Pictures of Nothing at All
It is the quality of flow which speaks so eloquently through all the component parts of this catalogue cum exhibition by Kit Kelen, Professor of English at the University of Macau. Indeed, flow is so germane to the work, like a river running through and beneath it, that it is hard to really talk of components or any distinct and boundaried concepts at all – art forms, design, ideas all flow into each other.
The catalogue is from an exhibition Kelen held at the Macao Museum of Art in September 2014. The book is really an exhibition itself – a beautiful blend of image and text, seamlessly interwoven and aesthetically pleasing, as the visual and auditory sometimes are in lived life. Boundaries between genres, usually kept rigidly separate, have collapsed in Kelen’s work. Rather, these works are on an art-form continuum, with genres bleeding into each other.
Flow is a concept common to many cultures – both eastern and western. Qi, in Chinese religion, Prana, in Indian philosophy and religion; these are words for life force – that dynamic energy which is an essential part of any living thing. It is what I see when I look at Kelen’s abstract visual art – representations of aliveness; energy in the broadest sense. Bulging cellular and amoebic shapes could be life under the microscope, the miniscule brought close up. There are also many representations of what could be fluids in motion – swirls and eddies, deltas and river mouths.
This is the concept of flow at its basic, building-block level. But Kelen’s work also reminds me how playfulness is linked to flow by psychological researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He talks about flow as the quality of experience when one is so happily absorbed by a task that temporal concerns fall away, as in play and creativity. “Creativity”, Einstein in the introduction tells us, “is intelligence having fun”. Or as Kelen says:
sleep to dream,
wake to play
Kelen’s writing has a relaxed, improvisational quality; the mind has been let off its leash and is free to associate. He riffs, engagingly, cleverly on various themes. Dreams feature frequently, perhaps another version of the mind at play.
I was working
knee high in dream deeps
Or more specifically:
Got here in a dream – don’t know how to get home
The introductory translations are accompanied by small works by Kelen; his “Doodlescopes”. Doodling in lectures “to retain his sanity”, was how Kelen first got into visual art and they are intriguing, intricate works.
Many of Kelen’s aphorisms seem like doodles too, Kelen playing with language as he plays with colour and form – alert to the sonic as well as other connections and correspondences between words and concepts (mockers/makers, sacred/secret). His word-based work is short, pithy, playful. It is haiku-like, as in:
through these branches
possums climb down
from the stars
The other-than-human populate Kelen’s poems: trees, flowers, horses, doves, possums and pigeons. As he puts it:
on a day when you speak
just with all the other-than-human
members of the house
and of the air outside
His encounters with the elemental – stars, light, sky, earth, breath and cloud – bring more light and outward lookingness to his work.
Poems often penetrate to an essence:
From my door
Everywhere leads me
every way home
nowhere but the way
And from a few pages later:
call this your practice
embrace the pace
These pieces seem emblematic, statements of a life philosophy. You can read this in the text but you can also read this in the visual art. Even the title reflects this engagement – they are not pictures of any particular thing but of energy, bold and simple. There is a spiritual quality – in the broadest meaning of this word – even in the Zen koan-ish impossibility of the title as well as the meditative nature of many of his poems.
Embrace the poem
and squander the soul
instructions for the use of a cathedral
in the rafters
in the belfries
and in the loosened tiles
where words of prayer
One of the most striking elements of the catalogue is the quality of the design itself. From the first the book is beautifully put together. Even before you reach the main artworks, it is attractively and cleverly presented. The early pages are devoted to translations (English, Chinese, French, Portuguese and Indonesian) of wonderful catalogue notes written jointly by Dr Andrew Burke and Dr Carol Archer. From this first encounter you realise you are in touch with work that is intended to speak to an international audience. The cross-cultural element of the catalogue emphasises the relativity of Western/first world perspectives. Knowing that people, from worlds which are normally so far apart linguistically at least, will read the catalogue gives the book an outward facing element which is appealing.
Kelen has used a broad range of techniques and mediums; acrylic, house paint, ink and watercolour all feature. Additionally Kelen uses different techniques of application: brush, stick and spray can – each delivering distinctive and characteristic effects from the rough and textured to the fine and intricate. However solidly the works appear in the catalogue, Kelen’s work has an ephemeral quality – he is known for repriming already used canvasses, creating (and probably superceding) hundreds of pictures most days. So these works are doubly valuable for having been rescued from the river of time.
The main works feature a double page spread with text on the right hand side and images on the left. Most pages of text include five languages: English, French, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian and Chinese – on the one page! I only read and understand English and extremely rudimentary French. Sometimes I had to search amongst the languages to find English. This meant that the other languages became more visual communications than linguistic for me, needing a different type of decoding. Sometimes the strip of text is so pale you can hardly read it – transforming even English words into a visual pattern rather than text. For a non-Chinese reader the Chinese script becomes another visual art design feature. The font is simple, sans serif.
Many of the colours are decidedly edible – raspberry pinks and watermelon reds shot through with swirls of pale fairy floss, swirls of cream. This work from the cover could be a strawberry mousse or flummery. Then there are auburgine, orange and tangerine combinations. There are primary blues and reds of a pure trustworthy hue. I took great pleasure in the quality of the colours in Kelen’s work and it seems that care was taken to reproduce them with verity.
Each page has been designed to accompany a specific artwork, the various colours of the text on the facing page are chosen to reflect, complement, contrast with the colours in the art works. Sometimes a word in pale text from one of the languages in huge font is placed along one of the margins. Sometimes the page is divided into two or more blocks of muted background colour. The design is so congruent with the visual work, languages bleed into each other, translations flow together. Aesthetics are paramount in the presentation – the thick quality of the paper – more card than regular paper.
My favourites are those which have been produced by marbling – a process whereby oil is added to a paint mix, creating a finished result which looks just like marble. These works in particular, which I’ll dub “Marblescapes”, are the epitome of flow, with colours bleeding and swirling into each other in an avalanche of flowing colour and form. If change, as Reinhold Niebuhr (amongst many others) tells us, is the essence of life, Kelen’s “Marblescapes” are a glimpse into the energy driving this change, paused and beautifully captured, in a moment of morphing.
Kit Kelen, Pictures of Nothing at All: The Art and Poetry of Kit Kelen, with translations by Chrysogonous Siddha Malilang, Beatrice Machet, Iris Fan Xing, Andreia Sarabando. Macao: ASM (Association of Stories in Macao), 2014. ISBN 9789996542701