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Finding Tenacity in Fragile Things

Nobody tells you that it’s the objects that anchor you. Along the tributaries of bereavement, you will find yourself gratefully moored on occasion, by their robust and enduring symbolism. It is quite unbelievable that, in a singular moment, everyday objects will be transformed into the most venerated items one could imagine. With shockingly ease, they become cherished heirlooms – modest articles elevated to the status of treasure. This aching collection of bric-a-brac will reveal the things that they once loved; those things they found wonder in. Among them, there may be a few unbearable objects: the vase of wilting flowers; the empty shoes; the coat that still hangs on the hallstand; the personal items, like lockets or watches, that suddenly become too precious to wear. But, for the most part, these brand-new-artefacts will be imbued with the narrative of your family. The gifts you once gave them, the things they crafted with their own hands, will radiate with their life achievements and values. The faded patina of trinkets will trigger sentimental recollection. Well-worn fabrics will hold the texture of belonging in their folds. As tenacious physical objects, they will help to build an embankment against depleting memory.

In a similar vein, traces of their handwriting will swiftly assume the divine authority of sacred scriptures. As if encountering hieroglyphics in some ancient temple, we try to decipher hidden symbolism. Like the loops, whorls and arches of fingerprints, handwriting is as distinctively individual as DNA. Old letters, birthday cards, even discarded shopping lists, become infused with monumental inscriptions. If you are lucky, former notebooks and diaries will offer vivid and enduring testimonies, but nothing can prepare you for the solemn finality of their signature on the Last Will and Testament. It’s worth elaborating on the solidarity that the written word can provide. Vast canons of poetry, literature and song are dedicated to the utter collapse of meaning, brought about by human loss and mourning. We may recognise truth in certain lyrics or take comfort in lines of poetry that resonate with our shifting mood. Revisiting some of these works can also sharpen our sense of artistic creation, which hinges on empathy and the memorialision of human experience. Gifted with the capacity to record and process suffering, artists and writers bring about a democratisation of our own loss, as we begin to recognise it as something universal.

Some people feel a gravitational pull towards certain places afterwards. In these familiar contexts, your sense of them is strongest. Though the world has become so much more knowable via technology, nothing compares to having your feet on the ground, where subliminal memories are embedded into every crevice. There is an instinctive impulse to touch this place, or to feel it. As we drift through this landscape, trying to dissolve time, there is no predicting what we will remember. Memory is not linear. Overlapping layers of neural fragments – electrical currents, wandering smells, ephemeral thoughts – gather from everywhere, causing the universe in our minds to constantly shift and change over time. Through a process of energetic feedback, we are transported to a past that no longer exists.

We are perhaps most receptive to the energy of the place we grew up in – the house where we all once lived. The pivotal relationship between home and identity, forged during one’s formative years, never loses traction in the psyche. Revisiting such sites can bring your childhood into perspective. Reimagining a psychological link with your past self becomes a form of disclosure, in which you can reflect on the direction of your life, including those aspects that still need to be nurtured. This correspondence between landscape and the self – this simultaneous enlacing of perception and memory – can frame one’s encounter as both intensely proximate, yet irredeemably distant. If landscapes of the past are ultimately unknowable (with perception little more than an edited hallucination) we may feel compelled to know, name, identify and describe every tiny aspect. This cosmology of important sites – the townlands, place names, streets, waterways, buildings and landmarks – begins to form a personalised glossary, particular to your ancestors.

I recently described grief as a process of coming to terms with our own willingness to historicise them. By somehow beginning to think of them in the past tense, we will encourage their absorption, as mortals, into history’s long trajectory. These residual objects and places can provide the physical and energetic stimuli to consolidate our thinking, not just regarding their place in the grand scheme of things, but about the spiritual connection we had in life, which will now continue on some other level.

– Joanne Laws is an art writer and Features Editor of The Visual Artists’ News Sheet. (March 2019)