Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Tanya Poole and the paradox of ‘being-human’

The psychologist William James, brother of Henry James, the well-known novelist, once exhorted people to “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter”. In similar vein, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed that one should “Become who you are” — a formulation that drives the paradox of being-human home even more clearly than James’s words. At least, with James, there is an implied time interval between “now” and “hereafter”, which suggests a beginning and something to work towards, but Nietzsche gives one no such comfort. We are exhorted to “become”, presumably in the future, what we already “are”, in the present. How is that possible? If one is already an artist, a loving person, a mountaineer, or anything whatever, does it make any sense to implore someone to “become” this or that?

And yet, its very paradoxical formulation strikes one as being profoundly accurate, because human beings experience themselves as being “on their way” (homo viator) from their earliest years. As a toddler you want to learn how to ride a bicycle, you want to be better than your brother at running, or swimming, or — if you are not by nature competitive, you just want to “do your own thing”, whether it is drawing, painting, constructing things, or whatever. The mystery is this: what is there in us that impels us to “become” this or that, when all our efforts at becoming, which include the attempt at decoding the driving force in ourselves, indicate that we never know clearly what it is anyway, but nevertheless continue on our path of becoming what we implicitly, and usually unconsciously, “know” we are? Clearly, some kind of repeated interpretation aimed at self-knowledge is involved — of the kind implicated by Socrates in his familiar exhortation, “know thyself”.

Many philosophical and other issues are tied up with these concepts — just think of the psychoanalytical take on the problem of identity — it is intimately bound up with questions of being and becoming. Jacques Lacan, for example, invited one to “take up your [their] desire!” Again, this requires self-understanding. He helped resolve this by pointing out that every person’s subjectivity has an imaginary, a symbolic, and a “real” side to it — your vaunted “being” or permanence is located in the imaginary register, which is that of the “ego”, while your constantly “becoming” dimension is encountered at the linguistic level of the “symbolic”, where one is able to “redefine” your identity from time to time — not arbitrarily, but in conjunction with what Lacan calls the “third chapter” of your life, or the unconscious, where repressed memories and/or traumas exert an influence on who we are.

For example, someone who suffers a traumatic experience — an assault, a rape, a car accident that leaves them disabled, for instance — will never be able to erase the psychic effects of such unpredictable, but once having occurred, ineradicable experiences, on their subjectivity, let alone their “identity”. At best, they may be able (in Lacan’s words) to “stitch together” the tear in their symbolic horizon by means of the “talking cure”, but the scar will always be there. Importantly, the “real”, which surpasses both the imaginary and the symbolic registers of a person’s subjectivity, is implicated in traumatic experiences in an identity-reconfiguring manner.

Of course, a whole philosophical anthropology is implied by Nietzsche’s terse saying — one which draws on the long philosophical history of the two countervailing ontological concepts, “being” and “becoming”, dating back to ancient Greek philosophy before Plato. Briefly, being denotes the condition of something enduring, of it being somehow “permanent”, not subject to the vicissitudes of time, decay and erosion, while becoming signifies the opposite, namely a condition of incessant change, of subjection to time, erosion and decay. The problem was (and still is) to grasp the mystery of something apparently remaining identical to itself and, at the same time, demonstrably changing. Think of a chair, or a jacket, that shows signs of ageing or changing, but is still the same thing. Or, of course, a living being like a horse, a cat, or a human being, particularly a young human being, as thematised in Tanya Poole’s evocative exhibition, “The Becoming Child”.

In Poole’s art, its constitutive images capture many facets of the process of becoming on the part of teenagers and children — the periodic uncertainty experienced by individuals early in their lives, beautifully caught in the ink drawings of boys and girls, where the chiaroscuro effects of the material marks on their faces embody the complexity of their the feelings and developing personalities, or the manner in which they feel either protected (“Hand on side of face”) or constrained (“Cling-wrap”) by their parents or by conventions. Others register, artistically — and therefore ambiguously; no artwork can be pegged down to one or even several “definite” meanings, because new contexts always trigger new meanings in interaction with the context in question — the possibility that one might “mess up” (“Girl with blue Hands”), which could also be understood as suggesting the need for experimentation to discover who you “really” are.

Or, more drastically, an artwork may suggest that you might end up with “a mess on your face” (“Waterfall Face”), implying that some of your attempts at finding yourself could backfire seriously insofar as it might obscure more than it reveals. Even here the multivocality of words, specifically “waterfall”, implies something more affirmative: what is a waterfall? Usually a thing of beauty in nature, where the very elixir of life, water, is framed in the most aesthetic way possible, in other words, suggesting a combination of beauty and life. Seen in this way, “Waterfall Face” is a powerful reminder of the endless potential residing just “under the surface” in every person’s life, with its promise of life and beauty.

One is struck by the visual emphasis, not only on faces, but also on hair in this exhibition. The reason for concentrating on faces is not hard to find — did Emmanuel Levinas not locate in a person’s face her or his inalienable singularity, the very seat of the ethical exhortation, to acknowledge the irreducible otherness of every human being? The multifacetedness of the faces in Poole’s works evinces this singularity in an exemplary manner. What about the hair? Notice the hands touching children’s hair, the “hair flip” disguising the face underneath the hair, and so on. The emphasis is understandable — hair is perhaps first and foremost associated with youth.

The point is that our hair — or lack of it — is an often undervalued aspect of our individuality. The famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida who died in 2004 of pancreatic cancer, was very proud of his magnificent shock of hair, which he had until his death. The sensuousness of hair, especially in women, is something one discovers early on in life, and perhaps the fact that hair, like nails, is always in a process of growing, is a concrete reminder that our being as humans is inextricably intertwined with our becoming, the way that we can braid hair into plaits, or intertwine our fingers in our beloved’s hair. (Then there is the “statement” made by a hairless skull, like Michel Foucault’s, for instance, or Telly Savalas’s, which derives its impact from the absence of hair.)

Poole’s “The Becoming Child” is, finally, a rich mirror in which spectators can rediscover themselves, either in retrospect, if you are an older person, or in your present struggles to decipher your own being, to be able to chart a path to your own future. Or it could function as a hall of mirrors in which one tends to get lost, only to re-find the entrance to the specular maze at the end of a visual-reflective journey. Whatever the case may be, however, it is bound to be a rewarding experience for everyone who takes the trouble to open themselves to its sometimes questioning, sometimes answering images.

Poole’s exhibition opened on August 7 at the Liebrecht Gallery in Somerset West, Western Cape.

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    • Richard

      It is always interesting to me to observe how much of what we think we are comes from the interpretations of others about us. That necessarily places our seemingly inmost self-concepts on the outside, and makes us see ourselves as strangers, to some extent. For instance, if I have a penchant for wearing 1940s-style clothing, that might be interpreted as meaning I am eccentric, or individualistic, which might not be the case at all. Or there might be a studied dimension to an affectation of warmth, or interest in others. For instance, remembering names is flattering to most, and they consider it to mean you are interested in them. If you hear that enough, you will start to believe it to be true, even if you also know it to be studied. Sometimes a trauma can help to expose this. If you believe yourself to be, in Hollywood-ese a “warm and caring human being” and then find that suddenly taking care of somebody else actually shows you to be selfish (at least to yourself) you have a dichotomy between what people think of you, and what you are. That allows a deeper analysis, rather than a rupturing. In other words, the metaphor of the scar only really pertains if you try to continue on the old path in the face of new knowledge. With illness, many try to get back to what they were before the illness, whereas they should really understand that it has offered them the chance to move onto another level of “being who they are”. We are really like Russian dolls, if we let ourselves…

    • Richard

      By the way, the comment on hair reminds me of Baudelaire in his “Un hémisphère dans use chevelure”

      Laisse-moi respirer longtemps, longtemps, l’odeur de tes cheveux, y plonger tout mon visage, comme un homme altéré dans l’eau d’une source, et les agiter avec ma main comme un mouchoir odorant, pour secouer des souvenirs dans l’air.

      (translated by Google as “Let me breathe long, long time, the smell of your hair, plunging my whole face like a thirsty man in the source water, and shake my hand like a scented handkerchief to shake memories air” which is a good approximation)