The toilet is my favourite place

As I walked into the gallery the pictures on the wall gave nothing away. 

The silence not broken by brushstrokes. Nothing to process. Tranquil, almost transparent colours. Perfect structure. 

The tears cascaded down my face. I was home. I was complete.

Artist Rooms Tate Modern: Agnes Martin

I don’t think I could have been less prepared for such an intensely emotional reaction. 

The fact that it was to such minimal work, on reflection, isn’t so much of a surprise. 

It’s exactly where I am in life. But the overwhelming feeling that this art ‘got me’ – not the other way round – was a beautiful eye opener.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) said of her work On a Clear Day (1973) – a series of 30 prints, each differently divided by lines, in a precise, almost mechanical way – ‘These prints express innocence of mind. If you can go with them and hold your mind empty and tranquil as they are and recognise your feelings at the same time you will realise your full response to this work’.

My slow, quiet brain was realising my full response to the work. And that wasn’t just amazing in that moment, it was revelatory, because I have been striving to understand Agnes Martin’s work for about 4 years.  

Agnes Martin – On a Clear Day 1973
Agnes Martin – On a Clear Day 1973

October 2017 was my first trip away to study art. Part of an award I won to take sabbatical time to study Visual Art and, in particular, the life and work of Louise Bourgeois.

I was at the Venice Biennale and had crammed in as much art as was humanly possible in just three days. I ended the trip with a visit to the Guggenheim – as part of a challenge to myself, all three Guggenheim’s, Venice, Bilbao and New York, in four months.

Oh for those days of travelling again… 

My Endometriosis was chronic and I was knackered, but there was one piece of work which particularly mystified me. 

Venice, because copyright means I cannot post Agnes Martin’s Rose 1966

I was really drawn to this piece. Intrigued. And yet, had no idea how this was art. How this was a Rose. The lines so feint to be barely visible. 

But the very fact that I remembered the name of both the painting and the artist, especially on just a single encounter, is in itself a significant sign of how profound an effect the work had on me. Fascinated, curious, but not moved. Maybe that’s enough? It certainly placed it in a memory bank, and to be honest, such banks are not in abundance in my brain! 

Rebecca J Burman – Brain 2017 Plastic and Silk on Canvas

Early on in my ventures into visual art I started making a piece using words cut out from newspapers and magazines. Spelling out sentences that seemed pertinent to me, but that I could see were maybe not the social norm.

The one that lives with me is ‘The toilet is my favourite place’. 

I became interested in Neuroscience around this time. Trying to understand what was going on in my head, and why do I like being in the toilet so much?! 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. My diagnosis in 2014 – but what even is it? 

Everyone gets anxious, why is your anxiety a disorder and mine not?

It’s a question I have been asked repeatedly.

It’s a question I’m not even going to attempt right now.

Agnes Martin – Untitled #5 1991

During the past year I have been doing Maternity cover for one of the Artistic Directors of an initiative called Mothers Who Make. Peer support for, well, mothers, who make! 

We’ve been running a series of special meetings – one of which was for Neurodivergent mothers and mothers of children with Special Educational Needs. 

This one particularly excited me.

One of my best friends moved to Ireland during lockdown. Gutting. 

He’s called Sam. We’ve been hanging out together for about six years. He got his ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) diagnosis when he was five. He’s ten now. 

I don’t have many friends who tell me they hate me. Tell me to go away. Kick me away. Refuse to play with me. But I don’t mind when Sam does these things – give him the time and space and he always comes round. If not now, in 5 minutes, or an hour, or tomorrow. And that’s fine.

What do you think when someone says Autism? Rainman? Non-verbal? No eye contact? No social skills? No empathy?

These are the ‘classics’, right? 

One of Sam’s older brothers (both his older siblings have ASD too) has rarely ever made eye contact with me, rarely made conversation with me, but he is happy in mainstream school. 

Sam makes eye contact, but just doesn’t fit into the box this government requires all children to fit into.

His eldest brother couldn’t fit himself into the box either, but three years education in a home-school school – a place that gave him the room to breathe, move, learn skills in a quieter environment, gave him time to process, has meant that he now has the capacity to fit back into the mainstream education system. 

Yesterday I spent the morning with a young man with ASD who spent the session randomly standing as close and quietly as possible behind people waiting for them to eventually get a jump scare!

My Coach is ‘on the spectrum’, you wouldn’t know.

Every Neurodivergent (ASD, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia) brain is different. Beautifully different.

Off to Trick or Treat – Halloween 2018
Sam and I doing big-eyes for the camera after mutual face painting 2018

Listening to Mothers Who Make talking about their children, and their own, neurodivergence, really got me thinking. Identifying. Relating. Googling…

Why is your anxiety a disorder and mine not? 

My brain does that too!

Yes, but I think that’s normal.

Everybody thinks that.

These statements (all very neurotypical, all perfectly valid in some situations) reverberate around my head all the time.

Questioning my thoughts, dominating my feelings.

So far, tests show I have processing speed issues.

So, yes, maybe I AM stupid after all? (Oh yes, I SO went there…)

For now though, it just reinforces why I have loved the quiet of the past two years. 

And why Agnes Martin’s work resonates so much with me.

“I often paint tranquility. If you stop thinking and rest, then a little happiness comes into your mind. At perfect rest you are comfortable.” 1 Agnes Martin in conversation with Associated Press 1997

Rebecca J Burman 2021 Study of Lenore Tawney’s Reflected Ray 1964

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