2014 March: Shapeshifting

I’ve been thinking a lot about my practice and have begun to realise what connects my drawing and my performances. The key word is “shapeshifting”. Ever since I read the Buddha manga series by manga master Osamu Tezuka (which is a phenomenal version of the ancient Siddhartha narrative), I was fascinated by a specific meditation technique that was unveiled to me in one of the chapters.

The meditating monk sat cross legged beneath a tree and focused on the living things around him: ants, birds, snakes. He thought about the bird circling the sky above. Closing his eyes, he imagined he himself was the bird. The text/images did a remarkable job of portraying the transition that took place in the monk: he felt such a powerful empathy for the bird that his soul entered the body of the bird. In the graphic novel, the bird’s face even assumes the expression of the meditating character we had already been visually introduced to.

Although I am not partial to spiritual ideas of the soul and its independence from the body, I was nonetheless struck by the idea that such a thing as empathy or imagination could have a real impact on experience and identity.

One day I tried it myself; sitting in a park I decided to give the best shot I could at imagining I was the bird above. I took a good long look at it flying in the sky and then gave myself time to imagine the entirety of its experience. I thought about the serial visual perspective warping as I moved up and down and altered the angles at which I flew. I thought about the wind rushing past me at alternating forces, depending on how fast I swerved. I began to feel out the right amount of effort required for such a flight.

It was actually truly a remarkable experience. After ‘empathising’ with the bird, I was unable to see the world quite the same way again. Furthermore, I quickly associated this meditational practice with drawing. Since I can remember, I have been drawing. My dad took me to animal parks and always encouraged me to draw what I saw. Drawing became for me therefore a method of learning about something, but as you look back and forth between your lines and the object that interests you, you assimilate your movements and your approach of looking, to the character of the thing itself. To me, an increase in the skill of drawing is a narrowing of the emotional distance between you and the object. Your motory senses and reflexes become attuned to the lines and areas of the object. This attuning is an emotional as opposed to objectively calculated affair (instinct can be mathematically precise enough if it is well trained).

I found that when I studied a tree, the act of drawing was simply an active reminder to look. Additionally, like writing, it recorded past ‘workings out’ visually for me so I could further build on my experience of the tree. I am and always have been more interested in ‘having a proper look’, than drawing for the sake of creating a drawing. This gives me instant gratitude as I draw, because the reward is in the process and not only the result. The physical drawings later bring me joy because of that same exhilarating experience they record so nakedly.

Drawing in fact, serves (at least for me) the purpose of allowing me the great privilege of stepping into the character of another thing. I find when laying down my lines that I am creating a suit for myself to step inside of, and I struggle into the thing as if it is not in my size. When I draw the tree, I am not depicting the tree. In fact to me a successful act of drawing is when I lose myself so that I am not aware of the physical thing I am producing – and instead when I draw the tree I become the tree, for as long as I am drawing.

I am talking about a tree because I am particularly attracted to organic things, but I am trying to describe drawing is a means of shapeshifting into anything. It is the process that allows you to give yourself entirely to another thing. I think this is such an amazing possibility, and reflects what I enjoy about the artists I admire the most: their great silent knowledge of the way something is.

On the other side of my practice is performance. I made my first video performance 2 years ago, but I realise now that I have been ‘performing’ too, since I was very small. I mention my childhood and emphasize the longevity of these practices (drawing and performing) because I want to highlight that they constitute a fundamental necessity for me. This necessity is interesting to me regarding art – but more on that later. For now I will continue talking about these things in a historical manner.

Both drawing and performing most often stem from a joyful envy on my part. One of my earliest memories of performing happened just after I watched Disney’s Mulan for the first time. I was so struck by Mulan’s power, as a physically and mentally strong young woman, with a fascinating and (from my perspective) exotic cultural background, that I rose from the sofa at the film’s end, with a feeling that she had infected my soul. I felt morose and serious, yet impassioned with masculine ideas of honour and pride despite my being a girl. I admired Mulan and yearned for some of her qualities after having just been exposed to her and the great story. I took a camera and took a photo of myself trying to “steal her power” right after having been affected in such a way.

Recently I came across the picture I took of myself (using self timer) many years ago. I was overjoyed to come across it because it is taken only a short time after the younger me was almost intolerably inspired by Mulan – and captures that raw sense of envy and desire to shapeshift into what was impressive. (Sidenote: after every martial arts film I watched with my brother, we would be sure to be fighting each other once it was over – another example of the intolerable inspiration).

So drawing and also using my own image and body to perform, became ways of dealing with intolerable inspiration, and envy of powerful traits of people and inanimate objects alike. It is only in recent times, by which time I had decided that I am an artist, that I have begun to exercise a recognition and acknowledgement of these activities, and begun to believe in them as pathways to acquiring ‘a great and silent knowledge of the way some certain things are’ – like my heroes (Pina Bausch, Hokusai and Hayao Miyazaki, to name a few).


Below then is an image of me performing: a ‘Frankenstein’s collage’ of impressionable traits picked up from my Serbian relatives and public Slavic personalities. The image following it is an image of a drawing during which I ‘shapeshifted’ into a mute yet airy, lively organic thing.

My work is almost always improvised, be it performance or drawing. This is just because of the way in which I wish to be. I want to study what interests me, and to be a walking library of snippets of their impressionable features, ready to produce them and rediscover them wholeheartedly at any moment. This is once again because I am interested in adopting the qualities in rather a real way. Planning doesn’t occur to me because, as I mentioned earlier, I am less often interested in a product in the first place (but this is not always the case, as with my Credits project, which when it is finished will be the product of a projected and premeditated vision).

Therefore, I am excited to find a scarlet thread in my life and artistic practice: the childlike desire to shapeshift into that which enthralls me, and to subsequently learn from this empathetic practice.

Or as is summed up by the wonderful phrase, “You’ve got to fake it to make it”.

Faig Ahmed

I listened to a lecture at the V&A on Azerbaijani art: Faig Ahmed, one of the finalists for the Jameel Prize 2014 was present and talking about his work, which I like very much. He was an honest and joyful speaker, and reminded me through his own interests in Azerbaijani tradition, of my own roots. He weaves carpets, but the patterns are distorted as if by digital means. He has had an installation at the Venice Biennale in 2013, but I seem to have missed it on my visit. Here again there was a play with thread and the manner in which it weaves into an image.

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