A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature at the New York Botanical Garden. It was a spectacular art show, at once timeless and original. Her sculptures and installations—unlike many that I have seen—integrated with and enhanced the pleasure of seeing the trees and gardens, and the bright colors, organic colors, and illusions of infinity were perfect for a late summer day spent walking around outside.
And yet, when I think about the name of the show—Cosmic Nature—I can’t help but think about how different it is from that which I normally associate with the word “cosmic.” When I think of the word “cosmic” I think of outer space, of the old Hayden planetarium I used to visit as a kid, and of the feeling of infinite falling I always experienced when the lights went out and the stars came on. I think of great powers, of Thor and Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock, of brightly colored comic book pages by Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin. I don’t think of polka-dotted pumpkins.
Now, please don’t take this a criticism of Kusama, her work, or her title. As mentioned above, I loved the show. It is all part of a larger rhetorical point about the way each person’s experience affects the way they associate with certain words. What point? I’ll get to that in a moment.
I know…I know…
I will. But first…In my time, recently, hanging out with indie comics and horror writers, I’ve encountered a large community whose first association with the word “cosmic” relates to the work of HP Lovecraft. Now, I’ve never, personally been a Lovecraft fan: I prefer my horror gothic to cosmic (and that was before I learned about his racism), but his fans are legion, and, in the circles in which I now travel, it is as likely as not that the word “cosmic” conjures the images of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods as anything else in the mind of the person with whom I’m conversing.
These definitions of “cosmic” all derive from the same source, yet they connote very different things. According to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the cosmic means either “Of or pertaining to the universe as an ordered system or totality; universal; immense; infinite.” It can also mean, “belonging to the universe as opposed to earth; extraterrestrial,” and “characteristic of the vast scale of the universe or traveling through space.”
Whether it’s the planetarium, Marvel’s power cosmic, Lovecraftian gods, or Kusama’s artwork (in which many pieces address the infinite through her use of mirrors, and where the polka dot motif is supposed to hint at the ways stars and planets are seen from vast distances) each of these uses of “cosmic” fits the dictionary definition. And yet, the mood and tone—the feeling one gets from each of these interpretations is vastly different, and, therefore, the connotation of the word—especially on first reading it in a new or unfamiliar context—is likely to be different for every reader (or viewer) depending on their own, personal experience.
About a month ago, I wrote about reading the dictionary with an eye for etymology. I suggested following Tolkien’s example and diving deep into word origins to find a subtext that gives a richness to your writing and a consistency to your themes. It is a technique that I still believe in, and I practice I intend to explore further. But, as a counterpoint, each artist must be aware that their audience’s experiences and contexts—and therefore their associations with certain words—may be different from their own. We all bring a piece of ourselves to our engagement with art, and there are a myriad of permutations within the cosmic vastness of the human experience.