Phase IV

ARCTIC NIGHTS
March/April 1983 (3 weeks)


Notes from the diary


After five years back in Switzerland I really need a break from psychiatry and from my Syngenetics.

But how to initiate a new phase of creative performance? A time-honored strategy is to quit one’s habitual setting and dive into a totally new and unfamiliar environment. That is exactly what I do.

 

Insel Jøa

 

On the tiny island Jøa
I leave winter in the Swiss Alps and head for the tiny Norwegian islet of Jøa, situated in the Norwegian Sea not far from the Arctic Circle but far away from anything and anybody I know. I live in a simple wooden house typical of the island. I have with me a heavy roll of wrapping paper and various drawing utensils bought at the little port shop upon my arrival on the island. I have also brought along an old, long out-of-print book on drawing techniques from home. I unpack the food I will need for my stay. There is no phone, no radio and no TV – in those days there were  no mobile phones yet. The nearest house is an hour’s walk away, and the farmers living there speak only Norwegian, a language I don’t understand at all.

 

Nightly Terror
The change from the world I know is radical. The dark green sea is not far away. There are rocks and hills, an occasional eagle or fox. Once a day a snow shower sweeps over the island like a floating veil. The house is engulfed in deep silence. The Arctic nights are long and become a veritable nightmare. Daylight is dim and lasts but a few hours. In the early afternoon the expectation of yet another dreadful night already begins to terrify me.

How little it takes to push a human being to the brink of the abyss.

I don’t dare to fall sleep and keep tossing and turning in my bed. I must be ready for action should anything happen. The wooden roof and walls creak loudly. I hear breathing sounds outside the door. A human being? An animal? The specters of my imagination haunt me.

The minutes drag on and it seems as if day will never come. Every time dawn breaks, I am surprised to be alive. I get up, eat a few crackers, drink a cup of coffee and take a walk in the rocky hills around the house, carefully watching each step to avoid stumbling over a stone or falling into a moss-covered hole and breaking my leg. Who would miss me out here in the wilderness? What if an eagle attacks me and I am unable to defend myself? My imagination is running wild.

 

Compulsive Ritual
Back in the house, I take a seat at the working table, cut fifty sheets from the paper roll, one by one, with a kitchen knife, and produce fifty drawings. I follow the instructions in the book meticulously – or so I assume. I will discover only much later that at a certain point I have begun going my own way.

Each day I produce exactly fifty drawings and pile them up on my right. Then I pick up the drawings one by one, write the date on them and put them in a pile on my left. Then I number them from one to fifty, building a new pile to my right. Finally, I put my name on each drawing, this time piling them up in front of me. Accomplished. That is the end of my daily procedure as night sets in.

This ritual is enacted in a highly compulsive manner, the function or meaning of which I do not care about while on the island. I simply have to do it. Today I better understand what happened to me back then. The social and sensory isolation had pushed me into an altered state of consciousness marked by extreme anxieties that undermined my rational control over my inner tensions. At the same time my imagination was unleashed, producing scenarios of mayhem. In such a context a ritual comes in very handy. It imposes meticulous order on inner chaos and banishes the threatening forces, at least to a certain extent.


Function of rituals
I fight. I persevere. Under no circumstances do I want to give up and break off this journey into the unknown prematurely. I want to overcome my anxieties and intend to bring the project to an end only once I have conquered my fears. One thing proves a great help in coping with this situation. During my work at the psychiatric center back home, I had observed time and again how patients deal with extreme stress. I had learned to read the telltale signs of an impending breakdown. I had learned the strategy of the bamboo: in stormy weather a bamboo bends flexibly to the ground and returns to its upright position only once the storm has passed.

 

Back to my art experiment
As to my experiment in drawing on the island of Jøa, I learn and practice two techniques: one structural and one dynamic. The first, aimed at internalized assimilation of the structure of an object, demands the highest concentration over at least 30 minutes. Moving in slow motion, the eye feels its way, millimeter by millimeter, along the contours of an object. At the same time, the hand, moving in slow motion, millimeter by millimeter, draws these contours in a single uninterrupted line. The whole process is undertaken without ever looking at the paper.

The second technique is aimed at grasping the dynamics of an object. I fix my eyes on the object to be drawn. My hand darts across the paper and draws the object in a single uninterrupted line. The exercise takes no more than two or three seconds. The drawn object may be stationary (e.g. a face) or moving (e.g. a bird).

 

Maybe 7, 1983

 

Step 3
Now I come to step three. I close my eyes and, at lightning speed, draw the object I have already drawn a hundred times in the dynamic study. I dance on the paper to a choreography dictated by my memory. In other words, I follow the sensory-motor tracks that have been impressed on the neuron landscape of my brain in the preceding drawing exercises.


Quality of the drawings
During my period on the island of Jøa I am totally unconcerned with the artistic quality of my drawings. My book even suggests throwing all the exercises into the dustbin the moment they are finished. I do not follow this instruction; I stuff each new pile of paper into my suitcase every day.

 

Unexpedted sudden departure
The day of my departure comes faster than expected. The proprietors of the house pay me a surprise visit. They have had their doubts about how I would manage all by myself. They knock at the front door, and when I answer it, it is as if I have been abruptly awakened from a dream. The specters have vanished, my anxieties have dissipated into the void, but so have my inspiration and any desire to continue my project. The following day I take the ferry back to the mainland of Norway and, after a short visit with friends, return to Switzerland.

Back home Gottlieb and I look through the drawings, bundle by  bundle, and I discover with amazement that, among the banal results, there are some that point the way o a new future. I have made a breakthrough.

 

Nora’s Portrait, 1983

 

One drawing in particular continues to intrigue me to this day. It is a strange self-portrait, a dynamic drawing, made looking into the mirror. It is a portrait of identity diffusion and evidently relates to its having been executed in the country of the great playwright Henrik Ibsen. But that is a story for another occasion.