LivingArts: Cleaning Up

I’m staring at the mess in the studio, a studio I’ve barely used in the last year on account of recent full time work at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. There’s a pile of unsorted crap on the floor, abandoned by me after I threw my back out building the shelving unit that was to support my unsorted crap.  There’s a work table, cluttered with unsorted tools, liberally peppered with the ash black debris that had fallen when the roof was repaired. There’s a stack of bins and boxes that haven’t been unpacked since we had to pack down the studio a year ago in order to rent the space to a horror film company—literally a devil’s bargain.   

There are the sorts of things you only would find in an artist’s studio: a hat box full of acorns, a 50lb cube of solidified sugar, bucket of river stones, boxing speed bag, pulley-run dentist drill. More than any thing else there is wood. Oak barrel staves, horse stable hemlock, chestnut from the family piano, science cupboard doors, church pews, the list goes on. Wood enough for a decade of work.   Don’t tell me this studio doesn’t tell stories. It tells too many stories. It tells so many stories at once that I have to cup my ears and eyes to prevent being driven mad by them.

Not that I’m a masochist, but staring at an unbearable mess represents such a distilled moment of anxiety that it can almost be savoured like a cognac. It is very similar to a feeling I have when I do my taxes, when long periods of effort and struggle are reduced to a single pile of crumpled unmanaged vestiges; to sort through them will be a slow confirmation of how fleeting and/or meaningless and/or profitless my efforts have been.  A messy studio and taxes are as pure and clear as my existential crisis ever gets.

The beginning phase of cleaning a studio is the worst. It involves picking up one thing and moving it to another corner and then feeling exhausted. This is usually followed by reconsidering that decision and moving the thing back to where it was. It is the hallucinatory and maddeningly slow means of finding a starting point.   

The beginning phase of cleaning a studio is also the time where my mind plays a kind of game with itself. For the purposes of this column let me call the game “All paths lead to Hell." It goes a little something like this:  

"I should try to find a way to get some of my work in a public collection. No, I need gallery representation. No, I need my work placed in reputable private collections. Art is governed by the rich. I haven’t made new work in ages. My old work is unsuitable. Capitalism is wrecking everything. I will never be organized enough to have a proper practice. I wonder what it’s like to join a cult. None of my ideas are good. I will die owning nothing but regrets. I should start jogging. What does arthritis feel like?..."

And so on.

Thank god I am alone during this first phase of cleaning.

After about 3-6 hours (or days) of this kind of wallowing and frittering, I’ll notice that a little chunk of floor space has opened up.  It makes me exhale in a way that I haven’t been doing. And then another space opens up. And then I amass a truck’s worth of useless crap and take it to the dump, and it ends up making me physically lighter.

And the next day I come in, the job of organizing is already in process, and is clearly laid out. I enter into the second, most blissful part of cleaning. It doesn’t even feel like I’m thinking at all inasmuch as I am just emitting a smooth mechanical hum.

Only when the vision and shape of an ordered functional studio space can be discerned, does my mind start playing another game, one which I’ll call “All paths lead to God."

It’s not entirely different than the first game:

"Art is governed by the Rich. I want to fuse all this wood into a big cube and then illegally put it in the lobby of a bank. Capitalism is killing everything. I should start jogging. I could secretly raise goats here. I don’t need success. I just need to work. My art practice could just be about cleaning. I love this studio. I think I might be getting a respiratory disease."

And so on.