Title: On Doing: Purposefully, Helplessly, Wishfully, Hopelessly, Endlessly….
Book: Preoccupations: Things Artists Do Anyways
Author: Michael Lee Hong Hwee (1 of 111 contributors)
Designer: Cornelia Erdmann
Editors: Cornelia Erdmann & Michael Lee Hong Hwee
Date: Jul 2008
City: Hong Kong
Hobbies appeal only to converts. Hearing people talk about their hobbies, however, can be curiously enlightening. This is particularly so if the obsessions are rare or come from those who are famous or have notable accomplishments, or if the hobbyists’ sharing is passionate, animated, humorous, insightful or inventive. It certainly helps if they let slip a secret or two about themselves.
When Cornelia Erdmann suggested that we collaborate to explore the things artists do when they are not making art, I readily agreed because I was thrilled at the prospect of peeking into other artists’ private lives. Of course there were the questions of whether artists would be willing to publicise their private passions 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 anyway, with hazy ideas about the project’s eventual form and constituents, not to mention its larger significance. Today, with a compilation of 100 reflective commentaries from 111 artists on their preoccupations, we realise that the eight months of preoccupying ourselves with this venture have been worth it, and my initial anxiety was unfounded. While researching on the subject of preoccupation and reviewing other artists’ articulation of theirs, we began to recall and examine our habits, much to our own amusement.
Just as an unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates claimed, Preoccupations aims to be a platform for artists to reflect on their life. We asked artists to think about the one thing they often do other than art without prompting from others or against all odds, and then share with us about it with text and image. These contributions are little stories of the artists’ lives; they are ‘autobiographical fragments.’ The genre of autobiography (literally, ‘self-life-writing’) is a channel for self-documentation, self-expression, self-discovery and, just as importantly, self-determination. One can change one’s life by the acts of thinking and talking about it. For Laura Marcus, autobiography is not just “a topic, [but also] a resource and a site of struggle,” which “enacts both analysis and cure.” By offering a glimpse into artists’ private lives, this book contributes to both the understanding and the development of their art.
Terms and Approaches
Some artists got it right away, submitting their contributions within minutes of our email invitation. Others took time to deliberate. Expectedly, many were preoccupied, or they might have been pondering over the layered meanings of the word ‘preoccupation’. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines ‘preoccupation’ in four forms: an act of seizing; a state of being absorbed; an extreme or excessive concern, and something that engages one’s interest or attention. That the word ‘preoccupation’ comprises ‘pre’ and ‘occupation’ adds a layer of complication. The prefix ‘pre-’ has both temporal and spatial dimensions. 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). It may mean physically being ‘in front of ’ (e.g., pre-axial, premolar). A preoccupation may have an oppositional, if not complementary or causal, relationship to occupation (the ‘proper’ work), existing alternately of each other or simultaneously, in different places or the same. For some, it may be a leisure activity that eases the tedium of work, or a catalyst that spurs the creative process. For others, it is a compulsion they cannot help but have anyway. Most contributors were able to self-select a preoccupation to share, but some could not decide (“I have so many passions I don’t know which one to talk about,” went a few responses). Going with the flow, we worked with some of the artists to identify that single most important or unusual pastime, and encouraged others to discuss the relationships between their various obsessions.
We were promptly declined by some invitees who did not identify with the term ‘artist’ (e.g., “I’m a writer, not an artist,” replied one). We define an ‘artist’ as any creative practitioner across the visual, literary and performing arts, including the applied arts of design, film and architecture. Assuming that there are shared threads in the artists’ creative life, we hope to foreground these commonalities in this project. In this regard, we continue the spirit of Giorgio Vasari, whose seminal anthology of artists’ biographies, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568), was aimed, in part, at rescuing painting, sculpture and architecture from the oblivion of craft, which these activities had hitherto been defined as, into the realms of innovation and academia. A contemporary ally to our project in this regard is John Tusa, a broadcast journalist who interviewed 16 artists across painting, sculpture, photography, film, architecture, fiction, poetry, theatre and music, and concluded that their creative processes “exist in a strikingly shared framework of experience learned and won the hard way, seemingly regardless of the precise activity involved.”
We did our share of rejecting, particularly those contributions that read more like ‘artist’s statements’ than ‘autobiographical fragments’. Surely, any attempt to separate life from art (preoccupation from occupation) may be good only for analysis but is ultimately rhetorical, contrived or futile. We were hence open to artists naming their preoccupations in areas of life concerns, artistic pursuits or, in many cases, where they overlap. We included contributions on ‘repeat’ preoccupations (e.g., understandably, toys, music, pet dogs and cooking recur as favoured pastimes among the submissions) so long as they have been insightfully reflected on and interestingly represented.
The genre of autobiography has long been about the creation and consumption of inspirational texts of exemplary lives. The first-ever Western autobiography, Confessions (397-398 AD), in which Saint Augustine recounted his sinful youth and eventual conversion to Christianity, arguably employed self-revelation as a means of exercising influence on others (in that case, to lead them towards salvation). If pre-modern autobiography presupposed individuals as subservient to higher cosmic powers, modern autobiography was regarded a project of self-discovery, beginning in the late 17th century, when self-awareness became a cultural point of focus. In the 1950’s, the focus was on the essential properties of autobiography, as distinct from related (‘lesser’) forms like diaries, letters and memoirs. Thanks, in part, to the feminist movements from the 1960’s onwards, the earlier privileging of the white, male perspective and emphasis on aesthetic limits and hierarchical differentiation gave way, in the 1970’s, to a new focus on giving voice to all, especially minority groups, in their search for self-determination. For the first time, in major ways, women, blacks, gays, the poor and other marginalised communities exercised their rights to testify on their sufferings within different constraining contexts.
“One writes,” says Michel Foucault, “in order to become other than what one is.” Since the 1980’s, theoretical frameworks like post-structuralism and postmodernism have been positing the self as necessarily fragmented, always incomplete, and endlessly modifiable. Among contemporary artists, Lynn Herschman is a case in point. She invented a self-identity and lived this new ‘life’ for a few years, complete with a new name (Roberta Breitmore), handwriting, personality (incl. psychological problems), dress sense, flat, and credit card. The blurring of lines between life and art, fact and fiction in contemporary autobiography continues the role of an artist as a critic of social and aesthetic conventions.
The contributions in this book present a wide range of creative methods and outcomes of reflecting on and representing aspects of one’s life. To provide clarity amidst the variety of contributor backgrounds and contribution styles, we decided on a design template with text on the left page and image on the right for each submission. In essence, we have imposed what Simon Morley, in his analysis of word-based art, might call a trans-medial relationship between the verbal and the visual. In this relationship, words and pictures exist separately from but are complementary to each other. Despite or because of this rule, the diversity and creativity of the contributors come forth strongly. A few contributors leave one page blank: Chong Li Chuan’s blank image page reflects his Zen-like contentment as a new father. Others combine words and pictures on the same page: In his illustration, we see self-portraits of Michael Nicholson existing in, entering and exiting from different spaces in his home and imagination, alongside text commentary, as he represents his joy about his favoured dvd boxed set. Nicholson’s comics page exemplifies Morley’s second text-image relationship: the multi-medial relationship, in which text and image share the same space while having distinct spatial relations. The third is the mixed-media relationship, in which text and image scramble into each other’s space. kwodrent’s ‘text-image’, a typographical layout of words on things that preoccupy her, and Eudora Rusli’s shape-poem are examples here. Finally, there is the inter-media relationship, where the distinctions between text and image collapse. Dutton and Swindells’ diptych of words created as and revealed through neon light signages reminds us that language is ultimately visual.
In the following analysis, which raises salient issues and cites some (not all) contributions as examples, the main focus is on how text, image or both reveal shared and unique themes among the artists’ preoccupations. Especially where these are shared, they offer insight into the artists’ worlds.
The Work of Life in an Age of Contemporary Art
How do artists live? More or less like any other human being? In spite of their presumed free spirit, do they abide by certain principles in life? How can artists juggle artistic pursuits with their multiple interests, professional responsibilities and social roles? Susan Bee and Mira Schor argue that artists’ musings about their life have “everything to do with art even [my emphasis] when they least seem to fit the bill of an artist’s statement.” I say that precisely because (and especially when) artists are not talking directly about their art, they can be the least guarded about their creative processes and perhaps the most candid about what makes them tick. The reality of everyday, mundane activities can be the cornerstone of creativity in artists’ lives. Agatha Christie is said to have gotten her best ideas while doing the dishes. Susie Wong’s daily journey to the coffee shop to take her breakfast and read the papers are crucial preparations for any given day. For others, such as Ah Hock & Peng Yu, Alice Kok and Tang Guan Bee, escaping into meditative moments or places is crucial to counterbalance the humdrum of daily life. The images they have contributed tend to serve as an indexical reference to their preoccupations: Photographs of scenic places illustrate and complement their textual sharing. Others use humour: By placing self-portraits on images of rocks on the coastline and playing with scale, Map Office engages self-depreciatory wit in sharing their ongoing and perhaps still futile search for an island to call their own.
If art mirrors life while transforming it, reflections on life can help in asserting one’s artistic identity as well. Nadim Abbas and Daniel Lau are both eloquent in relating their respective pastimes, namely, cooking and basketball, with their creative approaches. Abbas’ photograph of his set of knives, visibly well maintained, stored and displayed, suggests an underlying grid that manages the uncertainties of life and art. Lau uses an artwork image instead, which he feels is symbolic of his perceived connection between his favoured art form and sport. Considering the risks of revealing one’s income sources, Yuen Kin Leung’s sharing about his side line as a masseur may come as an initial surprise. Collectively, his text on specific services he offers and the prices he charges, alongside his advertisement poster – may be seen less a testimony of his financial problem or an instance of commercial opportunism than as an autobiographical self-determination of asserting his identity as an artist-masseur. Altruistic fulfilment seems fundamental to a couple of artists, namely, Christopher Lau, with his voluntary work, and Jaffa Lam, with her role in organising residency programmes, demonstrating the paradox that helping others, one is helping oneself.
Especially for those who find themselves endlessly or helplessly preoccupied, the lines between one preoccupation and another, life and art, text and image, are interestingly fuzzy. As globetrotters, members of sciSKEW collaborative constantly and cyclically experience homesickness (missing home) and sickhomeness (tired of home), with their work being, as least in part, ways of assuaging the highs and lows of frequent relocation. This is vividly manifest in their research sketch of a proposed table design to serve the multiple functions for working, resting, hosting parties and storage, while being collapsible into a piece of sculpture. For Randy Chan and Kelley Cheng, the use of third-person references in ‘objectifying’ themselves and their experiences is strategic. From the description of their days as schoolmates, their initial plans to become artists, forays into separate architecturerelated fields and current collaboration in operating a pub, appended with a portrait of them squarely seated and photographed on camera, we surmise a moment in the ongoing, probably life-long process of managing aspirations and resources, frustrations and humour, gain and loss. A few contributors find it impossible to separately discuss their seemingly opposing preoccupations: Lilian Chee’s symbiotic engagement in housework and academic work and Stefen Chow’s involvement in photography, mountain climbing and giving inspirational speeches, are cases that fruitfully problematise our project’s brief for artists to isolate one preoccupation to share.
From Obsession to Aesthetic
Ironically, obsession is a subject of much obsessing across academic disciplines. Psychoanalysts regard obsessive-compulsive disorders (better known as ocds), such as the hand-washing ritual, as symptoms of distress: the inevitable returns of unresolved emotional conflicts, curable only by way of recalling and revisiting the traumatic events. Karl Marx argued that many of human beings’ preoccupations in the modern world are clues to and tools of capitalist subjugation; work, salary and leisure, for Marx, are among ways the rich continually sustain their superior existence over the poor, whose liberation calls for revolting against such a system. Philosophers since Socrates have regarded worldly obsessions pejoratively, as indications of the disability to recognise higher truths that exist only in abstract terms. Liberation, for metaphysicians, requires constant reflection of one’s life in order to gain mastery over it. In their respective ways, much of academic discourse agrees that obsessions are a problem to be identified, understood and overcome.
Art can be an outlet for relating and reconciling contradictory impulses, and artists know this well. In his biographical study on Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud concluded that sublimation, or the process of channelling one’s (sexual) desire into productive activities like sports, art and scholarship, is the key to turning a personal crisis into socially contributive work. But what makes one obsession clinically destructive and another artistic? Is an artist’s obsession necessarily artistic? Or, is all great art the outcome of necessary obsessions and obsessing?
An agreement across creative disciplines is that there exist links between the abstract realm of ideas and the concrete world of objects. Artists may use things as physical materials for creation or keep them in a collection. According to Laurence Sterne, wise people tend to have “hobbyhorses”: “their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, their maggots and their butterflies.” For contemporary writer Alain de Botton, for instance, his large desk serves not just the practical function of holding up his many books without his study appearing messy, but also a psychological “promise” that “whatever book [he is] working on could, whatever its current chaos, one day end up as ordered, calm, and expansive as the desk already is.” Among our book’s contributors are avid collectors: Ricky Yeo, the perpetual downloader of internet images; Zulharli Adnan, who is fascinated with underwear packaging; Choi Yan Chi, the collector of rare images; and the trash junkies in Shiah Chih Yun, Yeo Shih Yun and Cornelia Erdmann. Their sharing questions all easy conclusions of obsessing about things, including seeming rubbish, as a problem. Objects, to them, have sentimental appeal and transformative potential.
In Akinori Oishi’s obsessive drawing of small figures, the line between life and art is unclear and perhaps inevitably so. What one person regards as unnecessary, abnormal or harmful may be fundamental to the existence and creativity of another; the image of his hand deftly at work is indexical to both the artist and the individual in Oishi. Paradoxically, perhaps, Paul Rae’s tendency to be immersed in everything rather than, as he defines the artist’s vocation, obsessed with something, is performed by the aesthetic of his text. Constantly shifting between topics, between specificities and generalities, between rules and experimentation, between theory and experience, the multiple narratives are outcomes of a mind that fluidly traverses the intellectual and the personal. Dana Lam and Samantha Culp, the only two contributors who referred to their preoccupations as ocds – teeth grinding and typing fingers, respectively – culminated in heartfelt prose and evocative imagery that have uncanny resemblance.
Obsessions are decipherable only in context. Social restrictions can simultaneously fuel and quash a taboo desire, leading to a range of guilty pleasures and gratifying transgressions. Joash Moo’s citation of a biblical quote and mapping of a collage of bare bodies on a crucifix cleverly straddles pornography and art, blasphemy and homage. Alfian Sa’at subverts social norms through brutal honesty from an ‘outsider’ position: He confesses to his cross-dressing habit with a self-portrait in drag, an alter ego he calls “a ridiculous failure.” His ‘aesthetics of failure’ is a critique of a society he suggests as overly celebratory of success, perfection and conformity. He makes personal preference and social critique one and the same thing, as does Moo, who additionally fuses the seemingly conflicting roles of compliance and resistance.
Relating Self and Others
Artists’ reflections on relationship never fail to reveal their paradoxical desires to be individuals and also part of a larger community. Without surprise, the family is a recurrent point of reflection among the contributions. Matthew Teo’s self-identity is inflected off his professed love for and observed similarity with his father. For Jimmy Ong, Katherine Chan and Nicole Degenhardt, the emotional ties to their families are a constant subject of ambivalence. For Eudora Rusli, a family tragedy continually haunts her and drives her art. What one fails to resolve in life may be better understood through an aesthetic.
The social circle of an artist involves complex deliberations of desire and disappointment. On the one hand, some artists, at least some of the time, savour the solitude to develop their distinctive practise, to make work. On the other hand, basic networking, including showcasing one’s work publicly, is inevitable. How do artists find their balance between personal and social time? Leonardo da Vinci, according to Vasari, used to dress up a lizard with appendages in order to frighten his friends, amusing himself and others at the same time. Some of the contributions in this book are indeed shared preoccupations based on friendship (e.g., Susanne Bosch and Julia Draganovic’s joy in chatting with each other) and loving commitments (e.g., Leung Chi Wo and Sara Wong’s pet dog). Such activities are imbued with shared memories and aspirations about the future. In his diary entries on meals shared with three friends, Jason Ong reflects on the inevitable gap between reality and his desire for perfect relationships. If desire makes the world go round, it is hardly ever graspable: This is evident in Teresa Luzio’s constant yearning for everlasting love and Genevieve Chua’s virtual relationship with a stranger, which she calls “Frolicking with Danger.” For William Lim, paying attention to the justice and rights of his fellow human beings has become an issue of concern lately, after years of focusing on issues more architectural. For others, the art circle is a constant site of interest. Brendan Goh attempts to make a persuasive case for gossiping about fellow artists. His carefully constructed graphic hovers between being an in-depth psychoanalytic report, an airline’s flight routes, and a mindless yet telling doodle.
If all human beings are depressives to varying extents, certainly not all are comfortable enough to admit it openly. Beneath Chan Kai Yin’s lightly humorous recollection of his late pet seems to be understandably continued sorrow about its departure from his life. In this book, we also find contributions that deal with grief head on. Brief words and an image of (her?) wrinkled skin lend a poetic dimension to the overwhelming sadness in Andree Weschler’s painful realisation of her aging. Despite the dilemma he has observed in his literary life – joyful periods coinciding with little writing and melancholic moments being more conducive for literary production – Nicholas Y. B. Wong reveals that sadness is an intrinsic condition for (his) art and life. The image of a clown he uses to supplement his text is analogical to the little ironies of life: The saddest people make the best clowns; sadness can be beautiful. Self-absorption, once grasped and shared, can seem endearingly human and thus, powerfully liberating.
Beyond self-reportage, autobiography can be a speculative project of planning, creating and changing one’s life. This function is especially critical in relation to the age-old expectation of autobiography to speak about the truth and nothing but the truth. For this project, I do not have the resources to ascertain the ‘objective truth value’ of each claim. Nor do I think it is important to do so. This project regards imagination and physical reality as equally valid points of entry and departure, and a blend of fiction and fact as the fundament of creativity and insight. In this regard, Willie Koh’s recollection of a trip to his idol’s grave is an important autobiographical record even though it exists in the artist’s imagination and here, on paper, and has never been executed (as he shared with me privately). That his submitted image was lifted with permission from a fellow fan’s blog, which was in turn modified from another website about their common idol, makes for interesting discussions on the relation between truth and appropriation, private and collective obsessions.
The book is a platform of choice for presenting this project. Stéphane Mallarmé calls the book a “spiritual instrument,” a sacred object that can reconcile the modernist breakthroughs of the intellectual and the individual with the ancient sense of the sensual and the communal. This book is not meant to be an instructional manual offering a selection of hobbies, or a prescription on things one can do to fill time. (That role is well served by the wide selection of existing books and other mass media on subjects of all kinds.) This anthology of mini-autobiographies is aimed instead as an assemblage of ideas about the creative life, serving as a point in continuous cycles of discoveries and rediscoveries: The contributors attempt to understand and articulate their preoccupations; readers encounter these and begin grasping their own and, if conditions allow, also start sharing theirs with others. We are hardly exhaustive in covering the range of preoccupations and related issues. We can claim success, however, if our book inspires in our readers a series of intellectual and emotional journeys in different directions and intensities. We hope readers will giggle, laugh aloud, smile, raise their eyebrows, rolls their eyes, feel relieved, look skyward, rub their chins, frown, cry, wonder, drop their jaws, scream, drop their glasses, suspect, stick their tongues out, scratch their heads, stop what they are doing, scorn, look inward, remember the past, start something new, and continue what they have started as they go through this book. In them we want to stir reflections about their own habits and obsessions, ambitions and anxieties, which they have long engaged with, have never envisioned before, or have once entertained.
1 Plato, Apology: The Death of Socrates (London: LeClue, 2008).
2 Laura Marcus, Auto/biography Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 9.
3 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
(Available at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/preoccupation).
4 Ibid. (Available at http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pre).
5 Giorgio Vasari, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists: Biographies of the Most Eminent
Architects, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946).
6 John Tusa, On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process (London: Methuen,
2004), p. 7.
7 Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (London: Penguin, 1961).
8 Charles Ruas, “Archéologie d’une passion,” Magazine Littéraire, no. 221 (Jul-Aug.
1985): 100-105; translated as “An Interview with Michel Foucault,” in Michel
Foucault, Death and the Labryinth: The Works of Raymond Roussel, trans.
Charles Ruas (London: Athlone Press, 1986), 169-86 (quotation on 182), quoted by
David Halperin, Saint Foucault (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 228.
9 Barbara Steiner and Jun Yang, “Writing Identity: On Autobiography in Art,” in
Barbara Steiner and Jun Yang (Eds.), AUTOBIOGRAPHY (London: Thames &
Hudson, 2004), pp. 10-28.
10 Ibid., pp. 16-18.
11 Simon Morley, Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art (London:
Thames & Hudson, 2003), pp. 9-17.
15 Susan Bee and Mira Schor (Eds.), M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’
Writings, Theory, and Criticism (Durham & London: Duke University Press,
2000), p. 39.
16 Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann, “Their maggots and their butterflies,” in
Dan Crowe and Philip Oltermann (Eds.), How I Write: The Secret Lives of
Authors (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), p. 12.
17 Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the
Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company,
18 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London:
19 Sigmund Freud, Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).
20 Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
(New York: Penguin, 2003), first published in 1759, and here cited from Dan and
Oltermann, “Their maggots….,” p. 12.
21 Alain de Botton, “A Large Desk,” in Crowe and Oltermann (Eds.), How I Write, p. 39.
22 Gabriele Guercio, Art as Existence: The Artist’s Monograph and Its Project
(London: The MIT Press, 2006), p. 29.
23 Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Book, Spiritual Instrument” (1895) in Jerome
Rothenberg and David Guss (Eds.), The Book, Spiritual Instrument (New York:
Granary Books, 1996), p. 20.