Hair is becoming a more central subject of contemporary critical exploration and engagement. I for one, and many others, often think of it as a source of frustration and ambiguity. But beyond our daily experiences with hair, artists and theorists from the viewpoints of numerous contexts are exploring its dynamic role in histories and cultures. They are beginning to make important contributions to our understanding of hair not only as a superficial socially influenced expression of our daily physical presentation, but how hair for many is significant and interrelated to our experiences with identity-shaping, memory, ritual, performance, and personal histories, as well as its significance for some as memorial, ethereal, and mystical.
Through their works many artists have engaged with concepts about hair through investigations concerning its role as seen and unseen, public and private, embodied and disembodied, life and death, hetero- and homosexual, sacrosanct and unhallowed, religious and political, relic and memento, as well as many more singular and intertwined subjects. For this installation I was interested in ideas about disembodiment and the potential for psychological re-genesis with regards to the cycle of life and death, and what can be our perceptions from an embodied viewpoint towards hair unattached to a head. After seeing the slightly crimped long strands incorporated into fissures and cavities of the brick-walled “face” of the decaying fountain, hair slowly sinking into the stagnant algae-green water, and hair wicking that water from the fountain onto the bricks below, some viewers made comments about beauty, nature as female, the supernatural, the uncanniness of it, and the grossness of so much unattached hair.
For me, when I finally stood back after having been immersed in the actions of selecting and placing the hair, I was surprised by my own reactions to the whole, and then how my perceptions shifted toward each tuft of hair as it was attached differently either into a rupture in the wall surface or at the base of a plant, knotted or left loose on the ends, next to or entangled with another color, and moreover how the experience was altered if the hair hung motionless or was caught in a breeze. The whole of it was somewhat unsettling since we are, naturally, used to seeing hair on the body. Yet in fact, it was not unseemly or threatening, but continued to strike me as entirely unnatural being wig hair incorporated into a manmade structure. The installation even though represented as decayed and disembodied called back to portions of my identity-shaping as it is intertwined with memories from my youth. At times I went with my mother or grandmother to their beauty salons where women sat in rows under hair dryers with their hair wrapped around purple and pink colored rollers, their bare skin in-between dented by white nub-ended roller picks. For some reason, the scent of Juicy Fruit gum always comes to mind.
As I slowly walked back and forth in front of the fountain or sat on one of the concrete benches, my thoughts meandered between scenes of myself pulling dry hair from my brush, wet hair from the tub drain, or mixed hair (human and animal) from the bristles of my vacuum carper sweeper attachment. I thought about that tiny tuft of white hair on the chest of my now-deceased golden and blue-black coated Terrier, and how silvering gray hair sheens in sunlight. I remembered the precise moment while standing high on a rock outcrop in the middle of the desert that my partner and I released our cut and tied together hair into the wind to mark our decision to be bonded for life. And too, frustratingly, I was reminded how a single unruly hair can pester and pester, and how when it is plucked out to preserve sanity that single strand becomes ‘in-between’.
Photographs by Stephanie Wagner and Andrea Zampitella
“It’s true. You know, we’re limited little souls and we can only kind of throw ourselves against the wall…and hope to stick a bit.”
__Alan Rickman, describing his role as “M” in Play, written by Samuel Beckett
The works of Samuel Beckett had been in a fore position in my life for many years especially during a time in the early 2000s when I was working on a project about Ezra Pound. One could say that Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett do not mix, but of course everything is arguable. To me, one of the many major driving forces behind the works of Pound and Beckett has been the ways in which they handled language. Beckett’s language provided a respite from Pound’s language, and also gave me a sense of selfness while working so many long hours in support of another person’s artistic vision. Beckett became my man, as a counterpart to all of the Poundian ‘speak’ I was surrounded by in every aspect of business and the creative realm at that time.
The other man in my life was my brilliant father who upon his retirement became situationally depressed (a first in his lifetime), received irresponsible and unmanaged healthcare, and committed suicide less than a year later. While I had a certain jaded take on the world by then, my personal experiences as witness to myself, and my loved ones, during that time were the strangest, by far. There was a disconnect of reason, a recurring disbelief occured, yet my body continued to propel forward to get back into the country, to take care of, to help with arrangements, to watch other people weep with dismay. I used the word surreal to describe the whole of it then. But no, it was absurd on so many levels. We were left in the dark with no answers, grappling at anything to bring together order from the aftermath of prior circumstances that ignorantly we had believed to be only a temporary disruption. We worked to make the ground steady under our feet once again.
At the viewing, which to me is an odd tradition, I found myself contained in my very own theater of the absurd that played out around the corpse of my father. As my shaking hands pinned his many medals onto his jacket, my memory seemed, at once, clear and blurred as I recalled occurrences in the last year. I had read Beckett’s works voraciously in-between every single thing I did each day. My cousin stood close by watching with hawk-like focus my unfruitful efforts to pin on the last two medals. Somebody, I cannot remember who, took over that task of preparation. I had gone to see Endgame again. I saw Krapp’s Last Tape for the first time. Back then, I recalled having read Martin Esslin’s Absurd Drama in my long ago beginnings at undergraduate studies in the mid-70s and read it once again. I noticed how my father’s nearly white bushy eyebrows had been frozen into place with the aid of hairspray and a toothbrush, perhaps; they seemed to want to take flight from his forehead. I had read Beckett, read about Beckett, read the criticism, and had written, read and written, read and written until I thought I had a grasp on the lot of it. But I realized, then, I never would wholly understand my favorites of his writings or his supremely complex mind. What appeared unattainable was in reality ideas about human condition set up in absurd mental and emotional landscapes, and yet again set against the realities of a complicated world. What I did not know during that Beckettian year, as I have dubbed it, is that the very writings that were so fascinatingly perplexing would be my strength during future trials. I overheard people I knew, my extended family members who were in- town from afar, making polite small talk as if it was just another day filled with repetitive dialogue, “I’m sorry for your loss”, and meaningless post-funerary expectations of food, “Yes. I like chicken real’ fine.” My thoughts wandered back to the time at the beginning of what we call his “illness” when I had asked my father to help me decipher one of Beckett’s literary experiments, Ping, thinking that it would help him get better if he exercised his fine mind in a taxing mental chore. Together we sat on the sofa as I prepared to read out loud. He professed that he wasn’t sure he could make sense of anything anymore, even his own body. I asked him to just listen:
“All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head naught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known…”
Suddenly, I heard my mother wailing, “That’s not my husband. He is not my husband!” The room was filled with the dull clamber of feet as those nearby held her up and took her from the airless room; airless because I suddenly held my breath for a very long time. Sting’s amazingly articulated recording of Cold Song in all of its drawn out beauty and luxuriousness of symphonic strings and vocalizations repeated over and over in my mind. Like a slow-motion cinematic scene unfolding it occurred to me that her shock was a reaction to what I had already discovered in the handling of his body; an autopsy had been performed.
I was the last person he spoke to. He said at the end of our conversation, “Just remember I love you.”
After everyone had left, I was alone with his body. I spit on my finger and tried to remove some of the hairspray from his brows. I squeezed the flesh between his thumb and forefinger until it softened…finally. I whispered, “Dummy”, just as often as my mother later on that day whispered, “I love you”, as she circled and circled his casket.
Re-re-reading Martin Esslin’s introduction last week, watching Beckett’s End Game, and spending some time with Beckett’s Six Residua once again caused me to re-remember many events associated with my father’s death. Esslin wrote that absurdist playwrights “…no longer believe[d] in the possibility of …neatness of resolution. They are indeed chiefly concerned with expressing a sense of wonder, of incomprehension, and at times of despair, at the lack of cohesion and meaning that they find in the world.” Further, he stated that in a world that had become absurd, the Theatre of the Absurd was the most realistic comment on, the most accurate reproduction of, reality. That is true, from my perspective and obviously from the creative viewpoint of many other artists.
In an effort to hear another person’s take on grappling with how to balance the acts of creating artworks that are very personal I asked our visiting artist how she dealt with that issue as she went about her academic career and art practice. We spoke together about that fine line of finding different approaches to expressions of storytelling and visual personal narratives through artistic means. She explained how for her it is a constant balancing act between closeness to the subject matter and detachment by necessity. Early on while performing her public engagements, she learned from mistakes. Nothing is wrong at all with any method of creative discourse if it gets a person to an important point and alters for the greater good another person’s perceptions.
She and I agreed that it is very possible, and she has found it to be very true, that there are more people than one might imagine who have had the same life experiences. So an artist ought to just make the work anyway when they are compelled to do so. We, also, agreed that neither of us has created our art as a call for sympathy or as acts born out of a sense of victimization, but only to find understanding—and most importantly to create. There is a hope, too, that somehow the work is viewed universally thereby offering to each viewer a unique message that is larger than the artist’s actual experience portrayed in a single piece, a series, or an installation. One difference between us is that she works directly with people who have gone through the same or similar life experiences to hers. For the most part, I have worked with and by myself.
From that good, long conversation and through our other readings, re-remembrance, and the performances of Francis Alÿs and Mary Reid Kelley, I surmise that all of the multi-symphonic languages we speak as artists are actually, even from within the realm of unreality, harmonious to one another by virtue of the fact that we are immersed in the human condition. Because of the ways in which my mind conjures fragmentary memories and how I move toward and away from experience and its potentiality, I feel a kinship with the absurdists.
 Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965.
Readings About Absurdism:
- MacAdam, Barbara A. “Francis Alÿs: Architect of the Absurd.” ARTnews. 15 July 2013.Web.<www.artnews.com/2013/07/15/architect‑of‑the‑absurd/>.
- Martin Esslin. Introduction. Absurd Drama. [Harmondsworth, Eng.]: Penguin, 1965. Print.
- Hugo Ball. “Dada Fragments//1916-17.” The Artist’s Joke. Ed. Jennifer Higgie. London: Whitechapel, 2007. Print.
- Jenelle Porter. “History Painting” from the Mary Reid Kelley Exhibition Catalog. Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art. 2013. Print.
“What do you want the affect of your work to be?”__Jane Marsching
Often times, a long-durational performance ends up not being what was originally intended. After spending hours in the Black Room in MassArt’s Tower Building working on the piece, the experience itself altered my perception about it. Rather than explaining what the performance video was supposed to be about, for my major studio critique I decided to simply asked for input on the editing style of the excerpts taken from the whole. Perhaps I played it safe by not explaining about it to my colleagues. Honestly, though, at that time I had no idea of what it was about anymore. A good place to myself in developing my direction, so I have been told. There were only hints remaining of what I had wanted the performance to become. Perhaps that is alright. I was faced with looking at the work in a new light, and with the task of adding in more elements. WIth so much footage, even the simplest editing could be used as an expressive tool with the power to alter content in myriad ways. Our most recent visiting artist suggested that not everything we do as graduate students needs to be important. Working hard to take that statement to heart and mind. I have made many, many mistakes on the path toward gaining understanding. Still in-process at the time in consideration to the unexpected shift that significantly altered intention, I prepared to re-visit the work with the following notes:
- Ritual/pattern/loop/leaving trails with subtle interruptions in a patterned behavior were mentioned
- Consider camera angle changes or darker paint to show footprint path at any camera angle
- Further break up repetition
- In post, edit with muted color plus black and white, not one or the other
- The pace and quick cuts show a passage of time
- Some were eager to see what would happen next
- The smallest event that altered the routine added to the passage of time
- Leave in the accidents
- Is it a performance video or a video documenting a performance?
- Looks like I Jumped right in; maybe show less paint on the clothes at the start and let it build
- Most everyone liked the accidental pixelation caused by faulty rendering; think about pushing that
- No one mentioned “Input”, volume, or the old TV
Visiting Artist Comments:
- The macrocosm is interesting enough, but the microcosm is even more interesting
- Why are her hands white to begin with? Toward the end they are thickly coated, I would like to see this closer
- Who is she…what is she…why is she?
- A discussion about Christ and the ritualistic washing of feet came up in our conversation. It is fascinating to hear from others about what an artwork uniquely connotes. It is just as fascinating to know that some of those perceptions were never intended in the making. What can I learn from that?
- She reminds me of Whistler’s Mother. (We laughed.)
- Be careful that my work does not emulate too closely the work of other artists. Good to note, but never my intention in the artifact from the performance.
This installation allowed for one week to chose a space on the 4th floor of the Tower Building at MassArt, plan, and obtain materials. We could purchase and prep materials for our installations beforehand, if needed. Our proposals and a mock-up were posted to our class website. On installation day, we presented our ideas for peer review. Our work was then installed during a three hour timeframe after which there was a critique of each student’s work. Unfortunately, I could not obtain permission to use fog in the Black Room (my installation site) because of the sprinkler system. I was, though, able to install all other elements, which included a large projection of a video, sound, and a laser. I would like to re-create the installation in another room size space without safety concerns, on a miniature scale wherein I could contain the fog, or to re-contextualize the video into another installation.
Artist Statement for Listening With My Eyes
Declarative memory, sometimes referred to as explicit memory, is one of two types of long-term memory. This is not to be confused with non-declarative or procedural memory associated with skills, such as riding a bicycle again after twenty years and drawing on the unconscious memories of having already learned to ride one. There are two categories of declarative memory: episodic memory (personal experiences) and semantic memory (general facts). As both my 75 year old mother and I continue to age, I am aware that time is running out, most especially in regard to her life. Everyday concerns tend to run up against the truth of existence and create a barrier against paying attention to intuition. Being a person who takes in so much through sight, I am very aware that I see before, sometimes more than, I really hear. That is to say, I see like hearing, but too often I do not remember spoken words in the everyday. Increasingly, I have a keener understanding that I could be missing important messages between my mother and myself. Listening With My Eyes represents the challenges of listening and remembering, and my desire to hear past the obvious.
Fog = the evasiveness of episodic memory as we experience our existence
Episodic memory stores specific personal experiences based on observational information attached to a specific event, such as how your lover’s eyes gazed upon you the first time you experienced the throes of passion, what the floor looked like where you might have rested your forehead after learning that a loved one had tragically died, or noticing each time you cut your mother’s hair that it is increasingly turning more white in certain areas.
Red Line (laser) = represents a direct line of connection or communication; input and output; clarity
Semantic memory stores general factual information that is independent of personal experience, such as types of foods, state capitals and where they are geographically located, your social security number, your debit/credit card PINs, or the lexicon of a common language (English, Spanish, Sign Language).
Black Space = a blank slate, in-between space, a lifetime of shared experiences, or the mind
Sound = a means to connote waiting and getting someone’s attention, respectively
Many of my fellow students and two of our visiting artists have encouraged me to continue to explore some of my personal iconography, to see how I can push the boundaries of their meanings within my personal lexicon. Artists have long considered hair to be an essence of being, an identifier, a self-portrait, of sorts. Here, sewing with hair is a performative act meant as a ballad to the women of my family, and one that works similarly to how memory is recalled time and time again. The pricking of fabric with the needle, the looping of hair, and the practiced hand’s motions at craft are never the same, yet somehow familiar each time the actions are carried out. Eventually, the pinch pleated line of hair becomes entangled into itself…much like a life experienced.
One professor described the video as “…a stitched scar line, stitching shut a wound that cannot be seen, disturbing a decorative space with a displaced hair, and refusing to reveal or sum up the full image, scene, or narrative.” At first, I refused the singular notions of “scar”, “wound”, “displacement”. However in fact, these descriptors are true for everyone to one degree or another. And now, after giving the whole of the summation deeper thought, I relish my professor’s wisdom and ability to reflect through the lenses of broad viewpoints about the affect of our visual subject matter. The best of my experiences with my professors over the years have at times been akin to a surprising pinprick of knowledge! My ears are ever turned in those good directions.
Interested in memory and affect theory, I decided to explore the notions of covering and uncovering, forgetting and recollecting. I am most interested in what Brian Massumi calls “the charge of affect”. He describes an emotion as a partial expression of affect that draws on a limited selection of memories, and that only activates certain reflexes or tendencies. All the rest is still there, but as potential. The charge of effect most often occurs somewhere in-between the banal and the cathartic. A self-assigned very tall order. I am working to learn how to see and create inside of and about this ‘space’ in my existence. In this video sketch, I explored these notions with a spontaneous site installation I had created for our Installation class.