Mortality and ‘my part’ in it

Jac Saorsa, Artist in Residence //

I am delighted to return for a second year as Artist in Residence for Synapsis and for my first post I would like to offer an extract from my PhD creative writing thesis, which is ongoing and is entitled Awakening Monsters: An exploration of the experience of mortality through creative practice. The project constitutes primarily a self-reflexive and philosophically oriented hybrid text, which includes both conventional language—in the form of a fractured narrative—and visual imagery. This extract explores the creative process of developing an oil painting over time. The images here are ‘details’ of the larger painting, which, in the original, measures 10 x 4 feet.

I welcome any comments, especially as this is the first time I have put any images of this painting out into the world.

Over the past eight years, during which life stepped sometimes lightly, sometimes roughshod over my dreams, I have made, intermittently, much of a very large oil painting that began as a response to various old photographic images of nineteenth century cadaveric dissections. The painting has hung stoically on the wall of my studio, while I have rived its surface with a multitude of false starts, changes of mind, different directions, exultant completions, and harried beginnings; all to render it understandable, ‘readable,’ even if not to others, at least to me. Over time, it has indeed become readable, but uncomfortably so. It has become too intimate in its relation to me, too limpid in its dialogue, and so, recently, I had to change things, add things, just to absolve myself of the responsibility of making things clear. I painted in a structure of curved iron, impastoed, scraped rust over the solid metal angles with a palette knife, and added green viridian slime, brought into growth with a series of oily glazes.

I painted a doctor with dark eyes peering from the skeletal orbits of a plague mask and the pale face of a child with an expression of  innocence that is yet, strangely unnerving.

And then, having given myself the freedom, I stepped beyond the painting, leaving behind once and for all the spaces that reverberated with the known, the spaces that had become claustrophobic and within which I could no longer breathe. And I entered a strange territory, an ambiguous landscape where the familiar and the unknown alternate in perpetuity, where horizons shift and where I have found that to understand something is to misunderstand everything. This is a world where the very language I am obliged to use loses any sense of conventionality and becomes mystifying, self-contradictory; where meaning becomes elusive, caught up between sense and non-sense and reduced to a stuttering, stammering gabble wherein, somewhere, anywhere, I might seek truth. But I cannot find it. Still. I am wandering now through a labyrinth of  multiple meanings in which the mind continues its search without any hope of a possible truth.(1) I am trying to find a semblance of myself, still seeking something corporeal within the chaos and formlessness of experience, even despite the clear contradiction.

I said, ‘You many remember. I told you before that I had to change things, add things, just to absolve myself of the responsibility of making things clear. I painted here this structure of curved iron, impastoed, and with rust scraped over it with a palette knife. Here, green viridian slime, growing through a series of oil glazes. And then I painted this doctor in a plague mask. His was a normal face at first, the face of a student, but things changed for me. And this, the pale face of a child. I added it into the original composition with an expression of innocence that I wanted to be, at the same time, unnerving. I added it. I don’t really know why but I … I somehow had to.’

He said, ‘Yes I do remember, vividly. And here we are again. You changed things, added things and you are still painting but you obsess over the central character. He keeps changing, over and over again, he changes. His face has lost and gained its youthful bloom so many times that it has become old, grey. The paint is layered and layered over it so much that you have even had to take sandpaper to it, just to give its slickened surface an edge. And an edge for what? Even more paint! Why can’t you finish it? Why can’t you be satisfied? Who is it – what is it – that you think you are painting?

That was how it started. Deleuze, slouching on the old sofa under the window in my studio, waving his arms about as he berates me. Me standing self-consciously in front of the canvas, all ten feet of it balanced precariously across two easels, and wondering why I could not answer. ‘Why?’ he asked again. ‘And look, the other paintings.’ Here his sweeping arm described a dramatic arc that seemed to encompass the whole room while bringing to uncomfortable attention several other canvases, all in various stages of completion, that were hanging, silently and almost accusingly, on the walls.  ‘Look! No progress! Nothing but a compulsive return. And that character … who is it?’

‘Well it is nobody in particular – it’s … .’

‘No! No! It is not someone you can push away so easily. Not one of your “constructs,” your respectful combinations of experience … No, it is someone we both know well.’

That was how it started. He pushed me into a place where I felt trapped, confused, hounded—although I could never see by what—into a place where the ground was uneven and opened up in front of me at every step even as I was constantly circling an idea that refused to take credible form. Even as I felt as if I wanted to give up on it, on myself, and, like Blanchot, the truth was that for a long time now I had felt that I was at the end of my strength.(2)

‘But you’re not,’ he pointed out and, about this, I had to admit he was right. For my part, I was not. But the thought that I did not have ‘my part’ in mind made it a bitter consolation.

The painting is still a work in progress …

(1) Maurice Blanchot, From Dread to Language (2) Maurice Blanchot, The One Who Stands Apart From Me

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