Hong Kong, 26 Apr 2008
Publisher: Studio Bibliothèque
Book: Preoccupations: Things Artists Do Anyway
Title: By whatever means, no matter what, in any case or event, despite or due to….
Text: Michael Lee Hong Hwee
(This is a pre-draft. Cite only when published, in Jul 2008.)
When fellow artist Cornelia Erdmann popped the idea of collaboratively exploring things artists do when they are not necessarily making art, mixed feelings stirred in me. A peek into other artists’ lives promised sumptuous meals for my curiosity, but might also lead to the exposure of a secret: that I had, as far as I was aware, no interesting pastime. Of course there were also the questions of whether artists would be willing to share their private obsessions publicly, and if they would, whether their sharing might be too banal or obscene, or if the whole exercise had academic or artistic value. We went ahead with the project anyway, with hazy ideas about its eventual form and constituents, not to mention its larger significance. Today with a compilation of 100 artists’ preoccupations in hand, we realise the eight months of preoccupying ourselves on this venture have been worth it. While researching on the notion of preoccupation and reviewing other artists’ sharing on their preoccupations, we ourselves began to remember and examine our own habits, to our own and mutual amusement.
If the slightest gesture is a clue to who one is, then it might be argued that the process of reflecting on and articulating an aspect of one’s life is akin to a journey of discovery of who one has been and can be. Preoccupations: Things artists do anyway is a project that provides a platform for such introspection. It examines the age-old gaps between art and life, by investigating the motivations and implications of objects, persons, activities, events, ideas and feelings by which artists find themselves purposefully or helplessly preoccupied. This project thus facilitates artists to recall and envision, reflect and reflect on, explore and represent, aspects of their life of which significance they may otherwise be unaware of, forget, deny, or dismiss as irreverent and irrelevant to their life and artistic pursuit.
The meanings of preoccupation reveal layers of complications of our enterprise. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines ‘preoccupation’ as four forms: an act of seizing, a state of being absorbed, an extreme or excessive concern, or something that engages one’s interest or attention. Whether as an action or activity, a state or condition, an idea or feeling, an object, person or event, one thing is clear: A preoccupation has the magical power of influencing, even directing, us physically, psychologically, or both. The prefix ‘pre-’ has both temporal and spatial dimensions. In terms of the former, it may mean ‘before’ (e.g., premature) or ‘earlier than’ (e.g., pre-dawn), ‘preparatory of’ or ‘prerequisite to’ (e.g., premedical), or ‘in advance of’ (predict). Of the latter, it may mean physically being ‘in front of’ (e.g., pre-axial, premolar). ‘Pre-’ also has the connotation of being ‘less than’ its referent (e.g., premodern, premoral). In this regard, preoccupation has relatively negative or positive connotations in relation to that which it qualifies, namely occupation, depending on the context. In the realm of capitalist economy, where efficiency and productivity are esteemed, an obsession with minute details at the expense of ‘The Big Picture’ may be deemed counterproductive and detrimental. The same tendency may be a redeeming or endearing quality in the realms of arts and culture, which attends to the finer things beyond the daily routines and life concerns.
For this project, the word preoccupation poses another problem in semantics. Art may be considered a job for some artists, and a hobby for others. So the location of one’s preoccupations may be in areas of life concerns, artistic pursuits, or where they overlap. Finally, any attempt to separate art and life may be good only for analysis but most likely, rhetorical or futile. In the contributions to this project, preoccupations range from those fuel creativity, to those that inhibit both life and art. In most cases, preoccupations wrestle with ‘occupations’ in ambivalent ways. In any case, a preoccupation is an act, state, sentiment or thing that the artists will, or must, expend extended time and energy anyway – i.e., by whatever means, no matter what, in any case or event, despite or due to….
Why artists’ preoccupations? The first reason is demystification. There is the myth that artists do not, cannot, or must not, find time for any leisure, given their obsession in their artistic pursuits. But for those who have or can find the time, their hobbies are often regarded, or imagined to be, either too banal (e.g., walking, reading, daydreaming) or bizarre (e.g., Picasso’s sexual ventures, van Gogh’s manic-depression, Pollock’s alcoholism), thanks to much of biographical studies on artists. The contributions in this project will show a diversity not just of categories and specific forms of preoccupation, but also of manners of articulating them. The second, and by no means less important, reason is emancipation. As with the long-revered function of biography and autobiography, this project provides a collection of little known facts about contemporary artists which will illuminate what make these great minds and hands tick. By engaging with these autobiographical fragments about the artists’ preoccupations, readers can then get a deeper understanding of the creative life, whilst being inspired to engage creativity in their own lives, in their individual ways.
The collection method of contributions to this book was through a combination of open call for submission and personal invitation. Open call has the relative advantages of democracy and surprise, but likely alienates artists who may be too busy to respond by the deadline. This limitation is addressed in personal invitation to specific artists whom we know for certain, suspect or hear (from referrals) of having interesting preoccupations or viewpoints about their preoccupations. Yet, as both methods were conducted through the online platform (especially emails and bulletin boards), the contributor sample is skewed towards artists who are young, internet-savvy, and keen on getting involved in projects as a contributor. In other words, we have not been able to get the contribution of artists who are inactive online, or prefer to create in solitude. What we lose in representativeness, we gain in diversity. We define the term ‘artist’ broadly to refer to any creative practitioner across the visual, literary and performing arts, including the applied arts of design, film and architecture. Although many of the submissions have been through personal contacts from our cities of origin (Berlin and Singapore) and as well our current base (Hong Kong), we have been blessed with contacts who helped to cast a wide net across the globe of contemporary artists. These wide definition and dissemination provide a diverse pool of contributions from which we may attempt to analyze points of similarities and differences.
Submission requirements were as follows: a typewritten text (of any literary form) no longer than 500 words, and a visual image (e.g., photo, sketch, graphic) of at least 1Mb in file size, both relating to the self-chosen preoccupation or one that we suggested. In the course of composing the final list of contributions, we rejected submissions that either have misunderstood the project aims (e.g., those that share directly on artistic processes rather than engaging with the issue of preoccupation), or have chosen to shared on a preoccupation that is too common (e.g., we can only have a couple of pets in the collection before it starts to irk). The editorial decision not to accept every submission for publication serves to uphold relevance, plurality and quality.