Emergence Phenomena

Published in Bianco e Nero, a quadrimestral periodical created by the Center for Exerimental Cinema, Carocci Editore, Rome

In a flock of starlings, the behavior of the flock emerges from the desire of the individual birds to avoid collisions while staying close to neighbors. …(and) termites respond to very local chemical cues left behind by other termites and to temperature/humidity and airflow cues that are affected by the shape of the nest, wind currents, the amount of heat generated within the nest and other local phenomena. The termite’s behavior affects the shape of the nest and the shape of the nest affects the termite’s behavior. In that sense, the nest is a bit like a flock of starlings in very slow motion.

In even slower motion: A bi-cultural family moves from country to country and finds its identity in its close, interdependent, relationships and family culture of making, and the mutual positive feedback gives rise to an artist. Then I, artist, start a family, and my behaviour, in turn, affects the home, and the home affects my behaviour. I put intentionality into this dynamic and in doing so make art. Objects, videos, texts, performances track the changes. This would be one way to sum up my life up to now.

Most everything that happens to us depends on constellations of variables working together to create possibilities, experiences, reactions. Society and culture is always governed by hidden powers that are mostly unclear to us. Every emergent phenomenon is a play between these powers, our free will, and accident. My work, as an artist, has come to depend on manageing, when and where possible, the conditions of the everyday within my home and during my residencies abroad so that they galvanize the creation of art-works, art-environments and art- experiences that converge as a very personal version of a total work of art.

As it is with most young children, my early school-age drawings were all family, nature, and home, the center of life. During my adolescent years I drew bodies and faces. Through my twenties my work took a theoretical turn influenced by the NY artworld, my architectural studies, and the heady post-deconstructivist/ feminist readings. In my thirties I moved to Italy, and the work veered towards the family album, theorizing the photograph, and an increasing interest in domestic life brought about by having chidren. This evolved into rejoining my world view as a child. This view has been mediated, in large part, by the family snapshot.

We know from Barthes that a single, unremarkable family snapshot, for an individual invested in it, can rival the power of any great photographic artwork. For Barthes, it was a picture of his mother as a young girl. When I find a snaphot that moves me I like to live with it for a time and then I will cut it out, or melt away its emulsion, or shred it, or film it, or turn it into sculpture. I invariably make portraits of the people I care about. They are also, invariably, acts of devotion. So you might describe my entire, mature oeuvre as an expanded family photo album with works hanging in a living room here, a bedroom there, a museum vault somewhere else, a gallery, a restaurant, a town hall. I am a mother who has taken her family album and allowed her imagination to run with it.

Using the album, and later other materials, I have explored the complexities of the snapshot, but more fundementally, I have tried to draw biological creation and artistic creation into one another, elaborate domestic life, nurture relationships, and manage the emotional turmoil that seeps into the everyday. Some, or all of these themes, have been explored by Louise Bourgeois, Sally Mann, Meirle Laderman Ukeles, and Lygia Clark, each of who, like me, had three children. While Clark found her language in spite of her children, whom she neglected to do her work, Ukeles and Mann found their most powerful voices through their motherhood. Mann worked directly with her children. This, and her lucid understanding of how intimately motherhood, life, and death are intertwined, are why she has an important place within my family of influences.

My feeling about Mann is that when she made her Immediate Family work she lived a kind of ecstatic wholeness because she was so exquisitely, so consummately fusing her art-making and maternity. It was a period of true grace within her oeuvre. Carrying and having a child is really a transcendental experience that no artwork can ever hope to come close to. Second to that, perhaps, is taking part in a child’s growing up. Before Immediate Family, I am guessing that she may have felt the incompleteness of going back to making images after such trasformative experiences. My own return to the studio felt like taking a step away from the heart of life, away from the truly consequential creation taking place at home. The problem is, what mother wants to be just a selfless caretaker ? What woman really wants to be second to her child ? Who really wants to succumb to the myriad social pressures that determine “good” mothering? Like Mann, I saw that I had no choice but to reject the determinism of vulnerable childhood and the norms of good parenting and assume that I could handle the challenge of working with family and expect my children to be resilient and capable of handling me as mother and subject.

Louise Bourgeois struggled endlessly with feelings of having let down her children. We know this from writings and interviews. She battled during the years she raised them with bouts of guilt, anxiety and insomnia as she tried to balance her responsibilities. She wrote about believing she had failed them. She also credits these years as having been crucial to her maturation as an artist. She continued to work intermittently at home but kept her distance from the art scene. She only managed to throw herself into her work once her children had left home, but human interaction remained her overriding obsession. An idea that emerges and reemerges in her work is the toi et moi. “life is not worth living if you only talk about Moi. Life is in terms of others… To live alone…isn’t worth it.” It could have been me saying this.

Meirle Laderman Ukeles examined motherhood through a different lens. Finding herself suddenly at the mercy of an infant and a home helped her comprehend the political ramifications of maintenance work that she outlines so grippingly in her Manitenance Art Manifesto of 1969, where she links domestic work to all menial, hidden, unrecognized laborors working at the service of the transcendental structures of power. Ukeles thought on a very large scale, and child-care became a metaphor for how invisible thousands are responsible for keeping NYC clean. She has created numerous performative pieces involving the NYC Sanitation Department and is their permanent artist in residence. Her understanding of transcendence, echoing Simone de Beauvoir’s distinction between imminence (the historically passive domain of women) and transcendence (the historically active, creative, powerful domain of men) helped me understand that my entire ouevre is an effort to resist the circumscribed, repetitive, prison of women’s work, and seek out transcendence in domestic labor.

Motherhood and the materials of domestic life were the malleable substances I had to work with in addition to the family album. Cleaning fluids, silver polish, vinegar, alcohol, bleach, for example, became the materials with which I cleaned away photographic emulsion in my pieces. Most gifts to family and friends emerged from the studio. My son’s 10th birthday present was Zoo, age 10, a large video installation elaborating 10 years of my archive of snapshots. The rich metaphorical potential of breadmaking inspired a number of pieces. Kneading bread led to kneading clay. Sewing socks led to sewing tapestry and othe fabric pieces. Everyday cooking and art-making flowed into a series of performative dinners I staged at home. Bowls of fruit and flowers appear and reappear in my work. Domestic emboidery was transcribed as cut-outs. I handle the gallery and my home as continguous spaces. Domestic life flows into artwork that, in turn, flows back into home.

When the children grew older they were no longer just active observers, they became active participants who had a say in how and where we would work together on a piece. They have also performed at openings. The performances served to bring our mother/child dynamics directly into the gallery. For my performance D/Innertime, for example, all three children performed together. I asked them to wear images of me that I had printed onto fabric and to speak with visitors about my work as though they were me, trying to imagine/remember/invent how I might answer. I asked them to periodically interrupt the dialogue and speak only to one another about what to make for dinner, finally deciding on leek soup, the alternative, as Marguerite Duras writes in La soupe aux poireaux (1976), to suicide: “Dans les maisons son odeur se répand très vite, très fort, vulgaire comme le manger du pauvre, le travail du fmmes, le coucher des betes, le vomi des nouveux nés. On peut ne vouloir rien faire et oui, faire ca, oui, cette soupe-là: entre deux vouloirs, une marge très étroite, toujours la meme: suicide.”

My control over prolonged experiences and processes of attention and creation really become most focused when I take the children, one at a time, on our month-long, residencies abroad. This begins when they turn twelve. I take advantage of affordable international art residencies to house us and help us find master craftsmen to work with. I gear the projects to address something I have determined interesting or useful, using the opportunity to truly focus our attention on making. In Japan, using photography and performance, we worked on my oldest son’s growing need for independence, while in Malaysia, four years later, we worked on his drawing depth and skills. I took my daughter to India where we worked with a master rafoogar darner, and we repaired and created a large textile while we worked on my daughter’s perception of time and presence. This summer I am taking my youngest to South Africa where we will carve wood. My daughter and I will return to India in the Fall of 2016 to work within the extraordinary Traditional Terracotta Museum at the Sanskriti Foundation and create our own interpretation of some works we find there

These projects allow for gradual discovery and create time for ideas to take form and surface that would not, could not, have taken place otherwise. Our final pieces are slow, spontaneous manifestations that emerge from a number of structured and calculated variables that include the mutual willingness to work and collaborate, the preparedness to be attentive and observant, the feeling of risk, complicity, and adventure in being in a foreign country, the luxury of long stretches of work time, the presence of a dedicated work-space, few outside distractions, the proper conditions for thought and dialogue, and a strong cultural aesthetics of place. The degree of pressure put on these created situations is greater and more specific than those I manage at home, where busy family life can be at odds with truly focused work of this kind, so they are crucial moments of intense self awareness. The resulting artworks are largely emanations that trace the movement of these experiences through time.

More often than I would like, though, my work is not always visible, but carried out alone, by me and for me, when I am doing necessary domestic activities like cooking or cleaning. I will do it with a self-conscious attentiveness that is akin to performance, and I often think of Allan Kaprow words when reflecting on intentionally peforming everyday life: ”Such consciousness about what we do and feel each day, its relation to others’ experience and to nature around us, becomes in a real way the performance of living. And the very process of paying attention to this continuum is poised on the threshold of art performance.” I was 16 years old when he wrote this in 1979, unaware that around me artists were laying the groundwork from which my own phenomena, so many years and cues later, would gradually emerge.

La soupe aux poireaux (1976). D’abord publié dans la revue Sorcières, ISSN 0339-0705, no. 1, La nourriture (janvier 1976), puis dans le recueil Outside (P.O.L., 1984)

Allan Kaprow, Participation Performance, Essays on The Blurring of Art and Life, page 196.