Analisa Violich Goodin
An Imagined Absence: Images of Loss and the Performance of Representation
On a warm afternoon last summer, I visited the house at 6840 Sherwick Drive, the house that now stands on the site of my burned home. Sixteen years had passed since the fire. I walked slowly, taking everything in, overlaying a ghostly blueprint of the home in my memory onto the new structure. Much did not match. Symptomatic of the homes rebuilt after the Oakland hills fire, this house at 6840 had been built much larger than the old one. The backyard, once sprawling, was now pitifully small and fenced in. The landscaping seemed bare and forgotten; generic potted plants sparsely lined the path to the back of the house, dominated by sour grass and unkempt ivy. The house blatantly interrupted every corner of my memory, and it seemed that the more I looked the less I could remember. I strained to associate this structure with some sense of familiarity, but the more visual information I received, the more distanced I became.
Visual representation is always a partial image of an unseen whole; it is the visible component of what is invisibly felt by the hand, by the mind, and by the heart. My thesis addresses the role of visibility as it interacts with loss and absence through the work of memorialization as well as visual art that performatively troubles the act of seeing. Through the work of the artists Rachel Whiteread and the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, my project focuses on how visual representation is negotiated to address personal and collective losses, from the corporeal loss of life from AIDS and the Holocaust to the cognitive loss of ideals in the desire for permanence despite inevitable change. Akin to the ambitions of public monuments or memorials (and the reactive ambitions of “anti-” memorials), ascribing an image to “that which is no longer present” is a way of achieving a cohesive, stable space of remembrance. Yet to make form out of memory in this way counters the very process of memory itself; in the absence of concrete visual evidence we are left only with a changing image, susceptible to the particularities of context, space, and time.
For this presentation, I will focus on the artwork of the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who offers an apt portrait of loss while paying homage to the particularities of absence and memory—fleeting, malleable, and subject to change. Whiteread specializes in plaster casts of what she calls “the emptiness between walls”: the hollow of a stairwell, for instance, or the aisles of a library. These casts are not immediately coherent, as we must imagine this sculptural reversal as affecting our own place in space; we have become invisible, while all that was unseen has risen to the surface of the visual field. What we think we know is suddenly unfamiliar, what we think we see is now obscured. This deceptively simple flip mimics the casting process itself, in a pendulum of negative and positive embodiments. Through the fluctuation of opposites, we are pressed to reconsider the reliability of visual representation; what we see is not what we get.