I began this week by thinking of the ways that writing my own work leads me back so often to the books I have read and loved over the years. Following this, I selected a few to share on social media. I thought that what they have in common was an exploration of the human condition. That is a phrase, that though it is almost meaningless with careless or sentimental over-use, seems not to have a fresh or as simply understood equivalent that can replace it. So I decided I should at least investigate what I mean when I use it.
There is a sliding scale that takes ordinary human behaviour from the catastrophically bad to the sublimely good. Though each one of us could be considered a connection between them, it is impossible to fully understand the extremes from the position of hovering somewhere up or down the scale that runs seamlessly between.
There is beauty in this stoney land, the arid scree, the spat out insides of the earth frozen in stone, sliding slowly down to the sea, sea that in turn slides all the way to the Sahara. It would not take much of a curve through that sea, an easy tack, to miss Africa and go from dry heat to frozen Antarctic cold. Equator to sun, pole to sun, so small a difference between the two. It is 93 million miles to the sun, this equator to pole difference is a tiny fraction of that great distance, only that of our earth’s radius, a minuscule percentage that marks for most the possible extremes. What other binary flat lines exist on a scale that we cannot really understand; that which we currently experience as ends of a scale in reality denoting only an insignificant, tightly angled section in the middle of the spectrum. Good and evil bounded by our human imagination of heaven and hell. Heavy and light have expressions that expand or crush into oblivion, not knowable with our bodily reckoning. The calibrations made in space dwarf our arm spans and thumbs of measurement. Perhaps it is this intuited, groping recognition of the limited span of our experience that means our stories to explain the inexplicably crazy chance of our being here at all often start with the limitless sky and its perpetrator gods.
Twice the Speed of Dark, Chapter 10
Absurdity becomes a logical mode with which to engage with our grotesque human failures and enchanting victories. We are repellant, glorious, frail, beguiling, weak and marvellous. We are often many of these at once. It is absurd to try to decide where on that line we place ourselves, absurd to claim we belong only at the end that expresses victory, absurder still to place ourselves entirely within the realm of failure.
Though it was this uncomfortable, impossible balance that interested me when working as a visual artist, even then, I found the most cogent examination of this confounded, simultaneous glory and failure best expressed or explained through literature. The tragedies of Shakespeare, the theatre of Beckett, the characters of Achilles, Ozymandias, Antigone, all these are the most successful and thus influential, manifestations of expressing what for me is the central problem of being human. How can we have such potential and yet fail so miserably, so many times?
The built environment informed much of my work as an artist. I was interested in the way it holds traces of the human world that built it and the natural world that eventually leads to its decay and desolation. Not nature as it invented itself but none-the-less the natural process of entropy. Buildings hold information as well as having functions. The study of them gave me a strategy for exploring the human occupation of the world, without engaging necessarily in figurative work. It was a way of exploring human strategies, dreams, mistakes, ideals in a general way, without needing to narrow the gaze to any one individual. When it comes to writing, there is a similar usefulness that exists in the presentation of place, the stage on which the drama is set. I have utilised it in the quote above. It acts for me as an Ozymandian reminder that the stage, even in its most temporary manifestations, will last longer than the players. This has a connection to the aspect of the human condition that implies something without end even in its short-lived sparks, its rotation of players and timeless, universally understood stories.
We make a life of bombastic false promise, dirty happy accident, searing achievement and humble faltering progress. Our ingenuity defies gravity and our baseness anchors us. In a small way, my interest in both visual art and writing explores some of the manifestations of this insolvable, permanent imbalance.