We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories began, under the aegis of that multitude of stars which at night filch certitudes and sometimes returns them as faith.
– and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, John Berger 1984
I was introduced to the more didactic of Berger’s texts when an art student, but arrived late to the full richness and breadth of his work. Much of the intervening years were spent crippled by shyness and self-doubt, in the polarised state of both desiring engagement but fearing exposure. This confliction, that so confined my practice, was exacerbated by bipolar disorder and its attendant literal confinements within hospital walls. I could not comfortably inhabit or value either the part of me that knew, or the part of me that was unknowing. I feared my knowledge and I feared my ignorance, unable to reconcile the different strands of my practice. In all these matters, Berger’s work has been redemptive. He gives me courage. His willingness to embrace uncertainty; his ability to sincerely inhabit the difference of the other; the co-mingling of the theoretical and the lyrical, the written and the visual, the personal and the political is liberating. He does not dictate – he wonders. An idea, a theory, is never proposed as a given, but as a possibility, to be willingly handed over for us to shape in our own minds. Dogma is death. Uncertainty is life.
I am currently collaborating with curator Judit Bodor and another artist, Tom Rodgers, on a project called MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall. The seeds of the project were sown when Judit curated an event where I, and the author David Peace were brought together to discuss the themes that shared an echo in our practice. Judit, Tom, and I then took David’s novel 1980, which is a fictional re-imagining of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, as a starting point for an exploration of the sites where the victims were lost to us – Judit and I exploring and talking and enacting spontaneous ritual, Tom the eye of the lens that frames our actions.
In this image there are three sets of hands, and three sets of eyes. Tom holds the camera with which the image is captured, whilst Judit and I cradle the rose; our gazes an inverse triangle that centres on the flower. I see this image in triplicate. In the picking and the holding, the moment of being; as an artist, the seeing of the image and the knowing of its worth; and as my fearful self, the body that wishes to remain buried, who sees my own hands clumsy and dirty against the delicacy of Judit’s fingers and the pale softness of poor ‘Joan’s’ rose. Crucial to the success of the collaboration is the willingness to work together in a state of unknowing, to be able to relinquish control & authority, & to put aside preconceived ideas of our roles. (Though at a distance, David too is part of this relinquishing, giving up his text for me to rework as image, prose and poem.)
We are all uncertain of and surprised by the on-going outcomes, giving up jealously guarded aspects of our creative and emotional identities, allowing ourselves to be led and held, re-interpreting our sensibilities through the filter of the other. We all report going into a semi-dreamlike state during these site visits. Berger’s acceptance of what I would call the grace of risk, the opening up to make a space where the other and the new can pour in is of immense importance to me in this process. At the start of the creative journey we did not know each other well, but soon discovered that Berger’s work, in all its forms, is significant for each of us. Referencing him, swapping his texts, is now a commonplace between us, within the contexts of both work and friendship. We walk together on uncertain and unmapped ground, accepting a mutual guiding towards an unknown destination. This, I think, is what faith is, to say: ‘this is OK… we are OK… I am OK.’
Emma Bolland and Judit Bodor will hold a discussion about ‘Empathy and Uncertainty in Creative Practice’ at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London on Tuesday, 6 November at 5pm. This is part of Redrawing the Maps, a week of conversations, collaborations, screenings and workshops inspired by the work of John Berger.