1. The Object as Witness and Holder of Memory
One of my most cherished pieces of writing is a much leafed through photocopy I made many years ago of an essay in a book I cataloged at the library. I handled thousands of amazing and inspiring art books every year, some of which had me transfixed, while others passed through my hands in a more or less efficient manner. This was a monograph on the photographer, J. John Priola (Once Removed: Portraits by J. John Priola). I’d not seen a book about his work before, nor since. The photographs were beautiful, rich and rather formal portraits of simple, every-day objects….laden with meaning. The essay by Rebecca Solnit, (a writer many of whose books I’ve since read, all recommended) was titled, “The Color of Shadows, The Weight of Breath, the Sound of Dust”….now what does that tell you? The title alone took my breath away. As an artist whose work was so much about the layering time and history and holding onto memory, I read the essay once and then again more slowly, so powerful was it and so beautifully written. I have held it close to my heart ever since. Of course many ideas are touched on in such an essay, much of which addressed the artist’s work directly, but there were a couple of ideas there that struck a chord and gave a voice and language to my nameless longing.
One is that the objects that surround us, which we hold dear, are witnesses to the lives that unfold before them and not only that, but their lives of course, may go on long after ours, so fleeting are our days. And also, there is the notion of the souvenir, which we collect as a kind of mnemonic device to hold onto memory. She quotes Susan Stewart, whose book On Longing, is also in my collection, Says Stewart, “this capacity of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience is, in fact, exemplified by the souvenir. The souvenir distinguishes experiences. We do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs…of events whose materiality has escaped us….”
A couple of short quotes from the essay by Rebecca Solnit:
“We part with so many objects in life, from thrown-out letters and fingernail clippings to lost keys and stolen camera, like Hansel’s and Gretel’s leaving intentional and unintentional trails behinds us, trails eaten by time and others as their crumbs were by the wild birds so that we cannot find our way back, either to who we were or to the objects that accompanied that moment in time.”
“There is a tragedy in every shift of wind. Time is tragedy itself; it promises that what is, won’t be, and that we will find some things to be false and some to be irrecoverable.”
There is so much to say about each of these ideas, but I’ll just relate my own experiences. I was making work at that time very much about the way that holding onto anything, time, memory…seemed impossible, slipping through our ever clenching fingers like fine sand. Below are a couple of images, actually both among the few larger framed works available at Missouri Bend Studio. The vessels in each, holders of history and of memory, but the “every” man or woman in each scatters the memory of their history behind them, even as in the case of the woman in the lower piece, as it spills from the bowl despite her effort to hold on.
|Material Witness, Scattered Memory, mixed media on handmade paper, 11x15"|
|Vessel of Lost Memory, mixed media on handmade paper, 11x15"|
These ideas about the object as carrier and holder of memory helped me to understand why it is I am unable to follow along merrily with others who might want to go antiquing and thrift store shopping. I admire all those amazing vintage finds that others bring home, but when I go to an antique store I immediately feel oppressed. I think I feel the weight of all that history, those lives and memories embedded in the cast off bits of the material world. I still feel like an outcast myself, not knowing how to join in the fun, but at least now I understand why for me, it is not the thrill of the hunt but, in Rebecca Solnit's words, the weight of dust.
3. That Old Table
A week or so ago, maybe about the time I was looking for a suitable location for the portrait for my dear stick, I looked over in the corner of the gallery area in our house, at the stuck-in-the corner-nearly-invisible little white side table and realized it was my perfect setting. I have two of these tables, one in each corner, and they're usually full of objects, vases or small ceramics, as a way to take attention away from their own uncared for appearance. Only now, has it come to me that these objects are pretty much my oldest possessions. I got them, still in my 20s, when they were giving away the furniture---bed frames, desk, chairs, from the dorms at Ringling, all of which were by then antiques. The building had, in its former life in the 1930s, been a hotel in Sarasota and I'm pretty sure that furniture had started its life out then. All the derelict metal furniture had been painted white, over and over and over again, so that now the layers were chipping away revealing every possibility of white that could have been used. I said then that I would get them stripped back down to the metal and paint them some fun, bright color. Here they are in my house, after accompanying me in I don’t know how many moves since the 1970s, still untouched, still in the various layers of chipping white paint. We go way back, those tables and I, and it is only now, that I’ve come to see them as anything but ugly eyesores. I’m feeling rather kindly toward those tables and I know they’ve watched me grow up and they’ve been waiting silently for the appreciation which I now given them…the perfect setting for photographing my work! Not to say that one day I won't get around to repainting them....just give me another thirty years.
So taken was I, years ago, with this idea of holding onto memory, that I had an idea of choosing a beautiful bead from the bead store each time there was some special event in my life that I wanted to remember or to acknowledge in some way. I loved beads and I would come to associate a particular bead with a particular event and store my memory there…a mnemonic device. They would each be unique and they would represent the layering of time and history as I built the collection. I kept up the practice for about a year I think, but we let many things lapse in our life and this was one that I gradually stopped doing. For a long time I could look at each bead and instantly recall what it represented, but no longer. Here is my little tray of beautiful beads, now adulterated with other stray beads and objects, tossed carelessly in so many moments without thinking. I suppose I could recall one or two of the events embedded in those beads, but even those would be sketchy. I think this practice was inspired by the lukasa or memory board, a beaded sculptural object used by the Luba people as a way of recounting their collective history. That's another whole fascinating topic, but you can investigate online...lots of information and images abound on the internet…fascinating!
So much more could be said, so much conversation could ensue...so I'd love to hear comments, your ideas and experiences as they relate to memory, objects and holding on to those fleeting moments.
Have a lovely week. It may be a bit before I'm back here, as we travel to see my husband's family for Thanksgiving, but I'll be checking in on all my blog friends as I can! See you soon and thanks so much for stopping by!