Sunday, 30 March 2014

The extraordinary value of ordinary days

Tonight, when your loved one(s) will ask you, 'What  did you do today?', you will probably answer, 'Nothing much,' or 'I bought a T-shirt.' But, by telling this very thin story, you are discarding the wonderful magic of ordinary things, you are not acknowledging that, at every given moment, you are thinking and feeling thousands of thoughts and emotions. So let's see if we can tell a better, and more realistic, story, when someone asks us what we have done today. As an example, I will tell you a summary of about an hour of my day. Here goes the story of a very ordinary day.
    On the way to the tube, I saw a blue Fiat 500 parked on the street. A modern one, it shouldn't even be called a 500. But I noticed a pair of eyeglasses on the dashboard. Heavy turtle rims. They could have belonged to the 60s and 70s, when there were real Fiat 500s that my friends drove in a very bumpy jaggedly fashion. Because they had to do that funny dance with clutch and accelerator, called double-declutching. La doppietta, in Italian. La doppietta is also a double-barrelled shotgun. The one Elmer used to hunt the great Bugs Bunny, the coolest guy in the world, who was totally unfazed by this guy trying to kill him. I bought my husband a book about Bugs, 50 Years and Only One Grey Hare, for his birthday, a while ago. Unfortunately it was a library copy, very grotty and with those sticky protective covers. Bugs is great and I have an original cell painting of him sitting in a cinema. Before digital, every frame of an animated film was painted by hand. By an artist called... a cell painter. The colour had to be laid completely flat and smooth. A friend of mine caught the tail end of this now deceased profession. She wasn't too impressed with the job, but I was.
    I had by now reached the station and boarded the train. I glanced at a young woman wearing bright red tights. Coloured tights have been fashionable before, I am sure, in the 70s. I am almost certain I bought a pair of red tights as a young girl and felt the special excitement of new unworn clothes. I also had ribbed woollen tights as a kid. Another memory now appeared, of me walking down the stairs of a hotel in the mountains. It was the last day of our school trip and we had to dress up for dinner. I had woollen tights and a woollen jersey dress. While I was walking down the stairs of the hotel, blushing from shyness and allergy to wool, the thought suddenly occurred to me that soon, very soon, this moment I was living would be a distant memory. I had a similar thought three years later, while I was waiting for a friend near some steps (time must be step related) to go and see Easy Rider. The friend never turned up. I waited for almost an hour, thinking, One day this will be a very distant memory. And so right I was. This second event would not happen today with mobile phones. Had I had one then, I would have not waited, and I would have missed an opportunity to understand the healing power of time. These two episodes are so engraved in my memory, I am sure they will still be there when all other memories will have faded.
   By this time I had reached the store I was going to, and, serendipitously, found a Bugs Bunny T-shirt. The guy at the cashier was in his late 20s, intellectual Buddy Holly type, with a French accent. He said, 'Ah, Bugs Bunny, he's from my generation, he was my hero as a kid.' 'Your generation?' I enquired amused, and told him about my cell painting, the lost art of film animation, and the healing power of time.
   So, what did I do today? Nothing much, I just bought a T-shirt.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

On saving the past

We are the product of belief, I believe. Belief that we count, that we belong, that there's a place we call home. Traditions keep that belief alive, they feed it, renew it. Family makes you feel part of a cycle of life, friends make you remember that you were always, fundamentally, the same, that the passing of time, the accumulation of experience you really didn't want to experience in the first place, have not damaged your unity. So, stay at home, never travel, never leave the circle, never doubt, never put yourself to the test, never see a bigger picture. Stay there. Of course, if you did, you'd probably wonder what it's out there and whether you should be out there too. I personally met two people who had never left their town, one was from Genoa, the other from London, but I know there are many more, for how absurd it might seem. Now, I think that these two people I met saw the passing of time in the most gentle of fashions, because everything was slowly replaced, brick by brick, with other bricks that still belonged. On the other hand, when you do leave the circle, when the explorer in you wants to see what this wonderful, mysterious, world has to offer, you also step out of the comfort of tradition. Of course, you could find a network of supporters and you could go back into the circle often enough to give it the illusion of being still intact. Keep the belief alive that you are Marco Polo, but when you come back after twenty years, you've actually come back, the circle closes again, and that's it. Perfectly safe (apart from going to jail for 20 years, of course). There might be a case, though, in which the circle is not there anymore, or, at any rate, your belief in the circle. In other words, when you cannot go back, when the comforting belief dies that you are only in Space for a given time and that your rocket will take you back to Earth. Perhaps it's because you've turned slightly green and grown small antennas. Perhaps it's because for how hard you search your pocket, that small stone with your details carved in, has disappeared. Or, more simply, your motherworld, Earth if you like, has gone. In other words, the continuity is shattered. Forever. What happens then? There is no certainty at first, just hunger for pegs, to keep you pegged to something. Then your mind starts rebuilding, and you observe it at work (who are you if you can own your mind? But this is for another post). It starts recreating the same puzzle, when it can't find a piece, it replaces it with something similar. Similar in smells, memory, size, colours, texture. If you ever lose your world, I suggest you go for long walks, picking up small sticks, taking random photographs or sketches, touching brick walls, sitting on all the benches you can find, facing North, South, East, whatever. Sieve what is yours from what is alien, by asking yourself every time if it belongs or if it doesn't. If it feels like home or not. The puzzle will slowly form, all the pieces will eventually be found. When you start seeing the picture, compare it to your first puzzle. It probably shows a different scenery, but the atmosphere, the flavour, will be the same. Different ingredients with the same taste. Don't ask yourself if all of this is normal. Nothing is.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Journeys & destinations

When I was 21 I was in the production team of a very bizarre radio programme that some of my Italian friends might remember, called "Un certo discorso" (what would a good translation be? "A certain topic", perhaps? It never occurred to me to find out what it really meant). We used to go live on air for an hour and a half everyday. One evening we found out we had nothing ready for the next day, and I volunteered to write the script for the show. I went home and sat in front of my typewriter (as you did), and stared at it intently. I really, really stared at it. Mmmm. Then I put a piece of paper in and started typing. About nothing. About having nothing to say and very little time to say it in, and yet having to drag this nothing to say long enough to cover 1 and 1/2 hours of air time. And I did, I wrote over ten pages about, well, writer's block and having nothing to say, etc. When the show went on air, a few journalists who were listening on their car stereos had a near accident. They could relate to the desperation of blank page/time pressure. Very often it's not that you have nothing to say, but that you don't know how to say it, or you see a problem, you want to write about the solution and not the problem, but the solution is not coming, and then you question whether the problem was formulated right. As I don't dislike talking about nothing, non stories, non event, non ideas, I hardly ever get stuck these days. Yet it's happening today. So, stop driving while you are reading this and help me out. Yes, I shall ask you to solve my problem. Here it is: the saying is that it is the journey that counts, not the destination. But would you start a journey if you knew that the destination was unreachable or disappointing? Let's say that you are an artist and your destination is very simply to be happy with your finished work, which is not happening, and that your journey is an irritating voice in your head saying, "This is wrong, the nose is much shorter, the right eye bigger, the building straighter, oh no, it doesn't look anything like it. NO, NO, NO!" OK, so if the destination is disappointing and the process so annoying, should an artist continue to work? Here, I am going to help you helping me with some questions to look at, Who chooses the destination? I can set a goal that I am not reaching and yet reach goals that I haven't set. What is the journey? Is it the irritating Leonardo voice shouting at you that you are less skilled at drawing than your fluffy toys? Or the observing? The exciting search for that ever eluding magical art supply? The alluring blank sketchbook that promises to collect the sweetest of memories?
I painfully discovered that I don't like flicking through my sketchbooks and that my Leonardo voice is awfully difficult to switch off. I keep my sketchbooks in a box, but I don't feel any pride looking at it. Am I looking at destinations and journeys in the wrong way? Should I not do art if it doesn't give ME pleasure? But it does give me pleasure, it gives me a dialogue with my surroundings, things to look forward to, and masses of toys to dream a magical world with. Not to mention the friendship with fellow travellers. I guess I envy artists who are happy in the creative process and are proud of their results, but perhaps you've got to accept your pain as part of your artistic self, and say, "So what if I don't like my sketchbooks, so what if Leonardo thinks so poorly of me, there still a lot of good in what I do."

Sunday, 9 March 2014

On digital, repetitions, rosaries and time travel

The first day of spring always saddens me, I see the sun that is a year older, all the cycles of life seem so claustrophobic. I need to break that pattern, regain freedom, grow wings like a butterfly, time travel. I am not sure if my search is serendipitous, or if it is all a big grid of join-the-infinite-dots, where any image can appear and give you the illusion that it is exactly what you were looking for. Anyway, it seems that as soon as I see an obstacle, a solution comes up, an inspiration, a trail of thought that I can continue to tread on, making some kind of progress. Digital, like spring, has an intrinsic sadness. Mainly, I think, because it is disembodied, images on a screen, with no physicality, smell, texture, taste even. This lack of physicality has disenchanted me from photography and digital art. Because when I try to incarnate it into tangible prints, it kind of feels even more wrong. Cheap, or something, unnatural. As I was still exploring Burroughs's photography and collages, I discovered that he saw photography as time travel, a way of breaking the power of the grid, the control that they (whoever they are) have over us. Break the pattern. I started printing my photos and breaking the anonymity by painting them, ripping them, sticking them down with tape, overcoming the coldness of digital. And then, like a miracle, I went to a lecture by the German artist Thomas Bayrle. I took notes. He hates digital. I took bad notes, but here they are:
"The digital grid is boring to the eye... Our souls can perceive thousands of dots... Pixel is boring and it asks for more images... Our mind is bored in a nanosecond... The rosary is important, the boredom of the repetition. The rosary... rhythm... machine. Rhythm, repetition, rhythm... Dive into another area and see what comes out... I don't want to have an overview. I am always in the detail." And there was my answer, the freedom is in the detail, in mindfully following the repetition, as if it were new, and different, and see all the nuances, all the variations between cycles. "Everything is different, nothing is the same", concluded Bayrle "And this is God."

Sunday, 2 March 2014

On storytelling

My entire past is made of one carpet, one clock and two folders, a brown one containing writings dating back to my first few years in London, and a yellow one containing whatever I rescued from my Italian life - some documents, a few photos, poems. I was rummaging through these two folders looking for, and finding, typewritten pages to photocopy and cut up for my journal. I miss the typewritten page, with its mistakes, rewritings, and the different strength at which the keys are pressed.
It was interesting to reread all of this stuff. Most of it seemed to be Introductions to novels I never wrote, especially autobiographies. I was under the impression, as most of us are, that you needed a story in order to write, and I couldn't find a story. Not in the usual form of character, problem, conflict, resolution. Nothing in my life has ever taken that shape. So, my frustration was that nothing exciting enough had happened to me to warrant a biographical narration. It would take me virtually up to now to understand that such structure might, or might not, be a requirement for novels, but it certainly isn't for all writings. Poems, for instance, don't need it, and they are, or can be, mostly autobiographical. While reading those fainted pages and discovering a past that I remembered rather differently, I was disappointed that I hadn't written more. Not factual, diary pages, but more meditations, quick panning shots over a time now gone. My pages were full of colour, memories and dreams. I wanted to read more of them, many more, but there weren't anymore because of my ever present fear of pointlessness. Now I am trying to change that, I am writing more, so that all the magical things I live everyday will not be wiped out by a selective memory. I have also come to understand that what counts is the process of creation, not the potential audience, which can be a limiting factor if you attempt to guess what is readable, or understandable, or interesting or, even worse, saleable. Art, and sketching in particular, have taught me that simple, everyday objects can be amazingly interesting if you take the time to observe them. Good photos can also be uneventful, just capturing an atmosphere, a moment, something funny or quirky. Now I carry a notebook with me all the time and I jot down all the un-events as they happen. I imagine characters, and myself, doing nothing at all, just being, and thinking and living, without a clear separation between me and others, reality and fiction. Because, well, nothing happens anyway.