16 December 2006
Tim Jeeves is an artist working with performance and text and sometimes paint to make work about the world around us and sometimes the world inside us. Here he explains, in prose, reasons for his performance piece The Last Days of Mourning
Nothing ever leaves us.
It may be transferred onto something else, it is often ignored, and occasionally it becomes integrated into our consciousness, but once an emotional state is experienced we can never disentangle ourselves from it, we can never become the person we were before.
This is time passing.
Some things are too horrible to look at face on.
Some things are too painful to return to.
And that fear to look at them shapes our actions; we throw ourselves into work, we abandon ourselves to alcohol, we lose ourselves in shopping. We do anything we can to avoid re-experiencing that which has hurt us.
But this limits our experience of life.
We cannot filter out the negative by focussing only on that we see as positive, for the one contains the other.
The pain of heartache and the joy of being in love stem from the same root. To refuse to ever feel heartache again means to deny the chance for further love.
And vice versa.
But if we believe that facing that pain benefits us, if we go some way to absorbing it and make it a positive part of who we are, if we can expand our view of the world so that pain exists within it, then our appreciation of the beauty of life becomes more profound.
Maybe even more truthful.
Art allows a safe revisiting of that place of revulsion.
It has been compared to a rollercoaster ride.
We ride a rollercoaster in order to be terrified, and yet none of us would willingly step on a rollercoaster knowing it to be unsafe.
This is the contradiction of tragedy that Aristotle first explained, and, even though art has gained a much broader definition than the simplification he wrote of, such a sentiment still holds true.
Whether witness or artist, something within art must communicate with us, or it has no meaning.
In December 2003 the fifth anniversary of the completion of my treatment for cancer was marked by a performance in Euroart Studio's Gallery in Tottenham.
The Last Days of Mourning lasted 6 days, over which time I wrote 1,825 memories of the time I was ill on the walls of the gallery. This number of recollections was chosen since it corresponded to the total days in remission on the final day of the performance.
My reasons for making the piece were varied.
The most obvious, a celebration of five years of remission, a milestone commemorating the magical date that had seemed so impossibly distant when I first finished my treatment. Alongside this, I wanted to make a tribute to those who had been with me on the ward and who weren't alive to celebrate their own five years without treatment.
And it was a challenge to myself.
Whilst I had always tried to be accepting about my illness, whilst I had tried to integrate it into myself, I knew that in all likelihood this would now be the only opportunity to spend so much time immersing myself in the memories from this hugely formative period in my life.
I knew I was going to complete the work; it was too important for failure to be a possibility.
But the piece was a challenge to see how far into myself I was willing to delve, a provocation, a dare.
As the 6 days passed, my overriding sentiment was that I was being weak, that I was not reliving the times I was writing about enough.
I only cried once.
Standing on the small mezzanine, looking out across the room, over the heads of the people reading what I had shared, one thought on the opposite wall stood out amongst a mix of memories.
‘I remember when Nicky died’.
Maybe I didn't lose myself in the past as much as I could; but now, nearly a year later, I know I could never have lost myself as much as I desired.
I had naïve hopes that this piece would release me from the significance that the time I had cancer has in my life. I allowed myself to think that this would normalise cancer completely for me.
In the weeks after the performance I had to cope with the disappointment that this was not the case.
No work of art, nothing in life, can remove something so utterly.
As I have already stated, time passes down a one-way street.
But art, writing, music, even simply allowing painful memories to wash over us as we gaze at a scene of beauty; all this allows us to revisit painful times whilst knowing that the seatbelt is secure around us, rigorous safety checks have been passed, and we are going to walk away from the memory intact.
Some part of the meaning and significance of art comes from its insubstantiality; its ability to facilitate an understanding of the world's own lack of substance outside of that which we inject into it.
Catharsis is expression to a (imagined) listener who understands.
Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama, Scheff T J (1979)
It will be published in 2007 in The Healer's Art: Dying, Bereavement and the Healing Arts, Ed. Gillie Bolton