The Care of the Self

Words: Ashraf Jamal

Tamara James confides at the outset that she comes from a family with a long history of mental illness. In stating this fact, she does not seek to reconcile herself to a fallibility, but to find her own point of flight. It is as an artist that James uncovers the surest route to – momentary – recoveries.

Tamara James Candice Berman
Tamara James, Exude

The question remains: what defines health, and what ill health? As Michel Foucault has pointed out in Discipline and Punish, the so-called ‘normal’ only possesses its cogency – its ‘truth’ – because of the so-called ‘abnormal’. At every turn we are policed, measured, judged, because, as Foucault reminds us, we are all caught in a ‘panopticon’, pitted against each other, and surveilled at every instance.
     However, for an artist such as Tamara James, who has taken illness – her own and that experienced by others – and made it the core and substrate of her work, we need not be divided against ourselves, and need not be the victim of another’s judgement. For what also awaits us, and which is far more thrilling, is the quest, always, to become the other of our afflicted self.
     In The Care of the Self, Michel Foucault underscores this drive. ‘I don’t think it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.’ For those who believe in consistency, or imagine life to be a calibrated arc, Foucault’s view may be threatening, for what he supports is not a piecemeal alteration of being but a stark shift.
     Foucault’s reasoning behind this view stems from his abiding suspicion that ‘self-knowledge’ is a hoax, that we live in doubt and confusion and fear, and that we cannot apprehend who and what we are in advance. The great adventure in life is to surprise oneself. Now Johann Wolfgang von Goethe too shared this view. ‘From early on I have suspected that so important-sounding task “Know Thyself” is a ruse of a cabal of priests. They are trying to seduce man from activity in the outside world, to distract him with impossible demands: they seek to draw him into false inner contemplation. Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world.’
     For an artist such as James, who, I imagine, follows an elaborate routine of self-care, Foucault’s blithe embrace of radical extremes of being may seem daunting, and yet, when reviewing the artist’s own summation of her work, we find ourselves caught between an abyssal entrapment and a yearning to ‘arc’ and ‘flex’ the better to create a being that is not the victim of the pathology assigned to it. And it is for this reason too that I would venture that, like Goethe, James must reconcile introspection with a greater will to belong and participate in the greater world.
     With the artist, then, we are on a psychological journey that comprises a variety of physical-emotional-psychic-spiritual states, among them extension, frustration, preservation, confidence, release.  That said, James’ works are not a pictorial shorthand for a discourse on mental health. Made up of uncluttered black and white images of body parts, what James, in effect, gives us is the electrified tension within being itself. Strikingly dramatic, suggestive in part of a dancer’s movements – an arabesque – James’ images conjure moments of being.
     Each of these moments, however, is haunted. It is as though each physical expression is snagged. This sensation, or intuition on my part, finds its echo in the words of TS Eliot:

Tamara James Candice Berman
Tamara James, Clench

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
(Extract from The Hollow Men)

These words, which I have cherished for a lifetime, find their uncanny echo in the works by James, for she too has intuited a night-world – the Shadow – at the core of every transaction, yearning, hope or belief.
     The glistening and fragmented allure of his photographs – images which refuse the conventional understanding of what a photograph does – seem to bring the shadow to the fore. It is as though the artist cannot satisfactorily adhere to some balance or negotiation – between idea and reality, conception and creation, the desire and the spasm – without accepting darkness. That said, there is not inherent morbidity in these works – they are not pathological but triumphal.
     Which returns us to Foucault and the care of the self. That ‘self’ for which we care is not some fetish or curiosity that we water and nurture, that ‘self’ is the core mystery of our being. It is all the more damningly ironic therefore that in today’s world it is precisely the ‘self’ that is squandered and trivialised.
     Against this genocide of the self, we find James, an artist who has embraced her own fragility, and then translated that fragility. Her inkjet prints, which bisect and fragment the human body – thereby spilling and liquefying its illusory substantiveness – are a keen reminder of our inherent aqueousness. We are not the projected ideal we imagine ourselves to be, and neither are we the sum of the flaw within that gnaws at us.
     The ‘shadow’ that lies between our hopes and dreams is not necessarily an obstacle. Indeed, as Eliot and James both realise, the shadow is, in fact, the veil and the pivot, which, when embraced, will allow us to free ourselves, if only momentarily, from bondage.