Many times I like to keep quiet about the specific message I had in mind when creating a piece, because I like my work to be allowed to speak to each viewer differently based on their own unique thoughts and experiences. At the same time, I myself am a curious individual and I hate when other artists flat our refuse to share what a piece means with their audience. So, every so often on this blog I want to pick a piece with a lot to say and explain the thoughts behind it. Today I’ve selected “The Way I See It”.
In this piece, an average young woman sits, quiet and composed. She sits straight-backed, hands in her lap, legs together. The viewer can discern her reserved and unimposing nature simply based on how little space she purposefully occupies. Like many, she is probably good and bad, but mostly good. The other figure looks at her and sees evil. He can only see her shortcomings or what he views as such, and blames her for them as if any part of her person he doesn’t like was a planned attack against him. He paints her as a vampire, a monster, a whore. While she passively sits, he smears paint on her clothing and on her skin as he touches her. (An interjection, the gender choices in this piece are not significant. It is simply easier to depict the main character in this narrative as a woman so I could draw from my own perspective of when I have felt treated this way. The figures’ roles could easily be reversed, or it could be two men or two women.) The artist is delighted and proud of his portrait, his telling of her story and who she is as a person, be it true or not. Truth doesn’t matter when one is convinced they are right.
We run into serious problems when we let others be the artists or creators of our story, when we let them tell us who we are. Like the paint smears covering the young woman, as we let them sully what we think of ourselves, our own essence literally floats away before we even notice. Meanwhile, their incorrect perception creeps in like a vapor, taking its place.
Stories are tricky. We are not omnipresent, nor can we view the past or future in real time. So, when we view a situation, we are only inputting a piece of the overall story. We don’t like incompletes, it’s why in Hollywood Blockbusters everything gets hurriedly and inconceivably tied up all within the last 5 minutes of the movie, and we love it. Back to the situation we’ve just viewed, one of many in a given day: how do we complete the story we’ve caught just a chapter of? By either consciously or unconsciously inventing the rest of it in our minds. We can fit the puzzle pieces together so seamlessly that we often will even remember the inferred story as fact. We may have come close to truth … but then again there is a good chance we have not.
“What you remember is determined by what you see, and what you see depends on what you remember … a cycle that has to be broken” Tim O’Brien writes in his novel Going After Cacciato. No object or person is visually neutral. Think of our brains as a giant search engine. I’m going to get very simplified here – we see a person in a blue shirt. We “type” the input “blue shirt” and up pops images, videos, memories of all the experiences we’ve ever had with people with blue shirts. It’s hard to emotionally separate our memories from this new experience. We could see a person we’ve never even met as malicious simply because we’ve had negative interactions with others who look like them in the past. We could see a country or city as sinister, be wary of a new activity or experience because our memories literally distort our perceptions.
Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, and she also has a few great Ted Talks which is how I discovered her. This talk I’ve included a link to below about stories is fantastic. I was so interested when I came upon it after finishing this piece, because it deals with many of the issues I was thinking about when I came up with the artistic concept. I would highly recommend a listen.
I would also welcome any thoughts you may have on stories, perception and memory, or any different way you might have interpreted this piece. Sharing is fun, don’t be shy!