Monthly Archives: July 2024

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet. (Part four)

In 1998 Agnes Martin, working with fine graphite lines and acrylic on a gesso ground,  made the painting that she would call Untitled no. 5. It’s hard to describe her paintings at the best of times. This one is, of course, square and made up of seven horizontal bands of colour – three are pale blue (top, middle and bottom) and two each a very pale yellow and a pale, slightly orange pink. So the sequence, from top to bottom, is blue, pink, yellow, blue, pink, yellow, blue. The overall sense of the painting seems to be of a quiet pulsing of pale-coloured light. I find it interesting to think about this highly “abstract” painting in relation to Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids (1991-92), which is made up of the seven separate horizontal bands (each 7.5 x 53 cms) painted in watercolour on paper with traces of gold leaf, principally in a block on the second band down from the top. While at first each band appears to be a red modulated by some degree of gestural marking, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that these marks are in fact more or less referential – to hair, to a leaf, to what might be a bone, and so on. The painting comes across as almost a distillation of what Lawrence undertook in two large oil paintings from the same period: Isis (1991) and Forms of Flight (1991-92), with which it shares certain iconographic elements. None of the three paintings is a literal representation. Rather they seem to me to evoke intuitions of certain senses of possibility. If Martin’s painting appears to be a statement of a unified, or perhaps more accurately barely qualified and transcendent sense of ‘happiness, joy and beauty’, as has been suggested, how are we to respond to Lawrence’s work?

I believe there is an important distinction that can be made between the vision of wholeness Agnes Martin seeks to articulate in Untitled no. 5 (1998), where articulation is reduced to subtle variations and repetitions of colour, and the highly particular and subtle alternative offered by Lawrence’s Seven Voids. Lawrence, like Pat Steir, is not prepared to strip her art down to what, in terms of mystical thinking, might be described as articulations of a sense of being only just on the human (differentiating) side of identifying with a luminous void. Unlike Steir, however, the faint “representational” references in Lawrence’s work to natural objects are less inflected by either Conceptualist concerns with the “language” of painting or with a play of Art Historical reference. While I see Steir as ultimately making art that, for all its use of references to such elements in the natural world as waterfalls, remains primarily concerned with intellectual questions about the nature of beauty and representation, I see both Martin and Lawrence, in their different ways, as ultimately concerned with what, very broadly speaking, can be called intuitions of ethical or spiritual concern. Exploring the difference between them is where, for me, John Burnside’s writing is so helpful.

For Martin as a painter, and as she famously said: “happiness is the goal, isn’t it”, so that she could describe her work as giving people the same feeling as “when you wake up in the morning”. But to frame my own response to Untitled no. 5 (1998) in that way would require me to acknowledge that, while there may have been brief moments on waking in the morning, at certain times in my life and in certain conditions, when that’s brought an unalloyed sense of happiness – a happiness very similar to that given at the end of a meditation session when my thoughts have dropped away and I am wholly in a state in which mind, body and feeling appear undifferentiated – this is a rare and highly exceptional state of being. One that depends on either a chance moment when, awakening, I find myself floating free from the flow of what John Burnside calls ‘the commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”, or else that I can try to reach through some form of deliberate psycho-spiritual practice. In either case what I am experiencing might be described as a brief detachment from the flow of time in which only an unqualified and somehow expanded present moment appears “real”. While I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who wish to pursue this moment as central to their life, as I believe Martin almost certainly did, my own circumstances lead me to be concerned with an alternative orientation grounded in the “thought of the heart”.

Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids, as I hope my description above makes clear, are not in fact voids at all, but neither do they simply provide “representations” of objects in the usual sense. Perhaps the simplest way to describe this work is to compare it to what differentiates a meditation session from my everyday state of attention. In that everyday state attention is constantly shifted in its focus – for longer or shorter lengths of time and both consciously and unconsciously – by thoughts, bodily sensations, or feelings. For example in working on this essay, while my conscious attention is primarily on the train of thought I am trying to follow, my attention as a whole fluctuates and flickers as it is taken by the draft from the window, the tension in my back that requires me to adjust my posture, or else is entirely broken when the postwoman knocks on the door.

In a good meditation session the draft, my back tension, even the postwoman’s knock, will all present themselves to my consciousness. However, while they are acknowledged for what they are and allowed to flow through, my attention remains focused on listening for, or attending to, the sense of undifferentiated wholeness, (which might also be called “emptiness” or a void) that lies beneath or behind that inevitable flow of thoughts, bodily sensations, and feelings. Agnes Martin’s Untitled no. 5, seeks to evoke a state where that flow is discounted or denied, or so it seems to me. In doing so it adopts an ideal position that I can respect but not identify with or aspire to. Eileen Lawrence’s Seven Voids appears, by contrast, to acknowledge the continuous shadowy flow of Burnside’s ‘commonplaces of “the dailiness of life”’, while simultaneously acknowledging a desire to listen for, try to be present to, what lies beneath or behind, what is co-present with, that flow.

Why does any of this matter? I suggest that a (very tentative) answer to that question might be that Lawrence’s approach is somehow closely bound up with Burnside’s balancing of commitment to the ecological need to practice, on a daily basis, ‘une vie commune’ – that is ‘a lived, deliberate conviviality in which all life is felt to be’ both ‘continuous’ and, in its flow, somehow present – with an acknowledgement that ‘each of us who is, or has been here on earth, is destined for inexistence’. That is, to acknowledge both the flow of life and the fact that our individual death is necessary to the continuity of that flow. To properly elaborate on this balancing act would require me to undertake a free and detailed paraphrase of Burnside’s highly personal yet deeply applicable essay ‘Blossom: Ruins’ in Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction, something I simply don’t feel competent to do. I would, however, recommend that book, and particularly its final chapter, to anyone who has followed me to this point.   

Speculations on self and mortality: thinking with three artists and a poet (Part 3). 

I find it odd, to say the least, that the last major exhibition of Eileen Lawrence’s work in the UK was back in 1992. It consisted of work she’d made between 1977 and 1992 and was shown at the Usher Gallery, Lincoln – where it was linked to her contribution to The Journey, a major visual arts project in Lincoln that raised questions about the relationship between contemporary art and religious and/or spiritual concerns – and then at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh. I found that exhibition so compelling that I made the long cross-country journey from the North Pennines to Lincoln twice to see both it and the installation of her Lincoln Prayer Sticks in the Cathedral. Some years later I visitedher studio in Edinburgh to see more of her work and to discuss the possibility of putting together a monograph on it, a project that sadly came to nothing. However, as a result I know there is a whole range of Lawrence’s work that would not only provide excellent material for an major exhibition but that, more importantly, would raise important questions in relation to attitudes to our sense of self, our mortality, the places in which we live, and so the whole question of our relationship to the natural world.  In short, the attitudes that concern me here.

In trying to think about those questions, I have drawn heavily on the work of the poet John Burnside who died shortly before I started work on this essay. I’ve been reading his Aurochs and Auks: Essays On Mortality And Extinction, I Put A Spell On You and The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century, but also the poems that make up Ruin, Blossom (2024), along with Afterlife and the notes he wrote in relation to it. Burnside’s writing is particularly helpful to me here because, as one of his editors notes, like a number of other Scottish writers of his generation he was quite willing to tackle: ‘the big spiritual questions’. (A phrase I’m not sure Burnside himself would have been entirely happy with, unless the term “spiritual” was suitably qualified as referring to a quality that’s not opposed to, or even distinct from, the mundane, the earthly, the everyday). In short, I find Burnside’s point relates to my sense of Eileen Lawrence’s work.     

Thinking about parallels between Burnside’s comments on the literary world and Rebecca Solnit’s reflections on beauty, in her As Eve Said To The Serpent, suggests one possible answer to the question of why Lawrence’s work has is not better known. I suspect this has to do with the unashamed beauty of so much of Lawrence’s work; a beauty exemplified by the extraordinary Nightsong from Images of Paradise (1989). This painting measures 170 by 255 cms (5’ 7” x 8’ 4”) and is constituted by luminous, flickering blues and greens, often set down with minute strokes, along with a wound-shaped slit described in gold leaf that runs the whole height of the work just in from its left-hand side. Part of what makes it so astonishingly luminous is that it’s painted in watercolour on paper. Apart from the two barely visible feathers on the left-hand side, it’s difficult to “name” the elements that make up this quietly unsettling work, somehow simultaneously somehow nocturnal and aquatic. Or so I wrote when I first drafted this. Then I read the passage in Burnside’s I Put A Spell On You where he summaries what the Chinese master Chu Hsi says about the working of the Tao in everything, what he calls li. Li seems to me to come closest to “naming” the real topic of Nightsong, Burnside’s passage is worth quoting in full:

li refers to the innumerable vein-like patterns included in the Tao … Li is like a piece of thread with its strands, or like this basket. One strip goes this way, and the other goes that way. It is also like the grain in bamboo … (p. 40).  

I also think an observation by Burnside about the “poetry Scene”, one that applies equally to the “art Scene”, is directly relevant to a work like this. In a short interview with Jesse Nathan, Burnside questions what he sees as the over-emphasis of ‘content’ by individuals anxious to prove their ‘socio-political credentials’, where ‘content’ is explicit and set apart from the creation and deployment of vivid metaphor. Here he evokes Hannah Arendt’s observation that: ‘Thinking creates its “concepts’ out of the visible, in order to designate the invisible’. I understand this as linked to Solnit’s argument that intellectual engagement with the arts by, broadly speaking, those committed to an unqualified and literal rationalism is haunted by a fear of beauty. Not only because it cannot be made to straightforwardly enhance what Burnside calls ‘socio-political credentials’ but, equally, because it bypasses reasoned intellectual argumentation by appealing directly to the senses. As such, it also sidesteps the authority of those whose status depends on their “mastery” of such argumentation. Beauty is, in short, the wild card that short-circuits the mechanisms on which the power of critical and academic authority depends. Add to this that beauty deployed in conjunction with a metaphorical title, as in Nightsong from Images of Paradise,speaks of ‘invisible’ qualities not subject to rational or theoretical explanation. In this context the reason why an institution like Tate Britain underrepresents Lawrence’s work becomes easier to understand.

In contrast to the conceptual and theory-heavy preoccupations of the London-based “art Scene”, a number of Scottish artists of Lawrence’s generation adopted what the art historian Duncan Macmillan refers to as ‘a careful attention to spacing and symmetry which is … ultimately Japanese in origin’. A strategy specifically designed to enhance ‘the sense of the metaphysical presence in the objects that are described’ (Scottish Art in the 20th Century 1994, p. 135). I see this as having a partial parallel with Agnes Martin’s concern to focus attention on nothing other than spacing and symmetry. Macmillan also notes, writing of Lawrence’s partner Glen Onwin, that both artists engage in ‘an analysis of the physical detail of nature that, by its very closeness, while it emulated the scientific approach, could also capture something of our sense of the presence of the transcendental in the mundane’ [italics mine].(ibid. p. 137). In the context of the three painters referenced here, it is this ‘capture’ that distinguishes Lawrence’s work from that of Pat Steir, which, for all its renditions of flowers or birds,  lacks a detailed analysis of the physical detail of nature that could capture ‘something of our sense of the presence of the transcendental in themundane’ precisely because her primary concern is with problematising issues of representation within a conceptual framework.  

It’s in the context of what may be seen as a variation on what Macmillan suggests is a tension between the scientific and the transcendental, perhaps, that Fiona McLeod begins her catalogue essay on Lawrence for New North by quoting the American professor and writer on art, Donald Kuspit  as follows:

‘A truly vital Modern art would not only collect details of the experience of aliveness but would integrate them into a new kind of living whole: not a kind of god, or a surrogate for one, as much traditional art implicitly was, but an analogue of the Truth Self’. (“The Only Immortal” article in Artforum, from February 1990, which can be accessed online).

Kuspit derives his notion of the True Self from psychoanalysis, in particular from Freud and D. W. Winnicott. Fiona McLeod, following his argument, uses it to position Lawrence’s work psychoanalytically, namely in terms of “the struggle between life and death instincts”. However, while McLeod’s take on Kuspit is perfectly plausible, I find it unconvincing in terms of Eileen Lawrence’s interests and concerns. As McLeod herself notes, Lawrence has a deep and long-standing interest in eastern art and philosophy and, as Macmillan notes, her approach is closer in orientation to Jung and Buddhism than Freud. Sarah Kent, in a perceptive essay for Lawrence’s 1992 exhibition, supports this view when she likens Lawrence’s titles for earlier works to Japanese haiku poems, as with the two titles quoted earlier. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Lawrence absorbed the twin influences of Joseph Beuys, a cofounder of the German Green Party, and Agnes Martin. Martin’s greatest spiritual inspiration was Lao Tzu’s teachings on Taoism, with its emphasis on the transcendence of nature and integration of body and mind.

Add to these affinities Kent’s suggestion that Lawrence’s work has a playful affection for mindsets that the modern world has no time for; mindsets for which “temples housed oracles… branches were dead ancestors and geese the companions of goddesses”, and a sense of what underpins what appear to be, in terms of their literal content, apparently simple images, starts to emerge. Kent also suggests that there’s a certain curiosity, mingled with admiration, about belief systems that still haunt the peripheral spaces of a world reduced by consumerist culture to a mere resource, to a standing reserve to be either extracted for profit or – whether human or more-than-human – disposed of if it interferes with making profit. Here Lawrence’s orientation is paralleled by John Burnside’s, thus aiding my speculations about the relevance of Lawrence’s work to Burnside’s musings on questions of self and mortality.      

John Burnside         

All in all, I think of Eileen Lawrence’s work as appearing at the convergence of these types of alternative orientation. Sarah Kent is obviously right to reference the trace sense of ancient goddesses, the pre-Christian antecedents of the Virgin Mary, in her discussion of Isis (1991). But even so I don’t see the work as wearing a “pagan” or “animist” approach on its sleeve. Perhaps because there is also present in it, as Duncan Macmillan observes,  something of the near-scientific exactitude of a work like John Ruskin’s Study of a Peacock Feather, c. 1880. In her working methods Lawrence has also shared Ruskin’s observational practice based on walking. As already mentioned, she has often visited remote places to study. Early on, in the Highlands, this was to collect feathers, heather twigs, egg shells and the materials with which to make her own paper. Later, in the US and Europe, these trips seem to have been more observational in intent. If she can’t be said to be concerned, like Ruskin, with revealing the glory of the Divine in the order of the universe, I think she’s certainly concerned with the importance of being open to the sense of mystery in the more-than-human world, to something that exceeds what can be grasped through scientific understanding yet, paradoxically, becomes apparent through qualities of observation that require an exactitude also valued by science.

As I hope my speculations so far suggest, Eileen Lawrence’s work might help us better face our current socio-environmental crisis. Kuspit’s “The Only Immortal”, with its Freudian underpinning, was published in 1990, yet between 1985 and 1989 the psychologist Edward Sampson published three papers that challenge the assumptions about the Self that Kuspit takes for granted. Sampson’s argument was later utilised by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman in a 1994 paper in which he argues that we need to understand that Self is “the interiorization of community”, that it’s ”constituted of communal contingences”, and that this requires us to take in, to notice, to attend to our environment in all its complexity because the environment is now the mirror in which Self as community appears. (See ‘“Man is by nature a political animal” or: patient as citizen’ in Sonu Shamdasani, S & Munchow, M (eds) Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, philosophy and culture Routledge, 1994, pp. 35 -36).

This relates directly to Kuspit’s observations about the struggle between life and death instincts. If, as Hillman writes (quoting Sampson): “There are no subjects who can be defined apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections, and relationships” then, as Hillman himself goes on to write: “understanding the individual as individual is no longer relevant to understanding human life”. (ibid. pp. 32-33). Provoking as many people (perhaps particularly artists) may find that claim, it makes clear that, ecologically speaking, the Freudian view of personhood is anachronistic, along with its conceptualisation of a struggle between life and death instincts to which Kuspit refers. If the expression of a life instinct lies in engagement with all the many and various attachments, connections, and relationships within which that life is enmeshed, then our literal, physical, death will not be the immediate end of those attachments, connections, and relationships. Why is implied by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his Critique and Conviction (!998) where, in response to a question about the Christian afterlife, he says: ”…I demand no ‘after’. I cast upon others, my survivors, the task of taking up again my desire to be, my effort to exist, in the time of the living”. (p. 158). I would also suggest that we might now understand the life instinct, in the light of Sampson’s observations, in terms that reflect the spirit of Bruno Latour’s injunction that we try: “to register, to maintain, to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world”. (Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 2018, p. 15-16).   

All of which may seem to take me a long way from Lawrence’s work. However, I will try to reconnect these speculations to that work in the next part of this essay.

For those of us living in the UK …

For those of us living in the UK, today is our chance to vote for those who will represent us in the UK government over the next few years. Whichever party that is will have a very steep hill to climb, given the consequences of Brexit and the way in which the Tories have created what one commentator has called a “chumocracy” and have effectively asset-stripped the country, presumably on the basis of Margaret Thatcher’s belief that there is “no such thing as society”. (Only, it would appear from the policies of the last 14 years, rule by wealthy individuals and their friends animated by a sense of self-entitlement and greed).

Our democracy is very far from perfect. However, you only have to look at the USA, where a former president who attempted to deny his defeat by force has just effectively been given the power to make himself an absolute dictator (that is, to be placed above the law) should he win the elections there, to see that it could be a lot worse here. I wouldn’t presume to suggest how, as a UK citizen, you should vote. That is absolutely your choice on the basis of your convictions, circumstances, and what you feel is best for the country. Like a great many people, I find myself torn between voting from personal conviction – which would be to vote for the Green candidate (who, I know, has no chance of winning in the constituency where we live) – and voting for the hard-working and very decent Labour candidate who has served our constituency well for many years. In the end I will take the pragmatic option and vote Labour. If he is re-elected I will, however, continue to press him on Green and other issues.

The point of all this is, however, to ask any of you who think voting is a waste of time to please do so regardless. If we want a better, more representational, democracy – one in which, for example, we have proportional representation and greater devolved powers to regional and local communities – then we have to accept that it’s the duty of citizens to vote. If nothing else, it puts us in the position to be able to say: “I voted for you, now I expect you to listen to my concerns”.