This blog looks at the reoccurring themes that manifest in and influence my work considering where they might come from.
Earlier this year I went back to Hungary. I haven’t been for many years but every visit I make the pilgrimage to my Grandmothers apartment, the ancestral home as it were. When I was a child, we’d go visit every summer. The trips stopped when I hit my teens, until after a gap of 8 years we went back to visit after democracy got a foothold. I was worried about what would have changed, having so many childhood memories invested in the place. I needn’t have, as (if nothing else) the apartment remained a bastion of immutability. The matriarch, thrifty in the extreme had replaced nothing. Everything was worn threadbare from washing. Even today it remains largely unchanged having been transformed into a strange sort of museum. When my Gran died my uncle gave or threw away all her belongings in a surge of activity leaving it empty save for a cabinet of glass-wear and nic-naks which must hold some kind of special value for him. Every time I go back I hope to catch some trace of her, this all sounds mawkish, I know. It’s not surprising that I don’t as all her belongings are gone apart from this cabinet of cold glass and china. And this wind-up spark-spitting Gorilla. I think my Dad bought it back as a gift to my Uncle, poking fun at his bad temper.
While I was over, I met up with my half-sister (Dad’s side) and her husband. He’s a passionate film maker, himself making a film about his own family history, about how his parents met during the war. We talked and he asked to see some of what I was working on. I showed him these photos I’d taken. He said the work, and I, felt stuck somehow; caught up in unresolved issues, chasing my tail. I think he was saying that the work wasn’t progressing. I don’t know if I disagree, but it made me think about whether making work about something like mourning and loss could be unhealthy, or at least unhelpful, locking you into a thing rather than allowing you to move on. On the other hand could it be therapeutic? (I know that word in association to making Art can cause strong reactions).
I was encouraged then, when I was invited to host an artists-in-conversation session by a group called the Family Ties network. (It ran at Birkbeck University’s new Peltz Gallery in the summer). The show had a genuinely broad range of approaches to this subject matter around family history, memory and loss. Work drawn from intense personal experience sat beautifully alongside investigative and research based approaches that explored the stories of others. There’s room and a home for both it seems.
In his later years, my father had a woman, Timéa (Timi) who came to help with the cooking and cleaning. After he died and I took on the house I decided that it made sense for her to keep coming. Timi is a sunny Hungarian girl with a bright disposition and wardrobe. On a recent visit though she was concerned that I had lilies in the bedroom. She’d heard it was dangerous to sleep with them in a closed space when they were in bloom because the pollen could kill you in your sleep.
I imagine this idea came from a number of different places. Hospitals discouraging the flowers being left in patients room overnight. The strong associations of Lilies and death. The heady, overpowering almost soporific intensity of the pollen, which irreversibly stains clothes and fabric. I watched the lilies bloom ominously over the week with a morbid fascination. They seemed to sag, sleepily under the weight of the bright orange dust that coated the insides of their petals and there was some kind of truth in how the flowers carried themselves. Anyway, this led to a thought, a bridge between materials that I keep coming back to – Make-up and Eyelashes.
Mum was never without make-up (or heels but that’s another story). In her 68 years I can count on one hand the number of times I saw her without her war-paint and falsies. The first time, I distinctly remember doing a double take as I didn’t recognize her when she came out of the bathroom. Most of the time she slept with her make up on and simply added or reapplied in the morning.
A recent work (Asleep Somewhere) consisted of a set of her old false eyelashes projected on a wall using an OHP. The work took its title from the many euphemisms used on headstones to say that someone was dead. Phrases like “Entered into Sleep” or “Rest in Peace” being the most common. It struck me then that there was something in the weight of the make-up; the accumulation of it over the course of time, weighing the eyes down insistently. Like the weight of the pollen that burdened those flowers.
Timi moved the lilies into the bathroom. And apparently they do kill cats.
In 2010 I was invited to participate in a small group show with artists Melanie Stidolph (www.melaniestidolph.com) and Richard Paul (www.richardgpaul.co.uk) called Pareidolia. This is a phenomenon that describes the human mind’s tendency to perceive recognizable shapes and images in random pattern. You know, seeing the figure of Jesus on burnt toast, a face in the moon, that kind of thing. The series Transmitter/Receiver ( www.nickkaplony.com/page9 ) was included in this show, (The rorschach blots that the works include an example of our tendency to attribute meaning to random shapes). Years later, a friend recommended I read Rorschach Audio by John Banks. This book, in a grossly oversimplified nut-shell, looks at the relationship between some sound Art practice and Electric Voice Phenomenon. Siting a kind of audio- pareidolia which leads us to hear recognisable words, phrases and voices in recorded white noise. (These are often attributed to the dead attempting to communicate beyond the grave). My friend’s motivation for the recommendation I think was not the obvious connection of the to the inkblots in Transmitter/Receiver, but rather the human tendency to generate meaning. I mention this because this is something I keep coming back to when I think about work, or look at art, my own and others. The dilemma of what (or whether) an art work is communicating, and if as the author of it you have the distance to see things clearly. Let’s say that meaning is something that does not exist in the artwork outside of that which the viewer brings to it? I can have an intention, when I make something, but then once it’s done, and I’m out of the room it’s just there, empty, waiting for someone else to come and look at it and fill it. The meaning then, will be brought by them, filtered through their preoccupations and experiences. The biggest buzz I get, is when a relative stranger, with little or no back story to the work sees what I see. Somehow there’s strength in numbers when it comes to this. If someone else sees it as well it must be true?
After my father died, I was clearing out the house. I stumbled across some objects related to my parents’ work. My father was a dentist and my mother, who passed three years earlier, a beautician. These things were a bittersweet discovery, reminding me of them and also of their loss. They appeared to be filled with references to mortality. Just an old make up case and a cast of someone’s teeth. I don’t even know whose. The look of the make-up case seemed to parallel funerary aesthetics. All gloss black with gold trim like the lettering on a tombstone, and essentially a small casket with powdered remains. The cast of the stranger’s teeth (actually the upper and lower set were from different people I think) had more obvious associations with the parts of us that linger in the earth. Had I come across these things with different preoccupations, I wonder what I’d made of them.