SNOW WHITE / ROSE RED
‘… spectacle, histories, voices, bodies …’ Peggy Phelan, from ‘Uncovered Rectums: disinterring the Rose Theatre (1997)
‘… the splintered trunk pours words and blood so eat my leaves in this mournful forest …” David Peace, from 1980 (2001)
‘… my hand, a fallen rose, lies snow-white on white snows …’ Algernon Charles Swinburne, from ‘Before the Mirror’ (1864)
The drawing board is a map with no references. It’s whiteness, the white paper upon it a seductive snowy labyrinth; a plane that is entirely a vanishing point: an oubliette: a place to forget, a place where one is forgotten. Eye and hand, looking and doing, psychic and physical condense into a vortex of attention that tips me snow-blind and spellbound through its surface. The obsessive processes of my drawing and the solitude of the studio, allow me to conceal and anaesthetise both my flesh and my senses; to fall into a reverie of repetition that both stops and stretches time as the pen walks the invisible paths of the paper. I enter into the poetic and primitive state that is the ‘trance-like suspension of normal habits of thought’ (Robert Graves 1948). It is only the tracings of the ink that can tell of the body that was once here, that can sound a faint echo of my presence. I am secure in this invisible tomb, safe, firm-footed beneath the paper’s slippery surface. The sight of my work does not require me to be seen. At the endgame of this strategy the drawings themselves require no witness – for perhaps, this doubled process of concealment and display is of and for myself, fulfilling the contradictory desire to be both present and absent, the wish to see ones life, and the wish to refute the inevitability that in truly seeing life one faces death…
… but this position can never be tenable if the processes, paradigms, and products of making stake their claims as art. These notions, of the artist and her practice are held in precarious tangibility only by the notion of the other, and not a distant other, but an intimate exterior presence who sees and thinks and feels, who engages, and who brings the agency of their own sensibilities to the actuality of the work. The work must be walked to, not executed, and walked away from. The existence of the work as ‘work’is contingent on its exposing, on its being given up and handed over. I must resist both ‘that form of ecstatically creative jouissance known as destruction’, (Eagleton 2009), and the pleasures of the pain of solitude, of the ‘Waldeinskeit’, of the sense of being alone in the forest. In the end, and at the end, I must not, I cannot, hide.
In the image there are three sets of hands, and three sets of eyes. Tom holds the camera with which the image is captured, whilst Judit and I cradle the rose; our gazes an inverse triangle that centres on the flower. I see this image in triplicate. In the picking and the holding, in the moment of being; as an artist, in the seeing of the image and the knowing of its worth; and as my fearful self, the body that wishes to remain buried, who sees my own hands clumsy and dirty against the delicacy of Judit’s fingers and the pale softness of poor ‘Joan’s’ rose. Hers is, after-all, the body, (sublimated into my own), that we are here to mourn – lost to us, bloodied, in the cold February of 1976, ‘snow-white on white snows’. (Swinburne’s poem, from which this line is taken, was inspired by Whistler’s painting ‘Symphony in White No.2, or ‘The Little White Girl’, one of a suite of three paintings that depict the same model, Whistler’s mistress Joanna Hefferman as wife, mistress, and prostitute). In the moment of facing Tom’s photograph, locked in a self-obsession that rivals that of my drawing, it is my own death, the death of my concealment that I see. I am lain upon the surface of the paper, no longer in the comfort of it’s grave.
The risks inherent in collaboration, (and by this I mean a tricksy friction, not an anodyne production of ‘artwork by committee’), are there for us all. The ‘power’ of the curator, the ‘authenticity’ of the artist, and the ‘narrative determination’ of the author, must all be given up for the more vulnerable positions of uncertain discourse and exposed sincerity, (a quality so easily ridiculed, and which therefore requires a great degree of humble courage to maintain). Our roles are confused, and we are in a sense curating, making, and writing each other, in ways that by necessity demand ‘ experiment and improvisation’ (Irving 2012), in a drama that has no script, and in a place that is not mapped. From a position of knowing, we must campaign both with and against each other to a place where we do not know. If these sentiments sound grandiose in describing an ordinary artistic endeavour, we would do well to remember that it is the ordinary that is in truth the most complex and conflicted of things, and also that art, like evil and humanity, is, perhaps, amongst those things which exist purely for their own sake (Eagleton 2009).
To walk with companions is to walk on fertile, but uncertain ground – and so to keep my footing I will daydream a night-walk; carry something of the sad and the solitary within me, (as will all my co-conspirators keep something of themselves to themselves). For some, for me, the dark places hold the richest seams. In the ‘Inferno’ of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, at the nadir of the inner most circle of frozen hell gravity inverts itself, and the traveller is led down through the bottom into the top, ‘… turned over, we went past the point to which all weights from every part are drawn …’, until, ‘… my guide and I followed that hidden route, to bring us once more to the light of day; and, with no rest from the fatigue of it, we clambered up, [s]he first, till finally I saw the glory of the hidden spheres …’.
Post script: ‘The Rose’.
The Brothers Grimm. Collected early 19th Century.
There was once a poor woman who had two children. The youngest had to go every day into the forest to fetch wood. Once, when she had gone a long way to seek it, a little child, who was quite strong, came and helped her industriously to pick up the wood and carry it home, and then before a moment had passed the strange child disappeared. The child told her mother this, but at first she would not believe it. At length she brought a rose home, and told her mother that the beautiful child had given her this rose, and had told her that when it was in full bloom, he would return. The mother put the rose in water. One morning her child could not get out of bed. The mother went to the bed and found her dead, but she lay looking very happy. On the same morning, the rose was in full bloom.