I am what I was. And with each generation follows the shedding of some part unable to survive so that I become again and again. The smell, the tides, night and day I crawl and sleep and rise and fall in the silt. I am what they once were, a forgotten memory. They lie under the skin, waiting for a time when what I was might become what I will be. For in all that is contained within myself, is a constant dying and rebirth each time unknowing of the other. Each time I become what I was and a little bit more.
Mythopoeia is the act of making myths. Today it takes its meaning from the title of a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien in his book the Tree and Leaf. His work takes from many strands and weaves them into his epic sagas, something I can relate to. The word today takes its contemporary meaning from his work as a genre of fiction that merges archetypes with traditional mythological themes.
My proposal is the beginnings of a myth expressed in primarily visual and sonic form. As I hinted in What is the Character of a Myth, I am not looking to create character and plot based narratives like the Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. These are tightly composed works. My idea is more open in interpretation and focuses on mechanisms.
It has taken a term to get to the point where I have finally found the overarching theme of the project proposal. With hindsight, I was heading this way all along but things are rarely that obvious when attempting to elaborate something new, that is cohesive, within a complex ecology of ideas. In the group session earlier this week, Jonathan introduced the idea of mixing, merging, hybridising, editing, scripting and scoring. This is pretty well what I have been doing as well as filtering, curating, and amplifying disparate ideas which somehow held together in my mind.
In the post What is the Character of a Myth I looked at myth, not as characterisation but process. This led me to focus on underlying processes which are applicable to a variety of narratives. What underlies all creation myths and cosmogonies is change. This change can be gradual or catastrophic. For example, punctuated evolution proposes long periods of relative stasis in species evolution punctuated by brief periods of radical change, as opposed to the gradual changes that occur in classical Darwinism. Equally, the Garden of Eden in Genesis is a story of catastrophic change, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve and the disappearance of Eden things change radically after which things slow down, gradually moving towards a society, in which Jehovah destroys the world in a cataclysmic flood in readiness for a new beginning.
There may be little in common between these two timelines, but one thing is shared by both, change. It is fundamental in all cosmogonies whether scientific or faith-based. And what is the nature of this change? Metamorphosis. This may be a transformation of form, relationship, organisation or, as in many myths, from the divine to the mortal after which we enter into the territory of folklore.
Metamorphosis can be intra-organismal within a single lifetime, as in the case of the frog or the butterfly or over longer periods of time in the evolution of species. Metamorphosis can be the process of making a mortal eternal, as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or whole belief systems can undergo fundamental change, as described by Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. History shows us how metamorphoses within societies, revolution, war, disease, commerce, technology, and everyday politics, leading to radical changes in the way people live. Metamorphosis is the essence of existence, process.
What I find interesting is that metamorphosis is a concept that applies to so many of the ideas that interest me and is at the core of artistic transformations: taking matter or concept and altering its properties to give rise to something new: from the metamorphosis of clay into fired stone to that of manipulated sound, to the evolution of ideas. I can see this as a rich seam beginning to be uncovered for mining when it comes to the Research Statement.
And what is the relevance to the contemporary world? We live in a world undergoing great change at all levels of society and in the very fabric of our environment. This time of great change now called the Anthropocene, has profound implications for us all and more so for future generations. Expressing them in ways that connect with origins and their past transformations gives continuity to our world and meaning to the future, reminding us of what is at stake.
Identifying a clear pathway for composing the project proposal has not been an easy thing to do. With many influences and ideas, and a continually changing vision, the victim has been coherency. But then I did state my awareness of this in my first symposium and project proposal. Coherency of vision is a necessary element in my practice. This does not mean having a fixed stance or perspective but rather a clear understanding of the formal and conceptual elements with which I am working. I made a small break through documented in a recent post followed this morning by a subsequent one which has had a profound impact on my project proposal.
I have experienced difficulty in putting together a sufficiently clear narrative that could precipitate the relevant key elements of a Project Proposal. This was due in large part to the piecemeal way in which I added ideas on my PP Sandbox and never really confronted this confusion. But then, confusion often preceeds clear thinking. What I did, was to create a narrative, in conversation with Janet, that brought together different elements of what I have been thinking. Relating this sequentially, placing cause before effect, I was able to put forward an argument that on reflection clarified my thinking. Undergoing a pruning of ideas, my mind opened out to a new vista which did not reject what I have done before but prioritised thinking: an example of the cyclical nature of artistic practice evolving from a source core. The nature of the project proposal does tend to mitigate against long narratives, concentrating the mind and avoiding cluttered thinking.
I wrote down the narrative and extracted its key elements. These have formed the contextual part of the proposal forming a flexible framework open to change, adaptation, development, innovation, pruning and lateral thinking. The narrative is relatively crude but serves its purpose. I am developing it in an external document for possible inclusion in this blog at a later date. Once this narrative was put down, the title presented itself effortlessly together with aims and objects. Organising ideas in a prose narrative form has helped me in creating an outline applicable to the proposal. In my mind, if I consider the headings’ contents, such as the title, context, outcomes etc, as details, then the overarching narrative becomes the large scale structure. I have almost always followed the axiom when making a work, ‘deal with the large scale things first and the details will fall into place’. 1 I now have a flexible, overarching framework and can now get on with making with a purpose: the thing I have been seeking this term, a search documented in this journal.
- This is a paraphrasing of a universal principle clearly articulated in, The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour by the C19th painter, Alfred East. Alexander Cozens the C18th watercolourist also demonstrated this principle more than one hundred years earlier in his pamphlet A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape.
I have been thinking for some time about the fact that mythical protagonists are almost always animal, human or both. At times, natural phenomena may come together to give rise to cyclopean offspring as in early Greek mythology or Polynesian tales. These unions tend to occur at the beginning of time after which, almost invariably the main characters behave in a human-like fashion whatever they might be. Much has been written about what stands for what and how, whether crossing between the spiritual and real world, creating the world or giving rise to what takes place in ordinary life. However, what about the mechanisms? These are often left to the explanation, the reading of the myth, the hermeneutics of scholars. Take the garden of Eden for instance, it has been given many meanings, from a literal reading of the Genesis text to cultural transitioning to psychoanalytical interpretations. Whatever the case might be, it is difficult to get away from focusing on the characterisation of ideas through theriomorphism or anthropomorphism.
But what if I were to focus, not on characters but mechanisms? Even in Big History, a contemporary explanation – some would say a modern myth – for how the world came to be and how life emerged on this planet, we are compelled to look at the ancestral fossil record and visualise evolution as a series of animal and plant transformations. But there are deeper principles at work than, as in this case, hyperlapses from one body form to another. I feel that to solely concentrate on characterisation might be somewhat trite and predictable; what if I were to explore the mechanisms that drive myths? What if I were to create works that act as representations, metaphors, analogies or some other trope of these mechanisms? This would free me from the usual narratives, from having to contextualise in a forced manner, from fixing the ideas in a temporal locus. These ideas are timeless, without boundaries; they are not confined to any given period. By releasing my thinking from structuralist or post-structuralist constraints, from period context, from contemporary fashions, the relevance of the ideas embodied in myths might become self-evidently natural rather than contrivance.
This is not an easy thing to do. It is a way of creating an alchemical admixture of ideas and material form: I hope not too obscure. I shall not speak of these mechanism yet. I need to think more clearly, allowing the idea to walk hand in hand with the making: the concept with the affect and aesthetic.
Today I started working on another branch of my project using old sound files I have recorded over the years. This proved rather frustrating and the results were disappointing. I took a walk with Janet where we discussed this temporary impasse. The problem seems to come down to using pre-existing files for new work. It is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, to use an overused metaphor. But why should this be? Perhaps it is because the old files were created in different contexts and with end points in mind that do not correspond with my current aims. These two reasons seem true enough. However, I also felt that what I was doing was tiresome, jaded. It emerges that simply put, the sound files are not fresh. They have to be recorded or made in process, why? Because that way I am close to the source, in its own environment, sensible to its meaning, affected by what I see, hear, smell, feel and touch.
I recorded a sample from a simple domestic source and low and behold, I was able to work effortlessly, manipulate the sound waves, and create with the utmost simplicity something that I can work with. The result is something I can build on; create an archive of sounds with which to compose. There is also another important principle at work here that is relevant to the project. From simple, everyday phenomena, readily at hand, an entire world can be created without sophisticated processes. Myths are created not just from the unusual and spectacular but from the everyday, humble things that surround us. So this is what I will be working on over the next few days amongst other things: build a narrative in sound that runs parallel with the more tactile and visual processes. Whether the two modalities come together is still an open question. This I suspect will be the direction of the Research Statement assignment later next year: the relationship between sound and sculpture.
This week the conversation was lively and went over various themes relating to classification of art forms. The elusive elements in defining mediums, methodologies and thematics in art, itself a difficult term to delineate in the contemporary context, to my mind are in themselves of little use to the artist… or perhaps very useful. Now, which is it? Taxonomy in the arts can certainly be seen as divisive way of classifying what an artist does… for the artist. However, as in most things, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. For what is a taxonomy other than a means of ordering according to type and hierarchy classes of related things? We all need to order and prioritise our thoughts, and there lies the paradox. To do so in the private sphere of one’s own practice is quite a different thing to how taxonomy is used in the public arena.
There is an element of practicability when it comes to categorising art forms to give an idea of what someone is going to experience when visiting a venue or dedicating time on screen or audio. However, the recent loosening of artistic paradigms and breaking of barriers combined with a (natural some would say) need for people to identify and subsequently classify in terms of type and hierarchy has, to my mind, led to a confusion and profusion of terms more granular than ever before. With the emancipation of artists in the C19th and the growth of private middleclass patronage and galleries, the mediatory phenomenon of the critic emerged. Critics began describing different art forms with epithets such as, impressionism in France and I Macchiaoli in Italy, often without understanding the artists’ intentions and at times derogative in the first instance as in the case of the latter. Eventually artists in the C20th, seeing the marketing power of such nomenclature and affiliations, began denoting themselves as belonging to or having invented this ism or that. Giving name to the different styles that arose, as artists felt freed from the constraints of academism, created a many headed hydra that has metamorphosed into contemporary terms which have proliferated as interested groups have clamoured to delineate their own boundaries, often in an attempt to give themselves prominence. Does this serve the artist, or more precisely does it serve an artist’s self actualisation? I believe that it may serve artists in a worldly, status or commercial sense but whether it serves the majority of artists in terms of self actualisation barring the lucky few, I think not.
So who does this benefit? I feel that the atomisation of the arts has been propagated by artists themselves in conjunction with the pressures of commerce and status, although I do not think they are wholly responsible for the consequences and often fall victims of forces far greater than themselves. It is a paradox of the art establishment that no harder do some try to blur boundaries and foster interdisciplinary ideas, others create borders by defining their turf and defending it like crabs on quickly submerging islands built of sand. This is partly due to the academisation of the arts, in a way not too dissimilar to what happened to academic art in the C19th, but this is a discussion for another time. It is also a phenomenon effected by the market and the commoditisation of the arts despite anti-commodatisation movements. Museums, databases, arts organisations, education institutes, competitions, curators are all tied into this system of categorisation (see this table, a small sample of the variety, some would say confusion, certainly fluidity in just one sector of the contemporary artistic environment – link). Although understandable, it has led to a form of schizophrenia for artists. How do I describe myself, how do I fit into this particular taxonomy relating to this particular context? This is further exacerbated because for an artist to move from one domain to another can present other problems, often generated by the ‘turf’ syndrome mentioned earlier. Unless they are resolutely independent, outsider artists could fall into this category, practitioners can find themselves constrained to responding in terms of what others expect. This can lead to a diminished self actualisation in terms of the practice and place an onerous weight on finding success in other terms such as fame and wealth, one could say power.
Are there any advantages to identifying methodologies, modalities, means and contexts in an atomised environment? Having said all that I have, as an artist I do find that classifications can be useful for the critical analysis of my own practice. Identifying labels for what I do has at times altered perspectives and introduced language that has helped me clarify ideas. At other times, usually in response to outside demands, the result has been restrictive and sterilising. Aware of this latter consequence combined with the former, the result has been a clearer articulation of what I am about: knowing what not to say as much as what to say, all part of developing communication within my own internal dialogue as much as with others. Language can divide ideas but it can also unify them. A word such as performative can be applied to the act of painting and ballet, the placing of sculptural elements and the making of music. This opens up a whole world to holistic, lateral thinking: turn something on its head and new thoughts will come out. It keeps me on my toes with regard to semantics and enables me to play with ideas as abstract and realised.
So elusive taxonomies in themselves are neutral and as all words, labels by which we can respond to, build, and order a world (view). They can be used positively as well as in a pernicious way. But this is the way with all human activities. Something can be a force for good or quite the opposite. Perhaps the thing is that responsibility does not lie in the thing itself but in those that use it.
When evolving an idea, there comes a time for leaving the process to the subconscious; to open it out to other influences and make new connections: this takes time. I remember when taking my physics A level at school, the best strategy for solving a particularly difficult problem was to read what was needed, identify the equations and methodology, understand the variables, try a few things out and then sleep on it. Perhaps the next day or a little later, the solution would present itself as though the most natural of outcomes. I am not saying that solving a physics question is comparable to producing a work of art. I only mention this because the mind continues working in the most wonderful ways while we are distracted elsewhere. By going to sleep on a problem, we dream and see things from different perspectives in different contexts. This enables solutions to arise that would otherwise be constrained by fixed thinking. My attention is now turning to sound, relics, shadows and other things. I leave this particular part of the project in a place where, of its own account, it can respond to different ideas and methodologies and await a refreshed return.
You divide me, so that I might know which way is light and when to face away. You give me one side and so another that I might know which way to turn and with this gift: a centre for the back and forth, a dim picture of the world so smell and distance no longer the only place where I am and I am hollow: forced to follow hunger for the other and that drives and bestows dull fear that moves me to and fro along the edge. I pierce the horizon and still must eat and hide but as a growing pain that weighs on my breath, pushes from outside my skin, I leave my mother’s liquid, sprout and walk about, deeper into different worlds and lift above and shovel earth yet this journey that has no end; always changing and with this change a distant sense of wanting always with me takes another’s shape, now warm, with me rejoining that which cleaved before me long ago and as it does so my sight turns inwards. Inside the world shapes new forms, and places I cannot see or touch but know that they are there. I feel the cold and heat and sweat and become knowing of a fear that no longer makes me run but ask for reason. Yet I continue, tear and gnaw, be ripped apart in turn until I grasp that stone or stick or clench my fist and strike with all my life imbued over countless ages, countless times, and scream and shout. And in that moment call and word is formed together with the why as I see my neighbour die. And now I make, and history with it on walls and rocks and trees to tell of my death and how my birth was done, and the reason why, we all must die.
The moon broke free last night. Leaving the earth she hurtled towards the sun leaving pieces of her behind as trees reached out to pull her back by her wake and got their fingers scorched by the sun who gloated, and sunk behind a blackened horizon. Finding herself free of all things, the moon lost interest and decided to drift, like a lover, content with her waxing belly, as men sent shiny rockets full of tiny people vertically, past the trees and past the moon, their roars swallowed by the immense distance, turned to comets. The earth in its shyness turned over and waited for the grubs to wake the soil.
Two days ago I received a copy of Ted Hughes Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow together with a copy of Lupercal, an earlier set of poems. Last night I read an essay about Crow by Danny O’Connor and it all came flooding back. Years ago I completed a cycle of paintings called Traces of Life. shown in Italy and in London and one of the paintings entitled The Horror of Creation was inspired by Hawk Alights, particularly the following words:
Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.
And he saw the sea
Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils,
He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of god
And he shivered with the horror of Creation.
The Crow cycle of poems is an ambitious text that rewrites the Creation in Genesis and places the eponymous Crow at the centre as a trickster prefiguring Satan and Christ. Crow, observes, frustrates and subverts a God’s less than omnipotent and omniscient attempts at making and intervening in the world. Hughe’s challenges the concept of God portrayed in the Abrahamic religions and how this creation has gone awry. Like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poetry is full of allusions that are magisterially crafted in such a way that the deep seated meaning is clear but needing careful unveiling. However, Hughes’ at times fragmented narrative is reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd and comic strip characterisation – comics together with folk tales were a great influence on Hughes together with the grim realities of farm life in the North of England. The logic is hard to understand on first reading, and here is where this great work distinguishes itself, it contains a deep logic and understanding of what the poet is doing notwithstanding its apparent absurdness. However, Unlike Milton, Hughes’ is not an interpretation of the sacred text but rather a critique and extension of the holy narrative fuelled by what he experiences and sees all around him.
Reading Crow brings together once again, many of the strands that run through my work: the separation of the human psyche from nature, the arrogance of anthropocentrism, the denial of the animal part of being human, our origins in and our continuation of a long cycle of transformation and traversal from microbe to what we are now, how language has been used to control knowledge and manipulate behaviour. Could humanity have become the trickster, deceiving itself from the reality of who we are and what we are? Many of these ideas are explored in Robert Graves, The White Goddess, and Kraft Von Maltzahn’s, Nature as Landscape, studies in the history of poetry and science respectively. Both books review cultural transformations through the ages, not always progressive in terms of quality of life. This does not mean that I would have preferred (as if I had had a choice) to have lived in another time. There are countless things about our age that shine as outstanding human achievements. However, the Twentieth Century also looms as a dark cloud over our history both in scale and wanton stupidity, something the trickster, be he man, be she woman, be we the mass of humans, is only too happy to help forget any lessons that have arisen.
So where does this put me with respect to my current work and project proposal? I can see how what I have thought and done so far fit together and more importantly, how plans and conjectures can now change trajectory. There is a central core that is gradually being defined, creating a gravitational pull towards it. A path is being cleared towards something more encompassing, relevant and consistent. Creation myths from around the world also come into the picture for their differences as well as their similarities to one another. Another aspect of interest is the relationship between the linear and circular chronologies of Western and Asian beliefs; there is a little bit of each in both.