The good news or the bad news?
Well, I suppose it’s hardly news any more, but then again, what’s new in a museum?
What I’m trying to say is that I had a very constructive meeting with the Collections Development Panel back in September 2009. It seems like ancient history now. At that meeting all contributions to this blog were thoroughly assessed. And based on this assessment a number of recommendations were made for the next steps. I’m quite excited about some of the initiatives that may come to fruition (and I do mean fruition). I will get round to following through on these initiatives with the museum, and writing about them here.
That’s the good news.
Unfortunately I was slightly thrown just as I was going in to that Collections Development Panel meeting because I found out that all video documentation of my hermitage had been unwittingly destroyed. It was an administrative error. Misplaced enthusiasm and unusual efficiency. But there you have it. Or don’t. A documentary archive erased. For a live artist it’s a big deal to lose all your video documentation. And in a museum, where so much of my negotiation over the past many months had been focussed on saving and cherishing, storing and restoring. The irony was not lost on me.
I was put off my stride a little but then the headlong rush of my life resumed and I was swept away. Many of you will be keen to hear what has happened, or will happen to the objects I presented on this blog. Be patient a little longer and their continuing stories will unfold. There is no simple story of destruction or preservation, but a complex of conversations and activities in which many people are participating.
In the meantime you may be curious as to what became of me. You may even miss me…
Well, to complete this bad news sandwich here is some more good news. You can watch me on a webcam again! Hurray!
During the Manchester Hermit project I wrote a lot about acquisitions, about our deep volitions, and about the nature of ownership. This thinking led me onto a new piece of work which deals even more directly with the process of giving. I would like to invite all of you to come and be involved in the new project. It is called ‘Present’.
I am living for a week with nothing but what you give me. You can find out more at www.ansuman.com/news.html
Well, I’m back in my tower for one final night and I have to say I was completely unprepared for the depth of emotion I feel.
In the last few weeks I’ve been camping and playing at music festivals, walking and fishing in the Highlands of Scotland, relaxing in the bosom of my family, stimulated by the hustle and bait of London… but only now, back in my familiar tower, do I really feel at home. I feel my soul can expand.
Is it simple nostalgia or familiarity? Or do I detect a vibration in the space itself, in the floors, the walls, the way the light falls, the shape of the sounds, the rhythm of the stairwell? I feel so comfortable here, though there is hardly anything here but an empty room. The intensity of what I experienced here still reverberates.
I almost don’t dare to, but I can’t help thinking of the Fritzl children. Are they really glad to be rescued? Do they long for the routines of their old home?
Yesterday, in London, I started rehearsals on an upcoming project. A play called ‘Life is a Dream’ which will be on at the Donmar Warehouse. Its central character Segismundo is locked in a tower all his life apart from one day when he wakes in a sumptuous palace. The following day he finds himself back in chains. Suddenly, now, I think he must have been a little relieved to have been locked back up again.
Then there are those sad stories in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ of the old prisoners who do not know what to do with their freedom.
I wonder if, in my time as a hermit, I have closed myself down or opened myself up. Who can judge?
I feel much freer here than in any of the places I have been in the last few weeks. I have time and space to think and feel. But should I be the only judge? What about my giving away of myself? My promise to serve?
Am I chained to the world? Are you to judge me? Or some higher power? What duty might I escape?
Now there is no camera unblinking at me. My movements feel different. I wonder who I am talking to.
Many of the feelings that have been hanging over me like a fog over the last few weeks have begun to clarify themselves in the last few hours, as I drink a cup of water alone, go to the toilet, lie on a mat, sit in a corner. It is as though these spaces hold the work I have done previously. I can feel my body settling beneath me, into the foundations of thoughts that have accreted over the many previous times I have done exactly the same actions in the same surroundings. Here I am sedimentary.
The spirits of this place conspire with me. Our rhythms align so that this time I can carry on, build on what has gone before. Now I understand the purpose of the past. Although those spirits too have changed themselves, they continue to grow. There are new piles of dust in the old corners, filled no doubt with new families of microscopic creatures I cannot see or hear. There are two daddy-long-legs in the toilet. They bring autumn. The air, unwarmed by my body, feels slightly cooler, though all of Manchester is bathed in the same rain. But all the spirits remember me and have held my place. Like infinitely solicitous servants they invite me to carry on where I left off.
So, suddenly, I realize the deep root of my sadness. I am mourning the loss of my self. I have so many aspirations. They may even be considered noble, but ultimately they are just mine. Things I want for myself, tasks I want to achieve, understandings I strive for, learnings I want to hold. Books, instruments, knowledge, all my work for enlightenment is a collection for my use. I may temper this truth by saying that I want to share what I collect, it is for wider benefit. But ultimately it remains a collection of myself. A heap of me.
What I undertook to do at the end of my forty days was to serve. This is the hardest thing of all. The monastic vow of obedience is terribly unfashionable in a society of self improvement, self realization.
Paradoxically, to fully walk the hermit’s path it is necessary to leave the hermitage.
Marriage and fatherhood teaches me how self-centred I really am. No relationship is perfect because I can never have all that I want, can never be free to do exactly what I please. To devote oneself to the welfare of others means to give up my own aspirations.
My own selfishness consists of dreams glamourized by my own nostalgia. I want to work on my own body, to make it stronger, healthier, more beautiful, I want to capitalise on my own talents and have the world gaze in admiration of what I have achieved.
Anyone who finds themselves in a situation in which they have companionship without ever having to compromise on their personal aspirations and ethical choices is very lucky. They never need to experience the sadness of this particular realization. There are many blissfull couples. Or at least there seem to be. Perhaps people from more conventional backgrounds, or the same unconventional backgrounds, can find close fits with one another. I know I am a misfit however, an immigrant torn between cultures, continents, languages, disciplines. I pity the person who is just as driven by all the same obsessions as me. I’ve never found them.
Since leaving the Tower, as I have tried to test my arty conceit against the real world, I have been overcome by a despondency it has been difficult to grasp. Only now, returning to this place, which feels like home, can I see it. I am mourning the person who must die.
Bereavement is the most difficult enemy, tainting everything, impossible to escape. To give up what is familiar, what I relied on, what I based myself on, to let it all be washed away and to be swept up into the ongoing world is very, very frightening. What if I don’t like it? What if I am never happy again?
I’m not really sure I can do it. I feel such rage and resentment at the obstacles between me and my muse. In this artwork of my life I have vowed to devote myself to that very obstacle. To kill myself trying. This is such a difficult thing to do. And yet I am also laughing at myself, my earnest conflation of art and life. Why not just relax, stop being so up myself?
Anyway, now it is time to stop. I have to clear up this Tower, remove all trace that I have been here, and then attend the meeting of the Museum Collections Development Panel to finally draw a line under this project.
Hello. It’s only me. Back online after some time out in the wilds of the world. I have to say it’s a relief to be back with you all. My forty days in the Tower seems all the more precious and fleeting in hindsight. The great challenge for me now is to cultivate the same sense of concentration and communion I luxuriated in then. Out here the world screams, seduces, ignores, judges, rushes by. I feel much lonelier and shallower.
Of course the world also throws up gifts. Here’s a poem that I found washed up amongst the flotsam on my doormat when I finally arrived home yesterday. Courtesy of my friend Sax Impey who has himself returned from a long voyage with some beautiful paintings of the sea.
by Lord Byron
To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.
But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!
Let me remind you now that my hermitage, in seclusion and at large, is coming to an end and this discussion will soon close. On September 3rd a public meeting will be held at the Manchester Museum. The Collections Development Panel of the Museum will be there, along with the Museum Director and myself. Anyone else who is interested is welcome to attend.
At this meeting all the discussions on this blog will be assessed. I have opened up a space for us to collectively consider the value of museums and also things in the world. Anyone with strong views on how we should treat our common heritage still has a few days to make their ideas known. Remember that a single solitary voice with an idea about a particular object is unlikely to be successful. I would urge you to gather support from others if you are serious about your proposal. You will have to work to inspire others with your vision. You could urge your friends and family to give their support if other interest groups are not forthcoming. Any community will be more convincing than none.
Just as important is to support the proposals of others which you feel are worthy. Otherwise the status quo is likely to continue.
Well, it’s midnight and we seem to have reached an elegant outcome without recourse to the crude, mechanical device of a ballot. All those who have expressed a view seem to think that I should be removed from the museum collection, repatriated, and rendered into the safe keeping of Barley Rose. If anyone has a different idea please come forward. As I have said, you will need to be supported by at least two others.
Otherwise, perhaps we can move on to consider the disposal of the rest of the objects.
Although I will be leaving the Tower, there is no need for tearful goodbyes. By the magic of cyberspace I will still be here! This debate should continue until the final face-to-face meeting which is scheduled for 3rd September. I will also be continuing to post my thoughts until then, as a hermit out in the wild.
One decision has been arrived at quite easily. So please let us now focus in more detail on the 40 remaining objects. If you feel strongly about an object you will have to attract the support of at least two other people. And if you agree with someone else’s claim please say so. As Gunter Grass said, ‘The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.’
I imagine we will be able to arrive quite easily at a consensus on each object. It is in the absence of an explicit consensus that the Earth is raped, pillaged and slaughtered.
Many of the objects are simply markers for much larger collective thinking that needs to happen. For example, should the museum keep a beehive? Or make more space for sparrows in its grounds? And more importantly, how will you personally follow that thinking through into action?
Many of the objects might reveal themselves through comparison. How exactly is that first skull I showed different from this last one on which my face is arranged? Do we feel the same way about a tooth as a skull? What’s the difference? And why is it so different if it belonged to a human or another animal? Will we one day look back on our treatment of earwig families in the same way as we now look back on our treatment of Aboriginal Tasmanian families? This is an invitation to examine opinions that we may imagine to be beyond question, or which we’ve never bothered to examine.
This is also an invitation to think collaboratively and transparently. If a mutual agreement on any object is not forthcoming and opinion is sufficiently polarized, then there will be a vote, and the matter will be finally discussed in person on 3rd September.
Of course, if no one speaks up or is willing to care for an object then it will disappear or turn into something else. This was happening before I turned up and it will go on afterwards.
Please bear in mind that my purpose from the beginning has been to reveal and explain our personal implication in the value of some of the things kept here.
All memory must be exercised. If we do not remember what we know then we may as well not know it. We then act in ignorance.
If a museum is a collective memory it must be exercised collectively. Every collection has to be occasionally recollected.
I hope that by my provocation I have reminded us of some common knowledge, and perhaps even stirred up some uncommon knowledge.
This effort will be wasted, however, unless it leads to action. Only in making an active choice is something really valued, made sacred. I have dedicated my whole self.
What will you sacrifice?
As the solitary phase of this project comes to a close I’m thinking about the flicker and chatter of the news media making the world’s head spin.
I was asked to write some short pieces during my time here which would be displayed on the BBC Big Screen here in Manchester. It’s a big outdoor screen in Exchange Square that shows a constantly changing programme for shoppers and passers-by, so that no one has to miss anything. Of course I never got to see it myself. I think my contribution was for the ticker-tape news summary that runs along the bottom of the screen. There was a thirteen word limit but they said they could probably put a couple of messages together to be shown every now and then. So I took it as a nice structural constraint. Here are some thirteen word lines, in couplets, for the BBC news.
I am no more a hermit than these words you read are real.
These marks remind us how to speak. I present the joy of listening.
World news spins on like a wheel. Does it stop at my axle?
In silence I hear the cries of history bearing down, hope flying up.
I am the opposite of the news. I watch what is fading away.
And wait without searching for that which is yet to come into being.
As I delve into the body, it cracks open, cools, disintegrates, dissolves, evaporates.
Puffs of thought are released. One drifts by saying ‘I’m not a metaphor’.
My own feelings are most pressing until on TV I see others feel.
But who’s on? My dog? A bird flying past a cloud? The cloud?
Axes of sense intersect. On my approach the invisible stridulation of crickets stops.
Do they sing of gods, as I might do when I am interrupted?
Sharing this body of an ape with creatures too small to be seen
And this moment with a time too long to remember, I stop fighting.
I’m no roving reporter. There is no Outside Broadcast van. Everything seeps in.
Beside still water, I ride through galaxies and all the stars come round.
My thoughts float on the surface of this body like a glistening slick
From a ship of fools on the Pacific. Whale song ruffles the light.
At midnight tonight (GMT+1) the polls will open and you will have twenty-four hours to choose my fate.
Here is an example of the voting form. This is not the actual form, just an example.
In order to be entered on this form at least two people will have to support you. You can put yourself forward but you will have to have at least two other people support your claim.
If no one claims me then, like any of the other objects, I will just sink back into the obscurity I came from.
…not the fulfillment of all one’s desires,
but the desire to fulfill another’s.