On being the rider and the horse:
A personal piece of writing about writing
I have the privilege of spending a lot of time in exhibitions, as a curator of public programs. Time spent with people in discussion and speculation, on ideas that are at play. This was particularly true during this writing program, which was structured as a collective exercise of experiencing, expressing, analysing and writing within, and alongside the exhibition Eva Rothschild: Kosmos.
Expressing an idea or response to art is always different and my questions often come after, no matter how long I’ve spent with something. Finding an approach to write about an exhibition can be difficult, and sometimes it’s impossible to express ideas or opinions unless I’m forced to. This is why a shrug is an absolutely acceptable response to art. It’s interesting, but just out of reach, but untranslatable to writing.
Something is interesting because of its lack of distinguishing characteristics.1 1. Sianne Ngai, ‘Merely Interesting’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2008, p. 781. link It’s an aesthetic ‘without content’, as Sianne Ngai says, perfectly suited to the radically detached – or ironic ego – as emerged with the modern subject.2 Something interesting is in motion, unsettled. Art writing is not necessarily about argumentation, but it requires a position. 2. ibid, p. 791. For the writer to find the difficult, but required, fixity of intent and commitment to the piece, of making decisions, to write it down. How are we supposed to balance ideas and feelings when writing about art? Ngai challenges the traditional role of criticism based on hierarchies of ideas and feelings; asking us to assess the role of non-descript, feeling-based judgement in criticism’s task of producing knowledge.3 3. ibid, p. 778.
Indeed, we all feel it, everything is part of the picture – the multiple epistemologies that Lucinda Strahan refers to in Permissions.4 4. Lucinda Strahan, ‘Permissions’ in Writing in the Expanded Field, online publication, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2018. Recently, I felt emotionally incompetent, I felt unable to ‘deal’ with someone, precisely because I took it for granted that I would have a natural bond, a suitable response. Perhaps this is what happens with arts writing, especially when you get stuck. The relationship between the art and the writer/curator/historian might be seen as natural – if not for the specialist, for whom would it be natural? – but often it isn’t. Although I love writing, I struggle with it as much as anyone. A scale exists in psychology to evaluate a healthy emotional response called EAZ or Emotional Availability Zones, that range from ‘available’ to ‘problematic/disturbed’ via ‘complicated’ and ‘detached’. While usually used to rate responsiveness between two human beings, I think this is a good way of gauging our relationship to art.
Could this concept extend to the triangle between the art, the writer and the reader? When writing about writing, a lot of writers write about the reader as a sort of negative variable that is haunting. Of course, the reader has to be kept in mind, but the anonymity of the unknown might also be embraced. Mary Capello notes that reading doesn’t create an intimacy or nearness, but a form of distancing. For her, the gap between writer and audience is not only a space for interpretation but for play, for misreading, mis-saying, mishearing; a space to open up new meanings.5 5. Mary Cappello, ‘Heir to Ambiguity’, Interim, vol. 26, no. 1&2, 2008, p. 261. link It acknowledges the multiplicity and potentiality of meaning that distance gives to text (and is quite liberating for me as a non-native English speaker). This is to insist that there is more meaning than what is being written, not less.6 6. ibid, p. 254-255. The process of narrowing it down – and writing – is therefore not a closure.
In the end, as the writer, it doesn’t matter how many interpretations and mis-readings, or re-readings happen from the reader, the difficulty is in finding your own position within a field of writing and sticking with it for a piece. This is why the shrug is a common response to art, because it is an immediate feeling, it is movement – undecided – however important to the experience of art and the process of writing. Finding this fixity and openness relies on trust. On trust between the writer and the text or story. Some would say that writing is like riding a horse; but it’s not about technique, control and practice. 7. Ursula K. Le Guin, Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, Gollancz, London, 2018, p300. Feminist writer Ursula Le Guin says it’s not enough to be a good rider, one needs to be the rider and the horse. This is to trust the writing so far that you become the writing, and the writing is you. It is to ‘trust watchfully, not blindly. Trust flexibly, not rigidly’.7