Last in the Woods: On Melancholy
Lecture: April 22, 2016 | Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver, CO
Since I was a child I have struggled with the fact that I may be an empath— one who is greatly affected by the moods of others, environmental stimulation, and a general perceptiveness of things left unspoken. The empath is susceptible to feeling the tugs of longing. This is where melancholy comes in. It is in melancholy that the empath thrives; through feeling deeply and interconnected in the sadness of a fleeting moment that may go unnoticed by others. And it is not a depression, as we commonly associate with sadness, but a celebration of what once was. Today I explore how melancholy has contributed to my artistic practice manifesting itself as a body photographs, found objects, and writing in the culmination of the book Last in the Woods.
Defining and Demystifying Melancholy (Saudade, Huzun, Duende, etc…):
In the english language the definition of melancholy is defined as: a sad mood or feeling (Merriam-Websters Online). The extended definition is simply a depression. The thesaurus also suggests such words as dejected, unhappy, miserable, wretched, and joyless. It is not surprising that most native english speakers retract from melancholy because it is inherent in not only its definition but our cultural values to seek out and embrace the exact opposite. The antonym of melancholy is cheerful.
Turning towards the macabre or simply being the voice of a critical thinker can easily gain one the status as the downer at the party. We live in a culture of neo-enlightenment where yoga, mindfulness, and fostering empathy is seen commoditized in order to rewrite malaise or apathy into happiness. Notice, I didn’t use the word melancholy here. I believe that at the core of our dissatisfaction (which often is confused for melancholy) is simply because of boredom. I digress. Yet, we forget that the essence of some of our most celebrated eastern religions can be viewed as being rooted in becoming one with our melancholy as a path towards enlightenment. The Japanese know this to be true in Wabi-Sabi where the impermanent and incomplete have defined an entire aesthetic philosophy. Yet again, we buy into these movements without realizing that celebrating impermanence is at the core of what melancholy means across the globe, not realizing that simply because melancholy— the embracing of depression, sadness, and the joyless is not marketed to us. In this model of thinking; embracing melancholy will guide us away from happiness. The Japanese word for the melancholy that describes the profoundness of the impermanence of things is also called mono no aware (a-wah-ray). Or one of the direct translations being; “a sensitivity or awareness towards ephemera.”
The purpose behind my defining melancholy within the english language is because in over 80 other languages there are multiple words to describe variations of the word [melancholy]. Many of which we do not have a direct translation to in english and almost all are threaded by the idea of romanticizing longing rather than a depression or feeling of unhappiness. Some of these words are for very specific kinds of longing and not a generalized sense of melancholy. The Germans have WALDEINSAMKEIT (wal-din-sam-kite) to describe the feeling of being alone in nature and depending on which definition you happen upon is also specific to the feeling of being alone in the woods. The Portuguese have saudade and the Spanish have duende to describe the nostalgic longing to be near a distant someone or something. These two words have embodied genres of music like fado and flamenco. The Turkish have huzun to describe the nostalgia of the psychic state of the city of Istanbul and has a specific place in their cinema being primarily expressed through a reduced tonal range as seen as black and white imagery (Bowring). In essence, all of these different words are meant to describe a bittersweetness and to acknowledge acceptance that there is profound beauty to be experienced in those moments of longing. For me, my personal definition of melancholy is the ultimate expression of being truly grateful for the life that has been given to each of us. If that is the case, I need a word for melancholic gratitude. Saudade has always been the word that I gravitate to the most.
Photography and Melancholy:
In art, melancholy can be seen being more openly expressed than repressed but it is the partnership with the medium of photography where that expression finds harmony. Melancholia as a principal artistic theme has been described as an aesthetic emotion. Melancholy’s motifs are seen within painting, music, and literature throughout much of their histories. In 1999 singer/songwriter Nick Cave performed and lectured The Secret Life of the Love Song. The premise of Cave’s lecture was to emphasize the importance of melancholy in his song writing process. Cave states, “My artistic life has centered around the desire or, more accurately, [a] need to articulate the feelings of loss and longing that have whistled through my bones and hummed in my blood.” I found it no surprise that I stumbled across Cave’s lecture, as I am a longtime fan, but was surprised to find this piece speaking at length on the necessity to channel a sense of longing in order to create. Surprised because no other artist to my knowledge has described exactly the same motivations and creative process I’ve struggled to define for myself. Emily Brady and Arto Haapala in their essay Melancholy as an Aesthetic Emotion write that there are negative and positive aspects of melancholia and they alternate creating contrasts and rhythms of pleasure. Although melancholia is often defined as a condition of sadness, gloominess, or depression; at one time melancholia was a once celebrated and liberally seen in art. Cave concludes his lecture with the simple statement, “I don’t mind. I’m happy to be sad”.
It is my opinion that photography and melancholy form the perfect union. In Jay Prosser’s text Light in the Dark Room: Photography and Loss, he writes, “Photography is the medium in which we unconsciously encounter the dead. Yet, herein lies photography’s hidden truth. Photographs are not signs of presence but evidence of absence.” Absence, longing, melancholy… I dare state that this is the native language of photography. Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography are pivotal texts on photographic theory. Both of these writings propose the notion of how the photograph, as an act, and as an object, provoke and encapsulate the marriage between memory and longing. Photography is very much rooted in nostalgia— which can be described as a melancholic state of longing. The very act of creating a photograph is to preserve any fleeting moment or memory for future remembrance whether for a joyous recalling or to lament over. There is no doubt [for me] that many photographers share a preoccupation with longing. They grapple to understand longing through the act of photography because it is a reproductive media with the ability to romanticize. Photography is subjective and on the extremity can produce fictional representation as metaphors for longing. Through any artistic act; memories can be embellished to achieve a dramatized new reality. Photography is a media with the ability to render a convincing picture of reality when in fact it is anything but [real].
In the roll of viewer and not creator, I find myself more drawn to images that are dark, mysterious, sad, disturbed, in essence— melancholic. I create my own photographic art from my own melancholic experiences and employ its aesthetic within each image I create. The images I created for Last in the Woods are all black and white (with the exception of the found objects and family photographs), [they] utilize a skewing of focus, and the images are not only dark in theme but also in contrast value or tonality. All of these are specific to the language of photography but also specific choices chosen to best carry the concept of memory, identity, and time as it pertains to the subject of melancholy— to create a distant memory backdropped by the woods. These formal choices are used to create juxtapositions between the resonance of innocence and its loss.
Photography and Writing:
The next area that I wish to explore is my personal interest in the intersection between photography and writing. Although I am a very photo-centric person I find more often than not influence through reading and writing. Just as my love for the melancholic in art, I also am interested in the need for there to be a narrative. I believe that it is the duty of any one person involved in the creative fields to convey something— be it for the collective consciousness or for the self. I feel that it is no surprise to you when browsing through the pages of Last in the Woods that there are obvious traces of my literary influences seen within the images. When examining the literary works that I am most drawn; I employ in my photographic work themes of alienation and the grotesque where narratives are disjointed or elusive, which can be commonly identified in such traditions as southern gothic and the magical realism of Latin American literature. In the essay Constructing Photography: Fiction as Cultural Evidence Hanno Hardt describes literature as portals to the imagination, and vessels for elusive truths. The literature I have been most drawn to often times leaves the reader hanging by a shoestring until the end and even then, that doesn’t ensure a resolved ending. This is exactly what I sought out through the writing and photographic juxtapositions in my own book. Additionally, James Goodwin writes in his essay Modern American Grotesque: Literature and Photography define the grotesque as a way to characterize the symbolic function of seeing the light in the dark. Again, the bittersweet. Light and dark. Black and white. The tender and the cruel. The open and the closed. Again, the themes of melancholy. Goodwin continues by illustrating that the role of the writer/photographer is to take the taboo and to harmonize it.
Melancholic Objects (And Their Secret Lives):
Both Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes suggest that photographs themselves are melancholic objects. That no matter who or what is depicted we want to think the photograph is exposing the essence of a person, place, or thing; what really looms is the impermanence. Photographing our loved ones can be a desperate attempt to preserve something precious about them but also help freeze our own feelings toward them. Because, as we know; people and feelings can change. This can be an ode to what we once loved in another. JW Dewdney of the C4 Contemporary Art Gallery in LA summarizes Songtag’s definition of a melancholic object to be one that is born of distance— when rendered successfully melancholy in photography captures a perceived separate reality that has been psychologically re-contextualized.
Throughout the book Last in the Woods is an assortment of staged still life images backdropped by an ethereal landscape and the pages are interwoven with found objects and photographs to compile a collection of melancholic objects. The book in its entirety is meant to be a complete melancholic object. While I was producing the project I had the opportunity to work closely with local photographer Carol Golemboski who had completed her project titled Psychometry. If you’re not familiar with the word; the definition is object reading— or using a six sense of sorts to read deep meaning into inanimate objects. Of course this idea that someone else belongings could be read into obviously appealed to me and this is why: I grew up with my grandparents in Saint Joseph, MO. My grandparents also happen to be antique dealers. I spent much of my childhood in the various aisles and booths in large historic storefronts and warehouses that contained what once was the mundane personal belongings of others in transition to becoming another persons treasure. Even then, there was something magical about all these relics for sale that left a mark on my psyche. It was not a surprise that my first career choice before artist was archaeologist. Every visit to the antique store was another day in an ancient tomb where I attempted to decipher who these objects might have belonged to and what these objects might have seen. To me— these discarded objects had secrets to tell and that is where the idea of the melancholic object was first introduced into my mental model.
The objects depicted in Last in the Woods stand to heighten the increased distance of time and memory as well as to contribute to the underlying narrative of the included text. Many of the objects seen in the photographs are tied to specific memories in my own life or the lives of those who I have been close to. Other objects are meant to merely be the symbols of passing time. Tricycles are a very specific image for me and the personal story connected to the tricycle is about the time that my five-year old self attempted to ride one [a tricycle] along the side of a two-lane highway with the intent to run away from home. The image of my baby shoes in the jar is simply a metaphor for the preservation of time. For those who have already spent some time with the book or have been present for the duration of its creation; animal remains are a significant image throughout its pages. Coming across the remains of an animal in nature has always been a pivotal early experience where I learned not to be afraid of death but how to celebrate it. This early experience helped in understanding death after the loss of my father and even the loss of relationships. An example of Sontag and Barthes thoughts of photographs as melancholic objects put to use: there is an image in my book [Last in the Woods] of a little boy running through a yard. This is my father and that is the yard we both grew up in. This image holds a bittersweet meaning to me and that is the reference to the parallel lives he and I share(d) and yet I’ve picked up where he left off; in six years I will be older than my father was at the time of his death. In the end; it’s all fleeting and impermanent. It is my belief that mourning and celebration go hand in hand. Death is only another rite of passage. That’s the saudade speaking. It is in these objects that we assign their meaning depending on our own associations built on our experiences.
Longing for Place, Longing for Ourselves:
There is a Welsh word called hiraeth and it is the word for a homesickness that you cannot return to. Essentially it is meant to be the mourning of the lost places of the past. Last in the Woods was incepted after a trail run through the woods of my childhood during a summer visit to Saint Joseph. Simply, the project was conceived through realizing how deeply connected I felt to the northwestern Missouri landscape and an overwhelming sense of being at-home there— far more than how I feel living in Colorado. That day in the woods brought back a flood of memories from my youth and a secondary concept emerged as I questioned how many of those memories were true twenty years later. I became interested in the concept of personal myth fueled by the act of longing. Reflecting back on my time running in those woods every day for a month, I realized that I was completely alone. I had spent my childhood outside and away from the home as much as possible and I noticed now that there were very few children spending time in outdoor spaces during my visit. The title of the project is in reference to the observation that the generation of children from which I came was perhaps one of the last to define childhood through nature. That those who did are essentially ghosts of the landscape.
During research for the project I read books on the theory of “place” and how it contributes to our identity and ultimately our memories. These texts included Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local, and Liz Well’s Land Matters. I was particularly interested in philosophies on “place” (or my case the woods) describing how a sense of place can contribute to the recalling of memories. Liz Wells writes, that landscapes, real and imagined, contribute to the formation of our sense of identity; subjectively and collectively— and that the imagery of a place may reconfigure our memory of it. A particular favorite quote from Lucy Lippard is: “Home changes. Illusions change. People change. Time moves on. A place can be peopled by ghosts more real than living inhabitants.”
The idea of a place populated more by ghosts than living inhabitants is exactly how I felt spending time in the Missouri woods of my youth. So much of the atmosphere provided by the canopies of trees and the dense humid air shaped how I perceived the events of my early life. I never realized it until then, but that landscape has always hounded me and maybe the act of leaving made it so I could discover its linger mark. While working out the details of the project [Last in the Woods], it was becoming apparent that the landscape served as a mythic secondary character. The first being the person whose belongings are being photographed— presumably the narrator. Secondly, the presence of the supernatural in the landscape. I have personified the character of the landscape as a Jekyll and Hyde. This is due the fact that it’s [landscape] character alternates as a place of refuge and a place of fear. Refuge because this was where as a child I would escape the present reality of my home life and fear because of the fact that one: nature can shape shift, going from friendly to ominous in a matter of seconds and also two: the fear caused by its other inhabitants. I begin the book:
They said to stay out of the woods. As if becoming an adult meant that they forgot about the orbits of childhood. They told us that there were boogie men to take us away from them; but the kids never listened. Day in day out, like troops, we would enter into where the light has been shut out except for the shimmer of leaves.
It wasn’t the strangers in the woods to fear; those men with their dirty beards and hands. They looked after us. What happened in the woods would remain hanging in the trees and it was always the other children to fear. They would push and push your sensitivities to a boil.
I walk home in reflection and sullen, day in and day out. They told us that there were boogie men there to take us away and I secretly wished that would happened; but it never did.
This opening story is meant to illustrate the ideas of that duality of fear and refuge while setting the backdrop for the underlying narrative of the book. Growing up I was always told to stay out of the wooded areas. When I came to live with my grandparents it was during in the late 80s and early 90s. Child kidnappings, such as the disappearance and murder of Adam Walsh were current events. Even to this day when I go running in these woods my grandparents advise me not to. For them, it is the place where the homeless go; in their minds, some wouldn’t be homeless without having something to run from. Although this may be true to some extent, and there is always danger in any secluded spot, this has not been my experience. The strangers I have encountered in these spaces have been very kind people and that was what I wanted to illustrate here. Anti-bullying wasn’t a public service announcement at the time and so the real danger was the other children. The last line of the story is the most telling and a secret I had been carrying with me since childhood. In Madness, Rack and Honey Mary Ruefle astutely acknowledges that there are two sides of a secret and that is repression and expression. Before I came to live with my grandparents I had a very difficult home life with a stepparent and a coping strategy I developed as a child was to put myself in situations where I would appeal to kidnappers. Because that, that would be better than going home. In retrospect now it is one of the most bittersweet memories I possess of myself. Of course I was never kidnapped but I would be lying to you if that child needing an escape isn’t still with me today. Although this event in my life was the aftermath of a very sad situation there is something comical about a kid trying to get kidnapped. It never occurred to me that I would get kidnapped by people with criminal intentions but nice people who were desperately needing in their life a moody child to care. Although I don’t always come across as such, I am a hopeful person with a pessimistic facade. And it is within these memories that I know this event happened in my life but so much time has passed that they have only become personal myths. I wouldn’t be capable of pinpointing the exact details of these stories to you but only of the essence of their fragments in my mind from some twenty-five years of distance.
At the end of the production of this work I began learning of Jaques Lacan’s Register Theory where the psychology of reliving events is broken down into the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. Each of Lacan’s ideas on these three areas were beneficial to understanding the interpretations of the past as a basis for the foundation of Last in the Woods; but it was within the context of the real that I found the deepest source of understanding. I learned that the real is not reality itself but the unconscious reality. Reality in this sense defines who we are, perhaps when we dream, and not what we are trying to live in our waking lives. By that definition my internal life, the one I present in the book is the manifestation of my particular reality.
Although I cannot recall the specifics of some of the events that inspired the images and text in the book their mythic manifestations have become just as real through the longing of past places and experiences that I can never quite revisit. Perhaps it is a hiraeth, a saudade, or a duende… My empath breeds a quiet comfort for the longing brought on by a moment of impermanence. Melancholy is not a sadness but an acceptance of the transitory nature of a life well lived.
Absence | Carlos Drummond de Andrade
For the longest time I thought that absence meant lacking something.
And I, ignorant, lamented this missing.
Nowadays I don’t feel the same.
There is no missing in absence.
Absence is a being within me.
And I feel it wide so attached, snuggled in my arms, that I laugh and dance and create joyful exclamations
because absence when assimilated,
cannot be taken from one.
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