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
If I were living, released from stretched coffin rigor,
eyebrows spray toothbrushed refusing death’s glower,
dry whiting-gray dismissed from throbless temples,
prickless chin neckresting toward autopsied chest,
honor medals jacketpinned in proper configuration,
skull stitches wrong-checked for coroner’s brain matter,
fitted gently on softing pillow’s settled satin rest,
thumb believe-pressed for life against embalming,
final seeking for blue, red veins under lashed lids lifted,
lips slack-wide into powder-rouged graying pallor,
lower half hidden under cherry grain’s already buried,
bruised ankles turned outward footholds ignoring,
black-blued chokehold under shirtstays pointing downward,
violent’s indifference kicking from a rug bound stepstool,
I would hear you cry oxygenlessly disbelieving,
“He is not my husband.”
Gagates was the name applied to Jet in ancient times, as stated in Chapter 34 in The Natural History of Gems or Decorative Stones, written by Charles William KIng in 1847. The gemstone was named after the no longer existing town of Gages in the city of Lycia. Gagates have been known to history since the times of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age. The descriptive word, gagates, is thought to have originated from the Lycian language, an ancient precursor to Greek that we know ultimately became the foundation for our English alphabet.
It is a light, porous, and brittle stone that is black in color and described by King as closely resembling wood in appearance. He stated that, conversely, oil quenches it while water ignites it. An odd statement that may or may not be true, but adds to conversation about how written and spoken language along with their associative meanings transform throughout time. So, too, does visual language. The known roots of each of these kinds of languages, written, spoken, and visual, remains inside our vast and growing branches of knowledge and are undoubtedly interconnected in the experiences of most human beings.
As an aside, it had been that gagates, or Jet, was thought to provide six remedies to mankind due to its strong sulphuric odor and burning properties:
- the fumes emitted from it were said to keep away serpents
- it was described as being instrumental in keeping away hysterical affections
- it was used to detect tendencies toward epilepsy
- it was used to test virginity
- once boiled it was used to cure toothaches
- when combined with wax it was known to aid people with scrofula, a form of tuberculosis
Personally, I have only ever known Jet as a material used to make the buttons for mourning clothing that was predominantly worn by women during the Victorian Era. While in Boston, I found a collection of Jet, Jet with horn, and Jet with glass buttons in an antique store. Each one had been carefully wired to a brittle and fading paper-covered board. What struck me at the time was how no two buttons were alike. I pondered how they came together in that one small space. Had someone collected them from early generations of family member’s shredded silk dresses (over time Victorian silk fell apart leaving only hardware and decorative elements behind) or had they been purchased by a collector of grief relics. That no buttons were alike and that they must have adorned just as many dresses as they were in quantity represents to me the possibility of many, many deaths and years of sadness. Or at the least, they represented how women tolerated social conventions of the time. So much is lost in the memory of objects. The entire lifetime of a human being is gone if nothing has been written to fuel our curiosity or to feed our awareness. Just as interesting is my understanding that Jet buttons worn on widow’s dresses were not associated with any of the aforementioned “cures” of the 1800s, that I am aware of.
I view this collection of Jet buttons as an amalgamation of language that has changed over time, and a resurfacing of meaning based upon my singular knowledge about them as a form of personal identity. Not only can the buttons be perceived to represent one person’s collection of beautiful grief objects, they can be thought to represent the experiences of possibly 66 human beings who lost a loved one.
And to add to the perplexity of it all, the entirety of my antique store find was covered with a hair net.
“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.
For this project, we were asked to choose three of our artworks and write twenty-five different title possibilities for each piece. It was a challenging exercise, one that I think would be important to do for all of my art in the future. Parsing through words and phrases in relation to an artwork opens an artist’s mind to expanded viewpoints, increased personal perception, and viewer affect. We were also asked to choose one piece and describe why we chose that particular title.
Love Letter to C (Original Title)
• All He Could Think About • Resolution Never Comes Easy • Trying To Tell You Something • Settle Down • Blind Hope • Good Tools Make All the Difference• Living Pathway • Not Straight • Best Guidance • Hope’s Best Chance • This Is What Open Looks Like • Conversation Between a Man and His Mother • Summoning a Different Occurrence • Concerning Our Departure • 6 or 16, What Does It Matter? • Memory’s Failure • Linear Differences: A Non-Linear Point of View • Alternative Manner of Recollection • It Will All Be Clear • Paradox’s Ballad • Sightless Toward Inevitability • Growth Position • Learning Again What We Already Knew • Never Whispered Word • Everything and Nothing Until Something Changes
Video Still From Slow Memory and Charge of Affect (Original Title)
• Intrigue’s Unfolding • Discovering the Un-Discovered • Her Uncovering • From Out of the Seam • Unearthing a Line of Language • A Particular Patois • Slowness of Intentionality • Action Hole • A Tardy Precursor of Not Much Left • Embodiment of a Recollection • Three Knots • Remembering Georgia’s Hands (After Alfred Stieglitz) • Doing Her Part • Memory’s Measure • Spontaneous Un-Assemblage • Cooperation Between Five Parties • Attending to an End Result • What Was Left for You • Sensuality of a Secret • Entangled Threes • Gradually Un-Admitted • Ties Amongst Three Women • Magnitude of a Wavering Opening • Ship Speed: 141 Feet 9 Inches, Compressed (Based on 19th century knot increments measurement-space between knots equaled 47 feet 3 inches : time measured with a 30-second sand glass) • Are You in There Joseph Beuys?
Still From Untitled Video Performance
• Memory Pacing • Recollection’s Recompense • What You Get For Thinking • Extent of Coverage • Input Intervals • Intervening in the Region of Time • Between Us • Relational Linking • Syntactic Conveyance • Memory Transferal • I Cannot Keep You With Me • Unmarked Viewpoint • She Reminded Me of Whistler’s Mother • Responding to the Lives of Others • Anthem of the Repeatable • Broadcast of the Evasive • Slipperiness of Memorization • Evidence of a Faulty Design • Comprehension: Out of Order • Felt Refrain • Recall Capacity: Volume Level 50 • Imagining Your Life, Mother • Interference • Input: Impossibility of Knowing • Perception Dripped From White Fingertips
Thoughts About the Best Title for Love Letter to C
Even though a number of the other titles could function well for this piece, I still prefer the original title. I am very interested in the ideas brought about by this exercise with regard to a single artwork, and too, how multiple titles in one installation or a series of works can add to meaning and understanding overall. As we know, language is imperative between us as human beings, but sometimes hyperbole used as a peak of expression simply is not necessary, although it is a ton of amusement (hyperbole intended) in all seriousness. Certainly a title that incorporates a play of words that points to the layers of content in an artwork or that expounds on its connotations can be very useful and oftentimes vital. I, for one, lean in that direction of communication not only as a creative and expressive mechanism, but to keep myself engaged with what I am doing. Because Love Letter to C is a private message, or rather a summary message born from a life-long positive conversation that exists between my son and myself, I do not want the title to be different than it is. Let there be some mystery for the viewer, if that is the case. Taking a chance of sounding like I am copping out on the piece (which I am not), I want it to lend itself to the viewer’s unique experience and keep my own to myself outside of what is suggested through the visual narrative.
“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.