Wabi Sabi: An Antidote to our Obsession with the Spectacle

Over March and April, prior to his solo exhibition in London, I had a long conversation with American artist Joshua Hagler, 40, (@haglerjosh) who is known for his haunting, visceral, psychologically-charged paintings hovering between the abstract and the figurative. Joshua explores a range of heavy subjects—memory, religion, politics, violence, rhetoric, mythology, American history, the overall complexity of life and things and ideas.

We instantly connected over common interests and concerns, from our fascination with the French thinker René Girard to our frustration with the Left/Right divide and how it has deteriorated public discourse. There was, in particular, a point Joshua made about contemporary visual culture that stayed with me: “In an era of über capitalism and Trumpism, in which no message can be sent or received outside the sphere of the spectacle, I feel a sense of loss—a loss of intimacy, of privacy, of a broader humanism.”

We feel the “spectacle of über capitalism” most outrageously on social media. Technology itself isn’t the problem here, it is the most dominant ideology of our time—behind the digital devices—that has vitiated our manner of communication. If people don’t have an immediate product or service to offer, they resort to selling their own lives. They feel compelled to advertise themselves. As a result, things are frequently projected as larger than their original size or value, the wins are magnified, the milestones celebrated, adventures duly recorded—a new job, car, a relationship, vacation in an exotic land. And along side all of this, the defeats, the struggles, failures, stresses and heartaches are carefully (and shamefully) edited out and hidden from the sight of others.

Staged posts such as these are widespread on Instagram, particularly with influencers, combining a sense of adventure and the promise of a loving relationship, giving the impression of an unperturbed, envy-inducing life.

But many of those who craft these spectacles of faultlessness are indeed aware that they are fooling both themselves and the world. Some are honest enough to admit it. I recently found a globetrotting model, who makes good money posing for magazines like Playboy and Maxim and endorsing a number of fashion brands, divulging painfully: “For the past year, I have been struggling with really strong anxiety attacks. It was caused by the trauma of something that I had to go through for over a year, being trapped in a very toxic relationship that I finally ended a year ago…It all looks so perfect and glamorous on social media but what we struggle with away from the screens of our iPads and phones is sometimes something so far away from the reality we try to create on social media where everything seems to be so candid and perfect.”

An antidote to this pressure to look impeccable all the time and the obsession with perpetual salesmanship could be found in the Japanese philosophy of “Wabi Sabi”. Wabi Sabi is a position that celebrates the imperfect, the incomplete and the impermanent. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the aesthetic regards the quotidian—the small, everyday, transient happenings—with a loving, reverent eye. Rather than striving for magnitude or invincibility, it looks for elegance in little things—a tea-drinking ceremony or cracked pottery. An affection is developed towards objects that are old, worn-out, also towards fleeting natural phenomena, like the play of light and shadow on the moon. The fragility of and flux in stuff are acknowledged, and quietly celebrated.

A Japanese tea-drinking ceremony illustrated in a print by Yōshū Chikanobu (1838–1912), a prolific woodblock artist of the Meiji Period. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The words “wabi” and “sabi” are not easy to translate in English. They have evolved since the 14th century, as author Alain de Botton mentions in a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmHLYhxYVjA) for The School of Life. Wabi initially meant a kind of misery, the loneliness of living in nature, away from human consolation and contact. It now means the bittersweet, exquisite experience of being on one’s own. Sabi initially referred to that which was lean, chill and withered. It now evokes the grace that may emerge from age and use. It also incorporates an artful mending of damage and an appreciation of the cycles of life. The concept is close to “kintsugi”, the practice of repairing brokenness in objects with gold, to show that scars make a thing not less but more precious. Wounds and cuts need not be rendered invisible but ought to be displayed with pride.

Wabi Sabi, in general, embraces a perspective that is in sharp contrast to Western aesthetic ideals, which, since antiquity, have laid a lot of emphasis on the eternal and unchanging. The great cathedrals, houses of parliament, mansions, bridges, stadiums and theatres have been built upon principles of symmetry, wholeness, mathematical precision, proportion and harmony. Such an outlook has its place in art, culture, public life, even private life (as in, when applied to ethics or morality, it can send one on the path of personal development) but, fused with consumerism and the media, a preoccupation with perfection has created and extended a jarring, misleading, unrealistic film  over the actual world.

People today have a distorted idea of what is grand, remarkable, important and meaningful, and live in a continuous state of FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—news, items and experiences…the most engaging conversations, the latest smartphone, the best food, mind-blowing cruises, luxury bags or watches, the shiniest leather jackets, the smartest boots, anti-ageing formulas, the most outstanding partner and children, the list is endless. It is exactly here that Wabi Sabi can help, calm down our frantic spirits, give us a sobering yet still joyful view of existence. Its application can be easy and immediate. A session with friends under the moonlit sky on the terrace instead of a trip to the mall, stitches that may tighten or loosen an old shirt, the writing down of a brief, educational conversation with a stranger in a journal, a vase made out of a Coke bottle or simply a barefoot walk on the grass.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Taking Responsibility as Content Creators

The Louvre Museum and Kim Kardashian on Instagram

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity of interviewing Marine Tanguy, 30, a London-based entrepreneur who has started the world’s first artist agency—MTArt Agency. You will find talent agencies in fields like modelling, speaking and writing but the concept is new in the world of visual arts. Marine is committed to accelerating artistic careers in innovative ways; she encourages people to invest not in art but artists. She borrows the idea from the agencies she encountered in Los Angeles, where she worked in her early twenties. They had a more 360-degree view, she says, of managing talent, generating visibility and revenue than the traditional gallery model.

Her award-winning venture helps artists cover their studio costs and sell their works. It also implements a variety of public art projects, cultural and commercial partnerships (for instance, with the Mayor of London’s #LondonisOpen campaign). MTArt has big plans, and wants to eventually rival the major Hollywood talent agencies that look after actors and celebrities.

Marine is active as a speaker. One of her TEDx talks, given in Lausanne in 2018, is titled “How social media visuals affect our mind?” and highlights the big difference between the Instagram followings of the Louvre and Kim Kardashian. Currently, the museum has 3.2M and the socialite 146M. Marine likens the narcissistic, hyper-sexualised imagery of the latter to junk food. It is harmful and “makes people feel like crap”, she maintains. She scientifically backs up this claim with evidence collected through AI monitoring.

As a response, she does not suggest any kind of suppression or censorship but greater diversification of content on social media platforms so that we can be more visually nourished. She has no problem with Kim Kardashian per se and does not want to punch her type. What troubles her is that there is just this one kind of persona, representation of what a female should be that has such a massive, sweeping hold.

Given the identity of the individual on top, Instagram is suffocatingly crammed with bikini models—most of them passive objects of the male gaze. Marine herself got the greatest engagement on the day she decided to do a test and posted a picture of her bottom (instead of her usual posts on her eventful life as a pioneering businesswoman). That is what people want and mainly respond to. Who is to be held accountable for such behaviour?

Marine’s answer has two points. First, social media only shows what already exists beyond it, it reflects the entertainment and advertising industries as they have operated for decades. And second, more importantly, the academic world and the art industry have long refused to take part in actively sharing content. This is something that we always forget to mention. Universities and museums did a poor job of making meaningful conversations and creativity available via the television. And they are still quite slow with the internet. Institutions have remained shut off from the outside world, and continue to provide high culture to a small, elite crowd.

“Institutions have remained shut off from the outside world, and continue to provide high culture to a small, elite crowd.” (Credit: Pixabay)

They’ve believed that somehow engaging everyone is something bad, Marine adds. “If they did share any content, they would remove all directness and empathy and make the material too conceptual, not related to our lives.”

If the vast majority of people have an aesthetic sensibility that cannot quite go far beyond Kim Kardashian it is because they never really had a chance to be exposed to and get familiar with anything better. The content was not developed in the first place. It wasn’t offered to them.  

“So, as an industry we have to step in and start sharing valuable content regularly,” Marine says. “At MTArt, we are tackling this by taking art to museums but also through public projects and social media. We want to stay in the landscape. Say if you are a tech company or if you are in the city space, we want to provide you with visuals.”

It is easy for people in the creative industries to complain about their work not being appreciated, about the general public having unsophisticated preferences. But the big question is what have they done or what are they doing to attract the attention of and connect with the average person? There are huge untapped audiences—professionals in fields like technology, finance, healthcare, law—who would love to be culturally educated, invited to the discussion, and even collect art—and they must be reached out to.

In this day and age, we are fortunate that anybody can become a content creator—from professors in the humanities to teenagers with a budding interest in sculpture or literature. And artists, writers, art dealers, art journalists, art curators have an even greater responsibility. We have communication tools at our disposal that enable us to instantly share material and start a dialogue. An attempt to straightaway equal Kim Kardashian’s 146M would be unrealistic but small, regular, energetic, passionate efforts—a couple of beautiful, thought-provoking paintings from emerging artists shared on Facebook every week, more and more Instagram accounts dedicated to art history, WhatsApp statuses with quotes from prominent art theorists—all of these could be the first steps that, over time, by way of organic growth, may expand and redefine the taste of the masses.   

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Building Melbourne, creatively

Swanston Street, 9 -10 February, 1985
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, 2019

The idea of building a creative city has been at the forefront of how we imagine and develop cities like Melbourne for the last decade or two. As an artist, I’ve found this city creatively liberating and I’m thankful it has given me a place where my own skills have been developed and shared. However, at times, I’m made aware that I am living in the midst of suffering due to drugs or homelessness or mental health issues or some form of displacement. The recent reporting about injecting rooms and some of the associated conversations I’ve had with friends have highlighted the dichotomies present in our city. I do believe that working in a creative industry does build and enrich our lives and Melbourne supports this well, but how do we think about creativity in the context of the city that is often suffering?

There has been a significant influence upon our city policy makers concerning the role of the arts in our cities. In recent decades Richard Florida and Charles Landry have influenced many planners across the globe including those planning for Australian cities.[1] Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has had a particularly big impact. Florida makes a connection between a successful economy and economic development based upon the presence of technology, talent and tolerance within that area. Florida’s argument is that in order to attract creative workers, that city has to have a lifestyle that is attractive to the new ‘creative class’. This ‘creative class’ values diversity and tolerance in the places they live. Florida says that companies will follow creative workers who have taken the opportunity to choose their location based on their preferences. For Florida, attracting and retaining talent rather than focusing on capital projects such as buildings and stadiums is the means to economic growth.

Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope believe that there are significant reasons for the popularity of these ideas by Florida and Landry. They write, ‘First, the ideas of both Florida and Landry fit well with a broader recognition of the importance of the cultural industries in the economy… Second, particularly in Florida’s formulation, the creative class thesis is not at odds with economic rationalist or neoliberal policies.’  However, they raise the concern that gentrification tends to accompany the attraction of the creative classes which raises housing and living costs, displacing a sub section of society. They conclude that it appears that ‘urban governance approaches seek to enhance’ the possible benefits of a creative city agenda but are ‘generally ignorant of those excluded from, or unable to join, the new economy.’[2]  So, while there are many benefits touted about building a creative city, the focus on economic gains sometimes means that we fail to see those that are marginalised by the aspects such as rising house prices.

Charles Landry’s work which is concerned with urban renewal is perhaps better suited to creatively solving the problems of a city such as Melbourne. Landry’s, The Creative City, written with Franco Bianchini in 1998 argues that creativity can and should be used to tackle economic and social problems. Landry states in a later interview, that all aspects of a city are required to contribute to sustainable cultural environment, not just a creative class. While people in the arts can provide content, it is those working in infrastructure that are key. ‘If content is to have any effect, you need creative logistics analysts, creative engineers, creative educators. Above all, you need creative bureaucrats.’[3] Perhaps along the lines of Landry’s argument, broadening the scope of who is creative, to insist that all roles need to be creative, could enable more diverse solutions to our cities problems.

The original idea of a creative city has its basis in the works of several thinkers of the 1980’s, notably Australian David Yencken in 1988 who described ‘The Creative City’, in an article of that name, published in the literary journal Meanjin.[4]  It was Yencken who paved the way for imagining Swanston Street closed to traffic when in 1985, he proposed that for Victoria’s 150th celebrations, Swanston Street should be turned into a giant green park. So, for one weekend, 13,250 square metres of grass was rolled out along four blocks of Swanston Street. Tens of thousands of families picnicked in a park that had previously been a bleak road in the centre of the city.[5] Yencken was offering a vision that this car ridden centre of Melbourne could eventually be made completely car free. This eventually happened, as after being restricted to traffic from 1992, Swanston street was made completely traffic free by 2012. This serves as an example of how Melbourne was a beneficiary of creative thinking that didn’t come from an artist, rather from David Yencken as secretary of the Victorian Planning Ministry.

Daniel Pink writes that the future belongs to a person who thinks like an artist, inventor, storyteller a holistic ‘right-brain’ thinker. For Pink, the aptitudes that will make a person successful will be those of design, story (listening and communicating), symphony (connecting various elements), empathy, play and meaning. Recalling Landry’s ‘creative bureaucrats’, it seems that deepening our use of these aptitudes in our work, whatever that work is, will enable us to connect with the bigger picture, solve the bigger problems. Perhaps this is the key; that we all remain creative, seek meaning, listen to the stories and communicate using stories, connect the obscure dots and carry empathy, so that we can find creative solutions to our city’s problems.

I recently had a  conversation with Luisa, a Studio Art student at MAC. She described creativity as ‘finding a door where you once only saw a wall’.  Applying this thought to our city, we are not going to fully realise what a creative city can be until we all look for a door where we only can see a wall.

Written by Marco Corsini.

[1] Rowland Atkinson and Hazel Easthope, The Consequences of the Creative Class: The Pursuit of Creativity Strategies in Australia’s Cities, 2009 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2009 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

[2] ibid

[3] https://www.strategy-business.com/article/10306?gko=f6f79

[4]Yencken, D. (1988). “The creative city”. Meanjin. 47.

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/the-man-who-helped-re-imagine-melbourne-20190705-p524mc.html

The Philosophy of Gardens

The Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man (1617)
by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

Anybody familiar with the great myths, legends and epics of history will know that gardens have long fascinated the human mind—from the tale of Gilgamesh to the Bible to the Odyssey to the Decameron. Repeatedly, we have envisioned the summit of happiness as a garden experience. What is it about them—I have often wondered. Why do they occupy such fundamental, pivotal places in stories that are timeless and especially dear to us?

In his book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008), Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison provides an interesting analysis of the phenomenon. Looking at gardens both real and imaginary, he articulates their significance and function, and the reason as to why they have been a source of perennial aesthetic delight to us. According to the author, human beings are not capable of gazing too long and hard at the “head of Medusa”—which is to say at violence, rage, destruction and suffering. And this is not our flaw.

The impulse to look away from the frenzy and tumult of existence is precisely what motivates us to create, to institute mechanisms that can make life bearable, even enjoyable—gardens happen to be one of them. They counter the annihilating and anarchic forces unleashed in history and re-enchant the world. (This restorative role is well on display in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, wherein seven young women and three young men leave behind a plague-ravaged Florence in the summer of 1348 to take refuge in a villa in the surrounding hills.) If not a heaven, a garden is at least a “haven”.

The Enchanted Garden (1917) by John William Waterhouse
based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1313-1375), Wikimedia Commons

In a garden, appearances are lush, bright and colourful. Everything glows, looking as if originating from hidden, mysterious depths. Being itself seems full, an inexhaustible blessing. The cover of flowers and leaves gives the impression of operating as a portal to another dimension, a gateway to some otherworldly source—primal, rich and infinitely abundant. It is for this reason that gardens are often the sites of epiphanies—spiritual or erotic or otherwise.

Harrison adds that although they can quickly cast a spell on us, in truth we long for only a particular kind of garden. Within a garden in which everything pre-exists readily and faultlessly, we can surely succumb to boredom. If history without gardens is a wasteland, a garden severed from history is superfluous, pretty much useless. We want to be able to, to some degree, “engineer” the enchantment a garden provides, we wish to be engaged nurturers.

Even in our fictions, we see ourselves abandoning the gardens that do not present before us the challenge of cultivation. For instance, the garden mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey—on the island of Ogygia where the nymph Calypso keeps the hero Odysseus captive for years. This garden is exuberant but it is too magical and requires no human intervention. No wonder Odysseus rejects Calypso’s offer of immortality and decides to return to Ithaca to his aging wife Penelope—to the more demanding and uncomfortable life of commitments and concerns.

Odysseus and Calypso (1616) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

We dislike gardens that are too wild and perfect. We also find it difficult to entertain the ones that are too strictly regimented. Here Harrison uses a factual example—the Palace of Versailles, where the iron laws of symmetry can feel somewhat oppressive, whose meticulously manicured lawns are artificial, more representative of monarchical control than democratic participation.

The Gardens of Versailles, Pixabay, Public Domain

Towards the end of the book, Harrison meditates—from a “gardenly” point of view—where do we stand? What is our situation today?

We find ourselves in absurdity. We want to re-Edenise the world through capitalistic forces, we aim towards a kind of abundance. But our frantic cult of consumerism, as it attempts to reach that position of intoxicated pleasure, mounts assault after assault on Creation. “Our action does not so much bear fruit as devour fruit,” the author notes. “Thus we find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of seeking to re-create Eden by ravaging the garden itself—the garden of the biosphere on the one hand and the garden of human culture on the other.”

At this juncture, all we can and must do is slow down, recover the lost art of registering the splendour of nature and learn back, if I may put poetically, our pre-lapsarian (from before “the Fall”) vocation of care.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The in between of things

Veiled Beggar Woman (Mercy), 1919
Wood (oak) 38 x 30.4 x 33.7 cm
Signed and dated on left of plinth: E Barlach 1919
Source: http:// http://www.moellerfineart.com/moeller-fine-art/notable-sales/ernst-barlach?view=slider

The figure of Ernst Barlach’s “Veiled Beggar Woman (Mercy)”, is unidentifiable. We can see some garments and arms firmly outstretched, patient, dignified and expectant. The beggar is further dignified through the use of the oak wood that is carved economically in blocky forms. But a cloth covering the head hides the identity, seemingly, of a woman. Being an artwork rather than a real person, we are unlikely to feel the need to rummage through our pockets for a coin or respond by walking on resolutely, rather, if we spend enough time with the sculpture, we may move from reaction to reflection.

Although appearing still, the beggar’s posture demands something of us. There is a clear material need that the figure is expressing, but not as an inferior being. An absence of identity inhibits our ability to judge and therefore to distance ourselves on the basis of identity. The cloth over the head is not due to shame, rather the anonymity draws attention to the figure being just like us. This is an equal who remains dignified, on the basis of its inherent sameness to us, on the basis of its right to ask and receive a response, because in a way, it is us.

Ernst Barlach: The Refugee, 1920
Bronze (cast 1937) 35.4 x 38.4 x 14.1 cm
Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg, acquired 1994
Source: https://www.barlach-haus.de/en/museum/collection/

“Refugee” also by Barlach, describes a figure thrusting forward in diagonal movement, cloaked heavily and protecting a loaf of bread. The face which is visible seems to push forward in hope with quiet determination, summing all available resources and human energy to move to a point where living is feasible. It is consumed by a lunge for life with all the life it has within it.

Neither the beggar nor the refugee use sentimentality. Neither try to draw pity from us. Key to both works is how the lines of the sculptures relate movement. For the beggar it is the motionlessness solidity seeking our response. The only movement is that of the extended arms, reaching out to us. The only thing this figure has, is us, the viewer and our response. The question then, is how do we respond? Any one of us could be beneath that cloth. A call is issued as we encounter ourselves in an other’s need, in what Emmanual Levinas called the ‘face to face’. We are really face to face with ourselves and we get to decide through our response, what is important and what we abandon. By comparison, the refugee is itself, all movement, caught mid step. Strong diagonal lines of the cloak show a driven figure as it escapes past us. There is no security or certainty in this moment and we watch as bystanders. The refugee unlike the beggar asks us not to break the movement, not to get in the way and interfere with its lunge to freedom. The call is upon us again, this time, not to needlessly hinder this lunge for life.

Words are approximate in their meaning. With language, some things fall through the gaps. However, this does not indicate that there is no reality beyond language, rather, our greatest values are established there. Powerful art gives access to that which lies beyond the limits of language, also beyond our political arguments and divisive maneuvering which are often based on language. Powerful art, even at its most figurative, never points to something. It points past it. That which is being represented is not, in almost all cases, meant to be taken on face value. Powerful art points to the in between of things, as with these works of a beggar and of a refugee where what is being described is the space between ourselves and self in the other. These works point us to where human vulnerability requires a response from us and our response establishes the value we place on human life.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Lucio Fontana’s “Infinite Dimension”

Concetto spaziale, Attese by Lucio Fontana, ca. 1965 (Fair Use)

A modern artist whom I find very intriguing for philosophical reasons is the Argentine-Italian painter, sculptor and theorist Lucio Fontana (1899-1968). Fontana was the founder of “spatialism”, a movement that he began in Milan in 1947, by way of which he ambitiously sought to synthesise colour, sound, space, movement and time into an innovative variety of art. The ideas of the project were based on his Manifiesto blanco (White Manifesto), a text that he had published a year earlier in Buenos Aires. He intended to abandon traditional forms—like the easel painting—and adopt techniques such as neon lighting and the television. Of late, there has been a great interest in his work on the auction circuit, with one piece of his, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (1964), being sold for  $29,173,000 at Christie’s New York in November of 2015.

In 1949-50, Fontana began to punch holes (buchi) and cut slashes with razors (tagli) through his canvases. Although they looked spontaneous, they were well-planned, and resembled the “zips” in the abstract expressionist paintings of Barnett Newman (1905-1970).

Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ by Lucio Fontana, 1960 (Fair Use)

Multiple interpretations are available of this bold and somewhat baffling artistic act. In an essay for Tate, Philip Shaw, a professor at the University of Leicester, applies a Freudian approach and sees the cuts as representative of female sexuality, the obscure object of desire. The lens of the Second World War is particularly common. In a book titled Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, Los Angeles-based curator Paul Schimmel situates Fontana’s work within the context of the social and political climate of the postwar period—especially the crisis of humanity resulting from the atomic bomb. As a response, several “international artists,” he points out, “ripped, cut, burned, or affixed objects to the traditionally two-dimensional canvas.” Fontana’s enterprise had been significantly influenced by a Milan that bore the scars of Allied bombings, in which many buildings and monuments had been destroyed.

Concetto Spaziale by Lucio Fontana, 1964-65 (Fair Use)

But in Fontana’s own words, he was alluding to something far greater than just sexuality or war. Through his holes and slashes, he evoked the sublime—that quality in aesthetics felt at encounter with grand things, that is suggestive of awe and terror, both pain and pleasure. He is known to have announced, “I have created an infinite dimension”. He maintained that his experiments were constructive rather than destructive and that his aim was to rupture the surface and enable the viewer to perceive the stuff that lay behind.

Fontana mysteriously said, “I do not want to make a painting; I want to open up space, create a new dimension, tie in the cosmos, as it endlessly expands beyond the confining plane of the picture.” The region behind the picture was an entire plane of being. The artist was playing with the viewer’s understanding of the universe itself. The holes and slashes would either project inwards or outwards, which meant that this new space would either creep in forcefully to an existing domain or it would be reached out to from an existing domain. I cannot help but connect Fontana’s experiments to the wider modern/post-modern worldview of materialism—the position that produces these basic ideas in different guises—matter is the ultimate reality, the spiritual or the supernatural is non-existent, the immaterial mind is an illusion, what you cannot see or hold or measure cannot be true.

Fontana’s ruptured canvases, read within the framework of materialism, suggest a certain suffocation and urgency, a yearning to break free from the prison of a closed, lonely, dreary and insufficiently meaningful universe. They powerfully give expression to the human desire for a taste of transcendence, for “the unknown”, that might still persist after all the calculations have been made, the research papers have been published, experiments have been conducted and surveys have been taken in an arrogantly “scientistic” society.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Subjectivity and World Maps

There is an old Indian parable revolving around six blind men and an elephant (part of many religious traditions) that powerfully illustrates the perennial tension between subjectivity and objectivity. The narrative is simple—the blind men (or “men in the dark”) try to touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each touches only a part (side or tusk or ear or something else) and hastily concludes that it must be the elephant’s real and only form. They quarrel long and loud upon discovering the incompatibility of their accounts. The story has been used to encourage intellectual humility and respect for the views of one’s opponents. It is also a reflection on the tricky nature of truth and highlights the need for dialogue in human society.

The tale holds a special place in Jainism, where is it used to explain the fundamental doctrine of Anekāntavāda (literally “the school of many-sidedness”). According to Anekāntavāda, reality is perceived differently by different individuals leading to a multiplicity of vantage points. No single human being can claim to have a monopoly on absolute truth but the sum of various vantage points may give us access to greater fact. Anekāntavāda is closely related to two other doctrines: syādvāda (the theory of conditioned viewpoints) and nayavāda (the theory of partial viewpoints). The tale was popularised in the English-speaking world through a version written by the American poet John Godrey Saxe (1816-1887). It begins this way: It was six men of Indostan, / To learning much inclined, / Who went to see the Elephant / (Though all of them were blind), / That each by observation / Might satisfy his mind.

Blind men (here, monks) examining an elephant by Japanese painter, poet and calligrapher Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724), Wikipedia [Public Domain]

When I think of this fable, I am especially reminded of cartography. Map-making is one of the supreme pursuits of humankind whereby it has made its ingenuity and creativity manifest. People have been capturing, containing, measuring and making sense of space for centuries and there has been no map, from any place or any period, that can be considered fully “objective”. Our positioning of the continents, our sense of north-south-east-west, of centres and edges have been traditionally predicated upon our political and religious systems.

Consider two examples:

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/) dating back to 1300 displayed today at Hereford cathedral in the county of Herefordshire in western England. For Christian Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, the spiritual centre of the world was the city of Jerusalem–it was also the geographical centre of their maps. Second, the 19th-century maps coming from Britain (built upon the Mercator Projection first introduced by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569) that were structured to emphasise the scale of the empire with Britain painted red and placed prominently in the middle, and embellishments all around that depicted the culture of the colonies.

Hereford Mappa Mundi (world map), Wikimedia Commons
Map of the British Empire from 1886, Wikimedia Commons

The map that we consult today is definitely stripped of adornments but it still cannot be called merely or thoroughly “scientific”. It remains coloured by early modern European imperialist ambitions. The phenomenon of the “northern hemisphere” (with Europe and the United States) at the top and places like Africa and South America at the bottom are, at their core, just arbitrary conventions. If there is no reason why the map shouldn’t look this way, there is no reason why the map should look this way either.

The big lesson that we learn from the parable of the blind men and the elephant is that all viewpoints are conditioned. So no matter what cartographic framework we adopt of our spherical earth, we shall continue to aid particular political perceptions of the world (that obviously have huge psychological consequences). We cannot aim to reach a position of absolute impartiality in this matter.

A way in which we may hope to attain a measure of fairness, if not complete neutrality, then, is by exposing ourselves to various kinds of maps from time to time, historical and contemporary. Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, in his acclaimed book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015), writes about the experience of growing up with a (usual, normal) world map pinned on the wall by his bed, and how his subsequent encounters with the Hereford Mappa Mundi and an important medieval Turkish map (that had at its heart a city called Balasaghun) made him aware that the world could be seen and interpreted through dramatically different lenses. Frankopan’s engagement with these maps enabled him to get past the rigid and limited Eurocentric view of history that he had been hearing in the classroom.

Today there are many (less popular) cartographic proposals that challenge the Mercator Projection and encourage us to look at the earth in non-conventional ways: by placing the south up, by placing the Pacific at the centre, etc.

A South-Up Map
A Pacific-Centre Map

Brooklyn-based Northern Irish artist Oliver Jeffers (https://www.instagram.com/oliverjeffers/)—for his current exhibition “Observations on Modern Life”—at Lazinc gallery (https://www.instagram.com/lazinc/) in London has come up with maps that question our orientations—he turns the north down, dissolves nation states as we know them, shifts the borders that we are used to, and makes everything a matter of “land” and “sea” and not this country or that country.

In our hyperconnected world, for the sake of practicality, it is not possible to adhere to multiple systems of cartography but art is one arena wherein we may certainly explore and communicate these alternative proposals, like Jeffers, in new and exciting ways, expanding our horizons thereby.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The power of visualisation and drawing your desired future

Credit PixabayMid-2018, I underwent a massive “shift in consciousness”. It was like my mind expanded exponentially between May and August. I began perceiving both myself and the universe in an entirely different way. I was powerfully impacted by the realisations that I have just this one life and that the world, for all its ills, is fundamentally and ultimately a wondrous place (these facts may seem obvious but most of us simply take them for granted). And so I decided I’d make good use of every minute, be more proactive in reaching out to people and also squeeze every drop out of my own potential. Quite naturally, I found myself gravitating towards content on personal development and self-help. I wanted practical tools and tactics that could help me lead a genuinely meaningful and useful life.

I soon noticed that successful entrepreneurs across different industries would recommend certain common practices for peak performance—for instance, meditation, journalling, affirmations, cold showers, not checking the phone the first hour of the day. Also, many would talk of “visualisation”—vivid, extremely meticulous imagining of how you want your life to be. The creative designing of your desired future in your mind. I have found this proposed by people like Chase Jarvis (CreativeLive), Vishen Lakhiani (MindValley) and Mel Robbins (The 5 Second Rule).

The word itself might seem a little delusional, some kind of dubious New Age trend similar to the “Law of Attraction” popularised by the 2006 book and documentary The Secret, but it turns out, the concept is indeed rooted in neuroscience and psychology. The people who recommend visualisation also frequently mention that “the brain is pliable” and that “the subconscious can be reprogrammed”.

Former attorney and now a highly sought-after motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, who completely turned her life around after being broke and directionless, says that “visualisation is her secret to success”. She explains that our brains have a filter, a network of neurons, called the “Reticular Activating System” (RAS) that allows certain information and blocks out other information. And it is programmed by us and the people from our past. If we constantly feel that we’re unlovable, our RAS, going through the day, will point out every single piece of evidence that confirms that negative belief. We can use visualisation to reprogram our RAS so that our brains can start to spot opportunities for growth. This is done through a two-step method. Robbins provides an example. We must:

  1. Close our eyes and, in our minds, have a specific picture of what our life looks like when our self-worth has improved (see yourself speaking up at work, leaving bad relationships, defining boundaries, going to the gym, etc.).
  2. Consciously think of the positive emotions that we are going to feel when that situation has materialised (happiness, gratitude, etc.).

When we do this, we are training our brain to have a totally different filter. Our brains do not know the difference between something that actually happens to us (like the F in a 10th grade test) and the things we envisage happening to us (like an abundant and joyful social life), that is, between “real” and “imagined” memories. So when we imagine getting a raise or becoming physically fit or entering into a faithful relationship, the brain encodes these scenarios as real memories. Your RAS filter will change, your network of neurons will modify and, according to research, you may very well end up developing/improving the confidence and the skills needed to manifest those scenarios. So the next time you are in a meeting, instead of looking for all the reasons why you should not speak up, you might immediately spot an opportunity through your new filter and just present your opinions and findings with little hesitation—for you have already rehearsed the situation multiple times.

Colorado-based Patti Dobrowolski, a critically acclaimed comic performer, business consultant, illustrator and author, spends her time focussed on new neuroscience discoveries that leverage the power of imagination and visuals to actualise a vision of the future. She goes further than Mel Robbins, passionately inciting people (even outright non-artists) to “draw” their Current State and their Desired New Reality in all their messy and glorious detail, respectively. The bridge between the two being three bold steps: (1). See it, (2). Believe it, (3). Act on it. Dobrowolski explains the process in this TEDx Talk:

Of course, this technique isn’t magic. When we will make a strategic effort to alter our circumstances, we will face tremendous resistance from within ourselves. Our wild and inventive right brain will be thwarted by our critical and cautious left brain. In another TEDx Talk, Dobrowolski points out that when you start to make change, the amygdalae (almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes) get all freaked out and will do everything to slow or stop you. For this reason, she suggests participants take out some time daily to daydream, allowing our brainwaves to enter the “alpha” state. Here the soil is soft. It becomes easier for us to weed out thoughts that might inhibit action and plant those that might advance us towards our goal.

Dobrowolski ends with an energetic note. After you have drawn your future and cleared your mind by assuming the alpha state, learn everything about who you want to be, where you want to go, how you want to live, do everything. You now have to act loudly for that key to turn the lock – and chances are you will be positioned to do so just excellently!




Pam Hallandal – Paper Walls

Pam Hallandal, self portrait, 1983
Pam Hallandal, self portrait, charcoal, 1983

Pam Hallandal (1929 – 2018), Australian artist and Former Head of Drawing VCA, impacted the lives of many artists in Melbourne from the 1970s onwards, including our very own teachers here at MAC, Michelle Caithness and Michelle Zuccolo.

Glen Eira City Council Gallery is celebrating her legacy with an exhibition, Paper Walls, featuring her incredible work and her passion for drawing. The exhibition will also feature Pam’s past colleagues and students, including Rick Amor; John Scurry; Greg Creek; Allan Mitelman and Michelle Zuccolo.

The gallery will showcase the breadth of her artwork and highligh some of the themes she depicted including portraits, contemporary life in Melbourne (shoppers, casino patrons, workmen) and other images exploring the human condition. Pam was a visionary teacher and mentor, employing a wide range of emerging and established artists to work with alongside her, educating students through their shared passion for drawing.

Many have been fortunate to benefit from the rich experience of Pam’s teaching practice (1970s to 1994). Others have simply enjoyed viewing the quality of her drawings, prints and sculpture which now belong in national and state gallery collections, as well as in universities and library collections throughout Australia. Pam’s career highlights included winning the Australian Dobell Drawing Prize for excellence in drawing in 1996 and 2009 (the only female to do so). Pam has been included in “Backlash” at the NGV in 1986, in many major drawing related exhibitions at Heide, Mornington Peninsula, Gold Coast City Art Prize, The Centre Gallery, S.H. Erwin Gallery, Sydney, Kedumba Invitation Art Award, Australian Drawing Biennial, ANU and a recent major solo exhibition at Ballarat Art Gallery.

Two teachers at MAC studied drawing under Pam Hallandal, and are also represented in this exhibition. Michelle Zuccolo was employed by Pam for five years in the Drawing Department, Victoria College of Art and Design, Prahran. Michelle has been included in the Australian 7th Drawing Biennale, Drill Hall, ANU, Canberra and has been a finalist five times in the Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing, PLC, Sydney. She received an Honourable Mention by judge, Aida Tomescu in 2017.

Michelle Caithness recently participated in invitation-only the Keduma Invitation Drawing Award, NSW and is currently a shortlisted in the Dobell Drawing Prize, to be shown at the National School of Art, Sydney. Floor talks are scheduled throughout the exhibition, and Michelle Caithness will be discussing her drawing practice at midday on Friday 8 March at the gallery in Caulfield.

Exhibition details:
Dates: 7-24 March
Time: Monday to Friday, 10am–5pm. Weekends, 1pm–5pm.
Location: Glen Eira City Council Gallery, corner Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads, Caulfield
More information here.

Written by Michelle Zuccolo.

Meaning and society

Jean Genet 1954 or 1955 by Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966
Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, oil on canvas, 1954 

Alberto Giacometti’s painting of the writer Jean Genet, shows a figure isolated and deep within the framed space. If a portrait is about knowing the nature of the subject, then Giacometti appears to have consciously held back from bringing about any resolution. Or perhaps he knew not to try.

Painted with approximate dabs and lines that have been drained of colour, the figure of Genet in the painting is visually restrained and inaccessible. It is as if there is half-hearted struggle to represent Genet which stalemates into locating him instead. We as the viewers are here and he is there, but there is an impenetrable distance between.

This impenetrable distance typifies the ravaged twentieth century and a resultant struggle around identity and meaning. Whilst that century began with massive optimism about the technological achievements such as the electric light, the aeroplane and the motor car; within two decades those same technological achievements enabled slaughter on an industrial scale. Looking at this painting, I associate it with the experience of the debasement of humanity which began en masse a few decades before and has never really left us. In previous centuries, art displayed a certain confidence in being able to represent reality; whether it succeeded is beside the point. But most of the twentieth century was spent without an assurance about what reality was and how to find it. The location of ourselves in relation to others, the world and common values became, at best, approximate and speculative. It is from this speculation that I think Giacometti worked on his portrait. Genet’s outsider status, that of being homosexual and having formerly been a thief is also a consideration in reading this sense of distance; but distance, per se, is common to much of Giacometti’s work.

Giacometti’s figures are often alone, as they are in his work ‘Piazza’, where they appear to cross a town square, but no-one appears to connect or meet. Those isolated figures, emaciated but erect seem to indicate even more about the nature of the human experience. They are elongated, like some of El Greco’s figures which lift upwards, like the spire of a Gothic cathedral pointing to heaven. Giacametti’s figures seem to not belong entirely to the earth and if they do, they are not entirely earth-bound; in both senses of that last word. Whereas the cathedral houses and contains human figures, the twentieth century skyscraper by comparison isolates figures from each other in a drama which is beyond the human scale. Giacometti’s figures stand alone like the skyscraper, but also aspire to something grander and more meaningful, like the Cathedral. It’s an absurd contradiction that is present in the writing of Giacametti’s contemporary, Albert Camus who initiated the idea of the absurd. For Camus life is void of meaning, or an inability to know any meaning, if it were to exist. So the emaciated sculptural figures seem to indicate a hunger for, but an inability to have satisfaction in meaning.

Alberto Giacometti, Piazza
Alberto Giacometti, Piazza, bronze, 1947-48

For the remaining twentieth century there was much discussion about the operatives of power that led to war, colonisation, and genocide, especially power as it relates to language and culture. Those discussions have tended to deconstruct common narratives and meaning, and have enabled a new pluralism, which host multiple identities, narratives and meaning. So, meaning is now more individualised and tends to orientate around what the individual decides as one’s identity. So, in some ways our response to the absurdity described by Camus, has been to find meaning, and a cause, within our own tribe. However, the danger is that we do not connect, like the figures in the piazza. Finding meaning in one’s identity without considering how we must relate to others and difference, risks throwing us into a post-truth world. This is a world where there is no longer a reliable means to communicate across difference in a society; where how we govern is subject to the loudest voice or most popular cause of the moment rather than tested processes, and common values of discourse.

Written by Marco Corsini