swany: Revisited

My final year students are in the process of conceptualizing in order to create a body of work for an exhibition at the end of the year. One of them is dealing with social media and this resulted in me reflecting on my own troubled, ambivalent history with this post-modern form of interaction. I thought I would share with you an excerpt from my own proposal essay to my supervising lecturers and the gallery owners. I have also included some of my (never before seen) experiments for my Proof of Life (2013) exhibition:

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In November of 2011, ascribing to Jacques Lacan’s fundamental tenet, “that the self is an Imaginary construct” (Sherman 2006: 19), I created an artist persona for myself whom I named Swany. As a scholar-artist I had encountered Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) Lives of Artists and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author during the course of my theory studies. I found the conversation between the two premises when juxtaposed extremely interesting, Vasari centralised the creator while Barthes went as far as to deconstruct him. Catherine Belsey claims that Poststructuralism’s “key term is difference” (Belsey 2002: 12). In other words, meanings develop through the conflict of differences. “The language that poststructuralism advocates is useful to ask uncertain things, and not useful to give a final answer” (Belsey 2002: 107). In very simple terms this means each is illuminated by being compared to the other, their differences quantify them.

I find myself in some sort of middle ground between the two points of view. I believe that both the artist and the viewer/reader share the creative process in the creation of an artwork. It is, in my opinion, a symbiotic relationship, and it is with this collaboration in mind that I created Swany, and the www.swanyart.com site. There I placed all that drives and influences me as an artist, my states of mind and emotions. This is where the viewer/reader can be informed on the artist, to find clues and information which will further develop the creation.  I like to think of this as my own little statement to be added to the Postructuralist discourse, a reaction to the modern (or is it postmodern?) times we find ourselves in. It should be kept in mind that Modernism, expressed at its simplest, is a reaction to modernity; democracy, capitalism, industrialization, science and urbanization. Postmodernism in turn reacts against Modernism, and is anti-modernist, if you will (Barrett 1997:17). Formative of Postmodern thought are “two competing intellectual movements”, Structuralism and Poststructuralism (Barrett 1997:18). What all four disciplines share is this confrontation of the modern world, and their, our, attempts to come to terms with it by quantifying it, or merely reacting to it, or even both.

All of the above reflect my thematic concern for this year, and have informed my choice. My title, Proof of Life, is, in simplest terms, a commentary on contemporary existential angst. My personal watershed moment was when I removed myself from the modern (post?) phenomenon of the social network. I was haunted by this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:

 “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Essentially I committed suicide. It was a digital one, but a suicide nevertheless. I deleted myself; closed my Facebook account and took back my person, my spirit, my soul that was pinned to that social media wall. There is a certain voyeuristic-exhibitionistic hue to the way we interact in our modern society these days. It twists and maligns our relationships, both with others and ourselves, leaving ghostly, malformed, diseased essences floating in the ether and within our minds. We wail and rail, grasp at and grunt at, in lines of digital code instead of in each others’ faces and each others’ arms. The irony of the ease with which we can get in, and stay in contact with anybody anywhere is that we are no longer close. The same social constructs that we think bring us together, in fact separate us, distance us. We remain to each other, pictures in a book, catchphrases and captions…empty and shallow. I wrote this poem as a way of explaining my disappearance from Facebook, which I posted on www.swanyart.com 

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Suicide

 

 

 

                                 Today I committed

 

                                  Suicide,

 

                                  I’m no great loss.

 

 

 

                                  I left no

 

                                  Body,

 

                                  No corpse to rot.

 

 

 

                                  Veins, blue veins

 

                                   Opened,

 

                                  No bloody crimson shower.

 

 

 

                                  Throat, scarred  neck

 

                                   Snapped,

 

                                   No black tongue protruding.

 

 

 

                                   No splat of meat, no shotgun blast.

 

                                   No palour, no final medicated slumber.

 

 

 

                                   Not icky thump,

 

                                   Not pumpkin squish.

 

 

    None

 

 

 

                                    Today I committed

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     I won’t be missed.

 

 

 

                                    I took back

 

                                    Self,

 

                                    Pinned to social wall.

 

 

 

                                    No more comments,

 

                                     Likes,

 

                                    And status to update.

 

 

 

                                    No list of friends’ recent stories.

 

                                    No ghostly acquaintances on glowing screen.

 

 

 

                                    Not share.

 

                                    Not comment.

 

None

 

 

 

                                    I trust you see,

 

                                     Suicide,

 

                                     Digital that it was.

 

 

 

                                     I only

 

                                     hope

 

wish

 

                                     It is

 

                                     Enough

 

                                     .            

 

                         swany      2013/01/25

4 AUGUST MOVE2

 

 

 In my opinion, Facebook and other similar social network interfaces such as Instagram, certainly reflect our desperate need to quantify and define ourselves, as well as to reach out to others. I think these words of Calvin, addressing his toy tiger, Hobbes, encapsulate the essence of what I am trying to say, “I wish I had more friends, but people are such jerks. If you can just get most people to ignore you and leave you alone you’re doing good. If you can find even one person you really like, you’re lucky…and if that person can also stand you, you’re really lucky” (Watterson 1991: 16). However, and I return to where I began this essay, the cruel irony of our existence is that in order to quantify/define and position ourselves we need other people, even if only to compare and contrast ourselves with them.

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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 know that I am a firm believer in the idea that to live is to suffer. God does not want you to be happy, He/She wants you to be strong! 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; contemplation of one’s beloved. 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 Abramovic. 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.