On the eve of my visit to Tokyo to see my family for the first time since my breast cancer diagnosis, dancer Tess De Quincey helped me organise a toro-nagashi on Tarban Creek, which flows behind her home in Hunters Hill. Toro-nagashi is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river. It is traditionally performed during the O-bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world. Outside Japan, toro-nagashi is closely associated with images of commemorative services, such as the of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, or more recently, that of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.
It took me several of days to make our toro-nagashi lanterns, helped and guided by my friend and artist Miho Watanabe, who designed biodegradable lanterns, using paper made by Queensland artist and relative Zela, using my fallen hair from chemo therapy, and later the hair shaven during my danpatsu-shiki or the hair cutting ceremony.
The paper lanterns flowed down the creek and out to sea, or so I would like to write. But in reality they bumped into each other in the current, their candles blown out by the wind, and we ended up fishing them out of Tarban Creek before they reached Sydney Harbour. Never mind. It was still a beautiful evening when some of my very close friends who were there for me during my breast cancer treatment, including artist Vic McEwan, my collaborator for this project I Just Can’t Say That Word, and photographer Michele Mossop, who had been documenting my experiences with her camera, gathered to help me release my past: the soul of my departed long black hair, which had given me a strong sense of self-identity for a very long time.
We all sat around the table in Tess’s home and ate together afterwards.
We don’t pause disease for a public holiday or forget about treatment ’cause there’s turkey to be eaten. The schedule continues and for Mayu that means daily radiation therapy. For me that means that in between traveling the east coast to visit family, I visit Sydney to spend the day with Mayu documenting her radiation therapy. Recording its sounds, and experiencing the process with her. Even joining her as she has a consultation with a specialist.
Beforehand, when I asked Mayu what her radiation therapy was like, she told me it was like a disco with lasers, coloured lights and rotating “mirror balls”. She didn’t talk about pain or fear, she talked about a disco and asked me to come in and film it.
Arriving between Christmas Day and New Years Eve, I sense something that I might even call “hopeful” in the hospital corridors. It is Mayu’s second last day of radiation therapy, It’s not the end of treatment though. Hormone therapy is next and then we will see.
But there is something hopeful which I can’t quite put my finger on.
The next day, after Mayu’s final radiation therapy, I receive a text from her telling me that her final treatment is done and what a milestone it feels like. She signs off by thanking me for being there during this process.
To me, this project isn’t about Art Therapy, just like other projects where I have worked in hospitals and/or with people undergoing various traumas. It is about human connection, about a shared experience giving strength to someone. About not being alone when facing fear and about maintaining the essence of who you are, even through major illness.
In 2017, Mayu’s next stage of treatment will begin and we will continue to make work together that explores her journey, navigating the unknown and hopefully the sharing of this journey along the way gives strength, occasionally.
After several days of severe hair fall out during the end of my first chemotherapy cycle, accompanied by my two very close friends, dancer Tess de Quincey and photographer Michele Mossop, I underwent a danpatsu-shiki. Tess ceremonially cut and shaved my hair. Michele documented the process. We ate together afterwards.
Upon retirement of sumo wrestlers, samurai becoming a ronin, commencing Buddhist priesthood, entering middle school, becoming a member of a sporting team, military service and much more, danpatsu-shiki, or the hair cutting ceremony, carries a special significance in Japan as a rite of passage. In the present day, YouTube is full of videos of pimply teenagers shaving each other’s hair before joining a club, drunk salary men shaving their boss’s hair for his retirement, and teenage idol holding a danpatsu-shiki with a trendy hair dresser to declare to their fans they are now to become an adult artist.
Here in Australia, there had been couple of danpatsu-shikis I have personally attended. During the farewell party for Japan Foundation, Sydney’s then director Koji Okamoto, his deputy Masaki Baba invited his boss’s 70 or so surprised party guests at their former gallery in North Sydney to take turns ceremonially cutting and shaving his hair inch by inch. When Japanese butoh group Byakko-Sha performed at Melbourne’s Spoleto Festival in the late 80’s, they began their show every evening at the Playhouse in Melbourne Arts Centre with a haircutting ceremony of an Australian volunteer on stage.
Despite having shaved my head for looks, fashion and attitude in my mid 30’s, this time I didn’t want to lose my hair. It annoyed me every time someone said I could try shaving my hair instead of losing it. If you think a shaved head is going to look cool, why don’t you try? I’ve been there, done that, and I remembered the extreme reactions it produced. I didn’t like it.
Loved by heterosexual women who on some level saw it as liberation from the heterosexual male ideal of woman with long hair; hated by people who avoided eye contact because they thought I was a skin head or Neo Nazi; and marginalised by people who averted their eyes because they thought I had cancer and they either felt sorry for me or were confronted by the potential of a life threatening illness.
Until I was in the position myself, I didn’t know, and I would have probably said similar things to anyone else facing losing hair with chemotherapy. But I now know that it angered me every time someone said to me that my hair would grow back. I knew it was said in a supportive spirit, but it didn’t acknowledge the fact that I was grieving. Instead, it belittled my grief, and suggested I was fussing over nothing.
… and if you are one of the many other close friends, who told me my shaven head I looked wise, peaceful and serene like that of a Buddhist nun, I thank you for the compliment, but I must say… I don’t want to become a nun. I want to be hot red blooded and with passionate uncontrollable indecent desires!
As it is, it took me nearly 5 weeks to make this post, because it troubled me to look at Michele’s photographs and video rushes. My apologies to Michele – her images are beautiful; and my apologies to Tess – her artistic direction and treatment of my hair was exquisite and gentle; yet I couldn’t bear seeing myself going through this ceremony. To me seeing the images felt brutal and harsh. So I asked my collaborator for this project I Just Can’t Say That Word, Vic McEwan if he would like to do something with the video footage, but he said he found it too confronting to make something out of it without us both spending substantial time together.
Another close friend of mine, anthropologist Dr Keiko Tamura from ANU, who I stayed with in Canberra whilst researching on my other art project (Butterfly Project), sent me an encouraging email:
Do you remember when you were in Canberra in February, when we discussed the process of metamorphosis on our verandah whilst the three of us had dinner? Could you not think of your current state as a metamorphosis? It maybe at a time similar to when the butterfly is born out of a chrysalis or a snake repeatedly shedding its skin to grow; it must be worrisome to see your body undergoing change, but there is another stage to come. You will be able to withstand these difficulties and grow even further. – Keiko
I still dislike the way I look. I wear various wigs (courtesy of De Quincey Co, Liz Stokes and Ken Cleveland) in public instead of showing off my brave new shaven head. I am still coming to terms with the meaning of the rite of shaving of my hair and the passage of this stage in my life. I also know that a rite of passage in some cultures can be scary, even violent.
All I can say for now is that something has definitely changed since the danpatsu-shiki. For a start, I’m not afraid of writing the truth… even if it isn’t all positive and upbeat… which means I am stronger.
gently falling softly
at turn of every season
like liquid amber leaves, fall
powder snow flakes, winter
cherry blossom petals, spring
cicadas nymph skin, summer
like lovers in each other’s arms
this morning i awake
in my mind
in your embrace
i am falling for you
As part of my breast cancer treatment, I am seeing a psychologist. Theoretically, she is there to help me through the challenges of being diagnosed with breast cancer and the treatments to follow. In practice, I think she is helping me with a whole range of other issues preceding the diagnosis, going back to traumatic memories as a child. One of the things that came up in my last session with her was that when encountering negative emotions, instead of acknowledging and releasing it, I had a tendency to internalize them by dissociation, often by talking myself into viewing the situation that caused it and or its effect in the best possible light.
When Vic and I first discussed this project, I confessed to him that I was sick and tired of making ‘nice art,’ because my efforts to do so was blocking my creativity. What I meant was that over the years I had developed a false sense of a higher self, which prevented me from making art that exposed my raw, unprocessed emotions. Not that I was afraid of exposing my weaknesses; I could quite bravely do so, as long as it had been worked through, and I was reflecting back on my less wiser self after a positive transformation had taken place.
Sometimes I encounter art that uplifts, energizes and inspires. They are the kind that makes me want to shake the artist’s hand, like a first year college student, and relay my wish to make art like them. On the other hand, sometimes I encounter art that drains me, makes me shake my head, and mutter to the artist under my breath, “Keep your problems to yourself, I’ve got plenty of my own without having to deal with yours.” I am now wondering if this reaction to the latter had been unfairly judgemental, and lacked empathy for a fellow artist. And like all critical judgements, it had been a response to my inability to face my own demons.
This project has become a way forward for me; to break through those self-imposed creative boundaries, and allow myself to take risks again, because it doesn’t allow the luxury of reflection, processing and refinement. It is unfolding in real-time. It is unruly and unpredictable in a sense that we are creating art in response to events that unfold, and through social media, we are sharing some of the resulting artworks and writing our thoughts as it happens. The work goes out there before I have a chance to edit, re edit, consult, workshop, reflect, edit, and re edit.
Having said that, Vic and I do discuss our work. And our collaboration is truly unique. It can only happen the way it happens because of what we have experienced together as collaborating artists and friends for many years. So I was reassured when Vic said that he would clean up after me if I spewed out my yucky stuff to the world and regretted it later.
The word pet is a signifier that evokes emotions of companionship, love and caring. But that’s the thing with serious illness, it changes everything. The word pet no longer stands for a memory of those warm emotions, in the case of someone undergoing treatment for cancer, it now stands for Position Emission Tomography (pet) scan.
Even our language and our emotional response to it is altered by our illness.
There is both a comfort and a static to be had in succumbing to the process of disease and treatment and the loss of control that evades not only our daily decision making but also our grasp and control of language and memories.
As we explore issues that are somewhat taboo, we often reach a point of caution “can we say that in public”, “is that ok?” The term “political correctness” has even popped up in our conversation.
I remember the initial discussion Mayu and I had about working on art making during her treatment, she talked very passionately of wanting to make art from the heart that wasn’t second guessing the concerns of community. Pure expression from her that might not only be beautiful art but sometimes might be ugly or horrendous.
Sometimes, I watch Mayu and myself second guess thoughts that we have “what if that upsets someone”, “can we actually say that”? It is cancer after all, serious stuff.
I am very committed to the ugly and difficult stuff being said through this project, if that’s what Mayu wants/needs. Redefining social boundaries in terms of disease as we fulfill our desire to express honestly and sometime painfully and to navigate that with a remembrance that this very subject matter is an emotional trigger for lots of people. How do we negotiate it with responsibility to ourselves and with the responsibility that we have to others purely from the fact that we are making things that have a public life.
If we avoid saying something that we wanted to say, because society deems it to be a taboo, is that just another form of taking control away from Mayu? If we can’t have complete control of our outpouring at a time of disease and treatment, when can we have it? And what then is the purpose of self expression if we can’t use it when we need to in both defence (to protect) and in attack (to protect) from the effects of disease.
Taboo avoidance/taboo embracing. Deciding whether to whisper or whether to scream, often wanting to do both simultaneously.
“A spectrogram is a visual representation of the spectrum of frequencies in a sound or other signal as they vary with time or some other variable”
Random waveform (top) and spectogram (bottom) image taken from the internet
Spectrograms are a way to visualise sounds on a time/frequency axis.
You can use a spectrograph to visual any sound, but what if you reversed that idea and used an image as a spectrogram to create sound.
Mayu now has a large number of xrays, mammograms and scans. That so happen to look, just a little, like a spectogram.
So with this principle in mind, I am composing a long and major piece of music created entirely from the X-rays and scans of Mayu’s diagnosis and treatment. Here is a sample, created using the image of a full body scan.
This videowork is related to the loose working title of our project, “I just can’t say that word”.
Vic combined his recordings of my conversations with him immediately after my surgery to remove my breast cancer, still hazy with anaesthetic, and my voice replies to his earlier emails, images from my ultra sound, mammogram and my drawing to help me express the complex (perhaps its actually very simple) balance I hold between fear and laughter; reality and absurdity; body, emotion, intellect and spirit.
A practical decision, an existential one
Between fact and dream.
The project, to work with Mayu artistically during this difficult time, is generating a lot of content and as we go deeper, things are just finding their place very naturally.
In this instance Mayu talks,
I record it
I compose something
She draws something
I animate it/edit it
We talk it through several times
Between artistic freedom and conventions of taboo
We talk, each conversation filled with both laughter and tears.
This is a site specific artwork.
The site of this collaboration isn’t necessarily Mayu’s body.
The site of this collaboration isn’t necessarily the illness itself.
The site of this collaboration isn’t necessarily the hospital or medical clinics.
The site of this collaboration is in the tenuous link between present and future.
The site of this collaboration is in the complex emotional networks we build around us throughout our life.
The site of the collaboration is the struggle between power and no power, control and no control.
The site of the collaboration is in the constant negotiation that is present in daily life.
The site is both hidden and on show.
No matter how much we reveal, we are never emptied of all that we suppress.
Last week I was coming to the end of a hectic 3 months where I had been working and travelling non stop on projects. From Sydney, Melbourne, Lightning Ridge, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Manchester(UK), Liverpool(UK).
I was dreaming of home being within my grasp when I received a call from Mayu. She told me her news; Breast Cancer. I felt shock and wanted to console her however Mayu’s voice told me that she needed something else. I realised immediately what Mayu needed from me at this time wasn’t someone expressing sorrow, what she needed was a collaborator, someone to work with through this difficult journey. A friend and collaborating artist that could help her live in “the present” as she put it and to focus on what she loves to do the most “make art”.
So now I find myself having just returned home yesterday, packing my things again to spend some time with Mayu in Sydney at a crucial stage of her treatment.
We don’t know what this process will uncover. Already we have gathered a lot of material, some visual, some written, some recorded. For me, this project is about giving something back to a friend, a long time collaborator who have given me so much in the past and contributed to my own artistic and personal growth on many occasions. To help a journey occur between us both and for herself, personally.
Some work will be borne out of this, I hope at times that work is horrific, i hope at times the work is beautiful, I know that the work will always be honest.
This is to confirm that I consent and am very happy to be artistically experimented and explored by my friend and colleague Vic McEwan when I am conscious, half conscious, unconscious, in death and any other states known or yet to be known, using any medium known or yet to be known for our collaborative project, loosely known as “i just can’t say that word’.
Vic McEwan is the Artistic Director of The Cad Factory, an innovative arts organisation based in regional NSW. He explores experimental and contemporary arts practice in partnership with diverse community sectors.
Vic is the 2015 Artist in Residence at the National Museum of Australia, the recipient of the Inagural Arts NSW Regional Fellowship 2014/15.
Vic’s practice involves working with sound, video, installation and performance, with a particular interest in site-specific work. He is interested in creating new dynamics by working with diverse partners and exploring difficult themes within the lived experience of communities and localities.
Vic aims to use his work to contribute to and enrich broader conversations about the role that the arts sector can play within our communities. He sits on the Inagural NSW/ACT Arts/Health State Leadership Group and is a board member of Music NSW.
Story telling is Mayu's art and craft. She often works site specifically with communities, and collaborate with artists and creators from all genres. She writes plays, blogs and poetry; creates installations, performances, documentaries and radio programs; produces art projects, oral history programs and seminars; facilitates community workshops and arts projects; takes photographs, makes video and audio installations; researches, interviews and assists others to tell their stories. She draws during her spare time.
Some of her activities include being a board member of The Koto Music Institute of Australia, on the management committee of Living with Our Dead, and a founding member of Nikkei Australia.
She likes to expand her mind and horizons, swim, listen, play and laugh; endeavours to be receptive and open; listens mindfully and with humility; and would like to be of service for the betterment of humanity and for world peace.