Friday, May 20, 2016

The Seeker

"I dream to dream the next dream within that dream"
He sings. He writes. He takes some of the most amazing photographs I have seen. He is a scientist and yet an absolute poet. He’s hiding all these talents behind a 9 to 5 job, behind witty words play and sometimes even behind some clever dad jokes. He doesn’t open up easily but if you take time to really get to know him, he can be ever so surprising.

I have always believed that we are all born talented. It is therefore up to us to work on our skills and then watch it bloom. However, some people are lucky to have more than one call. Under the hat today, there is a very complex character; a man of many talents.

I have no memory of what I wanted to be as a young child. I recall the warmth of home and the love of family, so I guess looking back I wanted to keep that feeling of love.
I recall a story called Tikki Tikki Tembo that I liked. My mum used to read me Winnie the Pooh and would refer to me as Christopher Robin - I remember that. I liked to play more than read.

Coming out of high school, I wanted to be an ornithologist or naturalist. I was getting hooked on climbing and exploring the bush. I wanted to be self-sufficient and live off the land by foraging. As a result, I started to study about plants and wild foods and anything to do with thriving outdoors, like understanding weather. I also liked playing in garage bands and wanted to be like Joe Strummer or Jim Moginie or Jaz Coleman. I was pretty darn angry with the world at that time. I hated to see people chopping down trees and wasting so much. I hated all that excess around me. It was in high school that I busked with my guitar and had the courage (for the first time ever in my life) to sing a song I wrote. It was called “Don’t Wreck the Trees” it went like this:

Don’t wreck the trees they give me oxygen to breathe
Any forest standing proud and tall will move a man
And make him small
Don’t wreck the trees
Don’t wreck the trees.

My dream back then was to shake people out of what was looking like a dull, vacuous and programmed way of living. I wanted to find the words to say “there’s more to life than what you are currently doing”. Then I realised that no one is going to change, even if I shout at people. The only one I can change is me. Gradually, I lost the angry mood. I choose the “show, don’t tell” approach. I took people out bush, climbing, skiing, photographing. I thought that if I can take people out of what they were doing, getting them to spend time in the nature, they will finally start seeing things differently. Everything out there is so much simpler. Some may call this life style “primitive”; I think it’s more advanced and it has more purpose. Taking people away from the self-made structures (i.e. houses, compounds, cities) is part of my dream. Sometimes everything leads out to the nature but lots of people wonder what they are meant to do. This is profound in its own way; in my experience, I find that I don’t need to explain it; people will find what meaning they need. Many a times, passionate people told me “hey, you took me on my first climb” or first photography lesson, or first bush walk. It is something I can relate fondly; a couple of teachers took me out in high school; it’s my way of paying it forward.

I dunno who I am now; it’s not a question I ask myself. I reflect on things but not really on “who” I am. I don’t feel the need to “be” someone - generally because that feels fixed and a category. I change daily, because I grow daily, so to say who I am now is really going to change tomorrow. Let’s say I’m a learner of life. Being alive is pretty cool. I gotta say; it’s pretty awesome to wake up. I mean wake up each day from slumber, and also wake up each day to more of what’s going on. I like to see things afresh and see things anew and in that, I find meaning and look for the purpose of things. I like that. Everything has its purpose - and finding it is what really interests me.
I don’t set goals, nothing is absolute. I like variety, I like being unpredictable.

My innermost dream is to dream the next dream within that. As Poe once said - “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”
I guess my dream is to grow. Trees don’t spend time thinking about things; they just grow.
Some dreams are meant to be shared, some are meant to be quiet. Everyone has a secret dream – some people choose to confess it, some keep it close to their heart. It’s a hat of many dreams, not just one.
I don’t think of future as in timelines. The future is unwritten and it doesn’t have a form for me. Despite the plans of others, I hope to be still doing what I love.

I wouldn’t like those 15 minutes of fame; I’d hand them back. I’d rather make a difference than have fame. Most fame comes from things that have little purpose. Fame is in the hands of those that determine it. I’d rather not let someone determine my fate or cast me as a hero in their play. My approach is like a bird flying across the sky - it leaves no trace that it was there, but its wingbeats change the weather. I don’t have a soap box; I am just disappointed in the way we collectively work. I’d rather walk away. There really is no fame left. The internet just homogenised anything noteworthy and anything that truly is worthy of recognition happens away from the spotlight.

I have a lot of heroes from when I was young. It’s weird because several people have said to me over the years that I have been a role model for them. It’s a great question because it makes me ask myself what role do I aspire to perform in the play of life and who would be someone that plays a role I could use as a reference. I’ve come to learn that life is more ad lib and improvisation; but as long as I remember what my true character is, I can at least play a bit part or just fold up seats after the performance. Like the fame bit, I’d rather not be on stage. We are all acting under social expectations and pressures. We are whole, but we get fragmented – much like a puzzle where all the pieces have been separated. It’s a cruel trick we play on others and on ourselves; trying to piece the puzzle back together. A puzzle is an artificial construction; if you look around in the nature, there are no pieces, no separation. That is why I spend so much time in the bush. There are no constraints; no puzzles.

In terms of role models, there’s not really anyone in the limelight that’s of any appeal to me. The good ones are busy behind the scenes getting on with stuff. People who get on with things, despite their setbacks, shortcomings or challenges are my role models.

My favourite book is Tao De Ching. The Art of Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit is a book I enjoyed reading, PataPhysical Essays by Daumal is a bit of a challenge for me at the moment. I have about 7 books on the go at the same time. I’m really finding the internet is becoming like the “in brief” section of the newspaper. I like independent documentary. 

I always ask my sitters where is the place where they feel at peace, a place where masks can fall, free of any social expectation. I was - yet I wasn’t - surprised by the answer.

Asleep. We are bombarded daily with so many messages, on every level. Sleep is sacred; it’s the time when I can let go; it’s just me and my quiet mind. I can sleep pretty much anywhere. The best sleeps I have are when I’m actually on the bare ground. It’s how we’re meant to sleep, naturally. I can dream there and take a break. I feel most “me” there. My special place is the whole Earth.
We think we are at some kind of pinnacle, that we are so clever, so super advanced. (Pointing to the power lines above the grasslands) – That power line over there is actually quite rudimentary, compared to nature. (Pointing to the grasslands) - The energy going through this ecosystem is way more advanced. Look inside a leaf – the trees can capture more energy from the sun than we can make. The Earth receives in just one hour more energy from the Sun than the world’s population uses in a whole year.

Given our common love of trees, I asked Chris to tell me something I didn’t know about them.

Trees can draw water in a mysterious way higher and faster than any known engineering feat. Scientists still can’t solve how a tree 100m tall can draw water up that high. Trees control the weather around them. People think the rainforest grew there because of the rain but it’s the trees that create the rain. Sadly they take as long as we do to mature, but we grow them in rows and chop them up, all the while forgetting without them we couldn’t breathe. We’d never grow humans in rows and then chop them down, would we?

Naturally, I wanted to know about how the creative process works for Chris, what motivates him, what wows him and whether solitude is an important part of the creation. Or peace. Does finding peace equal finding a creative path? These are questions the Chris himself has previously asked other artists in his series of creative tweets. They are questions I personally found very helpful in analysing my own creative flow.

I don’t actually feel motivated. Strangely, I feel at peace and fulfilled when I am doing what I love, which is responding to creative urges and expressions. To me, motivation looks like getting the courage to run up the hill to get to the top. For me getting up the hill is actually the fun bit, so I don’t find I need a reason or some “push” to motivate me. I keep me going. I don’t need to understand where that drive comes from inside. I just get on with it. Maybe I’m different to most, but I’d do it anyway, so trying to keep going is not really a challenge I have had to face. I can appreciate for some people that may be really challenging.  I treat my thoughts as creative urges; our thoughts become our actions, using a language to converse. Lots of people seem to think creativity is this magical, inventive dimension. Truth is, everyone creates, in many ways – some are not even conscious. Making a mess, destroying the planet is just as creative, only on a different level.

How do I find inspiration for my creative process? I just breathe… Our entropy is so highly disturbed that technically we should not be able to exist. But we do anyway. For instance, everyone is wowed that lizards can grow a new tail. We are left wondering how come we cannot grow limbs. The truth is - we do. We are growing from the very first moment of our existence; we grow our limbs a few times from what we started with. We do grow, only in a different way – this, to me, is a creative act.

In art, what wows me is not the output, it’s the input. I’m touched by people’s process rather than the final work. The object of the art to me is just the way we’ve fashioned our creativity and creative urge into something that has form. People do the same thing with cooking, or economics, or bricklaying. We’re curious, creative beings. We create a lot of useless mess and pain, but we shape things around us into various forms, and art is but one of them. Sometimes I go “wow, why did they blow up that city?” as evil as that may be, there is an art to every step of that process of bombing a city. Even destructive acts take the same creative process as art. So it’s the process that touches me - and not always in a happy way. If I fail to recognise the full potential of the creative process, then I am not taking a conscious path or being responsible for what I create.  

I seek solitude in crowds. I spend as much time as I can in the bush to be in nature, but you are never alone out there. In a crowd I find that people are rarely aware of where they are, they act in unison, so by immersing myself in that and then tuning out, I find great solitude. Quiet is only inside my head. I do a very clumsy and ill-conceived version of meditation. I lack all the refinements of thousands of years of sitting up straight and motionless. I would be the very worst student in a Zen school for meditation simply because I have no idea how to chase their butterflies or elusive techniques, so I just find my own quiet and just stop thinking. I find that quiet is not linked to my creativity. My creativity is very haphazard and impulsive. On other days it is very structured. Then, as soon as I think I have some kind of process, I just mess it up to see what else happens. Even I find myself impossible to work with! I just learn to accept what comes when it comes. I haven’t found peace in my creativity. Most likely because I am still at war with it and trying to subvert or control it, or because I am finding it is just a point in time along the way to somewhere else.

I don’t know what peace means; thoughts can be disruptive as well as peaceful. I get floods of thoughts when I meditate. Creation and destruction are often in the same circle – for instance if I make a flower arrangement, it is a creative act because I made something aesthetically pleasing. It is also a destructive act, because I picked the flowers from their environment.

Chris has been judging art – particularly photography and short film - for many years; I asked him about his chain of thoughts when being a judge.

First, I try to turn off all prejudices, judgmental opinions and I try to look at the work as best as I can; I try to imagine it through the eye of the person creating it. I learn more this way. I picture more by articulating what you see when looking at it the first time and after. A lot of judges go by the first reactions and don’t articulate on their response. I keep being asked to go back and judge again; I don’t particularly like the judging process but it’s a great privilege, to comment on other people’s work. In photography, when judging amateur contests, I try to stand in their shoes, find their way point and see if I can understand their walk path. At the higher end, when we talk professional photography, I look at it a bit differently, taking in consideration technical aspects, creativity, as well as the impression or the message I get from their work. I tend to be harsher on people who call themselves professionals; they can communicate and show a very high standard. For other images and short film, I don’t discount the passion – it is probably worth more than the technical value. I draw upon my own journey; how I felt the first time I took an image. That, to me is what judging is all about; an attempt to feel what they felt; there is no other way to understand their art.

Expanding on another one of his creative tweets, I wanted to know how his images would translate into music. What kind of beat, melody and mood would they have?

They would probably be like a piece of music called 4’33’’ by John Cage. (a totally silent piece). It’s like producing a nice, big rectangular piece of marble and call it a statue. Am I willing to shape it or leave it alone? In the end, it’s about really listening and one makes out of it what they make. Anything you look at or listen to is meant to stimulate people’s senses, make them experience something, think about it. It’s a sensory thing in the end and all I am asking is “listen. Really listen”.

He doesn’t talk about it, but his images are on many public exhibits and some travelled around the world, in personal collections. His most recent participation in a public exhibition is at Canberra Museum and Art Gallery’s “Bush Capital: The Natural History of the ACT”.
Another question I really wanted to ask was “what do you love to create images of the most”?

The images I create the most of are very mundane. The ones I love to create the most are the mundane ones that show me something in the mundane. Mundane or ordinary are just another category we humans have made to sit alongside “wow” or “stunning” or “moving”. I’m still looking for the first edition of the book that defines how images go into these categories? Who wrote it? Does it exist? We all seem to know it off by heart as we judge and interpret imagery, but we fail to stop and ask what any of it means and how we got here.  So to answer the question honestly, I love to create any image the most. I keep doing it. Looking for something. Probably meaning. My approach is to let the images free and permit them to find their own path. That way others can find their response and that becomes a shared responsibility for them. Like leaves from an autumn tree, there are many I have done and let’s be realistic, the world is piling on imagery at a rate faster than any time in history, so they are destined to end up in the great heap, but at least I can quietly reflect that I have a few in that litter!

Chris is a very complex artist and I wanted to know what makes him vibrate the most; making images, his music or his writing.

They usually go together. Vibration – that’s a good word - they all have it – images, music and words. Vibration is where energy interacts with matters. I am choosing my own very clumsy and crude way, giving form through human invention to something already existing. If there were no photography, music or words, I’d probably be using my eyes and ears better. A camera is a fine device, but so crude, compared to what the eye can do. Likewise, music is made of composed thoughts. You hear lots of sounds out in the nature – the sound of the birds, winds. String instruments are a crude way of imitating it. Years ago, I went to a Japanese drumming performance. The frequencies are so different and the range of pitches went from deep to high. I was told after that it was an alternative medicine; all those different frequencies were meant to align the energy chakras aligned. 

Speaking of music, Chris has been quietly working on his musical skills along the years. I was amazed at the fact that he plays 5 instruments.

I don’t really play the instruments. Harvey (Welsh - composer, songwriter, bandmate and friend) shared with me that you only need to know 5 notes, to play an instrument. And so the fun began…

The youngest I would have been was probably when singing in church (I was brought up in a very musical church and I loved the singing bit) - it actually taught me a lot about music because I started to listen and try to separate out and hear all the bits. I sang in the school choir too and then around late high school I started playing and performing in front of others.
It wasn’t until many years later after a really long hiatus that I played in front of a big crowd; the biggest was in front of about 30,000 people on live TV - but others were maybe 3-5000 people. The hardest gigs of all are in front of only a few people - they eye contact and intimacy really makes you to concentrate more. And relax. At the same time.


My biggest regret?
I guess I’ve learned to let go of a lot of things and practice my best attempt at the idea of non-attachment. However most of the things I attach to are like Velcro and once they a pried from my grip or I attempt to let them go, they tend to stick.
I regret not telling more people how much they have inspired, supported and mentored me. My greatest mentors are the people who foolishly think I know more than them about something. I learn so much more from people who see me as some kind of expert than I learn from so called experts.
There is a humility that precedes all learning, so I guess people often see me as a goof ball, or playing the fool or somehow diminishing what they see as achievements. I see the approach to the learning and the act of doing as far greater than the outcome and supposed rewards. There is little I have ever learned from achievement itself, but there is much I have learned from endeavour and practice.
Humility and gratitude are the keys to learning great things from others – it’s how knowledge is conferred and it is sadly lacking in today’s culture where professing is seen as a measure of success and intelligence. So I regret that I have not thanked enough people I should have for the opportunity they shared to learn with and from them.

Modesty is the word that characterizes Chris the most. Asked how he would like to be viewed or remembered as an artist, his answer was this:
Credit: photographer unknown.


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