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Visual Art and Embodiment in a World of Subjectivity

©Beth Carruthers 2003

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Touching and being touched – Perceptual Reciprocity

In the space between self and other there may be a twinkle, a frisson, an electric song … here … or here… It is this that I listen and feel for – this murmuring in between bodyselves . I stop, and attend. Then, as I attend with my whole self, “the present expands to become an enveloping field of presence.” [Abram, 203] In practice, what this means is that I lose track of linear time – or indeed of any conscious awareness of time, while I am engaged in this interchange with another.

The closest description would be that of a continuous present, where each detail is sharp, immediate, declaring itself without expectations. While working, whether I am drawing, painting, or photographing, my attention is honed and oddly expanded into an attentive focus that is both a participatory interchange and a sensual intercourse. I am drawn into the sensible mystery of the other, into strange languages, sensations and a shared vision that is not only my own, but also other.

This communion assumes and acknowledges the agency, the real presence, of the other. In Western culture it is not usually supposed that so-called inanimate objects have agency. We relegate such ideas and experiences to the realm of fantasy, or childhood. Perhaps children do engage an unclouded vision. As a child, the wind, the birds spoke to me and I to them – and this was not so much as I desired, but simply as the world was. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram speaks often about the agency of things such as rivers, trees and winds, noting that this recognition of agency is unremarkable in many non-Western cultures – it is simply the way the world is. In the world of the artist, even objects such as houses, shoes and chairs have their own Being and their own stories to tell.

“The artist is a translator; one who has learned to pass into her own language the languages gathered from stones, from birds, from dreams, from the body, from the material world, from the invisible world, from sex, from death, from love.” [Winterson, p 146]

I once saw a film of an elephant, gently and tenderly enquiring of an elephant skull on the plain. For a long time she touched around, through, caressing and gathering the stories of this other. As I am present, embodied within my vision, reaching out to another, I am reminded of this elephant carefully and lovingly touching and turning the skull.