DETAILS FROM WILLIAM UTERMOHLEN’S SELF-PORTRAITS
I am not myself. What is it to be “oneself?” What is this self, this “me”? What do we mean when we say “I”? When we lose our mind, where is it to be found? When we go out of our mind, where do we go?
There is so much being written and discussed about dementia. For a fresh approach, I encourage you to read Nicci Gerrard’s article in The Guardian: Words fail us: dementia and the arts. She challenges us to have empathy – to enter into the experience of people who have dementia. We can never understand dementia, but as we peek across this threshold, we can learn much about the mysteries of human consciousness.
The child learns to shape sounds into words and make boundaries around things; they tell stories and impose a narrative pattern on to chaos. Only in this way can the flooding world be comprehensible and endurable. But the demented person unshapes, undoes, disintegrates, unravels – from the formation of the self and language to its drastic unmaking. Words become mere sound again.
Gerrard gives several examples of how poets, writers and artists who were able to cross the threshold of dementia quite consciously and to communicate their experiences. Their works can be quite unsettling – yet deeply stirring.
The art that attempts not simply to observe but to inhabit that desolate place of self-loss becomes like an emotional modernism, in which there is no central narrator, no coherent story, where things are fractured and the safe ground slides away beneath our feet. Exploring the experience of dementia and the loss of memory can bring about a powerful, and vertiginously unsettling, way of thinking about time, place and identity, where the notion of a stable reality and a single self breaks apart. Frank Kermode called it “decreation”, where words and meanings are unmade – an apocalypse of the self.
If we learn to follow them into this world of de-creation – with our still-conscious minds – perhaps we will discover seeds for re-creation.
NOTE: CRACKED: New Light On Dementia is another project which works artistically with this theme.