SOMETHING MUST BE PASSING
An essay by Laura A. L. Wellen to accompany Denise Liebl's show Hold
I am an older sister, and neither of my two siblings grew into the adults that I imagined they would become. This is neither here nor there, neither a good nor a bad thing. It is also not a surprise that my child's mind dreamt a different future for them: one based upon my own imaginings of who they were and what their hopes might be. But when I am caught off guard by the adults those young people became, I am also taken aback by the passage of time and how it makes manifest the subtle shifts and adjustments, the changes we don't see happening until much later, when they are fully upon us. We imagine certain futures, but our actions don't necessarily lead to those same futures. I am sure my brother and sister are also perplexed by my own transformations.
This is personal, but in some ways it is also political. Gradual changes--over slow moments, accumulations of seemingly mundane events--can convert themselves into futures we couldn't imagine.
In their text "An Inventory of Shimmers," Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg write about affect as a set of "visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing." These forces, beyond emotion, beyond recognition, also lead us gradually to change, to movement, to thought. "Indeed, affect is persistent proof of a body's never less than ongoing immersion in and among the world's obstinacies and rhythms, its refusals as much as its invitations," they write.
What does it mean to hold something? And when are we, ourselves, being held?
As a physical gesture, to hold means to contain, and perhaps it suggests ways of protecting something. There are also ways of holding that are not filled with care.
Holding patterns are repetitions, habits difficult to break from.
But then, of course, that would suggest that we need a certain kind of forward momentum instead of a stasis, that we need to break from recurring patterns.
"There are so many times that the past gets ahold of you," Denise tells me.
I am a historian by training.
Due to a series of recent events, I no longer feel held captive by the past.
Perhaps the house is haunted. The construction workers rebuilding the structure of the house hear voices, here in the studio especially. "I feel like this house still holds that person, those people who lived here," Denise tells me. In her series of monoprints, she takes material from the deconstruction and rebuilding of the house, using it to make a layer of abstract lines and forms on a rubber mat, then transferring the image to paper and reworking it with graphite, watercolor, and pencil. Sometimes she cuts the images. She repeats the process. These are like pages of a sketchbook, evidence of a recurring process. The page holds the traces of the building that was, the home where someone once died, where now there is so much light. Denise believes that energy from past problems can stay on in a space. That it is important to shed that energy, to clean it, to ask it to leave, to recalibrate it. The house fought with her. There were termites, the windows popped out, the house refused to sit still on its foundation, the porch had to go, permits were hard to come by. Every change meant more time, another holding pattern, more voices. For the first time in years, she tells me, the work feels about the residual of that process, not about the melancholy of it. "Something must be passing," she says.
A hold is a support system, too.
A support system also requires maintenance.
Apparently, affect passes between bodies. We know this, of course, when we enter a room fraught with emotion and feel it change our own responses, our moods. But it can also pass between humans and nonhumans, between other kinds of bodies. Affect sticks, Seigworth and Gregg tell us, to bodies and worlds.
We flicker between things "chasing tiny firefly intensities." This makes affect something especially difficult to pin down. It might seem groundless, in its insistent location among the things that so often pass without mention in our results-driven world. There is a dailiness to our encounters with affective experience, that we might not notice if we don't pause.
Denise suggests that I not write about the years she spent away from making art, in which she was making a family, home, and career instead. These things are too often used to explain away the artistic practice of women of a certain age and experience. See, please, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Maintenance Art.
These monoprints are a kind of work space, rather than a pictorial space. They are abstractions of a thing Denise was working through. They are made of the trace, rather than a depiction of it. Here, she makes compositions, rather than trying to resolve a specific problem. There is a new lightness to her working method, even down to the paper she is using, and the scale within which she works.
A few weeks ago, my parents sold the house I lived in the longest, the house we renovated (from foreclosed abandoned wildness to livable mess) together, during my teenage years. Sometimes (always, inevitably) the structures you think will hold you forever come out from under you. And then what?
There is a futurity implied in renovation that is not implied by the idea of holding. That is, these works come from a moment of making a new place, one in which the makers imagine a future. But the process of making is, itself, a temporality; indeed, it is the one we actually inhabit, it is the very present now. These works are evidence of that present.
Denise insists that the works not be thought of as precious, that they remain without titles. They are, instead, a kind of daybook, a holding of her hours. Why do we value futurity so whole-heartedly, when now is all we are promised? There is something to be said for a pause, a suspension, a flickering moment in which we say, aha! This is where I am. And I believe this moment is big enough to hold me.
I wanted to imagine my siblings as adults, I realize. And yet, the stories I tell of our shared childhood are about the times we spent together, indeed, often very boring or forgettable incidents. How we become who we are, I realize, is a compilation of those moments, not a prediction of what else is to come. It includes my place in the narrative, my own subjectivity, my own moods, my own imperceptible shifts.
What we imagine is not the same as what is made from the moments in which we find ourselves, every day. The question, then, is what we make--and how we make ourselves--out of those moments.
To hold, I think, means to be wrapped in what is possible, now. It means to be, really, here.
- LAURA A. L. WELLEN