“How should the artist approach practice and research without becoming so overly abstract that the grounded, proprioceptive concreteness of art becomes mired inside oppressive, draconian intellectualism?” – Dawn-joy Leong.
Reflecting on my previous work, Scheherazde’s Sea (2010) at the beginning of my PhD candidature in 2012, I became aware that, for me, the concretising of the inexorable ‘process’ (elucidated in Chapter 1) lies in the tangible sensory-idiosyncratic, detail-focused reality of autistic existence, and the vibrancy of native autistic modalities should continue to develop as the main driving force of my creative practice. In addition to crucial contribution towards intrinsic equilibrium, it is my conviction that the articulation of autism has much to offer the wider provinces of artistic and scientific research and praxis.
ROARING WHISPERS 2013 – presenting the silent scream
Figure18 Invitation card to Roaring Whispers, 2013.
A multisensory conceptual space by Dawn-joy Leong,
featuring selected images by Kateryna Fury.
Welcome to my compressed micro-cosmos filled with juxtapositions and interlocutions of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Suspended time reverberates inside this space-within-space, a private pied-à-terre where the abstract finds personification in the concrete, and you are invited to engage all your senses – distal and proximal – in a rich interactive tapestry of intense yet whimsical oxymoronic interplay.
(Exhibition title and notes, Roaring Whispers2013– Dawn-joy Leong)
Invitation into Parallel Embodiment
Figure19 Roaring Whispers 2013 – please click for more images.
Roaring Whispers 2013 was the first exhibition in the ‘Trilogy,” a set of three installations representing the core of my material practice for this PhD. A straight-forward invitation and welcome to my world, the intention behind this exhibition was to gently introduce my concept of Autistic Self from an intimate perspective, using recycled ‘found’ objects, transformed personal belongings and a videoscape. Each small installation, crafted from vigorous preoccupation with minutiae, offered eclectic fragmented glimpses into my personal life. For example, the flaming orange silk taffeta skirt used to ‘frame’ one of Kateryna Fury’s digital paintings was the skirt that I wore to my younger sister’s wedding almost two decades ago, and the gowns suspended from the ceiling and the shoes scattered around the exhibition space were worn at my performance in a 2005 charity music gala which I directed and produced.The patchwork wall hanging was made from pieces of fabric from old clothes, cushion covers, rugs etc every one with a miniature story to tell about its place in my life. Each of these pieces contained microscopic narratives of different aspects of my life, offering glimpses into my penchant for collecting, my sensory attraction for specific textures and colours, my preoccupation with shoes and lifelong quest to find a co-existence between beauty and comfort, and my dichotomous battle with olfactory interferences as reflected in the collection of perfume bottles. Their wordless interactional engagement with one another formed a global perspective of my distinct autistic embodiment.
An additional participant in this conversation was the collection of digital paintings by Kateryna Fury, my friend and fellow autism advocate. Kateryna is paraplegic and has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is now unable to hold a paintbrush, and executes her paintings on a tablet. Her pictures resonated with the key themes of Roaring Whispers, 2013 in that they conveyed silent but powerful narratives about the autistic realm, with a special highlight on the emotional and physical suffering brought on by comorbid conditions associated with but not necessarily part of autism. My own installations were sensory-focused, each piece an invitation to distal and proximal sensory dialogue. The visual impact of strong and contrasting colours greeted visitors at the entrance. Leaves scattered over the wooden floor provided ‘live’ spontaneous soundscape and the acoustics in the room added an echo chamber effect to the sounds created inside. The fabric and gowns suspended from the ceiling were multi-textured, inviting visitors to touch and engage sensorially. The small, crafted installations were miniature interjections in the flowing sensory conversation – a ‘listening tin’ attached to an orange wool jacket, a cluster of re-worked shoes at one window display, and bottles of perfume on a sheepskin rug at the other, echoing the ambience of old fashioned perfumeries. The video playing in the background was about a journey. The sensory tapestry was deliberately rich, but the narrative was unemotional. I felt that Kateryna’s paintings would inject a subtle emotionality to the space, while providing additional visual-textural sensation, that is, the effect of looking at and sensorially relating with still visual images on paper, surrounded by a sea of three-dimensional objects.
Sharing Space of Mind – autistic empathic resonance
“Throughout the history of autism many have put their efforts into changing the behaviour of autistic people. It is my opinion, and that of many of my autistic cohorts, that not enough effort has been made to understand and work with the autistic who is employing the behaviour you wish to extinguish.” – Judy Endow.
I have been gently criticised by non-autistic friends on a few occasions for my social preferences. These commentaries include spending too much time on the internet, meeting ‘random strangers’ online, bringing my iPad along to social gatherings and reading my ebooks when I am bored. One friend remarked that it was unsafe meeting people online, but she was unable to explain how much safer meeting strangers in the pub would be. Most of my recently developed friendships have emerged from my forays into cyberspace: communications via my writings and photos online, interest groups on Facebook etc. While it is important to teach how to implement safety precautions when communicating online, it is equally crucial to teach the same preventative approaches where it comes to meeting strangers (or even people introduced by friends) in person. The internet has opened up socialising opportunities to people who are unable, for myriad reasons, to socialise on the normative common platform, whether or not they are autistic. For the autist, this has led to a cogent interconnectedness that we have never before been able to show the existence of, let alone achieve.
The relationship between the collaborators – Kateryna and myself – is paradigmatic of autistic interrelatedness. Operating within a common Space of Mind, our relatedness was not contingent on normative measurements of affection or closeness. Kateryna resides in New Mexico, USA. We met online via our blogs, and later became friends on Facebook. It is unlikely that we shall ever meet in person – given the geographical distance between us, and our individual circumstances – but communicating digitally from a distance does not in any way diminish our ability to connect on a deeper emotional-relational level. In fact, many aspects of this medium are ideal for autists. The written word is a comfortable way for autists to express semantic language. This channel does not confine communication to the physical effort of speech: I am able to type words even on days when I am unable to speak. Through the internet, we are able to converse at our individual preferred pace. ‘Socialising’ takes place within the comfort of our homes, or any other environment of choice wherein we may contemplate, organise, and assign appropriate words to our thoughts, unhindered by ambient sensory disturbances that permeate normative social spaces like cafés, pubs or restaurants.
Kateryna’s set of autism-specific sensory idiosyncrasies and her comorbid conditions are vastly different from mine. For example, she is violently allergic to cucumbers, while I am love cucumbers. A physical meeting on a day when I had eaten a cucumber sandwich would trigger a severe allergic reaction in Kateryna, sufficient to cause immediate hospitalisation. Separation by distance ensures that we do not suffer unintentionally from any conflict between disparate physiological anomalies and are thus more freed to share the elemental-material empathies from Space of Mind.
My collaboration with Kateryna was smooth and uncomplicated, we achieved our desired outcome without the tensions, fraught emotions, confusion and effortful interactional navigations that marked my other experiences of in-person collaborations with non-autistics. After discussing my intentions with her, Kateryna set to work on her paintings. She then sent the digital files to me, and I had them printed and ‘dressed.’ I consulted her throughout the process, and although there were lulls in our back-and-forth messenging, when neither of us could communicate in words, when we did, our dialogue was literal and efficient, focused upon the intent of the task at hand.
Sensory association and inevitable performance
The underlying ‘inspirational soundtrack’ forRoaring Whispers, 2013– inaudible in the actual installation and apparent only to me – was an earlier work, He(A)r(e) Not, 2009 in which I first presented the idea of the autistic ‘roaring whisper’ through the lyrics, “… flogging the silent howling.” (The gallery is situated beside a lecture theatre, and I was told that I could not include a soundscape in my video because they did not want the sound from the gallery to encroach upon the lectures taking place next door.) This multi-media piece, written for video and soundscape, violin and vocalisation, is a reflection on the difficulties of interpersonal communication, while Roaring Whispers, 2013 represented the desire to convey and draw others into my parallel universe. The intimacy injected into each individual component in Roaring Whispers, 2013 ‘spoke’ a similar message as the repeated leitmotif in He(A)r(e) Not, 2009, “Hear me!” and I visualised the space as a physical enactment of He(A)r(e) Not, 2009, but from a gentler dynamic. The video component in Roaring Whispers, 2013 reprised the visual captures of the goldfish in a bowl, first introduced in He(A)r(e) Not, 2009, and later repeated in the video and soundscape of the finale section, “Fish Dreaming,” in Scheherazade’s Sea, 2010.
There was an amusing and significant (in the way it played out) minor accident in the middle of the performance of He(A)r(e) Not, 2009, where the violinist dropped the musical score. She was unable to retrieve it herself because both her hands were full, with her violin in the left and bow in the right. Instead of panicking, I calmly walked across the stage, made a humorous comment to the audience about the intensity of the moment, picked up the score and placed it back on its stand, walked back across the stage to my position, and continued with the performance. By then, we were out of sync with the soundscape in the video, but instead of standing out in time and place as a ‘mistake’ or ‘disaster,’ this unscripted incident transformed our rendition into an improvised moment, with an injection of humour and savoir fairenot usually attributed to autism. In actual fact, spontaneous performance is part of life for many autistic persons navigating a social system dominated by the neuro-majority. Although autistics are said to lack social spontaneity,however, incidents such as these are actually not unusual features in our daily lives, though the effort behind their execution goes largely unnoticed by the social majority.My approach to improvisatory exertion is akin to the techniques of musical extemporisation. Whether in the Baroque music of J.S. Bach, or Jazz improvisation, the practice draws upon a vast internalised database of melodic and harmonic sequences and phrases, called ‘riffs’ in Jazz terminology, stored in the mind of the musician.
As I was crafting the components and building up Roaring Whispers, 2013, I reflected upon the anxiety inducing situation that I was in. This was my very first ‘cross-over’ artistic work not specifically built upon musical composition or performance. At the time, I was anxious about my own lack of technical skills and theoretical knowledge in the area of fine arts, having arrived from the domain of music. In many respects, Roaring Whispers, 2013 itself was a work of extemporisation, drawing from material that I had already acquired, and throwing myself ad libinto an uncertain situation with as much panache as I could muster.
The primal beast
Figure 20 Lucy played a crucial background role in Roaring Whispers, 2013. She was anchor for my internal and physical instability, sense-tested the textures, scents and movement of the developing components, inspired different ways of perceiving, and added an elemental, alternative empathic stream to the conversations that were threading through the work.
Another important entity in this creative effort was Lucy. A parallel entity to our parallel embodiments, her non-verbal presence permeated the conversations between myself and Kateryna, and added sentience to my process of animating the inanimate materials with which I was working. She sense-tested the multi-textured fabric and materials as I put the installations together, and made known to me her preferences through wordless sensory communications. Lucy kept me company throughout the physically taxing process, and as my assistance dog, she helped to intervene whenever I approached sensory overload. Her gentle, elegant confidence within her physical embodiment was an anchor to my (at times) unstable corporeality. Learning how to communicate with Lucy in her wordless sensory modality inspired the concept of the Endeavour of Empathy. Throughout the making of Roaring Whispers 2013, I was aware of Lucy’s intense observation of me, her watchfulness, sensing my every movement even when she appeared to be asleep, and her participation in my work, made me realise that she was exercising a determined effort of empathy towards me: a continuous Endeavour of Empathy across parallel existential domains. Reciprocity requires conscious exertion, and through Lucy, I have become fascinated by this demanding yet rewarding undertaking.
Figure 21 Lucy kept me company in her relaxed and celebratory manner, which injected an added air of whimsy into my work.
As I set about crafting the individual pieces in Roaring Whispers 2013, my mind was re-enacting He(A)r(e) Not 2009, linking the two via internal sensory-cognitive dialogue, while Kateryna’s voice, speaking through her digital paintings, provided occasional interjection, like a three-way contrapuntaltête-à-têteinside a sensorially charged private room. Throughout the unfolding of process and presentation, Lucy’s parallel presence wove like a mellifluous sub-melody into the rich tapestry. The summation of this dynamic interlocution – at once tangible yet abstract – transformed into Roaring Whispers 2013.
Mirrors and reflections
Inside the soft undulating rhythm of Roaring Whispers, 2013, the most prominent and accessible feature was the juxtaposition of light-hearted whimsicality and intense colours, textures, and embedded details in each small object, together creating a placid, mute cacophony as a comprehensive whole. Oxymoronic interplay is very much part of the autist’s sensory-cognitive landscape. Roaring Whispers, 2013represents a courteous invitation into this realm of Parallel Embodiment, a space of mind where the autistic host (myself) takes a deliberate step back when welcoming visitors, so that they may have enough mental and physical space to interact with the elements according to their own perspectival paradigms, and hopefully generate new dimensions of sensory-cognitive ‘thinking’ as a spontaneous result of this engagement. During the four-day run of the exhibition, I handed visitors cameras with the request that they capture their own perspectives and interpretations in any way they wished. I wanted to create an inclusive documentation of the work, collecting unique points of view.
More Photographs and Videos
Note on video: I recorded a few videos of the space using my cheap digital camera. This short grainy clip opens with Lucy at the entrance, welcoming visitors to the space. As the camera focuses away from Lucy and towards the exhibits, Lucy can be heard in the background – her four paws making a distinct rhythmic sound against the wooden flooring, as my boots thumped their way through the space in a fugal spontaneous soundscape.
LITTLE SWEETS 小甜心, 2014 – a sensory odyssey
Figure 22 Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014– invitation card, front page.
“Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014is an open invitation to share empathic space with the autistic hypersensory existence. The title is a whimsical play on semantic meanings, suggesting multi-nuances of concrete sensations as well as mental states of mind. Its Chinese title, 小甜心, brings the metaphor a little further, into the emotional dimension, with the word, “heart.”The Chinese word, “心” translates as “heart,” “core,” or “centre.” “小甜心”literally means, “Little Sweet Heart.”
In this exhibition, autistic parallel embodiment is presented from the perspective of the acutely confronting challenges imposed upon fragile autistic sensory-cognitive ecology while performing ordinary, seemingly innocuous actions in daily life. The whimsical title is a deliberate ironic contradiction to the lived reality that the work is constructed to convey. Instead of a gentle invitation into a melodious counterpoint of textures, colours, sounds and images, Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014 accosts the visitor with dense and intense sensory encounter.
Arduous odyssey, innocuous trophy
“How shall we explain our compulsion to create? Perhaps we are not ‘artists’ the way you may be, and yet, perhaps you and I are one and the same, at the very core of Creativity itself. Contrapuntal, harmonious or symphonic, even at times ponderous, we enunciate our art from our sensory eclecticism: painstakingly rigorous visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory impressions and compressions.We create because we are inexorably driven to evince the palpable universe within us, with us and without.” – Dawn-joy Leong.
For the autistic person, the effort to perform is not only in the area of social interaction, but also embedded in a constant struggle to overcome incessant bombardment of the senses, overload, and other anomalies, like confusion with visual spatial judgment in relation to our bodies, or proprioceptive control. Walking across a crowded grocery store from the fruits section to the freezers can be a terrifying journey requiring will power and steely determination to accomplish. The fear is compounded if along the way a stranger stops to ask a question, or an unruly child dashes across the aisles with an out of control shopping trolley. On many occasions, I have given up shopping altogether and just headed home without buying anything, because the intensity of the sensory assault was too much for me to cope with. Not having a full sensory meltdown, mentally taking forceful control over corporeal faculties to quietly make my way through the cacophony and mayhem, and getting myself home without mishap are examples of deliberate, scripted performances which many autists like myself have to enact on a daily basis.
Figure 23 Exhibition space – function room with open windows.
Instead of the conventional art gallery, Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014occupied a space normally used as a function room, in other words, a utilitarian site. A simplecall to share empathic imagination with the realm of autism: this space represented my personal sensorial expedition through pedestrian spaces.
Suspended across the room and creating sensory ‘barriers’ were curtains of chains made from strips of mulitcoloured fluorescent paper, bright yellow straws, blue-and-white plastic bags, multi-coloured yarn pompoms, and tissue paper pompoms. Crepe paper streamers at the entrance were carried up and outwards by the strong breeze led in through the large open windows, vigorously blowing into the faces and bodies of visitors entering – an unplanned feature that vigorously emphasised and accentuated the sensory confrontation. At the far side of the room, I set up a cupcake-making stand, where I baked fresh cupcakes throughout the day. Many visitors were drawn to the space by the aroma of baking, and I received a substantial number of visitors during lunch and teatime, many of them had simply followed the delicious scent down the corridor out of curiosity. The colourful display gave the visual impression that there was a jolly party going on inside. However, upon entering, visitors soon realised that there was no comfortable passageway through to the cupcakes, and that they had to carve their own path through the chaotic barrage of colourful obstacles, before they could reach the cupcakes at the far end. The hanging curtains were deceptively alluring because of their visual and tactile appeal, but as people tried to walk through, the various components would catch in their hair and clothing, and bodies became entangled with seemingly innocuous material in momentarily awkward gyrations. The sonic effects generated by the eclectic curtains brushing against each other formed a layer over the busy sound of traffic from the street below, creating a semi-aleatorical soundscape that enveloped and framed the space.
Figure 24 Curtains.
My description in the invitation to Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014 was deliberately fragmented – for me, this kind of wordedness more effectively expressed somatic dynamism and reflected my own preference for articulation.
“A snapshot of hypersensory connectivity. A suspension in time and space. Visual, tactile, kinetic, auditory, olfactory, gustatory. Refracted fragments of pleasure and pain, seeking and avoiding, reaching and recoiling, strategising, overcoming and navigating. Arduously protracted 30-second journeys. Oxymoronic. Hyper-real. Fluid. Concrete. Chromatic. Polymodal. At the end of this surreal, symbolic and dynamic actuality, lies a simple shared offering, a modest reward for endeavour, an innocuous trophy: Cupcake!” – Dawn-joy Leong.
Figure 25 Cupcake!
The almost desperate need for structure and predictability, a well-documented trait of autism, is a way of creating a self-protective mental and operational ‘safe haven’ in response to unpredictable chaos and potential suffering as a result. However, life is full of the unexpected, especially when living in a widely neurodiverse society. Although this exhibition was originally designed to reflect the dynamic forces of sensory over-stimulation and self-coping strategies in a palpable way, I was completely unprepared for the actual turn of events in which, once again, the entity of the work took on a ‘life’ and path of its own.
I had created a meticulous weekend plan for the setting up of a highly detailed and texturally dense exhibition space. The opening was advertised to begin at 6pm on Monday, 10 November 2014. I arrived onsite at 8.30am on Saturday, 8 November, with my friend Rick, who had volunteered to help me. To my utter horror, I found another student’s work occupying the space. I called the number on the notice at the doorway, and I was informed that I could not access the venue until 1pm on Monday. It plunged me into a crackling, dry, seething pool of despair and bewilderment. This was not a pleasant situation for anyone, let alone the autistic mind so dependent on structure and averse to instability.
My immediate thought was to postpone the event, as there was no possibility that the elaborate original plan for the work would be achieved in four hours. However, I had promises to keep. All publicity material had already been disseminated, RSVPs received, and there was a great deal of excitement in my neighbourhood of Paddington and beyond. The founders of my chosen charity, Greyhound Rescue, were looking forward to the opening, an elderly couple driving all the way from the north to attend. At that moment, another autistic trait kicked in: the so-called ‘inflexible’ and ‘rigid’ mind became resolutely determined to honour my commitments, no matter what the circumstances. The show must go on: I consciously put my brain into ‘emergency-performance’ mode and began to re-strategise and re-sensitise.
Forced to improvise, I quickly embarked on a different plan of action. I decided that the entire exhibition would have to take on an experimental, oxymoronic ‘structured-aleatory’ dimension: I will work within the limitations imposed and see what happens when it happens. Over the extremely anxiety-filled weekend, the matter was resolved and I was allowed to begin setting up on Monday, not at 1pm but at 10am.
The practice of performance once again became a key element in my coping strategy, propelling me out of the frightening conundrum and forward into practical pursuit. Just like musical improvisation, being able to extemporise is the result of rapid computation, rearrangement and impartation of data previously acquired and stored inside the mind. The performer, even when playing from a score, is aware that during ‘live’ performances, the unexpected often happens, but that is all part of being prepared, expecting the unexpected and performing life in the moment. It is demanding, tiring, exhausting and constantly pushes one outside of our comfort zones or beyond perceived limits, but it can also be exhilarating and fulfilling.
Accumulating a cogent collection in this dynamic library requires hours of practice and exploration involving diligent repetition, organisation and order, and subsuming these entities into the fabric of the musician’s embodiment. In other words, spontaneous ad lib performances do not emerge ‘from out of nowhere’ but are the result of internalised careful planning, dedicated practise, experimentation and daring execution. I began gathering ‘riffs’ for my performances of life inside the normative social world when I became fascinated by the musicals, which my father used to collect. Practice and repetitive experimentation lead to application in ‘real life’ situations. Improvisatory performance does not only serve the ‘colonial’ neuro-majority (by reassuring them that I am capable of behaving according to their frames of references) but more importantly, and this is an aspect which should be better emphasised, it helps the autist cope more effectively in fluid, unstable circumstances. It is my belief that autistic individuals are capable of approaching spontaneity in the same ways as a musician develops extemporisation skills. It is therefore imperative to create awareness that such a possibility exists at all, and this is yet another area in which multi-practice art is a cogent ally to intervention strategies, not only for issues faced by autistic people but also a plethora of internal and external challenges across neurological divides. It is a skill that has helped me in countless situations, not to ‘overcome’ my innate autistic traits as weaknesses but rather to utilise these proclivities and accentuate their strengths, especially in moments of dire need.
In this specific situation, well-designed plans are abruptly destroyed. The autistic mind needs order and organisation to properly function. Panic and devastation hits hard like an out-of-control vehicle traveling at great speed. However, the improviser takes over, quickly re-organising the performance according to the details available within the circumstance, re-ordering chaos into structure. The autistic mind thus regains a new sytematic framework from which to work. A slightly different, realigned work is born.
Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014 was in part inspired by Lucy. In my quest to understand her better, I stumbled upon canine sensory and cognitive studies and sensory-based behavior training. The more I observed how Lucy deals with her senses, the more I wondered how I could employ similar strategies to my own autistic hypersenses. Many Greyhounds rescued from the racing industry display obvious signs of fear and take time to adjust to life as a family pet. Lucy was unusual in that she settled into my life in the middle of the city without any awkward adaptation issues. This was not to say that she does not have sensory aversions, but rather that her ease of ability to address them innately intrigued me when I compared her with other former racing Greyhounds.
This space was conceived and designed in response to a training method designed to help young dogs acclimatise their senses to external stimuli in a fun way, in order to confidently navigate the bombardment of stimuli in their future environments.A large frame resembling a box is constructed, and an assortment of everyday objects hung from the sides. Food is placed inside the box and puppies are encouraged to explore the space – entering and leaving, weaving in and out – at their own pace. The reward is available in the middle of the box, but it is up to the puppies to avail themselves of it.
The connection with developing coping strategies for hypersensory reactivity is very strong: bypassing the verbal didactic, addressing the senses directly, and offering a positive experience in exchange for the effort of negotiating the daunting. To me, this approach differs from those therapies that repeatedly expose the autistic child to fear-triggering, non-native situations, and made to cease performing actions deemed inappropriate from the viewpoint of normative society. Rather than modification methodologies like ABA therapy, which are not only forceful but are created according to the frameworks of normative demands, the priority of focus for any therapeutic or support programme should always be the intrinsic wellbeing of the different embodiment. Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014 is an example of an innovative and non-aversive approach to sensory redirection. I prefer to use the term “re-sensitisation” rather than “de-sensitisation,” as the former connotes that the original sensitivity is of value but merely needs new or added ways for direction, while the latter term implies a dulling of the senses. Many autists with hypersenses, myself included, do not wish for their sensory acuity to be taken away or even muted, as the heights of these sensations also bring much pleasure and added dimensions to one’s perceptual realm. It is thus far more useful to learn how to manage the negative effects of hypersensitivity than to muffle the senses.
The reactions of two visitors to Little Sweets 小甜心, 2014 stood out distinctly from all the feedback I received during this exhibition. An architect and a general worker, both friends of mine, visited the space on separate occasions. They related their discussion to me. The architect commented to the general worker that I should have created a clear and guided path into the space, so that people would feel more welcome and confident about where they should be heading and how. The other friend then replied that perhaps the disarray was intentional and its purpose was to make people more aware of and participate in the sensory difficulties that I was trying to express. It was clear that the architect was approaching the space with deeply entrenched professional preconceptions, and thus missed out on the simple expressive notion of sensory engagement, despite my having repeatedly discussed and described at length my intent and objectives with this friend prior to the exhibition. On the other hand, I hardly spoke more than a few words with the other friend prior to the event, yet it he seemed to possess a more open and keenly intuitive reception of the space, unhindered by the tyranny of inelastic professional indoctrination. There is no ‘expected outcome’ in my work, no right or wrong response. Both friends arrived at the same awareness of disarray and confusion from vastly different perspectival points. The architect’s trained perception could immediately identify and was puzzled or disturbed by the dissonance, and the immediate response was to try to ‘fix’ it. The other friend approached the space through a more primal sensory-cognitive channel, accepting it as it was presented, and actively sought to connect with and embrace the space and its message without extraneous imposition. This incident called to mind the reaction of Hong Kong artist, Jaffa Lam, to Scheherazde’s Sea 2010, and my straightforward succinct reply, “Welcome to my world.”
The ability to empathise with an alien framework is not an automatically activated talent inherent in one section of humanity and lacking in another: empathy is an endeavour, a deliberate act of choice and a protracted journey to follow. It is not enough to become ‘aware’ of autism, the mainstream media and non-autistic autism movements have already propagated far too much awareness of their own preconceived notion of autism. Rather, what is needed is acceptance and the willingness to move beyond mere static acceptance to a dynamic embrace. An endeavour of empathy.
Photos and Video
SONATA IN Z, 2015 – in search of clement space
Sonata in Z
An autistic human,
A greyhound dog.
A journey of Being.
Endeavour of empathy,
Spaces of mind.
Sonata in Z is a ‘gentle space’, inspired by my autistic hypersensory quest for sanctuary, and Lucy’s natural ability to seek out and create oases of comfort. Unfolding like a musical sonata, visual images of Lucy in sonorous repose introduce the theme of rest. Please leave your shoes at the threshold as you enter, symbolically shedding conventional notions of social communication. Once inside, we shall not speak in words, but the tranquility is neither silent nor empty, because our senses will lead the way into a different social ecosystem of softly undulating rhythms, patterns, sounds, movements, gestures, textures, smells, tastes and visual conversations. This is our refuge, an alternative empathic resonance, a nonverbal sensory equilibrium – and Lucy and I would like to share our clement space with you.
The above was the publicity poster and exhibition description that I wrote for Sonata in Z 2015.
Sensory clemency is essential to all existence, but for the autist, the difference between excruciating conflict and peaceful innate functionality hinges upon a precarious balancing act of finding ecological wellbeing. However, for the autist with sensory idiosyncrasy, equilibrium and tranquility are rare and precious luxuries, despite the fact that they are high priority necessities for proper intrinsic function. The senses are constantly on edge and the mind is ever struggling to sort and sequence the bombardment of information. Seemingly benign chatter, pops, squeaks, scrapes and flashes of everyday life become legions of raging monsters savaging fragile inner worlds with brutal force: a brush of texture against the skin, pounding music, pulsating lights, clattering of plates, cups and cutlery, humming conversations and bursts of laughter, the sudden ringing of a school bell or alarm clock, the smell of perfume or innocuous perspiration. Persistently overwhelmed, the autist spends a prodigious amount of time and mental-physical energy desperately paddling to stay afloat in a frothy sea littered with terrifying flotsam and jetsam bobbing and swirling in unpredictable confusion, as dark dank waters convulse around, crashing repeatedly against vulnerable, porous mind-body embankments.
Sonata in Z, 2014 completes my series of three physical studies in Autistic Parallel Embodiment and elemental empathy, presenting the studio practice component of this PhD. Roaring Whispers, 2013 gently introduced the autistic hyper acute paradigm and Little Sweets 小甜心，2014 confronted visitors with the silent cacophony of my autistic existential oxymoron. Sonata in Z,2014focused inwards to present an encounter with sensorial clemency, gentle equilibrium, and endeavour of empathy for Self-ness. Instead of re-enacting the enigma of autistic embodiment to non-autistic mindsets in concretised conciliatory gestures, Sonata in Z, 2014 was conceived and constructed specifically with the autistic visitor first and foremost in mind. Visitors, autistic and non-autistic, were embraced by palpable material adaptions of cogitative ruminations and comforting wordless conversations.
The title, Sonata in Z, is a nod to my favourite musical form, the Classical Sonata, which speaks to me of order, process and ‘becoming;’ and a whimsical reference to Lucy’s favourite activity, i.e. mellow reposing. It suggests the symbiotic relationship between an autist and her canine companion, a testament of empathic resonance across diverse states of Beingness. Inspired by Lucy’s innate ability to locate and create her own personal oases of sensorial consolation in transient site, space and situation, and the unique elegance and poise with which she executes this inexorable mission, Sonata in Z, 2015 recreated a personal retreat, a benevolent space, and a compassionate microcosmos. Lucy’s presence, both during the process of making and in the exhibition space, injected an aura of quietude into this sublime pilgrimage, gently facilitating and connecting unostentatious interaction with eclectic facets of Self, a placid antithesis of the complex, hyper-reality of autistic sensory overload. Sonata in Z, 2015 was as fully textured and teeming with busy details as the other two preceeding works, yet its luscious occupation was one of peace and a gathering inwards of graceful elements.
“What your senses perceive may merely be superficial scratches on the surface of our world, but we invite you to intuit our reality, perhaps by magnifying your own.Sense your senses, and in sensing your senses, allow your senses to sense your self, and the world around you. Become aware of your body, become cognisant of other bodies, from the miniscule to the colossal. Taste, touch, smell, listen and move – conscious of your every vibration, the reverberations and echoes you create.” – Dawn-joy Leong.
Visitors were asked to remove their shoes to enter Sonata in Z, 2014, a symbolic ritual of shedding preconceived notions of art – aesthetics, exhibitions, etc – and autism, leaving the feet vulnerable to reception of eclectic sensations. Like a musical leitmotif, photographs of Lucy in various positions of‘Sonorous Repose’ led the way into the space, visually introducing the theme of sensorial clemency and respite. The muted hues of white and beige bore a deliberate non-verbal message. On the floor, differently textured rugs beckoned, while foam peanuts provided an element of humour and naïve pleasure to shoe-less feet. A wobbly cocoon stood on one side and a dome-shaped structure wrapped in diaphanous netting on the other, with exquisitely luscious furry softness in between. Origami cranes, symbols of hope, and woolly pompoms, whimsical tactile punctuations, adorned the netted dome and translucent curtains. At the back, two large stuffed creatures silently witness the goings on – a giant creature with scraggly long fur resembling an Old English Sheepdog, and an enormous soft cuddly teddy bear. On the walls hung small rugs and miniature installation pieces, hand-woven or crafted from recycled fabric, string and yarn, tactile conversations best experienced through the proximal senses. An old vintage suitcase containing rice and discarded shells, and a watery tub of juicy beads invited haptic play. Cushions and small stuffed toys were scattered around the space. In the background, beneath the ambient noise of traffic swirling in from outside, a basso continuocould be heard: a fugal soundscape of Lucy’s heartbeat and snoring.
The opening theme of this work is key to its unfolding development. Lucy keeps me company as I work, mostly from home, but other times at my art studio, where she has a bed in a corner. Like most Greyhounds, who are often referred to as “45 mph couch potatoes,” she sleeps a lot. During outings and playgroup with other Greyhounds, Lucy loves to run at full speed, competing with the other Greyhounds for treats at the other end. Their running, however, is in short bursts of power, after which the dogs flop down on soft rugs. At home, Lucy does have quick flashes of energy, where she will ‘zoom’ round and round the small confines of our apartment for a few manic seconds and then sink into bed as if the energetic episode never occurred.
Enthralled by her ability to progress from rest to intense action and then back to rest again, and the exquisite elegance with which she executes the exercise, I have been taking photographs of her during her resting states. It seems to me, observing her closely and listening to her breathing and snoring, that she is somehow sublimely aware of my presence even when she appears deep in slumber. I have to be quick and extremely quiet when I reach for my camera, get up from my chair and move towards her, because she senses my minutest motions and her eyes will flutter open towards me.
For exhibition in Sonata in Z, 2015, I chose twenty photographs out of literally thousands in my ever expanding collection. The photographs were mounted on the wall, leading into the exhibition space. The edges were torn to give the photographs a rhythmic feel.
Figure 26 Sonorous Repose– a selection of photographs. Featuring Lucy in states of rest and repose.
Grace and gracefulness
Sonata in Z, 2015 materially enacted clement space within Space of Mind: a place where my senses are consoled and able to regain composure and strength, and where I am not obliged to perform the unnatural. In other words, an oasis of nurturing and a private connectedness with materiality and Being. The introspective focus worked well with fellow autistic visitors – I did not have to explain the space to them, they instinctively knew what the space was offering and how to avail themselves of it. A young autistic friend came to the opening with her assistance dog, and although I was too distracted at the time to notice what everyone was doing, upon viewing the photographs, I saw that my autistic friend was lying down with her dog in a beautiful position, curled onto a fluffy rug, almost poetic in its composition.
Figure 27 Visitors listening to my opening address: my autistic friend and her assistance dog are lying comfortably in the soft sheep skin rug in the middle, while others sit or stand.
Figure 28 Poetic composition – the autist’s embodiment inside clement space, engaging in elemental empathic communion.
On the final day of the exhibition, I received a visit from another friend, who drove in from Queensland with her two autistic children and one child’s assistance dog. I met my friend via the internet: she emailed me after stumbling upon my blog, and we connected on Facebook. This was the first ‘in-person’ meeting, and I was aware of a strange juxtaposition of mental states. To my friend, I felt compelled to explain the space and engage in some verbal exchange, but the two young people did not seem to need that at all. The teenager wandered around silently on his own, while the younger child became engrossed in the two large stuffed animals and the foam peanuts. During the course of her visit, we also made tissue paper pompoms. I was innately more comfortable interacting with the autistic young persons than with my friend in this a person-to-person scenario, although I had no trouble ‘chatting’ with her in our many typed messages. I gave the young girl the two stuffed animals and she was very pleased, I could feel the delight emanating from her little being, even though she did not speak much. It was comfortable not needing to look her in the eye or babble on and on, I am certain she understood that unspoken ease too.
Figure 29 Young Celeste connecting with the elements in Sonata in Z.
The reverse was true with non-autistic visitors. Although I had intended for Sonata in Zto be a non-speaking space, where people connected with the elements and via materiality, it was impossible in practice. In some cases, even when I managed to quell the impulse to put visitors at ease by speaking to them and explaining the space, they would initiate conversation and ask me. It would have been rude not to reply. Many visitors, after I had explained the work to them, began to engage with the installations without further verbal prompting. However there were others who did not seem to understand at all, but nevertheless enjoyed the textures, calm and tranquillity of this space. There was one visitor, an artist, who engaged in a protracted conversation even though I had repeatedly told her this was a non-speaking space and I was hoping that people would connect sensorially instead. I observed, too, that some were quite obviously uncomfortable when, after explaining the non-worded realm being captured by the exhibition, I deliberately stopped talking and invited them to explore the space instead. This underlined in a poignant and tangible way the strong reliance on wordedness in normative communication, and perhaps the use of words to obscure or camouflage social awkwardness, especially when encountering novel experiences.
Paper chains – an exercise in elemental empathy
A few months before Sonata in Z, 2015, I conducted a workshop session at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, about autism and sensory approaches to my artistic practice. At the end of this workshop, I carried out an experiment in non-didactic sensorial empathy with the participants. After a half hour talk about autistic sensory-cognitive idiosyncrasies and my research and practice, I handed out sheets of paper and staplers. Without any spoken instruction, I sat down, began to tear the paper into strips, stapled them together and made paper chains. The participants, all art educators specialising in disabilities, seemed unsure of what to do, and fumbled with their papers and staplers creating paper objects of their own. After five minutes, I wrapped up the experiment by explaining to them what I was trying to do. Not one person seemed to have grasped the meaning behind the exercise, and they failed to communicate or empathise with me in a non-verbal elemental dimension.
During Sonata in Z, 2015, I reprised this non-speaking reciprocal exercise twice. On one occasion, I made tissue paper pompoms with a nine-year-old autistic child, using the same wordless approach. It did not flow as smoothly as I had hoped, because the child’s mother kept interjecting and either asking for instructions, or offering them to her child. I could see that the autistic child was trying to focus on observing me (visual) and mimicking my actions (proprioceptive) but she was also hesitant and wanted to ‘do the right thing,’ and hence would look to her mother for reassurance. If the mother had not interjected verbally but instead indicated with body language that all was well, I am certain the exercise would have been a lot more pleasant for the child and me. In the other experiment, I made paper chains with three adults, a PhD student in linguistics, a dental nurse, and an installation artist, none of them diagnosed as autistic, but one exhibits symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. At first, the participants were hesitant, but unlike the previous group of teachers at the museum, these friends took time to ‘inhale the sensory messages that my body was sending. Perhaps it was because they knew me and were hence undaunted by the element of social awkwardness. I deliberately avoided looking at their faces, but the lack of eye contact did not seem to bother them, so absorbed were they in their endeavour of empathic resonance. As they were settling down and watching me closely, they began simply just to engage tactilely with the paper, scissors and staplers. Eventually, I could hear the rhythm and sound of their breathing slowing down and arriving at a regular andante pace, like a leisurely stroll, as each person, one after another, started to mimic my actions. We spent about fifteen minutes in repetitive motion – tearing strips of paper, curling them around, and stapling – without worded conversation. We hardly looked at one another, yet, as time wore on, I could sense the pace in which we were working become increasingly even, and we arrived together at an adagio con calma, as our breathing synchronised in mutual rhythmic sympathy.
Existential dissonance – ‘impaired’ Space of Mind?
I was told that the opening night was a huge success. As the artist, I am of course most grateful to hear such feedback. However, as an autist, my senses were overloaded and teetering on the edge of meltdown, the pressure to perform-the-normative-social was intense, as I made effort to interact with my invited guests. Two hours before the advertised opening time, after a very long and physical taxing day of completing the installation set-up, I was literally herded by a kind, wellmeaning friend into the horrifying jaws of a shopping mall, dashing back and forth to buy drinks and food for the opening. I did not have a budget for this, but my friend generously provided. At one stage, I lost my friend in the maelstrom of human bodies, lights, smells and noise, and a great deal of energy had to be spent summoning mental and sensorial control to prevent a sensory meltdown there and then. Another friend made sandwiches and finger food, and there was a moment of extreme anxiety – worrying about the time frame and having to make numerous phone calls – when we got lost traveling to pick up these contributions. From my point of view, it was an outgoing effort of will to empathise with Other – their expressions of benevolence, their concepts of celebration – while sacrificing the needs of Self. Yes, it was ‘my party’ but in the normative social context, the autist is seldom ever allowed to ‘own’ the social space. I would have been happy to settle for biscuits and cheese, the thoughtful contribution of sandwiches, with a few bottles of wine and sparkling water, but my social-brained festivity-loving friend had very definite ideas of what she wanted to buy for my opening party, and I was too physically and mentally run down, too socially engulfed, to object.
As an autist and a performance artist, I am far more comfortable, and even energised, speaking or performing to a large crowd than I am interacting in a social gathering. Needless to say, I traversed the event with as much verve, vim and vigour as I could muster. I had a duty to perform to my own work, its independent, dynamic entity demanded it of me. The photographs from that evening provided the only documentation I have of the event, since my own mind was too overwhelmed, and my body too drained by the shopping expedition and pandering to my wellmeaning friend’s wishes, to retain any present, in-the-moment, information. It was exciting for me to review the photographs, which were beautifully captured, although I felt as if I was looking inside my space from the outside: a stranger spectator, rather than a participant and author.
Another incident during Sonata in Z, 2015 that created a schism between the elemental connection of the work and its author-performer was the editing of my exhibition description, without my approval. The description, which was to be on the wall at the entrance to my exhibition, was not ready for the opening. When the words were finally put on the wall at the end of the second day of the exhibition run, I noticed that my characteristically intimate fragmented prose was edited into an impersonal and frigid third-person description of the work. This is perhaps not an unusual frustration and example of break down in perspective and communication between artist and curator, however, the un-solicited alteration shifted the sensorial reverberation embedded in my message, disturbing once again the carefully planned nuances that I had meant for my own worded articulation to convey. For the autist, such incidents touch a raw chord in our parallel embodiment, because once again, the voice of Self is silenced by autocratic Other in yet another interplay between coloniser and subaltern. I understand intellectually that this particular incident was not focused upon my autistic embodiment – galleries and curators often clash with exhibiting artists in such instances – but because of the acculturation that autists have been subjected to by normative society, it made me feel like the ‘outsider’ in my own home, in which someone had conferred themself authority to make renovations, and I was relegated to the role of the silent and hapless shadow in the corner.
Simultaneous to the human contemplation of Sonata in Z, 2015, another interaction was unfolding, a parallel conversation of a different kind. Each day during the course of the week, as soon as we entered the space, Lucy inhabited it, exploring familiarity with fresh curiosity every new day. She would find a comfortable spot to lie on, sniff around as if fascinated by the smells, discover different objects to play with, and spaces in which to celebrate exuberance. Wordlessly, apart from a very few, small, short and succinct barks. The senses spoke loudly and eloquently. This was ‘home’ for us, during a most blessed week. I have not felt as much reluctance to leave any orchestrated space as I did when I bade goodbye to Sonata in Z, 2015.
Figure 30 Sonata in Z, 2015– Lucy exploring, creating and inhabiting clement space.
Photos and Videos
Dawn-joy Leong, “Thinking through the Body – a Multimodal Approach from Autism,” (paper presented at The International Conference for Research Creativity: Praxis, Baptist University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 21-23 November 2012).
Judy Endow, “Fear, Anxiety and Autistic “Behaviour,”” Ollibeanblog, 5 December 2015, accessed 30 March 2016. http://ollibean.com/2015/12/05/fear-anxiety-and-autistic-behavior/.
Hidetsugu Komeda et. al, “Autistic empathy towards autistic others,” Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience (2015) 10, 145-152; Thisrecent study has confirmed what autistic individuals and advocates, including myself, have been asserting for some time: the presence of an atypical empathic system in autism. The study concluded that autistics are more able to empathise with other autistics via different neural channels from neurotypicals, and it is just as difficult for neurotypicals to empathise with autistics as it is the other way around.
Dawn-joy Leong, “He(A)r(e) Not, 2009, for violin, voice, video and soundscape: a simple exploration into the ephemeral, spontaneous and often fragile nature of human communication,” programme notes, (premiered at the University of Hong Kong, Loke Yew Hall, April 15, 2009). The musical score can be found in Appendix C.; Performance video link atDawn-joy Leong.com: accessed April 17, 2006, https://dawnjoyleong.com/performances-exhibitions/heare-not/.
Cormac Duffy and Olive Healy, “Spontaneous Communication in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of Topographies and Interventions,” Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 5(2011): 977–983, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.nuigalway.ie/ican/content/Duffy%20(2011).pdf.
Perhaps the level of spontaneous ability in autistic persons may have more to do with the specific contexts in which this skill is required. Social-centric situations are more challenging to me than stage performance. The latter has a more defined and anchored framework and purpose, whereas the former is to my perception a great deal more fluid and unpredictable, and often also emotionally charged.
Dawn-joy Leong, “Excerpt from Opening Address”, Little Sweets小甜心– A Sensory Odyssey, November 10, 2014. At Dawn-joy Leong.com, website, accessed April 17, 2016, https://dawnjoyleong.com/performances-exhibitions/little-sweets-%E5%B0%8F%E7%94%9C%E5%BF%83-a-sensory-odyssey/.
Not to be confused with the endearment, ‘sweetheart,’ but its literal meaning, “Little Sweet Heart/s.” On the surface, this alludes to the sweet cupcakes on offer at the far end of the exhibition space, representing pleasurable rewards for arduous undertakings. At a deeper level, the centre of fulfillment is finding clemency within Beingness, a pleasurable (sweet) state of mind and body.
Dawn-joy Leong, “Thinking through the Body – a Multimodal Approach from Autism,” (paper presented at The International Conference for Research Creativity: Praxis, Baptist University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 21-23 November 2012).
In honour of Lucy, who was my muse for this exhibition, I donated proceeds from sales of all installations and coin contributions for cupcakes to Greyhound Rescue, an organisation that rescues discarded Greyhounds from the Greyhound racing industry, provides medical care, helps the dogs to adjust to a home environment and finds new homes for the dogs as pets; Greyhound Rescue, website, accessed April 17, 2016, http://greyhoundrescue.com.au/.
American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, 5th ed., Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2013,…“extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns.”
Most certainly, I could not have set up even the newly extemporised version within the short period of time available, and I am extremely grateful to my two friends Sara Sohrabian and Rick Johnson for their help.
The Avidog Adventure Box,website, accessed April 17, 2016, http://www.avidog.com/product/avidogs-adventure-box-2/.
For example, in traditional ABA therapies, based on assessment of their (superficial) observed behaviours, autistic children are ‘trained’ to offer eye contact and social hugs, stop stimming, and adjust to loud noises and other sensory disturbances using, among many, a technique called ‘compliance training’ which seeks to make the autistic subject comply with the therapist regardless of the autistic subject’s negative responses.