tradition of Chassidic mysticism. At the same time, a form of non-dual Gnosticism that’s derived from Hellenized Persia. After 15 years of practice, they’ve made an amalgam which is not a mixing of systems anymore. I use the kabbalistic language to convey my work symbolically—but the view upon which my work is based really comes out of a non-dual form of Gnosticism that is extremely uncommon.

Your practice includes the production of these fantastic diagrams. How do you come up with them? What is their purpose?

I see myself as an esoteric cartographer, and the making of maps, the mapping of unknowable territories to conventional mind, is what I’m interested in. The compositions are all diagrammatic. What I try to use as a basis for a drawing is like a spiritual circuit board, or blueprint, which is always based on sacred, geometric relationships. And they’re very simple geometric relationships: they’re points and lines and circles, overlapping, referring to one another, in a way that communicates the equations that I’m exploring in simple visual terms.

Into this structure the manner in which form is introduced is generally biomorphic. ‘Biomorphism’ refers to trans-elemental phenomena, meaning phenomena in which the divisions between elemental types of representation become a continuum. Meaning that which blazes that we would call fire, that which flows that we would call water, or that which circulates that we would call air, can hover in the twilight spaces between what can be rationally identified to form new languages. And can be explored in subtle regions.

Biomorphism is nothing new—this has been around forever. Certainly in late Surrealism, it was explored extensively. But it has a certain relationship to mystical practice that is really key—it is literally the language of the subtle realms, and through it, one gets a really heightened understanding of what the elements are, in their conversation with one another, in their overlapping territories. And through the exploration of this overlapping territory, you can depict entire realms of activity that are beyond the conventional senses.

"Unfurling of the Dream Fire"

Now, in the invitation of biomorphism into diagrammatical compositions, I introduce all kinds of depictions of esoteric symbology in a much more literal sense: I have depictions of inner human organ systems which are involved in the alchemical process; symbolic objects; ritual objects; chemical apparata; and designating markers like crowns and ornaments that are related to kabbalistic symbolism. Then there is a description between the biomorphic elements and the symbolic elements of processes of transformation that work. In the alchemical tradition you would see cooking and melting and circulating and coalescing, which is really the work of elements that we would call fire, water, air and earth. But as biomorphic movement within the symbolic context, you get this huge range of subtle activity that I’m creating worlds out of.

What my pictures really are is an invitation into this exploration, grounded in the sacred geometry that holds it all together. That’s where the basic axioms are rooted. So every layer should be inherently integrated and based in every other layer—it’s not that these are separate things coming together, it’s the same thing being spoken in different languages.

There’s also a lot of text in your work. Besides the Hebrew characters, there’s phrases in English…

There’s a level of a running commentary, where I’m actually explaining the diagrammatic functions, there’s a certain amount of labeling, there’s also an elaboration of the axioms themselves, and the equations, which sometimes I write out as number-letter formulas, just as kabbalists would.

Also, there is a dimension of what I call ‘ecstatic upheaval,’ which is the stream of poetic imagery from the resonance of my own practice. I refer to it as ‘aroma of conveyance’—the air, or perfume, of the heart aspect of what I’m doing. This ecstatic upheaval, this stream, just gets written into the commentary. I don’t really draw distinctions between one type of writing in a picture and another—I allow that to evolve organically based on need. Based on what seems to work. And I try not to make any rules for the divisions of these elements. I don’t really generally think about it conceptually, it just…it’s like water finds its own level.


In addition, I have actual components from my own practice inserted into the pictures. There’s a type of picture-making in the kabbalistic tradition a shiviti, which means ‘I have set before me.’ A shiviti [see image above] is a kabbalistic meditation diagram. Sometimes my pictures are shivitis in an orthodox sense, meaning it’s a divine name-dominated configuration meant for meditation. But other times I take elements of the shiviti and mix them into these other concerns to make experimental hybrids.

One other thing that I insert are magic seals, which are very precious and dear to me. A magical seal generally is a reduction of one’s practice dynamics, or practice issues or general principles into some sort of simple graphic that sums it up in a clean economical way. What I’ll very often do is insert a magical seal in a certain portion of the diagram to sum up the ethos of the more etheric exploration that’s going on, that sort of nails it down. It’s a device to bring it back to the root of the diagram. This is also meant to be read, but it’s meant to be read graphically.


So, you have a graphic notation system which is kind of like a form of shorthand, in addition to verbal explanation, in addition to a sort of wild, psychedelic voyeurism of the biomorphic dimensions and realms. When you combine them, you get a spectrum of every type of subtle conceptualization that a practitioner could want, based on whatever they gravitate towards. Different people with their different predispositions and tendencies and dispositions can always find something to attach to. The goal is to provide as many vectors leading to the same place as I possibly can.

You work very simply: with pencil, pretty small…

I just basically use one mechanical pencil and an eraser and I punctuate sometimes with ink. My very biggest piece would be about 20×30, but I don’t have many of those. In the new book, all the drawings are under 9×13.

You work exclusively in black and white, no color. Why?

I had a couple of epiphanies very early on that proved to me in no uncertain terms that I would never be a great colorist. One of them was encountering the work of Fra Angelico, who was a practitioner, he was a monk in the San Marco monastery, where he painted these murals and frescoes. It was specifically through Fra Angelico that I came to the realization that I was looking at something that I could never approach and I could never do. It puts you in your place, humbles you. So…you know, deep down, this is off-limits, you cannot do this. You can appreciate it but you won’t ever be able to compete with it or try to approach it. And, there was always an affinity I had with certain types of tonal artworks where I thought that I was invited in, the door was open for me, for me to make the attempt. But color was not for me.

Let’s talk about those guys you’ve called your great heroes: the diagram-makers. Jakob Böhme

Well, Böhme didn’t make diagrams, but there was an artist a hundred and something years later by the name of Dionysus Andreas Freher, and most of the diagrams that we see in the tradition of Jakob Böhme were made by Freher. Freher was a German guy who lived in England. Late 17th, early 18th century. Böhme was an esoteric cartographer, a mapper of hidden realms, in the sense that I aspire to be. The 17th century alchemical engravings that came out of the studios of Merian and de Bry is another example. There’s a couple of generations of the de Bry and Merian line, coming out of Northern Europe at that time… I have an intense passionate interest in William Blake, who did a lot of things, but one of the things that he did was the evocation of subtle realms, creating portals into subtle realms for viewers to become acquainted with them. His medium was poetic resonance. So whereas the medium in exchange for diagrammers like Freher was esoteric wisdom or esoteric knowledge, the vehicle of transmission for Blake was poetic sensation. It was just another way of approaching something that connects at the heart. These two things do connect, at least the way that I view them.

Beyond that, I have an interest in the early Renaissance (or very late Medieval) period before 1450 in Sienna, Italy—painters like Sassetta, Giovanni di Paolo, Lorenzetti, who lacked the scientific basis of the late Renaissance, so they were always described as ‘primitives.’ What they really were, were visionary artists coming out of the imagination rather than trying to replicate retinal artifacts, or sensory artifacts through perception. What they were doing was producing objects of great beauty that conveyed spiritual themes. My wife and I traveled to this region, I saw an enormous amount of this stuff, and I was sold for life. There are pieces of Sassetta which speak to the greatest works of Blake, almost with the same perfume in the air, the same incense in the air.

You’ve mentioned three major teachers in your life. But it sounds like now you’re very much a solo practitioner…

I maintain a relationship with the community of practitioners who live in the hermitage where I lived in the late ‘90s. I was never a ‘member,’ although I’ve done their preliminary practices, I lived there, I functioned just exclusively doing that for years. However it was pretty obvious to everybody after my being there for some time that it was preparation for me doing my own thing eventually. I stay in contact with them.

Another teacher I stay in contact with is a Breslov Chassid who I studied with for years, in a very traditional fashion—in his home, every day. I wore a black hat…

That’s amazing—why did a Chassid agree to teach you? You hadn’t even had a Bar Mitzvah, weren’t a practicing Jew…

The answer to that question is so weird… In 1983 I had an interest in Kabbalah, and there was a group of Chabad practitioners from the Lubavitch lineage in Providence, Rhode Island where I went to school. I lived a couple doors down. One day, wasted out of my mind, I just walked right in on a Friday afternoon and said, Hey, you guys got any Kabbalah books I can borrow? They all looked at me like I was from another planet. Eventually they asked me if I was Jewish. I said Yes. They said okay, now we can get down to business. We want to give you a Bar Mitzvah, and then we’ll give you all the kabbalah books you want. I said, Yeah, whatever, sure. Next thing I know, the doors were locked and these very sort of scary, menacing individuals were crowding around me. I didn’t have any shoes on. They pull a tallis over my head, and unwrapped a big Torah scroll. They started acting in a way that sort of scared me and I said, You know what, I think I want to go home now. [laughter] And they said, Oh no you don’t. And they wouldn’t let me out. I was REALLY scared. There was one guy in there who was kind of asking them to ease off, he seemed like a reasonable guy. To make a long story short, they didn’t give me any kabbalah books. [laughter] I eventually just did whatever they wanted, and had, I guess, a ‘bar mitzvah,’ ersatz, and just went home and told my roommate this really weird thing happened to me, hit the bong and forgot all about it.
Fast forward many, many years. I was living in the gnostic hermitage. I knew that my time was up and my teacher knew that my time was up. He said, If you want to integrate what you’ve learned here with your native language, which is Kabbalah, you gotta go back to Brooklyn and study with some Chassidim—not Kabbalists in the mainstream sense, but Chassidim. I didn’t know any. I was sent home with this instruction to be my practice: go fid Hasidim, go study with them. Do whatever they want, live an Orthodox life if you have to. Just do it. The first person I met was a Breslover Chassid who was the guy in that room in 1983. We were talking, we hit it off, we obviously had a connection… I started telling the story of what happened to me, and he started trembling, with his mouth open. He said, ‘You were that kid!?! [laughter] I was in the room.” I realized that it was the same guy. And we laughed and laughed and laughed. He told me that he left Chabad shortly after and became a Breslover. I ended up studying with him for ten years., studying basically everyday, having shabbos with him and sleeping in his house. He’s a really incredibly great man, and way more open-minded than any other Chassid I ever met. He introduced me to Rebbe Nachman’s Likutey Moharan. I would study in Hebrew, orally. Which is how you’re supposed to learn this, you’re supposed to learn it as an oral tradition, not a written tradition. You’re supposed to live it, and talk it, with someone who knows. So he would read a line in Hebrew and then he would basically tell me in an informal sense what it meant. This is a guy who’s a gifted translator, so he was really the perfect person to do this with. And that’s one way I got around my lack of Hebrew skills, there have been a couple individuals like this in the Jewish community who have taken pity on me and actually sat with me and brought it into the oral tradition with me, made it come alive.

There’s another guy who did this from the non-Chassidic viewpoint, the viewpoint of what we call the Misnogdim. Between these two guys I was introduced to a spectrum of the texts that Aryeh Kaplan mentioned in his books, but really only briefly touches upon. They gave me an education. I’m very grateful to them.

There’s a Kabbalistic text called ‘The Fountain of Wisdom’ that you’ve talked about in the past. In one interview you said it “caused you to re-evaluate the nature of geometry.” Great line. What did you mean by that?

‘The Fountain of Wisdom’ cites the point, the line and the circle as the basic aspect of primordial wholeness and creativity. These aspects also refer to the alchemical transformations that are cultivated in deep practice. There are several imagistic terms used for this, such as ‘ roots and streams and drops’, among others. These introduce a symbolic language that directly mirrors the nondual Gnostic alchemical teachings that I’ve received.

It took years for me to really understand this text, which is from the 13th century, because it’s about as opaque as a text can be. But ultimately what I did was, I took all my notes and I graphed them out visually. These maps, essentially esoteric diagrams, accumulated to the point that I realized, Hey I’m making drawings again! I had stopped making drawings for ten years. When I went into the hermitage, I stopped drawing, in 1997. So I just gave into that and lo and behold, I’m a visual artist again. I didn’t decide to be, I didn’t want to be…I’m not really interested in art. It emerged from necessity. It emerged from the necessity of how was I going to make sense of this text, just because of the way my mind works.


You taught Kabbalah. Was that during this period?

In 1993 I started giving lectures on ceremonial magic, esoteric imagery and whatnot, and then went to the hermitage to live. When I came out of the hermitage, I became a teacher of Kabbalah as my profession, it’s what I did for money. I taught, as much as I possibly could, for a very small group between 1997 and 2007, when I stopped.

You’ve mentioned John Zorn’s role in getting your work out in public. Where did you guys meet?

I met John Zorn in the early 1980s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was giving a concert with Fred Frith in the basement of the building where he lived where he’d set up a performance space that he called The Saint. Today, John Zorn has a record company called Tzadik, which means “saint” in Hebrew. So he was on the Tzadik trip very, very early, before the birth of Tzadik Records. In this space, Fred Frith had a guitar on a table that he was hitting with hammers, and attacking with what looked like a power drill. Zorn had half of a clarinet submerged in a fish tank full of water. [laughs] There was three people witnessing this concert. I sat on the floor—there were no chairs—and I saw one of the most miraculous musical events that I’ve ever seen. I’d never seen music made in such a radical, heartfelt, experimental way before this. It had such an intense, strange beauty. You’d think that these would be harsh, industrial sounds. They weren’t. They were incredibly nuanced sounds. These guys knew exactly what they were doing.

I didn’t see him for many years after that. Around the time that I was thinking about not teaching anymore and going into full-time retreat to make my diagrams, I contacted him and sent him jpegs of what I’d been doing. He was involved with a consortium of artists and writers that’s generally referred to under the rubric of Radical Jewish Culture, which is a heading most of the people in this so-called movement hate. He’s really one of the main guys. He came over, and one of the first comments he made was, You’re doing visually what I’m doing with music. At that time what he was doing with music was Masada, the Book of Angels series, which is a sort of a Jewish-themed chamber music for contemporary improvisors. We connected at the level of the practice underscoring our art. He said, Look you can’t just sit in your apartment and do this! You’ve got to at least start with the experience of showing your work, and then do whatever you want to do, but you can’t just put it in your closet. The next day, he set me up with Randall Morris and Shari Cavin from the Cavin Morris Gallery. Randall came over and within five minutes he said, You want a show? So I thought, If I’m gonna go this way, I’d better prepare for a show now, have the show, and then once I integrate what I’m doing outside my own bubble, then I’ll have a better idea of knowing what this is headed for.

That was the “Blood of Space” show, in 2010, which got you in the New York Times. But you’ve since left the gallery…?

At this point, I’m really not interested in having a career. I’ve taken my work off the market. I don’t particularly like the idea of somebody buying one of my drawings and hanging it in their living room. I am extremely interested in making books, though, and I’ve got a publisher [Robert Ansell of Fulgur] who is about as generous in the reins of control as humanly possible. The Sacrificial Universe was really an introduction into what I do: it’s a collection of basically everything that I had, and all the writings that I had as well. Blazing Dew of Stars is different: there’s a tremendous degree of integration between the drawings and the text. It’s a tightly composed unit, where everything is sort of talking to everything else. It’s about the most esoteric work that I was capable of producing. While I was making it I asked Robert, ‘Do you mind publishing something that really only a tiny handful of people will ever have any interest in penetrating? Or do you want me to sort of dumb this down a little bit?’ And he said, You go as far and as deep as you possibly can, as you would possibly want. [laughs] When does a publisher ever say that to a writer? I considered myself extremely lucky on that day when that was said to me, and…I tried to do it, for better or for worse.

Did you know Harry Smith? You’re both New York City. You have all these interests, and a number of people, in common. I’m thinking in particular of his animated works, which draw from some of the same mystical inspirations and concerns, or historical lineages, as your work…

I didn’t know the man, although I was at his funeral. I collect vinyl, and I am extremely interested in pre-War recordings, so of course his box sets and his collections on Folkways have been utter delights to me for my whole life. I find his printmaking to be useful and interesting. However, with the films… Ultimately I would say they didn’t go far enough. I don’t see them as having matured. I would give the same criticism about the films of somebody like Kenneth Anger, or even the writing of William Burroughs. There are ideas that overlap with things that I am intensely interested in, there’s territory where we’re occupying the same spaces, but I think that these artists, like many artists, gave in to the worldly notion of what an artist became in the late 20th century, rather than veered out of the commons, into the wildwood. Into the zone of detaching from culture, and from society, and becoming a practitioner, who essentially died to their public persona, and to their own identity, and sacrificed themselves. These individuals didn’t seem to have become the sacrifice.

When Abraham laid his son on the altar, and was ready to kill him, the Talmud tells us that Isaac was 37 years old. This is not a kid, like in the paintings. So, what is a 37-year-old doing on an altar ready to be stabbed by his father? Well, you know, his father was an old man—he could’ve pushed him over, gotten up and said No more of this. But Isaac willingly laid there! That’s the model of a practitioner. You are the sacrifice. Your identity, your place in culture, your social standing, your worldly concerns—if you’re gonna go this way, you’ve got to toss it all in the fire.

I don’t mean to be in grandiose about stating this—that is one of my myriad problems in life, is my grandiosity. But it IS a grandiose thing to want for oneself. So ultimately that is the food that the ego chews on, and one has to reconcile that as a practitioner.. Because if you’re off by yourself, and you’re pursuing these grandiose visions of your cosmic function, of course you’re going to go off the deep end and become a completely deluded individual filled with your own self-importance. The goal of a teacher is to make sure that that doesn’t happen to you. That’s one reason why I’ve remained in contact with those who’ve gone further than I have—having a teacher to kick your ass really comes in handy.

* * *

David Chaim Smith: official website

4 thoughts on “ECSTATIC UPHEAVAL: A conversation with artist David Chaim Smith (from Arthur No. 34)

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