Seeing the Light

One of the things I most missed during lockdown was immersion in the arts. Like reading – galleries, sculpture parks, theatre and music all provide fertile ground for inspiration. Art helps us to see the world through different lenses, challenge our perspective on the world and transports us to different places. I have been to four exhibitions in recent weeks and feel creatively refreshed by the experiences.

Looking Glass at Tarrawarra Museum of Modern Art bought together two contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists – Waanyi artist, Judy Watson and Kokatha and Nukunu artist, Yvonne Scarce. The exhibition was a tribute to, and a lament for country. It reflected Aboriginal history from colonial massacres to Stolen Gernations, climate change and the impact of the Maralinga bomb tests.

Flesh after Fifty explored stereotypes of ageing and celebrated the older female form through photos, painting and sculpture. We are so accustomed to the memorialisation of youth and cajoled into drinking from its fountain at any cost through the media. Older women often talk about being ‘invisible’ and ‘overlooked’, and they do, with a few exceptions, for all intents and purposes ‘disappear’ from public view once their bodies start to wrinkle and sag.

To me, in many ways older people have always been beautiful. I see the lines etched on their faces and bodies as stories. Their creases and scars mark the life that has been lived – a rich source of story and inspiration if you take the time to explore them. It was a refreshing balm to go to a show that celebrated the diversity of the older woman’s form, challenging negative stereotypes of ageing.

One day I got lost in the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial exhibition. A celebration of the porosity and cross disciplinary influences of the creative arts. It was an awe inspiring, challenging visual feast, and at times a little nerve wracking when I found myself caught in the buildings maze unable to find my way out without help from the concierge.

My final drink from the creative fountain was Lisa Sewards Short Stories, an exhibition of printmaking and painting inspired from contemporary Australian short stories Lisa read during lockdown. The exhibition was held at Fortyfive Downstairs, a great art space off Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

I climbed down the steep wooden staircase into the bowls of the building to the gallery and found myself alone. Having time to peruse the stunning etchings and paintings brimming with emotion somehow made the experience much more intense.

The stories that inspired the works included A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop; The Flight of Birds: A Novel in Twelve Short Stories by Joshua Lobb; Nova (a raw manuscript) by Laurie Steed. My personal favourite, because it drew so strongly on emotion (and includes a dog), was The Edge of Tears inspired by Bec Yule’s unpublished Dog walking in the time of Corona, with apologies to Gabriell Garcia Marquez.

It was such a privilege to be able to go back out into the world and fill my creative cup from the inspiration of others. I encourage you to get out and support the artistic community who were hit so hard by lockdown and yet kept on creating. We need artists and their works to help us think critically, connect with the world around us in new ways, and nourish our cultural lives.

Main image: Melbourne Laneway

Book review: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

I have a longstanding interest in the relationship between creativity and mental health. Creating art allows us to disconnect from stress, express inner thoughts and feelings, and often to enter that beautiful meditative state of ‘flow’. As a writer, I find the act of writing soothing.

I was fascinated to discover and read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City recently. The book investigates creativity as an antidote to loneliness, a largely taboo subject about the feeling that arises when we become distressed by the perceived gap between our desire for social connection and our actual experience of it.

Laing found herself alone in New York after the relationship that drew her there from Britain ended abruptly. She set out to investigate the state of loneliness, state that society finds difficult, through works of art that arose out of that state, and to record her own journey to master being alone.

Laing’s main subjects were: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the American realist painter and print maker who captured the loneliness and alienation of modern life in his work; Andy Warhol (1928-1987) a leading figure in the visual art movement; David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) the Polish American painter, photographer, writer, filmmaker, performance artist, songwriter/recording artist and AIDS activist; and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the isolated American janitor who was posthumously recognised for his writing and art, including collages, and drawings, and 15,000 pages of handwritten prose.

images from web

Each artist was studied by Laing to create what she called a ‘map of loneliness’. Hopper’s Nighthawks is used to explore the spacial dynamics of loneliness with its characters trapped in an iceberg of greenish glass. Warhol’s machine-like aesthetic and the way he mediated intimacy via his tape recorder and camera explores the social strategies used to bridge a sense of strangeness and ‘not belonging’. Wojnarowicz provides a case study of the politics of loneliness and what happens when society excludes people from its ranks. Darger’s extreme isolation throughout his life presents a psychological case study of the condition of loneliness.

The setting of the work in New York city is demonstrative of the fact that being alone and loneliness are not the same thing. Loneliness is a condition that arises from within, an uncomfortable feeling that for some becomes unbearable. Some, like Warhol surround themselves with people but still feel a deep sense of loneliness, whilst others spend significant amounts of time alone without experiencing the condition of loneliness.

Laing explores the gendered nature of loneliness reflecting on Valerie Solanas (who shot Warhol), Greta Garbo and her paparazzo stalker, Ted Leyson, and Laing’s own forays into online dating.

The Lonely City is part biography, part memoir and part cultural criticism about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together. It is a broad ranging meditation on sexuality, mortality, loneliness, and the possibilities of art as an antidote. A fascinating read (or listen – I bought the audio book).