Colours on Cardboard.

For Juan Arellano, the days merged into one another. Too weak to sit or stand, he lay in a hospital bed for weeks, waiting, even longing, for death. Unable to eat or hold a conversation, he witnessed the overshadowing of the surrounding world and its colours by the unceasing presence and intensity of pain that had become his own world. Juan’s reality was untied from reason and language, and neither medicine nor his severely weakened body formed a basis on which to build hope, meaning, or action. His existence became unstructured by pain, and the only things that unified his consciousness or held his world together were his ever present desire for the pain to cease and his futile attempts to fight it. In her poem “Pain Has an Element of Blank” Emily Dickinson, trying to describe the unceasing continuity and presence of pain, wrote that pain “cannot
recollect when it began” and “has no future but itself,” while Drew Leder (1990) asserts that pain possesses a distinct episodic temporality. These are less epistemological contradictions than reflections of the difficulty of depicting how one experiences time while in pain and an acknowledgment that severe pain is based not on duration but on endurance. For Juan, pain revealed the hidden viscosity of time. The awful paradox was that since his diagnosis, time had unrelentingly passed and brought him closer to death, but now time was static and no longer flowed. He willed for time to pass, willed for oblivion and the annihilation of death to bring his pain to an end. Accordingly, what Juan desired most intensely was the negation of consciousness and through it the absence of pain. For one in severe pain, it is difficult to imagine what it feels like not to be in pain, confirming that the imagination is a bodily property rather than an aspect of a disembodied mind. Here desire and imagination become radically discontinuous insofar as “pain-consciousness is a project toward a further consciousness which would be empty of all pain; that is, to a consciousness whose contexture, whose being there would not be painful” (Sartre 1996: 333).

After Juan had spent nearly six months in the hospital, his pain gave way to weakness and exhaustion, and the world slowly came back into view. He ventured out, picked up a piece of cardboard, and smothered it in colour. Thus the first painting he created after the months of extreme pain had abated was of simple, broad brushstrokes of various colours on rough cardboard, the first surface at hand. From all the colours he could find, he painted the reddest of red and the yellowest of yellow, going through whole tubes of paint. He was filled with the simple joy of there being such a thing as colour in the world, the blueness of blue, the redness of red, and the yellowness of yellow, for while these colours already existed, they were now no longer overshadowed by pain

2 Juan Colours on Cardboard

Juan remained too weak to return to work. Trained as an architect in his native Colombia, he decided to fill his world with color and die as a painter. Painting consumed all his energy. He worked intensely, each painting taking him three or four hours.

3 Juan Painting

His illness returned, and Juan found himself back in the hospital, preparing for death once more, too weak to paint and having to have his diapers changed by his sister. He was able only to hold a piece of charcoal and make small sketches, his world reduced to white paper, black charcoal, and grey smudge

4 Juan DrawingOne’s perception of colour is, before all else, a way of being-in-theworld. By the summer of 2000 Juan’s health had stabilized, thanks to antiretroviral medications, and he began painting again. He put on weight and regained his bodily integrity and his future. Thus he now took a whole month on each painting, rather than just three hours. Through Juan’s drawings and paintings we can trac not only an undulating trajectory and experience of time and space but also the waxing and waning horizons of his world as encountered through his changing body.

Inner Dialogue on 13th St and 7th Avenue

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