Marie Shannon has been following me. I met her in Auckland last year, she is still there. She was, until recently, in a window outside Vicbooks, a faint cello accompanying the smokers gathered on Kelburn Parade. She is, most resolutely, at my place of work and over the last four months I have learned to speak along with her.
In What I Am Looking At, Shannon details the labour that follows a death. She lists, mostly: things that need naming, things that need putting away, photographs, artworks, clothing. It’s all flat affect, all restraint, except it also isn’t. It’s a dissociation from the scene of trauma, a channeling of energy into tracing the lines of a life, where it has been, what it has done and seen, what it has made. Or else it’s catharsis, or the promise that lists won’t ever threaten to contain a life. Lists are finite and neat by nature. Lives spill outwards, sometimes they find themselves unwilling or unable to be spoken of or recalled. Or else it’s simply that the work of the living doesn’t stop.
Most recently, I met Marie Shannon at The Dowse. Three of the artist’s videos are included in their exhibition this is the cup of your heart, curated by Alice Tappenden. Shannon’s work is accompanied by contributions from Erena Baker, Kim Brice, Andrea Daly, Ruby Joy Eade, Emil McAvoy, Joanna Margaret Paul, and an unidentified maker of a 19th century memorial portrait. The show show is about the stickiness of things, lives, feelings as much as it is about loss. It’s a slow exhibition. One that requires not just looking from one thing to another, but allowing objects the time to beckon in the direction of lost or leaving loves, and the time for objects to come up against, or inspect, or ruin themselves in front of whatever blockages, ruptures, or ellipses that arise on the path back to them.
I spent a lot of last year writing about mourning, but I wasn’t really longing after anything in particular. I was thinking about mourning as a way of writing history. One way I learned to think about mourning was as a part of the body. Something gets stuck, binds itself to the body. Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham describe it as ‘incorporation,’ by way of substitutes, fetishised objects, things saturated with meaning or resonance. Jewellery needs the body. It shapes itself around and into the body, and when exhibited, it invites the ghost of bodies. It feels like it’s ready to be plucked by someone and put to use. Andrea Daly’s soapstone pendants seem like a strange literalisation of incorporation. They’re big, and unruly, and demand to be held. Grooves carved for hips, or for shoulders, holes for fingers to sink into.
‘The body takes on the weight and the weight takes on the body,’ Daly writes. They open the show, depending on what path you take, and they give form to the kinds of losses that take place elsewhere – a bulky, unrelenting form, but a form that forces itself to fit.
Elsewhere the body is, or is soon to be, absent. It seems just out of reach in Kim Brice’s brooches. Subjects are cropped from old postcards, some embracing, some turning themselves away from the camera, some lounging, arms thrown back, all pictured in some vague, unreachable time and place. Brice’s works foreground erotic attachment in a way most of the other works in the show don’t (or at least not on a surface level). Or maybe I’m a pervert. Desire, erotic or otherwise, recoils from specificity. Lauren Berlant writes in Desire/Love, and I always come back to Lauren Berlant, ‘the object [of desire] is not a thing, but a cluster of fantasmic investments in a scene that represents itself as offering some traction.’ Erotic attachment wants what is there as much as what isn’t. The fracturing of images allows the filling in of blanks. Violence against an image allows for repair at the level of fantasy.
Desire wants people close, but not too close. Too much closeness overwhelms. I keep writing about Ruby Joy Eade’s work and I keep running out of ways to say I love it. Eade works with abundance. She works with clusters, with investments, and with things that gain momentum and lose track of themselves. She finds unfinished aphorisms, cries for help, attempts to adjust and regulate behaviour from relationship message boards. Here, they are pressed into porcelain and laid out across two tables. In isolation, they open themselves to meaning, they allow themselves to be read generally or specifically. But often Eade’s work is about isolation’s relationship with the whole, and the whole buckles and gives way under a multiplicity of voices and addresses. The internet makes you lonely as much as it restores you because you don’t know what to do with it. Affects surge and you don’t know where they are supposed to go, or why they have landed on or near you. Eade lets some of them rest for a little while. White, imperfect, and still.
The title of the show comes from a poem written by Joanna Margaret Paul shortly after the death of her daughter Isabel. Paul’s work ends, or begins the show, or both, again, depending on the path you might take. This is a slow show because the show overwhelms. It needs stops and starts, it needs controlled breathing and a moment to catch yourself. The speaker of poem, which is presented in one of Paul’s notebooks, begs for closeness, it begs for a world big enough to contain loss, and it doesn’t find the world inadequate so much as it finds it unfinished. ‘Hold Imogen // hold her life // hold her life in the mountain.’ Ending, and beginning, with Paul feels right. Her work is small, but not neat. Not just compact, but also quiet and humble and deeply upsetting, which is a contradiction, but this is a show about living in contradictions.