Monday, February 27, 2012

Visible Art

A few years ago I was diagnosed by my optician with an eye condition, glaucoma, which has meant I've been on medication to alleviate the problem; and also in 2010 had an eye operation. Glaucoma seems a particularly writerly disease, famously, in the case of James Joyce, whose writing of "Finnegan's Wake" was done in a race against the condition, with regular trips to Switzerland to "bleed" the pressure on his eyes with leeches. My nightly drops are a relatively minor inconvenience in comparison with that.

Does one write about a condition? Perhaps - but rarely directly. A poem I wrote called "Glaucoma" begins "something I can't see comes from the side" and that is the feeling I have, that I sometimes lose things in my peripheral vision. There's an irony in that of course, as writers frequently are about spotting the things in the peripheral vision and making it real. Ironically, my Knives, Forks and Spoons chapbook "Extracts from Levona" came out at this time - ironically, because the collection is set in a "dot matrix print" which is difficult to read. When Alec suggested it, I agreed, partly because of what I was going through.

For a few weeks after my operation I couldn't read books or watch films as the concentration on that white space was too difficult; the computer, oddly enough was easier.

I love visual art - have done since I was eighteen. In my list of obsessions it's certainly above poetry, though probably below music... yet I realise, as I grow older and this eye condition deteriorates, how my vision is suspect. As a critic, as an observer I haven't 20/20 vision. One of the reasons we like visual artists is because of their concentration on the intimateness of the canvas, what happens then if you can no longer see that?

For me, it's not that I am in any way blind, but that I find dark rooms or low light (which you often get in galleries)difficult. Also, I'm not sure what I can now visualise - the small canvas is difficult because of it's intricacies; the large canvas because of it's size. In other words, my appreciation of art is determined to some extent by my vision. In a gallery now I find myself reading up close the description before standing back and seeing the art work, and whereas in the past I may have just been wowed by it, increasingly I'm finding it a little difficult to process all the information. In terms of aesthetic I find myself leaning to the 3-dimensional or the non-visual. So hearing Mark Leckey's performance at Manchester Art Galley on Thursday was perfect for this... but even in visual art, I no longer respond to the picture (did I ever?) but to the shapes, the patterns. In J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World" the protagonist stays on the reducing archipelago far too long, and what there is, is some sort of epiphany; god is found in extremis. In Laura Oldfield Ford's work at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, it's the lines and depth of her pictures that I really respond to. I begin to see post-impressionism even in the literal,and - perhaps - see that abstraction is often more meaningful to the visually impaired than representation. "Visual" art seems the wrong phrase in many ways - as it implies the eyes - and sculpture, sound art, whatever - become more important in this context of us losing sight.

For me, I realise that as one vision narrows, another expands - and, I do think, this probably goes into my artistic practices as well... that I stop seeing, and start hearing, that I can't live with the endless words of a novel, but require the specific shapes of a poem or a shorter piece. The thing that so many people take for granted - their sight - is something that is (and always has been, to some extent) transitory in me, and therefore I have over-compensated in my love of sound and music, or - even when I look at a painting - my desire to see depth, to contemplate the third dimension.


Jim Murdoch said...

My father had glaucoma. It was not diagnosed until his sight had deteriorated quite badly—he just thought he was suffering from the ravages of old age—and within a few years he was registered as blind something that embarrassed him no end; he had a white stick, a collapsible one, but refused to use it most of the time. What was particularly sad is that he never read much while he worked and looked forward to his retirement when he could remedy the fact and do some serious studying but he never got the chance to do that and often when I popped in to see him I’d find him sitting in the living room in his chair in silence staring blankly ahead. He did listen to some audio books but (and I can understand this) he could never really get much out of them; he wanted to be able to underline things and make notes.

As it’s an inherited problem I get tested periodically to see how the water pressure in my eyes is doing. It worries me I have to say even though the odds are I will catch it much sooner than Dad did.

Shelley said...

That's a great first line.

Shelley said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adrian Slatcher said...

I've found the eye hospital have been excellent with me Jim. It feels a very minor problem, but for someone who reads and writes a lot its frustrating that I get tired. I'm usually the youngest person in the eye hospital, as its usually a disease of ageing.