In the very last room of Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful exhibition (on at the Tate Modern in London until January) there is a pin-board spanning one entire wall. It is perhaps 50 feet long, and is filled with articles, clippings, images and notes that inspire Eliasson’s work. I’ve been spending some time there over the last few weeks, in the room of notes, letting the ideas and observations that are collected there sink into me, work on me, change me.
It’s been far from easy to do this. I can see that I am deeply affected, as so many of us are, by the narrative of productivity, of ever-more, of perpetual motion that permeates our culture. We are taught never, really to stop and look, to be still enough until the world can reach us, unless of course our stopping is for the sake of having more energy to get going again. We learn to be afraid of being unproductive, of open-ended, undirected time, of letting ourselves off the hook. We measure ourselves, relentlessly, by comparison with what-has-not-yet-been-done.
And although our ceaseless movement comes from fear, it serves perhaps as an attempt to protect us from bigger fears – the fear that we may not be totally in control (we’re not), the fear that we might be vulnerable (we are), the fear that things will happen that we didn’t choose and didn’t want (they will), and the fear that we’ll lose what we’re so desperately pursuing. We move without stop because we’ve been taught to, but also because it does something for us. The tragedy is that this frantic way doesn’t resolve or deal with what we’re afraid of. It just has us find ourselves further from the one life that we get to lead.
As I sit quietly in the room of notes I notice how much of this I feel. I can feel my being afraid. I can feel the push of my own inner criticism as it berates me for being here, for slowing down, for slacking, for being self-centred, for irresponsibility. I can feel shame, guilt, comparison, urgency, and a fizzing, clenching movement in my chest, shoulders and back. All of it cries ‘get moving’, ‘get out of here’.
But I stay. I breathe, and breathe, letting myself open and settle on each breath. What a miracle breath is. I let myself feel my feelings all the way through. After a while, I see that my fear and urgency is something that I am doing, not something that is happening to me. It’s a strategy, a habit, a way of trying to keep myself on familiar ground. And when I see that it’s something I’m doing, I get to see how much of my experience can be like this – not just what’s ‘arising’ but a way I’m actively committed to fleeing from contact with my actual life.
I consider the loss of contact with our lived experience as the main root of the malaise that affects our society … We become blind to the very texture of our experience … cutting ourselves off from what is closest, most intimate to us. We become blind to the very texture of our experience. In particular, we live in the illusion of a rigid separation between an inner and an outside world, between ‘me’ and ‘you’, between body and mind, between seeing, hearing, touching and tasting.Claire Petitmengin
We spend considerable energy trying to maintain these frontiers, which we consider essential to our survival.
In the rare moments when our tensions dissipate, these rigid boundaries fade, opening up a vast space. We can sometimes have a glimpse of this … One day there is a book, a song, an encounter, or a special light in the morning through the foliage, and suddenly you surrender, you lay down your arms. Recovering contact with this tender dimension is a huge relief. When we are less on the defensive, less anxious to protect our borders, we become more loving. We regain our integrity, our dignity.
From: Open House, Studio Olafur Eliasson, 2018
And I come to see why I am here in this gallery. I am here to find a way to relax some of my frontiers, to surrender, to lay down my arms. Art can do that for us. Words can do it. Other people can do it. And we can do it for ourselves, with some courage, and some kindness, and if we’ll let ourselves.
In these times when we’re walking around like coiled springs, when we see disaster around every corner, when we wonder if we’ll have a future – or if our children will have a future, Petitmengin’s words remind us that practicing letting life is no abdication of care, no unearned luxury, but a vital discipline in returning ourselves and one another to the dignity and capacity we’re all called to bring.
If you’d like more on this:
‘The Cure For It All’, Episode 107 of Turning Towards Life, the Thirdspace podcast with Justin Wise & Lizzie Winn, takes on many of these themes.