Pictures of My Mother
In September 2012, Irina Chmyreva brought my work to Russia for the first time, curating an exhibition of my images called Faces Interred. She asked me to write something about this work, which I always find difficult. So I tried to write something a little different from the artist's statements I'd done in the past. This post is a reprint of what I wrote in 2012.
This post refers to the pictures (2011-2012) from the series Frances.
When artists write about their own work, what they usually come up with is an explanation or interpretation. They—we—try to answer the question What’s this work really all about?
The question is a good one and it's reasonable to ask it. But I’m not comfortable answering it, especially with this work. Whatever motivated me, whatever questions I was asking, whatever itch I was trying to scratch—the pictures are my answer. I think—I know— they’re a better answer than what I could tell you with words.
I’ll leave the interpretations to people more inclined and better suited to do just that. If you, as viewer and reader, take the time to look carefully at these pictures and say what you think is going on, well, I want you to know that I’mhonoured by that.
What I will do is tell you the story behind these portraits. No, I’ll tell you a story, because I wouldn’t presume it’s the conclusive story, or that there even is one. One thing I know is how nebulous and muddy things get when it comes to the motives and emotions that exist within and between human beings.
Besides, I can’t say everything . . . and I’m certain the pictures know more than I do.
Frances Rodick gave birth to me. She lived a long time—long enough to be scarred by the Great Depression, to sit in front of the family TV set showing Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and to see the Twin Towers collapse. She lived long enough to see her family grow modestly, and then—through madness, disease, and rancor—wither. Long enough to develop a sharp and stormy mind and then lose it, piece by piece but in the end completely.
My mother was born into a life that would be one degree of separation from a great catastrophe that was acutely personal and terribly historical. She gave that horror a home inside herself, powered by a dark energy that snaked its way through every day, every corner, of her life. Through a process more relentless than calculated, she made sure that nightmare would, in an evolving incarnation, breathe and whisper inside me as well.
Frances' life and mine showed me that Ibsen was right: sin and mayhem will run through generations, like blood through an artery. And just as quietly.
In 2004, over six hazy days, I cremated my father and then institutionalized my mother, whose mind and body had fallen apart. As part of that impossible assignment of “taking care of things” I went through their mountains of belongings. These were people who saved everything. Just in case. In case of disaster.
I found these photographs of my mother from 1942—the time when, unknown to her, her life's darkest star was beginning to burn most fiercely. They became my starting point. My father, Jack, took most of the pictures that came after—he loved photographing Frances—but not these. I don’t know who took them, just the date, written on the back.
After my father's death, my mother endured another six years of what might lazily be called life, existing in that crippled body and razed mind. One afternoon she looked at me with black watery eyes and asked in a soft but clear voice if she'd ever had children. "Yes," I said. “One." But it took just that long for her mind to sink back into another world far away from here.
There are dozens of clichés about the death of one’s parents. Maybe the most common is the one that says it’s a reminder you’re next, that your time is coming. I don’t think that happened with me. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was already fairly acquainted with mortality’s fact, even my own.
Watching my parents struggle I did see some of death’s work from up close. The way it makes seconds stretch into years and years collapse into moments. The way it makes doing that one last thing impossible: those words never said or taken back, that question never asked, the blessing wished for but never given.
There are things I admired about my mother. Her specific kind of generosity, with others if not herself. Her sense of humour. The way she rejected God and Heaven with unconcern, in spite of a life that wasn’t easy.
At her worst, Frances Rodick colluded with the spirits that tortured her, discharging an enraged and jagged pain into a shrunken world that in her own modest way she managed to mutilate if not destroy.
It was after her death that I started work on these images. I thought the timing was a coincidence, but maybe not. I forget who it was who said artists should create as if their parents are dead—because a parent can be the most insidious censor, the kind that does its business straight out of one’s mind and belly.
I began by laying out these old photos—pictures of Frances, and others too. I looked through my parents’ documents and papers, as many as I could find. Some were old—birth certificates, letters, business documents—and some more recent: wills, notes on medical care, the do-not-resuscitate orders and death certificates. Parts of the text you see on some of my pictures came from those documents.
I never had a plan in making this work.
Maybe these pictures of Frances are a kind of biography—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being. If they are, they’re an hallucinatory biography, because, in the end, one hazards only a tremulous guess at knowing other people, including oneself and—especially—one’s parents. But if they are hallucinations, maybe they’re the kind Louis-Ferdinand Céline talked about: those fictions—some shining, some terrible—those fictions that are more real than everyday life itself. Sometimes that’s how it feels to me, and, as I think about it, that may even be where the remains of my hopes lie.