‘The eye reads forward as the memory reads back’
From The Nightfishing (1955) by WS Graham
A curious thing, to be thinking of the future, only to stumble across it in the past. I have been wondering about the screenplay as a site for a textual and visual art practice which explores the spaces and relations between memoir and fiction. A subject / persona that is written, unwritten, and rewritten from multiple internal and external voices. And I split the word: Screen / Play. A playfulness that positions a written and visual ‘screen’ as page, surface, frame, cover and block, and field of vision; a screen that both emits images and texts, and has images and texts inscribed or projected upon it. And there within my thinking a relationship to Freud’s ‘Screen Memories’ (1899), and a loose Lacanian positioning of the screen / image as the place where the gazes of the speaking and seeing subject meet. The place where the object and subject of representation, and the desired / feared Other intersect and interact in a dynamic and dangerous discursive encounter. The place where the subject and the object might write themselves and be written by each other.
My career (a hateful word, perhaps better expressed as an ability to work and to love – the restoration of which Freud stated was the fundamental purpose of psychoanalysis) has been that of a woman interrupted. Volcanic islands of capacity stubbornly resisting a corrosive black sea. One such period was in 2005, when an eruption of work and ideas produced a substantial body of work which I promptly forgot with the coming of the ensuing black tide. My thoughts about the potential of screenplay had seemed to spring, un-presaged, during the making of work for Shady Dealings With Language London (curated by David Berridge and Claire Potter) in July last year, but last night I remembered Sylvia.
Sylvia Sylvia Where Are You Buried (2005) is an installation comprising a double video projection, defaced crime novels with reading lamps, small wooden cut-outs and a desk with an iMac whose desktop was projected out onto the floor of the gallery. The video footage had been shot two years previously as I ran through woods with a camera strapped to my shoulder, the lens capturing the shaky, shuddering scene as if through the eyes of a panicked prey, mimicking the camera style of the horror film, the murder mystery and the thriller. The woods were near my childhood home, and the reason I was there for the first time in oh so many years was that my mother was dying. (I write of this time in relation to another work, Rose&Heather, in Unearthing #3.)
The narratives of death and the forest are old ones. Hansel and Gretel, The Babes in The Woods; the shallow grave of the newspaper headline telling us that the lost have been so terribly found. The books in the installation (reworked in a series of related works) comprised one hundred crime novels. all of which featured woodlands and trees on their jackets. The jacket text was redacted with ‘flesh tone’ oil paint of the life painting tradition, dragging the corpse from the inside of the book and placing it back on the cover.
Whilst the video projection was over 20 feet high, and the books spread out across the flop, the cut-outs were tiny, no more than seven inches high, and placed around the gallery space in shadows and corners like mice hiding from a hovering owl. (Like the books, these were remade, and shown here laser-cut from black plastic – the templates taken from the hand-cut wooden originals made for Sylvia Sylvia.) Read them as you will.
It’s wrong to say I had completely forgotten Sylvia Sylvia. I had remembered the video, remembered the books and the cut-outs: what I had forgotten, completely erased, was the desk with the iMac, its projected desktop spilling out onto the gallery floor. Open on the desktop was a Word doc, in which I began to write a screenplay, write the scenario of the objects and images that surrounded me, write out and script the crimes suggested by the environment that I had so carefully (and yet so blindly) put together. Where is that text now? Did I delete it when the show came down? What did it say? I only know that it is gone. But what remains, what has broken through the solidifying crusts of forgetting, is the memory of thinking and making, albeit unconsciously, in ways that that sowed the seeds, both literally and conceptually for the ideas I outline above. This process of recovery, this self-archeology – it’s my life blood. And so to the ambiguities of the autobiography, the spaces and relations between memoir and fiction. At the moment of its making, Sylvia Sylvia was not consciously autobiographical – on the contrary, it was about fiction, and about the fictions of the page and the screen that again and again position the forest as a place of danger, a place of fear, dark deeds and abomination. And yet… I am there, the subtext of the piece is myself.
But now, a curious thing… Sylvia Sylvia Where Are You Buried was well received, featuring in The Guardian Guide exhibitions reviews, in its ‘pick of the week’ selection, and in The Times online ‘top five must see’ (ah, heady days – surely my 15 minutes). Nonetheless, we were surprised at the amount of footfall. The gallery (the project space at East Street Arts in Leeds), was located on the margins of the city, and not then on the radar of the visual arts aficionado. Yet come they did, from far and wide. The visitors’ book provided the answer. Instead of the usual handful of comments – alternating between the tokenist ‘very interesting’, to the much more lively ‘fuck off Man United’ – long, heartfelt comments filled page after page. It was the name ‘Sylvia’ that had brought them. My ‘Sylvia’ was a reworking of the word ‘sylvan’, of the woods, and was intended to reinstate the female body into the narratives used in crime novels, film and TV. To say ‘here she is, she is real, she is not just a device for your entertainments’. And the reviews (lifted largely from the press release that I had written) had reproduced this line. But despite this, someone, somewhere, had decided that the Sylvia in the piece was Sylvia Plath, and such is her cult that their reading had spread amongst the communities of her devotees. It was the cult of Sylvia that called them. So here we have three stories – a palimpsest of biographies – the artists’ subconscious telling of herself, thinly disguised beneath her conscious narrative of death and the forest, and the superimposition of another figure via an audience who bends the work to their own desires. (And they liked the work very much indeed – ‘a beautiful tribute to a tragic soul’, wrote one of the pilgrims.) Did I mind? No. All our stories are layered, slippery, infected by what we leave and what we bring, and in this impurity is found the generative space where we are alive.
The footage I shot in 2003, against the backdrop of my mother’s dying, continues to enrich my practice. Here is a short film from early 2014: Spelunker, Deep Sea Diver, Astronaut #3. In this version of an ongoing series, additional text and geometric ‘screens’ are used to punctuate and block the landscape.