Notes from tutorial with Mark Leahy
I am going towards the fantastical, the impossible, the storybook with the furniture piece. This will incorporate hidey-holes, pop-outs, jointed arms that can be pulled out, internal lighting, mismatched heights, etc. It may incorporate several stand-alone pieces that can be joined to each other if wanted. It needs to be constructed of elements from various time periods, with a range of textures, surfaces, designs etc. It does not need to be able to fold up and conceal all the elements which appear to be folded out, but it should appear that this might be possible, if one knew the secret.
Wallpaper does not have to be on a wall, it could equally be on a hanging screen, or a room divider
Wallpaper does not have to be paper, 'wallpaperness' needs to be considered too. Drawn onto the wall directly, projected, decoupaged...
Strategic lighting would be a way to highlight and interfere with objects and projections.
My next steps are:
- check out Holly Pester's record/book
- start collecting furniture and furniture pieces - hinges, knobs, anglepoise arms, odd legs - to experiment with combinations. Meet with Jude to discuss if a purpose-built section or framework might be useful
- experiment with projecting living-wallpaper onto different surfaces
- mock up a wallpaper design for screenprinting and digital printing, to compare
- get the sound files ready for vinyl cutting and consider the appearance of the disc itself
Damask wallpaper is a motif in Laura Phillips' solo show I Felt Like the Sound of a Harp. Most noticeably is the balloon-with-wallpaper-print type object that appears in the video work, but there are also traces of a similar pattern in some of the fabric hangings. Phillips has cited Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper as an influence, as well as Tina Keane's Faded Wallpaper (1988), both of which I refer to in a previous post. In Phillips' work, the wallpaper reference could be read as a visual anchor, a counter to the dissociative states she references, and a reminder that they occur in a mind that is attached to a physical body, and that that physical body is still capable of visual perception of its surroundings, though they may be rendered frightening or absurd or unreal. The Pneumatic Institute, on which this show is based, was the location of Humphrey Davy's laughing gas experiments, and I assume that is the reason for the balloon motif. For me, however, given my own investigations into wallpaper, it reads as a reminder that 'reality' is precarious, and the way we decorate our environments cannot change that. Gilding, one might call it. Not in the sense of gilding the lily; more like using plastic surgery to try to fix a lack of self-esteem.
Tonight, watching her perform with her improv-ensemble Viridian in accompaniment to the show, the wallpaper was very present again, this time in the live digital and 16mm projections. The vocal aspect of the performance, seemingly inspired by laughing gas, was almost unbearable; pained, hysterical and gasping. In this setting, the wallpaper seemed like a point of hope. As if, could one only hold onto it, dissociation might be avoided.
Review of the show
The above images are of postcards from The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, which was operational between 1850 and 1939. One of its pupils was a young girl called Eirene Botting (born 1899), who later became known as Antonia White, writer of four autobiographical novels known collectively as Frost in May (also the title of the first of the four novels), among other works. The fourth novel in this collection, Beyond the Glass, contains a description of the author's own experience of what would probably now be called psychosis, following (or perhaps resulting from) a period of mania which could be interpreted as indicative of bipolar disorder. The preceding novel, The Sugar House, documents a very unhappy period immediately before that, which could be described as a depression.
Sherah Kristen Wells has stated that White represents psychosis in her writing "as a dissolution of subjectivity"* (which Wells analyses using Luce Irigaray's theories). However, she also says that "female subjectivity is positively constructed" by White, "specifically through the presentation of Catholicism"*. I am planning to make the trip up to Warwick to read the complete thesis, as only the abstract is available online.
I wonder if Wells finds a connection between the effects of a strict Catholic upbringing and mental illness. White herself writes critically of the convent and of the demands of Catholicism, and the effects of the "breaking of one's will and re-setting it in God's own way"**. In The Sugar House, for example, she relates that one of her greatest fears as a child was "dying unprepared and going to hell forever"**, an idea that was instilled in her as a very real consequence of any number of sins by both her parents and her guardians at the convent. She also describes an episode when she had broken school rules (talking too much), for which her punishment was to take her First Communion alone, months after her friends had all taken theirs together. These experiences haunted her, and she was clearly preoccupied throughout her adult life with feelings of fear, guilt and inadequacy: fear of sin, fear of and guilt about wanting to sin, fear of judgement from her elders or superiors, fear of her own pubic hair which "she thought meant she was being turned into an animal as a result of having inadvertently committed some terrible sin"**.
As far as I can find, it is not generally accepted that The Sugar House describes the signs of the onset of psychosis. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes these as including: a worrisome drop in performance, trouble thinking clearly, a decline in self-care or personal hygiene, spending a lot more time alone than usual, and strong, inappropriate emotions or having no feelings at all. White's experience in her first marital home (The Sugar House is the fictional name given to this real house in Chelsea, due to its "pink distempered walls", "gay colours", "primrose walls and arty rush mats") contains many of these signs: ("the paralysed lethargy", "no purpose in her mind", "impotence had spread", "her mind refused to bite on anything at all", "as if she weren't a real person"). According to the NAMI, another early sign of psychosis is hearing, seeing, tasting or believing things that others don’t, which begins in The Sugar House and continues in Beyond the Glass, often relating to interiors ("everything seemed to have a significance beyond itself"). White's fictionalised portrayal of herself, who she names Clara Batchelor, feels at times that the walls are almost imperceptibly moving inwards and that mirrors will lead to unspecified terrors. "As if it were dangerous to think too much, she jumped up from the chair. Immediately she was conscious of the number of mirrors in the tiny space. Three different angles of her head and shoulders and one full-length figure sprang towards her... For a moment it was an effort to remember that this was not... a room in a horrible story." Here the church's lasting effect on her is evident too: "on the corner of the opposite pavement was... a Catholic church... like the intrusion of a firm Nannie into the nursery. The intrusion allays panic but it reduces the magic palace once again to toy bricks" (see a coincidentally similar idea here). This "not-quite-real" environment, combined with the realisation that her new husband is childish in both his behaviour and his interests (he buys her an extremely expensive train set for her birthday, with their rent money), result in Clara beginning to perceive her home as something like a doll house (though this description is not actually used by White), and herself as trapped inside it. She begins to act accordingly, like an abandoned doll, unable to motivate herself to perform even simple tasks, and growing to hate the home she fell in love with and begged her husband to rent, though incapable of doing anything that might involve going outside it.
Wallpaper does not feature in the description of the Sugar House. I have sometimes felt that if she had had something unchanging to hold onto, an anchoring visual point, it might have helped. A trellis of damask, stretching and contracting in zigzag repeats, might have given the sweetly plastered, shifting, mirrored walls a trustworthy plane, measurable by motif and scale. Patterns can soothe in their repetition, if one focuses on counting, like I used to in my bedroom at Church Road. This focus is a type of mindfulness, anchoring the mind in the present experience of viewing, and therefore confirming subjectivity - ("I am looking"). But in writing this I remember again The Yellow Wallpaper, and how it became a stage for imagination and delusion. Patterns can also be an entryway, like in my grandparents' bathroom, where the wallpaper's pattern became three-dimensional when I relaxed my eyes, as did those Magic Eye pictures in the 90s (below). This non-focus might be more akin to dissociation, when perception alters to allow illusion, or delusion, or revelation. This could indeed be a "dissolution of subjectivity" as Wells has described*, and as Perkins Gilman has demonstrated. Patterns could lead one out of oneself. I was always able to blink hard, or shake my head, and my grandparents' bathroom wallpaper would return to the flat plane it had been before. Maybe I was lucky.
References and further reading:
* Wells, Sherah Kristen (2009) 'Another world,/its walls are thin': psychosis and Catholicism in the texts of Antonia White and Emily Holmes Coleman. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
** Hopkinson, L. P. (1988) Nothing to Forgive: A Daughter's Life of Antonia White. London: Chatto & Windus
"Who owns… a haunted house? Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent… must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it"
Jan Verwoert, Living With Ghosts
(Let's assume that there's no problem with the term 'haunted' - which I'm primarily defining for the purposes of this essay as the following: a place, object or person which is frequented or inhabited by ghosts, as well as considering its other meanings: preoccupied or obsessed; disturbed, distressed or worried. 'Ghost', then, needs some clarification too. For my purposes, it may mean any or all of the following: the intangible remainder of a dead person - sometimes described as their disembodies soul or spirit; a mere shadow or semblance; a trace; or a remote possibility. These terms are used in this essay as devices for thought only - not to support or deny any religious or spiritual hypothesis).
Verwoert's choice of the word 'dead' is an interesting one, implying that some objects are 'living'. Indeed, he describes some objects as living 'throughout time'. I have described my grandmother's journal - source material for Relic (2016) - as a dead document, and I would be inclined to use Verwoert's words to describe it too. It has passed into my possession, and yet it is her life, constructed from her words which are chosen to communicate her remembrances. What I hold is an object, yes, made of paper and ink. But what it contains is something which I cannot own, something which grows inside my imagination as I piece together an identity out of a combination of the person I remember, younger versions of that person which I have seen in images, this information she has chosen to share with me, the stories my grandfather and father tell, and the historical information available about the years in which she lived. It is, like many books, a dialogue between the writer and the reader, conveyed using the arbitrary signs we accept as 'writing'. The word 'dead', then, is accurate only to a point. The paper is old. The entries bear dates which are in the past, and reference past events in present tense. The pages show wear. The sellotape which fixes photos and newspaper clippings to some of the pages is yellow and has lost its stick. The writer is dead. The writing will not be added to (at least not by her). As far as we know, the mind which produced this text has now died, in the sense that she no longer interacts with the world as we perceive it. But the dialogue continues. In the way we are currently able to define the word, I am 'alive' and I still imagine, remember, suppose and enquire about her life. The journal still reveals things to me which seem more contemporary than the date at the top of the page they're written on. In 1993, Jacques Derrida coined the term 'hauntology', referring to a situation of temporal, ontological and historical disjunction, in which the seeming presence of being is superseded by a deferred non-origin. This is represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive."** He borrows from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the time is out of joint". It has been written that the concept of hauntology is a close relative of psychogeography*, which also states that any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history is inevitably dependent on an existing set of conditions, thus making "haunting the state proper to being as such,"*** and agreeing with Verwoert that one's grip must be loosened, and the object invoked.
In the 2000s, hauntology was used in reference to paradoxes found in late modernity, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of the 'retro', particularly in aesthetic terms, as well as the incapacity to escape old social forms. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds have used the term to critique art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures."*/***
Derrida played a major role in getting the similarly themed, and chronologically earlier, work of psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok to larger audiences. Their work in question concerned transgenerational communication, and in particular the idea that "undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes".** In their case, a 'phantom' is "the presence of a dead ancestor in the living Ego, still intent on preventing its traumatic and usually shameful secrets from coming to light".** Unlike a traditional ghost story - in which the phantom might return from the dead in order to reveal something forgotten, or hidden, or to right a wrong, or to deliver a otherwise unheeded message - in Abraham and Torok's scenario the phantom is dishonest; it intends to mislead the haunted subject and to ensure the continued shrouding of its secret. In their case, "phantoms are not the spirits of the dead, but ‘les lacunes laissées en nous par les secrets des autres’."** The effect of this theory about phantoms with regards to ghost stories would have to be that fiction is a medium through which to encrypt the secrets of past generations, rather than simply a way to communicate imagined (or even observed) supernatural phenomena.
So, coming back to Verwoert, we could attempt to expand his view that "the object of appropriation… must today be made to speak not only of its place within the structural order of the present material culture but also of the different times it inhabits and the different historical vectors that cross it"^, in the direction of the psychoanalytical. If we supposed, for example, that his "object of appropriation" was a secret, then we would conclude that this secret must not be considered in isolation, but in terms of all its contexts - temporal, geographical, political, etc - both in the present of the considering, but also in the "historical vectors that cross it". Suppose, for example, that a daughter kept secret her knowledge about a parent's infidelity. It would certainly seem reasonable that she would need to consider this secret in relation to her relationship with that parent now, but also then, at the time of discovery, as well as at certain temporal points between those. Further, it would impact upon her relationship with the parent she had not told, and siblings, and friends, and her perception of herself as, perhaps, 'loyal' or 'deceptive' or 'alibi'; depending on who she was considering herself in relation to, and at what moment of their relationship.
Perhaps now is a good moment to go back to my consideration of furnishings, as written about in a recent post. Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper, for example, could be considered in Verwoert's terms, I would suggest. Let's take his description of appropriation as having "an intense sense of an interruption of temporal continuity, a black-out of historic time".^ It would certainly be possible to attribute interruption of the continuity of time to Perkins Gilman's narrator, trapped as she is in a space of "perfect rest", and surrounded by the wallpaper she detests so much. Perhaps we can consider not the wallpaper but the narrator herself as the appropriated object, given that she has been forced into a context she does not have prior experience of, and into which she did not choose to go. The manifestation of this non-choice (as well as whatever symptoms she apparently displayed that made others choose this for her) is for the wallpaper to begin to take on "a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities"^ in the appropriated object's imagination/perception, resulting at least in part from her displacement. She at times seems to be "neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive,"** as Derrida has described, but in a non-temporality in which her previous experiences, observations and imaginative inventions become equally relevant and equally real. Verwoert is, of course, talking about a post-modern object, not a fictional narrator created before the turn of the 20th century. However, it is an interesting challenge to think about her in this way, as an object displaced from her usual context and yet subject to the various overlapping experiences and "multiplicity of spatialized temporalities"^ inherent within her.
* Gallix, A. (2011). Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation.
** Davis, C. (2005) Hauntology, spectres and phantoms
*** Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
^ Verwoert, J. (2007) Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art
Lisa Stokes, Doll and Shoe Box (1999)
Rachel Joseph (2014) uses the term screened stages to refer to times when a stage appears within a film. She suggests that this inclusion creates a "moment of “liveness” within the cinematic". With reference to Wes Anderson’s films (above, left), she describes how the auteur uses these stages to create "miniaturizations of the mourning process and a working through and communal witnessing of the relinquishment of the mourned-for lost object". I've been asked recently how much nostalgia there is in my work, and I'm frightened of the term. I'm not sure why. It could be because of the warnings present in various writings on media archaeology. It could be due to the arguable lack of gravity in terms such as 'retro' and 'kitsch', though why I might feel my work needs to be grave I couldn't say. Perhaps it is the effect of arts education. Perhaps it is a feeling that borrowing from the past in order to create an atmosphere in the present is somehow cheating. Joseph claims that Anderson's stages within the screen act to "frame both an absent present and love (in combination with grief) for that which has disappeared", which really resonates with me and feels like a kinder definition of what could also be referred to as 'nostalgic'.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the wallcovering takes on various roles including characters both benign and otherwise, stage or backdrop or context, and at times even begins to blend with the narrator's consciousness: "But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it..." Much has been written about the story's portrayal of mental illness, and its role in the Feminist Gothic. It's an interesting contrast to Anderson's films - the first person writing does not allow for the same "communal witnessing" that Joseph has written about. Instead, there is a feeling of witnessing the mind's own machinations, as if the narrator is externalising the flight of ideas she seems to be experiencing, and embodying the wallpaper with these transient figures and moments. In turn, as the relationship with the wallpaper darkens, she begins to read its influence seeping back into the corporeal figures around her: "The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look. It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, - that perhaps it is the paper! (...) I caught Jennie with her hand on it once (...) she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry - asked me why I should frighten her so! (...) I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!" She even begins to display an ownership of and a jealousy towards the paper and the things she perceives in it.
The Yellow Wallpaper is often described as a ghost story, or a Gothic horror complete with the typical distraught female protagonist and repressive male antagonist - "sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes, only one... she keeps still, she... shakes. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!"" - however, that is not perhaps the way it reads today, when terms like 'psychosis' are in everyday usage.
Michelle Massé has discussed the psychoanalytical dimension of the Gothic, claiming that "daydreams and neurotic symptoms are mechanisms of defence used to construct systems that satisfy basic desires while still letting us function adequately in the real world", which was cited by Coraline Dupuy in her writing about Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 film A Tale of Two Sisters (above, right) - an interesting work in terms of its attention to interiors as signifiers. She writes about his use of "colour-coding of the interior", claiming that it indicates that "the locus of anxiety in the film is the house itself" and "invoke(s) a sense of decay and stolen youth". These descriptions could equally be applied to other character-interiors such as The Overlook hotel in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining (above, centre), the almost abandoned apartment building in Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow (below, right and left), the school in Suspiria (below, centre), or the apartment building in J. G. Ballard's High Rise.
And what is it about certain interiors that so convinces us they have personality, agency, an agenda, a persistent history? Perhaps it is due to the unheimlich motifs which populate much of our literature, particularly in childhood (well, mine at least). But perhaps that literature exists because of this suspicion we have about a still interior. Perhaps, then, it is due to the amount of time we tend to spend in our own domestic environs at the age when imagination is forming and awareness expanding, creating a combination of familiarity and uncertainty as the physicality of our homes creeps into our growing perception of things outside our bodies, and coincides with the beginnings of our ability to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future. Alternatively, perhaps it is simply an instinctive mistrust of such man-made environments, that hangs over from the time before they existed.
And what are the ingredients of this suspicion, this feeling that a domestic interior may not be entirely benign? Is a yellow-papered wall enough?
Wes Anderson and the Theatricality of Mourning
The End of Me
Who Speaks, Who Listens, Who Acts
Physical Space as Indicator of Women's Position within Society
Altogether Independent: An Analysis of the Feminist Perspectives of Gilman, Cooper, Woolf and de Beauvoir
'Why don't you remember? Are you crazy?': Korean Gothic and psychosis in A Tale of Two Sisters
Come and Play with Us: The Play Metaphor in Kubrick's The Shining
Glossary of wallpaper terms
Tina Keane - Faded Wallpaper
Flight of ideas
Jean Piaget's Four Cognitive Stages of Child Development
What's behind the wall?
Sound in walls and sound in books and sound bleeding through
Did you make that thrum? Or is that the building?
Tearing down the evidenced box is heady.
Tearing down the ugly map.
Adam liked it, but I don't. I don't at all. Geographical location is not something I need here.
There is mystery, and it's been lost a little. Don't represent. Don't catalogue. Don't 'science' it.
You're a poet more than a scientist, a dreamer more than a technologist. I know you don't really care about how things work, you love not knowing. You use interpretation and language and nuance, not numbers and systems.
There is magic, and it hasn't been found yet. Keep some things back. Be secretive. Be discerning on your audience's behalf. They don't need everything. They don't need to know everything. Do what you do with students' essays - edit. Do what you've done with Chris's film - edit.
Be ruthless, in a kind way.
You don't need to tell a story. There is narrative, without you doing that.
Though you can still choose to.
Marcy said 'we're beyond narrative' - well, I'm not. I want dreams and stories and mysteries and secrets and ghosts and wonder and mechanisms. I want theatre. I want revelation, or concealment, or both. I want intrigue and haunting and shadows.
Rudd, A. (2009). In Defence of Narrative
In 1912 Marcel Duchamp attended Raymond Roussel's play Impressions d'Afrique in Paris. He described the spectacle and therefore Roussel as being responsible for his later work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, having inspired him with contraptions and illusions. And Roussel was "mad about magic"*, describing in his fiction illusory devices and mechanisms. Furthermore, Simon During comments that "he (Roussel) generated his best texts using a secret set of homophonic procedures that arbitrarily determined which phrases could complete particular sections of prose"* and William Clark describes how "one of the most remarkable peculiarities of Locus Solus and Impressions d'Afrique is that nearly all the scenes are described twice. First, we witness them as if they were a ceremony or a theatrical event; and then they are explained to us, by their history being recounted. This is particularly the case in Impressions; the author went to the trouble, after publication, of inserting a slip of green paper on which he suggested that 'those readers not initiated in the art of Raymond Roussel are advised to begin this book at p. 212 and go on to p.455, and then turn back to p. 1 and read to p. 211'",** which is interesting in the light of my writing about Carousel Narratives in a previous post. During goes on to claim that art and magic must be considered as bound together, given that both result from "the same trick"* that "the effect is consecrated as more than it is"*, and the same "deception of not revealing quite how the trick was pulled off"*, and the same "logic that enables something to be invented from nothing much."*
The idea of magic is helpful when considering the presentation of the Ghost Box. As Marina Warner writes, "magic embeds desires in things. Once imbued with power, they acquire different names: relic, icon, talisman, amulet"***, and it seems reasonable to say that the (mostly) rather ordinary items inside the Box have taken on this quality of embedded desire, for me at least, as a result of the context in which I found them and the significance they seem to have when considered together.
Warner also references Derrida's meditations on writing, in which it is claimed that writing is a pharmakon, suggesting that writing is to be considered as detrimental to the potential to think in dialogue with others. It seems to me that a similar conclusion could be drawn about the Ghost Box's contents and their resistance to representation. Despite the vastness of its contents, the box seems to lose its magic when expanded, as if concealment and secrecy is the crux. Which, looking back on that sentence, describes magic pretty well too. The box seems to want an audience (feedback from various methods of presentation is often that people like to hear me tell the story of finding it and to experience the revealing of the contents), like magic does, an audience who are willing to be transported. "To be true conjuring, the scene must be there in the theatre of the cabaret or the room... The characters must, at least in some sense, include the magician, the audience, the stagehands, ideally the security guard. Here and now is all part of the grammar of this art form."****
With thanks to Chris Cook for sparking the idea.
* - During, S., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
** - http://www.variant.org.uk/15texts/Roussel.html
*** - Warner, M., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
**** - Teller in Conversation. Quoted in Brown, D., (2003). Absolute Magic. USA: H&R Magic Books
Sand House Hotel - a chapter of Ghost Box.
Installed as part of Threshold with Jude Bryson-Meehan, at Plymouth Athenaeum 28-30 September 2018