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Notes

Fear

Reading an interview with Marina Abramovic in the current issue of Art Monthly, I was struck by a comment she made on fear. Specifically she was talking about fear of pain, but then her comment became a general one about fear:

"Dealing with pain is an interesting subject. We are always afraid of pain, of dying, of suffering - the main concerns of human beings, basically. Many artists deal with this theme in different ways. I was always interested in how various ancient peoples worked with this in ceremonies - the ritualisation of inflicting a large amount of pain on their bodies - even to the extent of being clinically dead. The reason for this is not to do with masochism. The reason is very simple: to confront pain by taking this kind of risk in order to liberate yourself from fear and, at the same time, to jump to another state of consciousness. That is a really important thing.
I could never do this in my own private life, but if I stage the situation in front of an audience - and the staged situation is dangerous - I can take energy from the audience and use it to give me strength to go through that experience. So I become like your mirror. If I can do this in my life, you can do it in yours, and through that I liberate myself from fear."

Sometimes, when you come across someone's writing or comments, you achieve a greater clarity through a disavowal of those comments, through a realisation that the very opposite of those comments is what, you suddenly realise, you believe.

So it was when I read the above. The question I suddenly thought was "why would I want to liberate myself from fear?" The next question is of course, what kind of fear does Abramovic mean? Does she mean embarrassment, or the other end of the scale, the fear of death, of dying, or of extreme pain? Does she no longer have any fear of, say, being tortured, or of being trapped for hours under an overturned car, or in a lift stuck in a burning building? I doubt it.

But these fears, for westerners, are remote concerns - freak events or in the realms of the unthinkable. Our fears are mostly milder, mostly self-inflicted. Nevertheless, they are real, and I'm sure necessary. Whilst abject fear may paralyse us, the fear emotion usually helps our glands to release powerful natural stimulants, such as adrenalin, which aid us in our fight for survival. Surviving is what we do best. I also doubt her explanation of pain rituals. She entirely neglects the purification aspect, or the initiation into adulthood (sexualised), or any other reason for rituals involving pain. I don't think I want to lose my fear. Rather than see it as an obstacle to my liberation, or a hindrance in life, I see fear as a tool for survival, an instinctual mechanism perfected over millions of years to aid my fight for life.

Fear is the Enemy, Fear is the Key

The other aspect of the Abramovic article that crystallised my thoughts was clear to me when I combined the two phrases that came to mind on the subject of fear. What a great title for a piece of work, I thought. And the suddenly I realised how important words were to my practice. I have shied from using more than just phrases or individual words in my work for fear of moving too far towards the written, and away from the visual. Now I think this was a mistake. Some of the works I'm happiest with have arisen from meditating on the meaning of the words I'd used in the titles or from words used in the works themselves. I realised I need both to work together - not always, but often. The titles, or the words in the works give meaning and add significance to the works. Sometimes I think of a title, or name for a series of works and the ideas related to it coalesce around that title. I was worried that it may have been because the works weren't strong enough to exist without the words, but words, it seems, are absolutely essential and are not to be avoided, but embraced. This is a great moment for me, coming to this understanding. It allows me to work in groups, or themes, related or not to one another, with individual works connected by their relevance to ideas I have articulated in the words, such as the titles. The words reveal the content of the work to me, and so lead to more work.