Charles Mason, 1962-2013

Charles Mason taught sculpture at Wimbledon College of Art; I was asked to say a few words at a recent event held in his memory:

I did not know Charles personally, but I’m sure our paths must have crossed on various occasions, as fellow travellers on that complex system that is the London Art Network – often underground, occasionally surfacing, with connections to national and international destinations – and whose rules are as transparent as those of the game of Mornington Crescent.

One time Charles and I definitely coincided was when we showed together in an open exhibition at Riverside Studios in 1992. The show was called A Simple Twist of Fate – a title borrowed from a Bob Dylan song, off Blood on the Tracks

Titles are important in art – they are conveyors of meaning, but sometimes the focus is on the complexity of meaning itself – Richard Wentworths’s obituary notes that Charles’ titles repeatedly played with double or triple meanings.

As a child, one of the books whose titles I noticed was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It was published in the year I was born, and it had been on our family bookshelf for as long as I could remember. Later, I learned the title came from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

The poem is a portent:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is lost.

Now as a child, I had not read the poem, I had not even read the book, but all the same, the title stood there as a warning.

And it came to pass in our family – my mother cut her wrists, and my father disappeared. And I didn’t do too well myself for a while, either. So I know that things fall apart, and I know that it is hard when they do.

The question is, when things fall apart, what happens to the pieces? Well, according to Rudolph Clausius, author of the theory of entropy – or in this context, perhaps I should cite Robert Smithson – they too fall apart, because everything is falling apart in this world, and cannot be put back together again.

And indeed, if we look at the question of suicide, this theory seems to be confirmed. If someone close to us takes their own life, the chances of us doing the same go up significantly – in the workplace, the statistic is that we are four times more likely to do so.

Of course, we don’t like to think of ourselves in these terms – as subject to chance and statistics. We prefer to think of ourselves as making critical judgements and freely willed actions to determine our own lives. But what do we base these judgements and actions on? What is the centre, that we are trying to hold?

For many of us, it is something to do with art. Art is at the centre of our lives, not just professionally, but personally. It means something – more than anything else, perhaps. And this is fine. Art is fine; art is great!

But what happens when we fail at art – or even, when we fear that we may be failing (and of course, being professionally critical, we are bound to be the judges of this). Whatever art means to us, that meaning fails also. And if that meaning is at the centre of our being, we are in trouble.

Please understand that I am not trying to explain Charles’ death here. I did not know Charles, and even if I had, I would not necessarily have known what was in his mind. I knew my mother, and I knew Sophie, and Roberto, and Stephen, all friends of mine who took their own lives – Stephen just the other day, in fact – but that didn’t mean I could know what they were going to do, let alone prevent them from doing it.

No, I am saying what I am saying not based on their experience, but mine – as an artist, and yes, as a priest. As such, I am not able to give you answers – and anyway, you don’t really want answers, you want Charles – but I am able to offer a language in which to frame some of the questions that perhaps lie beyond the reach of art. It’s not a language I have invented – that is, it’s not my art – it’s a language I have inherited. It’s a language that, in posing such questions, does not so much answer them, as point to a place beyond our black and white binaries of belief or unbelief, success or failure, life or death.

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
your right hand hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me
and the light around me turn to night,’
Even darkness is no darkness with you;
the night is as clear as the day;
darkness and light to you are both alike.
For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
marvellous are your works, my soul knows well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my form, as yet unfinished;
already in your book were all my members written,
As day by day they were fashioned
when as yet there was none of them.
How deep are your counsels to me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!
If I count them, they are more in number than the sand,
and at the end, I am still in your presence.

(from Ps 139)