Her Place and What Was Learned There: Rubbings of Inheritance, Narratives of Disinheritance.
Her Place And What Was Learned There, the title of an art exhibition I held at Eleanor Winters Art Gallery, York University in 2015, was a drawing installation of graphite rubbings on yards of paper made in an inherited family home. This artwork and the prior preparatory studio process of making it comprised the research in art practice for my dissertation at York University. It reflects my enduring interest in memory and memoir in visual art, and it is concerned with the connection among memory, the senses, and family inheritances, whether physical, architectural or narrative.
In this paper, I draw from a variety of scholars to ground my work. First, I refer to Annette Kuhn's concept of memory work and how this practice applied to Her Place. I also consider Yi-Fu Tuan's theory of place and Kathy Mezei's recognition of the importance of the domestic space, (what she calls domestic effects), as theory and for creative practitioners. Jennifer Fisher's theories of haptics affirmed my direction while making the rubbings, and I introduce my idea of the haptics of home. James Krasner supports the view that home is an intimate space due to our engagement in it through sensory, tactile and embodied knowing. The use of rubbings is historically and conceptually fitting for capturing the various architectural aspects of a lived-in, multi-generational home. I describe the sensual, sensory actions and products of rubbings and theorize the fitting connection to my explorations of memory and family. Evan Imber-Black's theories and categories of family secrets focus the memory work of writing the fictional, imaginative, narratives of the house.
I appreciate Stout and Daiello's encouragement to artists to use expressive writing to deepen their understanding of their own work. I use poetic, fictional narratives to expand the emotional force, inviting understanding, acceptance--or repugnance--of the stories, by evoking the voice of the home. Lucy E. Bailey's work with "genealogical refusal" and Harold Goodall's "narrative inheritance" have led me to find a tenable position, both personal and theoretical, to provoke and explore the question of what I wanted or could accept from such an inheritance. The grief--and there is grief--is partly about what happened, to whom and by whom, but also for what wasn't, and what didn't happen. There is a narrative gap. I am reassured by Amy Prodromou's work that representation of loss or grief need not conform to predictable cycles.
As art practice, the process of making the artworks of this inherited home, of giving them titles and putting them in exhibition pushed me to confront the entire family inheritance, not just the building: the stories, secrets and silences that clung to physical sections of the home. The work felt like a confrontation. I knew as I decided to make the specific rubbings, that I was chasing secrets. In her study, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, Annette Kuhn introduces "a method and practice of unearthing and making public untold stories" that she terms memory work; (1) this process offered a background from which to analyze my family memories. Although Kuhn's study refers to family photography, her process of beginning with a shared family object or collection of objects, such as the family photo album, bears correspondence with my use of a multi-generational family home. Memory work functioned for me through the art making process and continues to function in this writing. Memory work invites "a critical consciousness that embraces the heart as well as the intellect, one that resonates, in feeling and thinking ways, across the individual and the collective, the personal and the political." (2) The exhibition of Her Place and What Was Learned There, presented opposing experiences of intimacy: tactile rubbings of parts of familiar rooms, furniture and possessions, while acknowledging transgressions that took place within the family. As Kuhn states,
...the fact that we experience our memories as peculiarly our own sets up a tension between the 'personal' moment of memory and the social moment of making memory...and indicates that the processes of making meaning and making memories are characterized by a certain fluidity. Meanings and memories may change with time, be mutually contradictory, may even be an occasion for, or an expression of, conflict. (3)
In many ways the experience of making the rubbings, thinking and theorizing about family inheritance, was and still is very unpleasant. It was not what I expected of research, and yet without the conceptual framework of "family methodology," this artwork and the ensuing exploration of an academic context for it could be dismissed as a difficult personal, therefore negligible, drama, rather than a legitimate means to address the personal experiences of, and contributions to, larger social power imbalances and abuses. I am related to generations of racially and socio-economically privileged people who were both abused by other privileged ones and were then in turn abusive, and yet the privilege of those generations remained intact, while reverberations rumble through to the present. And so, this inherited multi-generational family home brings with it many memories, stories, and burdens.
Place, Domestic Space and the Haptics of Home
A decade ago I was surprised to inherit a multigenerational family home, that I will call the Lake House. I did not expect to inherit it, I had not wanted it or asked for it; however, it was not just a building, an architectural structure--it was a distinct home, a distinctive place. Although I spent my childhood and teenage years there every summer, I visited only intermittently as an adult. This Lake House had been an essential part of my early development; given my nomadic life, it was, and still is, the one consistent place that I know from childhood, despite the contradictory and contested feelings that I have for it.
To think about this house, this place, this home, I will briefly consider three theorists whose ideas about space and place, the domestic space, and home, effectively narrow down from expansive space to the near familiar and then to the specific tactile sensations that define domestic home experience. These theories not only reflect my experience of remembering while in the Lake House, but also reveal a direct connection to the making of the rubbings for Her Place, and my consideration of the scope of family methodology in relation to them. Yi-Fu Tuan was a Modern geographer philosopher (4) who defined place as having a range of characteristics that distinguished it from space. Once a relatively unfamiliar space becomes thoroughly familiar, (5) it acquires definition and meaning, (6) and it provides a "pause in movement," which in turn allows the possibility "for a locality to become a center of felt value" (7)--then it becomes place. A similar transformation occurs when architecture becomes a home: "A house is a relatively simple building. It is a place, however, for many reasons. It provides shelter; its hierarchy of spaces answers social needs; it is a field of care, a repository of memories and dreams." (8) Home and place are interrelated concepts according to Tuan, where home is a specific place, but a place is not necessarily home. However, those within the structures could feel, positively or negatively, the values, meanings, pauses, care, repositories and memories that define place. Home may or may not be a shared family or childhood place, if the definition, meaning or the memories are undesirable. Home may be found in the escape from such a place, or home may have nothing to do with geographic or material entities. Family methodology, then, may involve swerving around place, house, home, values, meanings, care, and memories, all of which pose a range of contradictory meanings. The shifting between place and home was what inadvertently confronted and captivated me when I returned to this inherited place over a decade ago and became overwhelmed by sensations, sounds, scents, textures and emotions that were so familiar and imbued with memories, and felt like home.
Kathy Mezei's article, "Domestic Space and the Idea of Home" (9) supported my thinking early on during my studio explorations that addressed visual memoir using images and objects from the domestic sphere. She describes the significance of domestic spaces and the enduring "domestic effects" of the objects and structures of home on the individual and on the auto/biographical writing, or art works, of the individual:
...it is important to review domestic spaces as sites of epiphany, revelation, personal interaction, and change, to investigate these "domestic effects," and to recognize the domestic as monumental rather than merely incidental, ornamental, and marginal... Studying the effect of the domestic on and through auto/biographical practices thus deepens our knowledge of how selves are imagined, constructed, and represented. Interior domestic spaces (furniture, rooms, doors, windows, stairs, drawers--familiar, everyday objects) which have and could be perceived as banal and ordinary, and hence insignificant, are vital to the shaping of our memories, our imagination, and our "selves." (10)
My art making process inside the Lake House affirms that its domestic effects have been monumental. The rubbings began as a sensual, tactile engagement that then led to memories, revelations and a reimagining of my "self." I made rubbings of all parts of the home. (As you can see in the photos, I am in process of making the rubbing of the stairs and the table). I also made rubbings of floors, walls, doors at either end and the hallway in between, cupboards, bath tub, bed, braided rugs, tables, chairs, dresses and bath robes, windows with curtains, framed oil paintings, bouquets of flowers, vegetables and fruit, pots and pans, cutlery and dishes, the cement wall in the garden, two trees and a section of a rock covered beach. Each of these elements possessed a sensual narrative of belonging in and near that home.
In her article, "Relational Sense: Toward a Haptic Aesthetics," (11) art critic Jennifer Fisher describes the haptic sense as comprising all of the tactile, kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, in that it "enables the perception of weight, pressure, balance, temperature, vibration and presence...the haptic defines the affective charge - the felt dimensionality - of a spatial context." (12) Haptic sensory experience described the ways I was working: I was thinking with my body, my bare feet on cracked linoleum, rubbing my fingers through the cutlery drawer, feeling the edges of the framed paintings, stretching to reach the top of the crenulated curtained windows, stroking the bath robes abandoned in the closets, using my "texture eyes", rather than seeking images. I wondered if the "Haptics of Home" would be an appropriate title for an artwork that was made and installed as a physical space to be walked in and around, like the rooms in a home.
In addition to this transition from visual appraisal to bodily recognition, was the effect of the physical work of rubbing. It was a tedious and exhausting process to make the extensive rubbings for Her Place. The art making demanded an acknowledgement of my uncomfortable body: bent over, on hands and knees, perched on folded legs sitting on the tops of my bony feet, stooped over my thighs as they pressed into my stomach while perched on the edge of a step ladder, crouched awkwardly on a staircase, reaching up to a ceiling for extended rubbings, including rubbing a swinging ceiling light fixture. All of the bending and crouching and scrubbing with a 2 [1/2] by [1/2] inch stick of graphite was much akin to cleaning, except I was conjuring black marks rather than clean surfaces. I have felt my way across each surface of these rubbings: caressing, stroking, pressing, squeezing, folding, wrapping and then unwrapping the tracing paper from each section or object of the home.
The theorist who additionally validated my artistic mission, was James Krasner, (13) who, works with the idea of the "haptics of home," but with a more specific emphasis on tactility as our primary means of relation to domestic space. He sees our experience there as an embodied, sensuous one.
While the home is both a cultural formulation and a building, it is, more than either of these, a cluster of tactile sensations and bodily positions that form the somatic groundwork through which we experience its emotional sustenance. If we focus more on motion and location in domestic space rather than on geometric or spectacular function, domesticity ultimately becomes continuous with the body's sensorium. Embodied identity at home...must take into account the body's intimate and dynamic engagement with the home's resonantly familiar materiality. The home...emerges as a bodily operation rather than an architectural structure. (14)
If we come to know a place, a domestic space, a home, as a bodily operation, what is it we know? We know where we are by the feel of the floor tiles or the projection of the cupboard, so that it is partly navigational. We know how to shape our bodily positions in each of the many places for the specific activities required there. We know the textures, weights and structures of its surfaces. We are then pointed by memory to the accumulated associations with each of these physical elements. What became evident in the making of the rubbings for Her Place was that the memories that pushed to the surface with urgency were related to the body, or the multi-generational bodies that had lived in the Lake House, and as Krasner describes above, those bodies' "intimate and dynamic engagement with the home's resonantly familiar materiality." One memory was specifically visible in the hanging curtain still functioning in a bedroom. The significance is that this non-linguistic, artistic exploration and exhibition of place, representing and theorizing the domestic sphere as a physical, sensual entity, and the haptics of a home, formed the basis of this research in family methodology, and contributes potential forms for further research.
The title, Her Place, alludes to the traditional stereotype of a woman's place in the home, as well as to a specific woman's home, as in her place, yet the title uses Her, as opposed to a name, as it was also intended to connote any woman's place or home. At the same time the title is a double entendre of place as in the idiom of knowing her place or her status, as a less powerful, compliant, minor participant. In effect, What Was Learned There refers to the artwork's refusal to accept the expected place or behavior of silent colluder, pretend forgetter, bystander, assistant to the abuser, restricted to a certain domestically respectable view of the home. The actual making of the rubbings was so physically forceful that it raised my ire as I did the work.
My neighbor said she could hear me next door, through the walls and windows, during that long hot summer as I rubbed and scrubbed my way around the Lake House. Flat paper becomes inflected not only with the marks made by the textures of objects, but the paper itself initially retains some of the three-dimensional character of the object when carefully squeezed and caressed during the rubbing process. Compared to the flat section of a monument, war memorial or a tombstone where inscriptions are placed and anonymous members of the public might make their own rubbings, the varied surfaces and structures contained within a home pose numerous physical challenges for the process of making rubbings on brittle tracing paper. But then, once the paper is removed and partially opened or opened completely, the three dimensional object is now stretched. Top, side and bottom are a sequence of shapes on a single two-dimensional plane, recognizable, yet now oddly strange and misshapen, due to the simultaneous view of multiple surfaces. These rubbings were made on tracing paper, which is a tactile medium in some respects; it is much more lightweight than canvas, yet also quite brittle. A heavy seven-foot pine door is transferred on a one-to-one scale, retaining its life size and recognizable features, onto light, frangible paper. This is a transfer from one materiality to another, from an enduring, seventy year old, solidly structured, very particular wooden door, to a fragile material quickly encumbered with rips and tears. The image, the rubbing, the transfer on paper is already facing its material demise, acknowledging its mortality. This is one of the alluring qualities for using rubbings in this artwork, as the rubbing is at once an exact, yet meager rendition of itself; Her Place is house-like, but it is flaccid, floating translucent paper, partially there, partially true but mostly provisional, interrupted by empty spaces. Rubbings have only recently been considered artistic in their own right, as demonstrated in the 2015 historical overview exhibition, Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860 to Now. (15) As Allegra Presenti states in the catalogue,
This singular type of draftsmanship depends on materials and materiality, yet it encapsulates the essence of immateriality...The gesture of rubbing is aggressive, but it can render the lightness of fleeting shadows and the poetic subtleties of form. Through the very act of their making, rubbings are physical witnesses of a place or a moment in time. ...Proportionate with the human scale, they also connect physically to the author and to the beholder through their one-to-one relation with the objects reproduced... A metamorphosis of the rubbed object may arise in that process as well as a revelation of previously unrecognized traces and textures. Appearances become apparitions. (16)
The revelation that arose through the process of making the rubbings for this exhibition was that the specific physical work spurred stories to mind, as previously sparse traces and textures; a physical version of Kuhn's memory work, the metamorphosis was from tactility, to action, to a visual tactile object, to rubbing the dust from memory, to memory stories that connected into a series of stories about family. The exhibition is the metamorphosis of place and objects to artworks that are apparition-like, joining the previously separated and unacknowledged.
The common purpose of rubbings in the west has been documentary. Traditionally, the dry method of rubbing black wax on paper intentionally documented Brasses of tombs and sepulchres in England, in particular, during the 19th Century. Rubbings' cultural purposes then were to capture information about people. They document names, titles, dates, and geographical place, as well as visual information about clothing. (17) Hence, they have also provided a biographical function. These rubbings employed in the service of anthropology made it possible to bring together carefully detailed images of massive, unmovable sculptures of people (mostly men) from the military, the ecclesiastical and academic fields, as well as from civilian life, which includes some women and children, into one archival cataloguing venue. We might think of these rubbings as 'backward looking', with a view toward the past. Whereas China has a long history of using ink imprints, similar looking to dry rubbings, yet it is a wet method for reproducing carved calligraphy, texts and images, that were meant for archival but mostly educational purposes, not particularly biographical. (18) We might think of education as being 'forward looking,' with a view toward the future. With this mix of memorial, archival, sepulchral, biographical, geographical and educational histories of rubbings in mind, and the physical experience that equates to cleaning, which is also forward looking, the rubbing process brings additional weight, or appropriateness of material process to form, in Her Place. This large artwork refers simultaneously to a place of memory, to biographies, to looking back on loss and death, in addition to being a place currently lived in, so looking forward, yet a source of ambivalence and disquiet. The artwork alludes to a gendered place where secrets are whispered in graphite.
In this exhibition, I was interested in creating a setting, like a stage of a home with the various sheets of paper. Just prior to hanging the exhibition, I realized that the rubbings themselves did not convey the memories, the stories or narratives that had erupted for me while working in the Lake House. As a means to open these narratives of the home, to bring the secrets into the exhibition, rather than have traditional art gallery wall labels for each individual rubbing, I decided to use rubbings of framed oil paintings from the Lake House to which I then added text as titles. These framed titles were placed as if they were decorations on the wall, beside their corresponding rubbing: Hammock; Hair Tub; Dyslexic Curtains; Father's Dresser; Trespass; Impossible Impassable Hallway; Incest Ceiling. The photo here is of Trespass, which was placed beside Stairs. I liked the juxtaposition of text where the framed artwork should be on the wall of a home, interspersed between the fragile translucent yet dusty shadows limply hanging where a solid house should be. A year after the exhibition I realized that these paintings / titles were consistent with Evan Imber-Black's four categories of secrets: sweet, essential, toxic and dangerous. (19) For example, Hammock is a kind of sweet secret, shared with and for the benefit of another; Hair Tub refers to an essential secret, as between matriarch and daughter, a secret shared to promote wellbeing at a time of adolescent development. Dyslexic Curtains betrays the visible evidence of a learning disability that haunted a matriarch's life; it is a toxic secret, held since early childhood when her educators delivered it as condemnation. A toxic relationship with education has rebounding effects across generations, permeating how daughters, descendants, even those without learning disabilities, consider their own intelligence and education. Father's Dresser and Incest Ceiling reveal dangerous secrets where someone is at risk and abuse is present. After the fact, once the abuse has passed, although not revealed, a dangerous secret also becomes a toxic secret.
Acknowledging these secrets, not only through following the impetus to make the specific rubbings that I chose to make, but by adding the titles, I now felt that the secrets had permeated my skin, had invaded the Lake House and my experience of it. And, they were out in the world. The titles made it apparent that I was very clear about the narratives surrounding the secrets. Secrets tend to be biographical; however, my focus was the narratives and their implications, not particular biographies. Making the rubbings transitioned my relationship to this inherited home from nostalgic childhood memory to adult despair. Perhaps my own cruel determination to set myself apart from the tarnished family past is what has provoked me to find a way to refuse the nostalgia, convey the unspoken, to unleash the secrets, to shake them out.
Four Rubbings and What Was Learned
After the exhibition, I turned to writing the dissertation. If I were not required to write about the artmaking, the process of arriving at this exhibition, the curatorial decisions, I wouldn't have. My personal aftermath made this much more difficult than writing a report to document the working process. How was I going to explain any of this? Was an explanation needed? A description? How much needed to be said? In the midst of wondering, I read Orhan Pamuk's novel, My Name is Red, (20) which is structured through a succession of first person accounts given by people, dead and alive, by ordinary objects, artworks and red paint. If red paint, a gold coin or a drawing of a tree could speak as a particular physical entity in a novel, could a house speak in my dissertation? Could a family home? How would a building or a home think? What would it notice? What patterns of movement, and pause, as Tuan pointed out, would define the perceptions of a home? Would each room have a unique vision or experience of its inhabitants? Would a home have morals? Given Krasner's specific emphasis on tactility within the home as a form of intimacy (21), and my idea of the haptics of home that adds the kinesthetic and spatial to Krasner's definition, would the home notice the physical interplay of bodies against its surfaces, contained within its spaces?
The house responding to the bodies of those within it, the house as a body intimately connected to dwellers' bodies, seemed appropriate to the narratives and secrets within Her Place, that were mostly about bodies or things made with bodies. Perhaps it could then notice affect, or the emotion of the inhabitants, the anxiety, tension, pleasure, anger. I decided that although a house may not have morals, as they are culturally defined, it could notice patterns, patterns of movement. This was the next step in trying to find a methodology for exploring the complex web of family interactions. Narrative became a thread running through my writing, narration of my sensory experiences at the Lake House, writing from memories, poetic writing relating to my artwork, the rubbings, the secrets. Vera Caine, et al., (22) discuss the uses of fiction in qualitative research, specifically in written narrative inquiry. The three main reasons they found for researchers to choose fictionalization are: 1) to protect and blur the identities of participants and the site of research--pseudonyms being the common use of fiction in research; 2) to create an Other to tell more; 3) to create 'As if worlds. Pseudonyms, third-person narrators, and the creation of 'as if worlds serve, where "fictionalization can be understood as analysis in another manner, creating another layer to deepen awareness." (23) By adding the voice of the house for each of the framed titles, I explored these uses of fiction through an imaginative process of trying to "think like a home." Italics are incorporated for each narrative in response to its corresponding rubbing and title. Below are four of these narratives: Hair Tub, an essential secret; Father's Dresser, a dangerous secret that became a toxic secret; Stairs, a toxic secret; and Incest Ceiling, a dangerous secret that became a toxic secret.
I am always here, a soft echo, alone, warmly caressing their legs, their delicate flanges. Two matriarchs now stand beside me. The elder matriarch speaks, tilted at the waist, a timber about to fall, to the limber matriarch, adolescent, swinging slightly on the medicine closet door. "You will become a woman. And now once a month, you will have blood. You will have to use these pads. Attach them with this belt." She hands the limber matriarch white objects inside her closed fist, which the girl then holds behind her back. "You will have to shave. But don't shave your thighs. Just under your arms and your legs. Don't cut yourself." She holds up a metal razor then places it back on the shelf. The girl's head slants, eyeing between the open folds of the matriarch's bathrobe to those darkly gloomy thighs. Hair, blood, these bodily expulsions and discharges interfere and compel, repugnant to the matriarch and therefore to the girl, imposing a good deal of subterfuge and hiding on their way in or out of my room. Nonetheless, I contain, then, swallow their discharges.
This memory spurred the rubbing of the bathroom and bathtub. I had waterproofed the leaky faucet, stuffed it with plastic bags to do the rubbing of it. So much shame around the materiality of womanhood: the breasts, the bras, the blood, the log-sized sanitary pads, the elastic sanitary pad belt contraption (before temporary adhesives were invented), and the hair. While bent over the tub, I found the rubbing with the stick of graphite incredibly tedious, much more so than washing the tub with water and a sponge, which is smooth and easy to flick around in an arc and cover much of the area of the tub. The surface of the old metal tub is mottled enough or curved enough to ensure that the flat graphite stick only struck points, producing long hair-like strands in vertical black lines, around the tub. It was perfect: the lines pushed forward the notion of hair which by association represented the undesirable, unseemly, unpredictable, uncomfortable, visible and invisible aspects of the sexuality of a woman.
If this is a woman's house, the memory of learning about sexuality is certainly alive in the house, found in the various corners, bathrooms, bathtubs and showers, in the sharpness of a razor transparently coated in leg blood, in the bathroom cupboards, the discreetly placed cardboard boxes, in the red and pink stained toilet water, in the garbage pails where the sanitary pads were hidden and hopefully invisible, inside the drawers and in the mirror of the vanity, and in the dampness clinging to the towel.
I am unremarkable. Ebony stained, plain drawers adorned with circular marquetry pull handles, a singular curve of the smaller top two drawers, distinguish me as a gentleman patriarch's dresser. And from a line of gentlemen patriarchs I come. There are discreet metal-lined keyholes in each of my five dark drawers, but I do not recall the feel of key recently in any one of them. (Do matriarch dressers have locks in them?) Why, you might ask, would a gentleman patriarch require locks for his socks and underwear, his sweaters or weekend pants while his work clothes hang openly on hangers in the closet? Why, indeed. So many locks. A puzzle of suggestion. Of unease and disquiet, suspicion and dread. Was it for the worried one that I was originally intended or was he one in a continuing line of recipients of patriarchal symbols of ownership, dominance and control?
The worried one packs more into my drawers than his socks. He shoves in the woolen balls, pushes them into every corner, no air between; sheaves of paper with strange lettering underneath, envelopes harboring their missives, smaller ones holding tiny hard objects, a hand softened Bible to one side. Belt done up. Belt undone. A snake, curled in a spiral, waiting.
These top drawers live in suffocated remorse. Socks are innocuous. Who would suspect?
The pants and sweaters rotate in rows of regret. Colour blind combinations, worn threads, sweat marks. Surfaces scratched with anxiety. Pockets filled. Pockets emptied. Flies done up with determination, or relief.
Long after one of the patriarchs was gone, a neighbour came by. There had been a professional confidence in his late elder years. But in sharing it, "I think you will want to know this," it became an overdue secret, a secret cracked open. How to say it? How to put it? Well, the patriarch came for a massage seeking solace in the face of chronic pain. He was raped, he said. By a Catholic priest. As a teenager. Sixteen.
How did he begin confiding the story? What words did he use? What impelled him to tell - at such a late age? Did he know - expect - hope - fear -that the professional confidence would be transferred, transforming a secret into a revelation ? Or a revulsion ? A secret that changes everything. Explains everything. Doesn't it? Or was it an intended excuse for repetition? Where to put it? Wliere to put it? What to do with it? It doesn't fit horizontally into any of my drawers. It doesn't fold and flatten and stack. It doesn't follow pleats or creases. Perhaps more like socks, lucky to be a pair, rolling consoling together, inside becoming outside, suffering the whole into a bulging unbearably compressible mound. Easy to shove around. Easy to squeeze. Swallowing all the air in my sullen sock drawer.
Am I unremarkable? A secret that changes everything. Explains everything. Does it? Can a secret do that, like god or religion? Or was it an intended excuse for repetition?
Every night he stalks, stubborn tomcat, intent on a mysterious hunt. Up and down, weather worn leather from ill-fitting slippers rasps across each of my steps. Grasping, stroking my railing with each lift, hauling one flank, then the other.
Not a creak I creak not Not a creak I creak not Not a creak I creak not Not a creak I creak not Not a creak I creak not Not a creak I creak not My silence is my loyalty
Where should you be right now? I ask him. But he shakes his head. He refuses to answer. Why he does not return to his elder matriarch but goes instead to his limber matriarch - like a cleaner - intent on doing what must be done. It is a pattern. I couldn't tell you how often it repeats. At a certain point it does change. He is slow and fragile, stiff and crippled, unable to climb my stairs, unable to traverse my hallways or to sit on my porch wearing his soft blue cardigan into the dusk. I try to be welcoming. I try to heal them all, despite the lonely ones and the closed doors. I want them to return.
Here I am. In all four corners at the same time. Balanced atop these four walls. Opposite from the floor but not opposed to the floor. As I am both above and below the floor. I am always between floors. I surround, cover, offer essential protection. I am fully and completely desired. There is no survival without me. The walls may hold by the sides, but I spread more resolutely as I would still be desired without the presence of walls. Escape is always possible. I am an unrestraining necessity.
Assumptions are made about me: Paint with flat white latex. Smooth and dry. Friend of cobwebs. Silent. Placid. Unambitious. Unadorned. Undecorated.
But I am none of these things. I am screaming. Screaming into the dawn. Black shadows stab defeated crows across me. The walls have betrayed me and closed in. The window is a dream I had. It isn't really there. The bed below me is wet. Sloshing in vomit from the sheets. Rusty screeching and thumping above. Contemptible corners and floors anchor me. Light fixture pins me. I would fold along my seams. Collapse and crash the sloshing bed, puncture the irons springs. I would fly open the walls. Disassemble this house. Ricocheting floor boards return to be clenched between the teeth of all broken ceilings. There is no room, there are no walls, I have fled.
This writing did not feel like academic writing, these brief slices of narrative, mostly poetic, imaginative forms. In trying to conjure how a house might think, I had to pinpoint specific moments of the house's bodily awareness of its dwellers, or rather, the house's awareness of the dwellers' bodies in motion, as the producers of noise and bodily fluids. Annette Kuhn notes that memory work produces idiosyncratic "texts:"
Particularly prominent among the peculiar characteristics of memory texts is a rather distinctive organization of time: in memory texts, time tends not to be fully continuous or sequential...The memory text is typically a montage of vignettes, anecdotes, fragments, 'snapshots', flashes...Memory texts, being metaphorical rather than analogical, have more in common with poetry than with classical narrative. (24)
The juxtaposition of the familiar lived experience of Mezei's "domestic effects," with the haptics of home, the range of family secrets, and all of the fraught loyalties, disloyalties, supports and disappointments, memories, power structures and knowledge systems that might come to light or be questioned within an academic context, and are at the heart of this inquiry, are all hinted at through a work of visual art. Candace Stout and Vittoria Daiello (25) advocate for creative practitioners to use expressive writing as a means to dig out, formulate and articulate what is underlying, although perhaps vaguely apparent, but significant, in their art work: "Writing toward the articulation of an evocative, elusive awareness brings the slippery qualities of the creative process into tangible form." (26) Creative writing invites the inquiring artist/writer to connect their writing thinking with their studio thinking. Moving simultaneously through personal experience, creative practice, written articulation while securing theoretical framing was supported by the interdisciplinary breadth and flexibility of family methodology. Writing has provided an anchor that has kept me close to the project while still allowing me to move around its circumference.
Inheritance - Disheritance
Her Place is of an inherited home, disclosing an excess of memories. Bailey's "Necessary Betrayals," has provided a framework for thinking about inheritance. She footnotes the term, "genealogical refusal," (27) a term to describe when a researcher of a family member resists a romantic biographical interpretation of the ancestor. There is no glossing over or omission of undesirable information. She describes the dilemma for the researcher: "The researcher's 'relationship' with his/her ancestral subject may become threaded with family lore, shame and pride, the trope of bloodlines, and significantly, the identity work of the researcher." (28) In particular, this idea of "the trope of bloodlines" has been significant to my work. Why should they matter, those tropes, those "bloodlines"? Can inheritors reject obligations of belonging when ethically the obligations of secrecy harbored there are abhorrent?
Inheritances are properties, such as this Lake House, which included objects of every description. Inheritances are biological, apparent in our physical bodies. The study of the genealogical is a sociological practice validating physical and biological inheritance, as well as social class and social status inheritance. Social status, racial, cultural, and economic forces shape our inheritances and shape which family narratives are told. What may accompany any of these inheritances are the narratives that flesh them out, bring them character; establish timelines, explanations, expectations and agreements about what is in and what is out of the established narrative. Some of these narratives bring empty traces, dead ends and questions. Inheritances are unpredictable, sometimes desperately sought or, sometimes, completely undesirable. They spur emotion. Mine is anger. And, grief.
Harold "Bud" Goodall, in his research regarding his parents, used the term "Narrative Inheritance," (29)
to describe the afterlives of the sentences used to spell out the life stories of those who came before us. What we inherit narratively from our forebears provides us with a framework for understanding our identity through theirs. It helps us see our life grammar and working logic as an extension of, or a rebellion against the way we story how they lived and thought about things, and it allows us to explain to others where we come from and how we were raised in the continuing context of what it all means. (30)
But, he acknowledges, we don't always inherit a sense of completion. "We too often inherit a family's unfinished business, and when we do, those incomplete narratives are given to us" - he says "to complete," (31) but I do not assume that completion is possible. We can flesh out the shadows in an ever more provisional way, perhaps. Potential inheritance material then, could include physical places, objects, and their stories; blood and biology, as validation; stories as plausible explanations; beliefs and defenses; and emotional 'contracts.' Completion, closure, coming to terms, understanding, acceptance, forgiveness? No, not necessarily. Why do we expect this? The genealogical refusal proposed by Bailey has provided a significant personal and theoretical framework that allows me to step aside from implicit assumptions of acceptance, just because it's family, and reconsider the narrative, the memories, and bodily inheritances that happen to us. I make a claim for disinheritance. This does not arrive without cost. As Krasner points out, grief is not just an emotional state, but is a condition embodied as postures in specific locations within the home (32), whereas, "[u]nlike visual memorializing - dwelling on pictures, reimagining scenes from the past - bodily memorializing emerges spontaneously from habitual bodily acts." (33) The making of Her Place demonstrates, perhaps, a specific haptic response to grief.
Although the studio project is finished for the moment, this writing continues. Amy Prodromou (34) considers modes of dealing with grief and loss in memoirs written by women who "attempt to understand the ambiguity of grief; to avoid 'redemptive tropes'" (35) and "the almost endemic pervasiveness of what ...has [been] called 'the recovery arc' in many narratives dealing with loss." (36) The author sees "grief as a complex process, and recovery as 'textured' and ambiguous." (37) Much like Bailey's "trope of bloodlines" the trope of redemption is perhaps not only not realistic for me, but also not necessary or desirable. I wonder whether grief that is almost entirely spurred by anger offers a different cycle or process. Grief is about the past; as I said above, grief can be a response to what was, as well as to what wasn't. It is difficult to project anger about what wasn't, the narrative gap, into the future; it would be aspirational to create something altogether different.
As I continue to live around and in this inherited home, surrounded by the biographies of many things and people in this multigenerational place, the temporalities are constantly shifting. I have sorted through many stories. I have made a decision without choosing it. I am anchored here, for now, through my senses. How memory, affect, loss or grief arrive, proceed and form a confluence when concentrated through the sensorium are at work in Her Place.
(1) Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (New York: Verso, 2002), 9.
(2) Ibid., 9.
(3) Ibid., 14.
(4) Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
(5) Ibid., 73.
(6) Ibid., 136.
(7) Ibid., 138.
(8) Ibid., 164.
(9) Kathy Mezei, "Domestic Space and the Idea of Home in Auto/biographical Practices," in Tracing the Autobiographical, eds. Marlene Kadar, Linda Warley, Jeanne Perreault, and Susanna Egan (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005).
(10) Ibid., 81-82.
(11) Jennifer Fisher, "Relational Sense: Towards a Haptic Aesthetics," Parachute: Contemporary Art Magazine 87 (July-September 1997).
(12) Ibid., 5.
(13) James Krasner, Home Bodies: Tactile Experience in Domestic Space (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010).
(14) Ibid., 5.
(15) Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings From 1860-Now (Hammer Museum, Los Angeles: February 7-May 31, 2015 and The Menil Collection, Houston: September 11, 2015-January 3, 2016).
(16) Allegra Presenti, Apparitions: Frottages and Rubbings from 1860-Now (Houston: The Menil Collection and Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2015), 23.
(17) Sarah Glover, "Highlights of the British Collection: Brass Rubbings and Monumental Brasses," Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology, University of Oxford, accessed January 3, 2016, http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/brass-rubbings/brass-rubb-intro.html.
(18) See for example Alice Schneider, "Records from Stone," Field Museum Bulletin (June 1982): 12-17, accessed March 17, 2016, http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chineserubbings/pdf/Junel982_Bulletin.pdf.: Steve Strohmeier, "The Chinese Rubbings Project: Preserving a Fascinating Cultural Resource," In The Field (Winter 2006-7): 4-5, accessed March 17, 2016, http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chineserubbings/pdf/ITF_China.pdf.
(19) Evan Imber-Black, The Secret Life of Families: Truth-Telling, Privacy and Reconciliation in a Tell-All Society (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1998), 13-16.
(20) Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red (Ontario: Vintage Books, 2002).
(21) James Krasner, Home Bodies: Tactile Experience in Domestic Space (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010), 15.
(22) Vera Caine, M. Shaun Murphy, Andrew Estefan, D. Jean Clandinin, Pamela Steeves, and Janice Huber, "Exploring the Purposes of Fictionalization in Narrative Inquiry," Qualitative Inquiry 23, no. 3 (2017): 216-17. doi: 10.1177/1077800416643997.
(24) Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (New York: Verso, 2002), 162.
(25) Candace Jesse Stout and Vittoria Daiello, "Arts Based Writing: The Performance of Our Lives," in Handbook of Arts-based Research, ed. Patricia Leavy (New York: Guilford Publications, 2017), 608-631.
(26) Ibid., 623.
(27) Lucy E. Bailey, "Necessary Betrayals: Reflections on Biographical Work on a Racist Ancestor," Vitae Scholasticae 26, no. 1 (2009): 113.
(28) Ibid., 117.
(29) H.L. Goodall, Jr., "Narrative Inheritance: A Nuclear Family with Toxic Secrets," Qualitative Inquiry 11, no. 4 (2005), doi: 10.1177/1077800405276769.
(30) Ibid., 497.
(32) James Krasner, Home Bodies: Tactile Experience in Domestic Space (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2010), 21.
(33) Ibid., 39.
(34) Amy Prodromou, "'That Weeping Constellation': Navigating Loss in 'Memoirs of Textured Recovery,'" Life Writing 9, no. 1 (2012), doi:10.1080/14484528.2012.643453.
(35) Ibid., 71.
(36) Ibid., 72.
(37) Ibid., 72.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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