Resonance in an artwork for me is the feeling that everything is just right. It’s a physical-mental gut feeling that the concept, the materials, the technique, the shape and colours of the work, its size, texture and scent, the way it is placed are in accordance with each other. It is this that I am striving in making my work. The emphasis for me here is on the combination of the mental and physical feeling, as the language of the body is a subject of my incessant practice.
I strongly believe that this resonance (in art and in life) can only be achieved by overcoming the dualistic division of the world into the mental and the physical, where mental processes received a higher rank in the hierarchy of the patriarchic society. “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) of Descartes has lead us, people of the Western society, to believe that thinking is something separate and more elevated than the body, and led to various practices of disciplining and torturing of the body as a way of spiritual purification, for example, wearing a cilice – a hair shirt – to mortify the flesh and self-flagellation to drive out the evil in Christianity.
Further on, the dualism of various cosmology models, which sets out oppositions of spiritual/material, “up/down, above/below, in front/behind, right/left, straight/curved (and twisted), dry/wet, spicy/bland, light/dark, outside (public)/inside (private), etc”1 have led to a simplified male/female, strong/weak, dominant/submissive logic with a disastrous consequence of a centuries-lasting-and-still-not-over oppression of women.
Looking at one of these models, the symbol of Yin and Yang in Taoism (a clear and simple-looking model, with a deep philosophical meaning) we can notice that it is the circle that is the whole2. There is no yang without the yin, no lightness without the darkness, they are in constant flux and even within themselves they carry a piece of each other (the dot of the opposite colour in the round part of every droplet). The dualism here is a way of understanding the whole, the opposites describe the energies, which are present in everyone’s body, rather than opposite genders, and yes, the “female” and the “male” are used in the description of the opposites, but it would be too simplistic to interpret those as an indication of the female and the male gender.
“First, I learned to breathe. Breathing, according to me, corresponds to taking charge of one’s life.”3, notes Luce Irigaray, a Belgian-French philosopher. “It is also necessary to understand the relations between respiration and other acts, in particular the act of speaking. … From this point of view it is interesting to note that people who do not breathe, or who breathe poorly, cannot stop speaking.”4, she continues. She sees this way of speaking as a way of breathing (talking at every exhalation) which paralyses the breathing of others. Incessant talking disconnects one from oneself and the others, Alan Watts, a British writer and speaker, agrees : “if I am to talk all the time, I will not have anything to talk about, except my own verbiage. Because I won’t listen to what anybody else has to say. In exactly the same way, if I think all the time, I won’t have anything to think about, except thoughts”. Irigaray sees silent attention to the breath as a way of respecting “the possibility to be born and to create” and warns that neglecting the breath can cause a substitution of words for life, which has happened in our patriarchal society, where the body (the microcosm) is cut off from the universe (the macrocosm), where we live the rhythms of “sociological culture” instead of the rhythms of the seasons and the body itself and where “the most spiritual becoming proposed then to woman is that she also can be a man…”5
I have a particular relationship with the language.6 I love the language as a system of sounds and words, through my background I am always in-between a couple of languages (Dutch, English and Russian), so I am very aware of the linguistic aspects. I look at the language in a broader perspective, which encompasses cultural practices and understanding, but also looks, gaze, distance, pauze and silence. In the artistic language words give place to the shape, colours, texture, scent — all these sensory properties, that make the whole body understand and feel resonance.
“Unfortunately, patriarchal traditions have progressively replaced life with speech without assuring between them relations capable of allowing each to enrich the other. The uncontrolled proliferation of techniques, unhealthy urbanisation, the pollution of the universe, submission to money, wars, including ideological ones, have followed from this”7, Irigaray
continues. I often find myself confronted with a certain one-dimensionality of speech, of the spoken and written language and the way it is used in our society, our education system, our working environment. Black-and-white opinions, without a pauze to actually feel, the habit of direct reaction without reflection, constant judgement and self-judgement leave no space for mistakes, quiet contemplation and poetry. And I find it really frustrating that these patterns manifest themselves within me and only occasionally I become aware of that, so my struggle is not only with something outside but also with the patterns “programmed” within myself.
With my practice I want to go beyond the limitations of the verbal language, to embrace the spoken word and the silence as the yang and yin. I want to be silent without feeling numb, to make mistakes without feeling inadequate, to express myself in a way that feels natural and authentic to me in my “consciousness of being a woman, the desire to remain a woman and to spiritually become a woman”, as Irigaray eloquently puts it. “For the transmission of culture to be correct, it is necessary to notice the differences between what women’s experience can teach us and what men’s experience can teach us, without privileging the teaching coming from one sex or from one gender. In fact, it is not true that knowledge is indifferent to sex or gender”8. Irigaray is an avid advocate of respecting the sexual difference without falling into essentialism, and looks forward to “a new type of civility … in which the duality of the genders will become, thanks to their differences, culturally fertile, and not only naturally fertile”.
Being a woman and working with feminine topics in the medium of textiles has brought me a share of misunderstanding, judgement and not being taken seriously in the “established art world”. Textile and fiber as a medium is often associated with craft, inside and domesticity, in contrast to art, outside and society. I am looking at the amazing artists as Sheila Hicks, Claire Zeisler, Magdalena Abakanovicz, Anni Albers and Louise Bourgeois, the tactile articulation they were able to articulate in their work and their life-long practice and “long breath” — their work inspires me to keep developing my own tactile language and seeking for my truth.
My body lets me know that I am alive and able to feel. The mind interprets the signals of the body, but it is often limited by its linguistic focus and ingrained learned patterns of interpretation. I practice deepening my sense of body awareness through the practice of yoga. The physical movement, breathing, focussing my attention, noticing my needs and exploring my spirituality allow me to connect more to myself, but also to something bigger than myself.
The art training I have received has a strong conceptual angle. I enjoy the intellectual challenge and I appreciate works with a clear conceptual approach. I love applying this method in my own work. However, I have noticed that moving too far from the sensual into the mental can cause disconnection, estrangement and loss of interest. I have realised that working this way had made me stressed, over-competitive and frustrated. Trying to overcome this frustration I kept pushing myself even harder up to the point that the ideas stopped coming and the creative process came into a state of draught. The mental distress turned into physical distress, which only showed me more clearly the body – mind – creativity connection and the absolute necessity to be mindful about the body and caring for the mind.
The Body and the Mind
So what’s up with the body? Following the “Cogito, ergo sum” logic, we are living more and more in our heads, and are becoming more and more estranged from the nature and from our own bodies. Is the mind something separate from the body? According to Arbo Unie, a Dutch organisation for employee’s healthcare, if nothing changes by 2030, a quarter of the Dutch working population will suffer from a burnout9. How is that possible? The level of physical labour most people have to perform is not comparable to that of a hundred years ago, with all our technology, machines and computers, why are we tired all the time? A lot of people perform intellectual labour in one form or another, and yet, a burnout brings chronic fatigue, insomnia, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, digestive problems among many other symptoms. Our modern
medical science does point at stress and anxiety as the source of these problems, so the science agrees that our mind is able to make our body sick. Why does it need to come so far, that we have to get physically sick to notice that we are pushing ourselves too hard? Because we think that the mind is superior to the body. Because we don’t listen to the little signals of the body (a headache, prolonged tension in the shoulders, mysterious back pain), so that the body has to shout and to almost turn off its life-support systems (e.g. appetite and vitality) to stop us from damaging it any further. I have witnessed this process in myself as a young ambitious ICT professional and I am witnessing this in others as a yoga teacher. As an artist and maker I am holding this awareness with me, this motivates me even more to engage embodiment as an important part of my visual language.
I believe you can draw inspiration from any situation, even from mental distress. There are plenty of examples in the history of art of artists drinking themselves into brilliancy followed by a suicide or other form of demise. They also fed their work with their bodily and mental experiences. But how sustainable is this? Is that the recipe for success?
As a woman, a mother, a teacher and a yogini I see myself as a keeper of life, the one who creates, supports and nurtures life in others and within myself. A holistic art practice, with respect to the environment, the viewer and the maker is a necessity for me, as a human being. At this time of deep uncertainty, when most of the world is taking repose in self-isolation, quarantine or lockdown, it is inevitable that we start reevaluating our way of life and our activities. Is being an artist a vital profession? What value does my work have? Can this work sustain me and my family in this society? Can I contribute to humanity with this work? But also, does this work bring me joy? Is having joy from the work enough to call it vital?
I am focussing on my body – my home, my refuge, my means of expression. I am taking care of my body and become aware of its energies. I am loosening the grip on my thinking and let my hands speak.
Energy of Matter
Body awareness and becoming aware of the energies within lead to more understanding of the energies outside — the properties and potential of materials I use for making. I love working with textile for its deep connection with the human body, from the way of creating the fiber to the way of making cloth, I love the symbolism of textile connections. I love working with clay for its ability to enter into a conversation with my body and to either take the shape I give it or collapse when I ask too much. There’s something about the direct contact with the material, the physical interaction between my body and the body of clay that gives me a sense of pleasure and accomplishment. Interaction with textile, clay, wood or stone lets me explore their different qualities and challenge my body to find a way of creating a fluent conversation with the material.
After this direct interaction with the material I look at the pieces and wonder. The next phase is to let these pieces be, observe them and notice the connections between the various pieces and the space. This process is necessary to find a way to stimulate their eloquence, to let them speak to the body, the visceral, the subconscious of the viewer.
I have learned to analyse, reason and conceptualise and these skill have been serving me well in a lot of situations. However, when making an art piece, creating a yoga flow or writing a poem, it is not enough. This path is a path of unlearning, letting go of the pre-defined and learning to listen to your senses, your intuition, to feel the energies present inside and outside.
Handwork is an important aspect of my artistic practice, since embodiment is my topic and my mode of working.. “The hand is the window on to the mind”10, wrote Immanuel Kant.
The hands and fingers take a proportionately large space in our brain cortex, both for motor and sensory properties.
It is fascinating to see these images with the scientific proof of that what the crafts(wo)men have been long aware of.
Kenya Hara, a Japanese art director and designer with a few decennia of experience, has an interesting view on the origin of design. He says that design started with the first humans, when they started using tools. He sees two origins of design: a stick to hit things and a vessel to drink from: “When our ancestors began to walk erect, for the first time both of their hands were free. Putting these hands together would make a vessel. I wonder if our ancestors drank water from the vessel of their lightly folded palms. … Here, in this empty vessel, ready to hold something, is the origin of one more tool, a vessel”11. Hara describes the development of the stick as a tool for changing the world – the saw, the axe, the oar and propeller, power shovels, tanks and missiles and the vessel as a container to preserve and hold things – clothing, shelter, language. I find it a fascinating theory, but I cannot help noticing its dualism. It might be useful to separate
phenomena into a stick and a vessel for the purpose of analysing them, however, this categorisation does not stand long, as things cannot be only sticks or only vessels, only yin or only yang, it is a relative quality which changes depending on one’s point of view. So, an open hand can hold water for stilling the thirst, but it can hit and smash, just as a stick would. A thread (cord, rope, a string of beads) can be used as a necklace and a noose. I think Hara used this separation for dialectic purposes. He is known as an advocate of Emptiness, a concept, which he sees in the genealogy of Japanese aesthetics: architecture, gardens, ikebana, theater and poetry. In the simplicity, almost plainness of these spaces, spacial objects and gestures lies an invitation for a variety of interpretations.
My choice to make by hand has to do with many factors: my feeling and experiences when interacting with materials, the slowness of the process, the limitations of the quantity that you can make, the visual and energetic qualities of the final piece and the connection that a hand-made artefact establishes with the viewer (user, owner, visitor, spectator? what would be the best word to describe your “role” when you interact with an art piece? art lover? human being?). My choice for hand-made is possibly influenced by my striving to be productive all the time. My choice for hand-made has to do with the pleasure and satisfaction I experience from making. My choice for hand-made is also a conceptual choice for embodiment.
Cross Section of the brain showing the areas of
the motor cortex corresponding to the body parts
Space for Possibilities
Flow is a mental state when you know what you are doing, when the work takes effort, but this effort is enjoyable, when time ceases to exist and you feel great focus, where the question of how to do something is solved through simply doing it. Flow – I experience it when teaching yoga, crocheting a new pattern or carving a spoon from wood. Flow – I feel it when I loose myself, or rather, the image of myself and become one with the action. Flow – I feel it when making an installation in a great space, where the space and my pieces start to resonate and I just seem to know what I am doing.
Frustration is mental state when you feel lost, where your efforts lead to nothing, where the time seems to crawl, you see no solutions and your mind descends into chaos. Frustration – I feel it when I criticise my ideas before even trying them out. Frustration – I feel it when I tell myself it has no use and everything I do is crap. Frustration – I feel it when I am stuck in negative thinking and do not even dare to start making.
Which mental state sounds better? Of course, I like to be in the flow and I do not like to feel frustrated. And in this liking and not liking lies the problem. Flow is a part of a creative process. But frustration is also a valid part of the creative process. We would not know Flow if we were not acquainted with Frustration. The dualities need to come together here as well.
A Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has devoted decades of his professional life to the study of flow, which he considers a state of the optimal psychological experience. He describes the optimal psychological experience, which he calls flow, as the state of harmony in consciousness, whereas the opposite state, which he calls entropy is the state of chaos in the mind. “Purpose, resolution and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience”12, the meaning of life is what we make of it ourselves. By setting out challenges for ourselves, which are difficult enough, but not impossible, and which require the development of skills, when the “rules” are clear and our attention is focussed we enter the state where our self-consciousness subsides and our time-consciousness alters, our mind finds order and the self becomes more complex — this is how we grow. I recognise this process in my incessant search for the experiences of flow through trying to master a myriad of handwork techniques, working with a variety of materials, learning Japanese, playing guitar, exploring yoga…
Through this elegant and eloquent analysis of the process I understand more clearly the mechanisms of it and its attraction. The problem arises when I get stuck in the pursuit of growth, trying to make every minute of my time “useful and meaningful”. In this pursuit, almost addiction, my mind creates its definitions of what is useful, following with definitions of what is not useful. So, if the activity of making a wall-hanging is “useful”, I can spend time on it and enjoy it, while shopping for groceries and cooking become “not useful”, so I get irritated when I have to do it. So, again, thinking in dualities becomes disruptive. Of course, I can turn cooking info a “meaningful” activity, focussing my attention on it and developing my skills, but then cleaning the toilet becomes a “stupid” activity. I retaliate by focussing my attention on cleaning the toilet, focussing my attention, enjoying the process, so it becomes meaningful, but in the end, I have spent so much energy on focussing and re-thinking that I become exhausted and then frustration comes along and the inner critic pops out: “see, you are not doing enough”. This is an example of an incessant mental activity, the phenomenon of living in our heads. Again, the duality of growth and stagnation is giving me a hard time.
I’m turning to the Eastern wisdom, to the concept of emptiness, where the meaning is absent and present at the same time, “we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed”13. I am turning to the breath. As Alan Watts said in one of his talks, when we breathe in and cling to it, trying to hold it, we will only lose it, but when we let go and exhale, there is space again for a new breath to come. In this letting go I feel a possibility of letting go of the dualism, to work and grow, to cook, eat supper and clean the toilet without attaching a particular meaning to it. Because the meaning is a fleeting thing and our language is dualistic, it is better sometimes just to be silent. When there is silence, a possibility for sound arises. When we let go of the inhalation and exhale, there comes the space and possibility for a new inhalation. When there is space, a possibility for movement comes in. When we move, things start to happen.
If I consciously try to imbue my art with these ideas, will it make it brilliant? If I tell you that my work is about emptiness, will it make you love it? If you love my work, will I feel successful? I have no control over so many things, but what I can do is keep flowing: explore my materials, move and let my hands speak. I can speak the language of body awareness, work with my hands with the energy of matter into the space of resonance where possibilities are able to arise.
1. Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination
2. Check out the modern interpretation of the meaning of Yin and Yang on TED ED: https://ed.ted.com/lessons/the-hidden-meanings-of-yin-and-yang-john-bellaimey
3. Luce Irigaray, Between East and West
4. Luce Irigaray, Between East and West
5. Luce Irigaray, Between East and West
6. The Cambridge Dictionary defines language as “a system of communication consisting of sounds, words, and grammar, or the system of communication used by people in a particular country or type of work”.
7. Luce Irigaray, Between East and West
8. Luce Irigaray, Between East and West
10. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, chapter 5
11. Kenya Hara, Designing Design
12. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience
13. Shinryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind