Friday, October 10, 2008

Slow discovery of intimacy through art works

In Melbourne’s The Age for Saturday 11 October, Andrew Stephens discusses two local art installations in "Too Close for Comfort". He writes,
"Intimacy isn't easy, for vulnerability requires emotional nakedness, letting down the defences to expose and share ugly or dull traits alongside fragile treasures. We crave intimacy - with partners, parents, children, even strangers - yet we may repel or avoid it out of paralysing fear of what it demands of us.

I have searched for clues to it in books - haven't we all? On the cover of Thomas Moore's beautiful Care of the Soul, a subtitle explains that it is "a guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life". There are other texts of this ilk on my shelves - James Hillman's A Blue Fire, Stephanie Dowrick's Intimacy and Solitude, Robert Johnson's Psychology of Romantic Love. They all make their cases for greater intimacy. Some are truly wise.

But the real, slow discovery is that intimacy mostly comes in relationships with people and usually involves an exchange: honest conversation, tenderness and compassion, sexual expression, or perhaps simply being. Other forms of intimacy can mean communing deeply with self or with the creative world.
It is a question that goes to the heart of the experience of intimacy: how close can you get, and yet retain your identity and necessary solitude at the same time? Even with your beloved, or a dying parent, or a newborn child (let alone an art work), you can only go so far. It is the sort of thing that Stephanie Dowrick writes so successfully about: that intimacy begins on the inside, that it begins with your own self, and if the boundaries blur too much between two people, a dynamic can ensue which actually hinders or defeats intimacy.

It is an intriguing aspect of humanity: our desire to "only connect", as E.M.Forster's epigraph announced in Howard's End. Some lovers misconstrue this desire as a need to be "as one", to take union - coital or emotional - to its extreme and to actually merge. I think of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights or the medieval myth of Tristan and Isolde. As Melbourne psychologist Peter O'Connor remarks in Looking Inwards (2003), such idealisation of a lover usually turns to disillusionment. If we are able to hang in there and work through it, he says, that denigration may metamorphose into a healthy and fulfilling integration of the other's difference. We come to value these differences - a process we might apply more broadly when we encounter "the other" (in culture, politics, sexuality or gender) in the broader world.

Many nuances of relationship are beautifully explored in the Intimacy exhibition at ACCA but one telling aspect ... is the emphasis on non-verbal languages to convey intimate feelings.

"I didn't expect music to be such a large part," says curator Anna MacDonald when she gives me a preview of some of the works she chose for the show. "But then it also seems quite natural. Music steps in when another kind of language fails - and if you think of the way it functions in most people's lives ... you experience particular emotions when you listen to music; it also helps you to understand or to articulate particular feelings in a way that you can't do otherwise."

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