This is an essay written during my graduate studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Proposed as a different model than a research paper, the prompt for this essay was to write a descriptive, first person account of an experience with an art piece. The class focused on metaphoric writing styles as a form of poetic prose.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Opera for a Small Room may be interpreted as a reverberation of memories. Are my memories any more real than the sounds playing on the records? How do the fragmented records of my life form my understanding of who I am and what surrounds me? My experience with this piece has invited the questioning of how I define my identity, doubt whether I am a rational being, and realize that I exist as a series of relationships.
I interacted on a purely empirical level with the work during my first encounter. I inventoried the physical properties of the construction and contents of the small room. The objects and sounds in the darkened room sparked distant memories because of the orchestrated crescendos and rests. The piece has moments where the art is unobtrusive and others where the viewer is experiencing an emotional sea of light and sound. An audible train approaches in the piece. I close my eyes and it brings me to a moment where I was standing on the platform of the Princeton Junction station waiting for my train to take me to the city. A metaphoric waiting for what I want my life to become. The high-speed Amtrak approaches and I close my eyes and stand on the edge of the yellow line as the magnitude of the force rushes over me. As quickly as it approaches, it passes, leaving only the lingering moment of adrenaline as I understand the smallness of who I am. I keep my eyes closed for moments after and let that feeling sink into my subconscious as an eternal recollection of feeling. I try to decipher the sensation and consider whether the emotion I feel is fear. I think it’s a suspended state of my rational self into one of purely feeling. I’m not scared of the train, I fear letting go of who I think I am or what I strive to become. I do not permit myself to just be.
Who am I? A shadow moves across the small room, a silhouette of the people that I once was lingering into my present as I think of the people that I will become. On a basic level, I could define myself as my name. I am Katherine Weaver. How do I know what that means? If I use the Google search engine to lookup my definition, I am a ‘terminator’ or one of many people that share that label on social media. If I try to define myself outside of social media and search engines, I become a series of numbers: social security numbers to define citizenship status; bank accounts to define class status; a credit score to define my financial credibility; a street address to define geographic location; weights and measurements to define attractiveness status. All these statuses are defined by culturally established metrics. Is identity real or a social construct? If I strip away the socially constructed parts of me, what remains?
By attempting to define an identity I feel as though I’m searching for a purpose of being. During one of the mental tangents that this piece invites I realize that by defining I’m also confining. It’s conflicting to me that trying to be something is more an act of thinking than feeling. By defining an identity, I’m attempting to shape myself into a mold of something that doesn’t exist, a reification of normative belief systems. For example, I call myself an architect, but what does that mean? Beyond passing a series of steps established as a professional standard, most of which do not align with what I would consider an architect but rather more of a technician, I’m not sure what that label means. Does it mean I’m a caucasian male in the early modernist era, an Iranian painter and sculpture, or a slave to commercial developers or government bidding? I feel as though I am the person in the work speaking to the psychiatrist allowing myself to “sink deeper, and deeper, and deeper.”
I feel, therefore I am. The records are replaying opera in a language my brain cannot decipher. It is through the intonations of the voice, the crescendos and the rests that convey meaning to me. I think of conversations that I’ve had with people, sometimes the words conflict with their body language. Or times when I wouldn’t pay attention to the words but follow the movements of their hands, the angle of their head, and the softness or harshness of their words. I have a terrible memory for names and realize that it’s because I’m not focused on capturing their label but trying to feel what they are saying. Telling me that your name is ‘Jon’ doesn’t reveal your deep sadness, or that you feel fear, or that you have the capacity to love. I think that these emotive moments of being and are more important than the labels that define beings.
A thunderstorm rolls in, I am standing in the rain of my memories. They are saturating my clothes. Another memory of trains that the art experience stirs is standing in the subway tunnels in New York. I remember waiting on empty platforms and only realizing that a train was approaching not by lights or sounds, but by feeling a rush of wind that precedes the train. A metaphoric crescendo that builds into a forthcoming emotional state. I liken the physics based structures of the train station to the taught formations of knowledge and rationality. The force and magnitude of the train symbolizes my emotional state, which can destroy rational structures of thought.
In the piece, a man howls at the moon. I think of a common idea that distinguishes human beings from other members of the animal world by way of reasoning. I am not as rational as I may think and many times reasoning is cloaked by cultural influence. I can adorn myself in sophisticated clothing, conceal myself behind tinted windows of a class defining vehicle, but beyond this structuring I am just as primal as the wolf. I tear apart the flesh of my rational mind with the emotions that tunnel their way through my logic structures.
I am a series of relationships. The transformative aspect of the art work is that it is a sequence not an isolated object. There is a passage of time and each moment is relational. My identity can be defined by my relationships. My memories are the archived fragments of these relationships. Spinning in circles then grasping onto my father’s leg, waking early in the morning and going to lay next to my warm mother while watching the morning news as a child, opening the blankets as my child runs into my room in the morning. All the memories I value are the moments when I felt connected to something else.
Emotions are relational. Love, happiness, anger, or fear don’t exist outside of connections. Feeling is interactive. Experiencing a piece of art occurs in the association between the artwork and the viewer. I am a verb, not a noun. I am also relational to myself. I am a person in this present, have been many people in the past, and will be another dozen in the future. Maybe thousands. I realize while experiencing the piece that I am not just one person at the present. I am a student, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a niece, an anonymous woman on the street carrying her shoes. And yet I wonder if I have only one conscious state. How does this oneness reconcile with the many masks I wear? Or is it more of a multi-cameral mind, these personas in a continual operatic dialogue. I think of Shakespeare’s, “all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” This art experience invites me to think of the many parts I play and the questioning of how am I myself and how am I not myself?
The sequencing of the art installation is a cathartic experience, just as I see is embodied in the relational sequencing of life. As a young child, my world was new, safe, and filled with wonder. As a teenager, I was filled with a lot of rebellion and anger and thought I knew much more than I did. My twenties were mostly filled with angst and sedation by the start of my professional life and new found biweekly paychecks. My thirties are a bit more unraveling because I’m still trying to find my place in this world and by now I feel that I should have already found it. I am undergoing a second adolescence and realize the more I know the more I don’t know.
The music loudens with a force of stringed instruments composing a central melody near the end of the artistic sequence. I close my eyes and I begin running through a field. The melody is both empowering and haunting. I try to understand if I am running away or towards something until I realize that it is both. I am attempting to flee the person that is governed by relationships of power and social status towards a person that acknowledges that truth is found in my inner values. Identity, purpose, and being revolve around the meaningful relationships formed by being present wherever I am.
I stand in front of the large window of the art installation and see this as a metaphor for the relationship between focusing our perception inward as well as a window that frames our outward understanding. I initially thought all the openings in the wood framed shell were intended to be voyeuristic peepholes from which I could have different views of the piece during early encounters. After spending a few hours with the piece, I see the room in a different context. Because it’s a room within a room, an interaction occurs between the overflowing light and the openings. The holes amplify the internal light on the surrounding white walls as outward projections. Colors from the inside spill out onto the surroundings and the faces of the viewers. It reminds me of sitting in a movie theater and watching the faces of the other people as the screen illuminates their faces. I see each of these visages as being their own elements composing the opera with each assemblage of people creating acts of a comedy, tragedy, or a love story. We form new relationships by sharing an experience with of the artwork.
This piece invites me to be the girl with her shoes in her hand wandering the streets of my emotions and thoughts trying to figure out how to be. The synthesis of records, lights, and sounds collide to form moments that activate past memories. These memories reverberate into my present as tissues of recollections becoming saturated in the rain of my aesthetic experiences. The artwork is surreal in that it combines elements that I can identify with as existing but takes them out of the context in which I understand them. This landscape of the surreal is similar to my memory structures. I have a feeling stimulated by a relationship that becomes stored and then is recalled out of context by a sensation of similarity. These echoing memories harmonize with our present perception forming a simulation of the real. I question whether it is possible for me to be, or if I am forever destined to live a simulacrum of my perception and social constructs. Regardless of whether my perceptual reality is real or simulated, I can begin to be by embracing the idea that identity, purpose, and being revolve around the meaningful relationships formed by being present wherever I am. I can let go of the constructed fear of failure and the strive for perfection and allow myself to just be.