Often, on holiday, I seek out the sacred wells, the ribbon-tied trees and the chapels full of objects and notes asking for help or giving thanks. Out of curiosity, plain nosiness; I’m drawn to the glimpse into another’s life, or death. Why is that? Do I find comfort that someone else has it worse than I do? I don’t think so. It’s more about the connection with the person who made the offering – their sick loved one, thanks for a baby born, a lifetime’s ill health – and the votive object acting as the intermediary. Knowing that someone else was there before me; someone took the time, made the effort. Though they may appeal to recognised religious entities, there’s often a sense in which the votive offerings are unofficial; from the people and of the people. I think their voices are all the louder because of it. Also, the accumulation – the higgledy-piggledy, disorder, it’s not neat – I like picking out the individual stories among the crowd.
So when curators Euan Gray and Moira Lindsay asked me to make a piece of work for the Phantom Limb exhibition at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, I knew I wanted to focus on the objects we use to make visible our prayers, desires and gratitude. Phantom Limb is a powerful exhibition about illness, medical treatment and trauma. It can bring to the surface difficult feelings and memories for the visitor; we wanted to provide a space for those feelings within the gallery. So I made – am making – The Go Between, a continually evolving interactive work which consists of cards on a noticeboard and a stuffed cloth body lying on a plinth. Visitors are encouraged to leave written accounts of illness, treatment or healing on the board and this alone is an exhibit which stirs the heart.
As the exhibition continues I select stories and make corresponding votive offerings which are then pinned to the affected part of the stuffed body. The work acts as a communal space for individuals to remember a trauma or a lost loved one, give thanks, or make a request for healing and, most importantly, to share experiences.
Though an embroiderer by training I cast my net wider when making these offerings. To date I have used plastic and porcelain dolls’ body parts, velvet, vintage beads and sequins, ribbon, thread, drawing, picture frame and clay. I plan to include plaster or wax body parts, flowers, photographs, paintings (such as the Mexican ex-votos), pressed metal reliefs, bone, hair, holy water, magical foodstuffs, wooden figures, coins, nails and other pieces of metal. To a certain extent the medium is dictated by the story. Or maybe I decide which medium to use and let the corresponding story make itself known. It is important that I make the offering with love and reverence, keeping the subject in mind as I work.
I feel deeply moved and privileged that people have left these written gifts, allowing me (and subsequent visitors) into their intimate lives. It was impossible to predict the popularity of the piece – the noticeboard was soon full and a box was provided for the overflow of cards. People seem to appreciate the chance to share their stories and to read others’. I wish I had time to make an offering for every account – each one deserves acknowledgment. I wonder if the person feels better after recounting their experience – some very fresh, some years old. I wonder if, like leaving a votive object in a chapel, the person might take comfort in taking action, getting it off their chest, telling the universe. Is that a form of healing in itself? (As posited by E-J Graham in a previous blog post, ‘Votive Efficacy’).
A recent body of work, Investment, was about my experience of the magical thinking that accompanies infertility and IVF and included images of lucky knickers, fertility figures, a deceased nana and the rituals and paraphernalia involved in assisted conception. So although I haven’t experienced serious illness I have expressed my own prayers and gratitude in physical form. One of the Go Between objects is a small clay figure of a baby, made by me and my toddler daughter in thanks for her safe arrival in the world. It felt good and important to add my own story.
All elements of The Go Between explore intercession as a way of making sense of suffering. Visitors donate their written accounts, the artist makes votive objects which manifest the those thoughts and the cloth figure carries them not to a god in a religious space but to fellow visitors in the secular contemplative space of the gallery.
Like the chapels and ribbon-tied trees this work makes tangible the deepest human needs – for health, fertility, gratitude, remembrance – acting as a channel and offering a space for collective meditation.
Phantom Limb is open until 3rd December 2016 at Victoria Gallery and Museum, Ashton Street, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, L69 3DR.
There is a programme of talks and events which accompany the exhibition.
by Tabitha Moses