Passion as purgatory, creation as absurdity – Dana Lawrie

Passion as purgatory – Creation as absurdity
Dana Lawrie’s year long performance

This month, Brisbane artist Dana Lawrie will commence her most ambitious project to date – starting on the 19th of June 2013 (her birthday), she will produce a self-portrait every day for an entire year.  Titled Past Everything, the project will interrogate her conceptual concerns through a sustained and repetitive aesthetic interpretation of the self.  Lawrie considers this undertaking an opportunity “… to reexamine the act of painting as a means to draw focus on myself in the state of being/living, each portrait stands as both an articulation of my existence and an acknowledgement of my impermanence.” The goals of this lengthy exploration are undetermined, but those of us who follow Lawrie’s practice will watch her progress with keen anticipation.

Before she commences, we ought to consider Past Everything through Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus – a text which has significantly informed Lawrie’s conceptual development. Of particular interest is Camus’explanation of the Absurd, which he defined as the measuring stick between the self as it is perceived and the world as it is. He analogised the Absurdity of living by evoking the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus– the story of a man who is condemned by the Gods to push a stone up a hill, only for it to roll back down once reaching the peak. Sisyphus would then follow the stone back to the foot of the hill and repeat this action again and again into infinity. Reflecting on her past works, we can draw obvious parallels between the time-intensive, self-flagellating nature of Lawrie’s technical perfectionism and the fate of Sisyphus himself. Integrating her self-portrait works into a year-long project of arduous repetition takes this parallel to a new level of intensity. In fact, the self-imposed purgatory of creation which Lawrie is about to embark on can be better understood as an endurance performance rather than as a series of individual mixed media compositions.

The question then follows, “Why does she bother?” When Camus proclaimed “Creating or not creating changes nothing”, he was attempting to grapple with the artist’s irrational compulsion to produce works despite their futility within the Absurdity of lived existence. Lawrie has previously acknowledged the Absurd circumstances of her practice, and her refusal to stipulate an end goal, vision or argument for Past Everything indicates her acceptance that no epiphanies will be yielded through this performance either. Yet she continues to push the stone up the hill regardless. This contradictory compulsion was identified by Camus as the irrepressible drive of passion exceeding reason. He argued that the artist who recognised their lived Absurdity yet continued to create “lives doubly” through their art by simultaneously engaging in Absurd creation whilst being able to step outside and reflect on it. The artwork that is aware of its Absurd conception forces “… the mind to get outside of itself and places it in opposition to others, not for it to get lost but to show it clearly the blind path that all have entered upon.” It is from this third perspective between artist and ‘finished product’ that Lawrie will consider the themes of painting, being/living, self and mortality that have formed the conceptual cornerstones of her practice. Past Everything will juxtapose the subject of her practice (i.e.self-portraiture, her perception of self) with the introduced elements of enforced time and repetition (the elements that will grant her the ability to meditate on her purpose). She will enable us as viewers to do the same, as her accomplished technique, her eye for composition and the succinct symbolism of her past works have consistently demonstrated an ability to connect with experiences greater than her own. Camus named this quality “human scale”, and he praised it vocally within the successful work of art. Lawrie takes this Scale within her practice very seriously. Her works embody a raw honesty which unavoidably resonate with the lived experiences of her viewers.

By pulling these questions of Absurd creation and passion into Lawrie’s pre-established considerations of mortality and self, Past Everything will grapple with the dilemma posed by Camus: “From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt — that is the whole question.”This project will be a trial by fire for the artist, who will both live and reflect on her passion every day for an entire year. Lawrie’s engagement with the Absurd will open new ways of understanding her broader body of work; but whether she will burn or exalt herself in the creative process is anyone’s guess.