Friday, 5 January 2018

You are not just a sponge, they say. You are a prism.

The paintings carry messages. They're communications, rather than 'things I made', because I didn't decide or concoct them. The different elements that appear in them are residues of sense impressions that arrived into the field of my awareness at some point in my historical experiencing, and now these residues are pushing and dancing and saying that they want to come out and breathe a new air. You are not just a sponge, they say. You are a prism.

A human is a point of living, breathing awareness in a vast sea of elemental forces and objects. All living creatures are this kind of point, many of them with probably exactly same kind of awareness. Awareness is not cognition. It is not thinking, concocting, analysing, deciding. These are particular functions of mind that can be interesting, and that can be tools. But they can also be distractions from the reality of awareness, the actual reality of being. We can use our minds to know the reality of being, but we are programmed away from this, for some reason.

I see the right use of my mind as being to bring my awareness into focus, my existence into awareness.

My task as a maker of images is not to invent or arrange or in any way actively seek to produce. It is a process of encouraging the intentional, willing part of my mind to give up, to stop trying, to back off, to shut up.

This has meant days and weeks and months of 'not producing'. Leaving be. Trying to form spaces into which accumulated  or accumulating image forms are free to slide out onto paper, to sneak themselves into vision through flowing ink or shades of colour. They want to live and breathe, but they can't do so if there's any kind of ego intentionality getting in their way. Ego intentionality is a dam to their pressing flow, they hit up against it and simply flow back into the darkness that contains them; as a wave of energy that has no direction or desires they are not bothered to be seen or formed or known or articulated.

But I am bothered to see them. Some part of my mind that watches everything wants them to be free to move out into the parts of the field where energies and impressions can take form, reflect light, absorb it and become colour.

The less I have any sense of the possibilities for form the better. I notice this over and over, that when I free myself from the image forms mattering, the pent up forms that want to live beyond my conscious intention are free to emerge. There's a momentary slit in the quantum experience experiment and they find their way out.

Then they speak, using symbols, dream shapes, allegories, allusions. And I cannot understand them, although I try. I never know how they will come or what language they will be speaking. Sometimes the unknowing unhinges me and I feel that I should go back and look at them all, 'do something' with them. You know... artist things.... work them into bigger images, plan something, use my mind. But very quickly when I try this, I become overwhelmed with the sheer multitude of their messages and the complexity of their talk. They speak in so many tongues, all at once, and I become paralysed.

When this happens I retreat. I give up the task of sitting with the myriad forms that have peeled their way through the slit, and try to remember to go back to the calm peace of the empty page. I give up everything and attempt to summon up just enough intentionality to remember to cut off the distractions of daily life and put a mark maker in my hand. And then I let the marker touch the empty page.

Everything seems to be trying to teach me about this moment, the return to the unborn/birthing instant as I breathe and see my hand holding the paper still. And then the hand starts to move, the ink begins to flow, and though I am empty of any kind of forming, any kind of knowing, something begins to live.

The hand of the sculptor on the rough sandstone block that forms one piece in the construction of the temple at Halebid is there; the stories that he grew up with of gods and kings and strange forces that fed his dreams and dared him to defy the rules and make an impish cat strike a yogic pose at Mahabalipuram are there;  the first sculptor becomes the second, separated by hundreds of years, moving from the North West to the South East in this merging of all time, all experience.

Chronological and cultural impositions fall away, like old lichen dropping off an overwintering tree. The tree notices nothing, only lets the sap flow from the roots up through the trunk, waiting to arrive into the branches and make leaves.


Tuesday, 12 September 2017

there is more to woman than eroticism

Continuing on the theme of 'erotic' in (my) images.... This is an Aztec image of a decapitated, dismembered goddess. She has breasts, but you would have to concede, would you not, that the presence of breasts here is not an erotic affair....

There is more to breasts, and there is more to woman, than eroticism...

Monday, 11 September 2017

'Btw, has anyone ever asked you about the erotic nature of your artwork?'

A recent email exchange with a friend...

'By the way, has anyone asked you about the erotic nature of your artwork? The energy and vibrancy of your images is amazing, and maybe it is just me, but there are quite a few which have an erotic edge to them....?'

Erotic. Ha! I'm curious as to whether you mean only the large-breasted dancers or other things as well. I always forget that my images are likely to be read in various ways linked to sex and eroticism that are usually quite hidden from me. I'm working within an Indian aesthetic, and the Indian art that I'm influenced by is one with Indian philosophies and Indian world views. Nature goddesses with large breasts adorn temple gateways, lush creepers twining around their massive legs, animals looking out from behind their feet - I'm so used to seeing it all as one big principle really. If you see people making offerings to a large stone in India, do you say, that's erotic, because you know it's called a Shiva lingam, which is technically God's penis?

No, because you know that that, and the yoni stone of the goddess, are symbolic forms that hold layers and layers and layers of meaning, all pointing to a huge cosmic principle.

It's complicated in India though. There's also a massive theme which can only be described as a kind of divine eroticism, which runs along many tributaries of Indian tradition, particularly the most devotional approaches, and most particularly devotional approaches associated with Krishna.

A bit like Rumi and mystics from other traditions - the longing for the erotically charged other becomes subsumed into the longing for union with God; God as the beloved.... So the edges are very blurry, and I believe also really quite hard for people in our tradition to ever fully grasp.

Along with this is the fact that in India love and making love and eroticism are cheerfully described in sacred texts on how to live as just a juicy part of life to be fulsomely enjoyed. In textual descriptions of 'the four stages of life' - student, householder, forest dweller, ascetic - it's perfectly fine in stage two to make loads of money and spend the hot steamy pre-monsoon months endlessly swooning around your lover, everything dripping with moisture and longing for the cooling rains (there are bucketloads of sweaty poetry on this theme...).

Let's see... so that's:

1) Life principle; generation, birth, cycles of growing and falling away; life force, breath; human as a tiny speck in a connected universe, an outbreath of God, containing and being contained by all of nature

In other words, general fecundity of life and life forms...

2) Divine eroticism; mystical longing for union with the other; other as god; other as lover; god as lover

3) And lastly, what's wrong with some glorious fornication anyway? Love, pleasure, wonderful-smelling unguents, dusky coloured powders, tantalising jewellery, thin lines of hair to the navel 
(see   ), the curve of a hip, the languid gaze of a young lover...  All things of the world to be gloried in and experienced.

When I make my images, all of this is there, and more. And I somehow have to put up with people thinking I'm painting 'sexy ladies' or 'empowered women' etc etc. 

But that's not my concern. I make an image for myself and then I feed it to you for your imagination to play with - all beyond my control!


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

I'm there, and here, in ritual time, in no time....

I posted this on facebook yesterday, and someone said that it was a true fantasy world. I'm not interested in trying to correct their personal resonance, that's the point, that they look into it and see what they see. But when I read their interpretation, I realised that for me this is no fantasy world. This is the world.

This is human experience. I can't really word it ... in here there are elements of symbols and shapes scratched by humans (in this case, Picts...) onto stone, over 2,000 years ago. In an instant, by being present here in my present, these shapes and forms dissolve all the years that stand between me and the maker of those signs. I'm there, and here, in ritual time, in no time. Standing in the experience of a fellow human, with all their wonder and fear, their confusion and their attempts to make meaning; inhabiting their projections onto this strange and unfathomable world, the world of their own strange and unfathomable being. And in this shared ritual time there's a split pain in the belly, a portal into blood and heat. And all around, as fast as the image tries to hold itself true to the meaning it hopes to use to anchor the world inside and outside, all that tries to be solid is melting... the shapes and the colours and the forms that we project in our desperate attempt to hold on, to inhabit and create meaning, are dissolving....

Thanks, Sarah-Jane Summers, for your comment.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Humans making meaning, marks and signs

As I came out of my long, reflective, I-don't-need-to-make-any-images period, I found myself in the Chamber Street Museum, here in Edinburgh.

I used to go to this museum a lot when I was a child; eight, nine, ten years old. The museum, along with my father's books on Crete and Phoenicia, set the path of my life. It sowed a seed of fascination, as I copied Egyptian friezes and hung out with the boa constrictor and the skeletons on the third floor.

What were those symbols of the past, undecipherable forms scratched onto stone?

Scratched into stone. Shapes scratched into stone. Lost meanings, scratched into stone.

Now the Picts, here in the land of my birth.

Picts/animals, like human/peacocks.... birds, dreams, horns, fear, celebration, propitiation ....


Friday, 2 June 2017

Different purposes for art: the image as transformer

A day after I wrote 'How did it come to this', I went back and added this line near the end:

'This is ironic, if it's true - that working from life, for me, kills the life force in my images'

How can this be? Isn't it the wonder and beauty (or horror and tragedy) of life that makes someone want to produce an image? How can 'working from life' - which many people working in the Euro/American tradition would probably agree is essential to make convincing, vibrant images - how can it be that working from life produce its opposite?

This all revolves, in my view, around how you see the purpose of your own art-making. For me, the purpose of having 'a precious human life' is to use yourself as a transformer. I wonder if not using yourself as a transformer is when 'dead' images appear.

One way of working that can allow you to bypass your own transformative capabilities is making paintings from photographs. Not paintings from your own photographs, which can act like notes to remind you of your own experience of actually being there... but finding a landscape, say, already neatly made into a 2 D image, and basically copying it. It can be technically instructive to do that, but on the whole the process doesn't lead to images that are alive, at least for me.

If you only focus on accuracy, say, drawing what's in front of you as 'true to life' as possible, you will become very good at accurate drawing. But there's also a chance that your drawing will be dead.

A drawing 'from' life, if it's only technical, lacks the life in the original object. The real object now is a piece of paper or a canvas. Which is not alive. So something has to happen to make the illusion on the paper live again.

I didn't understand how this worked for a long time. The beauty and mystery of a real world object would attract me, and I would want to respond. I had been taught that the appropriate response to something I liked visually was to try to reproduce it on paper. I'm not knocking this urge, or the delight the act can bring. I'm not saying that people can't produce wonderful things in response to this urge.

I did it for years, and I learnt many things about the private satisfactions of improving technique, of being able to 'capture' what was in front of me. But after a while I thought, yes, it feels lovely. But, so what? There are cameras now. I can do it for my own satisfaction in the feeling of doing, but, still, so what? Something was lacking.

I wasn't interested in the contemporary traditions of my own culture - their purposes somehow left me cold. I had no idea. I had a feeling, an instinct, towards wanting to make images that entered into some kind of darkness, some other layer. I remember a moment one day trying to paint tree trunks in Italy. I was staring at the darkness of the black trunks and I could feel it. I knew I had to try to express it but I had no idea how that could come about. I wanted to make paintings that would excite me on this level, even just for myself, so that I could look at a painting and actually feel something, feel moved. I wanted an image to have power, I wanted it to shift me around and spit me out in a different form.

I remember, very early on, reading something about Pat painters in India. Pat painters are itinerant storytellers who travel around singing stories as they roll out a long painted frieze that illustrates the story.

Contemporary Pat Painting about Aids

I think I probably got this mixed up with something else I read about images being 'enlivened'. Something about the eye being painted in last (it can't have been the Pat painters, because they don't paint the image live, as far as I know...). Anyway, a seed was planted. A seed about images having power. Not being accurate, not even having to be skillfully (for which often read, 'realistically'...) rendered. It didn't matter if the eye that was enlivened had eyelashes. Nobody cared if the face looked like it was attached to a body in the actual world, with the sun shining on it from the left. The point was the eye, looking at you.

This idea stuck with me through all the years of English teaching, through all my personal disasters, through all the scrabbling to make a living in various parts of the world.

Fast forward to the spring of 1994. I'm sitting in the office of a lecturer in Vaishnavism at Madras University in South India, staring at the painted stripes that run from his hairline to the point between his eyes; taking in the fact that a university lecturer is sitting behind his large oak desk with a bare torso, a sacred thread, wearing a dhoti; and noticing that in his right ear there's a square earring that these days I know (because now I'm doing a degree in Indian art and philosophy) contains 9 gems, each one of which has a particular significance.

I'm here to interview him about how a piece of regular rock, the kind of stuff that anyone can sit on at the side of the road, goes about the process of being transformed into an actual, living embodiment, of actual, only-on-of-them, God with a capital G (which, of course, no-one can touch). I don't know how I've blagged my way into his office, but everyone in South India is assuming because of my age that I'm at the very least a PhD student, and a lot of doors are strangely and very generously opening to me.

He tells me, in a very academic way,  how the process of 'enlivening' through painting in the eye of a temple image takes place and is understood in the texts. Then, to my amazement, he slips seamlessly from his academic, analytical mind into his experiential body, and starts to tell me what it feels like to stand in front of an image of God and receive darshan. Darshan is the moment when the worshipper, standing in the dark womb heart of the temple, in front of the image, looks up, and his eyes meet the eyes of God.

It's like an electric shock, he said.

There it was. The image as transformer, a live conduit, and through it, the viewer of the image is enlivened and transported into a different sense of themselves.

In some traditions, there's only a mirror in the sacred centre of the temple, no image at all. And at the end of the Teyyam ritual in North Kerala, as the possessed dancer is coming out of their trance, they're shown a mirror, to receive darshan of themselves, transformed.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

the pause continues

It's shocking for me to pause. Ever since I started image-making again, I've been compelled, albeit gently, albeit not necessarily for hours at a time, to keep going. To not fall back as I did so many times before... scared of giving up in the face of the uncertainty of it all, and the strangeness of my chosen practice of trying to 'sit in a room and wait for something to happen' (Anish Kapoor).

I've thought of it recently as 'making space for things arising'. Forcing, intention, trying, pushing, are all quietly shown the door.

Who says that only the actual making of an image is 'working', or whatever it is that this thing is, my life, my correct life, the life that was always trying to breathe itself through me?

In the discomfort of the pause, I strive to stay awake. To stay with it, to feel everything that's present at the same time, all the layers of it, without the release of satisfactory doing.

And one thing that has arisen is the idea of pausing to look at what has appeared over nine years of this process.

These images are communications. They carry a mystery. This whole process is a communication, carries a mystery.

It doesn't do to hurry such things.