The Art of Tidying Up

As the New Year approaches, like many people, I have an urge to go through old boxes of non-descript “stuff” and transfer their contents to rubbish/ recycling bags; tick off all the remaining tasks on my to-do list, sort out whatever there is to be sorted, and make plans for the next year.

End-of-year clearing immediately makes me think of Ursus Wehrli, a Swiss comedian and artist, known for his crusade to “tidy up” famous works of art, playing a little on the stereotype of the Swiss being exceptionally organized and orderly. In a very funny TED talk, he explains the process, and his reasoning: “It’s a hobby of mine that I’ve been indulging in for the last few years,” which started out with a picture by Donald Baechler he had hanging at home. “I had to look at it every day and after a while I just could’t stand the mess this guy [the character on the painting] was looking at all day long.”

In a tongue-in-cheek introduction to Wehrli’s book by Albrecht Gotz von Olenhusen, we read that the process, which “orders art into the state of peaceful repose which achieves a natural, divine order,” had actually been patented at the official patent office for intellectual property in Bern (patent number 410566.) The process involves sorting the original and altered segments of, let’s say, a painting, according to colour, shape, surface and other potential criteria. In the case of Van Gogh’s painting, the objects are simply transferred underneath and on top of the bed, but tidying up Jackson Pollock’s “spaghetti” painting means putting the different colour paints back into the tubes. Seurat’s pointillist painting Models gets tidied up by collecting different colour dots into a plastic bag. Von Olenhausen compares Wehrli to Hegel who praised authenticity and simplicity, and in his book Lectures on Aesthetics criticised “chaos created by chance, stunted by the immediacy of the senses and the caprice of conditions, circumstances and characters etc.”

There is something deeply satisfying and uplifting about conquering chaos and regaining one’s focus and a clear sense of direction. This often begins with physical tidying things up. I am lucky to be living in a studio flat which compels me to maintain the discipline of processing documents, bills, letters etc. on a regular basis to avoid having piles of paper growing around me in this limited space. A year ago, I introduced to my life a time and workspace management system from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. I got myself a ruled notebook for daily tasks, two bamboo in-trays for stuff coming in, a cardboard box for files (Flat, Health, Computer, HMRC, etc.), and I devised a method that helped me move planned tasks and projects out of my mind by recording them externally and then breaking them into actionable work items. Of course, Allen’s original system is massively complex, I have merely taken the elements which work for me, but even with those few subtle improvements, my life seems to have become a lot more organized. Most importantly though, my mind has now a lot more space to think about creative things as opposed to “There was something I was meaning to do…”, “Oh no, that deadline is actually TOMORROW!” or “What, we have no more toothpaste?! I need to run and get it before the shop closes!” I appreciate the fact that not everyone enjoys having fixed systems, some people might feel stifled by rigorous ways of doing things, but for me, a self-employed artist working on different projects for other people and myself, this sort of discipline is crucial. Of course, I am very far from being perfect, and can get distracted by sudden ideas, “unprocessed” tasks, or pictures of cute cats on the internet which is why I am no stranger to URL blocks such as Google Chrome Nanny.

So last year at this point, I was creating a practical system of keeping both mundane tasks and creative projects under control and in an organized manner, whereas this year I want to go one step further and get better at prioritizing and focusing on one thing at a time only. Besides that, I want to keep my head free from unnecessary noise, and by “noise” I mean various internet-induced stimuli such as news, articles, videos, and images which I am capable of devouring right up until my bedtime. Staying “tuned” like that is an effective way to then spend an hour tossing and turning in bed, trying to shush the chaos of galloping thoughts. I have recently made a start, when my boyfriend Colin introduced a “10pm internet curfew”, and the New Year’s resolution is to abide.

What I am planning to do before bedtime instead of surfing (or rather, mindlessly drifting) on the web, is to have an old-fashioned game of puzzle or pick-a-stick. The inspiration came from this year’s Christmas gathering in Norfolk, where several people engaged in a 1000-piece Where’s Wally puzzle, spending hours to recreate this extremely busy and detailed image.

Solving a particularly difficult jigsaw puzzle is a great way to take one’s mind off “stuff.” And there are some beautiful sets of jigsaw puzzles with reproductions of famous works of art. Some of my favourite ones are based on exquisite woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints by Dutch graphic artist, M. C. Escher. His works often depict impossible architectural constructions with a trompe de l’oeil effect of translating a two dimensional image to a false three dimensional interpretation, like Waterfall and Relativity (below.)

Passionate about mathematics and geometry, Escher said: “I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even though that is how it sometimes appears.” For further reading, I recommend an essay about his life and work, The Strange Worlds of M C Escher. And speaking of order, below is an image of a finished puzzle by Hiroaki Maeda, from his Flickr page.

I think there is something very powerful about a systematised work and living space, as well as a methodical approach to getting things done throughout the day. Even Francis Bacon, my artistic hero, led a very organised life, with dedicated time and space for work and (lots of) pleasure. But in order to avoid sounding a little dry on the day when everyone’s in a New Year’s Eve party spirit, I will end with another charming image from Ursus Wehrli’s book — Kandinsky’s Sky Blue.