I’m sure I’ve mentioned a million times before that since my Mum died I search for her likeness in the voices, hopes and hands of other older woman. It’s a bit sinister but there it is, experiencing terminal illness through the conduit of someone you love is nothing if not enlightening. What you couldn’t dream of doing before suddenly becomes possible, because fighting for someone’s life makes you an optimist, essentially. An optimist who can’t be shocked by dealing with the indignities of illness. You get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s a bittersweet, boundary-busting blessing.
Without realising my search was still active, I found a little of her a couple of weeks ago as I listened to sculptor Phyllida Barlow talking about the pieces and processes in her exhibition simply entitled ‘set’, at The Fruitmarket Gallery. Or perhaps I found a bit of the woman I wish my Mum had been able to age into. Writing this, I’m acutely aware that my Mum was sculpting me into the woman that she dared not be herself. Her hopes for me fought harder than her ambitions for her own life. She fed and nurtured me with lines she never uttered outside my company but, by god, she sewed words and actions of self-esteem tightly onto my veins and they push out when I’m in situations where people are testing their boundaries, like they are seeking the braveness she felt when she made them part of me.
I long to be taken under an older woman’s wing and granted her wisdom, her help, her attention and warmth. Simultaneously, I’m audaciously specific in the indulgence of my own thoughts about how that older woman should be. I want her brave, bold, funny, honest. I want her scathing and tender. I want an arm from this lady and a hand from that other one. I want a leg from Janis but Norma’s nose, please. I’d like Sandra’s hair but Kirsten or Monica’s dress sense. I want Jenny’s politics and Susan’s laugh. I am, to all intents and purpose, metaphorically sculpting a fantasy cut out of my mother from the bodies and thoughts of others who appeal, trying to make her come alive again. It is the stuff that REM sleep dreams (and possibly nightmares) are made of.
Barlow also talked a little about ISIS, about the shock with which she watched terrorists smash up museum pieces in Mosul, via the news. She talked (and I’m paraphrasing here) about how art is up there with the best of what people do and about how creating something, or seeing the beauty or the story or a sculptural event in something ordinary is the opposite of destruction. Anyone who knows my blog will know these are the type of thoughts that make my heart fly. These thoughts are not to belittle the atrocities ISIS have committed against people – quite the opposite, in fact. They are, I believe, to say that whatever the worst of humanity is doing has to be countered and challenged by the best things that humanity is capable of too. Art – whether written, drawn, sculpted, sung, sewn or thrown is one of the ways human can push frontiers. Stopping pushing means that the things at the very bottom of human capability – the wars, the intolerance and the willful ignorance – all those things get more air to breathe. The momentum that art creates pushes us forward, makes us question how we think, pulls us up short or simply allows us to say that we don’t like something, the only possible obligation being to explore your own context – even just a little – to explain why.
Maybe you look at art and you stand there feeling heady and happy. Maybe you look at art and you stand there realising that shit, even after almost a decade you are still bereft about no longer being someone’s daughter. Maybe you stand there like Barlow did when she was creating and placing the work, when she felt it was telling her to Fuck Off. The answers are never dull. They are your story, your ebbing and flowing truth, your anger, your joy, your perfect imperfection and your burgeoning, brilliant, snowballing identity and journey through the cosmos. In all of that, they are everything that opposes ISIS and other terror organisations who can only cope with black and white and who refuse to acknowledge the world is a million beautiful shades of grey and a spiraling rainbow of colours in-between.
I think the time has come to take my vacancy notice for a parent down from the window. She was enough. Time to fight the last fight on the grief frontier – The Battle of Absolute Acceptance. Time to open the door to meeting new people of a certain age for who they are, not how they might best fit with my adult orphan complex. It feels terrifying and liberating, so it must be right.
It would be easy to read all of that and to think that I wander around with desolate eyes bleeding plump tears onto the world and looking like an unlikely understudy for a Bonnie Tyler video. I don’t. I live a smiling life, in the main. In fact, I’m a much happier person since my Mum’s death. How’s that for a mindfuck? Death showed me an urgency to life that I hadn’t felt before. Death stuck a magnifying glass over the people around me who were happy and giving and slapped me with a stinging lesson that my happiness was there for the taking, so stop waiting for it to show up and make me smile. If Mum could smile and laugh in death, I can bloody well do it in life, even without her. For the three decades or more taken from her, I determined to live for both of us and love brilliant people that bit harder, to keep her alive in me. It’s a strategy that I know is ultimately selfish. However, it serves me well and harms no-one so I stick with it as a guiding principle. Time and again it leads me back to art and reminds me that being brave, taking risks and feeling fear are bloody good comfort zones to drop into on a regular basis.
Grief, eh? And art. How do you eat yours?
Phyllida Barlow’s solo exhibition ‘set’ is yours to view for free at The Fruitmarket Gallery until the 18th of October, 2015.