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To CLOAK, Part I - 05.19.2022

 

Fabric. I didn’t think I’d like working with it as much as I did when I was sewing eighteen 5’ x 8’ U.S. flags [1] for my installation For Those Who Have Seen the Elephant in spring of 2020 [2]. But handling it brought back memories of how I once aspired to sew like my mother but never took the leap out of intimidation. I’d collect different fabrics for some future occasion when I’d finally have the courage to create something out of them. I held on to those materials for a long time. They remained pregnant with possibility but bore nothing beyond that.

 

I used to love rendering the folds and crevices of fabric in oil paintings in the musky studios of Huntington Fine Arts after school [3]. Painting the subjects in the foreground — the usual arrangement of a fake floral bouquet, a bowl of plastic fruits, some stacked books — was the tax paid for getting to paint the background, a dynamic, mysterious landscape of draped woven fibers expressing a spectrum of conditions, from sturdy and compressed to smooth and fluid. These fabrics performed no purpose other than to support the subjects of the foreground. Yet their texture and rhythm were animated enough to convince you that they were hiding something alive or were alive themselves, defying their assigned domain of “still life,” the set design superseding the action at centerstage.

 

Many of my installations are large, which means they need to be well thought-out in advance and methodically executed. The downside to this approach is that it can inhibit creative improvisation as often there is no time or space for experimentation during execution. However, while executing Ghost Mass, my installation at Glassbox Gallery (Dec 2020 - February 2021) [4], I relaxed my habits enough to allow for some last-minute free-styling: in addition to my planned video projections emerged the idea for a centerpiece of junked car parts covered in white satin. This lustrous mass sat static, ruinous yet pristine, in the center of the room as projected video patterns of funerary bouquets — wilting then reviving in an endless loop — activated the walls surrounding it [5]. I had recreated the still life paintings of my youth in reverse — flowers (foreground, subject) as the backdrop, allusive fabric (background, context) as the center of attention.

 

Anytime I see a funeral bouquet like the one I filmed for Ghost Mass, I think of the first ones I encountered. They were not at the funerals of elders but at those held for a series of high school friends who all died in car accidents within a 5-year period. On Long Island (NY), where I grew up, the masculine architype looms large, and the central symbol of that architype was/is the vehicle — what you’re driving, where you’re driving, how you’re driving, who’s riding with you. Heaping floral arrangements lined the perimeter of the dimly lit rooms and surrounded the caskets, typically open, [6] immersing the motionless boy body inside with a heavily made-up face in an atmosphere of temporal femininity, the kind these bodies once strove desperately to defy through rituals of invincible machismo. Working with those bouquets many years later, my mind leapt to the mechanical wreckage involved in those events. At best, we would see photos of this in the local newspaper, but mostly we never saw the material evidence [7]. Not even the bodies on display bore the impacts, thanks to modern embalming practices. Much like how dark matter is measured, the only hard evidence of the event was measured by the absence of something.[i] The heap of wrecked car parts covered in satin was my shrine to this.

 

Sometimes the best way to acknowledge something’s existence and impact — to really see it — is to observe its disappearance. To fully know the malevolent motives behind erecting, for example, the towering bronze monuments of Confederate figures Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in a public park of Charlottesville VA and all the ruinous ideology these reinforced under the cloak of “culture,” “tradition,” and “history,” they had to be extracted. Only by measuring the wake left from their vacancy — the historically neglected narratives, the future possibilities that emerge — could their imprint be truly documented.

 

Before the removal of these types of monuments often comes their covering, a literal cloak to mirror its figurative one [8]. This intermediary step of cloaking, placing it in an amorphous state of limbo between existing and not existing, interests me. It grips me for reasons similar to the reasons for art critic David Bourdon’s appreciation for the late Christo and Jeanne-Claude's most recent project, the wrapping of L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris (2021) [9], which he described as “a revelation through concealment.”[ii] As one Parisian remarked: “I have lived in Paris my whole life, and I pass the Champs-Élysées most days. I never even notice the Arc de Triomphe. But now, I see it.”[iii]

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Like the popular depiction of a ghost — a floating spirit made visible only by dressing in a sheet — it strikes me as profound, chilling, and silly all at the same time [10]. I appreciate this mixture of responses because it stems from the splintering effect cloaking can elicit: it can conceal to reveal, but also transfigure, mock; it can also amplify by muting. To cloak brings forth a marketplace for various transactions, like the transaction the late author Joan Didion [11] refers to in her preface for Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) when she says, “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” They “forget” her, but she does not resist. Instead, Didion leverages not being “seen” as a chance to observe how the subject of interest consumes the space left by her absence. Author Rachel Cusk uses this same device but differently in her “Outline” series, three novels (2015-2018) in which readers comes to know the main character Faye purely by learning about the characters she encounters and the stories they tell her, not her own. Like Didion, Faye is a conduit, a relief imprint of her surroundings, a foreground defined by her background.

 

When reading the “Outline” books, this literary maneuver struck me as the most cunning method for capturing a female reality I had yet come across in a novel. And I suppose I owe much to Cusk for what happened months later when I found myself on set directing three women-identifying friends, naked yet shrouded in white satin, rendered anonymous — the outputs of which became my woman is a word series [12]. Not only were these feminine forms cloaked but onto them I also projected footage of mountains that I had manipulated into a psychedelic pattern. I wanted to see how these layers might compete to recede and advance back and forth, obscuring definitions of subject and context. Colorful, slightly pulsating shapes roved over the blank forms of these cloaked bodies, which subtly pulsed with the tapping of hands, nodding of heads, and yawns occurring intermittently under the fabric. These elusive movements representing the tracking of human time, performed alongside the presence of geologic time, or what author John McPhee coined “deep time,”[iv] [13] symbolized by the mountain ranges that wash over the blank figures in vivid waves.

 

Close your eyes and you might imagine Didion under that satin, or Cusk, or even me, a woman approaching forty and wading through physical and psychological trials of preparing for motherhood. Some of this was disorientating, painful, some rewarding. All of it sharpened that original, intimidating question of whether to create something out of the “fabric” that I’ve collected over the years. Must doing so entail procreating in its literal sense or can it mean something else? Can the absence of one thing define what remains to the point of fulfillment? Is what’s missing significant? Does one’s desire for a child mean that their selfhood has already been consumed by the background, the context that surrounds them? How might motherhood reverse the composition, resigning one to the background in service to the foreground? Will this perceived disempowerment engender other methods of empowerment, as it did for Didion and Cusk’s craft?

 

Here, again, my mind conjures the conventional ghost, that floating sheet symbolizing the intersection where depth, fear, and frivolity meet. Thanks to the Anthropocene in which we live, child rearing feels even more fraught, requiring great intention and resilience if we are each to do our part in restoring what ecological balance we can as a matter of our species’ survival. It can also seem trifling, and for the same reasons it’s gravely serious: in the end, our efforts may just be a laughing joke to the fate that awaits us. And while the times we exist in heighten this perception, this has always been the case. The cosmic backdrop will replace us on centerstage at some point.

 

There’s value in confronting this reality, in embracing the idea that “investing in dreams has always courted their ruin,” as Maggie Nelson puts it in her essay “Riding the Blinds,” in which she explores the complexities of raising a child in the shadow of grim facts. Embracing this tension is to grasp that every creation bares some level of destruction, every success some element of failure. To acknowledge that every subject is vulnerable to its context, that the stillness and serenity of the setting is in fact an illusion. To embrace this is to “cloak,” if only temporarily, so that one may observe all that surrounds something, and how the shiny fabric covering it deflects from whatever junk may lay underneath. The “cloak” mindset is to in effect uncloak, make naked, whole. It is to strip words like “woman,” “mother,” and “artist” of their veneer, recognizing them as mere precarious symbols, puppets of their context, which dictate how much power, weakness, or absurdity courses below the surface. As an “artist,” “woman,” and now expectant “mother,” this is the work.

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[i] Koppes, Steve. “Precision Measurements of Intracluster Light Suggest Possible Link to Dark Matter.” News, 29 Jan. 2021, https://news.fnal.gov/2021/01/precision-measurements-of-intracluster-light-suggest-possible-link-to-dark-matter/.

[ii] Payne, James. “The Last Temptation of Christo - L'Arc De Triomphe: Wrapped - James Payne.” Artlyst, 1 Oct. 2021, https://www.artlyst.com/reviews/the-last-temptation-of-christo-larc-de-triomphe-wrapped-james-payne/.

[iii] [iii] Payne, James. “The Last Temptation of Christo - L'Arc De Triomphe: Wrapped - James Payne.” Artlyst, 1 Oct. 2021, https://www.artlyst.com/reviews/the-last-temptation-of-christo-larc-de-triomphe-wrapped-james-payne/.

[iv] Zweig, Paul. “Rhapsodist of Deep Time.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 May 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/17/books/rhapsodist-of-deep-time.html.