Tuesday, 18 February 2014

on not knowing what you're doing

'Even after 60 years of making art, though, Johns is still not entirely at ease with his practice. “I laboured over these a lot,” he says of “Regrets”. “Somehow what you end up with seems to be something you should have known was there to begin with, even though you had to work so hard to find it.”

That being an artist is still so arduous perplexes him. “I worry about the difficulty of making things, or the difficulty of knowing what to do,” he admits. “I may think, having been working at this all these years, why don’t I find it easy? Since it’s a relatively simple activity."

Article about Jasper Johns here:

wu wei, revisited

Wu wei ... is an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao te ChingLaozi explains that beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. As the planets revolve around the sun, they "do" this revolving, but without "doing" it. As trees grow, they simply grow without trying to grow. Thus knowing how and when to act is not knowledge in the sense that one would think, "now I should do this," but rather just doing it, doing the natural thing....


Wu may be translated as not have or withoutWei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of wu wei is "without action", "without effort", or "without control", and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It is more a mere observation of one's behavior after they have accepted themselves for who they are and release conscious control over their lives to the infinite Tao.

There is another less commonly referenced sense of wu wei; "action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort". In this instance, wu means "without" and Wei means "effort" (instinct?). The concept of "effortless action" is a part of Taoist Internal martial arts such as T'ai chi ch'uanBaguazhang and Xing Yi. It follows that wu wei complies with the main feature and distinguishing characteristic of Taoism, that of being natural. To apply wu wei to any situation is to take natural action.

In Zen Calligraphy, wu wei has been represented as an ensō (circle); in China, the calligraphic inscriptions of the words wu wei themselves resonate with old Taoist stories.

Tao te Ching

In the original Taoist texts, wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature. Although water is soft and weak, it has the capacity to erode solid stone and move mountains. Water is without will (that is, the will for a shape), though it may be understood to be opposing wood, stone, or any solid aggregated material that can be broken into pieces. Due to its nature and propensity, water may potentially fill any container, assume any shape; given the Water cycle water may potentially go "anywhere", even into the minutest holes, both metaphorical and actual. Droplets of water, when falling as rain, gather in watersheds, flowing into and forming rivers of water, joining the proverbial sea: this is the nature of water.


Several chapters of the most important Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, attributed to Laozi, allude to "diminishing doing" or "diminishing will" as the key aspect of the sage's success. Taoist philosophy recognizes that the Universe already works harmoniously according to its own ways; as a person exerts their will against or upon the world they disrupt the harmony that already exists. This is not to say that a person should not exert agency and will. Rather, it is how one acts in relation to the natural processes already extant. The how, the Tao of intention and motivation, that is key.

Related translation from the Tao Tê Ching by Priya Hemenway, Chapter II:
The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
claiming nothing,
the Sage has nothing to lose.

Wu Wei has also been translated as "creative quietude," or the art of letting-be. This does not mean a dulling of the mind; rather, it is an activity undertaken to be the Tao within all things and to cultivate oneself to its "way."

The concept of wu wei is often described as performing acts bereft of self, but this merely exposes the background of the writer. Other religions have selfless acts and “doing good” as part of their belief systems. In Taoist teaching, however, “good” is unknowable[citation needed]. An act bereft of self can only be performed by someone in an egoless state. Every act performed by someone in the usual way of things has some kind of reward attached whether it is financial, power, love, status or just feeling good about oneself. All these things are ego re-inforcing. To perform an act bereft of self one must let go of one's ego and pass into an enlightened state of consciousness. This is called wu wei – the state of doing without doing. Here every act is without self for the ego has ceased to exist. There is no making decisions and the outcome is always perfect.

In neijia, one of the aims is to be able to fight in this state. There is no ego wishing to aggrandise itself by punishing the opponent and every move is performed effortlessly before one has time to think. One blocks every move by one's opponents yet for all parties involved you might be playing with clouds (it's painless and without harmful consequence).


As one diminishes doing—here 'doing' means those intentional actions taken to benefit us or actions taken to change the world from its natural state and evolution—one diminishes all those actions committed against the Tao, the already present natural harmony. As such one begins to cultivate Tao, one also becomes more in harmony with Tao; and, according to another great ancient Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, attains a state of Ming, or 'clear seeing'. It is in the state of Mingthat the Taoist is in full harmony with Tao, and 'having arrived at this pointless point of non-action, there is nothing that is left undone.' It is upon achievement of this Chinese equivalent to 'enlightenment' that a sage begins to perform wei wu wei, or 'action without action.' Thus the sage will be able to work in harmony with Tao to accomplish what is needed, and, working in perfect harmony with the Tao, leave no trace of having done it.

An example of active non-action using wu wei, would be to teach in such a way that no course of action is dictated to a student (they are just told raw facts for use, and left to their own creative devices), so they assume that they have been taught nothing, that is, until their learnings have been integrated in their lived experience.

From wikipedia

Friday, 14 February 2014


After collecting so many images, impressions and ideas in India, I knew that I wanted to start drawing again. I wanted to explore what was in my head, and what was still in front of me, with my pencil; I wanted to make something appear on paper as a result of it all. I had some vague ideas at the start about 'getting my hand back'; something about restoring/improving hand/eye coordination, so that I could have better control, make images that were what I wanted, rather than vague approximations of what I wanted or could see.

I'm not denying that the technical, 'skill' elements that this way of thinking represents are important. But I see so many people who are stuck in the cultural web of these ideas, who are unable to see beyond 'improving their technique', that I find myself noticing every movement towards or away from this idea in myself. Over the last few days, it's become clearer that I'm not drawing to improve my hand/eye coordination at all.

I can imagine thinking of it like this, and as I imagine it I feel immediately how that thought closes down what I'm doing. The focus then becomes accuracy - is that line exactly like that, at that angle? Is that tone precisely rendered on the paper as it is in what I'm looking at? I realise that, in fact, I'm drawing to become acquainted with something. I'm drawing to know it, to understand it, to see it. I'm also drawing as a form of collecting; of gathering shapes and lines and patterns and forms. And I'm drawing to see and feel how different media make contact with the paper, and to notice how I feel when I see them appear in their different ways.

This morning I'm studying the shapes and patterns made by plans and cross-sections of early cave temples from the 2nd and 3rd century BC. And as I trace out their forms, I find myself reaching for darker and darker, softer and smudgier materials. There's no thought or intention in this, it's a visceral response to an idea I don't even realise I'm registering - that the shapes and forms I'm tracing are cut out of rock, and that if you entered in to these spaces, there would be no natural light at all. They would be dark and silent. The black stone would throw back any sound you made as an echo, and the sounds of the birds outside would echo off the rock...

With this approach, it's actually pretty much incidental how the lines or marks or smudges on the page end up looking.


Thursday, 13 February 2014

why I post

I've noticed quite a lot of posts on an online artists' forum that I visit regularly about people's reticence to post images of the paintings or drawings that they're doing. This reticence doesn't seem to be simply that they can't be bothered, or don't want to, or don't feel that what they're working on is ready for anyone else to see. I can't know, but it seems to be more that - and sometimes people actually say this - folk don't have 'confidence' in their work.

They make images, the love images, they look at images all the time. And my guess is that some of them probably would secretly like, at least from time to time, to share the images that so mysteriously appear before them. But they don't, because they fear judgement, perhaps even ridicule. Or maybe, and this is the very worst of all, perhaps they fear being ignored - that they will finally pluck up courage to post an image, and there will be no response whatsoever to this thing that means to much to them.

Hearing so much about these kinds of thoughts got me wondering how my fairly regular posting might be being interpreted. 'Does she think these are 'good'?' 'Blimey, I wouldn't bother sharing that.' etc. When I started painting again I realised that the only way I was going to be able to draw or paint a single thing was if I focussed completely on trying to find out what was interesting to ME, and to completely ignore what anyone else thought. I knew that I had been derailed by art tutors and the fashions and judgements of the art world at a very young age, and instinct told me that I could only overcome this derailing by turning my back on everything.

But I also knew that I didn't want to paint 'in secret'. I didn't want the idea of someone seeing one of my images to be a big deal. I knew that I could confuse praise or criticism of my work with praise or criticism of my self, or, at least, I had some kind of instinct about this that I could never have articulated at the time. I had to find some way of de-sensitising the potential sense of self-exposure and fear.

I started putting almost everything I was doing on Flickr. For all my fears of exposure, I soon learnt that the number of people who might be looking at my pictures was likely to be a nice round zero. And the same with this blog. I started writing it as an experiment in getting used to being seen, after a lifetime of hiding behind my defences, and behind various professional identities. And I learnt that the blog, too, was likely to be being read by about zero people per week. It was perfect. I was letting my images be potentially seen, and sharing my artistic vulnerabilities potentially, while all the time knowing that probably no-one was actually seeing and reading at all.

I soon found out that having an online Flickr record of my work was an invaluable resource when I hit periods of feeling that I was getting nowhere, or that I wasn't working enough. I always thought I wasn't working enough, but sometimes I would look back and see that there was not only a lot of work, but that there was all kinds of stuff that I had completely forgotten that I had ever done. It wasn't the same as keeping it on my computer, because I soon had endless files of work on my desktop and could never be bothered to sort and order them all. I lost stuff on the computer all the time. But with the Flickr record, I could always find out where I'd been. I could also learn from things that were done months and months before, that I hadn't been able to see anything in at the time.

This is how it has become my habit to document the process of my working by posting about 90% of everything that I do. It's invaluable for giving me a feeling that I am actually moving along, that something is happening.

A post a day is the tangible evidence that bricks are steadily and consistently being made. It matters less and less whether I'm pleased or displeased, whether the brick is a better brick that yesterday's, or a worse one. It doesn't matter whether anyone sees the brick or not. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks of the brick. All that matters is that there is brick today. That I can see it.

And that, in five day's time, when I have an off day, I have somewhere where I can go and see that I have been making bricks, and putting them out into the world, and that nobody really cares one way or another.

This last point is very, very important in terms of keeping to my own, private path....


Monday, 3 February 2014

the instant gratification monkey

I used to have a few people reading here, but I'm not sure how many are still around after my long absence.... I thought I was going to do regular reports from India, but in the end the technology was impossible. And it was good to be away from the computer. It was good to be out there in the world, bathed in new sights, in colours and shapes, in atmospheres that were different, to be penetrated by alien sounds.

For nearly four weeks I absorbed, and looked, and watched, and noticed.

I came back with a completely different relationship to my 'creativity', to my art, to my work.

I would say now that I was starved. Starved of things that spoke to me from the world, trying to find everything inside myself. Which is where the response and the transformations of material take place, but I was empty. In the vacuum, I had been trying to think things into being, dredging for memories, feeling shadows brush past me too fast to see.

When I made that model for myself a year or so ago about feeding and digesting, I had no idea what that could feel like, in terms of the visual. So full now, it's a little easier to forget about the conceptualising, to just look, and look.

And, finally, to act again. At the end of the trip, I realised that there was going to be no further escape from dealing with figurative elements. Helped by a couple of marvellous blog posts about procrastination (here and here) I understood that I had been balking at this for years. My first Indian dancers came through in spring 2012, but they confounded me. It was just too hard.

I saw how again and again, throughout my entire life, I had fallen back from creative activities because I hadn't been able to believe in the chance of any kind of real success. There would be a little progress, but then something would come out that I deemed to be rubbish, and it just felt too disheartening to continue. This was linked the bigger problem of not knowing what I was trying to do; all I knew was that I wanted to paint, and that I didn't want to paint ordinary representational things. So, what?

My painting of the last few years was able to appear because my soul found a way to confound the voracious critic; in the terms of these procrastination ideas, something started to happen which satisfied my instant gratification monkey and myself, and I was able to carry on. But there has always been a problem of structure - ie. what, exactly, am I painting, what am I doing with these colours? The intuitive approach of the past was successful, in the sense that paintings were able to keep coming, but it was also torturous, because I never knew what I was trying to do. That's always going to be the case, but sometimes having no idea what to do next is dangerous. It worked, albeit sporadically, up to the show; it had its own momentum, but when I needed  a break after that, it was hard to find the way back in.

There are other complexities of process that have come to light since this great filling up with visual images from India. But the main thing to report in terms of discoveries that have a chance of being useful to anyone else is: a) the effect of seeing clearly for the first time how I tend to always fall back and give up when the going gets hard; and b) the power of one brick a day. Reading about this in relation to difficulty and procrastination, I suddenly saw that I had been hoping/trying to give birth to an entire house every time. If the house (satisfying painting) didn't appear, I got despondent and gave up.

So now I'm not expecting houses. If something happens that I don't like, if the drawing is ugly or the colours crass, or the whole is unimaginative, I just say, ok, that was today's brick. Today I learnt that approaching things in that way leads to that result, and I learnt that that result is not satisfying to me. I'll try something else tomorrow.

Everything is a brick, however it comes out. And if you lay one brick a day, and the end of the year, you have a house. Wonderfully, also, a house that you cannot conceptualise, or dream/work out in advance. I'm reading David Sylvester's interviews with Francis Bacon which is another story, but this stood out for me this morning:

'The pictures come as accident, through the working.....'

Indeed they do.



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