Today I am older, tireder and probably greyer… but I have at last managed to submit an on-line application for the Bundanon Trust’s residency programme. Hooray!
The Bundanon Trust administers the Bundanon Estate, home of Australian artist Arthur Boyd and his wife Yvonne and now an arts centre that hosts multiple artists-in-residence every year. The residency programme is particularly generous in that there is no required outcome! Instead there is an understanding that the creation of art of all sorts sometimes just requires a physical, emotional and mental space… absolute luxury. Anyway, I don’t know how much chance I really have of being selected in 2011 – there are hundreds of applicants – but I know that I put in a much better application this year than I did last year, so at least I feel good about it.
The starting point for me is that text seems suddenly to have taken a central place in my work, rather to my surprise. I must say that I view my arts practice rather as a hunter regards a deer in the forest: the best tactic is to stay hidden and very still and silent, and if you’re lucky a deer might walk into a clearing… If I stand still and watch very closely I can, occasionally, catch a glimpse of what I’m on about – but often it is obscured by everything else going on around me. Perhaps that makes me less of an artist? I don’t know, but I am aware I have quite a skittish attitude to life so perhaps my inner artist is simply being consistent with my outer everything! Anyway, the deer of illumination walked out into the clearing recently and jabbed me hard with its antlers: text has reappeared in my work and the whole river thing I had going is SO yesterday. To whit: two residencies at Southern Cross University making collaborative artists’ books just covered with text, the ‘Bridge’ book, the ‘Boat’ book, the first BookArtObject piece and of course the Arabic boat/books from my recent exhition. Doh! I’m interested in text.
More specifically I’m interested in that boundary between understanding and failure to understand. I love New Scientist magazine and there was a fascinating article about language structures and brain development. In the 1960s Noam Chomsky proposed that babies’ brains are born to develop language: they are built to understand universal ‘building blocks’ of language, and linguists ever since have been trying to identify what those building blocks are and coming up with ever more complex analyses of language. Now you are talking to someone started learning New Testament Greek at the University of Oxford while being only dimly aware of the existence of nouns and verbs, but did you know that it was once thought that every language has four basic word classes: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs? Apparently this has now been shown to be wrong: Lao has no adjectives, while Straits Salish doesn’t even have distinct nouns or verbs.
In contrast to Chomsky’s theories of a universal grammar it is now being suggested that ‘diversity is the key to understanding human communication’ and that languages do not share a common set of rules. While human thinking undoubtedly shapes language, language in turn shapes our brains. “This suggests that humans are more diverse than we thought, with our brains having differences depending on the language environment in which we grew up”*. It may be impossible to think in exactly the same way as someone who grew up in a radically different linguistic environment… and it is this boundary of understanding that interests me.
Different people think and speak and act in different ways because language at once frees us and limits us. How can you express an idea that is outside your linguistic boundaries? Anecdotally I hear Chinese thinking is based around narratives rather than isolated facts: I presume that this is embodied in their languages as well as their culture, and is probably expressed in pictogram form in Chinese characters. When I was at university I remember asking a friend what the Mandarin characters on her T-shirt said, and she couldn’t explain the idea to me. Does this mean that people raised in a Mandarin-speaking culture will never completely understand English-speaking perspectives, and vice-versa? I don’t know, it’s a big argument but in so far as I am able to access one little corner of that conversation I must say that I find myself fascinated…
* Christine Keneally’s article Talking Heads, New Scientist 29 May 2010, page 33