Thursday, April 15, 2010

The wabi sabi of Robert Falcon Scott

If I were Amundsen I would have stitched my Antarctic contours on a customised industrial machine, after years of patient, careful study to perfect my technique. I would have finished the continent in a week.

Instead, I have stabbed myself in the finger three times this morning and scratched across my chin with a bent needle I should have discarded last night. Right now I am forcing myself to take a break from the blankets and run errands, write this, make some healthy food for later. It feels like a terrible sacrifice to turn my back on Antarctica (even after three hours of pretty solid stitching). The white continent is shining in the afternoon sunlight over my shoulder, a siren song. An infatuation.

Last Sunday the needle slipped so badly my finger bled for a long time and I stopped stitching for three days because any pressure on my finger started the blood leaking out again. If my work wasn't white, blood stains wouldn't have stopped me, but there's a limit to how much watermelon snow I can tolerate. And to be honest, it was a guilty relief to turn away from the project because last week I was full of ambivalence about it. The ambivalence about being almost finished was compounded by writing the artist's statement for Ross Island.

Perhaps if my ideas/ideals were mediated by a machine, or a pieceworker in Vietnam, composing an artist's statement wouldn't involve such heart wrenching self-analysis, I don't know. I only know that I am as susceptible as most children of the mid 20th century to vilifying Scott, but the more I think about my own practice, the more I identify with him, or at least his legend.

The legend of Scott made a virtue of inefficiency by glorifying old-fashioned exertion and effort, defining heroism as persistence. The imperfections of Scott's practice were prized in the early 20th century, in much the same way that in Japan, the "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" qualities of wabi sabi are valued by connoisseurs of traditional Japanese beauty. "Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and the suggestion of natural processes."

The visible flaws in Japanese wabi sabi design show show human hands at work. My own entire artistic practice, from handmade books to letterpress printing, from crochet coral reef to embroidered continent has made a virtue of slowly handcrafting what is usually done by machines in this age. And although I always make my best effort, I don't wait until I have mastered a craft before I start into an insanely ambitious project. Thus my work is full of imperfections, my craftsmanship is incomplete and my dedication is impermanent.

I don't see these as heroic qualities. And yet, I think the imperfections of my craftmanship say something important, that needs to be said today, exactly one hundred years after Scott was saying something similar in his choices on his last expedition. Efficiency is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. Dragging my needle in and out of old blankets; stomping through snow pulling a sledge: these are not the most efficient methods to achieve our goals, yet their symbolic value should not be dismissed any more than the intrinsic satisfactions of physical work. It is uncomfortable to write this, perhaps because the legend of Scott's wabi sabi was serving an Empire of inequality.

My Antarctica is offered to a conversation about curbing climate change by recognising that the comforts of industrialised consumerism are unsustainable. This cannot and should not be an easy or quick conversation and I don't want anyone to mistake my contribution for glib or slick. And that is discomforting because I've always felt embarrassed about being earnest, because I would rather be seen as cool.

Last year after the 'scandal' of the National Contemporary Art Awards I quoted Brian Eno, saying the good thing about art is… it doesn’t matter what happens , it’s not dangerous, it’s not life, if you don’t like it you can switch it off, or rent another DVD. Art is something we deliberately let ourselves enter into because we know we can take some mild psychic risk. (keynote address, Luminous Festival, Sydney Opera House June 2009).

With My Antarctica, I have upped the ante of psychic risks to which I subject myself. Yet these amount to a few pricks and scratches, some intellectual tossing and turning, a bit of angstful soul searching. Yesterday, having finished the artist's statement and sent in my 2010 NCAA entry, I picked up a new needle and returned to My Antarctica with fresh passion. Over and over again I survive the psychic risks of making art. Over and over again, I am embraced by art's psychic rewards. And fortunately, no lives are threatened by my polar explorations.


Johanna Knox said...

Hi Meliors - wow - so glad I've started to read blogs again - and found out about this project you're working on. What a brilliant thing to conceive of and do.

You made me laugh with the comment about not waiting till you've mastered something before embarking on some insanely ambitious project. Yes, well, hm. I can certainly relate to that.

Somehow though I think YOU are one of those people who ends up doing a good job of everything they turn their hand to.

Good luck with it!!!

Johanna Knox said...

I better add - I don't mean to be glib about what you are saying though. I hear you ...