It’s taken the magic combination of solitude, coffee and some incredible music to get me to write this blog post, which I fear will be epic. I also fear it may become some sort of manifesto. I’ll start with this:
Look at it: nothing to see.
Call it colorless.
Listen to it: nothing to hear.
Call it soundless.
Reach for it: nothing to hold.
Call it intangible.
it merges into oneness.
not bright above,
not dark below.
Never, oh! never
can it be named.
It reverts, it returns
Call it form of the unformed,
the image of no image.
Call it unthinkable thought.
Face it: no face.
Follow it: no end.
Holding fast to the old Way,
we can live in the present.
Mindful of the ancient beginnings,
we hold the thread of the Tao.
From Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, translation by Ursula K. Le Guin.
This and other words from the approximately 2600 year old Chinese text we know as the Tao Te Ching have been inspiring to me in many ways for a while now, but this body of work is the first that really responds to its ideas in a direct manner. I was originally developing this work with the view to applying to a residency at a conference centre called Green and Away. It’s a unique place, built entirely under canvas every year in some idyllic Worcestershire fields.
I was drawn to the residency because it would involve living outside in a rural location for a couple of months, using natural materials to respond to the immediate environment, and would certainly have been an amazing experience. I didn’t apply in the end because I realised they wanted someone to create a permanent artwork on the site, whilst my idea was largely centred around an extremely impermanent proposition, as you will see later on. Of course when I realised this I felt quite the buffoon, but actually I don’t mind at all because it’s led me to do some interesting new art, the background to which I will try and explain below.
I think that one of the most important things to learn – especially while studying subjects in depth at university – is to always be aware that everything you learn is to be questioned, mistrusted, and compared with alternative perspectives. Being able to apply this approach is more difficult than it may seem, because its very easy to get wrapped up in what some academic or philosopher or journalist is telling you and suddenly feel like your mind is made up on a subject. While at uni I became interested in questioning histories and myths through learning about post-modern theory, mainly in relation to music and film, and most fully through studying the work of Peter Greenaway. Forgive me the indulgence of quoting from my own dissertation, but studying Greenaway’s multi-disciplined Tulse Luper project allowed me to present him as:
“an artist working with the medium of cinema, whilst simultaneously existing within the tradition of fine art. This conclusion is made possible through the understanding of postmodernism as a discourse that allows the acceptance of paradoxes as a satisfactory method of understanding; that the notion of simultaneity allows us reconcile seemingly inharmonious aspects of contemporary culture.”
This notion of simultaneity and the acceptance of paradox applies not only to art and culture, but to society, economics, philosophy and science. For example:
“twentieth century advances in quantum mechanics led scientists to accept that, although it seems contradictory, we can satisfactorily conceive of light as both a particle and a wave”.
Gene Youngblood, author of the wonderful, thought-provoking and influential 1970 book Expanded Cinema, theorised this change as as a move from the age of “bistable logic” (yes/no, either/or) to one of “triadic logic” (yes/no/maybe, both/and), a significant shift in thinking that applies across all spheres of life.
Of course doubting everything could probably lead you into some spiral of despair, so the challenge is to develop a way to combine a questioning mind with a peaceful acceptance of uncertainty. This has been an important process for me because I have been uncertain about my own path for the last few years and when leaving university that feeling is ever-presently pertinent.
The most important thing to realise when it comes to this kind of post-modern thinking is that accepting uncertainty does not mean everything is fragmentary and directionless; it is, I believe, the role of an artist to piece together discrete and distinct elements of thought into an harmonious whole. Art happens when sustained ideas meet practised processes, and this union may, to borrow terms from the Soviet Realists, be characterised as atomic; a meeting of collision, or rather, more melodius, a meeting of linkage. Whether conceptual or figurative, aesthetically pleasing or not, for art to work it must synthesize concept and process in a harmonious way, even if that means accepting the third way, the happy paradox. In film terms, the modernists had montage, and the post-modernists have what Youngblood describes as ‘synaesthetic collage’. When applied to film, this results in:
“no obvious moments of collision or linkage, since it cannot be read linearly, and is “conceived and edited as one continuous perceptual experience… [it] is, in effect, one image continually transforming into other images: metamorphosis”.
You should probably read his book, its got some great language in it, like this, where he describes Synaesthetic Cinema as:
“the only aesthetic language suited to the post-industrial, post-literate, man-made environment with its multidimensional simulsensory network of information sources. It’s the only aesthetic tool that even approaches the reality continuum of conscious existence in the nonuniform, nonlinear, nonconnected electronic atmosphere of the Paleocybernetic age” (1970: 77).
I think that Synaesthetic Cinema and the work of Peter Greenaway represent one way in which an artist can respond to the contemporary mode of thought, that is to reflect the paradoxically fragmentary simultaneity of society in the art work’s structural and formalistic approach. While these artists embody the zeitgeist in order to reveal its contradictions, I believe it is also possible to comment upon common modes of thought by embodying alternative realities that are shocking simply by the way in which they achieve a sense of complete peace and wholeness from the acceptance of uncertainty.
What’s amazing about Taoist thought is that it kinda prefigured all this by a good couple of thousand years, and it even goes further: beyond acceptance of uncertainty, is celebration of it. This is where we go back to the poem at the beginning, which of course, is all about celebrating mystery.
Lao Tzu (Laozi by another name) had the pretty profound insight that the natural ‘way’ (Tao) of things was chaos, contradiction, uncertainty and mystery, and yet, in the natural world, everything kinda seems to work out, and has done for a really long time. This does not mean we should deny our human characteristics at all, but rather that we use them in a way that sits harmoniously with our surroundings. To do this, we must first accept uncertainty as the natural order and look with minds unclouded by any faith in supposedly established knowledge.
This all boils down to the fact that in order to find some sort of peace within all this chaos, you have to basically not worry about what anyone tells you and to look beyond any certainties you may have had about the way the world works and what you are expected to do in it, and do whatever compels you, as long as it is done with compassion, open-mindedness and integrity. For me, the meeting between ancient Chinese philosophy and Western post-modern thought as two discrete yet harmoniously related ways of thinking provides a space in which I can situate my work.
These pictures I have been doing recently are primarily about celebrating mystery, by describing very ambiguous landscapes that are deliberately left undefined. Their compositions emphasise the landscape as simply a planetary surface, and could be depicting such surfaces as existing on any other planetary object in the universe, reminding us that in their infinite variety, the planets of our universe are simultaneously related to one another. This is implied spatially by the presence of another object hanging in the sky in many of these pictures. Whether they represent suns, moons, or planets is again non-defined, yet they are there to remind us that nothing exists within a void; everything is related and inter-connected whilst remaining mysterious and infinitely beguiling.
These images needed a technique which was germane to the concept, and thus, with the Taoist notion of the uncarved block in mind, it was important for me to remove definite control from the process, at least in the formative stage of creating images. By stepping out of my comfort zone and using unpredictable but everyday substances such as soil, ash, onion skins, grass and spices to make my own paints, I was able to insert an element of mystery into the process whilst also providing an interesting link to the natural world in a direct way. It is important that these landscapes, whether Earthbound or not, have all, in a simple way, themselves been made from the dust of our world, the dust that we and everything in existence is made of.
The initial simple daubs of oily paint were then worked into with pencil, which is made of graphite, a form of carbon, an especially significant element in our relationship with our planet in human past and future. The idea was to work into the images, so that patterned mark-making celebrates the mystery of the accidental tones of paint and hints at volumes, textures, surfaces, strata, atmospheres, whilst refusing to absolutely define anything in solid terms. The framing of images is something I am conscious of, and I like to emphatically force a frame upon these images in order to draw attention to the fact that they continue outside of the frame, they are images arbitrarily chosen from the infinite possible number that exist at every moment, everywhere.
The plan was to create a series of prints, paintings and drawings made entirely from materials found in the natural environment and then present these by laying them flat on the ground in one of the fields on the Green and Away site, a method of exhibition which references Leo Steinberg’s notion of the ‘flatbed picture plane‘ whilst also allowing the works to be exposed to environmental effects that would further obscure their already-ambiguous content and gradually return the materials used to make the artworks back into the earth of their origin. Letting go of the work in this manner is an important part of the process, and relates to the act of letting go of belief in any notion of permanent truths.
“The things of this world
exist, they are;
you can’t refuse them.
To bear and not to own;
to act and not lay claim,
to do the work and let it go:
for just letting it go
is what makes it stay”
– Lao Tzu
I hope that this has served to explain the following images somewhat. It is really difficult to try and get all these thoughts down in a coherent manner, so perhaps I should stop using words and just put some pictures up.
There will be more images and lots of explanation of the paint-making process to follow shortly, but for now, that’s enough words.
Currently listening to: Bleeding Heart Narrative – Tongue Tangled Hair