Loss

It’s been a year since I lost my mother and 4 since I lost my little furry buddy, Champers, and to be honest, the loss still weighs heavy upon me. Time, they say, heals all but heal is probably not the right word. I think it is more that one learns to deal with the loss. You suck it up and carry on because that is what life does, it continues. You get dragged along regardless. What is really bothering me at the moment is the suffering my mother endured, especially in the last years of her life. I am so sad for her. Those final months at her side, watching her die, really haunt me.

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Above: my mom (on far left) with her brother and his wife. 17, I think?

Now you should now that I am a firm believer in the idea that to live is to suffer. Through adversity we grow and become stronger and better for that suffering. That is if we can find meaning in the suffering. Nietzsche said, “he who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW”. And I guess in a way this relates to my last post and the “So what?” question. You are alive, so what? Make it count, do something with it that is meaningful. For my mom that was her children, her family and her animals. For me it is about making a difference: animal rights and feminist rights, and of course, making art that makes a difference also. In this way you find meaning in life. Unfortunately our societies have become very much about consumerism and being consumers. Got to have the new iPhone, got to live in the right neighbourhood, go to the right school. Squeeze out more children; spoil them so that they can also become consumers. Buy huge, petrol-guzzling vehicles and tell yourself it is for safety reasons and never mind what we are doing to the environment. Connect on social media and present yourself as a commodity there too, and bitch and whine but do nothing really. For too many people that is their meaning of life and the world as it is today is the result of that. For too many the idea of being a good provider (consumer) is the meaning of life. No! Go do something meaningful! Make a difference!

Below: My Champers.

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So I guess I like Viktor Frankl’s notion of meaningful grief through the contemplation of one’s beloved. Frankl was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War where his entire family (apart from one sister) including his wife, were killed. This was how he survived he says. Suffering somehow allows for transcendence when it finds meaning. Existence or experience moves beyond the normal or physical level. Think Mandela or Mother Teresa or even Marina Abramovi?. Similarly contemplation of your lost loved ones as well as imagined conversation can lift you up to a spiritual level and help you make sense of the loss. Inside you they will endure. I like that thought. In my contemplative state my mother remains that youthful, exuberant, warm nurturer who loved to have a house full of children, her own and the entire neighbourhood’s. In my contemplation Champers dozes, pressed up alongside me as I read, purring contentedly.

Below: Me lighting candles in preparation of my 40RTY (2016) performance.

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So What?

So What?!

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Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

OK, so here is probably the most uncomfortable lesson, art as an academic pursuit has presented me with: the “so what?” lesson. “So what?” is uncomfortable because it immediately makes you aware of the dissonance within your world and you cannot help but find yourself outside of your comfort zone. By dissonance I mean inconsistency between the beliefs one holds (or it could also be between one’s actions and one’s beliefs). Want an example? Loving (claiming to) animals so much yet they appear on your dinner table, that’s dissonance. How does “so what” create dissonance in the artistic world? Well, it says “yes, you can paint (draw, sculpt) well, but so what?” Painting is a technical facility, it is what you do with it that makes the difference. Decorating walls with paint techniques does not make you an artist, it makes you an interior decorator, and yet you are painting and have a technical facility. I might have a really sound understanding of the body because I did biology at school but it does not make me a doctor. There is a huge amount of dedication, effort, sacrifice and training that goes into becoming a doctor, and similarly in becoming a fine artist or visual artist. “So what?” asks what are you are willing to do for your art, it asks for sacrifice. So you love animals? Well, stop eating them then. Get the idea? “So what?” asks for moving beyond the mere application of paint in an effort to represent what you see or what you wish to “pretty”. It wants you to think, to feel, to be…it wants you to question everything, to remake everything, to see everything for the first time. It wants you to get the hell out of your comfort zone!

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Above: 40rty by swany (2016)

The first time a lecturer used the “so what?” statement/question it figuratively stopped me in my tracks and changed the entire way I view and consider art forever. Not just art though, but also the world. This is what a lot of artists entering academia find extremely uncomfortable which is good because…well, you know, the whole “comfort zone” thing. Unfortunately, because of this discomfort many drop out, most in their first year of studies. I have experienced this both as student and lecturer. I usually start a new year with a group of about 40 1st year students. By the end of the year I am lucky if I have 10 progressing through to second year. By their final year the group will consist of no more than 4 students. In my final year I was the only one of my group to qualify. This is not because I am some artistic genius but simply because I embraced the “so what?” statement/question and the accompanying being out of my comfort zone.

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Above: self-portrait (a couple of hours before the performance).

Ask yourself that question, you will be amazed at the effect it has. Ask “so what?” and see if you can answer. Then see if the answer is one you can live with. And to live for art, as one of my most favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson, says, is to live a life of questioning.

Labour of Love

LABOUR OF LOVE:

The phrase is often used when viewing artists work. The meaning is given to be a task done for pleasure, not reward.

Implicit in that phrase are 3 things – time, hardship/opposition and extreme personal involvement.

Linking them all is the artist’s commitment or investment to a specific project.  What you have here in this gallery is evidence of, not only this commitment and investment in a specific project, but the sheer single-mindedness and force of will it takes to overcome all obstacles in the pursuit of self-expression and art. In addition to all of this, these artists have undertaken to do this within the critical and unforgiving parameters of academia. And to reach your third level exhibition takes a real strength of will. I always tell my new students in first year to remember that an arts degree is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It requires endurance and stamina.

I would like you to keep that in mind when you are viewing these works. These artists have invested at the very least 3 to 4 years of their lives to be here. That in itself demands your respect.

This was part of the speech that I gave to open my 3rd level students’ exhibition yesterday (28 November) at the Rivertown Contemporary Gallery. This was the culmination of an incredibly intense week of installing, curating and assessing students’ work. Many long emotionally-draining hours. As a lecturer you share your student’s journey over the academic year, working incredibly closely with them. At the end of that year you then have to be part of a panel of lecturers who assesses them. That is the heartbreaking part of the job, to bear witness as strangers pull their work apart. It’s even tougher with your final year students. I have worked with these 3rd level students for 3 years, some from their very first year. The process involved in discovering one’s artist voice and what one wants to say and how, is so transformative, and so very personal. As a result the relationship between lecturer and student becomes an extremely intimate one. As mentor you receive their confessions, are witness to their internal struggles, and oversee their flagellation and supplication.

As Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

This what I try and instill in my students; that in order to make truly engaging and honest art one needs to operate outside of one’s comfort zone.

Ben Shahn tells us that “The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered”.

Essentially what I tell them is to make your work personal, and by that I do not mean, you as artist merely observing and reproducing what you see. That is illustration. When I look at your work I want to see you, I want to feel your joy, your pain, your anguish! I want us to howl at the moon together!

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