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.