Looking Forward, Talking Back
Well, here we are. No other phrase seems to be so deeply, vaguely unsatisfying.
Here we are: but not really. “Here” is a screen, a grid of faces, images, and names that sometimes fail. “Here” is less a physical designation than a temporal--or even emotional--one. “Here” has fragmented from one place to many, across time zones (my life runs precisely three hours later than the schedule of my ghost East Coast life) and into the intimate and literal corners of people’s lives. I never thought I would see the innards of the homes of the people who announce the local Phoenix weather, or every late night talk show host, or Tom Hanks. I never thought I would see the homes of so many people from college when I have never seen (and never will see) where they lived on campus. But--the only possible refrain--here we are.
The oxymoronic “here” of my situation, perhaps inevitably, flares up in the work I am presenting here. Pre-break and pre-breakage, I had been working with flowy, gossamer materials, all sequins and glitter and highly watered down gouache. I arrived in Arizona with four shirts, three pairs of pants, (thankfully) lots of underwear, and no materials. I had wholeheartedly thought that I was returning to New Haven after a stubborn but truncated trip to Mexico City. Once home, I doubled down: I bought organza fabric and beads and sequins. No paint, so powdered matcha and icing dyes doubled as pigments. The stretchers from a painting from the ninth grade became an oversized embroidery hoop.
The results were unsavory, limp, deeply and vaguely unsatisfying. My bedroom--really, my parents’ room in which I sleep--is a poor reproduction of a studio space. Not being able to pin the fabric to the wall, I haphazardly scattered the swathes like forgotten laundry on the floor of my room, alongside my actual forgotten laundry.
I have brought nothing fancy or even vaguely nice to Arizona. Just wide jeans, big t-shirts, a single belt. Perhaps in another act of stubbornness, I decided to make my own finery from the laboriously-beaded-but-still-disappointing sheaths of organza. To my mother’s curiosity and horror, I asked for her help to use my great-great aunt’s sewing machine, nicknamed the “Bernina workhorse.” For some reason, it resides here, instead of its native Minnesota. It smells terrible, like pure age.
I could never have predicted that my final thesis would take the form of a series of photographs. There is an object that exists at the heart of photos, yes, but the photographic evidence far outstrips the material reality. Never did I think I’d be prancing around my astroturf backyard taking self-timer photos in too-big handmade sleeves, and even more improbable is that I’d ask my mother to do the same.
And yet, there we are, for all of you to see: drawing in the air with our bodies in the makeshift shift I made. I did not envision this performance, a shitty cousin of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits or Anthea Hamilton’s incredibly beautiful costume installations or even that seminal image of modernity, The Serpentine Dance. If I had more space, more ability to get messy, I would have made something that covered the whole body. In some of the photos, I attempted to make myself small and try it out anyways.
It is one thing for me to prance. It is quite another to ask the same thing of my mom. Infinitely a servant to propriety, she donned the dress gingerly, all too aware of her growing crown of grey roots. Like me, she decided to put on makeup for the first time in days (me in crazy yellow eyeshadow, her in only lipstick). Unlike me, she put on shoes that matched. Photographing her, it was an endless stream of “This is so embarrassing.” Somehow, to include her in my weird performance seemed like some breach of our unspoken mother-daughter relationship, which ironically centers mostly around clothing and fashion anyways.
In “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” Alfred Gell writes the following: “The work of art is inherently social in a way in which the merely beautiful or mysterious object is not: it is a physical entity which mediates between two beings, and therefore creates a social relation between them, which in turn provides a channel for further social relations and influences.” At no other time does this seem more true than in quarantine. The dress mediates my mother and I--how we dress, or act in a dress, or face a camera. The image of the dress mediates this review. I am starved of social relations. Art seems all the more urgent.
I am well aware that the images of my mother and I in this dress may possess an inclination towards the highly capitalist, feckless, and suspect sphere of fashion (a world with which I admittedly wholeheartedly engage with). Surely not as highly and not nearly as expensively produced, but still with some semblance of editorial sensibility, replete with the odd accessory strewn on the turf. But more demandingly, the images (and the dress) are also a lifeline: a channel for a relationship, a desperate cry for people. People, people, people. Eating at a restaurant. Hugging goodbye. Wearing something other than four shirts, three pants, one belt, and having the places to go wearing that something other. I want people.
Finally: here we are. I am looking forward to the time when our heres can overlap once more. Here we are. Here we are. Here we are.
© 2020. Amalia Ono