MAPPING THE DARK: AN ABRIDGED ESSAY
by Johanna Drucker
“Inner life and imagination are the substance of all of these works. The ‘Dark’ of the installation’s title is that space of self’s interior, its undisclosed locations in which the psyche processes as a means of survival. Meaning is not the object or outcome of such a sensibility. The over-arching spirit is motivated by record-keeping, scribing, a desperate message-in-the-bottle from a place of isolation and struggle. Every text in this work is a cry — some more strident, some plaintive, some more poignant and pathetic than the others. Writing and memory are always instigated under the shadow of loss. Acts of compensation are the core motivation of the characters whose testimonials these pieces presume to be — and the authorial voice of the artist, coordinating these exquisite fragments, flickers through the whole as a guiding spirit, but one whose own individual ‘dark’ remains unmapped, unrevealed.”
The arts of the book provide the foundation for Rosamond Casey’s eloquent ten-part installation, Mapping the Dark: A Museum of Ambient Disorders. Written traces, pages, bindings, boxes, and iconic references to books as objects are abundantly evident in the varied forms and materials of the individual pieces that comprise the workŠ
Some of the objects are hung on the wall like paintings, others are displayed in cases like precious relics, and still others laid out for us to read by turning their pages. Taken together, they weave a network of connections in stories told by things as much as words. The speaking capacity of material is everywhere apparent in the way the installation forces the objects to caption the words, or to comment on the narratives by offering our eyes more information than the merely fragmentary stories ever can. We grasp the conundrum of the ways the remains of human experience do and don¹t provide access to the contexts from which they were precipitated into history. And the dark recesses of interior life out of which these particular remains were brought to life are only partially illuminated by the museum to which we have access.
Like the room of a unique institution, dedicated to the lived reality of our time, this installation seems both removed from and contemporary with the moment of our encounter. Somehow tinged with nostalgia, as if we are already one step removed from the lives out of which these pieces were preserved, the room nonetheless seems to speak from a history contiguous with our time. These are the remains of persons who have only just left the room of the present, and the exhibition of traces left behind connect us to them even as they mark, like poignant milestones, the impossibility of recovering any living connection theoretical concerns are richly apparent throughout this complex, multi-part piece. .. But the real force of the work comes from its visual impact. Mapping the Dark works through the eye, exciting the tactile imagination by the material richness of its worked forms. Unlike many “book-like objects” or sculptural books, Casey’s pieces aren’t reductive and iconic. These are not books in cases, or books made into objects, but rather multivalent pieces that explore installation and wall space in relation to the expectations we have come to have of the codex.
Inner life and imagination are the substance of all of these works. The “Dark” of the installation’s title is that space of self’s interior, its undisclosed locations in which the psyche processes as a means of survival. Meaning is not the object or outcome of such a sensibility. The over-arching spirit is motivated by record-keeping, scribing, a desperate message-in-the-bottle from a place of isolation and struggle. Every text in this work is a cry — some more strident, some plaintive, some more poignant and pathetic than the others. Writing and memory are always instigated under the shadow of loss. Acts of compensation are the core motivation of the characters whose testimonials these pieces presume to be — and the authorial voice of the artist, coordinating these exquisite fragments, flickers through the whole as a guiding spirit, but one whose own individual “dark” remains unmapped, unrevealed. But the artist/narrator remains distinct from her characters, who each have their own distinctive approach to mark-making. As distinctive as a speech acts, these individual handwritings are widely varied. Where the contrast of fat and thin strokes in the work of a female character obsessed with her body-image is a surrogate means of enacting control, for the trapped subway rider, writing and mark making are a way of managing the tensions produced in a pressure-cooker situation. Each writing act serves a purpose for these characters, not merely as an autographic portrait, but as a way of coping with their own psychic economy through a practice balancing release and constraint.
Small, framed black and white photographs provide a glimpse of each character. Not in any sense portraits, these images are also fragmentary evidence. Arianna’s face is cut off across the bridge of her nose, we see only the dangling arm of “Bob” emerging from messy bedsheets. A naked young boy, crouched like a frog, leans over the edge of a body of water with a pen in hand, and we see only the graceful arch of that long, skinny white back. The specificity of these images, like that of the texts and objects, is precise, not general. These are definite and particular persons. But we are not offered studied portraits, not in the least. If anything, the photographs are more traces, indexical marks of once-present persons, whose absence is the more conspicuous in relation to the artifacts that embody their words or thoughts.
Whose words? The text pieces speak in first person and third. The organizing artist whose mustering sensibility brought all this into being is a medium. An obsessive filter, as eager to amass, collect, record, inscribe, make, re-make, mark, and remark as any of the characters portrayed. The arm-less woman, or woman who imagines herself to have only feet with which to draw — is she the artist? Or a real fiction? An actual persona or an imagined alternative? The personalities are so artfully drawn by the coordinates of material, text, visual evidence that they seem absolutely present and real. The man trapped for three hours in the subway at 53rd street with only The New York Times who survives with “incantations and a steady mark” is not only believable, plausible in the terms of the fiction and evidence, but conjured as an actual, necessary referent.
The reworked scraps of newspaper don’t exist unless he does. And they are mounted, with all their doodled-detailed-tightly marked need for distraction, on copper edged boards, hinged with rods, into an accordion fold book-screen structure that is solid and present and real. The box into which this fits is etched around its black rim with a laser process, the letters filled with gold, the engraved text on the lid dimensional and permanent. Nothing ephemeral here. The solid reality of material acts upon the texts, providing a substance in which to ground their imagined realities. The fictions are like droppings, clippings left behind in the passage from person to persona, from real presence to its remembered form.
Free from cliché in their language and remote from stereotype in their identities, this cast of characters comprises a set of distilled and specific beings. Of Raymond Swann fully named, we are told: ³A pair of scissors, his textbooks, the faculty xerox machine, and the confidence he had in his absolute invisibility gave Raymond the tools he needed for his work.² The outcome of that set of conditions? Collage works reworked and pastiched so that the copier capture of parts of his body presents us a piece of an actual arm, a squashed palm, bit of flesh. This can’t be fiction, grounded as it in the trace of a particular body writing and writhing in trapped struggle. These are social pathologies. Their shape is formed by the pressures of the world so that the weak points, fault lines, fissures of the psyche crack according to a characterological disposition. The driving forces that cause these extrusions of matter are the tensions of everyday life as they produce extraordinary circumstances. The ordinary, the actual, the mundane, and the lived are re-rendered in extremis. Thus the metrically calibrated width of the lines in “Fat/Thin” register the actual weight of pen to paper, ink as a band of obsessional measure for a gendered angst. Her discipline is in making the lines, trying for a bar-code standard measure on which to anchor her wildly fluctuating scale. But the troubled spirit seems to see the world in terms of dimensions. Each act of ingestion or rejection latches onto the shapes of things as the external signs against which to assess one’s self in a limitless comparison of size and scale. Bigger than, smaller than — these relative terms shift constantly, and slipping through shape of lines and spaces between them is the self-identity of a woman who can’t put her self to rest in any stable place on a scale. A restlessness, that of the nervous hand and anxious temperament, pervades all the individual elements of this installation. None are easy, light, or simple. All are consistent, complete, and deliberate. They are all about different people, united by this singular sensibilityŠ For the role of material is complicated here. Not merely — however skillfully and expertly — is matter conjured to serve idea or to suggest absent meaning through a present thing. The play of matter is substantive in its own right, whether in representational substitution of the sort indicated by the Ernst Gombrich quote that frames the piece, or in a sheer assertion of qualities. The use of matte black rubber to create the pages concerning the girl-without-arms of “Monster in the Path” isn’t standing in for something else, but as stuff, in its own irrefutable assertion of what the made and manufactured is as a matter of fact. But matter also serve to take the texts of these works and put them in a world. The dress shirting and suit cloth of “Bob’s Flashback” are leftovers, residue, the tatters of a shirt and jacket that have shred through investigation even as the body, long-gone, has passed out of the room. The stamped leather covers of the box in which “Arianna’s Ledger Stones” reside is as articulate as the stones themselves, or the short text of the piece. Material is not only referent for linguistic particles, material has its own referents — the people, the characters, and the world they inhabit.
For all its sense of loss, of the absence of those persons whose traces remain, the world conjured by the works in this piece is contemporary in its references, not steeped in the nostalgia of some past era. Because the formal qualities and cultural associations of the materials so directly connected to the present, the sense of loss that attaches to these absent persons is all the more sharp and poignant. They are missing from our world, not from another time or place. The Max Factor makeup used as a palette for the “Girl From Lascaux” belongs to the culture of the present post-post-modern world in which the richer the associational field the better. In the torn grid screening of “White Noise”, cork-stoppered bottles preserve sounds that are long gone, ephemeral as the urge to preserve them. No amount of recovery will be sufficient to fully map these vanished trajectories, the errant narratives of lives really — maybe — lived. The “Lost House” is only offered to us as a single photograph into which a crack in the door provides ambiguous access. But the shed roof and the wooden lintels, the slight lean in the way the door has shifted from true, are details sufficient to ensure that we know this house was real, not imagined. At the same time, we realize that the value of its actual existence owes much to those exaggerated affective charges produced by “ambient disorders” of individual psychic experience.
Books? Yes, books are echoed everywhere. . .We do “read” the works in “Mapping the Dark” — and all the more so because the writing in each work, though brief, is sufficient as the touchstone anchor of each piece to set us reading the rest of it. The world of matter assumes legibility as a result, just as text becomes a material artifact with all the non-linguistic expressive capabilities that calligraphic and type-scripted and printed and lettered and engraved making can evince. The fact that the entire work is comprised of ten distinct pieces results in a persuasive argument. The presentation is not of anomalous characters, odd obsessives or eccentrics, but rather is the oddly eccentric and obsessive expression of a perceiving sensibility. Portraits of others, provoked responses to specific details of imagined identities, around which kernel of departure is woven an elaborate and articulate work. Remains of a complex world, lives lived, and produced as if recollected, with all the believability that such specific records can provide. Mapping the Dark is also the distinct expression of an individual aesthetic whose ways of processing that world mark it as distinctly as the handwritings she adapts so expertly to each aspect of her purpose.