Today the photography volunteers have been given the name of their project. Minimalism. I watch them wander around the reserve, deep in thought, eyes looking down, eyes looking up, looking out, thinking in. What does minimalism mean to me? Is it this leaf in a dustbowl, or that emerald green gecko shinning up a fat brown tree? What do I hear while I seek my subject? What do I feel, how do I feel? Someone hunkers down to take a picture of an attention bell, one of those ping things that sit at reception when reception has popped out for a pee. She places it carefully on the wide stone floor and crouches down to get it right. I see the bell, tiny in such a lot of negative space. From above it certainly is minimalism. A child’s boat in a great stone ocean. From down there, where she is, the bell becomes huge and the stone ocean goes on for ever, or, at least, until it meets the wall.
At art school we were required to work on negative space. I hadn’t a scooby what that was, thinking it was something dodgy, the opposite of positive space, if, indeed that’s not an oxymoron. I found it extremely difficult at first, looking at what wasn’t there, the space in between the things that were. We had to look, see, draw the spaces, not the jugs or benches or trees or parked cars. All I could see was physical presence until, eversoslowly, just as my eyeballs threatened early closing, I got it, saw it and it was huge.
My understanding of opposites can often be This or That. I forget there are many miles in between the two, many colours, hues, options. Inhabiting that space is something I need to re-train my mind to work with. A physical life requires certain choices between This and That and decisions are based on what I see, what is available, what is acceptable in any given moment. We like routine, most of us, known quantities of things fixable and in good working order, things we use in our daily lives. There is, after all, a time and place for everything, is there not? I want a positive space to live in, one that protects me, mostly, from myself, one that nurtures, one I can see clearly and understand.
At home, I would call those times of deep internal unrest, negative space. Instead of really looking into that space, seeing it for what it is and allowing it just to be, I feel that I need to colour it in with my own pack of crayons. I need to get busy, sweep the floor, cook something, change a bed, anything that gives me good grasp of the positive, the physical. What I can touch reassures me. At least, over these things, I have control. That awful empty space back there, the one I just ran away from, the one full of unhappy thoughts and doubts and fears, well I sincerely hope that, by the time I descend the stairs, it has flown out the window. Go pray on someone else you horrid negative space. I’m fine now, with my pinny on and not long till lunch and the aftermath of dishes and cups to wash and dry. When I focus on the tasks ahead of me, I can feel the calm. There is always something to be done, after all, something that demands straightening, or mending, or wiping down, and once collected in an orderly fashion inside my mind, I am happy again. I am safe. this life is just fine.
However, this is a life out of balance. It must be, because the negative space is still there and it still bugs me. I don’t ask for it but it has something of import to show me. Drawing the space in between two jugs, I began to notice the distance. It wasn’t empty at all. Behind the jugs I could see someone’s hand as they drew their own negative space, a corner of a cupboard, a snatch of white-scuffed blackboard, and even further back, the branch of a tree through the murky window. It made me realize that I could look for ever into negative space and find positives, but distant positives, not too close, not mine to fix or mend or rearrange. They were simply there. I could fill in the gaps, complete the cupboard, the hand or the tree in my mind, but, somehow, I didn’t need to.
In order to control my mind, my thoughts, thoughts that fuel my choices of action and thoughts that will always have consequences, I need discipline, but discipline and I have never enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t ever complete the drawing (no discipline!) because I was so pulled into the space. I may have been given poor marks, but what I learned about negative space back then has become a life-long fascination. The trick is to be able to inhabit it, just as it is. Those times of discomfort and self-doubt will still come to me. I can fill them with stuff and noise and self pity; I can beat myself up, tear myself to shreds with my hyena teeth, or I can simply let them wash over me and move on. I doubt that I will ever learn my way around them, never ‘complete’ my drawing, but if I just sit and let them come to me, surround me, without fear……. if I can find the courage to do that, I believe I will, at last, be able to say this is Me.