No Heart Feelings
‘Art is always a collaboration with what came before you and what comes after you,’ Louise Lawler writes to me through you. It reminds me of a lesson from a teacher who once insisted on the importance of knowing who our parents were and who our siblings are and to make sure that those connections are visible in the work we are doing. Intellectual DNA or not, influence is something personally felt. And whether we state it explicitly or it teeters in unknowingly—the Freudian slip of heart—it is through such figures that our context becomes known.
At a time before this calendar came to be, you wrote me an e-mail that arrived bearing the subject line: ‘I’m sorry to inform you.’ My heart skipped a beat. It was a time laden with COVID-19, a renewed sense of investment in the health of others was in the air, and, in laying my ‘siblings’ metaphorically bare, I had just recently lost a friend.
Said friend was a deviant, always knowingly pushing you to the brink of despair. Yet, in embodying the pure contradiction that is anyone, he was also completely risk-averse, primed with a fearful smile should you reel around in anger, one that told you it was always just about love. I arrived home to Australia for a brief visit over the then summer holidays, and the following day, while on a cycling trip, he was hit unexpectedly by a car, suffered a punctured lung and subsequently went into cardiac arrest. The abrupt loss of heart function, or no heart feelings. This effectively denied him oxygen to the brain for any amount of minutes too long and, after three long weeks in an induced coma in an intensive care ward right next door to where I worked and studied in my late teens and early twenties, he passed away.
But it’s really his memorial that I want to tell you about. Standing there, next to my mother, my oldest friends and my newest partner, in a room of faces that in varying frequencies punctuated my teens and twenties with such poignancy, I could comprehend the vastness of the contributing factors that allow something, or particularly now someone, to be understood. The memorial taught me the multiplicity of context better than perhaps art ever has—and I say this knowing full well that if anyone ever asks me what I could have possibly learnt at art school (a question that we all know comes far too often) I always respond with honest fervour that I learnt what a frame is and I learnt what context is and I think for anyone that’s a lesson well gained.
It was immediately apparent on arriving at the memorial that the parties privy to my friend’s life were, at least there, distinctly split in two. There was work him, the seemingly sententious criminal barrister, represented in the perfectly tailored suits, the occasional pencil skirt and the naturally broad chests of those eternally primed for speech. On the other side there was us, the musicians and artists and old-time friends that knew him on the weekend, or at home, shoes off, after a long day in court. Some of our suits were inappropriately pink, wayward hair lacked stiffened gel and backs slouched forward from years leaning over drum kits. Someone joked that he would work cases with his colleagues during the week and give free advice to his friends on the weekends, and in part, that wasn’t untrue. Except, of course, there is no such thing as such a clean split. In all is contradiction he embodied this better than most.
This fact sedimented in the apparent outliers of this visual formula: those who sailed between both worlds. They were his clients, scrubbing up nicely to say goodbye. Or his family, who knew it all and didn’t stand there confused to be mourning and at the same time receiving a completely rounded image of him for the first time. Yet even so, the fictional split between worlds was felt across them, with eulogies garnering laughs from opposite sides of the fence as if audiences at a two-act play we’d read, partly seen but never seen staged, like it was now, in its entirety. There was a second split too, brought on by a division only architecture can provide: not everyone fit in the room. And so we were separated by a glass wall and a sound system, some of us inside the room hearing the speeches first-hand and others outside amidst the last days of a Melbourne summer having them delivered crackly and broken from above.
I was told afterwards, and this is the bit I really wanted to tell you (I needed to give you a little context first), that half of the speeches weren’t heard from outside. The more we discussed them amongst ourselves afterwards, the more apparent it became that it was always his lawyer friends and colleagues who’s speeches didn’t completely transmit. It wasn’t some kind of moralistic microphone that managed to draw a distinction down the line of speakers—what’s the joke again? ‘How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? Well, when his lips are moving’—but rather a question of delivery. It was only the people who didn’t speak publicly for a living that managed to navigate the apparatus of the microphone, orientate their body towards it and sink into their position temporarily on stage. The lawyers, primed for unassisted performative speech, weren’t accustomed to the microphone and its stand, and didn’t know to settle in and situate. ‘The impotence of knowing,’ another friend described to me later.
Towards the end of your e-mail you wrote that there would be ‘no heart feelings’ if I didn’t have the time or desire to speak to your work. I noted this and considered it a mistranscription of the more common saying no hard feelings. You also sent me a series of images of your exhibition, each framed in different ways and along different edges by blurry hands, the dreaded finger on the lens treated as something completely unlike an accident. Amid these hands and works, affixed to a stretched canvas, was a photograph of a small golden skeleton. It lay there, facedown on the ground of the image, disconnected at each joint but still, at first glance, completely holding form. Writing this and fearing the morbidity brought on by death, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, also strewn. Or about the loss of context, which at this point is really the only consistent descriptor I have to describe how I relate to his passing. But buried deeply within the multiple layers of the image, and of your images in general—as this process of building through layering across the many different frames of reception is so synonymous with how I see your work—are the gaps between the bones of the golden skeleton. And these gaps insist on this multiplicity of context that makes up a whole form, if that’s what we can ever call ourselves.
I feel so attached to this slip of finger, this turning of ‘hard’ into ‘heart’ for reasons that don’t necessarily equate to knowing. But part of me wonders if this was also intentional, your own spin on the saying, as if no bad feelings, which is what I take the saying to mean, is the same as having no heartfelt feelings at all. Emotions are hard and so there will be none of them. But I do sit here and write, just as I sat there and read when you wrote, with a sudden pull towards the heart feelings, especially in the case of him and of you, who whether you knew it or not met many times and will continue to meet in me. For when things we feel we knew are interrupted, suddenly and abruptly cut short—an introduction of a microphone, the loss of a friend—what do we do with them? A cycling accident, a shared history, multiple contributing factors and no clear frame of reference. Do we then work hard, over time, to locate these lineages and ourselves more readily, to track the DNA? Or, when it comes down to it, is it all just a Freudian slip of heart?
— Isabelle Sully