How Strange, Her Voice
On Mourning, Language, Texture and Time
How Strange, Her Voice. The Mourning Diaries allows for the unfolding of two aspects at play in Jesse Ahlers’ recent work on colour and mourning. One is a re-organisation of time in a book – created as part of the ongoing work How Strange, Her Voice – that attempts to give form to a transformation in and through grief, which defies chronological representation in many ways. Another is the sensation that arises when I think of my parents. Deceased, they are no longer attached to a specific moment in time. Rather, they seem to be everything they ever were – all of it, all at once and all the time – condensations of themselves, which contradicts the idea that they are completely and forever ‘gone’. The writing emerged to form a kind of palimpsest with the diary Roland Barthes kept after the death of his mother, and the material processes of dying literally gave colour to this transformative, nonlinear process, as an incongruous, impertinent signifier.
How Strange, Her Voice: The Mourning Diaries is a long-term project. Let’s say it has various semi-independent forms and it hasn’t settled yet. It started with the diary Roland Barthes kept after the death of his mother. I came upon it, in a state of total disorientation, nearly a year after my own mother had died. I circled around the book for some time, before I could bring myself to open it. It was the 26th of October, 2015, a few days before her first death anniversary, when I finally did. Barthes’ first note is of his first ‘mourning night’, dated October 26th, 1977.
In the book Barthes, who as a semiotician was so sharp at localising meaning in text and images, completely seems to be lost for words. Language for its expressive possibilities is defect, meaning suddenly obtuse. A flat condition. No texture, a localised deafness. I very much related to that.
While reading I began making my own impossible notes on top of the original (although translated) text, turning it into a palimpsest of sorts. I tried to keep up with his frequency of writing, its form its only content, hoping it would somehow force a structure upon my aimlessness and provide me with some kind of narrative, however unhinged. I sometimes ran ahead or lagged behind.
The two time frames of daily notes, taken in different years, different lives, doubled and folded over one another, formed a grid that was strangely out of joint. In those notes, a colour best described as liverish purple surfaced regularly in relation to words describing a sense of formless, nauseous discomfort, desolation or despair. The words themselves, both his and mine, remained hollow and inadequate, and so I started drawing, using a mixture of powder pigments to mark the gradation of that wordless feeling on each page. The book slowly filled up, spilling over even. The pigment smudges, spreads and stains. The book has become illegible, in so many ways.
And the liverish purple eludes me relentlessly. I called it purple mainly for lack of a better description. I – still – haven’t determined its specific hue, which – still – tends to vary.
Still finding myself haunted by that colour, in the spring of 2017, during a natural pigments residency in Puebla, Mexico, I set out to redefine it and recharge it with new meaning. Using local materials and ancient but undiminished recipes, we concocted a purple mixture to match or nearly match the diary entries. I took the thinnest sheets of paper I could find (a type, I later found out, called papel de china which is used for various traditional paper cutting art techniques and especially for flags to adorn the altars made for the Day of the Dead), soaked them in the water-based concoction, let all of it dry (it looked like a skin shed by some unknowable creature) to bring it home with me. Dried and powdered then wetted then dried again, remarkably the colour seemed to have and keep a life of its own. I did not have complete control over the way it behaved under my hands, under varying and changing weather conditions, and, of course: time. I witnessed, I see: the phase transitions of hue without me. When I unpacked my suitcase, it simply wildly burst out. Chaotic, erratic. As fresh now as on the first day.
In my studio, it also behaved entirely on its own terms. I simply stood and watched. Initially the skin cast presented itself as a block of ice, stone cold and solid. Eventually, to my advances it did give in. The slightest stir, the faintest of breaths from my side and it came to life, as if breathing with me. Silently it swayed, and catching the sunlight layers of partly soaked up powdery dye showed. Marks and stains like ischemic vessels and capillaries. But it persevered in its peculiar inward pull nonetheless, like a body in deep concentration. Outside of time. Even in the gallery space it remained unaffected by the noise surrounding it.
The colour did seem to pick up various meanings, accumulating, confusing and diffusing them in the course of its action. Perhaps it’s what Barthes the semiotician would call an incongruous, impertinent signifier, whose meaning is precisely
not filled out, it retains a permanent state of depletion (a word from linguistics which designates empty, all-purpose verbs, as for example the French word faire). We could also say on the contrary – and it would be just as correct – […] that it maintains a state of perpetual erethism, desire not finding issue in that spasm of the signified which normally brings the subject voluptuously back into the peace of nominations.1
Void and excess at once, proffering and deferring a promise of meaning. And although this may seem like an ultimately destructive tendency, it may prove to be a productive, perhaps even transformative force, and thus colour becomes, not simply metaphorically, a strategy. The question is: whose?
For it also seemed to pick up various shades. That is, whereas it first seemed to have settled on one specific hue only affected by the changing light of day, it went all chameleon-like once I touched it again, every attempt of mediation setting it free all over again, handing it back over to its own whimsicality.
When people (or things, or ideas if you will) die, they become boundless. Once dead, they are no longer attached to a specific moment in time- and they dissolve into everything they ever were, all of it, at once, and all the time. They are their younger and their older selves, the sad ones and the happy ones, healthy and needy, alive and dead. They are like condensations of themselves, and this is very different from the idea that they are completely and forever “gone” as we are inclined to say. There is some consolation there. Alas, the process of dissolving is treacherous matter for the living. In my keeping close to her, in my not letting go and going along as far as I could, I risked dissolving too. But to live is not to be boundless, to live is to be bound to time. And so we need a narrative.
But if they are outside of time, they are also outside of language. In the sentence ‘they are like condensations…’ to what, to whom does ‘they’ refer? What does that present tense mean?
Later still, as an effort, I suppose, to recapture the colour, going back to the first book I made a second book. Recovering words, mending sentences and pipetting shades of purple from specific entries after gradually mixing the pigments I used before I went to Mexico with the ones I brought back with me, I took the shifting colour and the folded-over time frames to rework the narrative. A narrative, at last. The colour on the pages shifts from weak to bold and from liverish to a much brighter purple, suggesting, oh yes, a gradual alteration, except that the dates are all messed up.
So, if there is a transformation in grief, it is certainly not pinned to time as we know it. Keeping a diary did not help to structure it; segmenting it made it all the more obvious that a chronological organisation of mourning would undo the alteration altogether. Organised by colour (a chromological organisation if you will), it makes more sense, albeit on its own unfathomable terms. As such, the possible meaning of that transformation can be ‘localised’ in something other than time, even beyond time. As such, perhaps, it restores something of the broken connection, that dear inflection, that very texture of memory – how strange, her voice.
Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills”, in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, transl. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University, 1985): pp. 61-62.
- Barthes, Roland, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills”, in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, translated by Richard Howard (Berkeley: University, 1985): pp. 61-62.