From my favourite book about art, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Weschler:
Today, when he talks about it, he can’t explain why it happened. It just did, gradually, this distancing of himself from the world: the night walks in Paris, the North African desert, and then, by an ineluctable process, this season on Ibiza.
He does recall how it felt: “It was a tremendously painful thing to do, especially in the beginning. It’s like in the everyday world, you’re just plugged into all the possibilities. Every time you get bored, you plug yourself in somewhere: you call somebody up, you pick up a magazine, a book, you go to a movie, anything. And all of that becomes your identity, the way in which you’re alive. You identify yourself in terms of all that. Well, what was happening to me as I was on my way to Ibiza was that I was pulling all those plugs out, one at a time: books, language, social contacts. And what happens at a certain point as you get down to the last plugs, it’s like the Zen thing of having no ego: it becomes scary, it’s like maybe you’re going to lose yourself. And boredom then becomes extremely painful. You really are bored and alone and vulnerable in the sense of having no outside supports in terms of your own being. But when you get them all pulled out, a little period goes by, and then it’s absolutely serene, it’s terrific. It just becomes really pleasant because you’re out, you’re all the way out."
He had brought along a pad and some drawing supplies, but he did not use them. Instead he just sat on a rock, isolated. "I mean, there were people," he clarifies, "but they were simply not people. They were just part of the landscape. These people were from another world, another time, fishermen in broken-down barks, farmers scraping the scrabbly ground. We had nothing in common, certainly not language – there was no contact. There was this outcropping, and then the Mediterranean carving up the pumice below, and inland some forests, fir trees. You ate whatever the fisherman took in that day. Time became kind of unreal."
He thought about less and less. Finally he just thought about thinking. No longer calibrating his thoughts in terms of a social reality, in terms of how he would have to square them with the realities of the world, he almost stopped thinking in terms of language. There was a slow purification of thinking; he speaks of arriving at pure ideas, stripped of any worldly ambitions or motives.
"Ideas, when they get like that," Irwin explains, "then you can really get into the game of reason. You can really sit down and reason the nature of what you are thinking. When you peel all those layers away and you arrive at just the qualities of the ideas themselves, it becomes very clear and very simple as to what they are what they are and do what they do. Then, later, when you bring back in the motives and the aspirations and the rationales, you can begin to see how they in turn alter the ideas."
He stayed through the winter, an unseasonably cold winter endured without hot water or heating. The months passed. Spring arrived. One evening, walking into the nearby village, he saw a poster for Singin’ in the Rain — in Technicolor with Gene Kelly. The screening was due to begin in just a few minutes in the town’s tiny, creaky, old theater. He walked in, was suffused for an hour and a half with the sound sets and palm trees of Southern California. “That broke the spell!” He left, walked back to his stucco cabin, packed his gear, and was gone the next morning. A week later he was back in Los Angeles.
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