This change story is changing
I started, pre-corona, to write this series on change: my Linked-In posts as a public invitation to make sense of a very personal inquiry about changing my artistic genre. I am painting 1000 of my nude paintings white to create my first conceptual work of art, called Back to White. I took the concept of liminality, developed by van Gennep in Rites of Passage ( 1909, 1960) as the theoretical basis for my narrative.
Now this change story is changing dramatically. Recent events changed my view on change, what I do, how I do it and why. My Back to White process has become my window on the world and Rites of Passage guides my attention to natural processes, patterns, rhythms, deeply hidden in shapes that come and go. I have a non-vital profession and am confined to my house these days. I look out of my window. I see the small square I look out on differently each day. From dawn till dusk. People coming and going. Flowers in my little flowerbed opening and closing. This liminal rhythm reflects what goes on inside me. My story here: the lived experience of my ‘betwixt and between,’ my being in liminal space.
From resistance to acceptance
Rites of passage distinguishes three stages: the pre-liminal or separation stage, the liminal or transition stage and the post-liminal, the incorporation stage. The previous episode was about the separation stage: The drama of the nudes resisting (they kept appearing underneath the layer of white I applied) featured in the previous episode. As I was passing the threshold, and was ready to write the next ACT, the transition stage, the liminal, the betwixt and between, enters Covid 19.
That was three weeks ago. Only gradually, I began to see the immensity of the drama and my thoughts dried. Writing about liminality is so much easier than writing about it from within! It’s like a fish writing about the water he’s swimming in. Not only does the world seem a different place as each day passes, my understanding of my place in the world, my very identity seems to shift each time I sit back and reflect. And this is exactly what liminality is about.
‘Liminality refers to moments or periods of transition during which the normal limits to thought, self-understanding and behaviour are relaxed, opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and destruction’
Thomassen (2018) in his introduction to Liminality and the Modern sees van Gennep’s liminality as an anthropological concept that ‘lends itself to a wider application, [and] captures something essential about the imprecise and unsettled situation of transitoriness…... ‘
The argument in his book: The global connectedness offers no boundaries to help us find a sacred order, ‘establishing and maintaining human relations within some form of meaningful, recognized boundaries.’ Until we do, we remain in ‘permanent liminality.’
Looking out of my window in pre-lock down Amsterdam, I am indeed strangely ‘relaxed.’ I feel a growing sense of acceptance and gentleness in me. Is this here to stay? I notice a sense of awakening to our humanity that is very comforting. I was moved to tears when doors opened in our little square and neighbors showed their appreciation for our healthcare professionals by 2 minutes of applause.
Into storage and in the meantime…?
Is something big really shifting? Are we entering a period of transition that corresponds to my own rite of passage in my studio ‘opening the way to novelty and imagination, construction and deconstruction?’ As I write to tell my ‘within story’ about the liminal stage, the words come from a humble and vulnerable place. More than in the previous episode.
I’ll start with a journal entry early February. I had to clear out my studio (once again) and had put all my white paintings in carton boxes to be stored until I had found a new place to work in.
“I look around my all but empty studio. My Back to White paintings, the 500 or so ‘white nudes’ are carefully packed in large brown carton boxes lie on the floor. Car is waiting outside to take them to the storage. Moving is such a drag! Moving in-between ‘having started’ and ‘having finished’ T.S. Elliot’s lines come to mind: “The end and the beginning are always there/before the beginning and after the end/And all is always now.”
I feel sort of empty, leaving my work half-finished in the dark storage: half the nudes painted white, the other nudes waiting. Silence for now. How will I meet them when I have found a new place to finish what I stared?” (Journal, 1 Febr 2020)
How prophetic! Little did I know at the time, that we would all, the whole human race, be put ‘in storage’ some weeks later. Confined to our homes, secluded, separated from a known past. Our roles and the very dynamic of society seem ready for review. Moving the paintings was a separation ritual, preparing me for the transformative space in which I find myself in now. Together with the rest of the world. In February I was in-between studio’s, now I am in-between worlds. My personal Back to White story has become a fractal of a larger shift.
I slow down, there is also tomorrow…
I write this looking out of my window. I take my time. My agenda is open. Each day I think: ‘There is also tomorrow’ and I feel a very familiar pressure of having to produce something flow out of my body. I take time to observe what emerges in the world around me and reflect on how my place in it is changing.
This is what goes on in me as I look out of the window. I choose to do nothing. Isn’t this a paradox: doing nothing. Is doing nothing an act? It is, isn’t it? A large portion of the population needs to be very busy. I could be very busy, too. I could make webinars, offer virtual facilitation or my expertise in virtual team work. I choose not to. I go out for long walks, do yoga, prepare healthy meals, check in on-line with loved ones. Is this a good choice? How do I know that it is? For the next few days, I check social media with this question in mind. I notice friends, colleagues, clients who are active online.
@ colleague researcher/consultant, Julian Chendler writes:
Everyone has tips for working from home. People are jumping on the opportunity to sell their special methods, tools, and tricks for our #newwayofworking. What they miss, though, is that this is part of a larger societal shift. Our modern lives, where work came first and success was equal to busyness, is on its way out. The 2020s will be a decade of reevaluating priorities. We will NOT go back to business as usual. Rather, we are looking at a new, even more flexible #futureofwork. Be careful of the hype, be kind to yourself, and experience this big change. #wereinthistogether.
@ colleague artist/consultant Anjet van Linge writes:
And I am finding that this is my main way of reflecting. Surprisingly this time for me it is not in the sense making, the writing, the sharing of stories, the online continuation of work. That’s needed, others do it well and it doesn’t need me. I find I become still, and try to make a rhythm and carve these blocks. For now that’s what I can offer.
@ a familiar voice on Linked In, Martijn Aslander shares a poem by Instagram star, Emma Zeck. It’s aptly activist.
With this open time you do not have to write the next bestselling novel
You do not have to get in the best shape of your life
You do not have to start that podcast
What you can do instead is observe this pause as an opportunity
I sit in the window doing nothing
I sit in the window doing nothing. I read about climate change, hunger, poverty, what Rittel and Webber (1973) called ‘wicked problems.’ As Crowley & Head (2017) explain, wicked problems as having such incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex problems. Should I therefore do nothing, nothing ambitious anyway? In case I make things worse?
I sit in the window doing nothing. I see a post of one of my clients, the managing director of the mental health institution I mentioned in the previous episode. He explains: ‘Parents can no longer visit our clients. The parents understand, the clients don’t. It is very painful for all of us.’ My heart breaks over the children that are not equipped to understand the change of pattern their lives are built around. What is happening to them? Our experiences are often seen as happening to us. Does human existence happen to us? Or does it happen within us? Am I contributing by reflecting on the pain of the children, parents and healthcare professionals?
I sit in the window doing nothing. I see a father play with his daughter on a Thursday morning. I think of the concept of Wu Wei, central to Taoist practice. It means something like ‘always act in ways that are in accordance to the pattern of the things as they exist.’ It is better to do nothing than to act without knowing the bigger pattern. In Taoism, the loss at one level, works out as a gain at another. Is the little girl better off with her father playing with her, than with her father working and providing for the family? Is leaving my unfinished paintings in the dark storage untouched, better than finishing the project?
I sit in the window doing nothing. I scan my body: how do I feel? If this is the liminal stage, I want to wash everything off. What is unnecessary. Like the washing and cleansing rituals van Gennep describes. The Jewish bath, the Mikveh comes to mind. I read the instructions on Wikipedia: ‘After the first prayer, you take a deep breath, and dive under the water. Lift your feet off the ground, exhale out of your mouth and nose, and make sure all of your hair is submerged. Stay down for a few seconds then come back up.’ I imagine what it feels to float a while in the water and then come back up. Even thinking about this, lifts me up. My mood changes. I feel part of a sacred order. Envisioning myself in the bath, I go up/down. With the flowers I open/close. Exercise takes me in/out of the house. Rituals, van Gennep teaches us, play out rhythmic patterns that create a sacred order.
Change the world, do nothing
I sit in the window doing nothing: Immersed in the liminal. I can’t finish my 1000 paintings as long as this lasts. They are to be exhibited in Liverpool in August. Will they? I tense up. Will it matter if they don’t? I relax. In/out.
Will the paintings speak to me differently when they come out of storage? The change story has changed as they sat there in the dark and I sat in the window, doing nothing, changing the world?
How to remember this crisis?
The archetypal liminal rite: A young boy spends three days in the forest, he meets his fears, comes back and the elders ask him what he remembers. He is given a new name based on his narrative. Covid-19 has taken us into the forest to meet our fears. We tell the story that health takes precedence over wealth. What will we remember when all is ‘back to normal’?
What will you keep when all is ‘back to normal’? And how to remember this?
I read Emma Zecca’s poem again:
The same systems we see crumbling in society
Are being called to crumble in each of us individually
What about we became curious with this free time,
& had no agenda other than to experience being?
What if our true purpose is in this space?
Crowley, K., & Head, B. W. (2017). The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: revisiting Rittel and Webber.
Gennep, van, A. (2019). Rites of Passage.
Thomassen, B. (2018). Liminality and the Modern: Living through the in-between.
Emma Zeck. https://www.emmazeck.com/
Mikveh on wikipedia. https://www.heyalma.com/actually-mikveh-can-super-feminist/