Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Light The Lights

Do we stand in our own light wherever we go,
And fight our own shadows forever?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton
"I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see."
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Years ago I knew a photographer who told me one day that she had mounted an exhibit of her pictures at a photography gallery in lower Manhattan, and that they were self portraits. I thought that was intriguing so I went down to see it.

It was a nice big gallery with some beautiful pictures. In one large room there were films and videos. One of the videos consisted of people cavorting around in very active and suggestive ways. But the video screen was very small. I went over to it to see what they were doing and as soon as I stepped up to the screen the image changed to a very lonely scene. I shrugged and walked away, and as soon as I did the original scene returned. So I stepped back and again the video changed to the lonely scene. It seems there was a switch which would change the video whenever anyone came close to the screen.

In another room there was a very large print of a photo taken with a camera obscura. That's a technique in which one frame of film is exposed over a period of time. In this case the film was in a box with a pin point lens using ambient light. And what the artist had done was to set up nine chairs in a row and put a model in each one of them. Every ten minutes, from one end or the other one of the models would get up and leave. At the end of ninety minutes the only model remaining was the one in the center. The resulting photograph showed her, very clearly, and those on either side of her gradually becoming transparent as your eye moved along the surface of the picture.

Finally I found my friend's self portraits. What she had done was to go all over the city on a sunny day and take pictures of her shadow, on the sidewalks, on the grass, up against a wall and so on.

I could have said "Hm" and left the exhibit simply having spent an entertaining two hours. But those three exhibits, the changing videos, the slowly disappearing models and the shadows, all pointed toward the same thing and I had to think about it.

There's an existential carpet there. But is it a magic carpet, does it fly or is it only to sweep confusing hair balls of thinking under. "Cogito ergo sum." I once knew a philosopher who paraphrased that Cartesian axiom by saying, I think therefore I am, I think. Carefully setting under the carpet for today the possibility that I may not exist in the form in which I think I do, is the fact that I am a thinking creature irrefutable evidence that I exist? It can be a fearful thing to face one's own thinking if it is honestly and conscientiously done. Where do my thoughts come from? Are they a product of the passionate love affair between imagination and reason, are they the product of some phylogenic process, are they the intellectual merchandise of some tyrannical brain seeding, are they (heaven forbid) mental weeds which grow out of nature's chaos to fill a vacuum? How many of the thoughts that twirl and bounce around in my head like a bunch of lottery balls can I claim to be my own. The fewer of those there are the more transparent I have become and the earlier I have quit the scene.

What is the reluctance we have for facing the clear light of reality? Is it fear, indifference or ignorance? It doesn't hurt to turn one's attention to ideas and experiences greater than one's own. It shouldn't hurt to explore the open fields and mountain tops of one's own thinking. Why then do we habitually look away from the light and define ourselves by our own shadows when we could let ourselves be defined by the brightness that is hiding in us like a prehistoric creature in a cave?

I grew up in a threadbare family; no father, a difficult and demanding mother, a brother and sister who were a whole decade and more older than I. I suffered a great lack of the feelings and experiences of a family life. Hence I tried to make a family out of whatever theatre company I was with. I tried thinking of them as my fathers and mothers, my sisters and brothers and, eventually, my sons and daughters. Of course it didn't work. They all had families somewhere, and other lives. When I retired it was my destiny to live alone and lonely. But it was also the time to start learning about, understanding and appreciating myself. The party is going on, the games are being played and the crowd may be fun to be with, but you won't find yourself there. You will find yourself in the vast, bright, mysterious, secret and sacred cathedral of your own mind.

DB - The Vagabond