ABOUT MARKS IN THE RIVER OF TIME
Notes on Marks in the River of Time by Daniel Baird
The day my father died I was called upon to identify his body. At the mortuary, a dour mortician wearing toxic perfume and an ill-fitting suit ushered me into a windowless room, and soon, on a closed circuit black and white television, my father’s face appeared, distorted by his death throes only hours earlier. Enraged, I began shouting, insisting that they take me to his body, and so the flustered mortician led me into the basement where my father’s body was wheeled out on a gurney, a stiff white sheet pulled up to his chin. I stood there speechless, contemplating his uninhabited and barely recognizable face. As I walked back up the stairs, out of the mortuary, and into the autumn sunlight, a seemingly endless series of doors loudly slamming one after the other behind me, I think I grasped for the first time what it means to be finite: to be defined by loss, by the ferocious and irrevocable reality of absence.
Inspired by the memory of her late husband, Robin Pacific’s new exhibit, Marks in the River of Time, is about the reality of loss, but rather than focusing on raw grief, Pacific explores our dialogue with loss and the way it changes us and creates a porous, communal space in which our private pasts become alive and imminent in the flow of the public present. For this project, Pacific made three separate portraits of all the people in her life, friends and neighbors, her yoga teacher and financial advisor—eighty in all. One is a straight, frontal likeness in charcoal, based on a photograph; one is an abstract painting, an intuitive portrait of mood and emotion and spirit. For the third, she asked participants to speak in front of a video camera about loss in their lives and how it had changed them, and for the occasion to bring music and a gift.
The video portraits are direct, frontal, and often painfully intimate, and they display a remarkable and subtle range of emotion. In one, an older woman wistfully reflects upon the loss of her teenage dream that dance and dance alone would lead her to happiness. In another, a woman recalls the transformative power of falling in love, and then describes the cruelty of her husband’s early death from brain cancer and how a part of her died with him. And in still another, an artist breaks down remembering how his Taiwanese grandmother, who had endured the privations of war, always ate every remaining grain of rice from the pot in which she cooked it. The faces and voices in these videos move fluidly from the tough and reserved to the vulnerable and ruminative. Comedy and tragedy naturally leak one into the other.
Whether in painting or drawing, photography or film, portraiture is about the face: its plasticity, its expressiveness and sensitivity, its instability, quivering with every shift in mood and thought. And portraits of the face, in grueling close up as in the work of Chuck Close and Lucien Freud, or at a regal distance as in as in Rembrandt and Velazquez, form a geography of our relationship to others, the version of ourselves that is irreducibly public. Portraits also seem to underscore the divide between our visible exterior and the interior it points to, and Pacific’s self-consciously conventional archive of charcoal portraits of her circle of friends and acquaintances remind us of this. Compared to the video portraits, they look like commissioned likenesses that conceal as much as they reveal, emblems of the idea of personhood. The brightly painted abstractions Pacific has paired with the charcoal drawings are, by contrast, now somber, now ecstatic, and always luxuriant. But Marks in the River of Time should not be read as consisting of dichotomies between the subjective and the objective, the public and private, or, for that matter, woundedness and healing; it is rather a series of exchanges, of conversations, that draws us, the viewers, into its orbit. Emmanuel Levinas famously argued that the face takes logical precedence over the “I” in the constitution of the self, suggesting, perhaps, that portraits are not static but a nexus of endless dialogue, with ourselves and with others, where the finitude of presence and the infinity of absence continuously fold into one another in a process we call change and time.
Two years ago, Robin asked me to participate in the work that eventually became Marks in the River of Time, and I studiously evaded her. Perhaps for that reason, I admire those who were willing to take part, to expose in a public context that part of themselves that has been shaped by loss. The music and gifts, whether Bach’s Suites for Cello or a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song, a battered pair of a ballerina’s point shoes or a candle, suggest a willingness to trust the world. How would I answer Pacific’s questions? I would surely speak of my father’s death, how it seemed to wholly negate the past and render the present unintelligible, how for years I wandered like an amnesiac in a permanently foreign country, without language or memory, how I poured whole vineyards of red wine into the gaping and endlessly thirsty mouth of the image of my father’s dead face as though that would revive and redeem both him and the reality of the world, and how I gradually came to acknowledge that loss is built into the nature of reality. I think I would offer Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde because it is both a celebration and a lamentation. I think I would give her the handwritten version of these words, these pages, with all of their mistakes, their deletions and additions, because I always feel like I am writing directly onto the surface of a river.