Ways Of Seeing
Michael Walsh is a contemporary artist whose engaging mixed media artworks, which often incorporate an element of performance, ask the visitor to respond and participate.
The artist, who lectures at the Bermuda College, has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial a total of eight times – six alone and twice as a member of the Centipede Art Movement, a grassroots collaborative dedicated to creating contemporary artwork in Bermuda, which he describes as “a counteraction to self-imposed Bermudian censorship”.
We sat down with Michael to discuss the different ways in which we perceive the world, why not knowing the answer is the root of innovation and how he uses art as an attempt to be truly present.
BNG: You gave a lecture at the Bermuda National Gallery late last year in which you told a story about how your father had taken you to a cherry tree when you were a child and asked you to look at it in different ways. This has stuck with me as it was a very simple and very effective analogy for looking at the world through the eyes of an artist. Could you please re-tell the story?
MW: When I was very young, around 4 or 5, my father and I went for a walk. He stopped me by a cherry tree that used to grow in front of our house and told me to close my eyes. He asked, “What do you hear?” I told him. Then he asked, “What do you smell?” I answered. He asked, “What do you taste?” That one got me thinking, since we don’t often pay attention to taste when we’re not eating. Then he asked “What do you feel?” After I answered all his questions, before I opened my eyes, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Remember there is more than one way to perceive the world.”
BNG: How did this experience shape your curiosity and creativity, both as a child and as an artist?
MW: I credit this lesson as the foundation of my freedom. There’s a Buddhist quote about how our ideas of the external are as valuable as the world views of a chick still inside its egg. We are limited by what we believe is true, or; something is only true if you believe it.
“I don’t know” are the smartest three and a half words in the English language. Not knowing is the source of all learning, exploration, innovation, growth, and adventure! Knowing “I don’t know” gives me the courage and capacity to think outside my own box.
BNG: You have said that “the no-thing (the not described) has become the necessary focus of my work”. Could you please explain what you mean by this? In what ways does it drive your work?
MW: Reality exists outside your perception of it. Your brain has never seen, smelled, heard, touched or tasted anything. Your body lives in the world, but your mind imagines a reality misinterpreted from the electrochemical signals your body sends. Your reality is just an idea you believe.
The human condition is one of terrifying isolation. You are the center of your entire universe. You see everything. Nothing exists outside your awareness of it, but you are not the universe. The universe is everything else that isn’t you. The universe is everything except your consciousness. Even your body feels distant, different, like a thing outside the “you that is aware”. You are an isolated, disembodied, omniscient observer. You are an insignificant god.
So you reach out to connect with the world. You try to prove to yourself that the world exists and that you exist in it. Presence, being present, is the one true human need. It is the one true goal of all our endeavors. It is the one thing our consciousness really craves.
So you try to find what you have in common with the world, unfortunately you only understand in terms of contrast. Up is up because it is not down. Hot is hot because it is not cold. Black is only black because it is not white. Good would not exist without evil. You are you because you are not the universe.
So this is the problem; consciousness wants to feel real, it wants to believe it exists, but the only reality it has access to, is the reality it imagines, and because we can only comprehend in terms of contrast, any attempt to understand reality just proves it is different from us. Our understanding, our description of reality, separates us from it.
So to be present I have to find ‘The Truth’ outside of ‘My Truth’. The Nothing, the “no-thing-I-can-name”, is the visceral, deep, real, eternal soup we all come from. I am driven by the same thing that drives us all, to be present. I want to believe the one truth that every story is trying to tell us; “You are here.”
BNG: Your artwork often incorporates an element of performance. Even static works often ask the viewer to actively participate in more subtle ways. For example, those who look closely at your 2020 Bermuda Biennial work on paper will realize that it is not only two sided but that it also contains a hidden message on the reverse. Why is this active – rather than passive – viewing important to you?
MW: Do you know how to tell you are dreaming? You can’t read in a dream. The next time you think you’re dreaming try to read something; a sign, a book, something with more than one word on it. The words will move, slip, slide and change chaotically. I’m guessing this is because thought is always moving. It’s probably the same reason we ruminate on things, why we need to repeat thoughts and arguments over and over. If we only had a thought once it would be easy to see it’s just a thought and not a reality. We replay thoughts to make them feel real.
It is not possible to be present in a thought, because they are fluid and unreal by their very nature. The closest a thought can come to being reality is being a description of reality. Art is necessary because it is impossible to be present in an idea. Art is an attempt to make conciseness, experience, and perspective so real we can feel present in it.
Performance art is the attempt to be real. The goal in performance art is to be completely present in the task. To be a participant in reality instead of an observer or dreamer. Marina Abramović’s work, particularly The Artist is Present, is a clear and accessible example of this premise.
Martial Arts are a direct way to be present in your own body and experience. They give you the opportunity to feel where you end and where the rest of realty begins. Muay Thai has allowed me real access to a lot of what I now realize was just art theory. I would argue that everything we call Art is a relic, or an echo, of someone being truly present.
Communion is the only antithesis to the isolation of the conscious human experience. Art is a collaboration between artist(s), subject, material and visitor. I prefer to use the term ‘visitor’ instead of ‘audience’ because a visitor can respond and participate.
BNG: Could you please talk us through Holding Nothing?
MW: Studying Muay Thai took me on a retreat to Jamaica that culminated with three Witches burying me in the Earth. I’m using the term ‘Witches’ here with the upmost of reverence and gratitude, and to evoke some sense of magic, my fear of the unknown, and my awe of The Nothing. The goal of the ritual was to “let the Earth take something you no longer wanted to carry.”
It was intense. After the ritual I was struck with the revelation that when I was born the Earth made me a promise. She promised to hold me in the void. To bear my weight and take whatever I gave her. If everything else in the retreat was intense this was something outside of language. Outside of description. Maybe it was a “real” experience? Something that reached me through the Matrix my mind lives in?
I gave the Earth my “need to punish”. Before therapy I was an extremely angry person. In fact, I went to therapy because anger was dictating all my thoughts and actions. A large part of my identity, the story I told myself to make myself believe I had value, was that I would punish the unjust. Vengeance sustained me. I reveled in my anger, it invigorated me, but hated myself for needing it.
I no longer personify my fear and anger. They aren’t demons to exorcise, they aren’t creatures I’m a victim of. My fear is the part of me that wants to be safe. My anger is the part of me that is willing to do what is necessary to keep me safe.
‘Holding Nothing’ is the artifact of a performance that affirmed my gratitude for the Earth “taking my need to punish”. In preparation I created a mold by cutting out the negative of a skeleton in a piece of plywood. It was modeled after a skeleton half exhumed from the earth in an archaeological dig. I laid the paper on my skeleton matrix and began the performance. I wrote a few words of introduction then I repeated “Take my need to punish”, over and over like doing lines on a blackboard. As I reached the bottom of the paper, when there was just enough room for it, I wrote “thank you”. The act of writing pushed the paper into the matrix, imbedding the skeleton, the echo of my conviction, my presence, and my gratitude into an ephemeral record. I installed it hanging vulnerably away from the wall to heighten its ephemerality and invite visitors to see behind the avatar. It shocks me how so few of those visitors look behind it.
BNG: Let Me Tell You Something marks your 6th Bermuda Biennial. How has your inclusion in so many different iterations impacted both your work and your career as an artist?
MW: I don’t think I would even count as an emerging artist anywhere else in the world. I don’t complete or exhibit enough work to “perform on a global stage”, so the Bermuda Biennial is a really important resource and opportunity for me. A lot of my work is very labour intensive and financially restrictive. The Bermuda Biennial gives me a framework to work around and a real incentive to get work done. We are very lucky to have such an accessible platform to show our work and access to enlightened contemporary jurors that facilitate us participating in the global art dialogue.
BNG: As the Arts Lecturer at the Bermuda College what do you seek in to instill your students?
MW: You only need two things to be an artist. First you need the courage validate your perspective. You need to know that your unique experience has divine value. Your voice is worth hearing. You are not an insignificant observer. Secondly you need the empathy to validate the perspectives of others. No matter how terrifying or alien someone else’s perspective is they came by it honestly. Their perspective is their truth. So how do you communicate with an alien perspective? You have to learn where they are coming from so you can speak in a language they will understand. I like to say, “No one will hear you if you are not listening.”
These are not easy lessons. There’s a lot of tears, anger, cognitive dissonance, suffering and failure after failure after failure. Humanity is not for the weak of heart. You have to make an important choice. You can choose to be an artist, or you can choose to be a victim. You can choose to be someone with the empathy to see what’s really in front of you and the courage to create, or you can live disempowered, without responsibility, letting life happen to you.
I can’t instill anything in anyone. All we can do is show up, over and over and over, to give others the chance to see they are worth showing up for. I hope they notice I show up. I hope they see me stand when I fall. I hope they see my fear and my failures. I hope they choose courage, and then choose it again, and then choose it again, every time they need to.
BNG: You recently worked with the Bermuda National Gallery Youth Arts Council who have just completed a module on your Biennial artwork. What was the experience like for you?
MW: Incredible. Flattering and humbling. I was flattered to be asked to participate, and humbled by the presence of the students participating. Even through Zoom their courage was evident. They asked some powerful, poignant, relevant and courageous questions. I was impressed by their bravery and so grateful for their genuine participation. I can’t wait to see what they make!
BNG: How can the BNG engage with emerging artists?
MW: The challenge the Bermuda National Gallery faces in engaging with anyone, artist, visitor or donor, is that BNG is an institution. It’s the contrast problem again, even at its very best inclusion creates exclusion. If I say “I love red” what you hear is “I don’t love the colours that aren’t red.” As I’ve said, the answer must be “to listen” to whoever you want to engage with. Give them time and empathy to really hear them. I don’t know how an institution can commune with people, but I would be happy to help figure it out.
One thing I do see in my dreams for Bermudian Art is direct pipelines to international shows. Maybe the next Bermuda Biennial is in Jamaica, or Germany, while Japan has a Biennial here?
BNG: You are also exhibiting a second piece in the Biennial this year as part of the Centipede Art Movement, which is a grassroots collaborative dedicated to creating contemporary artwork in Bermuda. Could you please tell us more about the movement?
Bermuda has historically had a very traditional approach to art making. Do you think this is changing? Why/why not? In what ways?
MW: I’ll have to answer these last two questions together.
Bermuda has a very strong “don’t rock the boat” policy. This is a predictable dogma, symptomatic of our colonial and capitalist history. People avoid their shame, even if they are unconscious of it. The empathy necessary for communication is VERY difficult to access when the shame white people feel, having benefited and participated in a power structure that literally created racism to validate and perpetuate inequality, is coupled with the shame black people are expected to feel based on not qualifying for power in a system designed to disempower them. We cannot empathize when we feel threatened. We cannot challenge what we cannot face.
Capitalism persists because it is founded on our very real programing to “kill or be killed.” Our psyches respond to “not having” as “not having enough to survive” which makes sense in regards to food and shelter, but unfortunately it persists into our understanding of wealth and accolades. Any threat to what we “have” is perceived as an attack on our lives.
So we maintain the status quo because we are afraid of losing what we have. In larger countries there are more artists with “nothing left to loose”, coupled with a higher capacity for anonymity to fan their courage. You only need to consider how we hid our monument of Sally Bassett to see how terrified Bermuda is to share our communal reality and explore the differences in our individual perspectives.
The Centipede Art Movement is a counteraction to the self-imposed Bermudian censorship. It doesn’t exist in the traditional sense. There’s no organised meetings, or an agenda, or a budget, or even members really. No one is, or is not, a Centipede. However, every now and then, some Bermudian artist, usually someone young and taking art classes at Bermuda College, has a perspective way outside the status quo that they believe in so much they inspire other people to help them get their voice heard. I am grateful for their courage and look forward to seeing more Centipedes.
The BNG Youth Arts Council, aimed at students aged 13 -17, produces art activities relevant to the teens of today. Registrations is free. For further information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.