'Seven Hundred Million', and the desire to make work that encourages stillness
January 07, 2024
There's so much noise and sound and movement afoot in the virtual world, especially here on the socials, where, like a lot of people, I go to take in art more than most places these days, that I've come to realise that for the most part, in terms of looking at art, I really just want to sit in front of a still image and quietly look at it for some time.
Whenever I go to art galleries and museums, I instinctively feel that this is the way to take art into my mind and body, not only to allow the nuances or details of a piece to register more fully, but also slow down to a pace more akin to the artist's as they made it. We can't make this time all the time of course, but when I do make the effort, it seems it's almost always rewarded. Sometimes the reward comes just from sitting still and doing that, never mind if any insights or particular thoughts come up.
I have been, and still am, very ill with cancer over the last 6 months, and one thing that is non-negotiable for me now is having to slow absolutely everything right down, and it's been a quietly sensational new way of being for me.
Despite having been on a wide array of group and solo silent meditation retreats over the years, where slowness and presence are the main factors in the day, I've always been a fast-paced person in daily life, enjoying getting a lot done, often in finely tessellated order so as to make the most out of time and space. Now though I find myself only interested in going slowly and wanting to fully take up that time and space, rather than zipping through it gathering what I can.
I made this piece, Seven Hundred Million, back in 2018, and it's become one of my favourite editions. I did some fag-packet calculations back then and turned up 700 million as the rough number of breaths a human will take in their lifetime. Looking again (and asking Chat GPT) I think my amateurish mathematics were out by a couple of hundred million, but it doesn't matter. I'm an optimist, and my number comes up with a couple of hundred million more breaths, so let's just say it's a piece of work with an optimistic view on life.
The wonky circular paint stroke is an enso, which is a form of Zen calligraphy that seeks to embody a single breath and movement into a simple, expressive circle. I painted hundreds of these over a quite long time back then, both to make this piece and also for the simple love of doing it. I think this one stood out as being especially expressive.
There have been times lately where I've completely relied on my breath to get me from moment to moment, especially when the pain has become so severe there's nowhere else to go. There's a really great piece of writing on pain by the poet David Whyte here, which I heartily recommend reading. It was another light in the darkness for me at the time a friend pointed it out to me, during an especially tricky time of very painful illness.
As well as sending me back to re-read Buddhist instructions, and modern interpretations of those instructions, on the various meditation techniques and paths that deal with this sort of thing and encourage greater presence to what is really happening, it also reminds me right now as I'm writing this, that one of the primary reasons I make my work is to encourage quiet, stillness, and imagination in the viewer. I feel that good art should help suspend the moment, and the self, so that something akin to the imagination can be given some room to stretch and move about.
I'm really looking forward to being recovered from what is going on for me right now, and very much will be aiming to hold a real-world show some time this year that people can come to, to sit quietly in front of art that is bigger than the size of a phone screen. The encouragement will be to take time to enjoy resting eyes on art that is made with love, and with the intention of suspending the busy mind for a while, encouraging imagination, and opening an optimistic view of a cosmos filled with all the mysterious wonders that can't help but show themselves when looked for.