Before our eyes open there are dreams in which we first see the world not as it truly is, but as we imagine it to be. By these passing lights and shadows we conceive the many games of our lives.
As a child I woke and ran out into the morning yard to gather the lights of the dew on the grass as so many gems scattered by some traveler passing in the night. I explored the location of the hidden jewels but could not locate their gleam. I found only dampness. The illusion of treasure faded but would return many times in other forms as fugitive and mutable as the light itself.
It is in the character of play to wander. Children bored with the rules of their games invent others and outgrow their toys for serious industries. By whatever shrewdness responsible we find our lives speeding in directions no one can predict. The sparkling company of play will follow us if we are lucky or able to conjure it. But there are times when play abandons us at school or on the job and labor takes on dimensionless weight and leaves us with the unendurable drudgery of daily life. On these occasions we may easily become traitors to our own dreams. Any discipline we can muster remains unfruitful and our halfhearted endeavors are meekly diagnosed as “good enough.” But even at these moments when we are lost and confused, overcome by shifting nausea, the trickster play is hiding and waiting for the right moment to lighten our burdens.
I went to bed late in the early hours of the morning in the weeds with a deadline looming. I was hopelessly struggling to finish a video interview showcasing the artist Barbara Sullivan. Nothing was working. Near a state of panic, I barely slept. In a stream of half-consciousness I dreamt repetitively of the same memory, a road trip with my aunt where we listened to nothing but Patsy Cline. I awoke before dawn with her world-weary voice in my head singing “Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so lonely.” I went straight to the computer and began rapidly sifting through Cline’s discography, grabbing at any title or detail that caught my interest. An hour passed, then two. I grew more and more agitated by a need for an elusive quality to hold the video together whose parts I had failed to reconcile. I moved through my list methodically, disqualifying each selection. I didn’t feel convinced by any of them.
What I thought would work does not. I get a metallic taste in my mouth. My options are depleted and I have no solution. I impulsively move an asynchronous clip to the beginning of the video, a description of growing up on a farm and spending childhood moving rocks from here to there. Something catches my attention and I am drawn inexplicably back to a song I passed over earlier, “Stop the World and Let Me Off.” I cut out the first chorus and throw it in raw, overlaid by a sequence of self-portraits who gaze openmouthed. I play it back and the warmth of combined sound and image immediately reinvigorates me. My weariness, frustration, and stress from the approaching deadline are flushed, and the effort required to this point is now forgotten. The interview’s disjointed biographical anecdotes are united by this sudden shift, restoring to her image the gleam in her eye that the lens of my camera could not recognize.
This example of play in a moment of my desperation is far from any analytical method of art making. Analysis allows us to examine a work’s qualities to ask ourselves why it exists. But during the making process analysis is almost useless as ideas contrived ahead of time are immediately disproven. It is also cumbersome to ideate about what the work should or should not be. For example, it could be said that Patsy Cline is a questionable choice to pair with a feminist artist. All her songs are about men, even the ones about God. But the force of Cline’s voice matched with Sullivan’s frescoes are an indisputable match. Schoolbook logic cannot interfere with the interplay between sound and image. Instinct seems to allow for space for contradiction. For some reason I don’t understand, this often lures play out of its hiding place.
I once attended a lecture by a reputable art historian. He spoke eloquently about the concept of play, the object of his academic career. It was easy to believe what he said as he said it so well and with great emphasis and emotion. He described play as a foundation of being, a tenet of the vast universe that orders the masses of the cosmos in a wild dance whose ripples are responsible for every art of man and every ecstatic quality of his own being. “But what IS play?” someone asked, and he thought for a moment. “Play,” he said, “is the way by which the universe relates to itself.” Satisfied, he rested in a silent moment and my heart sank. With his final definition play deserted the stage. I often hear things like this that are very beautiful but are not true. Sometimes we cannot help but conceal a more terrible reality with childish games. It is probably good that we do. We may be unable to continue otherwise.
If it is true that art is a game by which we distract ourselves, we play it with great seriousness. I have no idea what the “art world” is, but it appears to be full of people who work very hard and who find varying degrees and definitions of success. There are many examples of artists who play the game of the market well and many more who play it badly. There are also artists who seem to play a private game for their own satisfaction, and I save my personal admiration for them. Regardless of each person’s priorities, the issue remains the same. If art is a game, each artist must find a way to play it without concealing from themselves the fact that everything they ever make will pass into nothingness and all their accomplishments be utterly forgotten. I say this only because it may be possible to waste your life playing the wrong game, but perhaps I am mistaken.
No one can stay fixated on this morbid preoccupation as the spontaneous movement of play in our minds excites and delights us with the possibility of accomplishing our dreams. We are lucky the inconstant dynamics of play are not the fundament of the cosmos but the jewel of the senses. And the senses of human beings are not the measure of the universe, they are the measure of the mind of the individual. Our reflection in the glass of the world is of our own understanding and the movement of our irregular spirits distorts and mingles with the lights of joyful and sorrowful mysteries.
Reed McLean makes video interviews for Lights Out Gallery. To view others like the one in this essay, visit https://www.lightsoutgallery.org/artist-features
Image at top: Barbara Sullivan, Dog Bike Ride, oil on canvas, 38 x 31 in.,1997.