The fourth in a series of exercises writing pieces based on, and then removed from, a single artwork. This time, it is “Path,” by Elín Hansdóttir, 2008 (installed Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, 2011).
I don’t recall what the pathways were for. Built of plastic brick and paper tile, they scythed crop circles into the circular rug and clattered like railways across the hardwood floor. They made interstates of the hallway and country lanes up to the piano—but for what? A pet? Toy soldiers? An imaginary friend? I can’t be sure.
I don’t recall who phoned. But I know with certainty that the phone was red. Crimson red, and heavy; it was loud, an alarming school-bell clang. I imagine that my mouth shaped a lower-case “o” as that clang swanned over my domino songlines. I knocked over a railway car or a cardboard tree, or bumped my head on the piano bench I was building beneath, or slipped on the unsecured rug: I can’t be sure.
I don’t recall exactly what I was told. But I remember the basics: An accident, a shotgun, a funeral being planned. I know that the call only lasted a moment before I was back amongst my pathways, kneeling on the piano bench, staring out the conservatory window. The newspaper must say something—if it didn’t, it wasn’t true: I ran to the shop. Did the passers-by on the street know? I can’t be sure.
At the end of Elín Hansdóttir’s installation “Path,” I’m sheathed in a scabbard of wall. The darkness is complete: not a sliver from the whirring ceiling, not the green ambience of stage tape, not a glowing dot illuminating passengers’ exits. Claustro- is no longer a –phobia, merely a standard human reaction. It’s a pure moment. In that final jagged corner of its 100-meters-long walkway, “Path” leaves its visitor as alone as birth.
Turn and face the darkness, take a step, retreat, and “Path” surrenders its reward. Tiny chinks in the wall offer light. Light that seemed insignificant, even accidental, is now, to eyes swaddled in darkness, the rich pre-dawn apple glow of midsummer. To enter “Path” is to flirt with basal fear. To leave it is holy.
But it isn’t in the entrance or the egress that “Path” offers its consolation. It’s in that V-shaped endgame, where, alone with my thoughts and my body, I consult the deepest core-sample of my blood and find traces of belief.
Fickle, fickle, memory.
It’s a femme fatale, my memory. It leads me to believe what it chooses with its not-so-subtle innuendos and its defensive guile. Over the course of five years, after abandoning childish maze laying, I found friends for joyrides, rock ‘n’ roll, and a kiss. I spent my first weekend alone in that big house, and my first weekend there not alone.
It was five years since that heavy red phone call pulled me from my path and signaled my first encounter with death—since a month of leaving a light on, and a year of fearing the window, in case some small-town Catherine was scraping to get in. Accident had been the verdict: Cleaning a gun, playing with it, the American child’s prerogative. He couldn’t have known it was loaded—they never do, but they always are.
But he wasn’t cleaning or playing, and he did know it was loaded: Days before graduation, five years on, a small memorial spawned questions. It wasn’t an accident, and, in fact, I was the only one who thought it was. But I remembered it—I could remember the red phone and its school-bell clang. And I could remember my mother explaining it all that night. And I know I imagined him opening that apple-glow door to take his place in the Kingdom before I was told that, no, that’s not how it works.
Memory tricks us with its ease. We saw it, we heard it, we know it. But all it truly is, in the end, is a belief—do you have the certainty to back up your memory? Or is it all myth, to be picked up and used like language, when we need to defend our way and support our cause?
Belief: To understand one thing to be correct and another not so, to feel in one’s DNA that there can be certitude about anything, is a product we’ve marketed to ourselves for millennia. We’ve all got the residue, even those of us told that, no, that’s not how it works. Dig down through a few layers of anyone’s archaeological strata, and you’ll find postholes of belief structures long forgotten: Blood bibles that pulse in our veins.
Belief has never been easy. Belief, like memory, is precarious. It can be shunted and shunned, undermined and toppled. And both belief and doubt are strange partners in memory’s coy gambit. Having been raised to believe in doubt, to see each religion or myth not as an archaeological discovery but foundational quagmire—a threat to stability—it was easy to imagine death as a locked door.
But those raised without belief simply have to dig a little deeper and undermine doubt itself: Embrace doubt as its own belief; find in it the ability, the manifest decision, to take what we know may not be ‘truth’ and still huddle close to it for warmth.
A story that haunted me:
A boy and his brother are in a car accident. The older brother is killed instantly; the boy is hanging on by a thread—little hope from the doctors until, for no logical reason, the boy goes into an amazing turnaround. He not only gains strength but awakens—with a start. And he tells of his experience: A glowing door, its seal and keyhole bursting with light, at the end of a long corridor. But when the boy reaches it, and stretches for the doorknob, it opens a crack from the inside. His brother’s hands, recognizably big and strong, reach out and push the boy back—“Not yet,” rings a voice in his head.
It’s the kind of urban legend that preteens tell one another on the playground—the pseudo-Christian version of a hook-handed hitcher, or a bathtub full of ice. But this one stuck with me to this day: Those hands pushing back, glowing from beyond the door.
“Path” conjures up these metaphorical doors at every turn. “Path” is full of art-made myths of glowing predawn sublimity and the warm embrace of doubt. To stand in its final corner for the first time, with no semblance of what’s to come when you turn, is to stake a new claim in one’s own blood—to mark belief as possible; imagination as sane. Inside “Path” we are all at odds with our own memory, bathed in darkness, guided by our own DNA. No young man’s hands come to push us back, no choir of angels sings us forward. But there is a simple epiphany before turning to face the unexpected glow: That, reaching inside our blood, we each have something that can guide us home.
This is my belief:
I believe in absolute darkness and shrouded light and golden-apple dawn; in the beautiful lies of memory and the conquering power of myth. I believe in weekends spent inside not-alone, and ambient evenings complicating nature with our tramping feet. I believe that language is our tool, not for one another, but for ourselves, alone, to hold up as a shield against the immensity that surrounds us, in truth and in falsehood. And I stubbornly believe that it was an accident, because life is too full of myth and truth and vigor to give up on, whatever may be there when we leave the sheath of darkness and enter into the light.