Of taking a digital holiday, part one

Being in public and feeling tears welling up can be confronting. And yet such was my experience seeing Yoko Ono’s My Mommy is Beautiful at the National Gallery of Victoria’s triennial.

The work comprises hundreds and thousands of postcards with, in most cases, messages about or to people’s mothers, created by visitors to the exhibition. There were tables in the centre of the room filled with people creating more and more postcards. It was chaotic and beautiful.

The messages on the cards ranged in their content: some expressed great love, others deep loss, or simmering rage, contempt, indifference or a combination of all of these things—and much more, too. People wrote the cards in English, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, Korean, and countless other languages. Some were crass, some were profound, some made me want to sit down and sob, others made me snigger or roll my eyes. 

There was an overwhelming amount of these cards: the installation was in one of the NGV’s larger rooms and the sheer volume of these cards pressed down on me. They were stuck on each other, to the floor, as high up on the ceilings as one could get—and in some cases, much higher even still. They had weight both individually and in aggregate.

I was struck by both a desire to read and absorb each and everyone of these, and the realisation that reading them all was not only impossible, but would defeat the delight of the work: that it taps into the infinite variation of our existence and our experience with other people. Yes, there were broad themes one could perhaps slot this card or the other card into but boundless diversity was nonetheless the rule. 

Even if I had had a better relationship with my mother, I suspect I still would have found the tears welling up. As it was, when I sat to capture my own reflections, I found the task bordering on impossible. As anyone who has read some of my essays knows, brevity is not my key strength. But even more so than my garrulousness, I didn’t know how to reduce a complicated thing such as my relationship with my mother to a piece of paper the size of a postcard. There was some vanity, of course, in that I hoped my contribution might speak to a future visitor to a similar degree to the way some cards spoke to me. But mostly I was just stuck trying to match the chaos of my mind with the constraint of pencil and paper.

In the end, I shaded the entire white surface of the card, at first carefully, trying to be neat, and then with greater speed. The finished result was a card covered in graphite grey. I thought it captured my mixed feelings on the subject as best as I could have done in that moment. 

I offer the above experience because I doubt the exhibition would have hit me in the same way had I been on my phone, or thinking about how I could share this on social media. 

Instead of experiencing it through and via a little glowing prism of glass and electrical components and precious rare earth elements, I experienced it through flesh and blood and nerves and cells. And that made a real difference.

So far, the experience of my digital holiday has been quite informative and positive. I still use my devices, and in some ways my overall time using these devices has not considerably decreased. This initially disappointed me as I wanted to post a neat graph showing before and after. On further reflection, though, I have noticed a change in the way I use my devices. For specific purposes and with greater mindfulness and intentionality, as opposed to just indulging mindless goblin-mode behaviour. 

I’ll wrap up the experience at the end of the month. Until then, here are some initial observations:

What has worked

What has surprised me

Goodbye ukiyo-e, hello my photographs

A small editorial note: I’ve enjoyed sharing some ukiyo-e with you over the past year or so. But if impermanence is indeed the nature of all things, it is then perhaps time for a change. From here on, as this post features, I’ll share a photograph I’ve taken with each essay.

This photo was taken on the day I visited the NGV. I always love the physical nature of galleries as much as the art they house, and the NGV continues to delight me, even after many years of visiting it.

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