A Message in a Bottle

Four years ago I finished the piece I am most proud of as an artist and writer, it’s the one thing I have created which I feel is complete, a text, My Prison, My stronghold, and a series of resin and collage works using fragments of the Modelo Prison in Barcelona. This piece was a form of closure for me on a period of my life marked by physical and mental illness and as I said in the text, the works became a talisman to always remind me of “the way out”. Since finishing that work I moved back to London from Barcelona and started a new life, new love, new home. I became physically strong for the first time in my life, I felt vital, I felt the streets were littered with opportunities and lucky coins.

 

The covid lockdowns tested my feeling of closure, poked and prodded at the stronghold I had built, but I believed it had remained intact. That was until six months ago when I woke up covered in hives and with a fever, slowly, as had happened before, my body began to disintegrate, this time my legs rebelled against me, my skin bruised unexplainably, my digestive system went on holiday, my face and joints swelled, in the text I had written about my previous illness I had described myself as some sort of upside-down Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the man transformed into a horrible insect, when I first became truly ill, I looked the same but my phenomenological experience of the world broke down, I was an insect looking out at the world, but no-one could notice the transformation that had taken place. This time no one could mistake it, fat lips, purple fingers, eyes swollen, blanched skin, another undesired metamorphosis.

 

The peak of this recent illness happened just before Christmas last year, I was unable to sleep as my skin felt it had been dipped in napalm, I couldn’t walk properly from the joint swelling, my only distraction was TikTok videos which are so well designed to captivate they gave me the only respite from existing in my body and mind. My illness was parallel with half the NHS being taken down with omicron and with no other option I finally took the immune-suppressing, normal life restoring, bone/muscle/teeth destroying corticosteroids I had been prescribed but reluctant to take. With my immune system knocked out I was normal again, yet there was now no rush to figure out what exactly had been going on, I was assured I would see a rheumatologist within two weeks, that two weeks become three months, then delayed again to seven months. I have been on prednisolone for nearly six months, a medication whose side effects are so long-lasting and unpleasant it was a last resort for my doctor to prescribe and for me to take them.

 

Four years ago, I put what I had experienced in my early twenties, another autoimmune mystery while studying at Oxford, behind me. I found meaning in art, I was able to physically place my experience made into an object onto a shelf in the curation of my own life’s museum. I am writing now again, hoping to force this experience into the known, to make it limited and tangible, hoping that somehow by describing it, by making some form of taxonomy I can will it into the past.

 

Paul Celan described poetry, described art, as 'a message in a bottle', and in his speech The Meridian he described it as a detour 'from you to you', a 'homecoming', circling like the meridian which gives the speech its name. The moments in life when my world has expanded, when I have felt I have understood myself, understood the world, I have always known the information which has changed my perspective, but I have never truly understood it until suddenly as if translated from some unknown language the meaning became apparent and finally, when it has settled in, that which once seemed cliche became essential and sacred. Everything is always there, ready to be understood, it is just us who has to change in order to understand it. Art speeds up this process through externalisation, as Celan described it you send your thoughts tangled out and they return transfigured, they return as an answer, this is what I am hoping by writing this, this is my message in a bottle, this is my prayer, that with words and pictures I can hack away at this shapeless experience, that by sending it out to the world I can understand it.