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being-nothing project statement


being-nothing is a collection of creative responses to the ideas in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Read over the course of a year, at the rate of a handful of pages each day, the ‘bible’ of existentialism is the most challenging read I’ve undertaken. While I grasp it at only a basic level, it seems to me to demonstrate how philosophy enables us make sense of our world. My intention is to stimulate engagement with a way of thinking that has helped articulate freedom since the book was published. The works that emerged from my study are photographs and poems. I’m currently bringing them together in an artist’s book and plan to exhibit a selection in December at a group show.

The project is in an ongoing enquiry into our relationship with objects, others, society and the self. It is a creative interrogation of individual orientation to the world. It reflects on consciousness, universal lived experience and cultural biases. Underpinning my practice is the idea that making and theory inform each other. I engaged with the concepts in each of Sartre’s chapters using a range of stimulus techniques such as redaction and cut-up. As I became familiar with his key ideas, my responses became richer, less academic and increasingly influenced by events in society. At the end of the reading, I reshot and redrafted the first images and poems to incorporate new knowledge. This process revealed how the disciplines I was working in invite reaction in different ways. Sometimes a photograph would emerge first and lead to a textual response; at others, a poem would inspire an image. The shared catalyst, though, brought coherence and allowed distinctions in methods of communicating the visual to complement each other.

The source text also highlights parallels between Sartre's context and our current sociopolitical milieu. In the midst of World War II, despite systematic attacks on liberty, he paradoxically posited that we are free. His philosophy implies that Brexit, the refugee crisis, exploitation of the body are ours; they exist through us. Given the assaults on democracy taking place today, the writer's insistence on individual responsibility for the state of affairs is as pertinent now as it was then.

Often it is sensory metaphors, like Sartre's visceral description of slime, that sustain in the imagination and illuminate an argument long after debate has been silenced. Something lingers in the retina or the mind's eye. Visual images, whether formed in a camera or through text, enable me to provoke obliquely. I use photography to consider how our way of seeing privileges the special over the ordinary, even as we are being homogenised and ignored, and reflect on the subtle mechanics of othering. The ubiquitous three-leafed clover, for example, implies the absent fourth leaf that would make it worthy of attention; it represents the disparity between the natural human desire to be seen and the feeling that we, and others, are not. A journey could end in freedom or unremarkable, undocumented darkness. In making images and technical choices, I can prioritise such a subject within the frame or spread the gaze across an undifferentiated plane – macro or zoom, wide or small aperture, black and white or colour, flash or natural light. Each decision shifts focus or point of view and impacts on interpretation. I can choose how to see.

I can't, though, choose how to be seen. My efforts to capture and communicate are frustrated by two central paradoxes articulated in Being and Nothingness: I can never be the subjects I try to possess in frames and stanzas; and I can never catch hold of my self as an object. It is only through knowing what I am not - Sartre’s nothingness - that I can resolve such contradictions in my existence. I am not that tree, that arm, that person but they are part of my being. I am conscious only through my awareness of the perception of others. So, I hyphenate the space between dualities - you-me, us-them, black-white, special-ordinary - and assert my view of the nature of our shared lived experience. being-nothing is an optimistic work that positions us as makers of our world.


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© 2019 JULIE LAING
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