This article was written by Liz Hill – new staff Writer and Researcher for The Drawing Board.
This past Sunday, I put my shiny new Art Gallery of Alberta membership to use – something I hope to make a weekly occasion. I have my favourite artistic styles and movements, but I enjoy many kinds of art on different levels. Interpretation, analysis, and criticism are all good fun to me, but I purchased my student membership at the AGA in part to facilitate a less intellectual, but no less important, side of my relationship to art.
When I go to a new exhibition I will read all the informational plaques, scrutinize the works through my art history background and knowledge, and, in general, try to understand them. I enjoy this, but that intellectual part of the gallery experience is not so much different than what can be accomplished with a slide projector and a good lecturer, or a big glossy Taschen coffee table book. What makes visiting an art gallery so beneficial for me is the sensory and psychological experience: to be in a quiet environment designed to focus a primarily visual, and perhaps spatial, experience, and to engage with a form of expression that, whether it is beautiful or ugly, complex or simple, is nearly wordless.
As you stand in front of each work of art, the ebb and flow of time is dictated by your own attention and engagement with the particular piece and the moment that encapsulates it and you, not by a schedule composed of half hour comedies and hour long dramas, or chapters of approximately twenty five pages, or hour and twenty minute classes divided by ten minute intervals. In these moments of purely visual attention, there is no multitasking or overstimulating background of digital notifications. Most importantly for me, the linguistic filter of analysis and categorization that overlays all day to day experience for us overly-intellectual types falls to a quiet background hum.
Getting tangled up in the words in our heads is an occupational hazard for students, academics, introverts – anyone with a commitment, whether personal or professional, to Figuring It Out. The It that needs Figuring Out could be the meaning of an obscure Middle English text, the inner workings of the earth’s tectonic plates, or even one’s own inscrutable subconscious. The problem is the same though – for all your hard toil in the realm of abstracts, and all your moments of brilliant insight, your ideas don’t add up, your thoughts run in circles, and you’re left bound up in the tendrils of your own overworked mental processes. Whatever conclusion you were seeking is more obscured than illuminated by all your thoughts and words and logical reasoning.
I could put this frustrating situation down to the inadequacy of language to express truth, and accept that truth is either ineffable or non-existent and become some peculiar Postmodern mystic. Perhaps I will take that path in retirement, but for now I am practical. I am a student and a writer – I deal in words and truth-seeking and telling for a living. I live and work in my head, so I must make it a hospitable place. This means periodically clearing away the mental detritus, all those thoughts and words and logical tricks that have embedded themselves like weeds and grown around my mind like morning glory.
This is where the art gallery comes in, and the need to find a refuge from words, even as someone who lives in a world more made of words than atomic matter. For me, the focused visual experience of looking at art clears my mind without dulling it. My intellect is engaged and works away in the background, while my consciousness can relax and appreciate the moment. For others, physical activity might have this effect, or working with one’s hands. As we begin to approach the peak of the school term, I think it is important to remember to make time for these sorts of activities, so that when our minds need a break from all the words words words, we have some more refreshing options than another night with Netflix.