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Art as a by-product of experience

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Warning: this paper contains themes of war, suicide and domestic violence.

After my husband died, I was left with an abnormal amount of post-death admin - possibly much more than if a civilian had died. There was military uniforms, equipment and items, a deluge of paperwork from Defence reports, archives and bureaucracy, and piles and piles of correspondence from our time spent maintaining our long distance relationship. By breaking down and creatively reinstating my late husband’s enormous ‘paper trail,’ I've been investigating what trauma psychologist Bessel van der Kolk called the ‘weight’, ‘physical memory’ and ‘imprint’ (2014:21) of domestic violence and traumatic grief. In doing so, I not only have contended in a very personal way with my own experience, but I created a critical discourse through installation about the significant societal impacts of domestic violence and war.

Getting the items into the studio was a process in itself. When all of his back-catalog was stored in our house, it got in the way of joyful memory keeping because I was always telling my daughter we didn't have room to keep her keepsakes. Considering what the word 'keepsake' meant, and realised that for the sake of keeping, we were holding too much of my late husband's old paperwork and items, over new and affirming items of our life without him with us. Also, I kept his old stuff on the top of my daughter's wardrobe because I didn't want its 'dark and murky vibe' in my room (a bit woo, I know). But I started to feel it wasn't fair to have it in Imogen's room either. When my husband was alive I would have a reoccurring fear that if something happened to him, he was too heavy for me to move. Now in his death, it was time to move a mountain. When the mountains of 'deathmin' (death-admin) was in the back of my car on the way to the studio for processing, it felt like I was driving a hearse. On the way to the studio I past a moving truck, same company that the Army had used to move us around the country every posting. I thought, yep, this is part of the final army move. In the process of shifting the mountain of things, I found that the support of friends enormously helpful. After the items moved out of my house, my house, my body, felt lighter. My studio felt poised with possibilities. And dread - always a bit of trepidation about making something worthy of the weight of memories - and to care for these items in a respectful way - keeping the parts that my daughter will want into the future, but removing the bulk of the death deluge so we can live a lighter, happier future. These are some of the photos my friend Chiara Zeta and I took of the mountain.

The body of work I have created this semester under writ my physical and emotional processing of the personal written correspondence between my late husband, and myself. (Next semester will contend with the less personal items like the institutional reports and files). The letters were mostly from 2004 to 2007, handwritten and traversing between our postings in Hobart, Darwin and Puckapunyal, deployments to Kuwait and Iraq, beginning from when we first met until we married. In many ways, the letters were romantic. However, they also expressed coercive control and love bombing. Love bombing is a form of emotional abuse used to manipulate a person by showering attention and affection to gain control (AIHW 2023). (During his two six-month deployments to Iraq, he made me write to him daily, send a parcel weekly, and he called me for hours in the middle of every night). Upon re-reading and reflecting on the letters and considering his subsequent escalating abuse, control and later suicide, I initially conducted small print-informed interventions upon the letters – ‘talking back’ to the discourse via stamping, stencilling and redactions – an action that was not safe for me to do when he was alive.

However, passing the letters through a shredder was ultimately the most satisfying way to purge them from me and release the meaning I had subscribed to them. The materiality of shredded paper, used as a form of redaction or destroying evidence, mirrored this theme of secrecy. The obsessive coercion and control I saw in the letters made me not want to keep them - barely want to re-read them. Over 300 letters were processed and in that time, two major jams occurred where I needed tech support to clear. Poet Ellen Bass wrote a poem about grief called 'The Thing Is.' She said, 'grief weighs you down like your own flesh / only more of it, an obesity of grief'. I found it helpful to deal with the weight.

I experimented with looking at how the mountain of paperwork linked to the mountains of personal growth and healing and explored collaging the strips of paper across a page like a reconstructed document (like the 'puzzlers' who have over 30 years worked to glue together the shredded documents left by the oppressive Stasi Records Agency). The pictures below are of people doing this important restorative work.

I investigated gluing strips together, and then combined it to a four layered screenprint of hand drawn mountains I made. The horizontal layering of the text, where parts could be read as if a faulty Frankenstein monster letter, looked flat, but made me think about weaving. Here is the important little experiment artwork that got me thinking about a more three-dimensional approach to the shredded letter shards.

And here is the background pictures of the four layered screenprint I made of a mountain. I've always wanted to experiment with organically drawn screenprints, and I would like to continue this into the future. The shredding of the images at different levels made me think of climate change and the traumatic grief that comes from it. These images show that this work and playful investigation became a stepping stone for different ways to use mountains and shredding.

I also explored making monoprints of mountains with colourful gouache. The glitches and rainbow coloured ink mixes which were happy accidents later evolved into the monoprints of the stencil weaves.

The time consuming work of weaving shredded paper together was a matter of finding a balance between keeping the pieces together (a minimal touch of glue), but also maintaining a look of lightness and looseness (to juxtapose to the heavy, tight 'weight' of trauma) without too much physical (and personal) unraveling. I was fortunate to have found a large map of Australia which my late husband had sent me, with handwritten notes of his travels from Tasmania to Darwin. It was a reminder of the places we'd been together, our fun adventures, our challenging times - especially apart, and provided some very long stretches of paper which were excellent in providing the framework structures of the weave sculptures. Here are some images documenting me at work by the talented photographer, Alla Kuyanzhi.

I ended up reconstructing the vast piles of shredded letters as a tryptic narrative that alluded to a military death, undercurrents of abuse, grief and emotional processing, and the cathartic realisation of restorative hope. I found that the physical moving of it, helped in the emotional shifting of it.

St Andrew presented partially shredded envelopes that had jammed the shredder and made interesting, ripped shapes. They looked like military medals, and I put them in commemorative boxes to query social-historic tropes that manifest via Australian war commemoration. Including a child’s drawing, my late husbands folded Army shirt, and the flag from his casket, I connected ideas of killing at home and war. The title of this piece referred to both the brand of the vintage cigar box and was also an ironic gesture towards the way in which after death my husband was institutionally venerated by the army and his old school, despite public evidence of his domestic violence. Further, some saw his treatment by law enforcement as unreasonable and contributing to his death – likened to the early Christian martyr and saint. In this context, the shredded child’s picture and shredded letters are intended to act as ‘petit recits’ (Lyotard 1984), contradicting the metanarrative of the heroic, ‘glorious dead’ of the ‘fallen’ (Lake et al. 2010). The placing of the ready-mades on plinths alluded to both pedestals and alters. The tradition of the counter-monument movement activated questions about who gets commemorated and sacrificed in the militant and patriarchal discourses around nation-building (Kerby et al. 2021). The two plinths could be allegories for two people, but I am unsure yet of who – my late husband, our daughter, or myself? In the didactic, I stated that St Andrew was comprised of ‘ready-made personal effects/affects’. I not only associated my work with the modernist idea that the artist decides what constitutes as art (Kamien-Kazhdan 2018), but also asserted via a play of language, that the personal items (effects) that were part of Andrew and my inventory have emotional qualities (affects) imbued within them (Esquivel 2019). The photos of the exhibited work are taken by Alla Kuyunzhi.

My work, Mt Coersion, comprised of 365 heaped shredded letters bursting out and spilling from my old army bag, placed on the floor and corner of the gallery.

This work was informed by artist Félix González-Torres’ work “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991 Chicago), where his bright but restrained sculpture transformed everyday things into an allegory of loss.

Similarly, Van der Kolk's ideas on the ‘heaviness of remembering’ (2014:186) was also referenced through the weight of the army bag in Mt Coersion, the heaviness being both actual and metaphorical (emotional) baggage. The shock value of having shredded all the personal letters of someone encourages the viewer to try and understand the work's narrative. The ‘unansweredness’ of the shredded words begs for a response from the audience. The didactic offers some clues as to why someone would shred a mountain of correspondence: 365 alludes to the daily suffering of a victim of coercive control. Mountains are heavy, have roots in deep time, and are challenging to surmount. However, by placing Mt Coercion in a corner, I used allegory and metaphor to allude to a meeting of two planes and a changing of direction. Artist Bruce Nauman’s video piece Setting a Good Corner (1999 Tate) (see figure 7) helped me consider the poetic significance of using the corner of the gallery for my work.

My work More hidden than the Phoenix consisted of twelve paper weavings constructed of shredded correspondence, pinned to the wall.

The title relates to a poem found in one of Andrew's letters, and the words ‘hidden’ and ‘Phoenix’ allude to my emotional deconstruction and reconstruction. The weavings were pinned in a formal grid disrupted by their uneven and unravelling edges. This hanging, as well as the imperfect nature of the weavings, were allegories to the emotional re-ordering and re-organising discussed in psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s (1960) theory of the third stage of bereavement. In the third stage of grief the mourner begins to understand that their old life is changed forever, but in finding a ‘new normal’ the positive aspects of their life after loss are understood (Bowlby 1960). Time is a theme that echoes throughout the work. The twelve weavings relate to the months of the year, in the same way there were 365 letters and days of the year. It takes time to forge a career in the army, as does it to write, send and deliver a letter, to shred 365 of them, and finally it takes a long time to weave. Similarly, the development of domestic violence builds over time, as does the healing and grieving process. I deliberately selected the most colourful parts of the letters (usually the envelopes and cards) for the weavings to reflect life and happiness. I had experimented with installing the weavings so they overlapped in a shaggier manner, but the look seemed suffocating. I also tried installing the work in the shape of a mountain, but the work seemed too didactic.

By spacing them out, the weavings could ‘breath’, and they formed a quasi-patchwork blanket that referenced warmth, comfort and women's traditional work. The weavings counterbalance the haunting plinths which are primarily about death and traditional commemoration. The weavings offer a brighter, more organised way to see that all is not lost in the vast mountains of ‘shredded-ness.’ War is violent, as is domestic violence and the act of shredding. Writing and weaving however, are slow, processing actions of care. Over time these actions find and form something, and in an abstract way, this thing transcends the fragments of words and becomes a body itself.

After the completion of this installation, I wanted to explore returning the shredded print matter (aka the anti-print / un-print) into a print again. I did this through screenprint - using a weaving as a stencil and pulling coloured gouache ink across the screen to allude to the stripes of coloured paper. I also experimented printing over one of the funeral pamphlets in a way to re-frame the memory of the traumatic event that was my late-husband's funeral. The cropping of the edges of the re-printed weave looked like venetian blinds, the way grief screens you off from like, and there are glimpses of life in the dark heaviness - a cuppa with a friend, a random moment of humour, a happy moment connecting to nature.

I extended the screenprints and weaves into some artist books, some using the funeral booklets (I had about 30 left over from funeral, again, keeping them in the mountain for over six years), and others using weaving and frottage techniques.

I looked at extending the screenprints through further shredding and weaving - alluding to the iterative and circular nature of grief, trauma and health. I also experimented in printing the weave in white, and having it look as if it faded into white on black, then grey, then fawn and finally light kozo paper white. The impressions of negative experience stay with us but lessen in severity over time.

I also made an edition of soft ground etchings of the weave. I liked the way I was able to return to greyscale - alluding to the next component of my project which will focus more on the bureaucratic reports of institutions.

Next I played with the combining / integrating the two types of prints together. It was interesting to see how the faded / bled areas looked the most interesting.

I took photos to use as digital prints, reinstating the shredded-ness to a kind of print again. I'd like to use these digital prints further in my work at some point. My artist friend Chiara Zeta joined me and took some of these photos in a photography studio.

Throughout this processing of the shredded paper, the physical remnants of the letters my late husband and I shared, there has been so much thinking time. I have been listening to and reading books, podcasts and making changes and adjustments in my life - in my mindset, my social circles, my parenting, my ideas around grief, trauma, philosophy especially feminism, history, commemoration, academic theories and perspectives. I have been reminded of the history of occupational therapy giving weaving projects to support veterans rehabilitate after the Great War. It has been good to talk to my psychologist, my supervisor Clare McCracken, my fellow art school peers about 'the work', and how shifting the mountain has shifted myself too. Alain Badiou is a French philosopher talked about art being able to 'express the unsayable.' We are all at some point obliterated by loss. How did do we build the vocabulary to describe these things? Where words have failed me I have made and expressed through art.

At the end of this assignment I have an enormous body of work, the art being, as artist Kiki Smith said, 'the by-product of experience'. This has been an enormous undertaking, but I'm so glad I have done it - its been empowering, affirming and enriching. The next stage in my project won't be as personal - it being the catalog of institutional paperwork - and I look forward to tackling it after a well earned break.

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