It’s important to note, when looking at abstract art, that this kind of work is often depicting something that words are ill-equipped to express. In being human, by definition, there will be things we understand but cannot describe, things we know but cannot teach, and things we do that we cannot explain with words alone.
This is why words and things-we-can-immediately-make-sense-of are not appropriate. They are only one layer of a profoundly complex experience; this experience is often abstract. It is in each of these instances, between the lines, that art acts as a vestibule for otherwise inexpressible meaning. When looking, then, we must accept that words and coherent forms are just two of myriad ways to express meaning in a way that is valuable – and they won’t always be fit for purpose.
The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens (2017) by Yayoi Kusama is something to be understood, known, and experienced; it is not something to be described, taught, or explained. It is something to be felt.
Dots consume the artist and her work – a truly recurrent motif.
They’re a symbol of a life distilled into a singular, obsessive, and repeated form – something is being expressed that perhaps words or sense cannot clarify, something is being reflected beyond our physical appearance alone. In our own worlds, they could be our habits. The invisible actions we involuntarily carry out without checking ourselves, but yet the very things that make us who we are. Whether destructive or not, here, the outcome of the habit is irrelevant. It could be excessive exercise, substance abuse, artistic expression (the last made Yayoi Kusama the richest living female artist, so they’re clearly not all bad). But, the repeated question dotted, perennially, within these behaviours is: what drives our habits?
It is this that often cannot be expressed in words, because it is unconscious.
Each dot serves as a reminder of how beholden we can become to the hands of unconscious habit; were you to stand in the artwork, placing yourself before the mirror, you might feel a little overwhelmed – surrounded by swarming polka dots in a sea of yellow. Such confusion demands you see what lies at the centre of this bewildering experience – you. As we remain unconscious of our habits, so we continue to choose to be at the mercy of them.
Here the artist appears to continually need to purge herself of whatever is causing them, plastering them everywhere and turning what could be suffering, when kept unknown, into something creative, something striking. Her polka dot pumpkins have quite a soothing message, however. While it’s true the repeated unconscious suffering that we undergo is somewhat ever-present – acknowledging it, for now, is enough. It is enough to sit with it, so long as we are observing. For you, that could mean any number of things, such is the beauty of abstract art, it can become what you make of it; so why not use it as a mirror for more than just our physical reflection?
Kusama’s art is an abstract reflection of the patterns that exist within us too. Try to count the dots – and fail (or get bored) – and then map such a pattern onto a behaviour or habit you have. What action or through have you done or had this repeatedly? Something that occurs over and over – too many times to count.
In this meditative space, it is not quite as simple as something like regularly brushing your teeth (a healthy habit). It goes beyond the physical and visible: these are the hidden habits like preoccupying yourself with what you want to say, instead of listening to someone completely, or lying in bed for a little too long each morning because the burden of getting up appears heavier than the light-but-toxic touch of distraction on social media. Perhaps it’s even a pattern only evident over a longer, life-sized period, one where you sabotage relationships because of past childhood trauma – you can’t face the prospect of abandonment/ betrayal/ something entirely unique to you. These things are inexorably tied to what we see in the mirror, though we rarely make an effort to visualise and acknowledge them. Instead, by subtly displaying them on the walls, floor, and ceiling, this abstract work calls for you to feel them.
But, this art is also kind. In its repetitiveness, it is not chastising the viewer into excavating pain from their past, but is encouraging them to notice themselves, beyond their basic humanoid form. It would be more beneficial to see it as merely noticing the patterns that exist within us all – specifically those hidden habits, which we otherwise ignore by virtue of them being invisible – for these are the habits that exist in the cycle of feeling-thought-action repeated time and time again.
Here is an opportunity to notice what’s going on. We can intercept our feelings before they make us think, we can stop the thought before it makes us act, and we can assess our actions before they cement the feeling more deeply.
Of course, this has all been expressed, somewhat paradoxically, though words, so will likely fall short of what such abstract expression is truly exploring. Finding out what it means is, therefore, down to you and what you feel when you next look in the mirror.
It is in times of solitude and prolonged quiet that some of our deepest fears emerge. Our body and mind, in these moments, are working in tandem to push the soul to begin the healing process. Or, as Stephen Cope (psychotherapist and yoga teacher) describes:
‘The “night sea journey” is the journey into the parts of ourselves that are split off, disavowed, unknown, unwanted, cast out, and exiled to the various subterranean worlds of consciousness… The goal of this journey is to reunite us with ourselves. Such a homecoming can be surprisingly painful, even brutal. In order to undertake it we must first agree to exile nothing.’
Frida’s journey into her bath waters, sees her past pains emerge in myriad forms, seemingly turning what should be a relaxing bath into a fear-filled swamp rife with demons.
These moments are surreal, and can even be terrifying should we end up unintentionally looking these demons in the face. ‘Journey’ seems an inappropriate word, considering this trip into the darkness is one we’d often not rather take, one that might more appropriately be entitled ‘rescue mission’. For in these instances we must be saved from ourselves, by ourselves. The more powerfully we resist, in trying to exile our demons and fears, the more vigorously they cling to our reality, distorting both how we see the world and how we subsequently react to it through our behaviours.
Accepting that this journey is happening for you requires a kindness from you to you; it requires a tolerance of occasional, and temporary, discomfort. Such unpleasantness is not an indicator of truth, but is the catalyst through which you must pass to find your truth. Still, the quietude can feel perilous; we are looking squarely at our darkest demons, those that reside in the depths of our minds. They are the pains of the past, longing to be understood, translating themselves into thoughts and images in the only way they know how: fear.
You might imaging an unpleasant scenario, such as being cheated on. This demon does not wish to inspire fear, however, that is not the goal. It wants to be processed and loved as a part of ourselves – even though they may look like the least loveable parts. What this unpleasant waking nightmare is doing is showing us where we hurt: in this case of being fearful of being cheated on – do we feel worthless in some way? Do we give ourselves enough recognition for our innate value? Manifesting as something fearful is a demon’s way of letting you know that they are important; they just may not have learnt yet that this is perhaps not the most effective method of asking for your help; you need each other for guidance.
In this way, our demons are not demons at all. On a literal level, they are thoughts, scenarios, images, and every other form of meaning that can be made by the mind. But, to stretch the metaphor further, our demons are our pain, shrouded in menacing cloaks, and disturbing visages. We reject them for exactly these reasons – because they are scary, showing us things about ourselves we would rather not acknowledge in the hope that this will make them untrue. Consequently, they have no choice but to become something that inspires terror, because it is one of the only things to which we might pay attention. Yet, counterintuitively, we have trained ourselves to view these demons, but still very reasonably, as a threat. Superficially, they are challenging our very sense of self: who we think we currently are and what perceive our world to be. But who you are, and the reality of your world, is exactly what they’re trying to reveal to you.
This is not to say that the demons are who you are, and nor is it to say these visions are what you secretly really think of the world, but cannot yet admit; it is to say that we have become too closely identified with the version of ourselves that is accustomed to living in fear, and it is to say that what they are trying to show us is the world. Once understood, a certain clarity about our own realities can be achieved.
We would also do well to remember that they wouldn’t show themselves if we couldn’t handle them. For when they do arise, we are really presented with a choice: do we distract ourselves by getting out of the bath (by falling into a social media sinkhole, or socialising until the past is fuzzy, distant, and bearable)? Or, do we give ourselves the space and time in the still waters to ask the silence: ‘I recognise you’re trying to help, but it is painful for me; so, can you tell me why you are here?’ In asking that question alone, we reclaim ownership of our pain. We begin to learn to protect ourselves and our demons, rather than blindly allowing the demons to do what they can to protect us. Frida herself acknowledges this process and what it can do for the soul, that is, the process of being a stranger to yourself towards becoming one with what you fear. Of the journey she stated:
‘I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by the decent and good feeling.’
From Frida’s experience, we should take away the understanding that they’ve learnt how to swim because the bastards knew we can handle them all along.
Confronting these demons is not something we naturally know how to do. It is not part of anyone’s schooling, but it can be learnt. At the very least, Frida created her art so we would not be alone as we stumble headlong into a healing, falling gracelessly into a quiet bath time full of our greatest fears. Perhaps finding a way to bathe alongside such disruption is the secret:
Thoughts that evoke discomfort are trying to teach you something
In the quiet of Frida’s bath, the things she loves are entangled with the things she hates. Each polarity therefore can be seen as attached to a displeasure, not peace (as one might expect from such an experience). For instance, the inclusion of succulents and desert plants could symbolise her roots, specifically her Aztec history of which she was overtly proud; however, their placement in the foreground, at the opposite end of her legs to her feet, could indicate a deeper disconnection with being unable to bestow the culture that flowed through her blood to a child, having been rendered incapable of having children after her trolley accident at the age of eighteen. The solace we can take from this image then, begins here: what arises for us, is simply what arises; it should not be judged as positive or negative, but viewed with curiosity. There is no shame in the mirages that appear for you, no matter how they mutate into thinking or imagination. Just remember to ask: what are you here to teach me about myself and my world?
2. There is no such thing as a good or bad thought; demons show you more complex truths
We should not berate ourselves for having thoughts that cause discomfort in ourselves or for thoughts that we might think upset others; they are valid and important. In being tangled with how we feel about the issue, they should be seen as symbolic. What they symbolise, however, will rarely ever be so simple as to indicate that you are a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. Idiosyncratic in their expression, the demons (in thought, feeling, or image form) hav chosen to show themselves in a ways that are interpretable.
For instance, today, Frida depicting the Empire State Building being engulfed in the hellish heat of a volcano might not be the most well received theme for patriotic American audiences. Nonetheless, such a scene is probably not her wishing a hellish end upon anyone. Instead, it is likely representative of her ire at having to bend to the life and work of her husband, Diego Rivera, and move to live in the USA. Sacrificing the comfort and home of Mexico caused a deep resentment in Frida and not unjustly. So, although on the surface, such an image might appear dramatic, and even satanic, it is probably just what her resentment looks like in its rawest form, having been torn from her homeland and forced to stay in a foreign place where the values and customs were somewhat discordant with her own. As such, the USA, more specifically the buildings (maybe due to their connection with Capitalist American’s approach to work) became the cause of her misery and then understandably manifested as the embodiment of her feelings of isolation. being swallowed by a volcano, with some clarity, demonstrates how Frida felt about America and everything for which the Empire State Building stood. For Frida, it was America that stood in the way of freedom.
Demons are never a symbol of who you are in the form in which they arise; deeply understanding them, and only then passing judgement, is a far more effective method of gaining self-knowledge. We would not think Frida a ‘bad’ person for having this thought, despite its apocalyptic appearance. You are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and neither are your thoughts; both are reductive (and actually unhelpful) judgements when trying to find your truth, you are you, and ‘you’ is a far more textured realisation that should feel more like this: ‘Ah – this is what my unique experiences have led me to believe about myself and the world’.
3. When calm, pursue a dialogue with your demons
Already covered is the overarching, ‘what are you here to teach me?’ But, as humans, no single question will suffice; our pain is complex and is often obfuscated by the deep waters of our soul. No single sequence of premeditated questions will lead us to our own realisation or growth; to provide one would be to take away autonomy. The process must be tailored and reflected upon as we go – and you are best placed to do the tailoring. Envisage a difficult conversation you’ve had, however, and you’ll no doubt recall how unsettled it has left you during, and even after. Before any dialogue can begin with your demons, take care to create calm: a valid and clear thought, judgement, or discovery, cannot be drawn from disorder.
Embarking on this perilous mission will result in difficulty and perhaps even mild to intense terror. So it is best you position yourself, physically and mentally, in a space in which you can pendulate into the dialogue and swiftly out of it should it become momentarily unbearable.
First take care of your body. Calmness can be achieved here through yoga (to ground yourself in physical sensations), a leisurely walk (to root yourself in the scenery or your steps), or, for the more sedentary, a bath (which is the obvious choice here, especially if you’ve got some great smells to focus on, or even some warmly flickering candles to stare at, but in the event that you don’t have these things, focussing on the feel of the water can also soothing enough). Taking care that your body is relaxed will prime your mind for calm, regulating your emotional system into a state in which it is safer to discuss difficult topics with yourself.
Second, a brief meditation will sharpen your mind, allowing you to become more capable of observing your mind for what it is: the water that cycles in a river journeying from the sky to the night sea and round again. The river, or journey to the sea, is not shaped by what flows through it, but by the places in which it is allowed to erode. Meditation places strategic levees to make this journey smoother and somewhat less chaotic. The significance of water to this piece could contain yet another meaning; it could also be indicative of the childhood memories many of us may harbour, and the meandering necessary to reach the depths of our diverse childhoods (which might even overlap with memories in the tub). Or, yet another message could be adrift in the water. Frida’s legs are submerged, with only her toes poking out, reflected in the still water; could this represent the stillness she achieved by having this dialogue by using painting as her mode of communication? Her bath seems to show her own reality, her own thoughts, and her own demons, for what they truly represent.
Now, the kinds of questions we ask, whether through internal dialogue or painting, should unpick the thoughts and images that arise; remember they are symbols of the core beliefs we hold. Ask yourself about concepts you have unquestioningly internalised, links between unlikely ideas, probe for similarities to your earliest memories of certain emotions: Why might I imagine plants of my native land when thinking of children? Why is marriage the pinnacle of a relationship to me really? Why is clothing floating in the water, and what does the way I dress mean to me? What does ‘loyalty’ mean to me? Why do my parents appear behind a plant in my mind and hover over my most intimate moments? This memory keeps replaying – what feeling does it evoke – and when was the first time I can recall feeling this way in my life?
Such a conversation, as acknowledged, can be painful and brutal. But it is the first step in promising to exile nothing, to understanding our demons, and to integrating them with heightened awareness into our day-to-day lives. Only then can they become beacons of self-knowledge, rather than unconscious determiners of our beliefs about the world that have been shaping life up until this moment.
We are confronted with a truth in this painting about how pain exists for human beings: The past, when it is still painful and unresolved, will remain an ever-present determiner in shaping our cycle of feeling, thinking, and doing. This cycle becomes how we see and interact with the world, and if left unchecked, we have no choice but to regard the present while bespectacled with lenses that are only fit to allow us to see the world tinted in the shades of our past pain. What we see, what we continue to allow to terrify us, is what becomes our reality. Frida’s words reaffirm the veracity of this phenomenon: ‘They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality’.
So look your ‘demons’ in the face (one at a time, and calmly, so they don’t erupt uncontrollably) when they choose to emerge from dormancy. Invite them into your moments of peace and solitude; they’re here to do more than help you have a relaxing bath. They’re here to help you relax into your future self.
When beholding a toilet enshrined upon a plinth, it might seem unrealistic to think that its role as a very ordinary object could inspire quiet confidence; but, it should.
Duchamp teaches us with this urinal, that it is not what an object is, nor is it what an object looks like, which gives it importance. It is where you dare to put it.
If we apply that to ourselves, we can learn that it is not what or who you are, nor your appearance that will ultimately determine how people see you, but the unreserved way in which you carry these things, that will help the world sit up and pay attention. If you remain thinking, ‘I’m just ordinary, performing a daily routine, unglamorous, but functioning’, then that is all you will allow yourself to become.
Proudly, the piss-pot perches, unashamed of its bog-standard appearance, bold enough to call itself a ‘fountain’ – to call itself important. And it is this confidence that we can emulate; should you not feel your best-self one day, there is a lot to be said here for the old adage: fake it till you make it.
It is not just because it is a urinal that this work is famous; it is because it is a urinal in an art gallery. So, even if you view yourself as a toilet, turn up to that job interview, that party, that date with trust in who you are and the value you hold, and the people who behold you will likely recognise your value – because you’re you.
This work reminds us that all confidence is – is a performance. It is through this performance that people will see your most valuable assets because you have walked in as if they have belonged there this entire time. The emphasis of your worries, therefore, should not rest on what you are (which is, by default uniquely you and more than enough). You should concern yourself instead with who you will boldly present yourself to be. It is this that will affect how people perceive you, and how they perceive your ‘ordinariness’, because you know that it too deserves to be enshrined upon a plinth in a nice space.
Imagine each dot is a moment in your life. Place the first few moments that come to mind on the top line, those that are within closest reach.
What moments come to mind? What are they showing you about your world? If these were the only moments you could show a stranger, what kind of assumptions might they make about your life?
As you begin to move from dot to dot, for as long as is comfortable, you might note which moments feel far away and distant. Which memories would you place in the specs at the bottom.
How strange that, in recalling the moments that preoccupy us the most, we do not always give space to the ones in which we are most content.
The dots are all the same size; we just arrange them as if they aren’t. We choose to give importance to what feels familiar, and therefore what is ‘closer’ to how we view our life to be. Often, this is in place of moments that bring us peace; they might not fit the narrative to which we are most accustomed to living. How strange it is that the mind is wired in this way.
Jaray’s work invites us to observe how we choose to find order in chaos, how we make an illusion of meaning and sense out of life. The painting shows that, where ‘order’ means that with which we are familiar – it can also mean contentedness, depending on our perspective.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, teaches us to be careful of admiring symbols of success. As we see it, success is incredibly impressive; visually striking, this majestic structure erupts from the ground, and basks in the light of the sun, illuminating how we come to idolise ‘success’, without truly seeing what it might entail.
What the pyramid could be seen to symbolise are the superficial, but very human, trappings of success: wealth and power. We are only looking at a final product; we see the golden glitz and glam, without the (at times morally dubious) methods that require blood and sweat. We end up admiring but feeling hopeless, incapable of seeing this success for ourselves and hypnotised by these grandiose symbols, in tears.
We have actually been warned, for around 4,500 years, to bow to this kind of success; perhaps now is the time to rebuild this understanding by:
1. Recognising that the success we see is a finished product (the real work is hidden), and 2. Understanding exactly how the product came to be.
For most people, hopefully, we wouldn’t want to achieve the kind of success we see in this glorious structure, which may have been built through slavery. Even if it wasn’t, alternative and plausible theories suggest this symbol of success is the handiwork of 20,000 workers over 20 years.
True success, for an individual, cannot be defined by its final product, yet the world will dupe you into believing that it should be. Instead, we should recognise the Pyramids for what they are: a version of someone else’s success and power which took extensive teamwork and time.
With this in mind, if we are inspired by anything about the pyramids, it should be the process that led to them. Once attention is on this process we can better shape or evaluate the integrity of the result. We can ensure that we build upon a foundation of fairness, or we can see with clarity that what we have previously admired, was not worth admiring at all. For instance, slavery, worker exploitation, and colonisation have been used as a means to achieve success in many forms, but have left a legacy of pain, suffering, and systematic oppression that laid the foundation for much of the inequality in existence today; these processes were not imbued with good intentions.
In the same way, we can apply this thinking to individual, even our own, paths to success: How are we going about achieving success? What values drive it? Are we working in alignment with our own, or someone else’s ideal? If it is the latter, is what they’ve achieved underpinned by the same values as our own, or something that prioritises the end products of wealth and power over the beneficial effects of the process?
The brutal realities of these processes, and paths to wealth and power, are clouded by our preoccupation with the final result. It looks impressive – surely that is all that matters? Does it matter how it came to be when what now exists appears to be so phenomenal? Yes, the methods weren’t well intentioned, but now are we not ‘better positioned’ to go ‘good’? Such questions are precisely why something like this great pyramid can be so dangerous – what it has truly taken to achieve success is unclear, it is hidden.
We should remember our own power to reconstruct what success is for ourselves. What we see before us is unlikely the kind of success that will leave us feeling fulfilled- that will leave us wealthy; imagine if the essence of success lay entirely in how something was achieved and not in what the final product might look like. The potential for creative and beneficial change that becomes possible could be infinite – even when it seems at odds with how a wonder of the world came to exist.
Have you ever felt this way? It is as if time has ceased to act as a barrier to the barrage of memories, thoughts, and moments that flood your mind. Perhaps it’s so paralysing, you don’t know what decision to make next; perhaps you’re so saturated by anxiety that the film between what is real and what is imagined has been eroded almost completely. With each scene that unfolds, before the previous one has even come to an end, it can feel impossible to escape.
An uncomfortable truth is that no matter which staircase you decide to go down, you have chosen this route. You will always end up in the same place: you can’t outthink over-thinking by thinking. Escher captures this essence in his etching, the aptly named, Relativity, from M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion.
Why apt? Thinking can only offer us a reality that is defined in relation to what it is possible to think, in relation to thoughts we’ve already had. When we think, each thought is attached to what we already know the world to be – be it the dinner with the family, the storming off to our room in an argument with a lover, the carrying a heavy shopping bag up the stairs, or peering down over the balustrade, craning to hear what your parents are arguing about. Each of these events are things we already know; to be free of them we must be free of our current way of seeing the world. The solution cannot, at least at first, be found in thought.
The reality Escher creates for us, reminds us that with great thinking comes great responsibility. We are the architects of each step in our future. But by using thought alone, we become walled-in by using our reality to climb out of our reality. And, the dynamism of your thinking, nor your thinking prowess, will be able to free you – by using thinking alone, we build a surreal prison made from our uniquely subjective experience of the world.
If looking at this work reminds you, even in part, of your mind, then that’s normal; but it’s also serves to remind you of your agency in creating this reality. To create a future we want, we must rise above thinking and become attuned with what is before the layers of thought begin to stifle your agency.
So, meditate, eat something delicious, read, dance, sing, breathe – and feel. Once you’re free from these mind-forged manacles (William Blake was also attuned with this aspect of being human), you will be far better placed to access thought that can help blueprint, rather than obscure, each step towards your future. We are the architects of our own experience – look again in the top left – the stairs lead right outside. Should you accept that your thoughts do not have to be your reality, you can choose how to navigate through this waking dreamscape, you can walk right out into the open air of possibility; give yourself enough quiet to observe where to go, for it’s been there the whole time.
Goldsworthy, an artist who works intimately with nature, teaches us what it means to heal in accordance with what is and the kind of love it takes to do so. Richly red-coloured maple leaves are arranged serenely in still water; they illuminate the wisdom in accepting what is reality, in place of the oftentimes unfair and unrealistic expectations we have for our healing and growth in mind, body, and spirit.
Imagine the time taken to find leaves of exactly the right size, shape, vibrance, and strength, in addition to piecing them together into this meaningful form – whilst being conscious that all these efforts might, at the slightest breeze, float away in an instant. These natural inevitabilities do not deter him, though. By not relenting to nature’s constantly changing state, but accepting it for what it is, Goldsworthy makes what is – his.
While we heal, from physical wounds or psychological trauma, we should remind ourselves of how difficult it must have been to find each leaf, of the time required to do so, and of the fragile image this photograph has captured, which has mistakenly become ‘immortal’; it could never exist like this forever. We are likely to see this cycle of making and unmaking as one that is destructive, enamoured by this beguiling appearance and delicate structure. But, that is not where the beauty truly lies: this work will be washed away, but does that mean the effort to make it was not worth it?
The answer lies in Goldsworthy’s understanding that, when in harmony with nature’s majestic processes, our own journeys can be equally magnificent. Such work demands we remain at peace with not knowing how long it might take, nor knowing exactly – even letting go of – how the outcome of our toils will look. A fine balance exists between what is and what we do, and finding this balance is the healing process, but this takes time.
Patience with nature, the kind required for healing, is an acceptance, even love, of what is. That includes barriers and setbacks. It is a love of your nature, of what your body and mind are currently capable of, indeed it is a love and acceptance for the seemingly eternal time it takes to heal. When we embrace these truths, they can no longer hold us back. We learn to work with them, not against them.
It is fitting that a motif of Goldsworthy’s is a circle. Follow the edge of the circle with your eyes, and it could go on forever. Mirrored in this cyclical form, created by hands deftly intervening with nature at the right moment, is healing. Upon seeing his works swept away by nature, Goldsworthy reframes this seemingly infuriating reality, noting that ‘it somehow doesn’t feel like destruction’.
So too can we then reframe the healing cycle: whether it makes sense to you or not, when you accept what is, your healing process can be infinite – and so can the possibilities. The healing process is not liner, it’s supposed to be cyclical, full of knock-backs, challenges, and failures. It is supposed to be repeated, as there is no end when the goal is simply keeping the process alive. Have love for your nature and the work you are doing, because when you do, whether it leads to ostensibly unrelenting pain or a breakthrough, it will become clear that this is simply the next part of the process. It will pass – you already have the love and resilience you need within your grasp: the power to ensure your healing, naturally, blossoms into growth.
Any of Goldsworthy’s works remind us of what it takes to heal, the beauty in that resilience, and liberation in accepting the universal law of constant change:
In the distance, troubled figures from the past and the longing for a future free from pain commingle into a gloomy landscape. As lonely as this feels, when we observe what was once familiar as it is gradually marred by thought, we actually have an opportunity to get to know the true subject in this portrait of monolithic melancholy: you.
Munch spent many a summer on Asgardstrand’s beach, the setting of this painting. But now, it seems to have become a source of sorrow. He teaches us that our inner world can easily bleed into our outer world, distorting it until our perception is punctuated by desolate thoughts that are strung together by sadness. Such rumination often offers the dominant narrative during the arrival of this quiet despair.
By capturing this moment, Munch’s Melancholy should be seen as comforting; any feeling, from misery to mania, will pass. The protagonist is lost in profound thought, but, despite being lost, he sits in the foreground. He is alone, yet we’re so close to him. Where the protagonist melancholy himself, we’d be able to touch him. Our mood too often sits in the foreground of our mind. One moment, we are fine, and the next, we are blindsided, inviting in the uninvited and unwittingly trying to accommodate melancholy out of the deferential politeness we have for all our moods.
Instead, we could cast our mind back to the last time melancholy stepped in unannounced and recall the last time he left. Try to remember the texture of that farewell, and you’ll likely realise there wasn’t one.
When you last felt like this protagonist, when you were melancholy, what eventually usurped your attention? Was it anger? Was it tranquility? Was it laughter? Or was it something else entirely? Maybe it was simply a walk towards the emerald hills, or you imagining yourself and another holding hands for the first time and walking with jollity towards the horizon (this could be thought from the past or near future, of course). It is here where rumination should remain.
During melancholy’s stay, however, we shouldn’t be too rude; we could briefly sit with him and chat. When we observe him and what he says carefully, although his words might overflow with anxiety and he may paint life in muted colours, we can remind him that things are perhaps not as bleak as they seem. Gently refute his ramblings with some questions. Is it not true that, as you overlook the landscape, you can still see what brings you joy, but it isn’t just now? So too can you recognise, with an albeit heavy clarity, what life should feel like for you, because you can still see it in the life of others? The happiness that you see, even though it’s not yours just now, is not separate from melancholy; it is the remnants of your joy, hiding in distorted view, waiting to shine on you again.
Munch’s work prompts us to observe melancholy in its entirety, from beginning to end, from sky to sea, and everything in-between. Melancholy may roll in, an unstoppable force, just as the lines of Munch’s painting swirl, disrespecting the rules of reality, but it is in these moments that we should take particular care to observe: what is he here to show us about our happiness? And, who will the next visit be from?
It takes immense strength to carry this weight when walking across the beach towards those distant figures, to wade through the moonlit lilac waves as, lapping at your feet, the water gradually returns to teal with the rising sun. As you walk, what you feel will be carried away in the swell, along with the sand and silt. You might then, as the clouds part, and as the sky begins to reflect the sea again, trust that the sun will always return to bathe you in light one more. Having looked through the monochromatic lens of melancholy, hopefully you’ll know better than ever to decide how you would like this scene to be illuminated. We can then walk, one step at a time, towards the figures in the distance – towards our future – breathing deeply as clear rays beat down on the ever-changing ebb and flow of our emotions.
We are reminded in Kollwitz’s etching of the most powerful bond that exists: a mother’s love for her child. Such unbridled raw emotion shows us, as barely functioning adults, that we should recognise our own capacity to mother ourselves, to give ourselves the kind of love we received in childhood, though of course that is not the case for all children.
For the loved, it is a reminder that the only person who can carry on this kind of unconditional self-care is us – the mother-child bond cannot be found outside of you, the burden of loving yourself unconditionally is now all yours.
For the latter, this etching provides us a useful insight into the depth of love we should, but often don’t, generate for ourselves. We could see the child in her arms as our own past selves, a self that is unused to receiving unconditional care, forgiveness, and patience; we can then see what it should look like to give ourselves the love a mother should give her children in her healthiest and best state, and what it should look like when she loses something as precious as you.
What we should etch into our own psyches is the truth that, when we learn to mother ourselves, the greatest loss there can be is the loss of love for yourself.
It is time to break what we know. Everything that was held dear could be, at best a social construct, and at worst, unconsciously destroying our lives.
Ai Wei Wei eloquently shows us the power of destroying what we value, be it a 2000 year-old urn or a preconceived idea. He forces us to confront everything that is; he demands we ask, ‘why?’, imploring that we demand, ‘but what is it all for?’, and ending with a revolutionary, ‘what if we forgot all we knew to be important and created something new?’
As we look upon history dropping, falling, and shattering, a way of thinking and being, lies in pieces on the floor, we must ask ourselves what exactly we’ve been holding on to for so long and why we’ve been holding on so tightly. Past traditions are no less valuable, even when they have been dropped. But, perhaps they need to be broken so we can pick up the remains and use them create something better tomorrow.
We are led to forget that society is entirely man-made, from our traditions to our ornamental décor. Ai Wei Wei bluntly points out that our ways are not indestructible, they are fragile and can, and should frequently (especially when causing damage and destruction), be shattered. With this reminder, an answer crystallises for anxious questions: how can we move on from the past? how can we improve? how can we move on from what we know?
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