I have nine draft blogposts waiting to be published or perished, which is a vast improvement on the 17 drafts I had waiting in February. Apparently I have been thoroughly boring myself with the thinking of my thoughts, and have not wished to inflict them on anyone else. So. Let us begin again.
I think that I have finally figured out what it is about the PhD project that makes me so uncomfortable. A friend of mine said it is because the subject itself is uncomfortable, and it’s sort of that. I worry about the possibility that portraits of facial disfigurements will be viewed by others with the same kind of detached curiosity that side-shows once were, adding to the sense of otherness and difference. I haven’t come to terms with it, and I am not yet convinced that I am up to meeting the challenge with the level of sensitivity needed to do the participants justice.
I read a whole pile of first year assignments about research in the social sciences yesterday, and they made it all sound so very neat and tidy and simple to understand. Bless their little black and white fresher socks.
I didn’t sleep well last night, my thoughts were noisily tangling themselves around the seductive forces of heart-ache and worry. The older I get, the messier life seems to become, and the more irredeemable, unsalvageable moments I seem to collect. It’s how it goes. Janet Frame knew.
But perhaps one day I will grow old enough to also know (and not just believe) how infinitely the heart expands to claim this world.
Monet refuses the operation
by Liesel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights of Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Another day, another dirty mirror, this one in the bathroom that didn’t burn down. It almost burned down, but Warren was in the shower when the faulty light fitting sparked and caught fire, so he had time to yell, and we had time to come running with buckets of water, and the fire didn’t have time to race off into the roof space. So, phew for that. But not phew for the melted plastic burns on Warren’s arm (he was naked, it could have been a lot worse) and Nathan’s broken toe (ran into a door frame in his hurry), and how I now can’t have my crappy house rebuilt with the insurance money. Warren says that making jokes about insurance money is not very funny, but I say it’s a little bit funny.
(Kerry says that I am rich because I have a big dog, but I also have a crappy house, so the combination means I’m actually middle class).
I am reading the book Precarious Visualities in an attempt to find my way through the hazy, unfocussed fog of thinking I am currently mired inside of. (Did you like the melodrama in that sentence? I thought it particularly well done, though the clanging segue was admittedly appalling). I believe there is something both evocative and challenging that portraiture will bring to my project, but I can’t articulate what that might be except with vague words like, er, identity and, um, some sort of kind of thing maybe around visibility. INSIGHTFUL I KNOW. And I should probably not talk about the book until I’ve read it? But I can offer you this from the introduction (they’re talking about video art, but I think the idea can hold in the more general sense of portraiture as a whole also): … the image becomes a site of representation and interpellation of the self – but a self whose identity is more a question or an open-ended project than a definition or a clear determination.
I’m wondering if the haziness I am feeling is part of the point, if this idea of an image as an open-ended question is the centre to which everything else will need to hold.
There are approximately 3 things we can learn from this series of self-portraits. 1) I may need a haircut, 2) my nostrils are surprisingly clean, and 3) my mirror is most definitely not. Also, I may need more things to do with my Sunday afternoon.
I re-read my Master’s thesis a couple of days ago, complete from beginning to end. It’s the first time I’ve done that in – well, probably ever. I was so tired of some sections by the time I had finished the whole thing that I couldn’t bring myself to go over one more word of them one more time. Until now. And it was mostly mortifying and I don’t expect I should say things like that out loud, but I only liked the last few bits.
It was being considered for publication, but the publisher believes it too academic for a general audience, which is probably right. So now I can post a link here as an online record, warts and typos and all. I’ll probably fix the typos one day. Or not. We’ll keep it as a surprise.
I would have liked to have written more in depth on timescapes and fragile temporality, and to change the title of a note on ethics (I think it’s misleading – how I thought about and responded to ethical challenges is woven throughout each of the stories, and the section marked ethics is really a short note on why I am using Julia’s full name, which I could also have woven into one of the early stories. Anyway. To quote Veronica, it is what it is.)
My middle child, somewhere around 10 years ago. It was taken with an early type of point-and-shoot digital camera, the only kind of camera I could afford at the time, and though the highlights are blown out, the contrast is much too strong, the details too fuzzy, it remains one of my favourite pictures of Miss Eilidh Grace. It’s … I want to say honest, but that’s not quite it. I always think you can see both the girl and the woman in that face, the strength and the vulnerability of her. And if a portrait can evoke something that fundamental, I think it’s a success, poor photographic technique and all.
I found these examples of non-traditional portraits on the interwebs (yes, I should credit the photographers but I lost track of the links, mea culpa). You can’t identify the person in them, yet they remain emotionally evocative, if not of one person in particular, then of people in general.
I’m looking at different portraiture methods because one of the things I would like to challenge are people’s preconceptions of the psychology of visible difference, my own as much as anyone else’s. Challenging preconceptions is a major reason I do creative research in the first place, because I think creative thinking can shift us sideways out of what we already know into something we can now imagine, but I also think that something with as deep and wide a history in art as portraiture has (oh, how I remember those Greek figures on vases that I had to study in Classics until my eyeballs fell out) comes with its own set of preconceptions. So I want to challenge those as well.
A photo of youngest child from the same era. She was playing so happily in the bath with her sister that I wanted to permanently capture that exuberant joy, but she’s never enjoyed having a camera being pointed at her and never been shy to let me know what she’s thinking. She went back to exuberant joy the minute I left the bathroom…
Their brother, my eldest, at his grandparent’s farm. Such a tender little boy who grew into such a tender young man, the kind who tells me, every single night, to dream of flying. I haven’t yet, but one day I will.
I’m enjoying going through my old files, looking at what I’ve already done, what I already know. I’m not really sure what I already know, except perhaps that the most evocative shots are born from trust and relationship.
Such a sad young Megan, bless her. I can’t remember what she was thinking, but I can remember that bone deep sad.
It was sitting on the library display shelf right at the end of the aisle I happened to be in, Andy Warhol’s larger than life bewigged face staring straight at me. I thought he might have something to say that I needed to know, but I’m not entirely sure even Andy Warhol knew when to take Andy Warhol seriously. Though he did once say this: If everyone isn’t beautiful, then no-one is. I think there’s an important sense in which that is absolutely true.
But self-portraits. I don’t really understand them as an artistic expression. Or a social one. Though I would like to include them in my doctorate without dying of embarrassment so I’m trying to do what I can to figure them out a little bit. It’s early in the process, but I have a sense that it will be a useful way to highlight the idea that when we are looking at someone with any kind of ‘difference’ we don’t necessarily see that the looking is itself highly visible. That is, those who are looking are in turn being looked at. Noticed, viewed, judged. And self-portraits would seem to me to fit somehow into expressing this idea photographically.
These are a few of my favourites after a quick flick through. I think the uniting theme is the artists not taking themselves (their selves?) too seriously. Fritz Klem’s I particularly love. And John Byrne said that his self-portraits were not entirely done from vanity, but that it was the quickest way he knew to learn why we are here at all. Sarah Lucas’s portrait is very memento mori, which Susan Sontag says is true of every photograph ever taken.
An excerpt from the forward reads:
A self-portrait can be a heightened expression of its maker’s individuality and identity, but it can equally well confront the viewer with an artist in disguise, deliberately concealing him-or-herself.
I think, too, that portraits, self or otherwise, don’t necessarily need to be of the face to speak about identity and connection and story. That there can be a revealing in the concealment itself.
Like this one of the middle child leaving the house for her high school graduation dinner. She had worn her hair waist length for the last 12 years, and had cut it all off that same morning, a physical statement of the young woman separating herself from the little girl. And she is walking ahead of me, away from me, out into an uncertain future, yet knows if she just turns around, there I will be.
I once took a series of portraits of this old doll. She belonged to one of my girls, though I can’t remember which one, or why I did it, and what I was trying to say. I do hope she enjoyed her cake. It was madeira, from memory.
I like cake.
I suppose what I am trying to work my way toward is the idea that every photograph is a kind of portrait, in the sense that you can see something of who a person is, how they think, what they experience of the world, in the things they choose to photograph.
That everything we do, one way or another, is a form of self-portrait.
And Veronica wanted to know how many prescriptions pills I take, so here is a photograph of today’s dose. There are more on Sundays and Wednesdays.
I keep them in a basket on a bookshelf in my bedroom. It’s not nearly as complicated as it looks. It’s also terribly boring.
As is my office, a.k.a the corner of my bedroom. The mess of papers on that bookshelf is where I threw a pile of articles on viagra and masculinity after I had finished with them, because writing that report was like pulling non-existent hen’s teeth out of concrete with a bendy straw. I’m not sure why. I am sure my 19 year old son thought he would rather be subject to torture by a thousand rusty needles poked into his both of his eyes than to ever have to think about wrinkly bodies and sex. He made the mistake of asking me what I was doing one day as I made the mistake of telling him. But that … that would be … that’s old people. And, and, … the middle-aged! Cue look of abject horror. I laughed so hard that my middle-aged bladder may have experienced some minor level of post-three-babies-by-vaginal-birth weakened leakage. This, I kept entirely to myself.
Fairy lights. Which neither contain fairies, nor attracts them, but I live in hope.
So, um, yes. Technically, there may be more art supplies on my desk right now than academic articles, and technically this may be terribly selfish because technically Kerry and Veronica are super busy and really could have used my full scholarship application being submitted to them weeks ago and technically I am a rather terrible person and expect them to fire me as a supervisee about every second day.
But at least I am a rather terrible person who makes rather lovely things. And one who has been given two art commissions in the last month which she is desperately trying to fit into everything else, because she (me) is still trying to kid herself she can be both artist and academic concurrently. At least I’ve given up all the volunteer work (see: terrible person), though I still do spend hours a day as a taxi for my teenage children. Yes, at least two of them absolutely should have their own licence to drive by now. Yes, I do tell them this very thing at least 1092309823089234 times per drive.
They learned to tune me out years ago. Also, spot the one child who doesn’t find me at all funny…
I may not be funny, but I am bloody clever. I know this because my friend Janet sent me a brooch that says so. And my friend Penny sent me a Liberty fabric kite that she had made because she thought I would like it (I do! Liberty fabric! As a kite!), even though she works full time and her Mum was dying and she has teenage children of her own. These are not terrible people.
Nor is Mr Warren Young. He is the handsomest kindest Mr Warren I ever knew, and doesn’t think the idea of middle-aged sex nearly as horrifying as his 19 year old son.
None of which has anything much to do with anything at all. But at least there were more photographs.