I have always worked with cameras, mostly as a filmmaker. In this role, I have frequently collaborated with visual artists, performers and writers, and with scholars in a wide range of disciplines. Together, we have explored the recurring themes of identity, belief, power and its abuses, and humankind’s troubled relationship with the rest of nature.
The influence of the visual arts has run through my films as a continuous stream. So it became inevitable that, at some stage, I would commit myself to becoming a visual artist myself. At first, I embraced stillness and silence, in my efforts to refine a visual language that I had been developing both alongside and within my filmmaking. But, over the years, movement and sound have returned, along with an increasing interest with objects defined by space.
My principal tool today is a high-resolution digital camera capable of producing very large prints. What I do now frequently feels to me much more like the act of mark-making than photography. Of course, that could mean many things but, for me, it is essentially about seeking to create an emotional, contemplative experience for the viewer rather than a depiction of the world around us…even though some dimension of the world around us is invariably an essential starting point.
With a nod to Cartier-Bresson, I now address the “indecisive moment”, when layers of time spread and bend and pile on top of each other, often obscuring rather than revealing any potential moment of truth. I explore paradox and contradiction, through evoking continuing processes rather than singular events. Often those processes I hint at are invisible, hidden in darkness.
Those snatches of physics and neuro-science that I can hang on to have confirmed the prejudices of my daily experience: the moment -any moment- is an illusion. By the time our brain and nervous system tell us what we have seen, and what sense it might make to us, it is already well in the past, in the realm of memory. And we all know how unreliable our memory can be. Quite often and experience of the elusive "present" becomes a form of invention, a fabrication, even a justification.
Going with the Flow
The bison on the cave wall, Vermeer’s maid pouring milk from an earthenware jug, the numinous colour fields of Rothko - each holds us with its stillness. Such majestic works invite us to think and feel with a level concentration that can calm, strengthen and inspire us. They can induce a state of meditation. Yet what is the content of these pictures? Motion, Action. Event. Even the grids of Mondrian and Martin have a dynamism of their own And they reach our consciousness at the awesome speed of 299,792,458 metres per second, where they join the unimaginably complex set of motions, actions and events that make up the human body and mind.
Modern science confirms what the Taoists proposed thousands of years ago, in China: nothing is still. The priests, sages and scholar poets called the vibrating energy that flows through all things Ch’i, which translates as breath. The traditions of ancient India, Egypt and Greece had similar concepts, and they used their words for breath in similarly metaphorical ways. The Greek word pneuma can be translated as both breath and soul. Psyche is another word for the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body. Like the Taoists, the Stoic philosophers of Athens believed that pneuma flows through matter, both living and inanimate.
Today quantum and particle physics give us models of the universe that echo the metaphor of Ch'i. Now many of us accept that nothing is stable, nothing certain, nothing fixed. Stability might be an illusion, but under such febrile conditions it can look an increasingly attractive illusion to indulge in, a haven. I have certainly not abandoned stillness in my work, but have been forced to acknowledge that movement through time, beginnings, middles and ends, juxaposition and narrative maintain their grip on me. And, far from being ignored, the tensions between stillness and motion, stasis and change, order and chaos, location and duration, space and time have become for me primary material.
As an organizing principle for my picture-making, I have adopted the universal phenomenon of FLOW, a word that lies at the heart of Taoism. I cannot conceive any form of existence without flow. Continuous, contained, directed movement manifest whenever one looks, thinks or feels, as in the flow of ideas, feelings and time. In his much-quoted commentary on the relationship between ancient philosophies and modern science, The Dao of Physics, Fritjof Capra writes:
The Chinese ... not only believed that flow and change were the essential features of nature, but also that there are constant patterns in these changes, to be observed by man. The sage recognizes these patterns and directs his actions according to them. In this way he becomes “one with the Dao”, living in harmony with nature...
Painting and poetry were the two leading forms of Chinese culture when Taoism was in the ascendancy. Often they were brought together on scrolls, where the calligraphic text -the idea- became an integral part of the visual scheme. Much of this painting and poetry grew out of close observation of the world that surrounded the scholar artists and their patrons, most especially the world in its natural order, uninterrupted by human agency. For Chinese scroll painters theres was not the art of the single perspective landscape painter of the European tradition but an immersive vision in which the artist’s viewpoint shifts through space and time. It is a way of looking that has come to seem completely natural in our own even more fractured, fragmented universe. What is cubism but a response to the atomisation of industrialised, globalised modernity? And what is Romanticism but a cry of anguish in response to the first signs of the processes that were turning all of humankind, and all of nature, into the moving parts of an unstoppable machine?
The logic of our abuse of nature is the existential -possibly terminal- crisis that we all now face. It is slowly, so slowly, dawning on us that, if we continue to break the laws of nature they will eventually break us. Einstein, put it this way:
A human being is part of the whole called by us universe ... We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest.
A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.