Tibet, Meditation, States of Consciousness and Frank Auerbach

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Yesterday I went to two exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection, London. I wanted to explore the art work reflecting on different states of being (or consciousness) and the connection between Buddhism, meditation and the art of Tibet.

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I was particularly interested in the works connected to sleep and brain activity during sleep. There was one rather frightening piece of film documenting a man who sleeps tied to his bed as he routinely gets up to act out his nightmares in which he is fighting, by attacking his wife. He is, naturally, asleep throughout and therefore decided to tie himself down as the only method of saving his wife from attack. Other works in the exhibition looked at the edges of consciousness in terms of brain injury, hallucinations and, inevitably, death. With lots to consider I scribbled plenty of notes in my sketch book under the exhibition titles: Science and Soul, Sleep and Awake, Language and Memory, Being and Not Being.

The Tibet exhibition was extremely interesting but I feel it was challenging because I have a very limited frame of reference in terms of Buddhism and the art of Tibet. The exhibition was curated in a way which was clearly logical and I was aware that many of the other visitors were commenting on things that they understood from their own experiences or studies of Buddhism. In this sense I felt I was a little left behind, and was looking out for something to cling to. A few yoga poses on the fabric hangings were about as connected as I was able to become based on my own experiences. But I could put personal connections on hold to appreciate the work, the colours, the evident appreciation of the viewers. This is until I approached a room dedicated to ‘dark’ works: intricate murals and sculptures connected to the dark spirits. Immediately my first thought was whether I had brought my son to an exhibition which was entirely inappropriate. My instinct was to turn and walk away: to refuse to subject him to something potentially disturbing. But, as I gazed around to see where he was, I realised that he was already ahead of me. As we exited the exhibition we were both shrugging. 17th century evil spirits don’t seem to come remotely close to 21st century type; even those one finds illustrated in contemporary cartoons such as the Itchy and Scratchy Show (Simpsons). I’m afraid my understanding of the connections with yoga, meditation and mindfulness were lost on me, but then I was unable to grasp much of the art work from Lukhang’s uppermost chamber. I did appreciate the subtle lighting of the exhibition and the images which seemed to approach the spiritual side of the human almost as though it were as tangible as the arm or leg. I liked these images and could see that there is much similarity across ages and cultures wishing to explore the conscious human experience; to identify that which connects us, whether it can be seen or felt or not.

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We then went on to the Tate Britain to see Auerbach’s exhibition. What a remarkable breath of fresh air. The build up of paint operates in an entirely unique and distinguished way, deriving from up to 200 sittings, scraping back the canvas and building the work in deep, dramatic layers.

Auerbach: The end usually happens when ‘I’ve rehearsed the problem again and again, then out of sheer impatience, perhaps I become more reckless or daring or more arbitrary’.

This was exactly the exhibition I needed to see at this stage of the development of my work.  The bravery of the structure of the work, in combination with the language Auerbach uses made me reflect on the relative ‘safety’ of my own work, and that by exploring the materials I am using in a more dramatic and liberated way would be extremely beneficial. I had already started a reworking of a painting I created ten years ago. I will now approach it with a much more adventurous and less literal style, with a limited palette as it progresses.

 

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