Walter Benjamin wrote that "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." It is implied that if part of the "past is allowed to disappear it will take with it a knowledge of the present, because the two are inseparable."
I am fascinated by the construction of history: what is retained, what is forgotten or overshadowed, and the little mysteries that can never be solved. I find myself drawn to individuals and bodies of knowledge that have been marginalized or criticized - the same missteps or flawed postulations that have been critical to the advancement of our current knowledge - and to the things that are not wholly resolved, still open to dismantling, conjecture, and interpretation.
Throughout my projects, I research historical connections and uncertainties and use them as points of departure for creating visual works. I am particularly interested in the ways one can incorporate the past into the present to create new meaning and to enhance the production of ideas in relation to both. My studies have often focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, as originating sources for many fields of contemporary inquiry and as a time when science, art, and literature consistently overlapped.
Some of my recent projects have included Reposantes, Wedgwood, and Greetings from Oil Country.
Reposantes is a group of works inspired by Jean-Martin Charcot's hysteria patients at the Salpetriere hospital. In a series of photographs, embroidered texts, and a sculptural object, I explore the ideas of translation, reenactment, and the broken narratives of hysteria. The Reposantes photographs are restagings of original photographs from the Iconographies photographiques de la Salpetriere published in the 1870s. The original images were used to create visual records of the patients' symptoms - particularly illustrating the four phases of Charcot's concept of the hysterical attack. However, many of the photographs do not convey the signs or symptoms of obvious illness or disorder. This inability to translate the patients' illness into photographic documents is what initially interested me in these images and what I sought to capture in reenacting and rephotographing the scenes. Also by reenacting the patients' poses, I explored the performative and imitative aspects of hysteria - it's history of imitating different illnesses and other culturally available symptoms, the Salpetriere's experiments in inducing attacks through hypnotism, and the accusations of simulation that were leveled against the patients.
Instead of using one iconic photograph for each element of the attack, I've used several versions of each image to emphasize the duration and posturing involved in the photographic process. Most of the original photographs from the Iconographies were taken in the Salpetriere's photography studio and not in the wards. The grid layout both constructs and deconstructs a narrative sequence. The entire group of photographs can be read in one direction illustrating a complete attack in order. In another, the ordered sequence becomes confused and meaningless. The narrative can also be viewed in randomly selected, abbreviated groupings - and no grouping of three or more photographs in any direction is ever the same or repeated.
The Wedgwood series is loosely based on the early photographic attempts of Thomas Wedgwood of the Wedgwood ceramic family. In the 1790s, nearly thirty years before the creation of the first permanent photograph, Thomas Wedgwood experimented with "obtain[ing] and fix[ing] the shadows of objects" on surfaces prepared with a silver nitrate solution. Even though his attempts were successful and images were recorded, he was unable to make them permanent. None of Wedgwood's photographic attempts survive to this day. As Geoffrey Batchen states, his photographs were "truly palimpsests, an absent inscription that is also present (at least in memory), a presence (a blackened surface) inhabited by absence."
Although Wedgwood takes this fleeting success in early photography as a starting point, the series contains no photographs. Instead, by referencing the family's ceramic materials of bone china and their signature blue and white color scheme, I've created ghostlike presences and objects that incorporate bodily traces and remains. Throughout the individual works, I play with the ideas of absence, presence, and metonymy - what parts endure, whether physically or in memory, when the whole disappears.
Greetings from Oil Country is an ongoing project which centers on the postcard image of a burning oil tank.
When I found the first postcard of the Olean oil tank fire, I simply thought of it as an incredibly interesting piece of ephemera - the presence of the spectators in their fine clothes and the contrast it posed to the industrial accident. But then I came across another postcard of the same burning oil tank, this time captioned as Bradford, PA. I became intrigued and started looking for additional postcards. To my amazement, I kept finding the same exact image over and over in different printings labeled as different cities. At the present moment, I've discovered 64 printings of the postcard with captions declaring the event to have occurred in 15 different cities in 5 different states: Wellsville, NY; Bolivar, NY; Olean, NY; Bradford, PA; Kane, PA; Warren, PA; Titusville, PA; Oil City, PA; Clarion, PA; Franklin, PA; Findlay, OH; Lima, OH; Tulsa, OK; Muskogee, OK; and Beaumont, TX. Postmarked dates have ranged from 1904 to 1937.
My investigation into these postcards has raised a lot of questions about the relationships between ephemera, history, and authenticity. The postcard is often preserved and presented as an item of history - whether in a private collection, published in books or in institutional collections. However, as shown in this project and my research, captioned information may be suspect.
In displaying Greetings from Oil Country, I loosely plotted all of the postcard images in a grid-map according to the cities they're labeled as being from, near, or between. As I discover any additional unique printings of the postcard, they will be added to the "map."
Elfortiana is a group of drawings inspired by the puzzling anagrammatic nomenclature of 19th century British naturalist William Elford Leach (1791-1836).
In 1818, the Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelle in France published Leach’s first entries on Crustacea. Amongst these descriptions was a “tantalizing puzzle for posterity.” In his entry, Leach named nine new genera of parasitic isopods, each name created from anagrams of ‘Caroline’ or ‘Carolina’. These genera were Anilocra, Canolira, Cirolana, Conilera, Lironeca, Nelocira, Nerocila, Olencira, and Rocinela.
But who was Caroline?
There are no known relationships between Elford Leach and any Caroline. Arguments have been made that the anagram was inspired by Queen Caroline, astronomer Caroline Herschel, or an unknown mistress. It has even been suggested that there was no Caroline at all and that it was a nonsensical combination and rearrangement of vowels and consonants.
This series of drawings includes examples of the nine genera and illustrates the existing suggestions about Leach’s names and my own new theories. I feel that the overwhelming general opinion that the genera are anagrams of a woman named ‘Caroline’ or ‘Carolina’ is too narrow a view. As an anagram, the possibilities are almost innumerable. With Leach’s
dedication to his work and zoological research, it seems entirely more reasonable for the anagram to be derived from natural history or to at least follow similar patterns found in his other names.
Existing theories include three Carolines for the origin of the anagrams: Caroline of Brunswick, Caroline Herschel, and Caroline Clift. With this project, I am putting forth nine new possibilities for the sources of the names: Cornelia, Caroli Linneaus, Lonicera, Craniola, Carniola, Coraline, Carolina, Cerniola, and Arenicola.
As a series of drawings, I wanted these pieces to capture the conjectural nature of the suggestions as well as respond to the visual culture that the images were drawn from: books and illustrations from the 18th and 19th centuries.