A Conversation With/For Myself

I’m currently sitting in my closet because my apartment is not the quietest and there’s a car alarm going off outside with unwavering regularity plus the occasional group of drunk and/or post-Comic Con people. But I really wanted to write this to straighten out my thoughts – it seems appropriate that I’m sitting in front of a mirror. I’m not expecting anyone to read it in its entirety, but since this blog was started with the idea of recording my processes, I wanted post this rant/muse/piece of writing here. It’s going to touch on a lot of different topics with the aim of arriving at some kind of clarity. So here goes.

Someone said something to me today that touched a raw nerve. I’m still upset thinking about it, both at the person for saying something that I felt to be really rude and disrespectful and narrow-minded, and at myself for not responding in the way that I wanted to or for perhaps being upset at this person when I should really be questioning my own beliefs. There’s nothing I can really do about it and really the best way to move forward from this point is to move forward from this point, i.e. pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve talked to 2 people about this issue, and they have given me insightful advice. And ultimately, I still respect this person – plenty of my friends have said offensive things to me – and value this person, and I don’t think this person said it in the spirit that I took it (at least, I hope so). But I can’t help but feel this knot inside of me, and I don’t know how I’m going to relieve it.

I thought about writing an essay on why I felt offended, but that would basically just be an ego trip for me to prove that I’m right. I thought about confronting the person, but it’s too dangerous because of who the person is. I thought about writing a poem that directly addresses the issue, but it would be petty, plus I don’t want to create art that is angry and subversive and spur-of-the-moment and thus irrational. I’m an emotional person and sometimes a confrontational one, but I also aspire to be rational and in control. Ergo, something I create should be about being aware of that emotion(s) and the complexity of the situation and working from there. A confrontation with/for the self, a conversation with/for the self.

After this incident happened, I went out to see some art exhibitions and artist open studios with Mr Chia (my art teacher from Raffles Junior College who is currently pursuing his Masters degree at Columbia). He was one of the two people that I talked to about this situation, the other being Ben all the way in Oxford via a disastrous Skype call. I felt hesitant at first because this was a personal issue and I usually only discuss art matters with him, but in the end I’m glad I did it because I gained a lot of perspective from his advice.

At the time that I told him about this situation, I was also consulting him about my future assignments. The assignment that was most on my mind was one due in less than 9 days, a visual response to Dante’s Inferno. That is, I have to create an artwork that somehow narrates, reacts to/against, or encapsulates one part of the Inferno. I chose Canto XXVIII – I will go into more detail about that when I post about that particular piece of work – but long story short, it involves a scene that reminded me of one of Goya’s Disasters of War prints. I wanted to somehow incorporate that image into the Buddhist depictions of Hell, which I am learning about in my Asian art history class. And of course I went off on a concept-spree and started embedding all sorts of interesting but distracting concepts into my idea and getting all confused.

This part is going to get a bit messy. We came to the conclusion that I should work with the tension of Eastern and Western depictions of Hell in some way, which is an extension of how disturbed I am by that particular Goya print that I can’t ever forget but find it difficult to look at. And then I started talking about how when I’m in New York, I’m exposed to a lot of extreme points of view, but yet I am still a moderate, rational, pragmatic person in terms of my intellectual beliefs. So I feel the pressure to be more extreme and thus more passionate – perhaps in a Western definition of passion, like the Passion of the Christ, the idea of sacrificing all or nothing, putting it all out there, etc. And that is not who I am or who I was brought up to be or even who I want to be.

I felt like when we came upon this idea, it fit in very well into the assignment for me. Mr Chia described it as me trying to go down into all the levels of the Inferno and going to someplace in me that is dark and that I have to grapple with and be disturbed/affected by. The idea of struggling between two cultures, and struggling with political polarisation and extremism (hey, just because you don’t bomb things doesn’t mean you’re not extreme), and simply struggling with the Goya image and facing it head on… The more I think about it, the more it falls into place for me.

I’m also very interested in how this fits into my issues with dichotomies and reconciling dichotomies, even within my own practice as an artist. I’m always thinking about how to reconcile my tendency towards work or a working style that is very mechanical and systematic, with the very strong emotions that I feel inside of me. And I’m always worried about whether I’m conveying emotion – passion – through my work, or whether it gets lost in the technique. It was something I was dealing with for my PLACE piece, and I’m not sure if it’s something that I achieved.

This is when Mr Chia said something that pretty much blew my mind. He said, “What makes you think that your process isn’t passionate?” I think I almost started crying at that point, and I even feel like crying now. I don’t know how to explain it. I felt like at that moment, I was somehow validated. Or that some kind of doubt that I don’t even know how to define in words was cleared up. It was, I think, the dispelling of a fear. Some fear of – I don’t know, creating something that doesn’t at all represent me as a human being, of failure, of the impossibility of resolution. I’m not saying that my work from now on will be resolved or successful. I just feel like it gave me a sort of confidence. Like a weight was lifted (“I am aware of my burden and how to confront it”), but at the same time a hole was filled (“I am not somehow deficient”).

We started talking about passion in Eastern and Western cultures. Perhaps the Eastern passion – a Buddhist passion? – is somehow different. A perseverance, a commitment in a more subdued but no less emotional way. A slow-burning flame rather than a huge bonfire. I never realised that something like passion could be culturally defined until today. So we decided that the way to go was to draw this very visceral Goya/Buddhist image that I could see in my head, but repeatedly and on graph paper, to reinforce the tension between emotion and system. This is not to practice or get better at it. It’s to force myself to physically deal with my own confusion.

In a strange way, this helped me to deal with what happened earlier today, even though it’s not directly related, and I can’t even rationalise it right now. I think it’s to do with how that incident somehow forced me to question my own existence, my own beliefs within the context of personal and global situations, and therefore threw me into a state of instability. And by resolving this assignment, I felt like I knew myself again, and it gave me a rock to hold onto even though I won’t be able to directly address the other issue. I’m even glad that I spent the past hour and a half writing this essay despite the fact that I have to read/listen to Shakespearean sonnets, read art history notes, and design 25 posters.

Bottom line is, I can move forward from this point.

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