Farhad O’Neill -
Visual Artist

"Spiritual Devotion in Art" for "Shoppinghour" Art Magazine by Farhad Brendan Nargol-O'Neill. April 2010

Over the past year I have approached a series of disciplines as I’ve been reading the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, heightening my practice of the visual and mnemonic Arts while creating a “Stations of the Cross” for an exhibition of modern devotional art in Toronto. I have been investigating the relationships between structure and improvisation in the musical and visual realms, and their corresponding representations in the unseen and spiritual worlds. All of this has found corporeal form in my created Stations. I moved past the pain and effort of it all and realized that the end result of this process is nothing less that complete spiritual liberation, that artistic development and spiritual liberation could develop side by side with each other, and that placement in the art world and historical definitions means very little.

It began with observations remembered from my youth. My first step along the path of Art and Liberation was the recognition of randomness that coexisted alongside overarching structures present in classical Gaelic illumination. That pure creativity and abstraction could go hand in hand with structure and logic was a very liberating concept. The visual form this took was the focus on the single line that existed within larger shapes. My father comes from the Parsi community in India, and my late mother was native Irish from Belfast - and the focus on the single line stems from the vocal traditions of both cultures. The impetus towards creating work which places complexity and a sense of freedom side by side with visual structures that are themselves creations of logic comes completely from my upbringing as a Monotheist who never really experienced Religion as a form of control. For me, a very positive and informed religious upbringing, as a Catholic who was also taught about Zoroastrianism from my parents and our family from India, left me with an openness to consider, in time, the notion that things spiritual might also be represented in the visual world, in the metaphysical world, in the world of ethics, and logic, and in the real world (for me at least) that exists in Memory. Western Art music, or jazz, which I was exposed to and later trained in as a pianist, also functioned to provide clarity of the link between structure and free expression. Consequently, my favorite soloists have often been my favorite composers - Powell, Parker, Ellington, and Monk. Such observations gained from music seemed to be the same observations gained from a consideration of similar concerns in the visual and spiritual worlds.

The link between art and spirituality and how it is played out with regards to visual building blocks finds as many individual expressions as there are different cultures and artistic movements - the boldness of line in the art of the Haida people on the west coast of Canada, the purity of iconic Zoroastrian images, the intensity and detail of Irish devotional illumination which remains unsurpassed in the world, the merging of intellectual and spiritual efforts in Christian and Muslim sacred architecture, the amazing variety of devotional practices in Hinduism as seen in their statuary and temple design, the Theosophic works of Lawren Harris, force and power of the minimal drawings of Kline and Motherwell, and the profundity that comes from the relationship between object and placement in installation art, are all obvious expressions of this relationship.

Differing theoretical approaches which have dominated art making within the academic avant-garde, historically, exercise a negative and controlling influence on the subject of whether or not something corporeal - created as a the outcome to process - is even valid any more. Only process is valid, only the non corporeal is valid, only nothing is valid, only orthodox tradition is valid… Relativism, Nihilism: it’s all rubbish.. The only thing that matters is Artists and their Art, and the community they exist in, if at all. Sadly, many practicing artists today fall into the trap that others have set for them. Why would any individual seek to set limitations on their own growth? The great Irish parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell said: “No man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation.” This is true speaking. This letter of mine describes a personal journey. Behold the ridiculous chains that some curators, academics, and others try to lay upon us! It is nothing, and we must shake them off! I see no argument between process and result, between the seen and the unseen, the corporeal and the non-corporeal, between those seekers of liberation who search for the absolute and those achieve the same end by reverse means. Read Victor Hugo: “We grasp only a few strands in the tangled skein of being.” That’s fine, no one would deny the depth of creation, but read the art theorist Patrick Waldberg (from “Surrealism” 1962): “What is apprehended by our sense and faculties - only a minute fraction of an iceberg whose center of gravity lies far below the surface could not satisfy these seekers of an absolute.” Waldberg is talking about the Surrealists. So much wonderful liberating art they made, but they were also their own worst enemies, the victims of their desire to create their own orthodoxy. Ridiculous. I care deeply for Breton’s influence and contribution, I care nothing for his intolerance. the realization of objective truth is not in my opinion an expression of intolerance. Clarity and true-seeing is possible. As an artist I have no desire to ape the intellectual stagnation of the so-called ‘avant-garde’ so as to gain inclusion, like so many other artists of our generation, or to revel in tradition for its own sake. Progressive and Regressive elements represent the same thing, stagnation, when they seek to define and control a scene. Artists must develop their practice and protect their approach without the limitations and definitions of others being thrust upon them. They must, however, want it badly enough.

My own struggles have led me to see that development and approach are different things. My development has changed drastically over the years, but my approach? It’s still the same old playing with building blocks as a child,making spaces for things to go in. That’s mnemonics talking, but it’s also chemical, and spiritual - a unified approach to making (the physicists call it the “Theory of Everything”) and an openness to be the tool through which things come into being. Now, I am any one of those blocks, or I exists in the spaces between them, or realize that there are no blocks at all, and then I leave my constructions and enter the Void and realize that it’s not empty, and I see something centered in the distance, as if there exists a flame which lies behind a translucent veil, and then the next thing I know is that, whatever it is I was doing, is finished. I call it going back to the source, to hear the original music, yet everything is perfectly silent. No great celestial pipe organ to thrill me with the sound of God’s first utterance, before it kills me. Silence over the waters. This state of being, of enlightenment, represents at the same time true autonomy and that most perfect forum, total inclusion inside that which exists and has always existed: the individual and community, the circle squared. It’s all the same. I’m not worried about finding that highest creative expression, or in the existence of God. I know that it exists and that I exist within it in perfect freedom.

My mind goes back to playing with building blocks once again - about making a place to put something else in - and also the creation of a line akin to an improvised jazz solo that exists corporeally and develops in real time. I can tell you what I think it might all look like. Can you imagine something invisible, but very much alive, in a three-dimensional geometric space making lines in the air while the dimensions of the space constantly change? Living lines within the pulsing chamber, constantly reforming itself into different geometric shapes, the living line and the changing geometrical structures in perfect sync with each other. The co-existence between Law and Chaos. I think perhaps this can only be illustrated at this moment in time via digital technology or perhaps live 3-D holograms. It is about visually actualizing a relationship of a kind that thankfully the world has many examples of already. Think of Bird and Dizzy, or Lester Young and Billy Holiday. Think of the relationship between the strings in the middle register of a Beethoven symphony through which the melody is being resolved, while the instruments at the top and bottom registers constantly change and provide focus and profundity to the developing line.

I believe that all of these things find their truest representation in a sort of reverse Platonic fashion, in the physicality of created Art. Art, therefore, is for myself the means by which all those things that exist in human nature and the natural and spiritual worlds find their truest human expression.