Posts Tagged ‘liminal’


Moonlit hills with Landrover

I still have my sketchbooks from school (1972-77). I was a more prolific drawer then than I am now, more driven, more inspired I think, whether I was actually any good or not is another question and it isn’t relevant anyway. All that matters is I was drawing, creating, doing, all the time. And mostly I was doing it without thought or care for an audience. Once you start doing it with a view to pleasing someone else, you’re screwed because then the lens of imagination through which you view the world dissolves. It’s like the tide going out, and then instead of the light dancing on the waves, all you see is a dreary plane of mud.

Life as a young teen is a hotbed of emotion, of unrequited love, of poetry, of romantic adventure, and every day a mystery to be solved. I did not write much then, suspected writing was for experts, had yet to discover it was also for poseurs and fools, that it led more often to obscurity, alcholoism and destitution than to fame and riches. I drew instead. A drawing can be a doodle in the margin of an exercise book, or it can cover a sheet of A0. It’s still a drawing, and it can still mean something to the drawer.

If I drew for anyone at all it was for a mysterious and entirely imaginary “other” who was always watching, but in a benign way, like I imagined my teachers were watching, assessing, marking. Sometimes I projected the watcher out onto all sorts of people, made protective sages of them when in fact they were nobody, just adults caught up in their own small lives, and oblivious of mine. It took a while to work that one out.

I see themes emerging in those drawings that would shape my later imagination and are still with me – the archetypal women, presence in a landscape, and a hunger for the hidden meaning of past lives as evidenced by their time-weathered remains in the present day – the ruins, the megalithic markers and other fey geomancies.

I’m being selective here. Flipping through my sketchbooks I see there were also fast cars and guns, but they belonged to adolescence, and have been left there where they belong. All of this was idiosyncratic yet of inestimable value, and if only I could understand it and present it to the mysterious “watcher” then all things would be resolved and the world would be a much better place.

I could not see then what I see now, that it was a personal quest, that all lives are founded on myth, some borrowed, some told, some self invented. Myths grant meaning to life, and I was inventing my own, rejecting the native mythologies of Albion and Christianity, things I suspect are common enough among teens who tend towards loneliness and misanthropy.

The picture above is one I drew in 1974 or thereabouts – I’d be thirteen. I remember it meaning something to me then, as it does still, though it’s physical manifestation is now fading and smudged. This is its first wider airing, but I use it only to illustrate a point. It changes nothing, means nothing to anyone other than me, speaks only to my own myth, looks a bit childish actually – indeed I recall my art teacher commented that it was “a corny and rather bland response” to a homework assignment. Oh, Miss T, you were such a stern mistress.

I see reverence for landscape, for exploration, for field skills. We are also looking at moonlight here, a big moon rising, rendering in paleness and deep shadow an endlessly pristine landscape – something slightly pagan about it too in the way the figure pays homage as he contemplates the endless feminine swell of the land. All of these are themes, symbols that still animate me four and a half decades later.

Miss T told me to stop drawing from imagination, or my work would stagnate. Nor was she ever impressed by cleverness with line – look, Miss, it’s a Landrover!. She preferred more the spontaneous Rosrchashis splash and daub of the avant guard – and who was I to argue with an art graduate from the University of Manchester? I did as I was told, and my work stagnated anyway. There was never anything inspirational, I found, in drawing wood shavings from observation, nor in splashing and daubing murky poster paint on sugar paper. The key insight of youth is that while many adults profess wisdom, sometimes they’re just bull-shitting. The trick is to tell the difference, and I’m still working on that.

But what I do know for sure is what we bring out of ourselves in the act of creation is like wiping the mist from a mirror, revealing aspects of ourselves hitherto hidden from awareness. But more than that is it is also a means of rendering unconscious elements of the psyche conscious. We live our art primarily for ourselves. Our vision may be corny in the eyes others more erudite, should we be inclined to exhibit, but some of us are slower to grasp the existential axioms, if such there be. It does not mean we are barred from the artistic life, which means of course, all the clever critics tossing spitballs at our work, can cheerfully go take a running jump.

Some say art should shock, that it should shake the foundations of the world, that is should prove a visceral reaction, and I can relate to that. But I am not working for the revolutionaries, and if I seek an audience at all it is comprised of others like me, inhabiting that same zone of liminality, a place of infinite strangeness and shadow. Look, I’m saying. I’ve felt this, seen this. You may have seen it too.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s probably okay.

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slater bridgeA traveller in a strange land sits down to rest by the bank of a river. He’s unsure of the geography and has no map to guide his way. All he knows is he wants to cross the river to find out what’s on the other side, preferably before nightfall. He’s heard lots of stories about the land across the river, most of which he suspects are probably made up because they’re so contradictory, and everyone he speaks to on the subject has a different opinion, to say nothing of a variety of dogmatic beliefs, so he’d like to go there for himself and see what’s what. Strangely the far bank is shrouded in mist, so he can only make out the vague forms of rocks and trees. Listening carefully over the sound of the river, he can hear the calls of unknown creatures and, at times, more softly, something that sounds like voices and the laughter of a people at ease with themselves.

He’s anxious to make way, to cross over, but the traveller is a cautious man; for navigation, experience has taught him to trust only the evidence of his own eyes, that the natives hereabouts, although they speak his language, are notoriously unreliable when giving directions – sometimes helpful, sometimes deliberately misleading, and sometimes so self-deluded they might think they’re being helpful, when in fact they’re not.

All the traveller want to know is if there’s a bridge by which he can cross the river, if he can reach it before nightfall, and if he should go upstream or downstream to get there? What could be simpler?

A native comes along and the traveller asks him the question, to which the native confidently replies: go upstream, there’s a bridge just five minutes away and you can safely cross long before nightfall. But the native might be lying and the traveller is very tired – he doesn’t want to waste his energy with a wild goose chase, so he waits until another native comes along, then asks the same question. Go downstream, says the native; there’s a good bridge not five minutes away and you can easily cross, long before nightfall.

The traveller is confused. It would be more reliable to toss a coin or consult an oracle, than ask the natives. It’s not that the natives have ever been hostile to him, indeed they generally appear warm and friendly, but he suspects this is because travellers such as he always carry gold coins, and with a bit of guile, the more naïve travellers can easily be parted from them.

The third native who comes along says the same thing as the first, and the traveller wonders if he should go with the majority view and head upstream, until the fourth native agrees with the second. Then another native comes along and laughs, says there is no bridge in either direction, that all talk of bridges is the result of delusional thinking, and that anyway there can be nothing interesting worth visiting on the other side of the river, and why would the traveller want to bother himself with all that nonsense anyway? Instead he gives directions to a nearby village where he says a beautiful young woman, who he describes as his sister, will be very glad to entertain the traveller for a small fee. The traveller politely declines this offer and continues to wait on the riverbank for a solution to his dilemma.

But nightfall is approaching and, without shelter, the traveller is afraid of wolves, robbers and vampires, all of which the natives have assured him come out and prey upon the benighted. He knows the natives are not to be trusted in anything, but his own imagination will not allow him to ignore the possibility of something unpleasant befalling him after dark. Perhaps it would be wiser then to seek out that village after all and avail himself of its comforts, at least until morning.

But if he can find a bridge and cross over the river, he reasons, he might find a more comfortable resting place and a traveller’s inn that would have the good taste not to tempt him with dubious comforts, but instead offer a more honourable fayre. And from the contented murmur he can still hear coming from the other side, he suspects there are no wolves there, nor robbers, nor vampires, and that a man may sleep out in the open, under the stars without fear of being molested.

Another native happens along and the traveller wonders if this man can be persuaded to tell the truth in exchange for a gold coin. But there is nothing to stop the man from taking the traveller’s coin and still point him in the wrong direction (it wouldn’t be the first time). Similarly the natives are totally unreliable as hired guides, insisting on payment in advance, then like as not leading travellers into a trackless wilderness before spiriting themselves away just as night falls. Wisely, he lets the native go on his way.

Instead, the traveller cuts a branch from a tree, sharpens one end of it and drives it into the earth, to form a stout marker. Then, in bold letters, he carves into it the message:

Here I was, before I went wrong.

He tosses a coin for direction, and heads upstream.

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