Some Thoughts whilst Flying
Well here I am so many thousands of feet above Mongolia heading towards the steppes of Southern Russia and then onwards into Eastern Europe and eventually home. Despite the deceptive everyday nature of long flights nowadays; everyone with their shoes off, belts loosened, gin and tonic in one hand nuts in the other and now some with slippers, these journeys akin to pyjama parties in the sky, still fill me with awe. Just occasionally I remind myself that sitting in a slender tube hurtling along at some phenomenal speed high above deserts and mountains is just not normal but truly extraordinary.
And so it was looking and reading about life drawing at Redbrick Mill whilst sitting in an apartment in a coastal village on the far reaches of Hong Kong. How strange it was to be so distant but briefly feel so near. As I looked at the images I could hear the creak of the floorboards, the hum of the heater and the scratch and squeak of charcoal. It’s a curious thing this dis-connection business as it reminds you of the importance of context and the value of real experience. When travelling, the world is a series of episodes, some connected, logical and comforting others random, surreal and disconcerting. Art without context can afford the same sensations. How are we to respond? What is actually being asked of us, can it just be like or dislike is it that simple or do we need some clues, some help in our search to understand. I worry about this, how art is received, I’ve spent thirty years talking and attempting to communicate the range and depth of art. How art is not just what is there in front of your eyes, but also what it aspires to be, how it connects or comments on its context and how it’s ‘aura’, its actuality, its purpose and its role can fluctuate and vary from aesthetic paradigm to commodity, even to a lever for aspirational betterment. Art is such a rich and varied thing that to see it without at least attempting to understand its full reasoning is to accept a weak and faded facsimile of the original.
Context is all. Whilst in India I saw the work of a highly regarded international Indian artist and inwardly I scoffed at his stereotypical use of assembled pots and pans in making monumental sculptures. How typical I thought, missing the point entirely. The pots and pans intentionally cheap were a powerful commentary on the corruption of regional government in allowing the people of his home state of Bihar to starve. My ignorance and wrong assumptions led me to a gross injustice and to miss what was after all a profound and serious statement by an artist of integrity and depth. I was the shallow one.
When I looked at the Redbrick Mill life drawings I imagined how they would look to those people in Hong Kong who will look at them. I envisage the work would look energetic, unconstrained, maybe even a little peculiar and wilful. No obvious conformity of style or referencing of tradition, the work of many individualists pursuing their own goals. Not easy really to understand or contextualize without resorting to stereotypes. The witty and peculiar English versus the orthodox cookie cutter Chinese, and yet we know neither is really true. However for me, able to place them in their context, they were like letters from home, full of little bits of shared knowledge and intimate asides, they gave off a warm glow and I felt pride in the achievements of my distant friends.
Whilst I’ve been teaching in Hong Kong, a city renowned for its love of technology I have found myself espousing the importance of experiencing reality as opposed to the convenience of mediated reality. For many students I suspect I-phones are their first port of call. Let’s ‘wiki’ a tree rather than draw a tree. My argument, which I honed over time, came down to a basic principle. Repeated exposure and dependence on technology alone must surely create a generation reliant on the visual opinions of others. Images will be endlessly re-cycled and eventually confidence in originality and creativity will sadly wither.
I am not a Luddite but I fear for two things. Firstly that experience in such a mediated environment will become blunted, our senses will no longer be exposed to the variety of first hand authentic experiences that prompt us to find our own individual means of expressive creation, we will merely grow to accept what is given.
Secondly on the theme of received values we will lose the ability and will to express our individual values. All good art expresses value. A good artist decides that that thing or method or approach is what matters and we decide if we agree. Over time if a consensus grows than that artist is perceived as generally good and their values become significant but if values are merely uncritically re-presented than society stultifies, rigor mortis sets in. The arts are a crucial place for value re-assignment and critical thinking without that, the Simon Cowell’s of this world will tell us what we like and dislike and frighteningly in a time of lazy media and financial meltdown we have to be ever more vigilant and cautious of this kind of corporate takeover of culture. Only vigorous, insistent and consistent expressions of individualism can keep at bay this erosion of our souls and freedom.
I know this sounds a big leap from life drawing to Armageddon at the ballet but spending time in a massive developed city like Hong Kong where capitalism is writ large and money does all the talking, our little cell of revolutionary life drawers feels even more precious and necessary for individual sanity and the spiritual health of our society at large. One more thought, I saw two very swish sports cars in the same smart car park in the banking district of HK, one number plate was TOY 2 the other simply said SWAG!
Funny the things you think about when you have time to think high above the clouds, the nuts are gone now but the gin and tonic still tastes good.
This article was rather hypocritically and inadvertently sponsored by Air New Zealand, British Airways, Starbucks, Pacific Coffee, HSBC,Tesco, and probably many others.
But it was also happily sponsored by the good people of Hong Kong and Batley.
by Tom Wood