The Ordinary Pointing Us Onwards

What can be said about a painting of a girl washing dishes? We barely think about the act of dish washing. We barely contemplate this familiar experience at all. Standing in a room called a kitchen; the dirty sink, the brightly lit lamp. This is the space we inhabit as we eat, drink and wash. This is the space in which we accomplish the task of living. And it’s instinctive to us.

However unassuming the subjects of her paintings may be, Victoria Macmillan’s series Private Inscape calls us to attend to our “spaces of life” in a unique and sober way. As in the painting above, Macmillan transposes scenes from the places of our adolescence—where our most basic and instinctual understanding of the world is fostered—and paints them on common fabrics. In each piece, the fabric bleeds into the scene, reminding us of a memory or thought that is called to our minds in the present. We are made aware that it’s a memory because of the material that surrounds it.

As a true contemporary artist, Macmillan does not have a particular intention for the way she wants her art to be interpreted. Yet the work encourages viewers to recall their former living spaces, and builds upon these memories a sense of the transitory nature of growing up. Fabrics serve to remind us of the “stuff” we keep in storage or in our musty childhood bedrooms. Similarly, in Joy Okagawa’s Obasan, dust covering antiques in her aunt’s attic induces the main character to think of the brokenness of her family. Likewise, the “physical,” as we interact with the material in the present, grabs hold of our attention and our associations, which helps us as we recall the past.

The physical world has the capacity to cause us to remember, our relationships, our childhood perceptions, and the very prosaic experiences of our upbringing, and set us in motion towards something else entirely. Rather than merely sifting through our ordinary experiences and assigning meaning to them, what if the purpose of our ordinary experiences were to direct our attention to the divine?

In a recent interview in Books and Culture, poet Adam Zagajewski noted this transitory and transitional nature of what we consider familiar. In his poem, “Ordinary Life” he remarks:

Ordinary life, ordinary days and cares,

a concert, a conversation,

strolls on the town’s outskirts,

good news, bad—

but objects and thoughts

were unfinished somehow,

rough drafts.

In contemporary poetry, as with contemporary art, there is a tendency to create and depict the prosaic experience as simply what it is. The intention of a work of art is not made clear for us. Simply depicting what’s “real” is the point. This view of art has a tendency to predispose us to materialism, to want to view the world as less than it is. Materialists continuously endeavor to hold the world as they would any physical object. Rather than seeing meaning and purpose, they stop with the object, as though that were all that existed.

Fans of G.K. Chesterton will recall his adamant opposition to this view. He argues that such a viewpoint cultivates a spirit of “smallness;” resulting in skepticism and austere minimalism:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. …His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.

Zagajewski falls in a similar camp with Chesterton when he argues that our physical experience doesn’t stop with itself. The ordinary world, along with the transitory memories of childhood and the physical objects of our youth, all serve to point us elsewhere:

Many people, including some friends of mine, have a tendency to celebrate the quotidian. It seems to me that the quotidian doesn’t want to be celebrated. It has to be completed. It’s open to new adventures. It’s not something we can put on a pedestal, to which we should pray. It prays itself for something else; how can we pray to it?

Modern life often forces us to view the world as objectively limited. Zagajewski is deeply aware of this disposition, both in his culture and within himself:

For me it’s a constant battle between this dream of an ecstatic, religious poem and the heavy burden of skepticism that pulls me down. I sometimes think that in being implicated in this conflict, I’m not a bad representative of our time. This is one of the main struggles today not just in poetry but also in the spiritual realm.

When we hold within our hands the objects that once filled our childhood living spaces, we find ourselves in the midst of this tension. We are stuck between two poles—a tendency to view ordinary life materialistically and the “ecstatic” faith which would allow us the space to view our lives as a narrative.

The tension between materialism and faith is a strong one. And we do not have to dismiss the physical world in order to reasonably affirm the mystery and complexity of the divine. To challenge the smallness of materialism, however, we must be inclusive in our view of life. To reject cynicism and exclusivity, we must be open to mystery and faith. ‘