Ever wondered how it feels to be completely lost? I'm sure a lot of you already know. But today I wish to talk about being lost in a way you have experienced but never really tried to feel. Something I have been feeling for the past one month but never really understood it till a few days ago. A feeling of being lost in a silence I was unable to comprehend. Sounds funny, right? How can silence be tough to comprehend? What is there even to comprehend in silence? Well, let's begin on this journey which you will have to take alone today. Silence is too loud for two people. It's only meant for one. So if you are alone in a dark room, alone on the back seat of a car, alone on a bed or my personal favourite - with the company of the moon under an empty starless sky, then I suggest you keep on reading.
What is silence? At first I would probably say, the absence of any sounds would be identified as silence. But is it just sounds? What about what you see? What you feel? Why can't we consider those to be cases of silence? The best example I can give you of the Silence of sight is from a chain of restaurants called "Dans Le Noir" ( French for In The Dark). I was introduced to the concept of Dans Le Noir by the 2013 film About Time where the protagonist goes to for a blind date at the this very restaurant. What Dans Le Noir does is pretty simple. Its a completely dark restaurant where you can't see what you are eating, what you are being served or who you are sitting with. Sounds scary and unsafe. But no imagine yourself at Dans Le Noir for a blind date, just like in the film. You haven't ever seen his or her face before. You meet them for the first time in a place where you can only hear their voice. Your sense of sight has been completely snatched away from you. It will be the most honest and true date you will ever have with somebody. It is common human nature to judge a person you see by how they look, what they wear and everything else. We already create an image of them and slowly mold that image when we get to know more about them. It can be highly possible that your first impression was very accurate but it is also very possible it was very wrong. The bias we create before even communicating to somebody can make a lot of difference. But what if you never saw them? You will be forced to start with no bias, other than probably their accent or their fluency of the language they are communicating with. You understand the person first and see them later. But throughout this experience of being lost in the darkness you are forced to be in, your inability to see the person opposite to you will still itch you. To find the cure for the itch, our mind itself pieces together an ideal image of how the person looks like. You see, the human mind cannot deal with silence very well. It forces itself to break the silence by creating illusions. When you badly wish to see who is in front of you but you are unable to, you end up creating them. They could have the worlds most amazing features and you would still be lost in the illusion. This is the poison of silence. The blank canvas.
When you can't see anything, you create what you want to see. I have met a few amount of people in my life who can say that they can solely control their thoughts and imagination. Subconscious thoughts and actions are of rarity for these people. I sometimes consider myself to be in this same group of people. But there are times where what I create and when I realize what I created have a large lag difference. In most cases of silence I have dealt with, these creations are still very conscious. But it is when your subconscious ink starts writing that the story truly unfolds to you too. You not only get to realize what you wish to have, but it also makes you realize what you don't have. A blank canvas is what every creative person wants but something every creative person fears.
Some familiar with Modern Art would be aware of a particular work by Robert Rauschenberg. If the name is familiar to you and you have been reading carefully, you already know what work of his I am going to be talking about. In 1951, Robert put up three same sized panels on the wall, completely white and named it the White Painting. Sounds completely stupid. It is. I still won't understand why such paintings would sell for millions of dollars. But there is a reason I speak of the White Painting. It poses a simple question to every man or woman standing in front of it. But how does a plain white painting possibly be of any artistic value? In fact, it is of very high artistic value to anybody who understands what it speaks to you. The question the painting speaks of is something I will get into with another analogy in hopes of making you understand this concept better.
I hope all of you have read Harry Potter or atleast seen the films. In the first movie we are introduced to The Mirror of Erised. A plain looking mirror which when looked at shows you what you really wish for. On top is inscribed something very peculiar 'erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi. Now though i have tried looking up for if J.K. Rowling or any fans have tried to explain how the mirror works, I was unable to find any logical argument behind it. So here is my theory.
The inscription on the mirror when read backwards says something which supports my stand - 'Is how not your face but your heart desire'. The Mirror of Erised is a blank canvas. It doesn't necessarily even show your own reflection in the mirror. Imagine looking into a mirror where you won't even be able to see yourself. I agree that first you will be spooked to death, probably miss a heart beat thinking you have entered a supernatural existence. But let's assume otherwise. When you won't be able to see yourself, you will be desperate to find yourself in the reflection. Similar to how you felt when you were dining in Dans Le Noir. But instead of creating somebody you have never seen, your mind will be able to create you perfectly. Perfectly. That's the key word here. Disrupted by the silence in the reflection, your brain will create a perfect you in front of the mirror. No pimples, no dark circles, whatever you wish to see yourself be. That's exactly what The Mirror of Erised does to you. It makes you see the exact version of you that you wish to see. Something purely created by your subconscious. It doesn't care about the mask (the face) that you wear outside, but what you desire for truly (your heart's desire). I believe The Boggart from Harry Potter also works in a very similar fashion, though with a lot more magic involved. The boggart shows you what you fear the most. A large greyish blank canvas makes you create what you fear the most seeing emerging from amidst a cloud of black fog. It is natural that if you find yourself hidden in a forest with black fog surrounding you, your brain will fear a creature coming out of it. In the case of the boggart, it is very similar, where you imagine the worst thing to ever emerge out of darkness. Anyway, I am side tracking a bit.
Coming back to the White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg. The White Painting works very similarly to The Mirror of Erised. A blank canvas makes an artist imagine whatever he wishes to create. Then how is it different from an artist sitting in front of his own canvas every day before beginning to create a work of art? Simply because this work of art is put up in an art exhibition. Still don't get it? I didn't either. Until I had a talk with my current roommate and classmate in Mumbai about "What is Art?". It's a damn hard question to answer. A question if you ask an artist 10 years ago or 20 years ago you would have gotten a very different answer. And that is the beauty of art. It simply morphs itself to whoever wields the brush and canvas.
"So what is art?" he asks me.
I knew my answer already. It was a question I had asked myself several times earlier. It was like how every professor during our first year in Design had asked us about What is Design?
"For me Art is purely expression. I believe there is a distinct difference between Art and Design. Design is for communication. I want my audience and user to understand completely what the design is for and what it means to say to you. Meanwhile art is me simply expressing myself with complete freedom on a canvas. I as an artist won't care a lot (or even a little) about what my viewer understands from my artwork and thinks it means. It has a different meaning for everyone and I find a beauty in that. Art is for me to express myself. And for an audience to take an expression away from it." I had realized by now that my monologue had gone too far. I looked back at him as he glared at me with a smirk.
"So I had a similar stance too." he says, "But I was asked this question by the father of a friend of mine. And he told me that Art's purpose is Inspiration. It is made to inspire minds."
I didn't very well agree with this definition though. I had my own reasons. And I was known to be quiet stubborn with my beliefs, it was going to take a lot more to convince me the same.
"I could debate against that." I interrupted.
"Go ahead." he seemed keen for this conversation. I had gotten my cue for beginning another monologue.
"Purpose needs to be something very sole and personal to something. If I say the purpose of Art is Inspiration, then it should mean that Art should inspire more minds than majority of other things in the world. And here is where I differ. I agree that Art inspires. I'll never say no to that. Art heavily inspires you, art heavily inspires me. That's the reason we went to watch Solo today as well (Yes. That was genuinely our reason to go out at night and watch SOLO. Both of us wanted inspiration for doing something). But that is where I ask you what do you define as Art then? What all does art include? Movies? Literature? Were they also considered as Art when you were having this talk with uncle?" "Not really. We were talking about Fine Arts and my interest in sketching and possibly ever being an artist." "Then our source of inspiration tonight wasn't via Art. And we are creative people. I totally agree that when we look at artworks we get inspired. But the world isn't a population of creative minds. They are quiet a few. And majority of the world doesn't look at art for inspiration, they look at art for a meaning. Art doesn't inspire all of its viewers, only the creative people. Meanwhile I can still argue that a lot of people who were in the hall watching Solo got some inspiration from the film. They needn't really be creative workers though. I can bet that literature, a simple poem will inspire a larger group of people than the work of an artist. Because it's easier for people to find a meaning in such forms." "Agreed. But art does inspire us. So wouldn't art's purpose for us still be inspiration? At least for us as an audience?" He had a point. It does still inspire it's main audience. But how has this always been art's main audience?
"Sure. But it isn't its prime purpose. We are artists, creative people. Right? We can find inspiration in art. Whatever art it may be. Then I pose to you a simple question. Let's take the example of one of the most famous artworks of all time - Mona Lisa. You are as familiar with it as everyone in the world. What inspiration do you take from that art?" I can see him struggle to find an answer. "Damn. Sahi baat (That's right)."
I continue my reason for the example, " Mona Lisa is so popular for it's technique. It's perfect proportions, finesse and detail. I'm sure that can inspire you to improve on your technique too. But then was that the purpose of Mona Lisa? Definitely not. It wasn't even meant for an audience of art as much as simpler men and women who marveled at how real the woman on the canvas looked. It doesn't leave a lot of room for inspiration, though I bet a lot of artists could still find inspiration of sorts. But then if you and I can't find inspiration in it, can we say one of the best paintings in the world is 'serving it's purpose'? The art movement we now know as Modern Art moves away from those kind of paintings. They work on making the viewer see what they want to see and believe it. I as an artist don't need to say that the painting is the painting of a woman. That is my meaning. Not yours. You might see a horse and that becomes the meaning of that painting. People question how and why modern art paintings cost so much during auctions when they simply look like random strokes anyone to put on a piece of paper. It's because the painting becomes something very unique to you and you only. Everyone sees only the Mona Lisa in the Mona Lisa. It's the exact same. But I am the only one who sees a horse in that particular work of modern art. Makes it more personal and precious. I agree that isn't enough a reason to define the price on those paintings. But if you have loads of money to spare and you are willing to go to an art auction, then why not buy the most unique painting in the whole wide world? That is more expression than inspiration. Even an Ambani can inspire a lot of entrepreneurs and a Kejriwal inspire a lot of common janta. Art can't always just inspire. Atleast I don't think so."
By this time we had reached back to our apartment and convincing the guard to open our colony gate created a halt to the conversation. Now everyone can have their view of Art and it will still be true. As I said earlier, that is the beauty of art in itself. But why do I talk about this conversation here with respect to Silence and the White Painting? Because of how Modern Art is treated by the Art community. When somebody inclined to art goes to a Museum of Modern Art, I know I am going to see things I have never seen before. I am never going to just see a literal representation of a woman on a canvas. I am going to find a personal meaning and INSPIRATION in every artwork that I look at. My purpose to go an exhibition of modern art highly involves getting inspired. My mentality is that when I look at every painting. I am looking for something personal, something inspirational. I could see a random golden toilet seat placed opposite a painting in a golden frame and get the weirdest inspiration from it. But why do I get a weird inspiration? Because I have been looking for one. Now after looking at bizarre things and thinking of bizarre ideas, your mind slowly drowns into the subconscious. Then you suddenly stumble upon a large white canvas. Your mind isn't in the same sphere as it is when you are ever at home and in front of a blank canvas. Your mind itself has fallen into a routine of finding inspiration and concept in what is in front of you. But the White Painting offers too much silence. The silence becomes too loud for an artist's subconscious to comprehend that it starts to simply show the artist's subconsciousness on the canvas. The ultimate personal inspiration. The White Painting. A blank canvas can speak a lot, you need a gateway to allow it to. The White Painting won't work if you create it at home and place it on your wall. It will only work if put up in a Modern Art museum, somewhere making amidst or to the latter end of people's journey that people get lost in it. This is the simple question White Painting asks you -"What do you want to see?" A question whose answer is what every creative person wants but something every creative person fears. Only silence speaks to you in such cases.
But this about visual silence. Now let's go to the silence we are more familiar with. When you can't hear anything. How can that actually be too loud to handle? It works on the very same principle. We are surrounded by sounds and voices most of the time. Even silence has a sound for us. What i mean is when we wish to exaggerate silence, we add sound to it. Imagine watching a horror film. The moments of silence are used very artistically in horror films to build a horrific break in them. But imagine the sequences when they just show people in a house maybe in a situation like a cabin in the woods. To intensify the silence and the place, far away sounds are added to the sequence. The place is shown so silent that you can hear crickets from far away, or a slight breeze. That is the sound of exaggerated silence we associate with. But these sounds can never be too loud for us. These are background sounds which we just screen away subconsciously and never hear them, so when we do we are taken aback. Similarly there are a lot of background voices and sounds that we subconsciously or very consciously screen away. During silence, they are sometimes leaked out. Emotions, voices and feelings you don't like to hear and don't like to handle. If the silence lasts too lost they have a tendency to become the only voices you start to hear. You start finding silence in a lot of places where there might actually not be silence at all. I have sat in trains and walked through heavy traffic and created a silence that deafens me. I actually loved silence. It used to be my comfort, my home. My blank canvas to create what I needed and remove what I didn't. I could speak more in silence. But that's because I was in control of when I needed silence and when I didn't. I could craft the silence according to me. Still screen the voices I wanted and the ones I didn't. But sometimes it becomes a pattern. Silence became such a pattern for me that it never actually remained a blank canvas anymore. It always had a canvas I had crafted to my liking. Weirdly, I am known to find my comfort in patterns and staying in them. But patterns break and when they do it's hard to adapt. Similarly, my pattern of crafting such a canvas broke and I got stuck in the crescendo of my silence. Exposed to a blank canvas of sounds, thoughts are mostly killed by the voices you forget to screen away. Anyway this isn't a story about patterns or comfort. The Silence in such a scenario is too loud to handle with. There are two ways to break from the silence. Either break away by moving away or do what I do, learn to live with it. That's the thing about Silence and pain for me, it's meant to be felt. Then it is for you to decide if you wish to keep it for let go of it. I would like to end by making you all read the lyrics of a song I absolutely love for what it tries to tell people. Its the song Car Radio by 21 Pilots.
"I ponder of something great My lungs will fill and then deflate They fill with fire, exhale desire I know it's dire my time today
I have these thoughts, so often I ought To replace that slot with what I once bought 'Cause somebody stole my car radio And now I just sit in silence
Sometimes quiet is violent I find it hard to hide it My pride is no longer inside It's on my sleeve My skin will scream reminding me of Who I killed inside my dream I hate this car that I'm driving There's no hiding for me I'm forced to deal with what I feel There is no distraction to mask what is real I could pull the steering wheel
I have these thoughts, so often I ought To replace that slot with what I once bought 'Cause somebody stole my car radio And now I just sit in silence
I ponder of something terrifying 'Cause this time there's no sound to hide behind I find over the course of our human existence One thing consists of consistence And it's that we're all battling fear Oh dear, I don't know if we know why we're here Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking I liked it better when my car had sound
There are things we can do But from the things that work there are only two And from the two that we choose to do Peace will win and fear will lose It is faith and there's sleep We need to pick one please because Faith is to be awake And to be awake is for us to think And for us to think is to be alive And I will try with every rhyme To come across like I am dying To let you know you need to try to think
I have these thoughts, so often I ought To replace that slot with what I once bought 'Cause somebody stole my car radio And now I just sit in silence"
It talks about everything I talked about in this long post in just a few lines (other than the art stuff...which is I guess the main highlight for a design blog, but still). The analogy of a car and driving it with how we live life is something really smart. Something I have seen in a couple of other songs too which talk about similar life issues (if you have the time, do listen to this song I was introduced to by a close friend of mine 'Drunk Drivers' by Car Seat Headrest. It talks about depression on very similar lines). When dealing with such silence it always feels like an option "to pull the steering wheel". You realize that you somewhere liked it a lot more when your car actually had sound. I hope this makes some of you wonder about your moments of silence in your life. Explore silence a bit more. But don't get too lost in them.