From the monthly archives:

November 2008

Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas

by Matt Blair on November 25, 2008

in Inspirations,Senses

The enormous turbine hall in what is now the Tate Modern museum in London has been the site of annual large-scale commissions sponsored by Unilever.

In 2002, Anish Kapoor created Marsyas in this space, a massive yet simple piece: a blood red PVC membrane stretched between black rings, one at each end of the hall, and a third above the platform off the north entrance.

Entering the museum from the west, there were few hints of what to expect: the multi-story concrete facade hid almost the entire work, with only the lower edge of one ring visible through the glass doors.

The west entrance to the Tate Modern

Entering from the west

As soon as I passed through the door, I had to lean backwards to see the top. There was no immediate sense of how far into the distance the piece went. Instinctually, I wondered if I was about to be swallowed.

I walked past the initial ring, then looked back towards the west entrance:


From the floor of the Turbine Hall, looking west

It was an experience beyond words, and inspired an almost-physical sense of awe. A friend of mine, only a little less speechless than myself, summarized: “A man thought that, and then he made it.”

Of course, it was a little more complicated than that, but it is beautifully put: Marsyas was a profound example of the transmutation of a grand idea from thought to form.

Entering from the north, the middle ring hovers just overhead, and light entering at one end can be glimpsed in the center:

Looking up into Marsyas

Looking up into Marsyas

As the notes point out, it was impossible to see the whole piece from any position.

Sometimes, we can only experience the transcendent in fragments, no matter how quickly we turn our heads or how broadly we perceive our surroundings.


Less than half

Art that arrives in email attachments or short clips on YouTube can inspire us and engage us on an intellectual level. But we still need experiences that envelop us, that are larger than our cell phones or our computer screens or our bodies.

For me, Marsyas was a reminder of how profound it can feel to be overwhelmed — and wordless.

The rest of my photos of Marsyas are on Flickr.


Stepping Over

by Matt Blair on November 20, 2008

in Quotes

“It takes a while before you can step over inert bodies and go ahead with what you were trying to do.”

– Jenny Holzer, from a piece in the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh


Making Use of Excuses

by Matt Blair on November 12, 2008

in Exercises,Process and Workflow

Excuses have a bad reputation. They are often interpreted as contrived half-lies meant to allow the excuse-maker to shirk responsibility or weasel out of obligations and expectations. Sometimes this is true.

Excuses can also be valid signals of dysfunction or genuine difficulty, indicating that you don’t yet have the right tools or time or skills or knowledge to proceed. With this interpretation, they can be essential catalysts to our creative work and growth.

For example, I’ve had a note on my to-do list for a few weeks now reminding me to assemble a set of photographs for another article I’m working on, but I haven’t done it yet. Why? Whenever I noticed it on the list, I’d develop a vague sense of unease: that the task was overwhelming, or might take longer than I had time for at the moment, or that maybe it wasn’t that important anyway. I would start to tidy up my desk instead, or go make tea and then decide that I should roast some squash for dinner, or that maybe the time would be better spent re-organizing a bookshelf or two.

What are these excuses telling me? If my intention is to organize a set of photos, why is my brain leading me towards other activities? Why did I spend the last few hours cleaning up my desk and typing up notes from unrelated projects when I had set out to organize those photos? What are the real reasons for my reluctance?

Working backward through my internal dialogue, I start to understand several sources of my discomfort:

  • I’m not sure which of two possible articles I’d like to pair with these photos. My lack of clarity on the writing side makes me unsure which photos I should select. There are hundreds of photos related to this project, so without clarity, it becomes an overwhelming task.
  • Because of that fuzziness, I’m also not sure which set of keywords to use to classify the photos, or where to file them. Should I create a new set of keywords altogether, or just use what I already have? (This is related to the naming problem I wrote about earlier.)
  • Will these images be used in a gallery, which means I could select ten or so photos that together represent the idea, or do I need a single representative image?

Underneath the excuses, I discovered a series of questions that I hadn’t answered because I wasn’t consciously aware of them. Once I paid direct attention to the excuses, and tracked them to their origin, I was able to make the decisions I needed to make to clarify the project, and start sorting the photos.


  • Identify a project you have been wanting to work on for a while, but have avoided for some undetermined reason.
  • Keep a piece of paper or a notebook in your work area for that project.
  • Every time you think about working on it — but don’t — write down the reason or excuse. The first one that pops into your mind. Try not to punish yourself over it or go on a guilt trip. You are gathering information, not pressing charges.
  • After a week or so, or however long it takes to start finding that your latest excuse is already on the list, set aside some time to think about each excuse on your list in detail. What is the source? Do not slip into trying to work on your project: this is work about your project.
  • For each excuse, look for underlying problems. Line by line, go through everything that is possibly getting in your way. You may not be able to resolve each one, but you can probably think of some workarounds.
  • After doing this, set a schedule for working on the project, and try to adopt the attitude: “No excuses. I’m going to work on this.”

No matter how well you analyze and develop workarounds for your excuses, new sources of friction will appear. It’s a continuous process. Repeat as necessary.


The cycle of belief and disbelief

by Matt Blair on November 3, 2008

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Quotes

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. There will be many mistakes, many things to take out and others that need to be added. You just aren’t always going to make the right decision. My friend Terry says that when you need to make a decision, in your work or otherwise, and you don’t know what to do, just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird