As we journey through life, from childhood to young adults and beyond, we become increasingly aware of the reality that there are many moments in which we are not prepared for the challenges that confront us.
Sometimes these moments are of personal difficulties or perhaps tragedy: the failure for a career to materialise the way we desire or, even more confronting, the death of a friend or loved one. Other times, there is a more global nature to this realisation: that our very actions contribute to anthropocentric climate change that threatens our very planet, large-scale pollution or possibly mass displacement of people in vulnerable communities. While contributing to such phenomenon, as individuals, we often feel helpless to stop such events from occurring no matter how personally inspired we are to act.
The result is a growing gap between the realities of adulthood and the childhood enchantment of the world we feel and the sense of endless possibilities for the future we are encouraged to pursue by our parents and teachers.
It is in such moments that we often look for meaning in our lives: in a world characterised by the promises of youth but compromised by the toils and tribulations of adulthood, we often wonder what is the point.
It is these moments that have often been the focus of philosophers and artists.
For philosophers, such as the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, our life is one in which we search for authenticity in or world that disorientates and confuses us – a world that often feels meaningless and absurd. For Kierkegaard, this is no easy journey, for it is one filled with fear and anxiety:
“Standing on a cliff, a sense of disorientation and confusion cloud you. Not only are you afraid of falling, you also fear succumbing to the impulse of throwing yourself off. Nothing is holding you back. Dread, anxiety and anguish rise to the surface.” (Kierkegaard, S. (1957) The Concept of Dread, Princeton University Press)
These moments have also been the focus of artists such as Evdard Much most notable in the series of artworks known as The Scream (first exhibited in 1893). The works show a lonely figure with a painful and agonised expression holding his head – capturing a sense of disorientation, fear and isolation.
Bingbing Chen’s latest exhibition captures this feeling but with a sense of subtleness reflective of her own personal philosophy – one reflective of her heritage.
One notable example in Chen’s exhibition is the image of the eggshell. The metaphor of the egg is a powerful one. We cannot think of eggshells as offering protection – they must be cushioned and carefully handled – but also protect the most cherished of contents.
While Chen sees our lives in this way, it is childhood that is her focus here. Children, like eggs, are cushioned but to survive, we must realise that as we grow that our world is often hostile, challenging and occasionally threatening. Despite the fragility of our youth, we must grow to be resilient and tenacious if we are to confront the many challenging elements of life.
This creates a complex relationship between parents and their children – with parents wanting to shield their children from the challenges of life to ensure they enjoy their years of play – while also preparing them for the trials ahead. Despite the countless books on parenting, each parent and child’s journey is an individual one – even within the same family.
Within this frame, Chen’s work is simultaneously optimistic and concerned.
Chen recognises that we all grow up with dreams and ambitions – something that she presents in her growing plants from seedlings and mountain peaks – but she also reminds us that many of these do not materialise. When these dreams do not materialise, we risk being captured by what could have been or become bitter and regretful, like disfigured trees.
But Chen’s optimism also comes through as she brings to our attention that a life of meaning often grows out of the soil of uncertainty. We will face challenges but our hearts and spirits will bloom when we remain determined and achieve what we desire despite the many setbacks.
In life’s journey, the philosopher and the artist have always danced an intimate routine – reminding us of the challenges of meaning and authenticity in a chaotic world. Chen joins this routine and takes us on a journey of fragility, hope and optimism.
Professor James Arvanitakis
Institute for Culture and Society
Western Sydney University
This event is free however registration is a must. Visit the Eventbrite website to register.