The art of curating is something that I have been learning, let's say over the last 12 years. Curating art that is. Curating reality, or life, has been something more recent. But, as a Buddhist once said to me, “Art is Life”. A teacher appeared in my life a few years ago: Saeed, a yoga teacher in Bristol: the real deal. Of the many things he taught me, such as: “thoughts can be thoughts, but you don’t have to believe them”, he taught me some breathing techniques. One night, I used one of these breathing techniques and made an intensely uncomfortable physical symptom in my body that I had been suffering with for about a year, totally evaporate. I was so elated that I vowed to myself I would start meditating. So I did, the next day. I guess what I had realised is that there are many more layers to existence than I had ever been told and I wanted to find out what else was possible.
When I look back at photos of some of the early art shows I curated, I can see that my skill and finesse was limited, and that the artwork I was trying to put together was difficult to integrate. You could say the same thing about the jumbled thoughts and attitudes in my mind. With the nomadic art gallery I run with my wife Leah, we curate art with a focus on beauty, nature and geometry. Last year we were doing an art fair in Brussels and Leah had a dream in which her mother told her: “you make your own reality”. Leah decided that had something to do with the outcome of our art fair. We had our best show ever. There was definitely something meaningful about her mother giving her this information, even though it was being conjured in her own mind, her mum never having said anything of the sort to her in waking life, not that Leah remembered.
In the seminal book on Transactional Analysis “I’m Ok, You’re Ok”, we learn about how we all have a Child, a Parent and an Adult inside of us running our life interactions. The Adult, who should preferably feel like they are running the show, frequently gets contaminated by outdated information locked in the files of Child and Parent. Leah’s mum, her Parent in her dream, was effectively giving Leah, the Child the permission she needed to start running the show as an Adult, the third choice, the third possibility, the creative option. But there is no immediate happy ending in that. There are still files and files of outdated data from the Parent and the Child to sift through. I feel like lockdown is the perfect time to get on top of some of this work. A crisis, from the Greek, means ‘a turning point in a disease’, the point where things will either get worse or better. The verb that the noun is formed from, ‘krinein’, means to sift or separate out.
There is an existential crisis, but when exactly did it begin? Did it begin at secondary school, where we learned about global warming? Did it begin in the Cold War, when the schoolchildren learned how to Protect and Survive in the threat of a nuclear strike? Or did it begin much earlier than that? After birth perhaps? The first position that the child learns is “I’m Not Ok, You’re Ok”, because the infant is totally incapable of managing its experience and its suffering and the only one who can do that for them is the parent. Did the crisis begin with Original Sin, which could be seen as an allegory for the birth trauma, where we come out of the bliss of the womb, into the context of not being ok? Most people never get over the position of “I’m Not Ok, You’re Ok”, as this position plays out throughout their adult life.
Art fairs are strange events to be involved in. Leah and I sometimes joke that we are travelling sales women. And we are, but there is more to it than that. The other gallerists, a lot of them seem to lead difficult lives. They clearly have a nomadic streak in them, but they often have a family at home that they are quite relieved to get away from. At fairs, they may let themselves go in the evenings, drinking to forget their lives. This type of work is one of the last areas of life where travelling, living a semi- gypsy lifestyle still applies. And who knows if it will continue now, with viruses and lockdowns.
I remember a few years ago, when opinion- pushing was starting to get really intense on social media, some of my friends were beginning to struggle with the intensity and the anxiety it was producing in them. I started to articulate that there was, perhaps a need to start curating our experience of the internet. I must have started to realise around the same time the possibility of curating our experience of life, of the mind, of perception.
The path of transition to adulthood is at a crisis point, with an absence of helpful elders to guide us towards successful, healthy or ecological adulthood, a kind of adulthood where we can feel integrated, part of the ecosystem. There used to be clear- cut paths to adulthood, to being viewed as an adult. For the last generation, it involved kids, marriage, car, house, in whatever order you like, as long as you did them all. Job also, particularly if you were male. That didn’t necessarily mean that you earned the respect of your elders. I don’t think my dad ever felt that his dad respected his chosen career in theatre. But you could still tell yourself that you were doing what you were supposed to do, even if it was made more complicated to “keep up appearances”, with divorce laws being more relaxed. The world has changed so incredibly fast, that my generation has a whole new unprecedented set of difficulties in reaching adulthood.
The fact that it was so difficult for university graduates to find well- paid or satisfying work afterwards, set us off with a sense that we would always seem like failures to our elders, a fear that we may always be dependent on them in some way. Then there was the fact that fertility was going downhill. Some of my female peers followed the script to reproduce with such painful dedication that they went through physical and mental hell, endangered their bodies and spent thousands and thousands of pounds to do so, a trauma that they may never fully acknowledge. Others chose to not try so hard to have kids, or to accept that it would be difficult and that it probably wouldn’t happen, a situation that carries a grief that is difficult to articulate and overcome, there is no cultural narrative for successful adaptation to that situation. My parents’ generation’s experiences negated the need for the archetype of marriage. There is too much traffic, too many expenses and too much war and pollution to make the car option a viable one for many of my generation. I don’t think I need to mention the property ladder. We have been literally adrift, with no map whatsoever of what it means to be an adult, of what one must do to earn this sought- after status.
“I’m Ok, You’re Ok”, tells of the possibility of transitioning to a rare state of consistency, where the initial infantile position of “I’m Not Ok, You’re Ok”, gets transmuted into “I’m Ok, You’re Ok”, a steady state where the person’s Adult has done enough cleansing or sifting to know that it is, for the most part, uncontaminated by the outdated opinions and default behaviours of the Child and the Parent. From this new position, one can mostly operate from the Adult position, allowing the Adult to curate his or her experience, the interactions with others from the perspective of the Adult, allowing the positive aspects of the Child and the Parent to filter through, wherever appropriate. That book was written in the late 60’s. These days we may also talk of trauma, perhaps lodged in the body or subconscious, needing transmuting through body work, dream work and shadow work. There can be trauma from early life experience, or from one-off events, traumas we have inherited from our parents and ancestors. Most of us never get helped to work through these things. The process of doing this work is an awakening, an initiation. It will only take place in rare situations where the circumstances are right, because it is not part of our culture’s smorgasbord of human experience and it is difficult to get to a stage of life where one feels safe enough to start this work.
In our human ancestry, still practiced by many indigenous cultures, we had the rite of passage, or the initiation, in which we were guided by our elders into an experience where we are totally on our own in the wilderness for a period of days, seeking clues about what our destiny is and sometimes being given a new name, denoting our Nature. The rite initiated us into adulthood and delineated a new era of being recognised by our elders as a valuable member of the culture whose input matters. What do we have today? The right to vote? The right to vote for elders who have absolutely no idea how to curate a healthy existence for themselves, let alone other people or the planet? The only initiations I ever saw in my day at University were peer to peer drinking games or freshman year “themed” pub crawls, often organised by older students or graduates who seemed to have a passion for delaying entering adult life by remaining lodged around campuses in the form of Student Union representatives. Quite some mentors or shepherds they were. I have just used the words “in my day”. I must be becoming an adult, or perhaps that is grandparent talk. The difference is that “In my day” used to be followed by something that was supposedly better or simpler in the elder’s day. Here it is not.
Saeed taught me that: the things that happen in your life, you think they are happening to you, but they are happening for you. What is difficult to recognise, is that all of our challenging life experiences are initiations, they are events that are sent to make us into who we need to become and to help us learn. Except nobody tells you that. There wasn’t a ritual to show you how it worked. So nobody can tell you, because you wouldn’t listen or take it in, even if they did. As a result It feels like hell and madness to go through. And if you are unfortunate not to be capable of learning the lesson, you will keep repeating the experience in a never-ending cycle of Samsara.
When I first became a curator, I answered an advert a man had put in a local magazine, saying he was starting an art gallery and he wanted local artists. I went to him and presented my work. He was a guy in his mid- fifties, I was in my mid- twenties I saw that this man had no idea how to curate or run an art gallery, so I offered him my help. In hindsight now I can see that I ended up becoming a parent and an adult for this man, as well as the person who ran his art gallery. He always liked to say he had a “chequered past” and his experience was in dodgy dealings on the street, on markets, not in curating and organising an art gallery. I helped him to realise what was essentially a great business idea, just one that he didn’t have the stamina for. He preferred to stand outside, chain smoking and drinking coffee, to running the gallery. As business and personal dealings with him became more strained and I started distancing myself, the gallery went downhill and the man eventually closed it, running away with lots of artwork, owing a lot of money to a lot of artists, including myself. But I was never angry about that, because on some level I knew it was an initiation and I was on a path to having some keys to helping me sell my artwork and the artwork of others.
In Women who Run With The Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes describes a buffet with all sorts of delightful treats laid out for us to survey and to choose from. We may get taken in by it, letting our appetites become aroused where there was none before. The Wild Woman, the person who is connected to her instinctual self, to her soul, never gets taken into making choices in this way. She instead asks, without looking outward:
“What am I hungry for?”… “What do long for?... “What do I desire?”… “Is that on the smorgasbord? Maybe yes and maybe no. In most cases, probably not. We will have to quest for it a little bit- sometimes for a considerable time. But in the end we shall find it, and be glad we took soundings about our deeper longings”.
Curating reality is not for the faint- hearted; in the East they call it “Warrior Training”. It involves opening up to the intensity of what goes on in our minds, our dreams, our subconscious, the intensity of life that we have tried for so long to dull with alcohol or whatever other addictions or behaviour patterns we might have. The pace of change and realisation can be so fast that it can give you vertigo. Opening up to our existential fear of boredom, of vulnerability, of intimacy, which are essentially fears of death, of living to the full, or of not being able to manage our own levels of stimulation. Our weaknesses and our irritability, our impatience doesn’t just disappear, as we hoped it might from our early successes with peaceful states in meditation. They may well flare up in their full intensity to show us where the roots are. In my experience things will often get a lot more intense, even more stressful, as life unfolds in exactly the way it must, to show you where all your Achilles’ heels are, before things get easier.
Eventually, you take a long, hard look at yourself, facing up to your demons or shadows. But the payoff is that you start to gradually loose the sense or the fear that you may be wasting your life. This does seem to be the only way to learn happiness and freedom. You start to curate your use of language and become much more aware of subtle differences: how are goals different from intentions? Curating reality sometimes involves non- action. Leah and I used to find that we would reach an impasse, when under pressure to curate our art shows in such a short space of time. We had to take a break, to walk away, to be still, just as we have to in life sometimes. Sometimes a pause, a letting things come to you is the only viable option. Setting intentions during yoga practice becomes tricky during these times: there is a void. But perhaps that is a sign that we are getting close to curating the beauty we crave.
Fine artist, writer, musician Abigail McDougall, based in Thassos, Greece and Bristol, U.K.