Life Stories: A Reflection
by Erin J. Campbell, PhD, Lead Curator
Art History & Visual Studies, University of Victoria
Claudia transfixed by a dandelion, Catherine Pascal enmeshed in the circle of life, Catieni’s open door, beckoning to the ‘beyond.’ Works like these and others in the exhibition offer moments of possibility: the opportunity to engage with, reflect on, and discuss the role of art in our own life stories. Art clusters around the significant stages of our lives, like iron filings to a magnet. Art has the capacity to both fix and layer time across the life course – projecting the past into the present and the future, or the future into the past. High chairs, rattles, wedding dresses, beds, all woven together with significant life rituals and passages, are not inert objects but vibrant material things that have a certain agency to shape the unfolding of lives.
Photography in particular is central to our key life rituals and passages, so it is not surprising that photographs are a potent force in the exhibition. Gifted observers of the life stages, photographers Ulli Stelzer, Nina Raginsky, and Frank Pimmentel bring to mind the French philosopher Roland Barthes’ conception of the power of photography to shape us. Calling the photograph “an emanation” issuing forth “from a real body,” Barthes, in Camera Lucida, underscores our bodily encounters with photography and how its “touch” transforms us through what he calls its “radiations.” Insisting on the somatic force of the image, Barthes points to the potential violence of art, “not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force [my emphasis].” Herein lies the power of the image to shape our perceptions and experiences of the life stages.
For example, Eva Campbell’s Untitled (mother and child) presents us with a seemingly iconic moment of maternal bonding. We enter into the nearly life-size picture, the sensuous sway of bodies and textiles, the visual allure of pattern and bright colours, the tactile verve of brushstrokes, flooding our senses and urging us to draw ever closer. Yet, ultimately, placed outside the circle of love, we are voyeurs of an intimacy both presented and withheld as the figures turn their backs to us, a movement which poignantly evokes the promise and the loss of ‘mother’ at the beginnings of life. Jack Wilkinson’s Girl in Blue Flowered Nightgown posits coming of age as a daydream suspended between childhood and maturity. Sprawled across the vivid-hued bedspread, shoes cast off and tucked carelessly under the bed, the girl, absorbed into the world of the book, enfolded in the intimate bedroom as a place of refuge and security, enjoys the privilege of a safe space to dream, denied to those evoked by Jessica Posner’s reference to Kibera, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, where a very different kind of adolescence plays out.
“The Bed Room,” curated by guest artist Elly Heise, showcases the complex interplay between memory, materiality, and the life course. The bed, a physical object, carefully crafted, solid, taking up space, is the centre of so many life stages: conception, birth, marriage, death. A densely symbolic place of rituals and life passages, the bed creates its own world: as microarchitecture it is a microcosm of the home. Heise’s ephemeral photographic traces, whose ghostlike images haunt the shape-shifting fragments of chiffon, are tethered firmly to the architecture of the 17thc. oak bed. Originally from the collection of Katharine Maltwood, the bed is an artefact of time and chance. Heise’s work deftly asks us to question the boundaries we create around space, furniture, biography, and art, showing that they are so tightly interwoven it is impossible to discern where one begins and another ends.
These artworks and others on display allow us to reflect on the impact of art on our own life stories, as sites of joy or pain, memory or forgetting, agency or resistance. Yet, they also remind us of the insistent pressure to conform to life-stage expectations, from a happy childhood to peaceful retirement in old age. The media, public institutions, and our homes are filled with images that mediate and shape our life passages from childhood to old age. Surprisingly, although the life stages are a significant category of social experience alongside gender, sexuality, class, and race, they are often taken for granted. Life Stories offers the opportunity to add your own life stories to the exhibition by reflecting on artworks that are meaningful to your life passages and your unique conception of life’s “stages”.