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FRANKENSTEIN’S GRANDMOTHER

By Olena Kalytiak Davis

buckingham.jpg
um, that IS right side up. It’s from a pretty amazing installation by someone named Matthew Buckingham that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon (and into) at the Henry in Seattle a few months ago.


To enter Mr. Buckingham’s piece (um, called The Spirit and the Letter, but we can’t really blame him for that,) (can we?) is to enter a large ballroom (“neoclassic hall” ) with a large chandelier coming up from the middle of the floor. On the wall in front of you is the projection of a woman in a long dress (hmm, quite unlike your own black skinny jeans) in the same room you are in, however, the chandelier is hanging; i.e. she’s walking on the ceiling. As one dopey reviewer says: “The confusion is aesthetically pleasing.” Yes, if like to worry about someone perching precariously (upsidedown!) on a window sill! An she is busy perching and pacing and reading something you can’t totally make out, so you walk your room and position yourself someplace better from which to hear. At some point she leaves her room and yours. You wait. You have no idea. You ARE aesthetically pleased. You barely heard a word. In the mean time, your friend has also left the room. You are alone in a large ballroom. What the fuck are you wearing? What are you doing in Seattle? Are you really gay? When the woman (sorta already your friend, too) comes back she is walking on the same floor you are (the chandelier is still hanging) and you are very tempted to approach her, so, um, you do. She seems to at once notice, be scared of, and totally disregard your presence. Aesthetically pleasing as well! So real is this ghost!
So: a chandelier, an undecipherable text, a woman, a window, and, did i forget to mention?, a mirror. Who ever needed anything else with which to reconsider the world?
You begin to reconsider. You are happy when your real friend (in shorts and frye boots) comes back. You are, however, a little disappointed when she tells you the woman is Mary Wollstonecraft. Not that you have anything against Ms. Wollstonecraft, but because you prefer her to be just “a woman in not black skinny jeans reading a nonmakeoutable text on a ceiling”. You go out to smoke a cigarette.
Here’s what Mr. Buckingham has/d to say:
“I wondered what the effect might be if Wollstonecraft were able to revisit her own writing now, and I imagined staging a “visitation”–a kind of ghost story–in which she appears in the present and speaks her words live today, bringing them into contact with present-day experience. As a result of this thinking, the installation of The Spirit and the Letter has been arranged spatially to evoke a feeling of inversion. A chandelier protrudes upward from the floor, and an inverted mirror hangs high on one wall. A video image is projected onto the opposite wall, depicting another room where the same chandelier and mirror can be seen in the “correct” orientation. In the video, an actress playing Wollstonecraft paces across the floor, exits the frame, and after a moment reappears, this time walking on the ceiling of the room. Wollstonecraft has been placed on the ceiling to emphasize her presence as a ghost and to play with our sense of her as a radical, someone stubbornly objecting to convention and norms. In turn, I try to allow the spectators–who occupy a space similar to hers–to see themselves in her position, to identify with her physically.
The actress delivers a somewhat associative monologue that is mainly made up of fragments borrowed from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In applying Wollstonecraft to our time, I knew I was projecting my interests or my agenda onto hers. I decided to set myself strict limits–to work only with Wollstonecraft’s published writing and, for the most part, not to use her private letters, because I wanted to avoid reading her public life through her private life, which has happened so often.
As in my other works reflecting upon past lives or events, I see this investigation of Wollstonecraft as a process of retrieval and restaging. There is always a certain degree of “failure” in restaging something, and this allows a critique to emerge, as well as offering a way to work free of received ideas about “history.” In the excerpts from her writing that I decided to use, I shifted the tense from present to past, so that she appears to be commenting in the present moment on the condition of women as they existed in her lifetime. For example, in the video she says that women were “taught from their infancy that beauty was woman’s scepter, the mind shaped itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only sought to adorn its prison.” As the viewers listen, they juxtapose “then” and “now,” perhaps asking, “What is the present condition of women?” or “Have things changed?” It is quite easy when reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to think about how much has changed, and what life was like, but we are just as likely to be reminded that certain powerful social dynamics are still intact, and when that happens we catch a glimpse of how deeply we hide this reality from ourselves.”
Also, supposedly, “Buckingham’s works frequently include accounts of his own involvement in their production–the process of discovery, error, and frustration in unearthing events or facts–thereby making apparent the imprecision, personal decision making, and projection that underlie any attempt to record history. As the artist says, “The importance or unimportance that we assign to past events, here and now, is one of the ways that we define or even actively create the present.””
“…taught from their infancy that beauty was woman’s scepter, the mind shaped itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only sought to adorn its prison”!
Scepter! Specter!
And, yes, Michael, in honor of Mary Wollstonecraft i took off those tight jeans! From now on only big silky dresses. Now if i could find my copy of Vindication. (but, I’m moving this week!)
Also: “to avoid reading her public life through her private life.”; i.e. quite a(nother) detour.
“And the silky thread?”, you may ask. Well, I neglected to attribute to Ms. Vivian Gornick the quote about children’s predisposition to creativity and intellection that I used in the snowball hitting my son’s back post (yes, I was photographer and pitcher!) and her quote was her wind up for talking about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft, of course, never got the chance to hear her little Mary say about the stock indices: “Those look like mountains one could die on!”
And, of course, Happy early Halloween, Olena


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, October 26th, 2008 by Olena Kalytiak Davis.