Sunday, October 3, 2010

when there's too much to say...

I got home from the UK almost three weeks ago, and I haven't been able to write anything down in coherent sentences since then. I blamed jet lag for a while, but that excuse is getting a bit old, so I might just write down some partially formed thoughts...

I was in England on Cheryl's oxygen tour. And it really was oxygen for me: it came at a time when I really needed to breathe some fresh air. I can't express how privileged I feel to have been given the time and space to listen, learn and explore with an insightful group of people. Our group spent time observing the role art plays in public spaces and had the opportunity to meet with some incredibly generous artists and thinkers. We spent time in Liverpool, Leeds and London and reflected on the contexts we were visiting by asking:

 "Which spaces leave room for the possibility of transformation?

"What spaces do we find transformative and what do we mean by transformative?"

"Which spaces are invitational and why?"

These questions have complex and multiple answers but I will try to give some personal reflections and examples from some particular places. I think, for me, the most transformative spaces allowed me to experience a different way of knowing. I find safety in thinking with words and mulling ideas over in my mind. For the first part of the trip, I found myself distilling an experience into a single word. Our time at a beautiful sculpture exhibition at the Gloucester cathedral was summarised in my mind as "holy", after sitting with an Antony Gormley piece in the same exhibition I was left with the word "surrender". I was moved by these works, and I was blown away by the quality and the curation and the space. But it wasn't until a week later, when we had been at the Hayward Gallery in London, that I realised the power of a space that can leave you with no words at all.

We were very lucky to be at the Hayward on the last day of the Ernesto Neto exhibition The Edges of the World. Cheryl wrote about the space beautifully on her blog, and I will add some personal thoughts below.

This sentence still sends shivers down my spine: "Be gentle with the edges of the world". The space embodied the word gentle. The installation was immersive and invited experiential knowing. We were allowed to touch, to smell, to live into the space. Everyone changed when they were in this place: people were smiling at strangers. It was only later that I could describe this exhibition using words...Neto's work spilled out of the walls of the gallery and into my world. I felt invited to be my whole self- all of my senses were engaged. The space lingered in me, and encouraged me to think in unfamiliar ways. My body knew that something had changed in me, but it took a while for my body to tell my brain about that shift.

It was only after a day that I started thinking about the violent language we usually use to describe our attempts at pioneering new ways of being. We talk about "cutting edge", "forging ahead", "pushing forward", "breaking new ground". We try to force others into new places...and then we are confused when these violent approaches are not embraced by the people in our worlds. Neto's work shifted something in me, and helped me to acknowledge the violence in my own approach to change. Being in this space, I was able to feel, see, smell, taste and try on a gentler world.

Neto encourages us to:

"...breathe through our pores,
close our eyes to see,
smell to listen,
dance to levitate..."

After four weeks I can still feel the softness of the space, evoke the calm smells, the vibrant colours. It takes a poetic moment to remove us from rhetoric, from cerebral understanding, and to allow a space to transform not just our thought patterns, but to challenge our entire being to live differently.

As I move between strangerhood and welcome
sister and friend,
wife and daughter,
colleague and mentor,
I must not forget the edges of these worlds
I must try to be gentle

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