I once thought myself into a state that verged on existential crisis. I was at art school (predictably), comparing the work of Lucio Fontana to the photography of Jeff Wall. I wanted to know whether it was possible, while observing a piece of art, to catch a glimpse of the real, the Other.
Fontana took canvasses and sliced holes in them, literally rupturing the screen of representation so that the space behind was brought to light. Wall made hyper-real, staged photographs; enormous panoramas of everyday life in Middle America. His choreographed scenes were so “almost-real” that your eyes longed to buy-in to the story. But you couldn’t, not really, because something was always a little off — the lighting just a little too bright, the streets just a little too clean, the action just a little too perfect.
For my thesis, I asked whether Wall’s super-real-but-not-quite-right photographs could jog us out of our everyday trance-states just enough to experience a glimmer of reality, a little like looking through one of Fontana’s ripped canvases to see the actual world beyond the screen.
I found it fascinating that it was the falseness in this art that got us talking about the real, as if we can’t ever hope to meet the Other by looking through our own eyes. Instead, we have to observe a thing that masquerades as our own, already fabricated, version of truth in order to contemplate something purer.
This idea bent my brain; that we may not be capable of perceiving anything other than our own twisted version of the world (through art or otherwise). The logical part of my mind says this is true. We simply can’t. Incoming information is warped by expectation. Too filtered to ever deliver The Truth. But my heart tells me something different; that although we cannot perceive (see, hear, touch) reality, maybe we can still feel it, know it.
It’s my heart that led me to my work as a therapist, and that allows me to lose myself in my clients’ stories as they unfold before me. I feel like I can catch a glimpse of reality by learning their individualised truths. And it’s my heart that inspired me to write my book. It made a year of ten-hour days delving into theories about seeking our own, unconscious truth both possible and enjoyable. I do these things in search of a scratch for my longstanding existential itch.
There are days when I forget about that itch completely. I do it by numbing everything out with too much work: busy, busy, helping others deal with their crises so I can pretend that I don’t have my own. Then, there are days when that itch feels like a very painful absence of more. It comes when I feel lonely. When I question my relationships; with my partner, with my friends, and when I fear my family leaving or dying. On those days, I feel like my whole life is a Jeff Wall photograph. Real but fake. And on those days, my fake-real life is uncomfortable and impossible to find myself in. Just a muddle of intangible pointlessness pretending to have a point.
I like to believe that discomfort echoes something deeper — that it calls to something more by rupturing the screen. The pain feels empty, groundless and untrustworthy. But it’s those unsettling days that deliver the glimpses, isn’t it? There’s a gift within the grief that we feel for the life that we want.
My father’s death caused a vast rip in my reality-canvas. Things weren’t good for me before then either. I was already ill, tired, chronically anxious and trying to strive my way out of the rut by achieving the sports accolade that I (so misguidedly) thought would complete me. That striving, although damaging, had been successful in its job of numbing (busy, busy…). But on the night Dad died, I found myself staring into the biggest, unrealest/realest — and most definitely cruellest — black hole of reality.
Until then, the one thing that I never questioned about my world was my family. They were my solid ground; a picture-perfect, 2.4-children nuclear family, to whom I could always retreat whenever things weren’t going well. Dad’s departure detonated the bomb. It ruptured my perfect-picture so fundamentally that all I could do was stare into the abyss.
But it wasn’t “nothing” that I glimpsed beyond the canvas. It was a whole load of something (new), a pregnant space full of hyper-real hurt and fear. On that day, even though I felt like big a part of me had been sucked into the void, the lost bit – my dad’s part – felt truer than ever.
I realise now that I, at once, gave my father too much of myself and not enough. I made his values my own, learning to overwork like he did, and to prize physical prowess and winning. I’m sure I chose to compete as a boxer, in part, so that I could be the strong, fit, assertive daughter that I assumed he wanted. I hid my truth from him in order to be the me that would appease him the most – the Jeff Wall version of me; a little too bright, a little too clean, a little too perfect.
When he died, I felt afraid that I couldn’t keep any of those things as my own, like I’d have to rebuild myself using pieces that weren’t tainted by the black hole. But this is an impossible task when the void feels realer than the real.
Now I can see that there was a gift in this grief too, although it was surely buried deep. I had to lose one of the people I loved the most in order to learn how to love the others — and know the Other — more fully. The black hole has taught me how to cry, to feel, to empathise and connect, to let go of “busy, busy” from time to time in order to just be (with).
So no, the wound will never heal, but there’s no reason for me to wish it to. The light that shines through that rupture is what makes the rest of it all worth looking at.
Read more like this in Fight: Win Freedom From Self-Sabotage.
Note: This article started out as a piece of therapeutic Expressive Writing in response to a question posed by the wonderful Mark Matousek.