The Age of Bronze
What does it mean, to be human? Usually the response involves some reference to an individual's character, situation or the narrative of actions and reactions. But aren't these merely local details in a bigger picture?... What we all share is having our own vivid sense of individualism/importance whilst being part of a process much, much greater than any single life, particularly our own. A game that has a life, logic and dynamic of its own, regardless of the needs or aims of the constituent players.
If you were to represent a single human generation of twenty five years with a little red house, similar to one used in a board game, and were to balance two hundred of them upon each other you would end up with a ten foot tall stack that could represent the last five thousand years from now until the dawn of the Bronze Age. A way of depicting a larger chunk of time than we're normally preoccupied by, but also a representation of the contingent, dependent, connected nature of each individual to those who've come before, and their connection to the real "Great Game", that implacable, blind, grinding, grating, articulated machine of humanity.
This piece comes partly from the memory of a conversation with my father, Neville. He was musing on the decisions he'd made in his life, and had mentioned that before leaving Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1958 for art college in the West, he'd been torn between coming to London or choosing the US instead. I remember his whistfulness, though that could have been my judgement clouding interpretation at the time or my later remodelling of the shape of a stored memory. I told him I wished he had done, meaning that the chances for a sculptor seemed so much better in the States than Britain. The time of this conversation (the late 80's) was before the step change in attitude to the visual arts in the UK, and the rise in popularity of contemporary domestic art. Back then it was a truism to bemoan the historic British antipathy to visual art as opposed to literature, especially amongst cash-starved, scrappy artists. It seemed more likely that my father, an ardent, high modernist, "abstract" sculptor would have received more attention in the US, or at least have had more of a chance at selling more of his work.
"Well if I had, you'd never have existed!" he replied with characteristic relish.
(He saw my mother at the Tate in London in 1959, convinced her to model for a drawing or sculpture that I think never got made...my brother was though, and so it goes...)
And there it was, the nub of it: the apparently self-sufficient self revealed, to itself, to be utterly contingent on the random choices of some other self 30 years previously. It's that sense that ones' location, character, position - one's very existence, is contingent on a host of stuff occuring in the lives of ones' parents, and, of course, in their ancestors.... This fragility, this interdependence that, once you really engage with it, evaporates the ground beneath one's feet. The vertigo induced by the acknowledgement that the heroic little narrative we all make in order to make sense of our lives is terrifyingly brittle and local, and dependent on other narratives of equal fragility.
It is this that feels most like that old canard, "the sublime" to me, not some panoramic view of mountains, or the acknowledgement of the slipperiness and limitations of language's relationship to "reality". It's the prospect of that seemingly endless, processional churn of individuality, that great barbed worm, munching its way through space and time like a spear.
Of course, looking back, it's always easier to see choices that either weren't there at the time, or would only have been visible to a future self with more information. This in turn, makes you ponder how much freedom to act you actually have, since every choice you make and position you hold is only possible because of the preconditions of prior events or states. The peculiarly linear hold time has on us, or perhaps, the peculiarly linear grip we have on time, lends a similar structure to an individual's life: a splendid narrow stream of reactions, choices, responses, all built consecutively one upon the other.
One can only look back and wonder what could have been, and know that any change would have obliterated this moment of reflection, right here, right now.