Exploring wonder

In art and self-expression, my primary motivation is to inspire wonder. There’s of course also the deep psychological aspect of art, where half-conscious material from the mind can be sublimated into something… sublime… however when it comes to my motivation, the reason I want to explore, to learn and to get better at art, it always comes back to wonder. So taking a closer look at wonder might be a good idea.

There are multiple definitions of wonder from various scholars of art, but it might be easier to define it for ourselves by finding instances when we experienced it, rather than by finding a general description. I know that my personal understanding of wonder has to do with a sense of momentary incredulity. A sense of “does this really exist, or am I dreaming?” Of suddenly finding myself in a storybook.

I vividly remember a profound moment of wonder that was connected to a rather mundane experience. As a teenager I was at a music festival, and I went exploring in the park areas of the festival grounds. It was a dark forested area with trails lit by colorful paper lanterns. The colors of a light painting installation were cast in broken shards across the foliage, and a taste of incense and chill music was on the air. Along with the unique people around me, at that moment I felt like I was in a magical maze in a storybook, where adventure and beauty lives all around me.

If I break it down, the festival was a rather mainstream, commercial event; the park was unkempt and average; the lights were pretty simple, just a ready-bought festive lantern chain from a Chinese store; the light painting was aimed somewhere else; ultimately, there was no artistic genius or true natural magnificence behind my sense of wonder, and yet it was real and complete.

Thinking back at an exhibition by contemporary painter Attila Szűcs, I can recall a very similar sensation. His art is visually realistic, often based on photographs, but with a dream-like quality added to them. There’s a level of mystery to his work, a sense of not being quite sure what one is truly looking at. A middle-aged man in shirt and tie, standing knee-deep in water in a nothingness of whites and greys. A teenage boy in amidst lantern-lit trees, himself decorated with lanterns like a human Christmas tree. A fighter airplane, or the ghost of one, resting erotically on a freshly made bed.

According to an interview, he often paints in a meditative state, and at least for me, it seems his work invites the viewer to experience a mirror to that state, to mentally step into the frame, and get lost in this strangely detached dreamworld, foreboding and beautiful. And somehow it feels like that this component of mystery, or openness, really contributes to true wonder. The sense of there being “more than you can encompass with your senses”. The sense of being invited to imagine an entire universe through a single, surreal glimpse.

So one wonders (sry for the pun) what exactly links the sensation of getting lost at a music festival, and seeing surreal and magical paintings. I might be jumping the gun here, but there is a sense of reality opening up, a sense of discovery, of new horizons. And that’s where I think true wonder and simple amazement diverge.

Consider for a moment magic tricks; if they are executed properly, they are obviously amazing. Where did the coin go? Where did it come from? Wow! Amazing! However, it takes a master performer to make them wondrous. To hold your attention. It’s sad, but most of circus can get somewhat boring, even though it’s a group of arts all about amazement. Reading this book on clowning (Clowns by Ezra Lebank & David Bridel), it was interesting to read that many of the greatest masters in the art of clowning today say that they weren’t really into circus as kids. Thinking about it, it’s no big surprise, as a kid I was also often bored at circus.

Amazement can be overloaded. Also, in and of itself it’s not all that interesting. Watching the olympics is only interesting at length if one is invested in national pride connected to it, or as a fellow athlete, can truly relate to the level of refinement exhibited at world class level. Otherwise, it’s just hairless monkeys running in circles. You can see that on the playground. Sure, the don’t run as fast, but who cares, at least the kids are being cute while doing it.

I see the success of Cirque du Soleil in no other thing than the fact that they put wonder back in circus. It’s no longer just amazing feats of skill following each other, it’s a story, a whole world told through the language of amazing feats of skill. I think there really may be something to my idea of “opening up reality”.

I started writing this post mainly as a way to rehash my opinions to myself as well as my readers, and I do think I may have grasped something that I was only vaguely feeling before. And there’s some really good news in here for everyone who’s a burner. It’s a lot easier to create wonder at a burn than it is in a circus. The burn is open. It’s participatory. It’s an experiment in how to create, in how to be artists and humans. It carries its own level of wonder, that we can piggyback on.

So let’s go out, create and burn. :)

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