Something has to stay

Published in Fisogniomica del Senso, Immagini, Segni, Discorsi by Marina de Paolo, Filippo Fimiani, and Antonella Trotta, Liguori Editore, Napoli

For years my tool has been an x-acto knife n°11 blade. On my cutting table I take pictures apart and put them back together many times in many ways, often cutting out whole sections. The cut-out and forgotten areas define the borders of what remains. I don’t think of the holes as empty space, or negative space, but as bound air. The cutting is controlled and the pieces painstakingly crafted. When I am asked why I chose such a time-consuming medium, one answer has been that being a woman and an artist I need to make labour manifest, to make my work visibile, and to force time to have value.

Yes, I take a knife to images of my family, but the dissection is mostly about the photograph; the time and care I take with the work ameliorate the violence and help the viewer understand the tension between image and medium. Cutting-out and reshaping reconstructs the past and, at the same time, creates a present ex-novo: you can’t access the family in the snapshots, but by focusing on what it means to hold a snapshot I bring about an embodied relationship with the photo in the present. This is best understood by looking at my entire oeuvre and its dialectical relationship of twelve years with the image. I have coaxed snapshots into hybrid forms where they become drawing, sculpture, ceramic, or video. This kneading, pushing, and pulling of the snapshot drags it into the present movement of my life, my album, and into a space of reception beyond the domestic and beyond the reach of the banal snapshot alone.

I am fascinated by this same impulse in other artists. I discovered a stunning example of it as I read Ted Hughes Moortown Diaries. In his 1975 poem Coming down through Somerset, the poet takes home a dead badger he finds in the road. He knows he should get rid of it but he doesn’t. He watches its silence one day, then the next day, too, examining its “stillness,” seeing everything about it, right through its fur, skin, and muscle to its “masterpiece skull.” The poet wonders why he willed this beautiful dead creature into his life, but is clear to the reader that the poem itself is why.

What happens when one makes a conscious decision to observe life with fierce attention, ready to pluck something out of an ordinary day, transform it and use it for self-transformation? Hughes’ decision to pick up the badger began an experiential process conscious of becoming an indelible movement of the mind. He conscientiously willed himself to change the course of what might have been ordinary so that he could receive its gift. I have allowed my photographs—my dead beavers– to draw me in so that I can draw them out of their stillness and they can draw me out of my comfort.

The album project has given me the opportunity to be a mother differently. My mother/artist roles are inseparable. I’m not interested in understanding the everyday but in changing it. The everyday threatens to envelope mothers (housewifes, factory workers, labourors of all kinds) in repetition and unrecognized, undervalued labour. Instead, my project provides a kind of armature and the day’s events cling to it with the intention of becoming something else. Art and responsibility collapse into one. I found that I had the power to focus some of what it means to lovingly record, document, nurture, protect, teach, preserve, and give. I use these occasions to evolve a project that inscribes itself into the world for others to see.

Japanese shigarake pottery gives me another way to think about my work. The shigarake technique drags time into the movement of a life, to make it manifest and to record its process. The quality and humidity of the wood used in the kiln, the placement of the object in the kiln, the firing temperature, the smoke density and the shape of the object are carefully, almost meticulously controlled so that the inevitable accidents during the two weeks of firing give rise to wanted accidents that create an object with a dense though ungraspable presence. This is akin to how I see my whole eouvre evolving over time, slowly building meaning: gradually, patiently; sometimes vulnerable, sometimes strong, sometimes indulgent, at times surprising, always open to experimentation. This is also the way I work with time-based photographs and video. For a video called “Birthday Flowers” I circled a vase of flowers with my camera like a vulture, taking pictures every 1° for a week straight. For “Zoo, Age 10 (a birthday present for Zoo)”, I edited 20,000 family snapshots (grouped into files of 10-50 images) onto video at approx 12 frames a second in such a way that the files randomly reshuffle every 25 minutes. The piece is completed when it has played for 10 years, recreating the 10-year span of my archive. For a video in progress called “Bedroom Inventory” I placed a video camera on a tripod in my youngest children’s room over two years ago with instructions that they could use it only to describe the things in their room. So far we have dozens of hours of material in which the children’s relationship to their things changes over time.  

My new project is a photo-based video called “something has to stay”. It started when I was invited to the Echigo Tsumari region of Japan and decided to take my twelve-year-old son Zoo with me. And of course my camera, too. The trip was fraught, but would we take advantage of it? I said: “Zoo. See that empty, abandoned swimming pool over there? Why don’t you take off your clothes and pretend to swim laps?” He looked at me to see if I was serious, and to his credit, he recognized the opportunity. He took his clothes off and swam and I took pictures. 

We found ourselves smitten by the project. Performing the surrounding foreign landscape made it ours. Photographing it made it more than ours. These other versions of the landscape now belonged to us, to our memories, our experiences, because performing it brought it closer. Involving our bodies in a conscious, probing, searching way, made the difference. The inevitably polite distance we felt while sightseeing was transformed into a willed intimacy. Each place was ours to build a relationship with and we debated endlessly about where place an action, what that action should be, how that action should begin and how it should end.

The camera, too, had some say in what happened. It would allow us repeated bursts of 30 continuous shots, involving a 4-5 second pause between bursts, or it allowed Zoo uninterrupted action while I shot at an even pace every half-second. How I handled the camera was determined by the expected action and duration of that action as well as by the sense of continuity and rythm that this predetermined for the performance and video. As we worked (played?) I knew it was a process that would continue later, in my studio. When we returned to Milano and I edited the photos onto video, I was surprised to discover that what had been best captured by the photographs was the connection between Zoo and me while he performed for the camera and, it was now clear, for me. Once again, notwithstanding the structure and neutrality of Zoo’s actions, when I saw the shots in my studio it was clear that they were a mother’s photographs of her son.

Looking back on the experience, I see that Zoo and I molded our trip like clay into a shape and then let it caramelize like a glaze, guiding our accidents like a Japanese potter, into a layering over time, a visual becoming. Taking the beaver home and watching it for days, attending to the slow-firing of a pot, performing the landscape, all raise the stakes on the moment, create opportunities, and set into motion actions whose effects we cannot control, whose effects we must voluntarily abandon to chance when the time is right, letting mind and matter yield to events unfolding as they will (akin to raising a child who then goes and lives his/her life). The traces of this unfolding deposit and settle over time where they may again be gathered up and organized, perhaps on a shelf, perhaps in a poem, to be noticed or read in yet another moment of chance—in whatever way the viewer (whomever s/he may be) will recreate it inside him/herself.

Zoo and I went back to Niigata in January 2009. The deep snow and constant rain made shooting much more difficult.  Weighed down by our backpacks we walked in snow-shoes through an old forest whose edge was undercut by erosion leaving gaping holes and exposed roots, as though a section had been cut through the forest floor. It was a good place for Zoo to lie down and pretend he was dead. Zoo didn’t want to do this because he was scared of the insects in the cracks in the forest floor. A battle ensued and finally, after bribing him with food, he lay down in a hole near some large roots. He wouldn’t lie flat on his back for fear of insects crawling on him. In the pouring rain I claimed his gaze while he held his position for the camera, swearing and bellowing whenever I paused to wipe off the camera lens—about the insects, the mud, the cold, the time, his hunger.

I have edited these photos and the result is a 41-second video. Zoo is a slowly moving part of thae underground landscape beneath the forest floor. He is clearly uncomfortable. The awkwardness and instability of the performance subtly disarm him. He moves his arm, shifts his head, flits his eyes, he readjusts his body. His facial expressions are subtle and fleeting but you can detect some uncertainty, obedience, fear, impatience. The spectator, observing this piece, may feel as though she has walked onstage during a performance, breaking the wall between audience and performance. Zoo had trouble overcoming the forced, uncomfortable situation, though he let it take its course. I kept him connected to me, sometimes through our reciprocal gazes (as I watched him from behind the camera), and at other times by yelling out instructions. The viewer can sense Zoo’s filial loyalty and his resistance at the same time.

Hughes wrote of the badger:

…I want him to stay as he is.
Sooty gloss-throated,
With his perfect face. Paws so tired,
power-body relegated. I want him
To stop time….

A badger on my moment of life…

Hughes’ longing and stubborness wills time to stop, wills the moment to imprint on him and into the poem. Is my son, now thirteen, at the cusp of adolescence, almost a dead child? A new-born adult? Am I longing for a way to keep that child alive? Perhaps there is something to this, but it is more.

The visual documents, neither straight video nor straight photographs, do not seek a nostalgic revisitation or sharing of those events. The snapshots and video are made to shift both what happened and what remains visually into another receptive space, away from the souvenir function of the classic travel album and into a perceptual field that opens up the entire project to broader readings activated by the medium, by Zoo’s performances and by their visual framing. Nature, both animated and animistic, powerful and vulnerable, mournful and celebratory, is central to the piece, as is the ludic, fearless relationship that develops between Zoo and Japanese culture. Zoo journeys from imitating nature–trees, a crow, a bear, tall grass—to creating his own interpretations of Noh, butoh, fan dance, tea ceremony, kendo battle, sumo, taiko, to comically juggling snowballs in a cemetery, swimming laps in an empty pool, waiting to dive into a filthy pool, building dozens of tiny snowmen, playing croquet without a ball or a mallet, balancing on a large stone pretending to be a shrine.

I am now editing all the photo sequences onto video, working out the temporal rythms—stretching or compressing the pace. The staccato pacing brought about by the photographic video-edit is visibile and draws your attention to the material aspect of the photograph and the shooting process itself. All my video work so far is disturbed by flicker or shakiness because I am interested in an aesthetics of error, chance, and change. I am also interested in a video experience that abandons the familiar sense of défilement, of the film strip rolling by, to favor one of stratification, or silent piling up of photos and of time like a deck of cards. For this piece the photographic sedimentation in the video and the geologic sedimentation of the landscape echo one another. The piece is now in the making, still waiting to emerge from the process. One process hides another, as one image hides another, one line hides another in a poem, or one point of view hides another, each passing moment hides the one before it, one layer of sediment hides another, and another, and another. I suppose nothing stays.