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.

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Oh, man! Yikes, one week to go until my performance piece at the artSPACE durban Gallery! My installation is completed and I have delivered it to the gallery where it will be installed on the afternoon of 29th October, just prior to my performance. I am so AMPED! You know when you are at a funfair, and you gave gotten into a rollercoaster car and the safetybar has locked you in? You are aimed at the sky, clacking up that seemingly endless steep incline. That feeling of panic, fear, exhilaration and anticipation as you reach the peak and start tilting downward, facing that virtually 90 degree drop, straight down! Oh! Here comes gravity! There is a split second when you experience a moment of complete and utter calm… and then…release…and the rush as you hurtle downward, all control surrendered to the momentum, and the moment, and the purity of uncontrolled, unrestricted experience. This is what it is like to be a performance artwork. Gary Oldman describes that moment so well in a movie called The Professional (1998).

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I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven, he says. Granted he is playing the role of a sociopathic policeman bent on trying to exterminate a very young Natalie Portman, but you get what I mean about those calm little moments before the storm. I think it is really going to be something to experience…not just for the viewers/audience  but also for me. A totally unique experience for all involved!

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And as much as I am looking forward to it, I am also really exhausted. However in saying that, I have found that functioning on nervous, exhausted energy is a good thing in a performance. One week of fasting left too, which I have to admit has been brutal! I have really experienced the toll when I have had to exert myself. When I have gone for runs I have especially felt it; heavy legs, like lead and jelly, all at the same time. Just no gas! Plus I have gone down two belt notches, 40RTY days is a long time! This combination of exhaustion and fasting, and the force of will to see the performance process through to the end, is what pushes you deep, deep within yourself, to that place you need to be in order to put yourself wilfully through something like this. There is a reason they say one must suffer for one’s art and nowhere is this more literal than in performance or body art.

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I have written in my posts before about my belief that the artist must have solitude. It is nice to see that I am not alone in this belief. May Sarton, the poet, writes about solitude in her aptly titled, Journals of a Solitude, and she really just expresses it so beautifully which is why I wanted to share her thoughts with you, dear reader.

In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:

It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

She considers solitude as the birthing-place of self-discovery:

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.

This is so me, and my life and my art…

Suzanne Vega is another artist who writes wonderfully about solitude and that is how I will end off, with the lyrics of her ode to solitude:

Solitude Standing

Solitude stands by the window

She turns her head as I walk in the room

I can see by her eyes she’s been waiting

Standing in the slant of the late afternoon

 

And she turns to me with her hand extended

Her palm is split with a flower with a flame

 

Solitude stands in the doorway

And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette

By her long cool stare and her silence

I suddenly remember each time we’ve met

 

And she turns to me with her hand extended

Her palm is split with a flower with a flame

 

And she says “I’ve come to set a twisted thing straight”

And she says “I’ve come to lighten this dark heart”

And she takes my wrist, I feel her imprint of fear

And I say “I’ve never thought of finding you here”

 

I turn to the crowd as they’re watching

They’re sitting all together in the dark in the warm

I wanted to be in there among them

I see how their eyes are gathered into one

 

And then she turns to me with her hand extended

Her palm is split with a flower with a flame

 

And she says “I’ve come to set a twisted thing straight”

And she says”l’ve come to lighten this dark heart”

And she takes my wrist, I feel her imprint of fear

And I say “I’ve never thought of finding you here”

 

Solitude stands in the doorway

And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette

By her long cool stare and her silence

I suddenly remember each time we’ve met

 

And she turns to me with her hand extended

Her palm is split with a flower with a flame

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