The Question of Light: Tilda Swinton’s speech at the Rothko Chapel

27 Jan

tildaBelow is the only place to read Tilda Swinton’s moving and radiant speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas.  

Why do I have it?  A brief explanation.

Last year, actress Tilda Swinton was presented with the Rothko Chapel Visionary Award at the The Rothko Chapel, which is home to fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  It’s also a spiritual and human rights center whose mission is “to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”

One of her friends (writer William Middleton, mentioned in the unabridged version of the speech) sent the speech along to me and my boyfriend.  We read it aloud to each other, we paused, we marveled at the wisdom: art and light and compassion.  Then we read it again, inspired by its unfolding grace.  

When I tried to locate a link to the speech online, it was nowhere to be found.  I found photos of the event, the celebrities there, the gowns and the expressions.  But Swinton’s words, like many of the most beautiful words, were spoken, alive in the world, and then invisible again.

Below is Tilda Swinton’s speech.  The original version begins with words of gratitude,

“I had a dream last night that my brother told my father why I am here tonight and my father misheard the name of your most generous prize and declared those who honour me highly perceptive to be recognising me with a Contrary Award. I am sincerely humbled by any honour you do me.”

For the purposes of offering it to an audience not in the Chapel that evening, I’ve edited it slightly, removing parts that are directly referential to the event. The integrity of the speech remains, and it is an illumination.

***

“Discovering the landscape of a world inhabited by artists has been one of the miracles of my life.

I was brought up in a world where art was something owned and insured – usually inherited: but seldom if ever made by anyone I knew.

I had an early inkling that there was fun to be had over the hill, like the feeling when faced with a sunset that someone’s throwing a mega awesome party just beyond the nearest cloud, and I set off to join the caravan. Let’s just say I was in search of company, headed towards the glow, and I found it.

I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.

Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that we have souls in the first place.

We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!

It occurs to me on a regular basis that the cinema carries the potential to be perhaps the most humane of all gestures in art: the invitation to place ourselves, under the intimate cover of darkness, into another person’s shoes, behind another set of eyes, into another’s consciousness.  The ultimate compassion machine, the empathy engine.

Here is the darkness.

Here comes the light.

No8

– Rothko, Mark. No. 8. 1952. Private Collection.

When my children were ten, they came back from school elated one day to tell us they had started the supremely grown-up business of learning science.

When we asked them about their first lesson, they proudly announced they were addressing the study of light.

When we pressed them to describe how their teacher had approached the topic, with the bemusement of those genuinely unaware that there could ever be any other way, they told us that she had closed all the shutters and that they had sat in the dark for an hour.

Where I live in the far north of Scotland, the question of light is an axis central to every season, to every day.  In the topmost branches of June, the skies turn navy blue just before midnight and hover there until about 3:00 when the sun comes blooming up again.

At the turn of the year, on the other hand, a long lunch folds itself into the evening before you know it, and then into night-night blackness until way after the school bell in the morning.

A fisherman I know from a nearby village told me one day that he and his brothers had long ago pulled up a massive turtle, far from its tropical home, onto the deck of their boat in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland.  He described how it lay there, unfathomably exotic and helpless amongst the mackerel, and that he would never forget their discussion about its fate.

‘What is it? No idea. Let’s kill it.’ Which they did. He said he had never regretted anything so much in his life, that he knew something failed in them at that moment.

We know what threatens our humanity the most; we shouldn’t need reminding.

The capacity to project our own shadow onto others, to edit our understanding of our own frailty, to hold it at bay, to play tag with our vulnerabilities.  You’re It, don’t touch me.  Our attachment to an idea of malevolent foreignness, of malign darkness: this is our Kryptonite… we know this well.

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Over the weeks that my mother was dying, the year before last, I went out into the nights and trained my eyes to see in the dark.
It provided a particular kind of comfort undiscovered anywhere else at that time.  By then I had sat in the Chapel and the serene witness of Rothko’s velvet abyss accompanied me on those nightwalks. The truth is, it’s never been very far away, ever since.

The last feature film my friend Derek Jarman made before died of AIDS in 1994 was Blue.  For many, his masterpiece – an Yves Klein- blue screen and a soundtrack.. a work made just as his sight was leaving him as he became blind.

Maybe most of all great art encourages us, as does this film, as does Rothko, not to stop at opening our eyes, but to go on to close them, as well.  To go to what we know deepest, earliest and most clearly: that we humans are, in essence, humane, fair, kind.  Gracious. Light-filled. Wise.  And that our darkness is just what it is: an intrinsic and balancing ballast to all that loveliness.

…Perhaps the most radical suggestion we can make about ourselves is not that we are not different. Or even that we are. But that we are both.

I remember a very specific moment in my children’s development, around the age of seven, when the power of reason became the happening thing, as in, ‘ No I can’t climb up a tree with you now because this dinner needs cooking…etc?’’

Along with this magical property came the anthem that still rules in our household to this day, the mantra of it can be both.

‘Would I like the chocolate eclair or the fairy cake? Do I want to play with my Lego all night or, as it happens, go to sleep because I’m super tired?… Do I like my twin brother /sister or – could it be – that I really really hate him/her?”

…Light and Dark both at once.

Welcome to the age of reason, welcome to life.

…Wherever you are alone with yourself most will show in that magic mirror.  And bear your heart witness, and keep you company whenever you need to draw on it.

We come. We take it home with us. We never really leave.

The Rothko Chapel is a sacred space because of precisely this capacity it has to re-bind, to re-balance, to re-store, to re-inspire the spirit in its simple and essential gesture of darkness held in light. Of art held in spirit. Of spirit held in life and the living of life. It is a truly humane space for humans to find themselves in.

Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’

The Rothko Chapel is glamorous beyond any glamour known to any Highland witch. It is a light that never goes out.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness of your invitation.

And for the inspiration of your fellowship.”

– Tilda Swinton, 2014.

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photograph by Lucy Gray

(UPDATE 2/12/15 – Rothko Chapel got word of the enormous response to this post and has put the speech up on their website.  There’s also a beautiful photo of Swinton speaking.  I’m so happy the speech has found its way back to its original home!)

58 Responses to “The Question of Light: Tilda Swinton’s speech at the Rothko Chapel”

  1. Gil January 27, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

    Rothko is special, as is this speech, as is the work the Connor Habib has done and is doing. Swinton refers to “art held in spirit.” Whether you are in the community of artists as a creator or as a receiver of and responder to the created object or event, you are not alone.”[A]rt is held in spirit” there as well.

  2. Walter Zimmerman January 28, 2015 at 3:10 am #

    Thank you. I especially enjoyed learning that ‘glamour’ — one of my favorite words — has its linguistic roots in Scotland, from whence came many of my forebears. And as an artist, it is also gratifying to hear encouraging words about works that viewers may not find overtly lovely at first glance — but which, with a little patience, will reveal more about what we have in common, than what makes us different from each other. Thanks again.

  3. A.B. Gayle January 29, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Thanks for saving and sharing this. Many things to think about. I especially liked the concept of both. Not from a concept of greed, but from a willingness to embrace other possibilities.

  4. Red Pill Junkie January 30, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Wow. Such powerful words. Thanks for sharing🙂

    I like that “both/and” attitude toward Art. It’s the same approach I use re. the UFO phenomenon, instead of the boring “either/of” position of true believers and debunkers😉

    • Conner Habib January 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

      Thanks for reading – and yes! Both.

      • lucygrayphotography February 10, 2015 at 6:17 pm #

        I am extremely flattered that you used a picture of mine – the last one here – of Tilda images I took projected on San Francisco City Hall in 2007. I would be even happier if you would credit me, Lucy Gray. Thank you.

      • Conner Habib February 10, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

        Done!

  5. heronstar February 5, 2015 at 1:29 pm #

    Reblogged this on artimated and commented:
    I thought this was worth sharing

  6. susanheney February 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm #

    Reblogged this on shensea and commented:
    Tilda Swinton on Light, 2014

  7. JoLynne February 7, 2015 at 6:39 pm #

    Beautiful reflection!

  8. deborahsdharma February 8, 2015 at 12:17 am #

    Reblogged this on Deborahsdharma's Blog.

  9. Michelle L. Sedlmayr February 8, 2015 at 12:21 am #

    Love this, thank you so much

  10. carpetbomberz February 8, 2015 at 4:43 am #

    Reblogged this on Carpet Bomberz Inc. and commented:
    I have said before, and I still feel it’s true, Tilda Swinton is a time traveler visiting from the future. This speech is further testament to my magical thoughts.

  11. kathleenwise February 8, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

    Reblogged this on Kathleen Wise.

  12. Maggi Brown February 8, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    Fantastic!

  13. Dr Lisa February 8, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    Discovering the landscape inhabited by artists has been the miracle of my life…. Truly… Art..Brings soul to life, gives hope and confidence to weather the traumatic, profane, and mediocre..without the sensitivity of art, life is a wasteland.
    Thank you for giving us this opportunity to take in these words.

  14. Jocelyn Parr February 8, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Histories of Dreams and Catastrophe and commented:
    In Montreal we have not so much darkness as light. The light of the snow, the light of a clear blue sky, the light of the city reflected in the sky even as darkness tries to edge its way in. Tilda Swinton’s speech about the Rothko Chapel in Texas is worth a read. It’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to go down there!

  15. Blankbook19 February 8, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on A Blankbook with Information and commented:
    Shared by #amandapalmer Discuss #Theartofasking tonight at 7pm eastern #clergy #Nonprofit #stewarship

  16. mizzpaw February 8, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on Writer's Notes on prose/poetry and metafiction excerpts and commented:
    “Great art has the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair…”

  17. dkatiepowellart February 8, 2015 at 9:46 pm #

    Reblogged this on D.Katie Powell Art and commented:
    Amazing.
    “We come. We take it home with us. We never really leave.

    The Rothko Chapel is a sacred space because of precisely this capacity it has to re-bind, to re-balance, to re-store, to re-inspire the spirit in its simple and essential gesture of darkness held in light. Of art held in spirit. Of spirit held in life and the living of life. It is a truly humane space for humans to find themselves in.
    Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’
    The Rothko Chapel is glamorous beyond any glamour known to any Highland witch. It is a light that never goes out.”

  18. dkatiepowellart February 8, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

    Thank you so much. He is a beloved artist.

  19. catherinewinther February 8, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

    Reblogged this on catherinewinther and commented:
    Please, take the time to read this. This, for me, explains my understanding of art. “I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.”

  20. Robin Dalton February 9, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on dreamer girl and commented:
    Stunning. Inspirational. Beautiful post.

  21. emotionalarcheology February 9, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    Reblogged this on emotionalarcheology and commented:
    A deeply thoughtful reflection on the duality that exists in all of us. As an Art Therapist, and someone who leans more toward Carl Jung’s theories, I see the Shadow and work with the Shadow on a regular basis. What we dislike in others is probably what we dislike in ourselves. What we admire in others is likely what we recognize resides in us. Swinton’s words are beautifully composed while they ponder the duality. Light and Dark. Good and Evil. Glamorous Magic. Inspiring thoughts.

  22. MaryScott Hagle February 9, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    I am so thrilled to be able to read this speech, and hear it again in my mind! I was at the Rothko Chapel event, and her talk was indeed magical. I kept thinking how happy I was that the Chapel was recording it and that others would get to hear it — only to find out later that no such recording was made. Now, at least, her words are public at last. Thank you so much.

  23. mythinkbooks February 9, 2015 at 2:11 pm #

    This is brilliant. Thank you for this!! I’m a writing instructor at our local college & have been struggling with what is essentially a ban on fiction in freshmen composition classes. It kills me because it essentially removes art & a discussion of art from the classroom. Thus far I only managed to find one article that addresses the problems with this– and strangely enough it was, like this, the text of a speech given at an event, the text that would have been lost if it hadn’t been posted. It was Neil Gaiman’s speech to a fundraiser for UK libraries the year before last. Swinton’s speech says the same thing from a different perspective, but one that I think would be a brilliant addendum to the Gaiman piece & is a teachable moment. Especially in light of what she says about “our Kryptonite.” The class I teach is themed on how we in society create monsters because of our fear. THANK YOU! ~Jessica

  24. Earl W. Lehman February 9, 2015 at 11:01 pm #

    Oh my how beautiful.

    • João Paulo Simões February 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm #

      Incredible words from a luminous human being.
      Thank you for making this available.
      I read it at the right time in my life, as well.
      As a filmmaker who’s often delved into the dark matter of the human soul.
      And as a son whose father’s dark-tinted life is coming to an end – heading towards the light…

  25. blairblog1 February 10, 2015 at 2:59 am #

    Reblogged this on blairblog1- pastoral reflections and commented:
    thoughtful and bright…

  26. Jane Wilson February 10, 2015 at 9:38 am #

    Reblogged this on Jane Wilson.

  27. ozgeburcaka February 10, 2015 at 5:03 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  28. Joanna Bates February 10, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

    With the tsunami of words and information that mean so little and assuage us at every turn, it is a magical thing to read this transcript of Tilda Swinton at Rothko Chapel. May we all seek and encounter ‘dangerous magic’ and welcome the spirit of possiblility that art kindles in us. I am truly grateful to have been made aware of this. Thank you.

  29. Edmund Siderius February 10, 2015 at 9:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Starry Messenger.

  30. Svati February 11, 2015 at 12:29 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. A rare powerful speech. Missing the highlands now🙂

  31. Manja Mexi Movie February 11, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    “Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’” I’m taking this, and the rest, with me on my way. Thank you.

  32. Running Elk February 11, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on Shamanic Paths and commented:
    Breathtaking simplicity, yet insights beyond reason. If you don’t LOVE this speech, then your money back!😉

  33. leyaevelyn February 11, 2015 at 7:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on Use My Sky.

  34. moonradiance February 12, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    Reblogged this on Widening the Aperture…Metonym of a Metamorph.

  35. Michelle February 20, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    Thank you for posting this. So many more were meant to be exposed to her words than were at the Chapel that day.

  36. Heather Maria Photography February 23, 2015 at 11:14 pm #

    Reblogged this on Heather Maria Photography and commented:
    “I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.
    Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that we have souls in the first place.
    We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it”

  37. Kitty Schneider March 2, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    Reblogged this on The Garlic House artist studio and guest house.

  38. Janice C March 2, 2015 at 11:37 pm #

    Excellent and sweetly rendered truths a, well turned lofty basic rules for living well.

  39. Ayodele Nzinga, MFA, PhD March 21, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on A.Nzinga's Blog and commented:
    There are places where souls meet — beyond the borders of race, gender, age, or any other label that separates light from light. There are things the soul knows, things the heart overstands, places where we are almost divine in our touching of life –may we become the light we seek. There is something beyond or both … maybe neither…a third path, perhaps there are infinite paths and what we need is the light to find them.

  40. Keith Seward June 5, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    Such a beautiful piece. Thank you so much for posting it.

  41. suzannemasksglobal July 17, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    I visited the chapel many years ago and found the paintings dark and even felt it presaged Rotho’s suiicide. At the same time, the stillness was formidable.

  42. Jennifer Skutelsky July 24, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Reblogged this on Musings Of Orientation and commented:
    A beautiful speech by Tilda Swinton on THE QUESTION OF LIGHT. I’m grateful someone kept a record.

  43. stillsoulbird February 10, 2016 at 12:25 am #

    Reblogged this on brightessenceblog.

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