habit-defying labour — thinking with the art of daisy tsai

Daisy Tsai describes her work, presently on display at Luz Gallery, Montreal, with these words:

Painting is habit-defying labour… As our world dazzles, rushes, and burns, i peek-a-boo through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence, stillness verging on celebration and distress.

The notion of habit is a powerful one, speaking as it does to those areas of our lives where we have perhaps stopped paying attention or ceased living intentionally – where we have allowed lethargy to withhold us from the possibility of the new. Of course habit is not always a negative dimension of human life, since the formation of positive and constructive habits is a necessary resource for living well. But our habits of sight, and habits of thought, and habits of behaviour can also be, and invariably are, a way that we close ourselves off to precisely that possibility – the possibility of living well, or faithfully. The possibility of encountering something new and enlivening (from Christ? who makes all things new?).

The artistic vocation is multi-faceted, but a significant feature of this vocation has always been to undermine our habits of thought and life – to invite the receiver to see the world within a different frame of reference – to refuse to let neighbour or stranger be seen in the same way she or he has always been seen. Vocation: contending for an alternative coherence.

IMG_0935On almost every visit I make to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of its architectural features strikes me. Specifically, the lengthy staircase that takes you to the lower or upper levels, a staircase whose steps are about half the height of the steps/staircases we normally negotiate. These particular staircases also extend, horizontally, almost three times the length of a usual staircase. The result is that walking them is unlike walking any other – each step requires a half-stride – or you feel the urge to take the steps two at a time. You cannot walk these stairs as the habit of your stride demands. Your legs and feet and body will rebel, but the stairs will not let you fall into your usual habit – you begin to think, and must thinkabout the fact that you are walking. You must make a decision about how you will walk.

That such a staircase is incorporated into the architecture of a museum/gallery is surely intended to mimic the artistic vocation of breaking habits of thought and perception. “You can’t do this the way you always have!”

In the pieces on display in the Luz Gallery, Tsai also wants to throw us off stride. As she puts it, “through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence.” So images come into focus as seemingly familiar or everyday elements (a bureau, for example) fall into their usual place/coherence for us, but then are suddenly not seen as we are used to seeing them. They are partial and hidden and off-kilter, withholding from us the possibility of habit/sameness.

Set in this context, Ton Visage Étoilé (your starlit face? your illuminated face?) suggests both transparency and also gathered points of darkness and hiddenness that are not subject to our habitual certainties. Our habits of thought, in fact, often become most problematic in the context of relationships (before the visage of the other), for such habits are often inimical to seeing the other and relating to the beloved or friend in any way other than the way we have always related. If we cannot begin to break those habits, to walk differently and make intentional decisions about such walking, then we will be unable to “peek-a-boo through forms and colours to contend for an alternative coherence,” a coherence that is perhaps truer to the other and the mystery that she or he is or should be to me.

In the same way that painting should be (though is not always) habit-defying labour, so our living and loving and perceiving should become habit-defying labour. The habit-defying labour of prayerfully opening ourselves to features of the world that we have yet been unable to see, but which are nevertheless there before us. This is not to say that such labour will always disclose clear and straightforward ideas about the world we inhabit and relate to – invariably it will not. But even the disclosure of a greater mystery than we had anticipated is as much a success as our discovery of some transparent truth that we had been unable to see.


Daisy Tsai’s works are exhibited at the Luz Gallery until May 2nd (http://www.galerieluz.com.) Daisy is an acquaintance of mine and also wife of my friend Paul Wu. 


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