EYE BEFORE E EXCEPT AFTER SEE
Limerick City Gallery of Art. Limerick. Ireland
the ache of the uprooted plant (1) (2)
In New Zealand writer Keri Hulme’s 1984 award winning book, The Bone People, the plot involves an idea of cultural sickness that expresses itself in the deep rooted, inexplicable sadness and constant foreboding of something that prevents the characters from developing healthy relationships and living full lives. Until the root is found and explored, which is essentially around a culturally based disconnection and trauma, lives are blocked and unhealthy. Central themes concern isolation and repressed cultural identities. The grief or melancholy around the confusions connected to an unacknowledged cultural imprint are passed from generation to generation, often unexplained and creating intergenerational characteristics, including depression and anti-social behaviour, compounding difficulty and blockages. Irish author Evelyn Conlon’s book Not the Same Sky (2013), explores the passage of orphan Irish girls transported by the British Government to Australia during 1840s Famine times in Ireland. They were to be engaged in domestic service and to populate the New World, and Conlon suggests that the girls were encouraged to forget their cultural identity as a policy of settlement: they had to, and they were young enough to, and there were no physical props in their environment to remind them of their origins, they were never going to see Ireland again, and it was hoped that their children and grand children would not have an understanding of their grandmothers’ cultural reference points. This was the methodology of the colonial project. Conlon sets the story in a contemporary setting which traces the grandchildren, who in turn trace their ancestry. This was the launching imperative of the story that goes on to underline the need to know origins and to understand cultural reference points – that elaborates the power of cultural DNA. In these two fictional stories in factual settings, drawing on existing cultural scenarios that entail suppression of cultural identities and memories, there are commonalties that Vanessa Donoso Lopez examines in her exhibition (title of show). Donoso Lopez, in her work, viscerally provokes a yearning and a sense of loss, a homesickness which, although not necessarily entailing social trauma, involves the same symptoms.
In the late 17th century, Johannes Hofer, a Swiss academic, observed that soldiers suffered from symptoms that restricted them from performing their duties, that was allied to a yearning for home and that this was manifest in physical symptoms. Naming this ‘Nostalgia’ at that time, this becomes ‘Homesickness’ , where the word is first used in the mid 18th century. This was tolerated in society as a sickness up until the American Civil War in 1863 when homesickness became a real physical threat to the armies on both Union and Confederate sides, with longings for home both invaliding soldiers in large numbers and killing them in extreme cases - as well as causing desertion. Even citing ‘homesickness’ in wrenching slaves from their ‘homes’ on plantations was a Confederate argument to continue slavery practices – illogically the argument did not trace this cruelty back to when the slaves were originally brought from Africa. In the following centuries, it is also argued that the rise of racism was augmented by the idea of homesickness which came to be regarded as evidence of weak mental health and character, which then evolved to seeing Homesickness as a symptom of mental illness and grounds for committal to asylums, which of course ruptured the subject from their homes completely. In the 20th century, Nostalgia became de-militarized and de-medicalised as a term and was separated from Homesickness, with Nostalgia understood in psycho-analytic terms, as a returning to the womb, to a place of safety and clarity. Homesickness itself changed in how it was understood to being a sense of desiring to return to a particular place, with a particular set of senses associated with that very specific place.
As consumerism grew in the 20th century, Nostalgia became a tool for manipulating a person’s behaviour and influencing social values and their manifestations in society. Homesickness has diminished in being thought of as a dangerous illness, coming to be seen as not serious and temporary, even as a rite of passage for teenagers particularly. The fluidity of these definitions of words over time and the unstable character of society in general, underlines the complexity of trying to articulate meaning. It is this difficulty in articulation of the meaning of Nostalgia and Homesickness, the cornerstones of culture and the value of home that Vanessa Donoso Lopez examines. In the process, she also delves into the yearning and sense of loss of home that is felt when distanced from home, that is profoundly connected to and may even create the trauma of repressed cultural identity.
There is no one word for homesick in Spanish. When living in another culture, the difficulties of language are clear, and cultural differences are manifest through these difficulties. In the process of production, the Artist has dug out from the earth the clay she uses from a combination of sources: from her motherland Spain and adopted land Ireland. In this action, the very different earth is involved in the artifacts she makes. The material is washed and impurities reduced to ready the material for the kiln. The Artist chooses white as the final colour of the created work, which is related to the idea of origins. Using very high temperatures, tonalities of colour are introduced: at lower temperatures the white colour is whiter. The different clays from different places produce different colour. In using muslin and other materials in the display, the Artist uses a diaphanous layering to imply the complexity of the content, to confuse transparency with obscurity. In this layering, the origin and its purity become difficult to find and may even become compromised. Other characteristics have emerged with the layering: a musicality, sound is added. Textures are different. The objects created are beads and chains among other adornments, hanging along the walls, almost conforming to a classification, along some sense of order, something that seems museum-like in an authenticating process. The shapes are basic, the Artist has involved other people in the making, while travelling, while socialising. Society breathes from within the objects - the beads are those of procrastination, of holy prayer, of rosary, of adornment. There is alchemy at work, with traditions and places being magic-ed up, there is a sensory function at work.
Articulating what the Artist is doing lies in the experience of seeing and being present. In seeing these objects, displayed on surfaces and in orders, with their whitened colours, the first bones of origins are present. Provoking the feelings may also precipitate disquiet and nausea alongside the acknowledgement of the processes – what the Artist might uncover and disturb is that yearning for home, that homesickness which, however rationalised in the society of the 21st century, is still a strong human response.
Helen Carey, July 2015
(1) Stephen King, The Breathing Method
(2) In response to CARNEGIE GALLERY