Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cathy McLaurin: Letting go, remembering

There's still a couple of hours before the bread people show up to talk, but sourdough is not the topic of our conversation with Cathy McLaurin — not exactly, anyhow. But there are strong connections between "where the arms connect to the body," the bread exhibit, a continuing participatory series that explores memory and the concept of what remains when the people in our lives are are no longer in our lives, through the dispersal of bread made from her grandmother's starter, an almost ritualistic, communion-like exploration, and "daily diminishings," a continuing online exhibit in which McLaurin, a card-carrying pack rat, weeds through the "junk" that she's been carting around with her for years, meditates on the reason she's still hanging on to it, and, every single day, posts a picture of a piece and writes about its meaning, its importance to her, and offers to give it away to anyone in exchange for an explanation of why they want it. If nobody is interested, the physical piece faces oblivion, the memory, presumably, living on as long as the artists draws breath and her synapses fire properly. Both exhibits are ongoing. Both are about memory, which ultimately connects and divides us. Both are nebulous, having no immediately obvious antecedent or application. For now, the work itself is the point. "It's very much about the process, not what comes out of it," McLaurin says.

The project is wrapped up with McLaurin's move from Amesbury, where she lived for more than a decade, to the surprisingly cut-off wilds of southern New Hampshire, and from the 5,000-square-foot Lawrence studio she shared with fellow Carriagetown artists Kai Vlahos, John Schultz and Terese Zemlin. Moves, of course, assume progress, new physical and emotional vistas, and possibilities. But, short of victim relocation, they also require dragging much of the past along with you — a process that becomes increasingly difficult as the years, and their corresponding accumulations, pile up. Every day for more than three months, a little piece of the artist's emotional or actual life is posted in what could be described as a virtual emotional yard sale. Some of the postings are obvious, innocuous — like the Smiths poster from her days at Meredith College, the small private all-girls Baptist college in Raleigh, N.C. Like what self-respecting arty student wasn't into the Smiths and Joy Division back in the day? Some are intimate and moving, like the piece of red satin fabric — a remnant of a dress McLaurin's sourdough-baking granny made for her in 1968, when she was 3 years old, for the wedding of Aunt Shelia and Uncle Buck, her high school sweetie, who was drafted a couple of weeks later and died in combat not long after that. Many of the objects have no value at all, like Day 37's offering: the pieces of the stem of a wine glass, broken in a studio in Paris, and fashioned intoan earring, using a broken shoe lace. "It doesn’t look like much to anyone but the handful of people who were present when the events leading up to its forming took place," she says. But taken together, especially over a long period of time, they begin to reveal something (a lot, actually) about the person, a portrait of the artist. Which is creating just a little bit of discomfort. Which, she says, is the point. A lot of the work is about putting herself into a vulnerarble position, to work outside her comfort zone. "That's part of what I'm doing," she says. "It's also a chance to reflect on why these things are so important to me — and then to let go."

It's Day 103. The piece/memory on "daily diminishing" is a hanging lantern McLaurin the artist acquired during a 2003 residency in Sisters, Oregon — a place, she writes, where "everything seems to be quietly on the edge of something, but there is no fear in what that something might be. For me, this was possibly the most peaceful place I’ve ever been and when I need to escape from life’s challenging moments, I go to Sisters in my head." How long will it continue? McLaurin doesn't know. It's open-ended. She didn't expect it to go on this long, but she never constrained it with a time frame. It's become something of a "daily ordeal" — sorting through things, remembering, deciding and posting, with daily deadlines, no matter how informal and self-imposed they are.

There have been a few takers. Mostly friends. One stranger expressed an interest in the Smiths poster. She mailed it off. It was lost in the mail. The first box of stuff is packed, ready for oblivion. What happens if someone stumbles onto the blog and expresses an interest in something at some point in the future, before "daily diminishings" goes the way of the physical manifestations of the memories, secrets, they contain? "One of the fears I have," she says. "And something I don't have an answer for." She's not worried about losing something precious, her memories, when she no longer has the physical touchstones to remind her by having them. Just the opposite, actually. Most of the stuff has been packed away in boxes for years, decades. They may hold memories, but, packed away like that they are, in essence, repressed. By examining the objects, reflecting on their meaning, the memories become more vivid. Not that, from time to time, she doesn't have one of those "Oh, my God, what have I done?" moments. "That's part of what the challenge is," she says. "The fear of not having them and forgetting is more than balanced by the fear of constrantly having to think about them."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Check out Cathy McLaurin here. Check out the daily diminishing blog here.

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