This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).
On the 27th May at about 8pm, I stood trembling before my bedroom mirror and cut off seven inches of my hair with kitchen scissors. My head now 80 grams lighter, I held the two short fat plaits, which sat soft and somehow fishlike in my still shaking hands. The act of slicing had been impulsively destructive, but it was ultimately an act of liberation. Something was released, and I sprang up and out from the torpor of those past couple of months into perhaps the most intense period of creativity I have ever experienced.
Over summer I would go forth to build an entire project centred around the plaits I had severed, reimagining them as holy relics, essentially transforming myself into a saint. I created a host of patterned books, boxes and paper bags in a sort of commemoration or encapsulation of my experiences, good and bad, my troubles and the turbulence of the past year. It was a gesture towards closure I suppose, preparing boxes in which to stow away pieces of my past self and move forward. I planned to eventually stage a ceremony, a sort of funerary enterrement of all the boxes, building cathedrals of sand up and around them, before eventually unburying them, thereby ‘unburying my head from the sand’. These reliquaries are all made from cardboard boxes that I had gathered in my room, since moving to London, so too were the bags into which I cut patterns, like windows, to be strung up surrounding the boxes. I made myself a crown out of jam tart cases to wear during the ceremony and intended to write an order of service and officiate the eventual ritual, marking the occasion properly.
I am aware that I may not necessarily come across in the sanest of lights here, and that this whole project really takes the concept of self-absorption to its zenith, though I must emphasize that there was generally a faint hint of humour and self-satirisation to the whole endeavour.
Through the ‘Book of Saints and Angels’ in particular, there is often a slight mocking of that kind of excessive, and fundamentally adolescent, self-involvement that could easily lead others to accuse one of ‘playing the martyr’: self-isolating and self-dramatizing. There is usually at least a thread of irony in my work and words, which I hope is detectable, though it is often hard to tell where this starts and ends, and admittedly a lot of this project really was made extremely earnestly, in a fervent frenzy of emotional zeal, as well as just an urgent need to make marks and generally create something. That need to draw, cover surfaces and decorate can be compulsive, a need to fill in some kind of emptiness, it is comforting and reassuring and feels like survival. The rhythm of repetitive patterning is both soothing and cathartic. It comes from a primal part of oneself and can feel like seeking protection and security, as if the drawings take on some kind of magical, talismanic quality. Likewise, when you spend a lot of time in your own head, you often create a kind of mythology around your life, similar to a child’s world of play. It becomes easy to form certain rituals and superstitions and ascribe symbolic meanings to the most mundane of situations, from within the narrow (and at times, distorted) perspective of your inner world. You become saint and saviour and sinner all at once. Where the world is intense and overwhelming and chaotic, where is an absence of connection or purpose or order in your life, you can fill in the gaps. Sometimes the implications of this can be benign or even beneficial, other times the mechanisms are more maladaptive, but as ever, the line can be quite fine.
There is something fascinating about the idea of relics, and as someone who forms (often excessively) strong sentimental attachments, the idea has always made sense to me. It seems instinctive to hold onto and believe in the power of objects: fragments that represent a greater whole and may stand in where there is absence or loss or separation. They can essentially function as transitional, intercessional objects. To me, at least, it feels like relics are about negotiating closeness and distance, humanness and divinity, or the interplay between complex reality and higher ideals, with an ambivalence about one’s own position. Sometimes the power of a venerated fragment encapsulating the envisioned ideal, feels more real than the real thing: often I feel closer to people when separated from them, more connected when expressing myself from a distance, through words on a page; I can sometimes feel more present when I am absent from a situation. In a way that is what making art is all about. The reality of real-life humans and the world is complex and can be painful and sometimes it seems simpler to withdraw to a place where you have sole control, where complex people and complex situations can become symbols. Here you can collect and hold onto certain aspects of them, creating your own safe, protective vision from these pieces. Of course, this can be very unhealthy, but I think to some extent it is a universal instinct.
Many of the boxes I created are filled with a selection of odd objects that I have collected over the last 10 years: a withered old daisy chain made one school lunchtime in the summer of 2013; a necklace I received on my 11th birthday, now broken - its tiny heart locket dented; several scraps of paper, originally presented to me jokily: ‘here - a gift for you!’ by someone who drifted away and which I clung onto as a flimsy connection to her. I have always referred to these items as relics and in many cases, they are more relics of someone else than myself, representing others and reflecting that abstraction of someone into a symbolic figure. I illustrated these objects to create the ‘relic scroll’ to accompany the reliquaries. They are drawn as a group but isolated from and not scaled to one another, on a flat black and gold background. In this way they are detached, representing absences and losses, fragmentations and distancing. Even the most frivolous, amusing, or trivial objects: a hair grip made with varnished polo mints, a small rubber goldfish toy, are loaded with nostalgia and a reminder of past moments and the loss of those moments. By holding onto these objects, I am partly using them as a way to detach myself from the pain they represent, storing the discomfort in the tangible things, whilst still not quite letting go. There is that simultaneous pain and pleasure so distinctive of nostalgia. Drawing them was somehow a way of both detaching further and holding closer. This project was mainly a response to my first year at university, but it felt right to incorporate these objects, as representative of the accumulation of experiences and moments that have resonated: of the materiality of emotion.
I like to work with quite simple materials, pens and coloured pencils, free from the pressure of ‘proper’ technique. Making is basically just play - a lot of my work has a touch of the primary school craft project about it, but I find a lot of comfort and control in this. Sometimes I do wish I could commit to something more ‘proper’ and traditionally skilled, but I like the playfulness and juxtaposition of expressing rather grandiose ideas through common and perhaps almost comic media. At times I certainly take myself too seriously but then I catch a glimpse of myself wearing a crown that has been made of jam tart cases stitched together, surrounded by boxes emblazoned with my own face and have to laugh at the absurdity of it. I like the fact that instead of precious metals and jewels, my materials are cereal boxes and sweet wrappers, I like the ambiguity of it: am I nobly honouring and revering the everyday struggles and successes and mundanities of daily life? Or am I mocking the self-indulgence of believing that this banality is worth honouring? I’m not sure. Maybe a bit of both. Though perhaps more fundamentally, the reason I used cardboard boxes was simply the fact that those were what I immediately had to hand when I was struck by the urge to draw. As for the ceremony I had planned, it never quite materialised. The project is still unresolved to an extent, but I do intend to stage the burial and un-burial ritual at some point in the future, when the time feels right. And ultimately, I think this will be an ongoing project, growing and evolving alongside me: following life’s pattern of losses and renewals, the shattering lows and rhapsodic highs, driven by drawing.
All images by Jemima Hooke (@jemima.elisabeth.art).