Monthly Archives: July 2014

dot 11: no-man’s land

no man’s land

an indefinite or ambiguous area where guidelines and authority are not clear: a no man’s land between acceptance and rejection.

 

Douglas Repetto describes the area between art and science as no-man’s land.  Repetto is the founder of Dorkbot which is an informal club of artists, techies and geeks in New York. No-man’s land is also the area Julian Muller ascribes to those seeking their faith outside the structures of the traditional church arena. In his book Geloof anderkant Sondag (which loosely translates to ‘Faith the other side of Sunday’), Muller describes those in no-man’s land as having little in common with one another. What they do communally share, however, is confusion and the inability to express the transitional space they find themselves in. No-man’s Land has no language.

This intersecting, transitional space without words has echoes that arise from a much deeper self, and uncomfortably takes back to what is feels like to be socially marginalized. In my case because of my sexual orientation which is probably why I’m reading Julian Muller’s book in the first place. In the traditional church arena there is neither the language nor space for people like myself to fit in. This in turn, reminds me of when I was once asked by an interviewer whether I regarded myself as a contemporary South African artist? Her article was about my artwork that intersected art and science. I was slightly taken aback by her question at the time, simply because her question implied that there was no recognizable space for such work within the South African art landscape. A place between acceptance and rejection?

So why am I writing about no-man’s land now? It is in response to an article by Alexander Matthew I read in The Times this morning . Entitled Once more with feeling it describes the curatorial practice taken by Darren Levy in Perspective 1, currently showing at Stevenson Gallery (Cape Town). The title signifies Levy’s practice in that ‘he has loosely woven together works that he feels are connected by a “quiet sensibility”. To me this is refreshing and a clear side-step away from predetermined meaning. More importantly though, it indicates that understanding and connections are made in spite of the lack of language for those caught in in-between spaces. Matthew describes such non-verbal connections using words such as ‘hints’ and ‘resonance’.

Perhaps it’s another way of saying that words aren’t so important after all for those living in No-man’s Land.

 

 

For more on Perspectives 1 see: http://www.stevenson.info/

 

 

 

 

 

dot 10: aperture

If you can master aperture you put into your grasp real creative control … aperture is where a lot of the magic happens …

These are the words of the photographer, Darren Rowse. They sound quite simple, but as every beginning photographer knows, mastering aperture is in fact a lot trickier than it initially seems. Knowing what it is (the opening of the lens) is not the same as knowing how to do it (the balanced relationship between lens and light). Certain principles and settings need to be constantly kept in mind whilst constantly making the wiser choice between the two.

I would like to explore aperture not in the context of photography but as a metaphor for the creative process itself. Knowing what to do, what to include and exclude whilst art[making] comes naturally to me. It is an effortless status. What is difficult are the doubts, insecurities and anxieties that often infiltrate my mind even before I’ve started. In thoughts without a thinker, author Mark Epstein, M.D. – in exploring psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective – explains that in ancient Buddhist psychological text there is ‘but one method of successfully working with such material – by wisely seeing it.’

As I understand it, seeing wisely means working with the ‘lesser’ material, those negative issues that exist as part of the creative self anyway. It involves coming to terms with the ‘unwanted, unexplored, and disturbing aspects of our being’ and ‘to not try to screen out the unpleasant.’ In seeing wisely one is urged to ‘take whatever is given.’

I imagine that an artist such as Willem Boshoff (South Africa) does in fact see wisely. Observing the way in which Boshoff incorporates text and image into his art[making] process, I am reminded of the lens and light dichotomy. Boshoff has written dictionaries all his life and text has infiltrated his mind constantly. Using the metaphor of aperture again, Boshoff has somehow managed to perfectly balance the ratios between the monumental volume of text, and the subsequent flow to his selective art[making] process. What could be seen as almost obsessive behaviour in the writing of multiple volumes of dictionaries, is perhaps the accepting of what has been given to him. As Boshoff says:

I had no thought at the time that I would make an artwork from each dictionary, but some of my most important pieces have come out of them.

Seeing Boshoff’s work again at SMAC art gallery (Cape Town) over the weekend, I am reminded to work with what has been given to me.

 

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Willem Boshoff. Detail from Alchemical Sigils (2012), intrauterine devices

  1. For more on Willem Boshoff: http://www.willemboshoff.com/
  2. For more on Viewing room “#01 Typography at SMAC: www.smacgallery.com
  3. For more on Darren Rowse: www.digital-photography-school.com

dot 9: thinking

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I generally think too much, or so I think. Most of the time there seems to be a significant imbalance between thinking and art[making]. This weighted difference can distress me at times simply because the output of all my thinking – as represented in the above image – is minimal. This is not to say that the output of cognitive work should be equated to volume of mass. Often what is essential can be counted on one hand.

Hands can be telling as they forage through the air. Gestures tell their own story apart from what their humans may be saying. In the 14 minute video Three Views of the Higgs and Dance Emily Coates(Dance) and Sarah Demers (Physics) collaborate with physicists at CERN with the view to create a dance. Art and Science is to meet. They ask physicists to firstly tell them about Higgs and, secondly, to describe what the dance would look like if the Higgs field were able to be portrayed. In this collaboration it is the gestures that will create the dance.

What I found utterly fascinating was the fact that each physicists appeared not only willing to collaborate, but completely engaged in this transitory process where they moved beyond pure scientific thinking. How did they do this? How were they able to leave the thinking space to pursue a more imaginary one? My view is that their gestures – directly related to the movement of their minds – helped push them towards a more embodied imagination.

As Albert Einstein said:

I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.

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For more on the physicists interviewed (video) at CERN visit http://vimeo.com/82400379

dot 8: success and failure

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My answer to the above question was to exhibit work at the Dak’Art Biennale. The Dak’Art Biennale is held bi-annually in Senegal (West Africa) and is the only art Biennale on the African continent.  Only 5 or so visual artists are selected to represent their country. I was selected in 2008. It was a great moment for me, an achievement that I had anticipated for a number of years. However, I could not have anticipated the after-effects of this pinnacle. After returning from Dak’Art 2008 I started feeling lost and struggled to gain my foothold again. This unanticipated space left me feeling confused and anxious. Why was this?

The writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, has just answered that for me. According to Gilbert, there is a strong correlation between great failure and great success. Both of these intense experiences can catapult you away from yourself. The danger is that you can get lost in the hinterland of the psyche as the subconscious can only evaluate the distance from where you’ve been flying from yourself. Another way of saying this would be, as  Marshall Vian Summers says, ‘To know where we are going, we need to know where we have been.’ Even though I knew I had somehow lost my pathway coming back from a successful Dak’Art, that didn’t necessarily mean that I knew where to go from there, nor did I have a clue as to restore my previous sense of creative self.

Self-restoration, Gilbert says, means understanding what ‘home’ is. An interesting idea don’t you think? But how do you know what your home is? Gilbert points towards whatever you love more than yourself: that is what home is, where you ‘rightfully live.’ So practically, what does this entail? To self-restore, Gilbert says, is to:

Identify the best, worthiest thing and then build yourself on top of it. Fight yourself home: fight with diligence, respect … whatever it takes. Keep doing it again and again.

 Thank you Elizabeth Gilbert.

http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_success_failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating?utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_content=button__2014-04-25#t-324780

dot 7: mark[making]

In a recent collaboration between the artists Olaf Elliason and Ai Weiwei, each spoke about what they considered mark[making] to be. Both Olaf Elliason and Ai Weiwei have created a project where any person can create a mark of any kind on their virtual Moon site. For more on this project http://www.moonmoonmoonmoon.com/#sphere

Ai Weiwei indicates that mark[making] is the most significant thing you could possibly imagine, such as the ‘last words of a dying man’. Olafur Elliason points towards the importance of mark[making] which includes ‘the marks that are being excluded, suppressed or just not being taken care of’. Both of these viewpoints hold great interest for me. This is, firstly, because I have been in the presence of many people I have nursed as they indeed spoke their last words, and secondly, because I do not take care of my own mark[making].

Such profound moments ought not to go unnoticed. Phenomenal shifts of this kind should be valued for what they are. So many times I catch myself disregarding something I have made, some mark I have created or some trace that has been left behind along my creative journey. If, indeed, I were to honour it in the realm of passing itself, I would certainly be placing my creative self-worth at a higher level – where it ought to be.

Reflecting on the geographical and media restrictions placed on Ai Weiwei in China, the act of creating  for this iconic artist is neither haphazard nor without impending danger (such as torture). This no doubt also weights the value of mark[making]. It would stand me in good stead to remember the meaningfulness of art under such dire circumstances. Art matters in situations where creativity may appear to hold little or no value, such as in the context of the 295 lives lost in the Malaysian Boeing MH17. We should be mindful of Olafur Elliason’s words of truth:

 

Even in a tiny, tiny mark, there’s a mark that matters.

 

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dot 6: play

Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in new light.

Greg McKeown gives the above definition for play in his remarkable book Essentialism: the Disciplined Pursuit of Less. He follows through with pointing out that the acknowledged great thinkers such as Columbus, Watson & Crick, Mozart and Einstein made their breakthroughs during times of play.

When thinking of artists and play, Liza pops up. From my perspective, Liza Grobler (South Africa) is a visual artist that spends her creative hours having immense fun. Having each had a studio in the same building for a short while, I would often find Liza sitting on the floor of her studio, simply playing. Her studio space was a chaos of colour, textures and pipe-cleaners. I have no doubt that her current studio looks the same. Her playfulness dictates her work. I would love to be more like Liza. She is a prolific artist.

If I am able to recognize what it is to play creatively – as Liza does – why is it so difficult for me to do then? What stands in the way? Don’t all artists ‘just’ play? Am I the lone exception or is it more common that I may think? It’s hard to know, beyond what’s obvious. Does having nursed a countless number of people in their final moments before crossing to the Other Side, count for the obvious? Surely life is altered after experiencing death alongside those you have cared for? Or is it scarred ..?

Even though I know that play is both essential and that it sparks exploration, as does the Essentialist, I find it hard to play.

 

Liza Grobler

Liza Grobler

For more info on the South African artist Liza Grobler visit   www.lizagrobler.co.za 

 

 

dot 5: kindness

A friend recently sent me a quote on Twitter. It reads as follows:

My religion is simple. My religion is kindness.

This incredibly powerful – yet simple statement – grabbed my attention. I have been mulling over the idea of kindness ever since, not because I find it difficult to be kind to other people or even to be kind in general, but because I find it incredibly hard to be kind to myself. Even more so on a creative level.

It’s unclear to me where this unkindness towards my creative self stems from, although I’m sure Dr. T (a cognitive behavioural therapist) would be able to spell it out quite neatly for me if I asked him to. I have no doubt, however, that there are, most probably, a myriad of origins from which the unkindness could spring from. For me (and here Dr. T would be proud of me) the more relevant line of questioning is: “What am I able to do about it now?” and “In what way could I address this?”

There are no quick fixes to this layered level of unkindness. It requires constant awareness. Awareness to what, you may ask? The unkindness of the (eternal) internal critic. The Barefoot Doctor, who gives Taoist wisdom for everyday living in his book Dear Barefoot, deals with his internal critic in quite a creative way:

The way I do it – it’s very childish – is to picture that critic sitting in that great cinema within, watching (critically) the movie of my life story as it unfolds in my forebrain. I then approach him authoritatively and escort him round the back of the house, and there, standing against the wall, give him a (respectful) slap … and firmly tell him to shut up. He can come back in and enjoy the movie, but he has to keep his thoughts to himself.

www.barefootdoctorworld.co.uk

This barefoot, simplistic and creative way works for me, although it sometimes also fails. However, the awareness of the unkindness of the critic towards your creativity means you are half way there to giving him that respectful slap.

dot 4: atrium

A lapa is an outdoor structure, popular in South Africa. Generally, this design is made up of a thatched roof that commonly rests on wooden poles. There is nothing spectacular about this structure, other than signifying a circular space where close friends gather and meet. Generally built-in close proximity to the domestic living area, it is an atrium where your closest friends and family spend time with you. As a previous ICU nurse, the word atrium naturally also navigates me towards the physical body. In the context of the body, the atrium has two primal functions: firstly, it receives blood from the body to pump through to the ventricles, and, secondly, within the walls of the atrium are the embedded nodes that initiate electrical impulse for heart contractions. It’s the centre point  of what makes you tick.

From whichever point you view it, the atrium is a pretty powerful place wouldn’t you say? In many ways, it is the place from where you generate your ideas and initiate yourself from within yourself towards your environment.  Regardless as to whether that context is physical or social, it is nothing short of essential that you should take great care of this space.

In creative recovery, protecting your atrium starts with an awareness of those who acknowledge and support your creativity. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron speaks of how important creating a sense of safety around people is. To visualize your autonomy, Cameron suggests the following:

Take a sheet of paper. Draw a circle. Inside the circle, place the names of those you find supportive. Outside the circle, place the names of those you must be self-protective around just now.

You can add names to the inner and outer areas as you find appropriate using this visualization as a map, as Cameron suggests. I have personally found this to be a very insightful exercise as to whom I have excluded from within my atrium.

 

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dot 3: tempo

Although it’s an exhilarating experience to work at high creative speed and energy, there are times when making art can be painstakingly slow. During creative recovery, art making can be cautious due to overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. However, there are clear advantages to a slowed-down art making process.

In Greek mythology,  Oedipus’s father pins his son’s ankles together and leaves him to die on a mountain. (He does this to prevent that Oedipus will unwittingly kill his father and marry his own mother.) In his book Labyrinth, Peter Pesic explores the idea of ‘the wounded seeker’,  the seeker of truth in the search for the hidden meaning in Science. The seeker, who like Oedipus is ‘wounded in his feet’ and is lame, has an advantage in seeking a new kind of knowledge. Pesic explains the relation between lameness and insight:

Rather than crippling disabilities, these wounds are the very means through which he finds the solution to the riddle: his lameness slows him down and lets him grasp what others hurry past.

When I restarted in my studio after many years I felt paralyzed to create. To cope with this complexity I needed to defragment and deconstruct my thought processes. I imagined that my environment purely rested on the binary of circles and lines and nothing else. In other words, this was all there was to draw and interpret.

I started  simply in this way – drawing circles and lines – as this was all there supposedly was to draw. I reckoned that even if I managed to draw even one circle a day I had made art for that day.  Although I was perturbed by the minimal amount of work I had to show at the end of a working day, there was a definitive, growing sense of creative self-worth. By the end of the first week I was able to explore slightly deeper.

Like Oedipus, my wound (my slow art making process) becomes my path to a new kind of knowledge.

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dot 2: fascination

A significant residue after a period of creative confinement is that of dulled senses. It’s like being a dog that lacks sensory smell. When I take my whippets out for their daily run, the first thing they do is to determine their route by way of sensory inputs. Each whiff determines a trajectory and subsequent direction. If this sensory antenna was nullified, I doubt they would have any idea of what they were actually supposed to do, other than walk. In short, their fascination with life would be over.

As a creative, you certainly haven’t lost your fascination with life. Yet there seems to be a slowness, a dullness in the way you filter your environment. It’s as though the sensory signals you are picking up are either extremely random or else awkwardly merged, making it difficult to work with such distorted signaling. Unfortunately, this distortion generates its own cycle of creative anxiety which, in turn, paralyzes us. How can we change this?

Like the scattering of crumbs (see explaining the dots) intervention can be incredibly simple. Use what you have on you:  actively start listening to sounds that surround you. You are surrounded by surround-sound daily, no matter where you are. Close your eyes to hear what you are inputting, paying attention to where sounds are coming from in relation to your body. Ask yourself whether it would be possible to translate such sounds to very simple mark-making? When you’re waiting for public transport, in a queue or parked outside the school grounds  to pick up your child, start paying attention to your immediate surroundings in a different way. Just different, that’s all. Apply the same to your sense of smell, taste and skin response. The idea here is not to be doing something phenomenal. It’s about moving out of the dullness and into attention zone.

I’ll give you an example. Like millions of soccer fans across the globe I have been mesmerized by the skill and dance of these athletes . At some point I shifted from merely viewing the game, to looking at the sport as a possible kinetic drawing. I plonked my drawing surface in front of the TV, and subsequently followed the ball movement for 2 hours or so. Moving out of the dullness of ‘just’ looking, to seeing differently.

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Like children, we need to [re]connect to the pull of fascination. Focus on the external objects of fascination (and not on who you think you are)