I was speaking recently with an older, established artist and some of my past work came up in our conversation. Projects from a few years ago, even up to a decade ago. Work from when I was a teenager, discovering that art making is not only a technical exercise, or an expressive therapy, but has the potential to become a way of understanding, reflecting, questioning, and being in the world.
I was a little sheepish bringing up these pieces that were so old. Anyone who has applied for a residency, exhibition, or award can confirm that these things always ask for recent work and sometimes they qualify that with something like ‘created within the last two years’. As if a painting someone made prior to having a baby or experiencing a life-altering loss, never shown, somehow went sour in storage and is no longer of value. “Oops- it appears this sculpture seems to have passed its expiry date.” “Yeah, that year you spent getting off the streets? Your photos went stale and are unfortunately no longer hip anymore. We can’t accept them.” I can’t stand it. But I digress. After seeing these kind of expectations in the industry, I feared judgment around supporting an idea with work that wasn’t “fresh”.
But then, this artist provided me with some relief by highlighting the value of retrospection. They said something along the lines of this:
When you create of work of art, it has its meaning, but then as time goes on it will have its 5-year meaning, its 10-year meaning, and so on. There is knowledge to be gained in our practice moving forward when we take these new understandings with us.
I’ve written about the same thing as it applies to journaling, but no one had ever told me that this continuum of creation, meaning, and context through time exists for finished/previously shown artwork. Looking at this written down right now, it seems so obvious. But having someone talk about the value of past work in this way was validating. It was definitely something I needed to hear.
Looking Back with my 2020 Vision
This year, many people have found themselves looking back into the past. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for when things seemed simpler, or maybe with less places to go and social obligations we’ve had more time to slow down and reflect. Looking back at some of my past artwork with 2020 vision has been uncanny- Some of my pieces remind me of the ways we have been forced to connect with one another this year.
In my video installation stream (2009) I projected a grid of simultaneous talking faces through three spaced out sheets of semi-transparent fabric. I was a teenager at the time, and curious about the use of multiples in art. I wondered– If an object becomes one of many, how is its value, impact, and overall expression effected? If its context is modified to transform how we receive it, is it any more or less significant? To explore this, I took a video camera and arranged interviews with friends, family, peers, and neighbours, all with the same prompt: “Tell me about something that is important to you”.
Then, I edited together a grid of these videos of talking heads so they all would loop continuously at the same time. A sort of polyrhythm of monologues.
The final effect was full- kind of more like a texture of sounds rather than anything decipherable. Every once and a while, timing or volume would be such that a word or phrase broke through the surface of the babbling brook of voices in full clarity. If you looked at a face, you might be able to lip-read or more easily hear their words. But as the projector hit the back screen and far wall, their image became bigger, and blurry.
My 2020 vision take on this? Visually speaking, seeing a grid of people like this is a lot like a zoom meeting. I can’t look at it without shuddering and being reminded of all the stagnant, stilted, awkward, performative “group gatherings” I attended online this year. But of course, in a video meeting there is usually only one main conversation happening. Functionally speaking, seeing everyone talk about themselves at once in this piece reminds me more of another way in which we connected largely this year- social media. Yes, there are moments of genuine exchange and attention, but the format is such that it is easy to feel drowned out amongst the raging, ceaseless influx of other voices. However, just as those conversations I had with each of my participants a decade ago were informative and worthwhile, a post that seems like a drop in an ocean is still someone’s voice, and that means it matters (regardless of its ‘performance’ by measure of likes and engagements).
Speaking of faces, voices, and layers/obscuring/clarity……another past piece of mine comes to mind when I think about how 2020 has affected our interaction. Making Rita in Varying Degrees of Transparency (2015), I was thinking about how we present ourselves differently in the world depending on our surroundings. You can watch a video and read more about the inspiration behind it here, but basically it is an interactive portrait where the viewer can wear headphones and listen to different audio clips from the subject (this time, a fictional character that combined a handful of young women from my life as well as myself).
Looking at Rita now reminds me of the countless facetime or other video calls I have had one-on-one with people I love. Who know a screen and a pair of earbuds could be such a lifeline? It is also amazing to me how truly intimate someone can be even if it’s only with the sound and a two-dimensional representation of their loved one.
A Continued Thread
Looking back at these projects I can help but notice that I am still thinking about and exploring a lot of the same themes today. I wonder- did just I peak early? Have I even grown at all? Despite reflexive doubts, I know I have. These projects are the origins of an ongoing creative practice driven by connecting with people, stories, and multi-sensory engagement. It’s a continued thread. Many things I wonder about and explore with art are beyond my capacity- there is no understanding or making clear sense of the human condition. Because the questions are so big, one can return to them year in and year out, and still not have it totally cracked. But the curiosity and interests from back then also pushed me in directions that gave me new layers of experience. A psychology degree, a few broken hearts, travels, becoming a music teacher, working in mental health, falling down, rebuilding…
And rebuilding, and rebuilding again…. As 2020 comes to a close I know we are all in the process of rebuilding after earth-shattering, collective trauma. My hope is we can continue finding ways of understanding, reflecting, questioning, and being in the world, whether that’s through art or otherwise.