I started writing this as I was preparing the exhibition but as the practicalities became more urgent I had to focus on woodwork, ironmongery, measurements... The Private View was a week ago yesterday. And it was lovely - so many people, the next day I felt as though I was living in my whole body instead of a cramped boxroom!
Here is the thinking that led up to it.
The title of my exhibition is “The Transgression of Dolls”. It was intended to be slightly provocative: hinting at sex and sensation! But as I have lived with the word it seems to go deeper and links with an idea that is important to me: creative energy coming from not doing what you think you should. Trickster energy.
The definition of transgress is to go beyond limits and boundaries; morally or physically. It also has a geological meaning: the spread of the sea over land areas, new sediment is deposited on old rocks. I like that.
I have been listening to Brene Brown, who writes and talks about shame and vulnerability. I should have included her in the last blog but I “forgot” (ashamed!) until I replayed an audible book of The Power of Vulnerability for a bit of pre-exhibition succor. I am embarrassed to confess to liking her wholesome, anecdotal self-help. She has some good mantras though: for authenticity: “don’t shrink, don’t puff up, just stay in your sacred ground” and for vulnerability: “show up and let yourself be seen”. Both of those are helpful now.
Brene Brown believes we live in a culture of scarcity – blighted with the sense that we are not enough; not clever, pretty, thin… and above all (celebrity culture) – we are not extraordinary enough. She is interested in how the shame response to this perceived inadequacy prevents people from living “wholeheartedly”; we hide behind masks of who we think we should be, afraid we are to show our real selves. The conundrum is that the only way to be enough is to risk not being enough - to make yourself vulnerable. You can see why this resonates now!
I have made myself a mascot – I ordered some "Good Enough" name tags years ago and was never sure how to use them. I see it as both an object to reassure myself and one to give to someone else. I am good enough/you are good enough. Why don’t I give it away? I passed it around at the peer group the other evening. My dolls were always intended to be handled. The "good enough" alludes to Winnicott – the good enough mother – where being good enough includes a vital degree of failing to fully adapt to the infant’s needs – just enough so that the infant manageble chunks of reality - of "not me" can get in. Failing is the life force. Last year I kept coming across that lovely quote from a Leonard Cohen song.
"There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in".
Brene Brown stresses the importance of play. How hard we find it as adults to give ourselves permission to play. On her recommendation and following my own resolution to play more, I have been reading Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. Stuart Brown defines play as an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment, and suspension of self-consciousness and the sense of time. Without play and risk, there is no innovation, and when we are all so serious and busy and focussed on aims how can we possibly play? He suggests taking your own play history. What were your childhood play preferences? Were you indoors or outdoors, moving or static, alone or with friends? Unearth your historic personal play preferences and perhaps you can find a way back in.
These are my recollections – you can skim them and think about your own instead.
Dolls of course. I am sure that each of my Sindy dolls had distinct personalities and behaved accordingly – was the ballerina one not rather petulant, and the one with short hair “the kind one”?
I remember how objects had the potential to conjure up a dreamy narrative – a tassel on a cushion was a princess, a fuchsia was a fairy. Very girly. When I did a course in puppetry we were each given a black bin liner to animate – and under the guidance of a puppeteer teacher that simple cheap object teamed with potentiality and character. In contrast the fully constructed puppets we used later seemed to have too much of themselves already.
Dens –cushions pulled off the sofa to make a roofed dwelling, bedspread draped over chairs to make a hidden lair. This was social – sister play. Dens were built or found; hay bales in the field, an encampment in a hedgerow or under a bridge. Country play. Freedom. Often a key element was being able to see without being seen. Power play. Hide and seek play. A den appropriated from a corner of the garden – big trouble when we dug up an obstructing peony – but that was when I was older and things needed to be structurally more elaborate. Maybe because it was getting harder to relax into dream? There is a horrible sexist bit in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe where C.S.Lewis forbids Narnia to Susan when she starts wearing lipstick and nylons. But that is puberty – putting away childish things.
Miniature houses – in shoe boxes, desk at school. Contained play, relationship play, secret play.
Wet mud – cakes for sale, decorated with buttercups. Here is something I made recently – one of my “elemental dolls” – I enjoyed breaking up the lumps of earth, adding water and making malleable mud. Intense earth smell. Now I am re-experiencing the frustration of the stress cracks where the limbs meet the body. And the mould because I didn’t think to dry it out quickly enough. This is earth from the field outside my childhood home.
Damp sand on the beach allowed elaborate architectural constructions; dry sand offered a dreamier tactile pleasure. I have loved therapeutic sand play on the few occasions I have experienced it – I find myself going deep, very archetypal – things buried and excavated, beasts and blondes; self objects found not made.
Social peer play – prepubescent, outside: clashing on roller skates, bikes, handstands. 1970 play!
Reading of course – solitary but not always alone in silence – I used to like to sit on the landing at the top of the stairs and read while also keeping an ear on family voices below. I liked to re-read, draping my reveries over the familiar plots.
Drawing and storymaking: narrative drawings, talking as I drew the characters, naming them and describing their adventures. I remember feeling proud of developing my own visual style, learning to represent what I observed – high heeled shoes, lips, full on nostrilly noses, bulging knees.
Why am I dwelling on play now? I took on a studio so that I could make the goddess but have sometimes regretted that I so often go there to complete tasks known in advance. Rarely have I gone in and just waited to see what came. That happens at home – doodles, waking up with an image, writing, even starting a cad drawing. The vectors of Autocad may seem to contradict spontaneity but though anti-gestural, such drawings have allowed me to start to build the spaces of my imagination. Maybe some of my play takes a form which just doesn’t seem very playful?
I have been trying to cultivate an attitude of play in relation to this exhibition. Showing work is a whole new act of creation. Having made all these objects I realised I don’t really know how to present them. The space is not closely supervised and I can’t always be there, so I need to ensure my work is as safe as possible. So I have made boxes for the small abstract dolls. The newer elemental dolls will be represented through photographs and I am showing the Chthonic figures in a large box. They will be glimpsed through doll’s house doors. The interior will be black and if necessary I will provide torches so that people can project beams into the darkness. I am not sure how it will work. The scale is constrained by the space and what I can reasonably accomplish myself in the time available.
As an adult you can't play like a child - I don't think play can be nostalgic; the same door won't open in adulthood, you have to look for a different way in. But the work that I am showing is stuff in which I have given myself permission to follow tangents, enjoy processes. To be the different selves I need to be. Maybe that is the thing about play – identity isn’t fixed, output can be whatever it needs to be. I was reminded recently of Philip Pullman’s daemons in His Dark Materials – how the animal changes form until puberty, when it becomes fixed; character strengthened but limited.
Play is in the air - during a recent "Sunday Service" Jarvis Cocker alluded to a new year's resolution he made on air with Brian Eno to play more - the episode contained an interview with Stephen Johnson, the author of another recent book about the importance of play - Wonderland: How Play made the Modern World. That is one for the reading list.
When I went to a Jungian Fairy Tale reading group – one of the ways we analysed stories was to make a diagram: objects, characters, gender, numbers – how these things changed from the beginning to the end of the story. I have found this a rich way of approaching stories. In Jungian interpretation the idea is to bring the four qualities of intellect, feeling, sensation and intuition to a story; what my soul loves or what my critical faculties enjoy are both keys to open meaning. It is also deeply enjoyable to make figurative, narrative drawings; another of the pleasures of childhood creativity which I allowed art college maxims to prohibit "illustration" - aagh!
This is a page from my fairy tale journal representing George MacDonald’s story The Golden Key. I love Macdonald’s strange allegorical stories, full of unexpected portals into other worlds, massive landscapes and elusive fairy “grandmother” figures.
I have been re-reading Jung's extraordinary autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections. Jung recollects instances of play from his childhood – a little carved mannekin and “his” (the mannekin's) stone, hidden in the attic. The strange oscillation of self between the boy Jung and a stone. That always feels very important. Which of us is really me? In adulthood when Jung was in crisis his solution was to stop thinking and just play. He built a miniature town on the shore of Lake Zurich– allowing the fantasies to flow. This elaborated into a series of waking encounters with mythical figures; descents and conversations which became his technique of active imagination. It started with play and then became theory.
I tried to make an illustrated diagram of Jane Eyre in the same vein, thinking of her journey to all those places from Gateshead, to Lowood, Thornfield, Marsh End, Ferndean. The name of each residence conjures such a vivid sense of a terrain. I was thinking about mandala forms. The diagrams contain my own ideas and some from literary criticism, so I am in danger of plagiarizing or at least not acknowledging what is not mine. Ire, Air, Heir comes, I think from an essay by David Lodge. I added the Her which is clumsy but brings in my own preoccupation with the rivalrous she shadow/double.
As I write this paragraph I have just been stitching a small “padded cell” core for a Jane Eyre doll. I made a house box with an attic which has lurked, dirtying, for several years and I want to include it in the show in my literature section even though I am uncertain quite how to finish it. Jane’s core is red satin, diamond quilted with wonky running stitch and beads. I was smiling as I sewed it; little scrap in my hands, this “not art” frippery, bodged miniature. a transgressive making. At the end of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic – she tells about the Balinese priests who invented a tourist versions of their religious dances so as not to contaminate the originals, only to find that the new “fake” tourist sequences felt more vital that the old ones. So they re-incorporated the phoney movements back into their temple dances. The non sacred invigorating the sacred. What am I thinking here, am I even thinking or is this just writing itself? That not art makes art? Or not art makes what my “art” needs to be, to me? Even if it is bad art? Maybe art is just the wrong word - a word which limits and prohibits rather than affirms and expands?
As I go to press "publish" I have just started reading Adam Phillips' Unforbidden Pleasures - the opening chapter is all about how to find a way to speak with the voice and voices you need to use, and to escape or change the language of prohibition - internal and external. The tragic view of life is one in which options are limited. The obvious interpretation is often wrong. Celebrate over-interpretation!
I am reading The Vegetarian – another story of the rebellion of an over compliant woman. Instead of escaping to the trees she retreats to the mad illusion of becoming tree. There is no way of finding another story for herself here.
In anticipation of imagined questions or criticisms I am fighting an urge to over-interpret my work- to make sure there are no gaps through which I can be pierced. I am trying to resist, to keep in a place of not knowing. One of the literary inspired objects is a tile representing "the little man" in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. "It is wut it is, I aint the noin ov it Im jus onle the showing ov it". There is a novel written in broken language.
What do I want from this exhibition? I want to spread out and celebrate what I have done. I want to notice rhythms and connections. I want to invite people into my world, and open dialogue about ideas that interest me. I want to connect with people who can help me to show and make bigger pieces - like the goddess. I find I am including a few things that I think are less “good” but have aspects that I want to acknowledge. The Jane Eyre doll jars a bit, yet I am so sure I want it there, maybe it stands for me, a little guardian figure, first thing you see if make a clockwise route? Perhaps she represents all those formative 19th/early 20th century literary heroines: the plain ones like Jane and Jo Marsh who survive, and the beauties like Tess or Lily Bart who don't?
I can't think and write about play without acknowledging Winnicott. Last year I saw Susie Orbach in conversation with Brett Kahr and Alison Bechdel. Kahr had recently written a book about Winnicott, illustrated by Bechdel. "Tea with Winnicott" takes the form of a series of imagined conversations with Winnicott, returned from the dead. I didn’t know that Winnicott was lifelong best friends with Jim Ede of Kettles Yard – it fits somehow, that beautiful homely space with its juxtapositions of art, natural objects and books - a giant mind, discerning but benevolently encompassing.
It has been striking reading about Jung and Winnicott; even with the latter psychoanalysis was still in its infancy and they were both so free to try new things. Winnicott was much criticised for breaking boundaries: not sticking to the fifty minute hour, having patients live with him, not to mention all the cross over of everyone analysing everyone else in that tiny psychoanalytic world. Transgressing! The energy of transgressing. In Kahr's book Winnicott talks about the life force expressed in mania (not just an illness), he pointed to how depressed many of the first psychoanalysts in London were; refugees from Europe; threatened by expressions of vitality.
I really enjoyed Bechedel's book "Are you my Mother?” too: an autobiography interwoven with Winnicottia. I haven’t read many graphic novels but the format is wonderful for expressing relationships in a non verbal way – the changing positions of the characters within each cartoon box and on the page, and in the interplay between dialogue, thought and “stage direction”.
Winnicott believed that the loved one has to survive the attacks of the infant and Bechdel the adult restages that when she shows the manuscript of her book to her mother and finds that their relationship can survive the candour of her writing. Playing together was a powerful way for them to give and receive love. It makes me think of that very brutal film "Fish Tank" by Andrea Arnold – the relationship between mother and daughter in the film is irrevocably damaged but they share a love of dance, and in an amnesty at the end of the film, insults and anger are suspended and they dance together in smiling parenthesis. The silent dance is only way they are able to relate in peace. In childhood Bechdel and her mother played a game of wounded child and nurse/mother in order to receive and give love, and in adulthood their exchanges are often through their literary ideas rather than personal emotions. Displaced communications. I was also interested in Winnicott’s ideas about the essential aggressiveness about becoming a self – not sure I fully understand but it resonates in relation to exhortations in my childhood not to be selfish. How hard it is to resist and insist.
I was recently asked about how my art therapy training has influenced my practice as an artist. the answer is massively. I brought many so many prohibitions out of art school. I was fragile ego-ed, and overly compliant. I ended up in a cul de sac: gagged. Then I did an art therapy foundation course and in the first session we were invited to make a mask representing ourselves. We had half an hour and I remember grabbing sheets of sugar paper, feathers, glitter with a surge of glee and power. Then the surprise and revelation of what I had made - how it expressed something about me that I couldn't possible have articulated or known in advance. And, that I didn't necessarily have to talk about it. The recognition was private. I was making with materials I hadn't used since primary school days and with a spontaneous energy I didn't know I possessed, but I was also making with my adult skills: childhood making has a fair amount of frustration - things fall apart. Now I know how much glue, how to clamp or joint or fold. But in the uninhibitedness of this kind of making I was able to put myself back in the mix. The work I am preparing to show now oscillates between overt personal content, ideas, abstract forms and material experiments. I think the energy is the movement between these things.
I started thinking about about artists and play. I really like the work of Lygia Clark – both her formal geometric and propositional/performance works. interesting that she trained as a psychotherapist. I wrote above that my small dolls were envisaged as things to be handled and exchanged. I haven't found a way to include that social aspect yet. So much labour goes into the dolls, I am anxious about damage. Clark's handling objects are combinations of everyday objects: rubber bands, plastic bags and balls. The components are replaceable. And yet so many of my makings have been damaged by my own neglect over the years– fearing to show and leaving them lying around... That is what triggered the elemental dolls - trying to incorporate my own urge to destroy and wondering what happens, what can happen, beyond that.
By introducing the word play into having an exhibition am I being defensive? Saying, you can't judge me because I am only playing? When I was on placement, training to be a therapist, I had a teenage client who attended one session and never came back. He made some hefty wrench-like objects from plastercine and kept saying that they were prototypes. We talked about that in supervision: how that word signaled his insistence that he was making a trial version, not the real thing. But in retrospect that is almost a veiling word – isn't the prototype the first thing, the most real thing?
Finally - i did an interview about the exhibition with Rodney Dee. What a curious thing to be confronted by a recording device and to speak aloud about oneself to somebody else, without notes. I had the questions in advance but decided to trust to the alchemy of the encounter, so it is rather jolty. The interview is on Rodney's blog Art as Therapy.
The interview blows my cover, but thinking about pseudonyms as dwelling places I will end with two quotations from George MacDonald (from memory - I think from his novel Lilith)
"A hiding place is not a home"
"A home is somewhere you can go into and out of"
Photograph by Travis Elborough