Chance and Dare and Devil May Care; the Role of the Uncontrollable in Art

I’m reading Walk Through Walls, performance artist Marina Abramovic’s autobiography. Abramovic is known for her often shockingly auto-violent and long-length performances, most notably the more tame and recent The Artist is Present, at MOMA, in which she sat on a chair and invited the public to sit across from her. I have not experienced her work but was interested in her autobiography, to find out what was behind all the sitting and all the blood. I found the book fascinating for many reasons, but was most impressed by her commitment to work. She seemed always to be conjuring up a new piece, or taking photographs, or making contacts for the next show. This is of particular meaning for me these days as I struggle to keep focused, struggle to keep my mind on generating new work. She reminds me of Rodin, who said to Rilke, “Just work.” Or words to that effect.

She cites Brancusi as saying something like “what you do is not important, only the state of mind in which you do it. And she wrote this about work: “If you experiment, you have to fail. By definition, experimenting means going to territory where you’ve never been, where failure is very possible. How can you know you’re going to succeed? Having the courage to face the unknown is so important. I love to live in the spaces between, the places where you leave the comforts of your home and your habits behind and leave yourself completely open to chance.”

I was thinking of all this as I was working on a sort of collage/shadowbox thing in response to a challenge set up by a friend. I was given a little packet of materials: a sheaf of white fabric sewn into a tiny book, a piece of Japanese-looking paper, slips of paper with writing on them in what may (or may not) have been Japanese, a miniature silk kimono, flattened and thick.

I spent a happy couple of days thinking of different ideas. Then had to approach execution. And I state it that way deliberately. Any use of any of the pieces committed me in a certain direction. Especially if I made any cuts or alterations to any of the components, there was no going back.

Almost immediately, things began to go awry. I sat staring at it for a while, took a deep breath, and kept going. At every step, I had to rethink the general idea, had to either accept the problems that were being produced as I worked, decide on a workaround, or just accept them as part of the piece and keep going. At some point I felt an almost giddiness as I realized I was so far and just had to stumble forward, some steps working okay, some just messy. There was a freedom in that letting go into the process.

Nothing was a total disaster, but everything was just not quite what it looked like in my mind’s eye. And I thought about all those people who like to talk about the ideas they have for things to write, and then somehow never do the writing. Because making art of any kind is hard. And in the making resides chance and error and globs of glue and shredding fabric and intentions-forgotten-along-the-way and unintended consequences and shit you just can’t figure out how to fix. An attitude of willingness and what-the-hell is required in art. And life, I guess.

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