Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Meditations On Urinals, Still Mind and Cloudy Weather

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

A urinal sits in the first art gallery at the Tate Modern. I should write Art Gallery – this is, after all, serious art. To be precise, this is modern art from 20th century America. The urinal or ‘found-item’ is called ‘Fountain’ and is the work of Marcel Duchamp. To look at the urinal now, just as when it was first shown, is to look at any other urinal you might find in the men’s restroom. This urinal is different because it has reached the venerable status of true Art. It’s now marked as a turning point in modern art history. It’s taught as part of the official syllabus at colleges and universities. It’s shown at the most prestigious art galleries in the world. The urinal is still a urinal. It’s placement and the scrawl of a signature ‘R. Mutt’ set it apart but the essence remains unchanged. What we study and discuss is the idea.

By now, the debate of whether this is art or not has been settled by curators and critics. But that doesn’t stop us from questioning other things, such as ‘what isn’t art?’ or even ‘is there anything that isn’t art’? More often we find ourselves questioning the skill involved in art if art can be a urinal. This is to miss an entertaining and challenging point. The pleasure of art may sometimes be the appreciation of a skilled craftsman’s ability to coax beauty and aesthetic balance from otherwise mundane materials. The true pleasure of art is to have your brain and emotions stirred up until you no longer no up from down. The pleasure is to feel something.

When a man puts a urinal in an art gallery is it art? When a woman sits in tattered clothing on the street, is she buddha? I find myself looking at the difference between good and bad, meaningful and absurd only to become confused. I thought it all existed on a linear spectrum that could be organised from A to Z, quite neatly. But the truth is that is all circles back on to itself, like a snake eating its own tail. At some point, the distinctions get lost.

The urinal might make us feel annoyed, frustrated and confused. But that’s not to say these things can’t be enjoyable given the right context. If we’re letting go of our assumptions when we enter the art gallery, then surely anything we encounter – a urinal, feelings of anger, an object we can’t make sense of – is worthy of examination.

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

We don’t move much further than the jetty on the lakeside and the fridge for cool drinks. This summer there has been a heatwave in England. Temperatures have reached record highs for July. The last summer as hot as this on record was in 1976, over 40 years ago. As a country where extreme heat is a rarity, this feels like a big win. I’ve spent the past week of it in the Lake District. This is an area known for its glacial mountains, lakes and lush landscape. In the heatwave, it’s felt akin to Provence or Tuscany.

On a cloudy day, there are brief intervals when the sun breaks through casting a brightness upon the world. Everything around you appears in sharp contrast: brilliant light, deep shadows and vivid details. But it is only fleeting. As clouds pass over the sun once more everything that rang so clearly only moments ago returns to its grey and listless state.

Meditation is often like this. A sharp insight, followed by a return to our humdrum mind. We might sit for several weeks with no real sense of progress. We continue with our days and everything seems the same. But every now and then everything seems clear, if only for a moment. It’s often as we’ve just woken from a dream. The truth seems so clear and bold but it quickly slips from our tongue as we try to describe it. Back to the quiet sitting. More meditation.

My question is can we have one state of mind without the other? In order to find that deep satisfaction in our own skin, can we avoid the nervousness that seems unavoidable if you’re human? It would seem that sitting regularly and meditating does not change me in the sense that I am radically transformed. Instead, it’s helping me see the light when it’s shining and the darkness when it’s grey. To chase after one at the expense of another seems to be missing the point.

The Lake District is synonymous with rain. In the UK we have lots of words for rain – it can be raining cats and dogs, spitting, pissing, torrential. For the past month, these mountains have not seen even a dribble of precipitation. The heat and lack of moisture have left large areas of grass bleached dry. While the temperature makes for good swimming weather, it’s also slowly eating away at the vegetation. The rose bush outside our front door is now wilting in the prolonged heat. It’s fragrant, but for how much longer? To enjoy the Lake District is to embrace the rain, not to avoid it.

Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

I walk into the next gallery. A Jackson Pollock hangs on the wall. More capital A modern art. Jackson Pollock is the drip painter. His canvases large and expansive, like a landscape painting. His method was to paint without thinking. He let his intuition and physicality of the brush, body and floor create the work. Layers of paint sit one on top of the other creating dense streams of colour and motion. If Pollock had tried to create these works by thinking too much, he would never have made a mark.

When I look at the painting, I see a lot of different things. I see paint. I see a broad vista. I see dancing. I see scribbles made by an alcoholic. Art is about context and this painting, in my eyes, can be all of these things and none of them at the same time. Duchamp’s urinal is Sculpture with a capital S. It’s also a pot to piss in. Pollock’s canvas is a captivating masterpiece. It’s also a mess of house paint on stretched canvas. This summer is a series of long nights on the lawn beneath the pine tree. It’s also the death of what makes this landscape so sweet.

To paraphrase Bertrand Russel, it’s all vague to a degree that you don’t appreciate until you try to define it. I’ve always tried to look at capital a Art and see raw materials – the paint in the tin and the canvas un-stretched. Imagine these things before Pollock got his hands on them. Where they not special in some way then? And the urinal, how different is it now than before Duchamp placed it upon this plinth? Or the worms, bugs and dirt that give this land its vitality. When we try to point to what makes anything special, we abstract it from the very things that make it what it is.

This is the paradox (and fun) of polarity. We see something as beautiful precisely because we have a concept of what is not. So when we try to flip things – see the beauty in the repulsive, the joy in that which is gloomy – things become deeply fascinating. This is the wonder of good art. We can observe it by slowing down our critical mind and letting what is just be. This brings us to a point where a cloudy day, filled with spatters of rain, can make us smile deep inside.