Time to write again. After nearly five months silence, I’ve decided to type my way into action again. I hit a road block, a creative block so massive that it just wouldn’t budge. I tried to walk around it, but it was the size of an iceberg and kept drifting into my path. Every time I tried to make something, the result was ridiculous. Every time I tried to write, the words made no sense. My brain was tired, my body was tired, and I thought this was the end of my artistic practice. No one like an artist to be melodramatic, eh?!
Weighted down by yet another day of painful tiredness, today I made some sort of breakthrough. A pinprick in a very dark cloth. I had decided that, no matter what happened, today I would sit down and do something. Even if that something turned out as hopeless as everything else I’d laid hands on in the past few months. I would soldier through it.
After two days working in the library, I was looking forward to my days off. But, as usual, the mental exhaustion of a day job got the better of me and this morning I couldn’t get out of bed. I woke at 7, fell back into a deep sleep till 9, then agin till 9.30. I stumbled out to get some tea then back again lying almost immobilised staring at the pages of a book on Eva Hesse, snoozing intermittently till 11.30. Reluctant, I got up as the postman buzzed the door. What is this relentless exhaustion? The boredom of serving other people, watching other people create, waiting for a shift to end, wanting to make art, not knowing how, thinking if it continues you may as well get a full time job. Ah, the artist’s block. A first world problem to be sure.
I read somewhere that no one should wait around for inspiration to come. Like everyone else, you should go to work at 9 and do anything regardless of whether or not you’re feeling inspired. On the other hand, Christian Boltanski spends most of his time thinking, doing nothing, staring into space, and telling his students to do the same. When the idea is right, you can make the work in 10 minutes, he says. Today I took both approaches.
I started out by thinking and then thinking some more. In the space of that time, I came up with a number of interesting ideas, which when I tried them out in practice were absolutely ridiculous. It’s like that with dreams, too. When you’re in the middle of one, it seems completely realistic and plausible, until you wake up and try to describe it to someone. Then you realise it’s complete nonsense. I won’t try to explain what I did today or why. Suffice to say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
My former tutor always told me to stop researching and do some actual work. Research will only get you so far, he said. I agree to a certain extent. But if you don’t know at all what to do, looking at what other people have done, or helping someone else to make something, actually isn’t the worst thing. At least it feels like work. So I organised the inspiration I had printed out, browsed some more websites, and took another look at an artist a colleague had mentioned yesterday. What I found was that something triggered. In all my attempts at forcing work, I had been producing silly, sentimental, sad work. Work that was going nowhere. But today I realised something. Part of what upsets my process is the pursuit of success and perfection.
Let me explain. The work I looked up actually wasn’t directly related to what I was interested in. I had heard of the artist, and the award she had won, but knew nothing of the work. So out of general interest, I googled her. She is a Spanish artist living in the UK and working with image and text. I was reading her text-based work and realised it was full of mistakes. Being a bit of a grammar nazi, I found myself frowning, annoyed that she hadn’t let a native speaker do a spell check. But as I continued to read, I realised that the so-called mistakes were possibly meant to be part of the work. In fact, without them the texts would perhaps have been a bit bland or at the very least not as captivating as they were. A lot of them were about displacement and living in an unfamiliar environment. So of course the emphasis on the awkwardness of the sentence structure, or the odd use of words, lent a particular authenticity to the work, and I found myself wanting to read more and smiling as I read on.
Now here’s the rub. I realised while I was reading that this reminded me of the poems my Dad wrote as a young man, which my cousin had tried to translate from Dutch into English for me as best she could. She said they often didn’t make sense, or contained non-existent words. As English is not her first language, the poems also came out a little disjointed and odd. At the time, I remember being incredibly disappointed. I had wanted my Dad to be a great poet. I had wanted to discover that he had written profound and meaningful poems that would change my life and give me access to his inner world – and to him. My desire to know more about him is only intensified by the fact that I lost touch with him for 15 years prior to his death, and never had a relationship with him as an adult. The book of poems is one of the few things I have left of him. So I obviously wanted it to be the key that unlocked all the secrets about him I never got to know. Instead, it turned out that the poems were just as jumbled and disjointed as the information I already had. My attempts to understand who he was will always be dead ends. At the end of the day, we can never fully know another human being, not even our parents. People are enigmas: fragmented, inconsistent, impossible to pin down, lost in translation, imperfect. And then it hit me. My struggle to fence him in, to put his poetry and photography and personality in a box to dissect and display, were shot down. The imperfection of his poetry, his photography, and his life, perfectly mirrored the imperfection of my failed attempt to understand and translate and curate them. The harder I tried to decipher him the less I understood, the further away he slipped. However, the disjointed poems that evolved from my cousin’s, my own and web-based translations were a metaphor for the impossibility of telling a complete and true story about someone, the difficulty of expressing our innermost thoughts in coherent sentences and the problem of being lost in translation.
When I realised that the crux of my block is the pursuit of perfection, I began to see that the outside your comfort zone really is where the magic happens. I recently watched a documentary about the artist Kiki Smith. She mentioned how she isn’t really good at anything. That what she enjoys is the struggle to make something and the joy in getting it almost right. I also was reminded of the artist girlfriend of a former colleague who makes work about being dyslexic. Instead of trying to be perfect, she embraces her inability to spell things the “correct” way and just spells them the way she hears and thinks them. If she didn’t work like this, she probably wouldn’t be making work at all. Instead, she’s prolific and renowned! I suppose it’s like the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, flawed beauty. By embracing imperfection, we come to realise that nothing lasts and that everything is already perfect just as it is. I may not be able to turn my father into the perfect poet, but then there are no perfect poets, no perfect fathers. My father was a flawed parent, and I am a flawed daughter. I’m lazy, I can’t speak Dutch fluently, I don’t always use the correct grammar or sentence structure, I tend to repeat myself, and to talk too loudly. Sometimes I like to watch bad TV shows. I don’t have a pitch perfect voice, or the best songwriting skills. I have stage fright but love to sing. I want to be a great artist, but sometime that involves pathetic and failed attempts. My need to do things perfectly or not at all is the material that has coagulated into the big boulder obstructing my creative path. If I could kick it a bit, in an odd way, it may crumble and eventually let me through.