…that make me ponder man’s (and woman’s, cat’s and ferret’s) existentialist dilemma in the modern world? By the way, this entry isn’t directly about art so don’t expect too many pretty pictures here (see below).
Recently I have been reading about existentialism on request from one of my tutors at college. He wants me to see how I can relate the ideas of existentialism to my artwork. I haven’t come to many conclusions yet except that many of my paintings appear quite lonely and isolated and existentialism is about man’s anxiety over feeling lonely and isolated in a world of interconnectedness.
Every time I have to drive anywhere, particularly by myself (actually always by myself), I find myself slowly at first, then rapidly, thinking and worrying about life, death, anxiety and alienation. At the end I am usually feeling quite melancholy and wondering what the point of it all is. Why is that? Perhaps it is because I have nobody to talk to. Perhaps it is the monotony of motorway driving. Perhaps it is boredom leading to melancholy leading to anxiety leading to a type of catastrophizing (How much further? Why am I here? What does it feel like to be dead? I could die here? Oh my god what is the point of living?). Then perhaps it is mostly because death could come very quickly and easily on a motorway; travelling up a long and lonely motorway, such as the M54, feels like travelling to your death. I wonder if you die on the motorway whether your brain carries on travelling up the motorway, at least until the lights finally switch off.
Motorways have been part of the British landscape for quite a few decades now, since the late 1950s. We now have (to name but a few) the M1, M6, M5, M42, M54, M25. They all have their own personalities (nobody likes the poor old downtrodden M6 and who could fail to love the M62?). They were a prominent feature of my childhood. We went on the motorway to get to Grandmas. We went on the motorway to go on holiday. We went on the motorway for a day trip to Birmingham. My dad used to wax lyrical about how revolutionary motorways were and how wonderful the spaghetti junction was (oh how I loved the idea of this edible concrete). I see motorways and I see my dad driving. A good cheap day out for him was a trip to Keel services to watch the cars going under the bridge (something my own children would perhaps secretly quite enjoy).
Their ubiquitous presence is embedded in our social and mental lives. Through them (and their little stop offs) we are confronted with popular culture (why do all services look identical?) and familiarity (those blue signs with ‘THE NORTH’ or ‘THE MIDLANDS’ that may as well read ‘THE TWILIGHT ZONE’). They support increasing traffic flows and seem to be in a constant state of being repaired (roadworks, roadworks, more roadworks) so are a constant source of our frustration. We have to live with them and we can’t live without them. We have a love-hate relationship with them. Nowadays we are obsessed with our sat-navs (mine is called Gladys) who should take the stress out of some aspects of motorway driving (leaving us to contemplate death in more depth) but which actually send us slowly bonkers in our loneliness (such as in Jonathan Coe’s book about the man who ended up conversing freely and insanely with his sat nav).
Motorways are to me the epitome of the existential fragmentation that their three-lane road travel creates (and it has to be three-lane to be a proper motorway). The motorway journey is an inconvenience, its hours of the day spent in necessary boredom, a task so banal that we rarely consider it. This network makes us confront ourselves and acts as a metaphor for our life’s journey.
I despise motorways. But I also adore them. They are ordinary, they deserve greater contemplation. They remind me of the insignificance of my existence. They force me to evaluate and stop and stare for a while. Nothing else in my life does that so powerfully. They are excuse for an overpriced coffee and muffin.
Motorways have inspired creative output in many ways, they feature in songs (think Chris Rea ‘Driving Home for Christmas’) and books (the aforementioned Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Slim, J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island or the rather more obscure Edward Chell’s In the Company of Ghosts: The Poetics of the Motorway). I really want to paint a picture of what we see when we are driving down a motorway. It would have to be large. It’s on my to-do list.
Now for my next topic…ring roads.