Submerging Artist

Megan Dunn on the gradual and torturous process of Elam, your twenties, a thousand different guises, half a dozen bad desk jobs, and eventually emerging.

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 Submerging, sinking, falling, going under, mouth opening like a fish, cascades of bubbles, the sleepy drift of seaweed, light fading, a green curtain of water closing over like a lid, listening to the music of the inner ear, its booming glug-glug-glug.


Most of the students currently at art school, reading Deleuze and Foucault for the first time, sitting at desks and staring at white walls, concocting installations out of beer cans, aluminum doors and opaque shower curtains, these students, now loitering in hallways discussing post-internet art and rushing headlong into the moments of life, will in time no longer be practicing artists. Life’s tough. Get a haircut and get a real job. All the clichés come home to roost on this fact.

Does it mean they aren’t good enough? Does it mean they don’t want it enough? Does it mean they are not in fact *real*artists?

The majority – the 99% – will submerge.



I first heard the term emerging artist when I was at Elam School of Fine Arts. For a while I wasn’t sure what an emerging artist was. I thought the term must apply to someone young – I was young – who was also an artist. I was in the process of becoming an artist, but was I emerging?

I certainly wasn’t established. The term established originally sounded comforting to me, like a reclining chair, a place in your career where you could put your feet up and relax. Now it sounds faintly damning. Once established there’s no way you can return to the nubile glory of your emergence, although you can probably still disappear, receding like a hairline, before becoming brazenly, sadly bald.



In 1993 I started art school. I had big brown eyes like Mogwai and I wanted to be loved. But someone fed me after midnight and things got out of hand.  Balls of fur rolled off my back like cheezels. At Elam I turned into a Gremlin. I made friends with other Gremlins. We shared a predilection for mischief: the things art school held sacred, we wanted to mock.

Like work. In my early twenties I decided that art didn’t require a work ethic. I had little experience as an employee so it isn’t bizarre that I missed this point. I didn’t want to show up for group tutorials at 9am in the morning. I was tired.

Q. Why are the young always tired? A. Because they stay up all night.

I majored in Intermedia where I was taught by Phil Dadson and Julainne Sumich. I had no idea who either of them were as practitioners. I remember they both wore a lot of khaki.


“You could choose to put the end at the beginning, the beginning in the middle and the middle at the end,” Julainne said. We sat in her white cell of an office discussing video art. My friend nodded, looked thoughtful and then said, “Or you could put the beginning at the beginning, the middle in the middle and the end at the end.”

Julainne was sharing her wisdom about the importance of form – how it can be broken and reconstructed, the different shapes it can take - but we weren’t interested in receiving it.

I’m sure my friends and I left the tutorial light-hearted that day, casting cynical jokes freely, en route to a stiff drink, full of ourselves and our own ideas as surely as a small cloud carries a staccato burst of rain that drops onto the pavement one afternoon, wetting the concrete, but is no storm, no typhoon of the imagination.


The artists I admired at high school were Philip Clairmont, Colin McCahon and Jim Dine. Jim Dine’s voluptuous oil paintings of trees, their shimmering stark white trunks, dripping paint like leaves. Jim had painted a series of his own dressing gowns; everything he did was very painterly.

From a young age I liked colour and expressionistic mark making. In high school I made dense, dark oil paintings differentiated only by the days of the week. I painted on the porch with a roller. I lacquered pieces of A2 paper with oils. McCahon’s canvases, his waterfalls, his words.  I was depressed. I listened to gothic music from the confines of my small bedroom. Life’s traumas were happening and some of them were happening to me.

Then I discovered Jenny Doležel. I began to create my own faux-gothic cartoon characters. A pig sat at a kitchen table laughing, a snake wrapped its tail around the clock on the wall. What happened to these early masterpieces? They have gone, like my old school uniforms, my old buffed and scuffed nomad shoes – they won’t be coming back. My body won’t fit the uniform anymore and my mind won’t fit the paintings as though they are a hat.



In my first year at Elam I was delighted to be taught by Jenny Doležel. She had short closely cropped black hair and wore white facial powder. I had expected her to notice me. She didn’t. Doležel was my first lesson in disappointment. I had quite a few of these lessons at art school.

Why? I had longed to go to Elam. I wanted it the way one craves a mystical experience. I thought it would be the place where I would find my people. The others. The ones like me. I thought I would have a studio and a white smock muddied with fingerprints. I would stand disheveled in the midst of creation - like Edward Scissorhands - my fists full of paintbrushes.

Instead art school made instant radical changes to the kind of work I thought was acceptable. Rather than freeing me and releasing me into the slipstream of my ideas and giving me the technical skills to ride the current, art school changed what I thought was relevant.

My painting came to a complete stop. I am not sure when I last made a painting – but it was a long time ago. I’m not Jim Dine. I wear a dressing gown, now and then, but it isn’t art.



Jim Dine woke. His head still fusty from drinks the night before. He swung his feet over the bed onto the bare floorboards, and reached for his trusty dressing gown. Feeling the texture of toweling beneath his forefinger and thumb he paused. Today. He went straight to the studio and painted the dressing gown as though it was a leaf that had fallen from his own body. The rest is history. 


What does it mean to give up your dream? Well, I guess it is pretty obvious what it means. Yet, when you come to that point in your own life, the paths that have led you there may not be that obvious.




On Christmas Day I sat in a chair at my grandmother’s house in the sunlight, reading a book and concentrating on looking fabulous in my leopard-print boob tube, even though there were only relatives present to witness my glamour, my attempt at sexual mystique.

I was twenty-five years old and had spent the afternoon answering the phone in a massage parlour. Only one girl worked that shift, a Japanese lady with a long quilt of black hair. The parlour had actually felt creepy and forlorn on Christmas Day. Without the other girls around to bolster the solitude, it seemed more like what it was – a dead end, a last resort, a closing down of options, rather than the hilarious caper I wanted it to be.

My uncle and I began talking about how he ended up an art historian instead of an artist. One of his early oil paintings, a portrait of a dusky cheeked girl, hung on the wall behind me.

“Most stop after a few years,” he said, meaning of course the students, the art school graduates. “It becomes too difficult. They give up.”

My insides curdled and tensed at the thought. The horror. The horror. Sitting in the living room at that moment, I knew that I had wanted to be a painter, but quickly realised I was not good enough, and would not have even ‘got in’ to the painting department if I had tried. So instead I had chosen to major in Intermedia, which in hindsight, seemed like it was the department for people who didn’t know what the heck they were doing.

My first video had consisted of a close up of vegetables, followed by a toilet flushing. Who did I think wanted to watch such a piece? Even I didn’t want to watch it. The video was a wonky first step, like some lame low-fi advertisement for bulimia. I remember showing it to Julianne and Phil. They both looked slightly aghast. Khaki is not the colour of redemption.



In my third year at Elam I began to appropriate footage from the films I liked. Daryl Hannah was kept captive in a large tank. Underwater, she sank to the bottom, her blonde hair streaked out around her. I adapted my script from a few lines in Kathy Acker’s novel Blood and Guts in High School. “Hello, my name is Daryl Hannah. You may know me from such films as Roxanne, Clan of the Cave Bear and Splash.”

Appropriation was a way to assemble an artwork like threading beads on a string.  It was also a way to deal with the fact that I wasn’t very good at making films. I didn’t have the budget to produce a slick artwork. By appropriating mainstream movies I could borrow scenes of great visual splendor and it only cost the price of the video rental.

I’ve paid through the nose for art school and I am still paying. But what has it taught me? (That you can put the end at the beginning and the beginning at the end.) At Elam I felt stifled by my own technique. I didn’t have the aptitude to realise my ideas. Yet, ironically, the one thing you won’t be taught at art school is technique.

I ended up producing all of my videos away from Elam, on the main campus.

The science department contained a carpeted edit suite policed by two middle-aged male technicians. They both wore walk shorts and tawny clothes to match the hairs on their legs. One had a moustache. They reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the two old critics from The Muppets.

In my early video The Persistence of Memory a drop of water swells and falls, sending ripples shivering out over Monet’s water lilies:

We walked in the cold air

A baguette sails past like a plane

Freezing breath on a window pane

Lying and waiting

A goldfish wraps itself in its long shimmering tail, then closes its eye with a wink

The image has gone only you and I

This means nothing to me…

The Persistence of Memory is a creative response to an art history slide show. I made it because art meant nothing to me. Yet, that’s a lie as well.



“But what is the symbolism of the mermaid?” Julainne asked. “Research the symbolism of the mermaid. Think about the mermaid in different cultures. This work isn’t really about Daryl Hannah!”

I knew nothing about the symbolism of the mermaid. Did Dali understand the symbolism of a flaming giraffe? Did Magritte understand the symbolism of a baguette? Did Jim Dine understand the symbolism of his dressing gown, his white trees resplendent in their autumnal nudity?

I felt small and bewildered. Julainne's very appearance struck me as fundamentally intellectual. The colours of the intellect were khaki, black and grey. The intellect was stern and serious in nature. I couldn’t match the critical rigor of Julainne's thinking and she couldn’t match the Joie de vivre of mine. It’s easy to mock our elders, perhaps rebellion is even essential in the creative process, yet Julianne’s teaching has stayed with me far longer than I might have imagined. I am still a person who doesn’t know where to put the beginning, the middle or the end. I get them jumbled up, switch them around the wrong way.

I find it easier to deconstruct, prying away at the surface of an object, picking at it like a scab, searching – undoubtedly – for the symbolism. I still like mermaids. Julainne was right, I really should do some research into their symbolism. Time compresses things, puts a lid on them. I’d love to have the opportunity for that tutorial again. I’m finally in a position to benefit from what Julianne had to say.

But she has left Elam now. And the Intermedia department no longer exists. Art schools have collapsed the boundaries between disciplines. There are no more departments. Intermedia is not a separate entity from painting, and sculpture is not segregated from printmaking or photography. Everyone is multi disciplinary. I see the logic in this, but I also think it’s a mistake. The idea is nothing if not blown into form. The reality is society can only afford one Duchamp.

In 1917 a porcelain urinal signed R.Mutt was first exhibited in New York.

“Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object,” claimed an anonymous editorial in The Blind Man, a Dadaist magazine.

Fair enough. But how many factory workers in 1917 cast porcelain urinals by choice?


In my first year at Elam the wind sifted through the trees, racing down the hill, following the road that swerves through the car park. I sat bent over a log of wood, working on my sculpture project. I had my tools. I had my best intentions. I was wearing a short purple dress. I carved a design into the log that curved around it like a candy cane. A male student in his thirties approached me, crouched down and whispered; “when you bend over everyone can see up your dress.” I guess that’s why Jackson Pollock wore overalls.

The tutor congratulated me at the end of the sculpture project.  He said other students had treated just a part of the log, but I had engaged with the whole thing.  I sure did.

My log is gone now, flushed away by the force of time. But if you walk down the hill to Elam you can still see some of the tall wooden totem poles from this sculpture project dotting the grass. And if you walk through on a day when the wind is particularly evocative, you can imagine what it would be like to be wearing a short purple dress and holding a chisel, each totem pole still waiting to receive the mark of its maker.


 I always think to myself: I want to write a story with the logic of a music video. But then I never do.



In 1998 I graduated from Elam and cruised into my late twenties more concerned with men and liquor. I knew that my video art wasn’t saleable. I couldn’t make the leap into the dealer circuit and the art reviews I’d been writing began to nibble at my psyche like piranhas.

People wanted me to write about art. (Their art.) I became a butler, opening the door for other people’s talent. I felt like Jeeves. It did not occur to me that Jeeves occupied a position of power. I had gone to Elam to be an artist, but at twenty-seven years old – the age when Jim Morrison died in a Parisian bathtub, already a bloated, washed-up hack from riding the storm of his own success – I was merely writing about other people’s art. I felt like a nobody. We are all nobody to someone, but to be nobody to yourself is something else.



Type ‘submerging artist’ into Google and you will find details on a funding scheme to support artists forty-five years old and over. The website is illustrated with a graphic of a woman upside down in wavy blue lines of water. The silhouette of the woman is the same generic black-skirted figure seen on toilet doors.

The website asks: “How submerged are you? Still floating, swimming, sinking, whale, plankton, lost on the horizon or bottom feeding?”



London. 2001: five years after I had graduated from Elam, I sat at a bus stop in the dark. It was three in the afternoon. I stuffed a fat chocolate muffin into my mouth. I stared at the window of the office building on the other side of the road. Scant trees scratched at the sky. The trees were as skinny and naked as forks. I was working for a health food company answering the phones. I had never worked in an office before. Phone. Swivel chair. Waste basket. A pen. My soul had shriveled to a piece of crumpled A4. Behind the bus stop was a huge supermarket. That was where I got the muffin.

Sometimes life’s pleasures shrink to the size of a muffin.

I began to write. I wrote a poem called In the Year of the Chocolate Muffin. I took night classes and day classes. I began to work in bookstores. I read more books. I bought more books. Landfall published my poem. A plan formed. Bite by bite.  I was not just a submerging artist. I was a writer.

But was I emerging?



In 2005 I started my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. During one tutorial my tutor opened the little fridge in her office, pulled out a bottle of wine and poured me a glass. “Darling, the words are all we have,” she said. That was not quite true. We also had the wine. She gestured to the window. “Writing is like a window, but language doesn’t have to be transparent. You can choose to tint the glass. You can make it opaque. You can frost it. You can create just a tiny keyhole for the eye to see through.” I lamented the fact that I wrote in fragments. ”You write in fragments. Great,” she said. “Make the problem part of the subject.”



I looked through the window.



There are no clear career paths for art school graduates. My point isn’t new.  I exited Elam with a loan the size of a car and training in what exactly? I don’t have enough technical aptitude to score a job at Weta. I can no more make a suit of chain-link armor or cast a hobbit foot than fly to the moon. My education at art school seems to be about redundancy at some fundamental level. Art is about everything surplus to requirements; that’s what makes it so essential.



When I think about what I learned at Elam the image of Meret Oppenheim’s fur teacup appears like a mirage. Who can drink from the fur teacup? No one. The fur teacup is a metaphor, not a thirst quencher. It is impractical, a statement – no more shall we make cups of tea, no more shall we be chained to routine office work or lives of domesticity. The fur teacup can be stroked but not picked up. It is one of a kind; an object that can be held perfectly in the mind and remembered. The cup, saucer and spoon currently sit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The fur came from a Chinese gazelle, but which one? What kind of glue did Oppenheim use? Was it Uhu? On what day, at what hour, did the thought strike, yes, this teacup, yes, this fur, yes, yes. The teaspoon may have been an afterthought, an addition that occurred to her as she gazed out the window in the evening, at the wild surrealist moon.

Did she even drink tea? Maybe her preference was coffee?

Oh Meret, I will always remember your furry teacup. Some women are known for their muff for you it was also tough, you were defined early by a cup.



I write in the urgent haze always necessary for me to produce good work. Outrunning my nerve, my inner critic, that innate part of me that would rather do nothing given half the chance. Everything I write I steal away from the abyss that would have me produce ______.

It is hard to connect the dots, to shape the story, to remember not to lose the plot. I blame art school. (Of course.) The fur teacup does not have a plot. Jim Dine’s dressing gown is equally plotless. And of course Duchamp’s Fountain has its own Wikipedia entry.



I wanted to write about what it is to submerge, but I can’t tell that story as though it has a beginning, a middle and an end.



You – the artists – emerging or established, mid-career, even if you are terrible, making work that no one else can abide, your art is of its time, but it’s also of your time. We will all submerge. Life is punctuated and startled at all times by death. Art reaches out into absence, brings something back. And it’s not just a matter of technique. There’s also that sense of the audience looking over your shoulder… don’t give up.