Escape to Silence
I am reading a novel about a woman who abandons her family and home for a life of solitude and self sufficiency in the country - Gaining Ground by Joan Barfoot. Abra lives in a home without clocks or mirrors which she decorates in a happily bodged way and gradually moves into an instinctual life, in tune with the seasons and without words. She cultivates enough land to feed herself but strives for no mastery beyond survival. Echoes of Robinson Crusoe.
The yearning to escape - to be silent and alone is always with me too. How does that relate to being an artist and showing as well as making work?
I come back - perennial word bead - to a quote from D W Winnicott:
"It is a joy to be hidden but disaster never to be found"
I made a snail puppet/painting with this quote years ago - a retractable head with workable mouth that can retreat back into its own centre (with a little window to look out from).
I have just reread the essay by Winnicott from which the quote comes*. I hadn't realized how explicitly it relates to being a visual (any kind of) artist rather than merely an awkward human being.
There is so much in it, it is impossible to summarize but I am struck by the idea that for some people relating to inner (subjective) objects can feel more real than engaging with the external world. How important it is to feel real!
At its most extreme such a split in communication is a result of early impingement. If you are welded to a false outward pleasing self you also need desperately to step away and look inwards at a silent subjective core (true self) in order to feel your own reality. But Winnicott believed that in every healthy individual too there is a unknown, place that is inviolate. He equates the fantasy of being found with being eaten or exploited.
Winnicott presents communication as three pronged - in the middle (in my version) an extroverted verbal dialogue (the norm), on one side is communication with the true self ("forever silent") and on the other is the intermediate form communication with art and cultural life - which "slides out of playing" (remembering the odd overlapping of imagined and physical reality which is the transitional object).
I am interested in the activity in silence with which I create my own internal dialogue - planning, drawing, cutting, sewing. The time it takes. The oscillation between abstraction and narrative (or autobiography). How explicit is the relationship between the objects and myself? Occasionally when somebody touches one of the things i have made I feel an erotic quiver as though I am it.
In the first part of my adult artist life I had always been safely concealed (silent or non existent?) in abstract work. My work took a lurch into narrative, figurative more autobiographical form after a relationship break up - it as if I needed to be more explicit in order to be heard more clearly or to hear myself more clearly. Rather than being concealed or invisible perhaps I was disguised?
Winnicott talks about communication as being a game of hide and seek, a paradox or contradiction between "an urgent need to communicate, and a the still more urgent need not to be found"
The retreat from abstraction means that it is even harder to show my work - I don't necessarily want strangers to know me. Is it fear of being judged? Partly, but it is also because I am not really thinking about anyone else. Winnicott wonders whether this silent communication is related to primary narcissism. Am I giving birth to versions of my true self?
At an open studio recently a visitor commented on how much emotion there is in my work. I said thank you automatically and then felt rather horrified. Is it that obvious? Does my art work exhibit the emotion for me so that i don't have to feel it? Manic defence!
At the end of the 90's my work was so white and monolithic that someone described it as "so quiet it is virtually silent". At that point I think I was trying to obliterate myself rather than communicate, I was so bogged down in what I thought my artist self should do. So the grief and rage of loss actually liberated me to be alive again, to discard a mode of creative expression which no longer worked for me and take a different path. In one way I found happiness and authenticity through being sad.
When I was about 20 I drew a lot of spiral labyrinth images. I remember a visiting tutor asking “and where are you in all this?” I was baffled, instantly ashamed, became tearfully silent and the tutorial ended in embarrassed disaster for both of us. That experience has stuck with me and now , 27 years later I still dwell on it. I don’t think he intended it as the damning criticism I inferred but it was an impingement. I had nothing to give him then – all was nascence, a feeling of rhythm and shape that I might grow into and become. The spiral a silent invitation to come in and find me (without words). Winnicott's writing can be heartbreakingly apt and it seems relevant to the plight of my art school self to read that "Adolescents form aggregates rather than groups, and by looking alike they emphasize the essential loneliness of each individual. At least that is how it seems to me".
Now, after an art therapy training I am much more aware of the me in my work. And of the me or absence of me in those drawings of many years ago. Spirals have remained a feature (a snail of course can be represented by a spiral - think Matisse) and recently I have returned to drawing circular labyrinths.
With Winnicott in mind - slightly below consciousness until now the words draw him up - my new spiral drawings have create a form where an accessible centre exists side by side with a still silent place which can never be accessed.
Inviolable Selves (Alone in the presence of the other)
*Communicating and Not Vommunicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites, in D.W. Winnicott The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment, Karnac, 1990. All quotes are from this essay - you should read it all so I won't give page references!
See also Solitude by Sara Maitland, an autobiographical meditation on putting into practice a life long yearning to be alone.
attitude towards it had changed following a bereavement. Intimacy Unguarded