This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, Francesca Woodman, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures had helped in the process of completing a recent song of mine. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York was somewhat exciting.
I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.
Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poetry – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated: “If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”
These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic which has most probably already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.
Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics
In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness”. I wanted to convey feelings of loneliness and despair, captured and staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:
I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.
Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight
I’m always on time, never too late
but what difference does it really make?
And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me…
Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.
Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that “Eating the Darkness” was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I translate that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:
And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I’m fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor,
apartment number – two-o-three
Who Was Francesca Woodman?
Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. The name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed the song that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration. It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I had hit the wall. No pun intended, honestly.
Suddenly questions started rolling in: Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir and felt there was no more to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these very same feelings so well, many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was it the visualization of her experience which had enabled me to tap into mine? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?
But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life or start analyzing the mirroring of this topic in her pictures? After this initial shock of feeling as if my highly sensitive side, rather my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death in that picture I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.
Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally go online and look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of one of my favourite iphone applications, Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of the pictures playful as well as incredibly mature for someone who at 22 left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.
Like the photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied: “It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”
Desolate & Abandoned Interiors
And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.
The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.
~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer
These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment – very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.
Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969
Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. In the same way her body stands in contrast to the diminishing interior, it is this fearless easiness and eagerness, the revealing self-exploration that stands in complete contrast to the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless.
Another sensation that arises however is gratitude. I suddenly feel fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story and not though a biographical prism – the drama-sized notion of an artist’s suicide. Especially in an era of information overload and constant accessibility, it is sometimes difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice and retrieve what lies beneath – our authentic thoughts and feelings.
This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself. We will never know whether this specific image was created to express a loss of self-worth which is what I projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist has given me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve, to touch or inspire someone and almost live on in their work? She definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.
Thank you for reading
– Frances Livings
Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:
Excerpt from the poem Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath.
“…These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.”