Unseen – A Reflection
by Colm O'Shea
A room. A chapel or a gallery, a modern chapel, bare, white walls, well-lit and austere. Nothing to distract. Faint scent of rain from outside. Nothing to distract. Unsure whether they should be hanging on the wall like Stations of the Cross, slow circuit of the space, conscious of breathing, conscious of footsteps and squeaking shoes. No, better produced from a reliquary, each one gently unwrapped and laid on a velvet cloth, to be examined cautiously by gloved hands.
Moving from one to the other. Looking at the same face.
What happens when we take a face, take a person, and turn them into ink, into thread, into paint or metal? What do we take from them? What do we give them? Is it immortality at a price? Do we take from them more than we are entitled? Are we entitled to anything at all? When we take do we take only parts, so other parts are omitted, forgotten, or hidden? We can never tell the whole story so what becomes of the story we tell? Over time does our story become their story? I have stolen before and will steal again, I know. I look at this face, moving from one to the other. Looking at the same face.
A psychiatric photograph from the 19th century. All I know. All I can ever know, I think. There is nothing else I can know. So if I can’t steal I can invent.
She was abandoned and forgotten. Photographed as a curiosity. She was loved and placed where she could receive the best medical care available. She was, that is, she was a woman with a life and a name. Now she’s just ink and thread, paint and metal. I remember hearing a story once; well-heeled couples in the 19th century would take tours of asylums, of sewage works, the modern marvels of the day. What did they think when they saw her? Had they anything more than I do now? Presumably the photographer had a reason. Presumably he knew her name, or knew a name. Presumably he had some reason to take her picture, to take something of her and preserve it. But I can never know what he, or she, thought about it. So now she’s a face without a story, but with only the story I, or anyone else looking, chooses to invent. Like L’inconnue de la Seine is she just something to write a story upon?
But there is no story here. There’s nothing but a face turned into ink and thread, paint and metal. I have nothing but what is in front of me. The only story I can invent here is the chapel. So in this chapel I can look more closely at each tune, because that is what they are. I can pick each one up with my gloved hands, turn them over, feel the weight, the edges, the texture of each tune, because that is what they are. There is no story to tell now about that woman, there are only the wordless tunes of each of these pieces. Each tune rises into the space of the chapel to mix with the others and becomes a song. Each tune holds its melody because there are no words here. Unseen and unsaid she is now the song that each of these pieces sing. There is nothing I can know about her, nothing that hasn’t already been turned into ink and thread, paint and metal. But every time she has been turned into an object, a collection of ink and thread, of paint and metal she has been turned into a song. Because each of these objects is an act of love because time and words have gone and whether she was loved or unloved, cared for or forgotten, each piece, of ink and thread, of paint or metal, is a hand resting on her shoulder, or caressing her face to tell her she is loved.
In this chapel which doesn’t exist I place each item back in the reliquary, remove my gloves and step out into the air that still smells like rain and leave them to sing their song in peace.