It’s the first day of a new year. I have been a very infrequent blogger on this site over the past year, but the pot has never been off the simmer. This post has been crafted over months – months during which my studio practice has been slowly resurrecting itself after a long hiatus and finding its voice from a place so mysterious that there has been no hurried urge to share, to make explicit, its deep inward movement.
In hindsight, I recognise that this mysterious movement has always been the prime motivator of my art practice. My inquiry has always occurred within the simple activity of making things, and the things I make are the inevitable outcome of the unique mix of my abilities, experience, and the questions raised by my circumstances in time and place.
I’ve never been interested in creating replicas of objects – human or non-human, or visual narratives about social and political issues, or in making explicit aspects of my own pathology. The ‘visionary’ output of my imagination never held any attraction. So what was it that compelled me to turn up in the studio year after year – regardless of whether there was an exhibition looming or not, or any commissions to complete?
It was, and remains, a mysterious attraction to something that occurs when I’m playing in a certain way with my materials without any intention to produce any kind of ‘art’ object.
“A certain way”? This is hard to describe; it’s immaterial what technical processes I’m using, or what version of visual language I’m ‘speaking’. What is crucial is an attitude of innocent curiosity and a willingness to encounter – and be comfortable with – the unknown. And I can’t help but notice that to the extent that I’m absent (as artist, designer, controller, critic) creativity flows. My amazement at what shows up is as acute today as it was at the beginning of my via creativa.
Looking back over more than five decades of making things, I can see that I have always been preoccupied with icon making. Whether conscious of it or not, I’ve been making secular icons, altarpieces; expressions of wonder, expressions that in their eclectic and deceptive simplicity might have the power to affect consciousness – to close the gap between the observer and the object observed, even if only for a moment’s restful ahhhh … a little benediction of peace.
Although there were many occasions when I was informed that my makings had this effect, I had little scholastic reference to back up the concept until a book called Tantra Song landed in my lap, and I learned that for hundreds if not thousands of years, artists in Rajasthan, India, have – usually in anonymity and seclusion – created images specifically for the purpose of the transformation of consciousness. I learned the significance, in this context, of my own habitual use of certain symbols and colors – components of my work that had been turning up forever, without my conscious understanding of what they stood for in the lexicon of Yoga Art. My hair stood on end.
A second mind-shifter crept up on me soon after. For the better part of a decade I have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy (aka love) creating a cyber platform for artists and artisans who speak about their practice in terms of engagement or intimacy with the unknown: theawakenedeye.com Over the years I have had the privilege of reading and sharing the heart-felt authentic expressions of many makers across a wide range of work – all sharing the sense that their practice is an expression of wonderment at, and devotion to, something much larger than themselves. Something that moves through them when they are empty enough, quiet enough, humble enough.
Recently I came upon an artist writing very explicitly and beautifully about her practice as “devotion to the unknown”, and I felt the earth move. There was an upswelling of a mountainous YES. It was like the ‘hundredth monkey effect’ – there was such a powerful shift. Her directness moved me to totally cease censoring my own real-time artist statements to make them conform to the currently correct version of artspeak.
(Many years ago, a Melbourne curator had advised me not to speak of ‘flakey spiritual stuff’ when dealing with galleries or arts councils. For decades, I’d felt split in two – my identity as a maker whose practice is wholly concerned with the unknowable source of creation was intact in the studio and online, but in real time I felt forced to dissemble.)
So here’s the truth: the crux of my work is devotion. Whatever happens in the studio is an act of devotion to the innate Unknowable. How could I not be in awe of the mystery that pours through these hands, this mind, when given unconditional permission, when not impeded by my own small visions and versions of what real art should look like?
It’s an act of awe and devotion, yes. But as the same artist pointed out – that’s not the whole story.
Devotion to the Unknowable doesn’t mean one stops questioning the great mysteries of existence. Actually, it generates and fosters this inquiry; such was the intention behind instruction in the Mystery Schools. We discover that the Unknown/Unknowable isn’t some kind of remote and sacrosanct object. It’s inescapably and seamlessly interwoven into our every perception, thought and experience. Just don’t try to define, systematize or organise it – it simply can’t be conceptualized.
But it can be expressed. And to my mind, this is the power and purpose of any creative expression, whether visual or poetic, performed or musical: its capacity to evoke that Unknown, to render it visible in its shimmering, evanescent, momentary wholeness.
Wholeness. There’s something that happens in the creative encounter that’s familiar to artists of all kinds. It’s a melting of the division between our seemingly solid separate self and the wild suchness of the world; a dissolving that brings an experience of utter wonder, of timelessness, of knowing that this is the way the world simply IS in its naked perfection.
I never know what will happen when I walk into my studio. I may have a list of tasks to attend to, but when it comes to the empty canvas I’m brain-dead. I’m on my knees without a prayer – empty and ready. I’ve spent decades maybe, pondering questions that can’t be answered with words; they are folded up in my heart. It may be today that the Unknown makes an appearance in form. If not today, well, I’ll be back tomorrow just in case She shows up, and is in the mood to make.
Image – Wonderbox series, Dana, Miriam Louisa Simons
Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan, by Franck André Jamme