I surround myself with things that take me elsewhere, just for a moment; a private act of time travel each day. Nothing of particular note to anyone else – a vase, a rowan tree I planted in the garden, a drawing on the wall – yet each is a shortcut to someone or somewhere. A place to stay and rest a while. Yet to remember, and to be reminded, is to simultaneously acknowledge loss. Does that distance grow smaller or larger with each passing visit? Forgetting can be survival but I remember.
where you set
your foot just now
is gone –
giving way to this,
My father died in 2007, while I was at high school. Neither grief nor art had particularly touched my life until that point, and wouldn’t for a few years yet. When I first resurfaced for air, around 20, I wrote about the Cuban-American artist Félix-González-Torres (1957-1996), and one work in particular – a modest, painful meditation on looking back and the past looking back at you. González-Torres made Untitled (Orpheus, Twice) in 1991 – the year I was born. At 20 it reflected back my adulthood; a passage back to life. Two mirrors – or just one, divided – of equal size, human in scale. Side by side on the wall, a gap of an inch or so separates them. The twin mirrors affirm and negate the self all at once – a split witness– as the self-portrait continually vanishes and reappears. In classical myth, Orpheus was the musician so gifted he could make the Gods weep, but his great error was looking back too soon, losing his beloved Eurydice in the process. The viewer is punished for looking, for looking connotes losing. The second mirror, beyond the vision of the self, becomes a symbolic passageway to somewhere illusory, a place inaccessible to the living. Is all looking to lose?
To read the work as the personal reflection of the artist, we see González-Torres cast as Orpheus, and Ross Laycock as Eurydice, his disappearing lover whose untimely death from AIDS-related complications led to the piece’s creation. This mirror portrait becomes a tragic, spectral, reminder of Ross. Yet González-Torres’ instinctive generosity as an artist can also hold the universal – a container for our own specular projections and encounters with loss. I went looking for Dad and found only a shadow. And yet a mirror-image is generative; there is discovery.
‘To look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.’
Some years later at art school, I encountered the work in person for the first time. At that moment, I saw myself at 20, reflected, writing back time in a university bedroom. Untitled (Orpheus, Twice), at one level, is a work about time – what we do with it and what time does to us. With each encounter we are different. The shadowy outline just there grows larger, lighter, woollier, softer with each visit. Holding two temporalities together is accepting their slip from grip; looking its own kind of letting go.
What is it to inherit? A genealogy of things? If not a material transaction, is it to reanimate what has come before you? Japanese artist Yuko Mohri listens to remember. In 2012, she inherited a collection of handmade instruments from Victor Clark Searle, an American immigrant to Japan after World War II. Mohri reconfigured them into an idiosyncratic orchestra of sorts, making music from fragments of a life lived. Her installation, I/O: Chamber for a musical composer (2014), hums a tune of dust and dirt. Suspended rolls of paper touch the ground as they move along it, picking up particles in the air and from the floor, the paper becoming inscribed in the process. This notation is then read as a musical score and automatically played by Searle’s musical instruments in a Fluxus-like requiem. The work lives in the present continuous. Each instrument plays again, but the refrain is improvised, makeshift, stripped of the knowledge from where it came.
I too recently inherited some objects – an incongruent set of four Byzantine Russian icons; no bigger than a postcard, some luminous, some weathered. Not ‘real’ icons, but simulacra. They belonged to my late uncle, a librarian and great Russophile. The images – culled from postcards or pages from books – have been pasted onto wooden blocks, lending them a curious objecthood. His sculptural act its own statement, perhaps to say a reproduction is as good as real when outside a rarefied space. They were relics to him, I think. And now, to me, relics of him. I didn’t know him well in his lifetime, so maybe I mythologise – writing something into being that might not have been. Did these objects transport him elsewhere? Beyond Hadleigh, the library? Did they mean much at all? To see them each day is to inch closer to that speculative place. Having known and lost is one thing; having not known so well and lost, there is something to gain. But this gain is a shroud of fiction, an imaginary. And so it is for Mohri, orchestrating her own tune from Searle’s instruments, not from memory but from a place of invention; composing today with yesterday’s tools.
‘Because you remembered
And memory is a second chance.’
The great American artist Tony Feher (1956-2016) died just as I found his work. He drew poetically from the stuff of life around – a coin dropped on the floor, a corner shop bag caught on a branch, discarded bottles on the street – elongating the idea of the readymade with his own tactile, sensual way with ordinary things. Those things remained what they were, but he took them tenderly elsewhere.
Just So (2002) is a row of bottles filled to varying levels with coloured liquid, a bright, hopeful blue; the sea and the sky. The work is about connection – each single bottle in relation to that before and after, keeping its own time – giving way to this, / now this. Together is to be more than the sum of parts. The blue horizon line stretches the elastic of time. Yet the number of bottles is finite and therefore contained, not endlessly replicable. Despite these brackets of beginning and end, there is a peaceful ebb and flow in between, calmly meandering onto the next. Feher’s art has a beautiful economy to it – with slight reorientation, the ordinary briefly transcends. Rather than turning objects into art, he seems to reveal the art inherent to them. A curious cumulative effect overtakes you with his work. The more you encounter his delicate reworking of ordinary things, the more you start to see those things in the mind’s eye, out in the world, in the accidental sculptural assemblies of daily life. Unfamiliar objects suddenly feel familiar, a strange portal back to him, shaded in that same peaceful blue.
Once belonging to my parents, I cherish the mottled grey and white vase on my coffee table. Changing the flowers each Monday, I imagine their life together before me. I am free to associate, unimpeded by earthly experience as I picture them setting up their first home, as I recently have too. What came before, giving way to this. There was a work easily overlooked in Christodoulos Panayiotou’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre earlier this year. The drawing studio was opened to the public, the room left largely to preserve its function as a working art space. On the paint splattered table was a small vase, the low winter sun reflecting in the cold glass. Each week a new single cut flower was added, where it would remain until the close of the exhibition. Everything decays, just at different speeds.
‘A flower is only seen towards the end of its life’
The first buds of my clematis have bloomed after their winter retreat. My grandfather grew it from a cutting and gifted it to me to plant out. He always had an amazing garden, filled with vegetables and flowers. Watching it grow transports me – I am six years old again, in the warm still heat of his greenhouse, the air thick with the perfume of tomato leaf. This year, at 88 years old, he retired his vegetable patch – passing on his seeds for me to grow myself, nurturing a familial line through blossom, fruit, winter, spring. By anthropomorphising an object, we start on a pathway to letting go, learning to live without its referent. For Roland Barthes, ‘no object is in a constant relationship with pleasure.’ That very moment of connection only reinforces its ultimate distance, always just beyond reach. I write to these things, forever looking forward and backward, trying to see into both mirrors at once.
Heraclitus, Fragments, 41, p 27. Translated by Brooks Haxton. Penguin Books (2003)
Adair Rounthwaite Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Félix González-Torres(2010)
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, p. 175. Jonathan Cape (2019)
Ocean Vuong, ibid., p. 159
Heraclitus, as quoted in footnote 1
Ocean Vuong, ibid., p. 213.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller Hill (1975)