Friday, 31 October 2014

how do you dance?

I've not been consciously thinking about the way that the dancers have started to transform recently. I've been pleased to see them, and they seem to know what they're doing, and what they want. It was only when I got some feedback from someone that I began to consider the different ways in which they might be interpreted.

These dancers are not serious, painterly renditions that bow to the history of European/American/Greek traditions of realism. The want to stretch their bodies in all directions, to twist and turn and express that key principle of Indian Aesthetics, which is the movement of life through/in a body. 

'He who paints waves, flames, smoke and streamers fluttering in the air according to the movement of the wind should be considered a great painter. He knows painting... who represents the dead devoid of life movement and the sleeping possessed of it.'

Vishnudharmottaram, 3, 33: 1-39

I like the way that these dancers play with the Indian artist's lack of interest in realism, which is so different from the European/American/Greek tradition. Whereas the European artist was, and often still is, interested in accuracy of proportion, muscular exactitude, and attention to physical likeness, the Indian classical artist didn't care if the proportions were a little different from a real physical form, or if arms or toes or hands were doing things that arms and toes and hands couldn't actually do. They were interested in the breath. For me this takes the image into a different (not better, just different) philosophical realm, which is distinct from the interest in accuracy of form. It's a different metaphysics, and a different purpose for art. 

As an artist, I would get more ready strokes from people looking at my images if I concentrated on perfecting my capacity to realistically 'capture' muscle, bone and proportion. Fun as it is, now, to be starting to draw from life again, the Greek aesthetic doesn't really hold any appeal for me. There are many people already working with this aesthetic, and I don't see any need to add myself to their number.

Artists choose particular aspects of life to work with; the human form, social critique, emotional interplay, injustice, transience, death... I choose to focus on life itself; on the movement of life through people and the world.

In the face of social injustice, transience, death and futility, these dancers say 'Look! How extraordinary to be alive!' 'How extraordinary to have a body, to be able to respond to music!'. Perhaps they seem trivial compared to a mighty life drawing or a hard-hitting piece of conceptual art. But I think they know something that we need.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014


'...'Creation' in this Hindu view of things is designated by the word shrishti, literally, 'pouring forth' of the universe from its source. As a complex plant or tree grows, bursting forth and developing from a simple unitary seed... so is this whole and diverse universe poured forth... There is no god who stands apart from it and creates it... Everything is a manifestation that has poured forth from the living body of the whole.'

Diana Eck, India

'Everything is a manifestation that has poured forth from the living body of the whole.' 

The idea of the world as a living body, and of everything in the world as an emergence from a de-centred whole, is in line with contemporary theories in science of complexity and emergence. It's an ecological view, which sees everything in the world as connected, and perhaps even in some ways alive. The ecological cycle which creates rain has no components which we would say were literally alive, in the way that humans or cats or fungi or amoebas are alive, but the ecological processes that produce rain are dynamic and completely dependent upon each other.

There is a very ancient tradition in Hindu creation myths about 'the man'; the cosmic man who was sacrificed by the gods, to the gods, at the beginning of time. In Jain cosmology the giant man is holding the world in his hands, at the level of his belly:

The cosmic man is also inherent in the foundation plan of the Hindu temple:

The human is the world, the human contains the world... 

Rather than, the world is here for human dominion, to be plundered in whatever way humans feel inclined...


Monday, 13 October 2014

blue-lotus dark and cloud-dark

'...Now I shall speak to you about the division of dark and white... of different colours in this world, from which the two-fold colour of all is explained (ie. the light and dark shade of every colour).

Among these colours, the white (light shade) should be of five kinds and dark of twelve kinds. Bright (gold), light (white), tooth white, pure sandal-white, autumn-cloud-white and autumn-moon-white - these five traditionally are called the fivefold white (light shade).

The varieties of dark should be: reddish-dark, brownish-dark, sprout (greenish) dark and grayish dark, tawny dark and topaz dark, creeper-dark and monkey dark. Then come blue-lotus dark and blue as the nilakantha bird, and purple-lotus dark and cloud-dark.'

Vishundharmottara Purana, Part 111, ch 27


Thursday, 9 October 2014

art in the world

I'm currently working on pulling together some of the different strands of the work I've been doing over the last few years, which has so far appeared in a largely instinctive and intuitive way. This year, however, I've learnt that working entirely intuitively can be dangerous - you can get derailed and lose your way.

I want to be clearer not only about some of the themes and ideas that I'm interested in, but also about what my art is trying to do in the world. Because although I'm fascinated by the details of the creative process, and all the ways that people seem to so often get in its way, I'm also interested in art as something more than a personally satisfying project. And, I have to say, art as something more than what is trending in the Cork Street galleries in London or what is currently deemed to be fashionable or worth investing in.

Perhaps one of the things that has always attracted me to Indian art is that traditionally, art in India was never made purely for the satisfaction of the individual artist. I guess you could come back against that and say, well, the great artists in the European and America traditions weren't just working for their own satisfaction either, they were driven by a compulsion to open art up in new ways; to push and explore, to move the history of art on into a new world.

The European/American project has been exhilarating, and even now, when you could argue that it becomes harder and harder to make visual work that cracks things open in this way, it still is. The direction that mainstream/gallery art has taken over the last few decades, however, has been increasingly conceptual, with the visceral, experiential and aesthetic somewhat falling out of favour. The purpose of art is often now described as being 'to challenge you and make you think' rather than any number of other purposes that might be tied to the lusciousness of colour, the voyaging of the imagination, or philosophical ideas that are not directly to do with art and/or the idea of art 'for its own sake'.

So what about the aesthetic? What of the power of the visual to reach in and touch people's souls; to lift them out of despair or expand them into a greater sense of connectedness and joy? What of a visceral response to colour and form, that can actually produce an altered experience of being in the world, even if only for a moment?

In India, at least perhaps until the 19th or 20th centuries, the purpose of pretty much all art was at the very least to use the power of aesthetics to suggest or teach philosophical ideas. Aesthetics was also used to try to actively create specific experiential effects in the viewers of art. The theory of rasa, for example, laid out the means for creating specific emotions in the audience (such as longing, passion, betrayal etc), and informed all art forms, including miniature painting, theatre, poetry, dance and music. On top of this, aesthetic forms in some contexts were, and often still are, believed to have actual powers in the physical world.

Until recently, it would have been possible to take a calmly Post-Enlightenment rationalist view of all this and say, 'Well, that's all very well, but now we know that ideas are all relative, there's no universally agreed idea to teach or illuminate, and that's not the purpose of art anyway. We all believe different things, which we project onto objects and situations, and obviously images don't have real power'. Recent work in medicine, psychology and the sciences related to health, well-being and stress (which includes the work on placebo), however, ought to give us pause for thought about being completely dismissive of the idea that there could be a connection between emotional and psychological states (including beliefs) and the biology of the body. Biochemical markers detectable in the blood have been show to be associated with certain orientations, beliefs, feelings of stress, and the onset of certain types of illness.

From this point of view, contemporary art practices can do what they like in terms of challenge and ideas and confrontation, but is there not also an individual, indeed, a societal need, for aesthetic art forms; for visual images which move the kidneys, not just the mind? Images which have the intention not of commenting upon social isolation or the horrors of human existence, for example, but of enlivening/ embracing/encircling actual socially isolated, disconnected or otherwise stressed out human beings?

When I brought together four years of work under the title of 'Wild Life' for my exhibition in 2013, I realised that I had unconsciously been making art which was trying to articulate the miracle of being alive; of the beauty of the world even in its horror (see how beautiful a deadly bacteria can be?), and of the extraordinariness of being made of the same stuff as slime mould, mackerel skies and apples falling onto people's heads.

I realised that I had been, and am, working unfashionably and unashamedly with the aesthetic, and with the power of the aesthetic to promote visceral, non-verbal responses. The responses that interest me are not shock, horror, disbelief, self-questioning, or the sense that what a person might be looking at is wildly original or new. I'm interested in things such as awe, fascination, wonder, a sense of mystery, and how these sensations can be stimulated through conscious or unconscious resonances set up by visual forms that echo the shapes and forms of the natural world.

I don't just want to make visual forms that have the possibility of stimulating a 'sense of connection with' the natural world. The resonance I'm after is deeper than that. It is the sense that I, the viewer and/or the maker of this image/performance, am myself  a miracle of biological life; and furthermore, that I'm not 'connected'  (which implies one thing connected to another) 'to' the world around me, but that I am an actual biological emanation of planetary life processes from which I am in no way separate at all.

Why does this matter? There's a lot of talk in publications such as New Scientist about one of the problems of climate change and planetary destruction being that it is too easy for people to distance themselves from it. Either you're living somewhere where you can actually see the destruction (ie. an inuit in the arctic wastes) but have no power, or you're living somewhere where you have power (in terms of political lobbying, control over patterns of consumption, ability to protest etc) but you don't see anything around you that tells you that what we have now is a human and planetary emergency.

My art emerges from the deep, visceral knowledge that I/we are nature and the planetary world. We emerge daily from dynamic processes which involve cells and fibres and structures that share shapes and structures and flows with any number of things in the world that we can physically see. And it is our body which is being attacked, not something happening far away.

Unlike classical Indian artists, I know that, whatever my intention, I have no control over what kind of response a viewer is going to have to a painting within the space of their own body and awareness. But I offer my own experience of and response to these things in the hope of resonance, for the sake of my rivers, my skies and my future.

sand painting performance