Útvarp Mýri / Radio Wetland
Some time ago, I was asked to write a short text about the aesthetic value of wetlands (mýri), and then Sigtryggur‘s wetland works that I had recently seen at the exhibition Mýrarskuggar (2016) came to my mind. I thought of these works because I felt that I was reacting differently to the request to write about the wetland than I would have reacted before I saw that exhibition. Before, I would probably have been a bit surprised, mixed with filled with wonder and wanting to hear more about why the wetland was chosen as a topic. But I was not surprised, rather I felt that I immediately understood why that person wanted to draw people‘s attention to the aesthetic value of the wetland. I had experienced that value myself when I sort of sank into the wetland in Sigtryggur‘s paintings.
The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his essay “Eye and mind” that the painting, above other media, has the ability to describe how we live amongst the things in the world, how we experience the world and relate to it through our senses. Merleau-Ponty begins his essay with a quote from Cézanne‘s biography: “What I am trying to convey to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the impalpable source of sensations.” This quote describes a worldview that phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty and painters like Cézanne tried to mediate and express. They shared the aim of wanting to describe their perception of the world as it is before we conceptualize it, before we categorize it and analyze it from the perspectives of our preconceived ideas and intentions. Merleau-Ponty‘s ideas make one wonder whether the reason why Cézanne could mediate a direct perception of reality so well, was that the aesthetic attention that he pays to his object is the same kind of attention that is at play in the methods of phenomenology. This is attention directed only towards perceiving just to perceive, to dwell with your perceptions and feel how they act on you, how you react to them, and then find the right words, colours, forms, sounds or movements, to express and mediate to others this perception and the reactions it created. This is in Merleau-Ponty‘s view the type of knowledge that we need to pay more attention to, and he believes philosophy can learn something from the art of painting about how this root of knowledge lies in the body.
I thought about these writings of Merleau-Ponty in relation to Sigtryggur‘s works, because in those wetland shadows that I sort of sank into I felt as if I gained some type of access to the moment where the painter is so captured by the wetland that he feels this need to dwell even longer with that perception by capturing it on canvas and continuing this strong perception to mediate it to others. In my mind and in my body I visited that wetland, I was all of a sudden up close to it, as if I was being pulled towards it, all my attention was captured and sinking into each and every shadow of each and every straw.
What is it about the painting which makes it able to affect me in this way, that I feel like I am sinking into the perception that preceded the painting? Can it be that the bodily act itself, to dwell in the act of painting every shadow and every straw, materializes the focused attention that just looking at, and not only looking but dwelling within it, being with it, originally called for? It was the body and its role in painting that Merleau-Ponty was interested in, not least because he thought that understanding the process by which the painter changes reality as it appears to him into a painting could lead to a better understanding in general of how the body is intertwined with the world. In Merleau-Ponty‘s view art, and especially painting, has the ability above other media to be able to describe how we live among the things of the world, how we perceive the world and relate to it through our perception. Phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty aimed to find ways of describing reality from the perspective of lived experience, to stop looking at things only from outside and above, and rather pay attention to how we live amongst them. The phenomenological method was supposed to help us bracket our preconceived ideas and concepts, to enable us to comprehend reality as it appears to us before we conceptualize it through words. What Merleau-Ponty seems to hint at in his writings about Cézanne is that the painter‘s methods are actually much more effective than the methods of phenomenology. I think both methods start with the same step: Perceiving only to perceive. To receive openly the effect of what you are sensing, dwell with it and receive meaning, rather than projecting preconceived meanings on the object. In other words, both methods start in aesthetic perception. Aesthetic perception is characterised by this; to look at the sky to admire it and not to check for the weather, to look at the river stream just to forget oneself in it and flow into it, but not to calculate how many megawatts it could produce, to look at the wetland just to let oneself sink into the hidden worlds which lie under the still surface but not to calculate how much Co2 it can bind.
What type of knowledge is mediated between us through a painting? Like I wrote above, I reacted differently to the request to write about the value of the wetland after experiencing Sigtryggur’s wetland works than I would have before. What I had received was a new relation to the reality of the wetland, I suddenly saw it as something new, something else, something that I wanted to relate to in a new way, something that I realised has its own existence, far beyond our narrow ideas of wet feet, obstructions and Co2 binding. The wetland, that used to be “just wetland” is now more to me. Now its beauty is important to me, that it can exist and be all that it is, independent of whether I ever come close to it or have any use for it. It has gained existence value for me. It should be allowed to be there just because it exists and bears witness to the processes that this earth and its earthlings are. Of course I knew all this before; I knew that the wetland has its own existence value as an important part of the ecosystem, but this knowledge was not on the surface. It did not have a living meaning for me. Knowledge of raw facts can in my view never move my perception of natural phenomena in such a way that I really feel and sense the existence value that the phenomena has. It is not only through my rationality that I get to know the value, it is also through my felt sense that I find the value and meaning in what I´m perceiving.
But what is it to feel the value or meaning of something? We use the Icelandic word “finna” (feel/find) to describe when we are searching for something and then find it. We also use it to describe when we feel something physically or emotionally. The word for emotion, “til-finning”, is to feel something, find something, sense something. For the value of the wetland to gain a living meaning for us, we need to sense it, feel it, dip our toes into it, sit down, feel, look, listen, connect. By directing our attention to perceiving just to perceive, we find the wetland’s beauty, and at the same time we find/feel its existence value.
After my conversations with Sigtryggur and his paintings, I now think more often about the wetland and have become curious about coming closer to it, even try taking my shoes and socks off and walking in it or lying down in the grass to listen to the diversity of the living world there. I also pay more attention to the fact that the bird song that I enjoy listening to through my window comes from the wetland, my neighbour that I visit so seldom. My perception of the wetland and the attention I pay to it has changed.
Beauty describes a certain type of relation that we can choose to be in with the world. We all have the ability to relate to what we perceive in this way, but to various degrees it has weakened in many people somewhere along the walks of life, or on the walk through the school system. Somewhere on the way we stop seeing the beauty in anything other than what we are told is beautiful. Grand waterfalls, colourful geothermal areas, white glaciers, moss covered lava, magnificent beaches, are perhaps the first things that come to mind when we talk about Icelandic landscapes being uniquely beautiful. But the wetland is “just wetland”. But if we pay closer attention to it, we can also find beauty in the wetland, if we perceive it only to perceive. Then we might see that the wetland is not „just wetland“, rather it is a living world that sings. Kjarval once taught us to see the beauty in the lava, perhaps in the future we will find it as normal to see beauty in the wetland as we now see it in the lava.