Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am not sure about this title – Madness and Creativity – for many reasons, but mainly the word ‘madness’, one of those terms that mean everything and yet nothing. But I have kept the phrase for that very reason.To address its validity, to disabuse it of its glibness, I have retained it, though hopefully not inadvertently propagating the myth by doing so.

Today brought me to East London, the 18 Hewett Street Gallery, to see Daniel Johnston’s exhibition. Johnston is an artist, a musician and a singer, as well as a visual artist, mainly comic/cartoon type illustrations.

I first became aware of Johnston a few years ago, when I saw the film documentary of his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Born in 1961, Johnston has stated that his first widely acclaimed album Hi, how are you, was created during a nervous breakdown. The documentary, which won the 2005 Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival amongst other accolades, focuses on Johnston’s mental illness, apparently both manic depression and schizophrenia, which initially manifested as delusions and fixations on the devil and satan. Johnston appears to have since reached a period of relatively stability, and has released many albums, including Welcome To My World (2006), Electric Ghosts (2007), Is And Always Was (2009), and Beam Me Up (2010). He recently had his second sold out concert at the Union Chapel, London.

Johnston is also an artist, and has drawn many of his own album covers. A lover and collector of comics, he released his first own comic book, Space Ducks – An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness, just last month, March 2012.

The exhibition I saw today was a collection of less than 15 Johnston sketches and drawings. It is hard to describe his work, cartoon like, involving many figures, from superman to animals, to surreal eye-popping gargoyles and man-beast creatures. The pictures also include text, such as ‘Always wanted to be a good person’, ‘The Death of Satan’, and ‘A thought repeated is often a lie.’

I am not sure what to make of Johnston’s art, not sure whether I get it or not. The intro text to the exhibition mentions that his work is partially informed by his mental illness. I guess my question, and unease, is to what extent that matters, and whether his medical diagnosis is actually relevant/helpful/counter-productive to interpretation.

I watched an interview with Johnston on youtube, where he was clearly uncomfortable and anxious, and stated that he felt like a ‘monkey in a zoo’. Johnston himself rarely seems to allude to his mental illness, and only one of his songs, ‘I had lost my mind’, which is the signature tune for the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, seems to overtly address his condition. Yet even here, he deals with it in a playful way, focusing more on a literal play of ‘losing’ my mind. Other songs, such as ‘My life is starting over again’ could, if we stretched the point, be seen as referring to relapses and remissions in mental illness. Yet Johnston does not allow us to assume that this is the case. ‘The Story of an Artist’ is the story of the artist getting old, at no point that of an artist struggling with madness.

I find Johnston’s music mesmerising and seductive. The reasons why he can create such magic are of course inextricable from who he is and what life experiences he has had. One of these experiences is mental illness, but there are many more, none of which alone define him or his art.