Saturday, April 4, 2020

Veil 1954: Paul Emmanuel

Mark Auslander


Paul Emmanuel
Veil 1954
2016
Hand incised and perforated carbon paper, carbon residue,
180 x 150 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
Mark Auslander: As something like half of humanity is under lockdown or shelter in place restrictions,  confined to our homes for the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, it seems inevitable that many of us will concentrate on our complex familial relations, pondering those who are both present and absent. With the mounting risks of serious illness and death faced by the older generations, many of us find ourselves exploring our relationships in particular with our parents, living and dead. We may be under prohibitions from visiting our parents physically, and face the possibility that we may prematurely have to say farewell, without the solace of physical touch or in-person visits (or even, in the dread eventuality of death, the comfort of a substantial funeral gathering). For those of us who have already lost a parent or parents, spending all day, every day, in a domestic space, surrounded by traces of an absent progenitor is strangely haunting. Just what did we say or do, in those final months, weeks, days and hours? What might we try to say, if we had another opportunity to bid farewell?  The fleeting appearance of a late parent in our dreams seems to offer an opportunity to say or do something, but that chance fades as we awake, and are left only with a distant echo of what might have been.

In this nearly unprecedented context, a paired set of works by South African artist Paul Emmanuel powerfully speaks to all of us who have experienced the death of a parent, or who fearfully anticipate a parent's imminent demise. "Veil 1954," created as the artist anticipated his mother's death, and "carbon dad 2017," a haunting memorial to Paul's late father, are both produced out of intricately worked, delicate carbon paper. (See Pam Allara's commentary on carbon dad 2017 in the book Paul Emmanuel, Wits Art Museum, 2020; excerpted in her 4/2/20 post.)

On carbon paper sheets, a now nearly archaic material meant to reproduce words typed on a typewriter, both works render visible that which by definition can never be fully reproduced--the full experience of being in the presence of a beloved parent. We are all made of carbon, an element born in the heart of exploding supernovas, and this substance, out of which we emerge and unto which we shall return, highlights all that which we share with out parents and all that which differentiates us from them.

Paul Emmanuel's Artist Statement  on Veil 1954:

Paul Emmanuel
Veil 1954
2016
Hand incised and perforated carbon paper, carbon residue,
180 x 150 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa



Paul Emmanuel
Veil 1954
2016
Hand incised and perforated carbon paper, carbon residue,
180 x 150 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
“My mother was my first country, the first place I ever lived.”
– Nayyirah Waheed

From 2014 to 2017 I was caregiver to my mother, who suffered from, and eventually died of Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 86. Walking this path with her and my father during her years of declining cognition and witnessing the slow disappearance of her personality was an experience impossible to convey in words. As her memory failed, I was drawn to revisit family photographs, retracing as much of her life as I could. This work is a replica of her wedding veil, created by scratching away the black carbon layer on delicate carbon paper normally used for simultaneously transferring impressions – much the way a memory is preserved.

Creating Veil 1954 felt like an attempt to capture both the presence and absence of a personality leaving one realm for another. It is conceived to be suspended both literally and metaphorically ‘between worlds’. I am fascinated by the history and symbolism of the veil as a marker of aristocratic rank and to differentiate between ‘respectable women’ and those who were ‘publicly available’ in old patriarchal societies. ‘In the third century the bridal veil became incorporated into the Christian wedding ceremony, adapted from the Roman model, while women who became consecrated to the service of God ‘took up the veil’ as a symbol of their marriage to Christ, and a sign of their chastity’ (1). In these societies, the bride is initially concealed from public view and in catholic weddings, the father of the bride ‘gives away’ his daughter to her husband, who, traditionally, is not allowed to see her, until she is revealed to him at the altar.

I am also drawn to Catholic iconography depicting The Madonna as ‘Our Lady’ – ‘Our Mother’ – honoured under the title: “Mother of the Church” (2), a veiled figure with her arms slightly outstretched potentially embracing ‘all her children’.

I see Veil 1954 as a ‘binary counterpoint’ to Carbon dad 2017. It outlines all that was left of my mother’s connection to the institution that defined their relationship. To me it is a representation of all that remained of her former self – a negative space or ‘shadow’, revealed to us only by the actual form of her re-incarnated wedding veil. Unlike Carbon dad 2017 which representationally depicts my father’s ‘presence’ at the time of his death, Veil 1954 depicts my mother’s ‘absence’ before hers, as Alzheimer's disease had already eradicated most of her identity. In death, the invoked veil also becomes a different kind of ‘shroud’ – an adornment of concealment and revelation accompanying her through her final transition.

During the last eleven months of my mother's life, as I scratched daily into the solid black carbon paper, attempting to capture its delicate lacework, it felt like I was scraping away the veil’s ‘heaviness’ and allowing the light through. Sometimes it felt like I was trying to uncover something that had become obscured. In order to secure an image with definition I had to remove the very substance that was capable of making copies – mirroring my futile attempts to hold back the inevitable and inescapable darkness ....

The process was unpredictable and difficult to control. Sometimes the carbon would flake off in unexpected ways, or the blade would perforate the delicate, membrane-like mantle. If this happened, I left the tear alone. I completed Veil 1954 a few days before she died.

References
(1).The Oxford Companion to the Body, Oxford University Press, 2001
(2). Pope Paul VI, Second Vatican Council. 1959


Paul Emmanuel
Veil 1954
2016
Hand incised and perforated carbon paper, carbon residue,
180 x 150 cm
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of Art Source South Africa
Mark Auslander:  Both Veil 1954 and carbon dad 2017 take us into the shadowlands of mourning, that strange country where we are challenged, slowly, to detach from the most painful features of our grief while re-attaching to other objects of our love. This process has been described by the great psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her classic paper "Mourning and its relation to manic depressive states (1940). Klein traces parallels between the process of weaning (the first act of mourning, for the loss of the maternal breast) and mourning for an actual person, which similarly involve progressive re-orientations towards the external world. Both the young child and the adult mourner engage in constant "reality testing," reaching to touch traces (actual or substitute) of the lost object of love (for the child, a transitional object such as 'a bankie' or beloved toy), and for the grieving adult photographs or physical objects associated with the lost one, until gradually, the ego becomes convinced that the mourned being is really gone, and can, if all goes well, move on to the next stages of life's journey.

Emmanuel's paired carbon works exemplify Klein's process of 'reality testing': he ceaselessly labored by hand to rework the blackened surface of both works, scraping away minute traces of carbon to emulate lace of his mother's wedding veil and to simulate wrinkles all over the naked body in the case of carbon dad.  The completed works, appropriately, are so delicate that they can hardly be touched; reality has been fully tested, and now a different stage of engagement is most appropriate.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Adams Memorial, 1891
Wikicommons
Veil 1954 rises like an apparition, an amorphous black translucent emptied form that paradoxically make present that which is now absent, and that which gradually became absent, as Paul's mother's memory gradually faded away.  It puts me in mind of Augustus Saint-Gaudens masterpiece, the sculpture  "The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding" (1886-91) usually termed "Grief" or the "Adams Memorial," commissioned by historian Henry Adams to memorialize his late wife "Clover' Adams. Adams and Saint-Gaudens are said to have been inspired by Buddhist conceptions of nirvana and cycles of creation, and in particular by Kanō Motonobu's painting, in the Boston Museum of Fine Art of the Buddhist bodhisattva Kannon or Guan Yin,  sometimes termed the "Goddess of Mercy." As a bodhisattava, Kannon is a highly advanced being who has renounced Enlightenment in order to guide other beings through levels of death, rebirth, and creation.  Like Saint-Gaudens' engimatic, shrouded work, Emmanuel's Veil 1954 takes us into a place that 'passeth understanding," ushering us into the presence of that which we cannot name, as it stirs both unbearable loss and unexpected serenity 

References

Klein, Melanie (1940). Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 21, 125–153.



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