Thursday 3 December 2015

"On Site" by Mori McCrae at N.A.C.

The latest show at NAC, put on by Mori McCrae, carries the title "On Site: Visual Poetry from the Tyrone Guthrie Centre." I suppose "On Site" is a reference to the actual site in Ireland where Mori McCrae spend a three-week residency, together with a recreation of her experiences there at the site of NAC. When Sir Tyrone Guthrie died he bequeathed his home, just as it was, to the Irish nation as a haven for artistic people to develop their creativity. Mori qualified both as a visual artist and a poet and had the joy of foregathering with other creative types every evening over a delicious dinner.

One of her poems, inscribed on a NAC wall, is about a typical evening when they would go out for a walk, chasing away a neighbour's dog who hung around the kitchen looking for handouts. She has very warm memories of her stay. She says, "The paring down of the basic daily acts of working, eating, exercise and sleeping, under the watchful care of an unobtrusive staff, left me with the impression of being a resident at a 'benign asylum,' in the very best sense of both words. By installing at NAC the poetry written there, she wants to bring this "benign asylum" to St. Catharines.

The words "benign asylum" really resonate with me because in the late seventies I had what used to be known as a nervous breakdown.  I received very little sympathy from my colleagues at Brock for the state I was in and was forced to seek refuge in the hospital.  It turned out to be a real refuge where I was able to relax and paint as I hadn't done for some time.  I expressed my pleasure and gratitude to one of the mental health practitioners by saying, "This really is an asylum!"  She was quite shocked and said, "Surely it can't be as bad as that!"  "No, " I said, "what I mean is that it's an asylum in the sense of a refuge."  Finally I had found a place where I could find peace and quiet and relax with what gave me joy.

It is always a good idea -- in fact it is absolutely essential -- to pay careful and exact attention to the words a poet uses, although Mori demurred when I called her a poet and said she wasn't a poet yet.  Maybe she means that she is not the kind of bard who can stand on an eminence and declaim, because her poetry, so far from being declaimed, is inscribed, and not always legibly, in a visual context.

One of her installations represents an open book with apertures cut out to reveal the heart and soul of the person penning the message, conveyed in an illegible scribble.  Another, which is quite a favourite of mine, represents a scattering of three-dimensional rocks rising from the ocean with an individual word inscribed on each.  You get the message by hopping from rock to rock, at some risk of being swept away by the water of the emotions.

Mori says she works a lot with water.  Of course water is one of the four traditional elements -- earth, air, water, and fire -- present in magic alchemy and folklore.  Water is important as a medium because it flows over and around and under, wearing away what seems so much harder than itself.  The Taoist philosophers of ancient China stressed the importance of this, as Ursula K. Le Guin once pointed out.

The one poem directly about the Tyrone Guthrie Centre is painted directly on the wall, some of it too high up to read without the help of a ladder.  The most legible poem is written on a couple of parallel blocks and is, at least initially, about Snow White awakening not to a physical prince but to the idea of one.  Mori says that the idea is what is most important for an artist.  Other installations vaguely resembling a loosely draped pelvis, do not have anything written on them at all.  "Thoughts that do lie too deep for words?"

I came away from this show with a line from Emily Dickinson resonating in my mind:  "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant."  Not being a bard like Dylan Thomas, Mori is allusive and indirect.  Maybe that is why she says she is not a poet.  Her least reticent poems are painted on the NAC windows and are deliberately contradictory.  She invites and leaves us with a contradiction.  She says herself that she finds inspiration in what is unplanned and accidental.  As we have already seen, in this she is not alone.

I talked to her about the Quaker idea of a "leading," which is important to me because I am a Quaker.  A "leading" is an inner prompting which arises from the depths of one's psyche and which the rational ego is inclined to deny but which can lead one in the right direction if one will only listen to it.  She said that was her experience too.  So I suppose that Mori, like so many young creative people is on a Vision Quest.  It is a pleasure to be invited to share it.

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