Saturday, 30 January 2016

It is a Blurry World


I'm extremely shortsighted. You know those eye test displays to check your sight? I can't even see the largest letter. I can't really see the box I'm meant to be reading,hanging on the other side of the room. To read pretty much anything without my glasses I have to hold it a centimeter from my nose.

I started wearing glasses in year two at primary school -  ahh, look at me, I've lost my teeth too - when it became obvious I couldn't see, because of not responding to the blackboard. I was moved to the front of the class, directly beneath the board, until I got my specs. I'm not sure how I managed in year one, perhaps there was less distance-activity work. Perhaps I relied on other mechanisms for picking up what was going on, what I had to do: copying, watching, making it up...

What I do remember of year one: cartoon animal stickers on our coat hooks; the brightly painted empty playhouse; and a large square. wooden boarded sandbox in the classroom. What I remember from playschool, the year before, is a shimmery sequinned dress in the dressing up box that I coveted every day.

I don't remember the effect of being able to see things clearly once I had my glasses. I do remember becoming very very weary of the kids at school wanting to try my glasses on then falling about, arms outstretched, like some blind drunk, exclaiming in wonder how I could see anything through them.

It's only recently, in the last year or so, I've been thinking about how the lack of clear sight in my early years may have affected my way of seeing the world, and, more interestingly to me as a writer, the way it affected how I communicated what I saw.

I remember hearing the novelist David Mitchell talk of his stammer and how he credited it for his wide vocabulary: learning multiple words enabled him to avoid the ones he struggled saying. I've not come to any similar conclusion about my sight, but I like his story.

I was reading Anne Truitt's Daybook last night; she spoke of a similar start to my myopia in life:
It must have operated to make me self-centered in the literal sense. I could only operate confidently within a short radius ... What I feel, I feel intensely, but it has to come to me, within my ken, under my hand, for me to truly grapple with it ... I remember squatting down as a child, examining everything close up. I remember feeling more at home inside my mind than outside it ... When my mother read to my sisters and me in the evening, the words made pictures that, now when I think of it, must have been clearer than what I actually saw with my eyes.
I also remember this living at close quarters, and the intense pleasure of making small things, tiny worlds out of stuff near me: shells and beads, rock and string. I remember relishing when I took my specs off at night. In fact I still do love that moment when the fuzz takes over. More and more I remove them in day time too - letting the world recede, so it becomes something other than what it is. When I was a child and lived with patterned wallpaper - it was the seventies - I used to stare at the design, the repeated whatever, and extend new shapes and images from the walls of my room, dream up snatches of fragmented worlds around me.

I still have this habit of close operation. My writing flies when I get into small detail on small detail, and struggles when I have to add it up to a larger sequential thing. My reception of the world outside, my primary absorption of it, is of its light, movement, sounds: how it impacts my body.

The crouching down, the detailed examination of things, Truitt talks of, comes later to me; often days later, when my mind is recalling the experience and I'm pulled back outside, or to the cache of what I've collected, to inspect it.

I've always been grateful to have lived at a time when glasses were freely available - even if it did mean wearing those nhs frames for years - I didn't realise how uncool they were until my development had truly fixed and then they became cool again and I had moved on to fancy-shaped frames. I still phantasize over what I'd do for work if I had no glasses. So far I've chosen to be a seamstress, or tailor. As such my world would fit comfortably in the cloth and stitches on my lap.

It seems inordinately comfortable to find myself hand-stitching and binding my artist books. Pleasurable to be back making small discrete worlds from what's around me: those charts I don't use now, the waxed thread I loved to slick my fingers along, fish through the needle's eye, that knot I know.

Such delight in making forces me to ask, why write? Why not make more things, sculpt, use my hands and body to translate the world?

Writing is a close operation - as is reading, which is my first love in communion. Both are safe in that they don't require large scale movement, any precarious outdoor (for which, read vertiginous ledges) exploration, or daily, hourly, interaction with others to complete the task, chomp on the reward, understand why who did what.

Performing suits me well. With lighting, the audience is generally an indistinct body, with or without my specs, and I'm well attuned to picking up people's responses - somehow - though the body. I get to speak, standing in my own body, and deliver the words I've spend my brain and heat laying out.

Some time ago a friend showed me a photo I can no longer find. It was a blurred image of a snowy scape with what looked like a woman and child, holding hands, in the centre of the whiteness. When I saw it I burst into tears. It was exactly how I saw the world pre glasses. I wonder if the subject (adult/child) connected me to that time, when I was living in the world without clear sight. I felt, and still feel, such gratitude for this artist to have made such an image. It validated the first five or so years of my life - I can't have suddenly lost 20/20 vision aged five and a half. Just like that. I probably had never seen the world as I did once I had acquired specs. Anne Truitt writes powerfully of this transition.

I'm currently exploring how I might write without the lens of this standard vision. Ruth Wiggins talks about the influence of having 2D sight on her writing here.

I certainly make my best first edit when I'm not looking at the work close to. Rather I re-imagine it in my head, let it settle in a blurry kind of way, so it makes - perhaps a more authentic - sense to me.

How I can convey how I see the world in a first draft, without the fear of the words being vague, sequentially unfocused. How I might manifest this very short depth of field I have? How I might celebrate it, invert what Anne Truitt claims is 'a whole world ... formed on the basis of faulty information'. What if I take away the 'faulty', make it simply 'other' information?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The watery business of art and craft


This picture came from Megan Fizell's Twitterstream and got me thinking about the difference between art and craft and how it diminishes craft when I'm not sure that's entirely fair. I've asked a few people this past week their thoughts of the difference. On a thread in the Facebook group 'Handmade Books and Artist Books'  I was told 'The philosopher and art historian Arthur Danto wrote a whole book on the subject, and his conclusion was that there is no consistent set of criteria that would enable you to distinguish art from not-art, so the question is not really worth asking.' 

Surely everything is worth asking? Over and over? The same premise (as in the need to repeating yourself in your art) about people not listening the first time, surely applies?

Someone else mentioned 'manufacturing'. Craft, to me, seems rooted in the practical nature of something coming into being. And I do like art executed by the artist. There is an implicit, perhaps invisible, integrity to the unification of idea and execution that enables the final piece to have that transcendent quality (a little like the fifth taste, umami? I heard a discussion around this taste on the radio and it seemed no one, from this western panel, could really describe it satisfactorily). 

The same person suggested this transcendent element perhaps came from the motivation: ''art' is not just about the doing and making, but about why its done, made with feeling, born from an emotion or experience, not from a skill alone.' And perhaps others are right, art does not need an object at all. It is an idea that attaches itself to the made, crafted, manufactured thing.

Does this emotion or skill, this intention, or idea, mean the finished object, a book in my case, become something more than a book? And if so, what does it become? I think A Dock is not a Solid Thing is also a puzzle, a game, an experience of precariousness as well as a sequence of poems.

What has also been suggested to me is the importance of time - which perhaps evokes scarcity. Does a woven cushion cover, once it is over several centuries over, tip into being an object of art - rather than one for use? GP has interesting things to say on time, in a reverse sense, in this gem. I like the idea of painting becoming a craft, even if I'm not convinced I agree with him.

I didn't hear the talk that accompanied the slide, although his 2013 Reith Lectures are still online, I am interested that he used the image of water for the slide - a fluid thing if ever there was one - to set the comparison upon. Again on the FB thread was 'art and craft are part of a continuing scale and it's very hard to place anything completely in one or the other.' It seems the metaphor of water sets this up perfectly. 

Contributors to this post:
Paul Garcia
Eleanor Hynd
Chris Hardy
David Judd
Annie Lee
Catherine Sadler

Thank you, all.