I’m building a palace

Essays, India, Sculptures

When people ask me “what are you doing?’ I’m starting to say, I’m building a palace. A cane palace, he asks, and I say yes, and there will be paper, and fabric, and shiny parts. It’s kind of amazing how what I am making really is what I wrote in my proposal. A shelter, an expression of identity, an external showing and letting in. I’m starting to feel comfy up there, even though my arms get sore. I built that platform real strong, layers and layers and triangles like my dad taught me from looking at bridges. I’ve tried all the structural parts with coconut rope, and then I’m adding Rani pink wool. Rani means queen I learnt and Suresh and I both laughed. It’s the colour my hair used to be when it was freshly dyed; a real bright, fuchsia pink. My sweetheart calls me their queen, and it’s not about ruling or staking claim. It’s something to do with femme identity, queer identity. I see it in the gender queer folk here; walking tall and proud because that’s the space you’ve got, so work it. It is making an offer, but not compromising. It is showing with pride the vulnerable as it grows. It is accepting ones nature. All of the people who ask me what I am doing are men. I tell them you see how the street is so male, people like you? Well I am a woman, and this will be something feminine coming into the street. It’s a humble palace, built by one, to house one. It’s an externalised body. The lower deck is the size of a single bed. The boys who come to see after school twitter like birds all talking at once. They get it; Auntie Auntie! It’s a house Auntie!
Down the road is a real bamboo palace; built over three storeys high I reckon, delicate and strong and extraordinary. There’s no platforms on it, just bamboo poles which deft and confident feet balance on, treading the high wires to keep on building.

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Construction and deconstruction

Essays, India

Going to see the Ganesha statues being made (should I call them statues, or icons?) on the street reminded me of many of my most treasured childhood memories. Where I grew up, in a small town in Somerset, there was an amazing carnival once a year. People would spend all year it seemed building these outrageously elaborate floats and costumes. It was an extravaganza of lights, dancing and music, and it came right past our house. Thinking about it now, it strikes me how much I loved the contrast between the people driving the trucks or lorries, and the performers. I always feel comfortable backstage, at gigs or installs, being one of the people making it happen. The drivers were doing a job, in ordinary clothes, maybe smoking a cigarette. I remember how the flat bed trucks would bounce as everyone danced on them, and the wardens making sure noone got too close.
How do I describe my fascination and comfort with this; when you can see the line between everyday reality and the magical, and still believe in it. The way it is only imagination, willingness and that lovely sense of being swept along with it, that allows us to enter that other world of make believe. I had lots of practice; my parents took us to kids theatre, kids festivals, and of course, the mighty Glastonbury Festival. Somerset in those days was a hive of arts activity, and most of what we went to was free. I remember clearly a touring theatre troupe coming and performing at our school (just an ordinary, non-private school). Their show was an adaptation of one of the CS Lewis stories, a watery, boggy one with a character called Puddleglum. They made theatre on the same level as us; children sitting around the performing in a taped off square for a stage. Puddleglum sticks in my mind; beautifully miserable, with ragged clothes and a floppy hat. I’m sure my memory is created through an alchemy between the show, memory and reading the books, but he feels very clear to me. What is also clear is what I wanted then. I decided when I grow up, I want to be like these people. They had dyed hair and holes in their jeans, and they traveled around opening portals into other worlds right there on the floor. They were a troupe, a community, a creative gang with their own rules, and I wanted that.
The Ganesha seemed to being made in a big shed with corrugated iron doors. I so wanted to go in, but they firmly closed the gate before me and put a padlock on. I never saw where the carnival floats were made either. Backstage is where the magic is made, and it’s a privilege to see how. They range from small (30cm) to huge (5metres), and I had a good look underneath to check out the construction. From that, and conversations I gleaned that they are made from Plaster of Paris, or maybe mud (as they used to be), poured into rubber moulds, and strengthened with internal bamboo structures and coconut fibre in the mix. Then they are painted with all of the colours, and decorated, and decorated some more. I watch a man sticking endless strings of jewels over a Ganeshas rounded belly. He tells me that he used to be an auto driver, but this was his fathers business, and his fathers before him, so now he’s doing this. It’s incredible to me that these hugely decorated figures will be pushed into the river. I can’t help wondering what happens to all the jewels and lace and gold glitter. Surely someone salvages them?
When I was doing my MFA I was asked a number of times “Have you ever thought that maybe less is more?” It was a great relief to me to feel for perhaps the first time, seeing these, as if maybe I am not decorating my work enough. It one of my realisations about the huge gift of this residency; I’m having the experience of maybe having enough time to achieve what I want, to make as many layers as I dream of. I photographed a tree which drapes and flourishes all over the side of a building, and I sigh with exhaustion and envy at the time it would take me to build something equally lush. I’m always interested in the lush layers and patina of surfaces as they age and weather over time, and it’s the same with making them myself, that can’t be rushed. I’ve been putting painted boards out in the rain, and I can’t wait to see what happens with the strings of paper flowers when it pours on them. I’m hoping for gluggy fragile lumps which I can hold together with paint and mud.

I’m also hoping to build my own little troupe here; I badly need someone to bless this structure before it opens, and I wonder if that can be done through dance, or song, or chanting. There’s some events going on here about women claiming the streets, and maybe I’ll ask them for help. What I do know is that my structure will be like Glastonbury festival will always be in my mind. Before I even realised it was a huge music festival with famous people, it was this incredible unfolding of a city in a field. People arrived from who knows where, decorating poles, building stages, lifting trapeze. In Thatchers Britain it felt like this small space of resistance and freedom where people could create an entirely different world in weeks, then dismantle it as if it had never been there.

Practice until it feels normal

Body, Essays, Gender, India

Today was my third dance class, and I hit something again. I’ve been doing really great with my compassion and expectations; I started by telling myself look, you will be the biggest, most graceless, clumsy and only white person in there. And that’s ok. Totally ok. Be with your own body and see it progress at its own pace. Last week I didn’t have any moments where I thought I would burst into tears from feeling like I can’t do it, but this week I just couldn’t make it through the last hour. I also have another thing to go to; a dance thing which is apparently more of a ‘ritual performance’. I think it’s something I am more familiar with, so that was part of the compassion too, to leave early and give myself a chance to get there.
I guess it’s the self consciousness that gets me, and when my mind gets involved. I’m trying to remember the sequences, and I have flashes of knowing it’s not remembering through mind which matters, it’s trust of the body. That’s where I hit something. It’s a wall of fear, long taught and held, about what I am able to do with my body. It holds my hips tight as I try to move over them, and makes me clumsy. So many times I have heard ‘be careful, don’t hurt yourself, I’ll do it for you, here, let me, that’s too heavy’. And on and on. So it’s a gender thing, and a being controlled thing. And like all the worst kinds of control and fear, it’s gotten inside my own skin, my own muscles. And I want it out. That’s why I’m here, bringing as much softness and compassion as I can, noticing the shifts, congratulating myself like a small child.
She says release, release! And I’m trying. It’s just that my release, my trust in my body is still so quiet. My faith that the floor will hold me take me time to listen for. I want so bad to release. I love that floor that I can sink into. And sometimes I can do it. Today I nearly managed to spin across the floor, something very roughly like a ballerina.
And I know the release comes with grief. Letting go means losing something which has been held. My body has tried to protect me; to clench around the fear it has absorbed. It has responded to the clear and repeated messages, and tightened. Beautiful, wise body.
I have always had lovers who can climb trees, play sports, who are unafraid to move their bodies; who are loose. I long for that looseness, and the ability to try and fail. To be crap, and still be loved. This class is so welcoming, so warm. It’s a place I can try.
Last summer my sweetheart taught me how to throw a ball, and how to hit one. The simple joy of being able to hit a ball. The pleasure of being shown how to move my body, how to make it easier. The sense of achievement was wild, free, energetic and hopeful. It’s not my fault that I can’t spin yet; I need to learn that it is my upper body turning which will guide me. I love being taught. I love to follow the guidance of a wise teacher with patience and faith. I can rest in that.
Today I tucked my head in further and did a forward roll. It was fast, and unthought. She says practice until it feels normal. Trust in doing, in repetition. The stories are old, and need no retelling.

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Materials shopping

India

This post is just for images… now I am getting to the stage of putting things together, it’s good to see the constituent parts. The hot days of exploring avenues and roads of tiny shops full of potential pieces. Trying to concentrate very hard, imagining what I might need and which colour goes with what I already have at home…..

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The organisation of things

Essays, India

I am now 5 weeks into this residency, and I’ve been thinking about the process of making a new body of work. The way at the beginning it is important just to start; the trust that the materials and process will do the leading. For me, to make something physical is to reflect and acknowledge the body. When all of the plans are inside my head, it is simultaneously too hard to understand them, and they are too grandiose. My mind can construct anything, but my body is bound by its humanness; tiredness, reach of arms and time, for a start. These things are always very important to me in my work; I want to make things which reflect this embodiment rather than trying to get away from it. I love to see work which displays incredible skill, but I also love to see work which is brave enough to show its clumsiness, fear and vulnerability. I’m always trying to be brave enough to do that. I think it is a way to create intimacy.
People keep saying I’ve made so much work. I keep thinking do I have enough time left? I know that as soon as I start building, these pieces will disappear into and onto a large structure. And also there will be surprisingly and magically enough. Everything will shift once I start building outside. I will be on the street, and there people will engage with me. So it’s been important to have this first part where I am in the studio, making, laying out, reflecting my internal experiences through external materials. What I think I am going to make turns out to be something very different. Often all I can sense is an energy, like I am getting too tight, I need to be more loose. And so I get on the floor with newspaper, tissue and glue, and dip and drip into mounds and clumps. Or I know I want to move my body in a particular way, so I add a piece of charcoal to each hand and move blindly before a piece of paper. When I open my eyes, it has something to tell me. I am going to dance class; I have been drawing the stones which are getting released.
Now I feel more relaxed too, more like I am a part of this place. People recognise me at the coffee shop, and at the post office the woman says ‘you are a writer’, as I post my perhaps fifteenth letter to my sweetheart. I am nervous of how my work will be received, and I also want to be able to communicate. I think I will do a bit of writing which I can get translated into a couple of local languages and leave print outs for people to pick up. Maybe a new piece each week, as things develop.
There are things I have to hide here. They will need soft places to be protected. They will need to find ways to be expressed. Fellow students in my dance class ask me what is your work about? I say femininity, sexuality, alternative structures of meaning. See thing building? It is concrete. My work leans up against that, spreads out its tendrils and reminds you of the thick wild grass which cracks the concrete.
A friend asked me today for some pictures of an old work; The Way you have held things in Christchurch. I found images of the install. When it snowed; when my friend said build with the mud. Here in India there are piles of building materials, as apartments go up everywhere. The old bungalows are demolished and on the pavement there are piles of red clay, grey concrete; pigments to make things hold together. I want some of the mud, some of the clay. I want to wedge it wet in between paper and fabric and glitter and gold. The earth which will liquefy with the rain and run back into itself. I want to see this structure transform and change as the heavens open and drench it all.
When I look at the install images, I am reminded of the other end of the process; when there is a gap wide enough that you can see the work properly. Suddenly it seems enough, even beautiful, and certainly exactly what it needed to be. What it could be. What is was.
The difference between what the mind can conceive and what the body can do is wide. And human. I buy strings of flowers from the women outside the temple down the road. It’s the first time I’ve bought from them, and I squat down to ask to three lengths of marigolds and pinks. Lengths from elbow to wrist and back again. It’s hard to describe how grateful I am for their gentle warmth and welcome, here on the pavement. Yesterday outside the chemist an old man took my arm, and it took me a moment to realise that what he wanted was help stepping down from the high, cracked pavement. His skin was cool and papery, and we talked about the difference between having many gods and having one; what it means to have only a singular outcome of heaven as an option.
I do have a shrine here; it has things from home my sweetheart gave me, a nutmeg from the food forest we visited, and pieces of humble shine. A gold sweet wrapper, a fragment of sequined cloth from the pavement. The motorbikes here have pieces of orange and gold cloth tied to their handlebars sometimes, for luck. The things we do to get us through. The actions of wishing and objects of hope. Mine are these humble, funny, small vulnerable things. We treasure what we want to protect perhaps. They are objects which represent play, imagination, curiosity and wonder. Beauty found in the discarded and left over.
I realise walking home with my bag of flowers tucked gently to my chest, that it is the work I value, the energy and time, the bodies and blessings of these women who spent time tying these together. I hope that comes through in my work I make here too. I often laugh at myself, at how long it takes to recreate the tangles which I see on the street, in seaweed or piles of rubbish. Mona comes into my studio and carefully separates piles of wool, winding them onto paint tubes and rolls of newspaper. I don’t have the language to say she can leave them as they are – that the tangles are what I want. The complicated, multi layered, fragmentary structures for which I need to see piles of tree cuttings to remind me that there are branches as well as leaves. I don’t know if I will have time to make what I want to and dream of here, but it is emerging, coalescing out of the bundles and drawings growing here.