The Content of Nothing :: Part 4 :: On Attending

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Featured Image: “A Sort of Visual Rhythm: Symphoricarphos” from Back to the Things Themselves GFVA 2012

Samantha Clark: I was really interested in how you see the role of drawing within your practice. It seems to me that the process of drawing, particularly such obviously meticulous and detailed drawing that has evidently taken some time, is a kind of attention, a meditative or contemplative process. And I think so much of creative work, whether visual or writing, is fundamentally about this paying attention, and then through putting the work out, drawing other peoples’ attention, a kind of ‘pointing out’, saying ‘have you ever noticed this?’ To ‘attend’ means to wait, to be present with, to serve, to listen, to wait, to take care of someone/something. Its Latin root ‘ad-tendere’ means’ to stretch into’, to stretch one’s mind towards something.

I wanted to quote from the Canadian poet Tim Lilburn’s essay How to be here? because he puts something very eloquently that I couldn’t say any better. Lilburn was trained as a Jesuit, now teaches philosophy in a catholic college, and his work is imbued with a very scholarly understanding of the tradition of ‘negative theology’ and the mystical, contemplative tradition of Christianity that has been somewhat lost. He writes really beautifully about the practice of contemplation, and that desire to be ‘one with nature’ that is bandied around so much in environmental thinking, especially some of the less careful interpretations of deep ecology. It’s something I am always uneasy with. We can never be ‘at one with nature’ in any straightforward, cosy way. Nature doesn’t give a s**t.

PDF extract, Lilburn on watching some deer come into his yard

Lilburn is eloquent on this being-in-the-world and yet there being a separation, a gap, an otherness. Merleau-Ponty is also helpful on this when he talks about the ‘flesh’, that there is a kind of blind spot, a gap in our experience of the world just at the point where we are folded into it – a ‘chiasm’. He goes back again and again to the experience of the toucher touched, when you touch one hand with the other – you can experience ‘touching’ or ‘being touched’ but not exactly simultaneously. I think he was wary of the ‘merging’ that can be implied when we start to see self and world as ‘the same’. In his work on the flesh he describes an ‘embrace’, not a merging. The fleshy solidity of things in the world is not an obstacle but a means of communication. There is differentiation, a gap. But this is not the same as dualism. (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 130-155) Sartre was big on this too: ‘Nothingness haunts being’. He argued that when we become ‘self’ conscious, there is a slight displacement of the ego that allows us to become reflexive, and so there is a gap, a nothingness, right at the heart of the self. (Sartre, 1937/2000) He was predictably bleak and gloomy about it, describing it as a ‘worm’ at the heart of being, but I think of it in a similar way to the ‘gap’ between two eyelines in stereo vision (or sound) that punches a third dimension into experience, or like to space in a bell that allows it to resonate.

Judy Spark:  I had never heard of Lilburn until you introduced me to him but I am really struck firstly by how beautifully he puts this feeling of wanting to ‘know’ the world, but not really being able to; he sees his ‘separation’ from it as part of the experience; a “desire whose satisfaction is its frustration and continuance” and his thinking does seem comparable to Merleau-Ponty’s on the concept ‘flesh’. These notions speak to me especially in light of what I was alluding to earlier about the impossibility of bridging this separation through description or the sort of attention that is part of drawing, and I’m not saying that bridging the separation ought to be the aim. What we seem to be saying is that this gap itself is very important, and indeed may itself prove to be fertile ground in ways that we (humans) do not yet fully appreciate or understand.

This practice of drawing is indeed a method of paying attention, it is contemplative and the idea of ‘stretching ones mind towards something’ is exactly how it feels. However, these drawings don’t come about through any romantic method of sitting in a field meditating over something and its rendering. As much as this activity may exist as a personal counter to an overload of daily information transmission, through which little of value may actually be received, their making employs the tools of this culture: the digital camera, the print shop, the photocopier. The subjects of the drawings are ones that have ‘spoken’ to me, usually accumulatively, over a period of time on walks made regularly as I go about daily activities (getting to work for instance) on routes that are often a mix of the urban and the rural, the peripheries of the cities I inhabit. I would no more sit down in these environments (or any other outdoor locations) and start drawing than fly in the air. I am too much a product of the 21st Century for that, I’m too afraid I’d attract unwanted attention (human or animal), I’m too soft – get too hot or too cold easily, get hungry, need to pee, or suffer from some other discomfort. As long as I keep moving, I’m fine. But the things still ‘speak’ and I try to build sense from these broken transmissions. Back in my climate controlled studio, I grid up the enlarged photograph of the ‘thing’ that I’m working from. I refer to the notes on it made after each encounter. I think my way back through this encounter as it is transferred to paper, appears as marks in graphite and ends up as not of one world (mine) or another (the one the thing itself inhabits) but something in between. In this process of working in the gap between the two, I find the space to ‘stretch my mind toward’ the thing encountered, the world it inhabits, and this ‘exchange’ is picked up again, the next time I’m on that particular path.

I’m aware that there is again something of the cynic present here in this account of observing the ‘natural’, in a way that still ‘confounds’ it with the technological, in the methods employed in bringing about the work, and in the overlaying of the sound-work that relates to it. Sometimes during the process of these drawings, I think about an experiment I came across in a book called The Secret Life of Plants, the aim of which was to clear a field of pests using electromagnetic resonance to treat, not the field itself, but a photograph of it! It was claimed that the molecular make up of the photographic emulsion would resonate at the same frequencies as the objects in the photograph. If this is just slightly unbelievable (it maybe doesn’t work with digital!), it nevertheless does make me think about what exactly is taken, made, stilled or distilled in the making of a photograph. There is some sort of exchange, and energy has to be part of this, between the seer and the seen. Both are slightly changed by the encounter, folded into one another but still distinct, to turn to Merleau Ponty again. Drawing these things, even through these clunky methods, is a way to begin to get to this.

References:

Lilburn, T (1999) Living in the World as if it Were Home: Essays, Ontario: Cormorant Books

Merleau-Ponty, (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1937/2000) ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ in Priest, S. (2000) Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings, Routledge

Tompkins, P. and Bird, C. (1974) The Secret Life of Plants, London: Allen Lane (Penguin)

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