Internal / External - Reflections on Poetry, Beauty & Mystical Experience

In the spring of 2017, was at a crisis point with a project I’d been pursuing for several years. The work — concerning the story of Mary Anning, one of the most significant and undercelebrated field palaeontologists and fossil collectors to ever live — had spent three years being developed as a fairly straight body of documentary photography. However, influenced by new works I had been looking at, such as Sanna Kannisto’s ‘fieldwork’, Richard Misrach’s ‘Pictures of Paintings’ and the photographies of Ester Vonplon and Awoiska Van Der Molen, I had begun to take a different approach; drifting from objective documentation by moving the camera closer to museum specimens and the landscape in which they were found to reflect Anning’s close relationship with her work. By effectively abstracting the fossils on an information level, I was allowing myself to be a little more poetic with the storytelling.

As I moved into unfamiliar territory, I felt I needed to confront the theoretical problems this raised for me personally. The inward-looking nature of ‘poetic work often forgoes the need to communicate any collective meaning in favour of attempting to articulate emotion or individual sense experience. And for me a piece of art should intend to be socially useful [1] rather than veering off into incomprehensible subjectivism in the hope it will be associated with works of ‘genius’.

Art historians have often spoken of the ‘god given genius[2]’ of certain individuals that have produced historical works of art. Works made under these conditions become ‘religious’ artefacts — something to be revered — rather than understood as reflections on a shared reality to instigate dialogue and debate. Divinity is beyond reproach, so becomes statement of fact — art which cannot be debated because of its inherent divinity (or because it is intimidating, incomprehensible, esoteric or ideologically bound to power) produces no social or collective value and re-enforces the hierarchical organisation of society that the work I was making was supposed to challenege.

The ‘hero artist’ becomes arbiter of cultural production. It is undemocratic and regressive. Alarm bells were ringing, so I looked to the works that were influencing me to try and work through my anxieties.

When I look at the work of Awoiska Van der Molen, I am reminded of the beginnings of photography and the fundamentals of the photographic process. The simple act of recording light reflected from the sun onto the surfaces of objects otherwise lost in darkness. I am reminded of the pioneers of photography, contemporaries of Mary Anning, fussing over their elaborate experiments with mercury and silver on the very same days as she was sweeping the beach at Lyme Regis. 

Van der Molen’s photographs are visually seductive, but do responses to individual sense experience of the landscape offer anything socially valuable or do they just reflect the ego of the artist? The photographs are both bleak and beautiful and this is understood, I would argue, culturally rather than instinctively [3].

With no information about the landscape and no offering of meaning on the level of objective knowledge, Sequester & Blanco, two books I own and look at frequently, are all about the internal, externalised. Subjective description and the attempted articulation of a quasi-mystical experience. But this isn’t to say that these cannot be socially useful if framed correctly and made for the right reasons.

Walter Stace argued that mystical experiences are ‘ineffable and nonceptualizable[4]’. In the context of art creation this statement challenges the value or purpose of the works of many including Van der Molen and others such as the abstract expressionists whose mark making emanated from trance like states[5]. Whilst this problematizes the reliability of resulting artefacts it could be argued that it doesn’t discredit their value; Stace continues to say that ‘we cannot reject sense experience as a source of knowledge[6] he goes on to reference Bertrand Russell who despite rejecting any possibility of objective truth being linked to mystical experiences does argue it creates ‘fine and noble emotional attitudes towards the truths which have been discovered by the logical and scientific intellect’.

Perhaps then, such works help us be better prepared for the harsh empirical truths of the world around us. We look for beauty, poetry, the sublime — or whatever you want to call it — where it doesn’t exist because it makes life more tolerable[7]

I cannot deny that in this body of work I have made images which could be described as poetic, romanticised visions of Anning’s relationship with the fossils. But it is to the intentions of the project that I must look to reassure myself that this work is not a pointless self-indulgent exercise in picture making and that it is engaged in various debates about class, gender, science and the gathering of knowledge.

[1] Of course, this is difficult to define. How can art be socially useful? My arguments continue here around the nature of creating dialogue and debate in order to ‘activate’ people critically and dialectically. As a consequence, art must be accessible. Barriers to this, I would argue can be the use of esoteric terms and languages, including visual languages not commonly used outside of the academic and arts worlds. Other barriers, more pertinent to my argument here are those articulations of the inner state of the individual, which can be esoteric in their lack of being a shared social experience. A more articulate description of this, from Tania Bruguera’s ‘Reflexions on Useful Art’

[2] Terms such as this can be translated for political uses from the religious. If there is a difference.

[3] That beauty is understood culturally (I;e collectively) is an unavoidable truth unless you’re inclined to believe that there is something pre-programmed within us to read certain signals. This in turn means that ideas of beauty are negotiable and fluid and makes the notion that beauty can (or should) be recognized instinctively a form of cultural imperialism and should be treated with the suspicion.

[4] Richard M. Gale. “Mysticism and Philosophy” The Journal of Philosophy [online] Vol. 57, №14, pages 471–481 [accessed 30–03–2018], 471.

[5] Melvyn Bragg, Portrait of an Artist: Jackson Pollock (1987).

[6] Walter T. Stace, Mysticism & Philosophy (London: Macmillan and Company, 1960), 14.

[7] This could all tie in around Marx’s ideas about the importance of the development of the individual — ‘the full and free development of the individual forms the ruling principle’ — as being key to the transformation of society. However, it does presuppose a classless society, which makes the pursuit of individual and creative freedom in our current socio-economic milieu problematic.