CAH301: initial project rationale

Separating the personal from grief in my artwork

This semester, I will explore grief through a series of experimental, monochromatic and abstract works inspired by Francis Weller’s five gates of grief: 1. Everything we love we will lose 2. Places inside us that have not known love 3. Sorrows of the world 4. What we expected and did not receive and 5. Ancestral grief. In this paper, I outline my reasons behind seeking to remove the personal from the artistic process and attempt to approach transcendence.

To begin, in order to discuss grief, there's a need to dissect it from ideas of psychology, mental health and coping strategies after loss. I see grief as a distinct and universal human experience: one unrelated to childhood traumas, the early parenting we received and abuses and traumas we may have had to endure. In his work, Francis Weller describes many mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction as "unmetabolised grief" resulting from the inability to completely express and experience the depth of losses when they occur. In my artwork, this is the initial undercurrent: to separate one’s personal and unique psychological makeup from the contemplation of what grief is, what it does and why we experience it.

Second, grief has the ability to confront us with our concept of who we think we are. It brings into question identity and what we present to the world as ourselves. I want this project to provide a safe space for that inquiry to exist without judgement, reaction or rushing to a solution; to allow space and time for contemplation without the need to provide answers. Chiefly, to allow the experience of being in the unknown. When I journeyed through destruction of my own identity in grief, I was honest. People would ask me, “What are you doing?” or “What are you working on?” or “What do you want?” and I'd say "I don't know. I don't know anything anymore". I noticed it shocked people and made them uncomfortable. They immediately sought to engage in conversation around "the future" and how things will get better and how "you've gotta have a goal". No one validated the mystery. No one sought to understand what it's like to not know anything anymore and have all your assumptions about the trajectory of life crumble. There was just this blank reaction and a rapid seeking to change that state in response. I could see they were only trying to help but it didn't help. I hope this artwork vindicates the human experience of no-thingness and lack of identity and how not having a future one can hold onto may in fact, be a necessary experience and lead to a truer engagement with life and death.

Thirdly, in places of deep loss, the personal self may become obscured by pain. Grief dwarves and swallows us. The self may begin to relate to itself only as an experience of pain and all that is seen in the external through that filter, reflects loss. The personal self is challenged by the realisation it doesn't have the answers (and no one else does either). At these times, things of the human world decrease in importance - the self is transcending everyday noise, busyness, thought, hopes, social connection, dreams and the future. The self is withdrawing from the relentless doing of life and seeking spaces of silence and stillness in which to immerse. Lucky for us in Australia, we have relatively easy access to an abundant nature which gives peace, breathing room and succour to many for free. Temples, churches and monasteries also echo quiet containment and sacredness for believers. I hope my artwork can even begin to approach the creation of a space of silence and reverence in those times when words and comfort fail.

Fourthly, grief is a time in which our stories of the world disintegrate. The life we thought we would have, the taking for granted of a person's continued presence, the dreams that have died are shown in stark relief. This state diminishes logical intellect and coherency. It rewires the brain and thought can become flaky and see-through. Words mean less. Our own narrative has been interrupted and other narratives no longer make sense. Or we see our narratives for what they are: stories we tell to make ourselves feel better about our vulnerability and limitations. Other people seem distant and unreachable, as if there's a thick shield of glass between the bereaved and the rest of the world. Outside, things carry on as normal. Inside, there's no story of purpose or meaning left to engage with. On a practical level for me, one of the things that looked like was an inability to read novels or listen to music with words for over a year. I didn't want to be told anything. I couldn't focus on the story or believe in the stories of my life anymore. Other’s stories told in conversation, writing and in song struck me as empty, pointless and trite. Especially if they attempted to provide an answer to a difficult question or moralise or philosophise about why things are the way they are. It’s important to me that my artwork avoids direct narrative and instead, resides in the place of the unknown and unknowable as much as possible.

In addition, grief generally is not something we have fluency in and witnessing grief makes most people uncomfortable but despite our lack of skills in this arena, we have an abundance of opinions and social constraints around how and when it should be expressed. If you are someone who has an experience outside of those norms, some degree of condemnation and correction will ensue. On top of this, there are value judgements around what is acceptable to grieve and what is not. One’s parent: yes. One’s favourite pet: no (regardless that one may have shared more moments of real connection, love and intimacy with one’s pet than with one’s parent). We don’t know how to recognise or acknowledge the doorways that lead to grief and unfortunately, if one’s expression of loss extends beyond cultural parameters, often the experience will be pathologised and therapy and medication the only support available. We see grief through an extremely narrow lens without understanding its purpose or potential. I hope my artwork can contribute to a greater conversation and comprehension about grief beyond current societal views.

A further reason why I want to remove emotion from the creation of this artwork lies in the ways we respond to pain in others. By and large, when we see suffering, we reach out to help and give comfort and advice. Here is an emotional response that's simultaneously beautiful and potentially alienating. I've observed that for many, the powerful urge to help comes from an inability to allow darkness and pain to simply exist. There's a cultural story (almost a commandment) that comes into play: ​suffering is bad and must be prevented at all costs and being positive is absolutely better than being negative. Life unfortunately, doesn't agree and piles on the suffering as Buddhists have known for millennia. Seeking to placate or soothe another's suffering (when coming from an unquestioned and automatic compulsion) has a way of dismissing the wholeness of a person, of minimising their pain and increasing loneliness. Reaching immediately for the provision of hope when hopelessness is the dominant theme, limits the possibility of connection.

I have a friend who went through a protracted period of grief after her father died and found the constant drive from family and friends to turn things around to a positive spin, destructive and violent. It made her feel misunderstood and ashamed of her tears and pain. There was no safety, only judgement and comments of "Isn't it time you got over this?". She realised she had to get away from the people she knew and travelled alone extensively in Eastern and Central Europe for several months. There, everyday she saw in others a greater degree of comfort with darkness and a lot more heavy, sad and lined faces. It seemed that culturally, fewer people believed the story you have to "get over it" or "put on a happy face" and in that, she found enormous comfort and healing. She was able to simply feel what she was feeling without the added burden of shame, criticism and self-consciousness. I hope to create works that provide a clear and clean reflection: art that seeks to listen more than tell its own story; art that doesn't seek to distract or make us feel better but just holds space for darkness to exist.

The final reason it’s vital for me to take the personal out of this project is this: I wonder how much of our experience of grief is worsened by our own inability to take the personal out of it. Are we able to be with the immensity of loss without self-judgement getting in the way? Do we even know what it is to experience grief in a pure state? Do we have the capacity to be torn apart, to lose ourselves in uncontrollable keening and the tearing of one’s hair? Mostly and overwhelmingly, no. It’s not part of Western culture and we are poorer for it. Instead, we shut our grief behind closed doors and drawn curtains. We don’t want to burden others with our pain. Because of the devotion to the story it's better to be positive than negative, when one finds oneself in a state of darkness the inevitable result is to feel like we are failing. And the more pain continues, the more certain of our personal failure we become. Instead of being a deeply human experience, we now have to do something with it... escape it... lie about it... hide or deny it... drink it away so we can function... process it, fix it or heal it... learn from it... learn from it so we can teach others how to get through it... turn it into an artwork or a song... put on that happy face... and just get over it... because life has to go on right? I wonder what it could be if we knew how to let go into darkness for a time and if we had a cultural story that didn't proselytise light is always better than dark... what might emerge from the ashes? Judgement comes from the personal and removing judgement from the experience of grief is an invitation I’d like my artwork to extend.

In conclusion, as the maker I’m also interested in a pure exploration of medium without emotion. I want to dive into the physicality of what I'm using without a story - let the paint or charcoal or pastel be enough and stand back and observe how it interacts with itself, the surface, my brush, fingers, hands or feet and air and water. I want to try out a range of techniques in an analytical and mechanistic approach to composition and see what speaks loudest and interests me most beyond a personal view on whether what I create is successful or unsuccessful. Further, I'm attempting to separate my own psychological makeup and life experiences from this work. I long to not only be but to create a clean slate in order to approach the transcendent. These works will not be expressionistic or rely on transient feelings or my personal story. Removing my own emotion and history may not be possible of course (it may in fact be a foolish and oxymoronic quest) but I’m keen to give it try. We’ll see what happens.