One of the strangest, and perhaps from the outside enigmatic, questions to grasp about art is, "When do you know a project is done?" In my case, I'm referring to what often is called "a body of work" such as Robert Frank's "The Americans" at a quite literal level, or more loosely Pciasso's "Blue Period." How did they know that that was that. It's time to move on. That nothing but maybe a bit of polish was left to cap off all of that parcel of their art.
The reason I bring this odd topic up is that I recently decided that I had completed most of the work for the Japonisme project. I've spent about three years working on the various pieces of it and to be honest, the decision was quite literally made while walking around late on night photographing in Little Tokyo. My mind, wandering alongside my feet in the night, little thought, "I'm done." Not in a negative, exasperated way, but quite simply stating with great assurance that I had what I needed.
In my case, this by no stretch means that I have no more work to do on the project. With my rather meandering, collecting, organic method of working I suppose this realization might be very akin to finishing principle shooting for a film. It's in the can but there's still lots of busywork to be done. It's a tremendously physical reaction for me. I often will literally spend a week playing crappy RPGs, drinking a little too much, with insomnia or sleeping 14 hours a day (I'm pretty much a workaholic normally, sleeping 7 hours tops and working out almost every day). And what is perhaps most amusing to myself, considering I've wrapped up 7 or 8 projects now, is it surprises me every time.
While my mind, pondering the spiraling and morphing might have stated a very concise truth, like in a long-term relationship coming to a end, it takes a while for the rest of my being to catch up. In this case, I had been anxious, moody and miserable for about a week after that moment near midnight in Little Tokyo. Walking to get a cup of coffee, unshaven, un-showered, buried in my peacoat one morning (okay, morning for me, I had been up until 5AM the night before laying in bed poking a book) I laughed once, and remembered. "Oh yeah, I do this every time I finish a project." And the two selves - the intellectual artist and the physical being who inhabited that work for years, met, shook hands, and agreed to an amicable breakup.
The best way to describe the sensation to someone who isn't involved in a creative endeavor his way, is something similar to that old party trick where if you have someone push against a wall for a while, then stop and stand up suddenly, you fall over because your body is expecting to meet resistance. I think that my physical reaction is so strong to finishing a body of work because of my tendency as an artist to make work from inside my topic. These projects are interwoven with my personal life. That aside, I'm sure every artist has the post-project blues. My way of coping happens to involve more Dragon Quest than most.
Aside from the sensation for me as the artist of a body of work wrapping up, there is of course the seemingly very difficult artistic decision about what constitutes a finished body of work. That is, what does "completeness" or "finished" mean? How do I know that I have every good photo I could make in a project? Honestly, I know I don't, that's the answer. That I could go on forever making good pieces on any topic. But like in a good conversation, there is a pretty decent sense of when things start to repeat themselves, even if the exact sentences might be different. That the underlaying current has washed the object ashore and is just beating it against the beach's dunes (for someone else to pick up and find, to take an art historical view).
WIth my project oriented and personally involved approach [that is I jump in to a tangled and shadowy world within then construct my work by exploring, cultivating and reporting on the ways the various threads of my topics interact, and respond to my prodding] I feel a bit lucky — the boundaries of a project tend to define themselves as a go along. The Japonsime is a very clear example of this tendency. I started as totally nerdy fan, but interposed the camera when I stared having glimpses of self-awareness. By the time the project was finishing up, it became ever clearer that in many ways I was making a project about the way that being self-critical in a closed social group has an inevitable trajectory. Which is outward. So the project's stopping point was when I wasn't identifying as an anime fan anymore.
The same story happened with Flaneur. As some of you may remember the rather unfortunate working title I used was the "SM Blues" — It was a project started when my first long-term relationship began to become tumultuous and I started to question the idea of "home" and how I was situated physically in the world by the marks of stories, like mine, that went on all around. The project, fittingly enough came to an end a few years later when I broke up with that woman and moved to another part of the city.
It's not that the end point is when I'm physically incapable of continuing the project. I could still go to conventions to this day. I could go back to Santa Monica easily. I could still shoot the style of works that I used for both. But because my work is kind of "meta-", that is my work is really about the modularity of how we perceive things, not some concrete statement about the thing itself, the way that the projects become self-structured, the embedded flow of ideas naturally leads to having the meeting of a closure in my relationship with my broader subject being the most elegant place to stop telling the story I'm telling. It's the point that is like a singularity of the work — the defining place of gravity where everything collides before expanding again.
Sure, I could go on and on and on expanding and colliding on a single topic, but that velocity is implied in the work, and I would much rather give the work the freedom to resonate and my viewers the freedom to ponder the results than write a million sequels and prequels. My work isn't about knowing, it's about coming to a more intimate knowledge of the history, quirks and personal ways that we know things.
[Please Note: This is a working draft so I'd love any feedback you might have!]