Meaning and Purpose Triptych
Driven by a sense of purpose, 8 billion of us with 8 billion intentions make our way through life. We exist in vast social swarms, complex hierarchies with internal codes of logic, dependent on each other for our entire survival. We did not ask to be born.
It surely can’t be possible that one day we won’t be here, won’t be us. Life is an infinite gift, a never-ending cornucopia of pleasures to be had, meanings to be made. We regretfully trample through nature’s delicate, exquisite mechanisms, crushing other creatures as we go, confused by our cleverness, overcome by our power.
Appeasing our fearful needs, we must turn a blind eye to the filthy scraps, bits and bobs, faded latest trends, and forgotten essentials which form a jumbled, de-natured trail behind us. We are in the grip of a vertiginous momentum.
We feel empathy, we are kind, we are anxious, we have nothing but each other, we feel alone in the crowd. We continue to hope.
I feel like I am tied to the tense, unrelenting pull of time, hanging suspended in space, surrounded by the debris of possessions. The frame of a mirror reflects a tipping infinity, and in spite of myself, I long to let go and simply fall into nothing. But instead I bury my head and push away mortal fright. The substance of my body, this thing that serves me but also is me, is caught up in stuff: the materiality of sheets, the retaining wall of folded clothes, the white light. The canvas is a taut, billowing space, pinned down by illusion.
Every day we pick up and put down the same objects, weaving complex webs of order and habit. We are tossed and turned about by circumstance and by each other, lonely and hopeful, self-replicating and self-destructive. An image is like an extended moment, grinding time to a halt as we hurtle through life. Perhaps in the end a painting is simply an expression of longing. If only I could see past the edges of my harness, this net of things and people and meanings. If only I could find a way through the image. If only I could succumb to vertigo, and truly inhabit the exquisite, untouchable world.
Habitat 1 and 2
Our habit is to watch ourselves from far away as if at a spectacle, and our habitat is the stage for our self-adoration. We are not so much in awe of nature, as in awe of ourselves as we appreciate nature. We need to look through a human-made frame, a screen, any picture will do, as we show ourselves to each other at our best advantage.
These two paintings contain the usual elements of spectacle. Pretty leaves, dramatic skies, a flower, a nude. The problem is the nude is an ordinary middle-aged man, a hominid lying in nature, stripped to the bare essentials, his vulnerability and nakedness on display. Without an interleaving filter, a glossy objectification, we are brought closer than is perhaps comfortable at first.
In one painting he almost seems to be gripping the sun with his knees in a mad juxtaposition of scale, looking out in a parody of the usual seductive gaze, reading glasses cast aside. In the other, he is suspended in a vertiginous space between the sky and the sky’s reflection, looking up, more helpless than seductive. He is simply animal, out of his element and in the elements.
Normally we go through life clothed and streamlined, our private selves invisible. Keeping up appearances is such a strain. Surely there is relief in forgetting, in relinquishing oneself into the soft leaves, the gentle light. Here there is a beauty to be found, which is less easily appreciated and less easily dismissed.
“Pond life” is an old fashioned term of insult like “scum of the earth”. The lowest of the low, both valueless and stupid. In this pond, a frog gazes at the moon, like the beginning of a children’s story. When I photographed the frog I crept closer and closer, making sure not to cast my shadow on it, until I was almost touching it, then stole my picture.
The water seems to have more surface tension than is natural, as if it wants to burst out of its confines. There is such utter magic across the surface of the world, such a proliferation of sticks and leaves, of beetles and grasses. This sprawling fabric of inconceivable complexity and beauty is lit moment after moment by our sun or moon, bits of the universe that dance along with our tiny whirling globe.
We are lucky to belong to this natural paradise which was none of our doing. A defunct lightbulb floats like an outdated idea, a forgotten lightbulb moment. The water beetles walk on water, performing their effortless miracles. At least in a picture, we can almost retain our illusions.
This painting started with a memory. As a small child I grew up in a huge wild garden. One day I was exploring alone, picking through the thickets on the edge of my paradise, when I discovered a small dog with new puppies. The smell and sound of those tiny packets of life, warm in my hands while the mother watched on, made me so happy. The feeling of a secret existence always continuing, even without me there, was a revelation.
This dog is in the throes of her life, absolutely at the mercy of her nature. As are we all. Humans like to dress it up, make it grand. But it isn’t really. We are born, we reproduce, we die, like every other creature. But in our hubris we use other species.
We make dogs extensions of ourselves. We pick up and discard them, lavish them with love, humanise them, neglect them. We exchange adorable pictures of them, laughing at their human-like antics, dressing them up, revelling in their devotion. They gaze back at us with vulnerable dignity.
We are intruding into this moment, glimpsing a life process outside of ourselves. Nature has run rampant, the sheer number of puppies is preposterous, the drive to reproduce is vertiginously powerful. All around is the natural world, both sheltering and unseeing. A piece of white canvas like a frayed edge, reminds us we can’t believe our own eyes.
The most pernicious of hominids, that’s us. Me and my pair-bonded partner, members of the species Homo sapiens. We stare out at you, taking refuge in each other’s presence. The awkwardness, the signs of ageing are perhaps uncomfortable to see. We are vulnerable, we will definitely die within the next few decades.
This is it, we are all we have, just these odd bodies. Bizarre to think of how rapacious we are, how much we need in order to make sense of our lives. Our forever homes, our well-reviewed vehicles, our artisanal feed, our rites and rituals.
When underneath it all, we are just a collection of limbs attached to a sac of organs, perceiving the world, if we are lucky, through a few limited senses. We are creatures of ideas, built on substrates of fantasy through which we drag these curious fleshly lumps, primping and fussing, fasting and bingeing, biting, jeering, touching, using, judging, loving.
I find it hard to look at this painting. Not only am I afraid of heights but I get terribly seasick. It’s all about control, I can’t bear to lose it. Here, at sea, control is nowhere to be found. There is just the constant threat of complete engulfment. The painting leads us into frightening territory, with nothing beyond, nothing above, and who knows what below.
“At sea” is of course a phrase we use to denote confusion. The kind of confusion with no up and no down, no frame of reference, no peg to hang your hat or hook to attach your line, no anchor and no sail. The wheel is spinning. The stars are no help – there aren’t any, just white space. Although it’s so open, it feels shut in, as if all of the outside world is stripped away, and we are just left with our uncertainty.
A jersey, a towel, a shoe give clues to some forgotten person or purpose. The rats, always circling human life, are the only occupants.
There is a grandiosity in our endeavours. To maintain our illusions, we need sewers underground, to carry away the stinking products of our bodies. Sewers allow us to pretend we are not animals. Beneath our feet, our homes, our cars and carpets, our phones, socks, wine glasses and exercise machines, beneath the walls bearing our art, are cavernous, interlinked palaces of shit.
There is no man in this painting, just a manhole. Leftover evidence of an overreach, it is drowned in water and drained of purpose. Reflected in its depths, the moon persists. Rats go about their business, as they always have, amongst further human remnants, a crushed milk bottle, a shoe. A rooster stares quizzically out, as if to say, did you really believe your concerns mattered that much?
Beauty is everywhere, lying about in abundance. What gifts we continue to squander.
This profusion of nature, of leaves, flowers and insects, surely cannot be real. It is more like an unfurled imagination. Through it my younger son walks. I feel as if with each step, the scene could change, the plants could start to twist and shift, die off, re-grow, the bees could buzz away, night could become day, rain could start to fall. Anything is possible.
The canvas, like the world itself, is simply a reflection of the mind’s eye. As we walk through life, we move through beautiful fantasies of who we are, how we matter, what we are doing. With each step we take, each breath, we create meaning. We grab the world and twist it to our ends. We are all creators, we are all painters.
There’s a problem though. We are addicted to the dream. One could crawl through the old sewer drain, but there’s nothing on the other side. We can’t see beyond our dream. Rather stay here, keep walking, keep dreaming. It’s beautiful here, for as long as we last.
We are bound together by our actions, words, money, symbols, trades, duties and loves. We are at the mercy of our beliefs, systems, crimes, apathy, violence and rage.
The paths we follow, the trails we leave, intersect with everyone else’s paths and trails in a thick, obtuse web where time and space merge.
Absolutely dependent on others, we believe in individual control. At the mercy of fate, we believe in purpose.
Looking forward is our primary activity. Although we are short-lived animals, we exist in in an enchantment with the idea of an endless, happy tomorrow.
We are blind to the present and to the animals and flowers at our feet. This is our moving, infuriating predicament.
The animals used in medical trials are called animal “models”. This word is convenient for us, it strips away the individuality and personal suffering of each animal. These animals are merely there to model homo sapiens. If the animal survives the proposition, the trial can move on to human subjects.
Perhaps my family members are my animal models. Paintings are set-ups, pared down and controlled spaces into which the models are placed, vivariums, enclosed glass cages in which we can observe ourselves. My family, my animal models, embody what it is to be human. I am always surprised they remain prepared to subject themselves to my demonstrations.
In this vivarium my older son and his partner are crammed into a small area. Feed and hydration are present. The illusion of space, provided by a random sunset landscape on a screen, mostly hides the actual view through the window, where the moon can be glimpsed. Thus day and night are intertwined.
Needs met, we are divorced from the diurnal cycle. Our social fabric is wrapped, atom-thin, around the whole globe. Our media plunges us into fantasy, while out there, all is not as it should be. And yet we continue to trust, we continue to love.
I am a member of Homo sapiens, one of the four surviving species of great ape. I grimace, stuff food into my mouth, defecate, sleep, form attachments, cry, fight, play. I was thrust into a set of circumstances at birth, and at some point not too far away I’ll die and be disposed of.
Here I sit, surrounded by queenly luxurious trappings, jewels and fabric, with my wreath upon my head, all conceived and made by members of my species. This huge, screeching, dying, living, swarm of Home sapiens that we are has crusted the world with our effluent. We inhabit the cracks like an infestation, exchanging symbols, words, things, pictures, clawing past each other for light and air.
I am one of the lucky ones, I find myself in a comfortable cage which I adorn with precious things. I have everything I could ever want.
I just can’t understand why on earth my heart is broken.