The Usefulness of the Cup

For those of you who don’t know it, Bruce Lee was not just THE master of kung fu. He was also a great thinker. An indication of this is of course how he critically analysed classical or traditional martial art forms such as karate and kung fu and deconstructed them to create belief-system, Jeet Kune Do. I think of Jeet Kune Do as a postmodern take on the traditional fighting styles.

BRUCE LEE – Hong Kong-born martial arts expert and film actor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember finding karate really boring and stifling when I practised it as a teen. I lasted about a year and then left the dojo. But in my room and at the local gym,  I would continue to follow Bruce’s heuristic method of martial arts. This is the notion of self-knowledge through self-discovery.  Essentially the idea is to be able adapt to specific situations and opponents/attackers.  There are no katas or set moves, so there are no fixed stances as in classical martial art styles. Lee believed fixed stances and forms were rigid and had no place in martial arts. They are inflexible to change, and do not represent actual fighting situations. In Jeet Kune Do, drills are used that are fluid and alive and always changing. This is why I say that Lee’s thinking about martial arts was postmodern: it presents many solutions to many questions, and is never fixed.

Interception is the leading principal of  Jeet Kune Do, which means ‘Way of the Intercepting Fist.’ If you are merely blocking an attack it means you are at a disadvantage.  You are only reacting to the attack, reactive instead of being pro-active. It is better to simultaneously block and strike, or even better to just hit first. The physical goal of Lee’s art is perpetual development of physical speed, timing, footwork, coordination and power.

 

In order to understand it Lee advised emptying yourself. He uses an analogy to explain:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too…” and so on. Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, then kept pouring until the cup overflowed. “Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!” “Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty your cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

So for Lee the usefulness of the cup is its emptiness. As an artist this is a philosophy I ascribe to: as student, teacher and practitioner.  If you want to learn, first acknowledge you know nothing. Empty your cup. Then learn by allowing yourself to be filled from the source you have come to. After that you can take what you have learnt and make it your own and pass on what you have learnt. I still do this as a Masters student .  As the poet, Keats, once proclaimed:  My Imagination Is a Monastery and I am its Monk.

As a lecturer though, I warn my students not to get so focused on the tasks that the art degree sets them that they forget to experience the sheer joy of their journey: the joy of learning, of making, and of doing this with people who are like-minded. But I mostly remind them of their love of art and how it feels to express themselves visually.  Bruce Lee again illustrates this beautifully using the analogy of a finger pointing to the moon:

Please do not take the finger to be the moon or fix your gaze so intently on the finger as to miss all the beautiful sights of heaven. After all, the usefulness of the finger is in pointing away from itself to the light which illuminates finger and all.

Go to Lee’s official site if you are interested in finding out more:

https://bruceleefoundation.org/2016/05/whatisjeetkunedo/

The reason learning has been on my mind recently is because I have been, over these past 3 months, hectically involved with university matters, both as student and as lecturer. It is quite a surreal experience to be both. You become very aware of the symbiotic relationship involved in the learning process. It is rarely a one way thing.

I recently had to attend a postgrad seminar as a requirement of my Masters degree. As I presented an overview of my dissertation to the university board a part of me reflected on my students’ experiences and what they must feel when facing my fellow lecturers and me.  Faced with the arduous task of attempting to make the connections between my theory and my art-making understandable to a group of professors and doctors, I felt a huge wave of empathy roll over me for my students. I have been in the fortunate position to have been the student, then the lecturer, and now both the student and lecturer. And isn’t that just how life should be?:  to be open to learning, to be willing to pass on knowledge, to share experience. Most important is to acknowledge when you do not know something.  Not knowing is OK. What is not OK is ignorance. Ignorance is you assuming you know more than you do. Prejudices and racism originate in ignorance. Be a better person than that.

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:

touch

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 

zumavszuma

 

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.

move

 

MIXTAPES

Sadly Chris Cornell (1964–2017), musician, singer, and songwriter, and member of Soundgarden and Audioslave died on 17 May. It was by his own hand: suicide by hanging.  The Grammy-winning rocker had performed that Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. Perhaps indicative of his state of mind, he ended his performance with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s In My Time of Dying. His family “believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions”.

chris-cornell

The manner of his passing reminded me of just how unbearable being can be.  Cornell literally walked off stage and out of an auditorium full of adoring fans, went to his hotel room, spoke to his wife on the phone, and then killed himself.  Five days later some cowardly religious fundamentalist extremist idiot walked into the Manchester Arena at the end of a Ariana Grande concert and blew himself up, killing 22 and injuring 59. Amongst the dead were many children, including eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos, who was at the concert with her mother and sister. It takes a really special kind of crazy…or evil, to target a tweens and teens concert like that!

manchester-pictures-6-superJumbo

I guess we are all trying to do our best suppress or destroy something within us, be it with drugs and alcohol, religion, or by living shallow, superficial lives of self-involved consumerism. Or perhaps desperately trying to make sense of our existence or to give it all some meaning.

Here’s a kicker, Mr Bill Gates believes the world is a better place than it used to be, and apparently he is not alone! WTF?!!! I quote from a speech he gave at a graduation:

If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be a copy of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. After several years of studying, you may not exactly be itching to read a 700-page book. But please put this one on your reading list to get to someday. It is the most inspiring book I have ever read.

Pinker makes a persuasive argument that the world is getting better—that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. This can be a hard case to make, especially now. When you tell people the world is improving, they often look at you like you’re either naïve or crazy.

But it’s true. And once you understand it, you start to see the world differently. If you think things are getting better, then you want to know what’s working, so you can accelerate the progress and spread it to more people and places.

It doesn’t mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved, and you’re moved to act on that belief.

This is the core of my worldview. It sustains me in tough times and is the reason I still love my philanthropic work after more than 17 years. I think it can do the same for you.

The key words he uses here for me are human history.  Perhaps for humans the world is a better place (I don’t agree about that either) than it used to be, but it is certainly not for the planet and its animals…and certainly not for Saffie Rose Roussos.

hawking

Stephen Hawking reckons humanity has about 1000 years left on this planet before extinction. I am a little less optimistic, I reckon we will all be gone long before then. Unfortunately we will probably be taking everything along with us.

mixtape1

Anyway,  so mix tapes (or mixtapes): well, they kind of help life be a little less crappier, if only by removing you from it for a little while. I got to make one recently for a fellow lecturer at a recent university art programme workshop I facilitated.  It got me thinking about mixtapes and the ones I have made throughout my life…the girls I made them for, and the road trips I made them for, and the parties I made them for!

mixtape

These days I generally only make them for my IPOD to run or exercise too. I have to admit though, that those same running mixtapes have saved me when sitting for hours in airports or on planes or during the ubiquitous powercuts we suffer where I live. The technology might have changed drastically but the ethos of the mixtape remains unaltered. It’s something you only really get or understand while listening to it alone in your bedroom (or car), the thought that someone took the time to make a mixtape just for you, and, importantly, it rocked! Or vice versa, when you have carefully compiled music that you love and the person you made it for loves it too! The mixtape then becomes a soundtrack to your whole relationship.

OK, and here is the scenic route bit that is characteristic of my storytelling: on one of my mixtapes is Chris Cornell singing Audioslave’s Be Yourself:

 

Someone falls to pieces

Sleeping all alone

Someone kills the pain

Spinning in the silence

To finally drift away

Someone gets excited

In a chapel yard

And catches a bouquet

Another lays a dozen

White roses on a grave

 

Yeahhh…

 

And to be yourself is all that you can do

Heyyyy…

To be yourself is all that you can do

 

Someone finds salvation in everyone

Another only pain

Someone tries to hide himself

Down inside himself he prays

Someone swears his true love

Until the end of time

Another runs away

Separate or united

Healthy or insane

 

And to be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

Yeahhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

Heyyyy…

Be yourself is all that you can do

 

Even when you’ve paid enough

Been pulled apart or been held up

Every single memory of the good or bad

Faces of luck

Don’t lose any sleep tonight

I’m sure everything will end up alright

You may win or lose..

 

But to be yourself is all that you can do

Yeahhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do

 

Ohhhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

ohhhh…

To be yourself is all that you can do (all that you can do)

To be yourself is all that you can–

Be yourself is all that you can–

Be yourself is all that you can do

Get this song, its beautiful. It always finds its way onto my mixtapes as an anthem for individuality.

So, in the end, a mixtape is about sharing powerful words, poetry put to music, with someone special. It’s you whispering in someone else’s ears about the things you love…or hate. You sharing you with another person and if anything is going to change the world ever it will be doing things just like that.

chriscornell1