It was just a page torn from a book, set behind glass in a simple, white wooden frame. Only one sentence appeared on the entire page, four words in the upper left third of the sheet, printed in a confident, elegant font of tall, narrow-set letters with vertical finials and hairline serifs, the kind of type one might read d’Annunzio or The Four Quartets in. One would think that the surrounding emptiness of the cream-colored rag paper would have engulfed the handful of letters on the page, but the effect was precisely the opposite: it amplified the message, as the void of a cathedral might the celebrant’s sermon or the bare stage the actor’s soliloquy.
It said, “You are not alone”.
I had come across this curious piece at Ashes to Ashes, a group exhibition at the AMP that juxtaposed artifacts from an antique store with works of contemporary artists that played with notions of chance and context, serendipity and intent, but most of all with the idea of salvaging. The photocopied handout listing the works on exhibition told me it was a re-framed printed page by Matthew Higgs. But for me it felt as if this object had been smuggled into the gallery and surreptitiously hung on the wall just for my visit. Because it spoke to me.
Yes, we sometimes say that a work of art “speaks to us” when we want to say that it means something to us personally, that it resonates with something in our life or history. But often the resonance quickly dissipates, like a tuning fork that when struck vibrates for a short time and falls silent. This was different. I am still haunted by this voice. A voice from beyond, a messenger, the voice of a writer who many years ago composed a text for a reader he did not know.
“You are not alone,” it said to me. Which at first was odd because I was alone, at least in the gallery on this hot July afternoon.
Most of the time it sounded like the Control Voice that narrated the opening of each episode in the Outer Limits, an eerily noir and acutely modernist 1960s sci-fi television series. A voice impossible to peg because it was so utterly devoid of feeling. It was heard with the opening image of an oscilloscope and began “…There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission… We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical… We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear”. It was a voice of authority. It knew. But knew what?
I heard it again and again. At times a voice of prophecy, at times one of comfort. A voice of exhortation. Encouragement. Conspiracy.
You are not alone, though you may believe you are. Despite the breakfasts for one and your sense of resignation that you will not again find a man with whom you want to share your life, you are nonetheless enmeshed in a weft of relations with persons for whom you are significant.
You are not alone. There are others like you, who do what you do, feel what you feel. You may come to know one or more of them, though you just as well not. It is inconsequential, really, whether you do or not. It wouldn’t change anything.
You are not alone. You are being watched: your movements followed, your actions recorded and their consequences judged, your life weighed.
I had just one page. I didn’t know what had gone before or who would happen after. It was like a concordance with only the middle term visible. It admitted a vast number of permutations. What character would have said this, to whom and why? A father, a lover, an enemy, a god?
In the end I realized that Higg’s framed page was very much at home in this exhibition, in which so many of the pieces had a history, a “beforelife” not known to the visitor, the context can only be provided by the observer. There were also works by Francis Upritchard in the exhibition, collector’s cases of astonishingly graceful, ever so slender, ivory-like objects. These, too, eluded identification. Some could have been the surgical instruments of an alien society, or the grooming aids of a savannah tribe, or the talismans and totems of an ancient guild. One seemed to be an idol in the shape of an attenuated canoe, tethered with a feather, another an elongated fetus-shaped pair of acrobat monkeys, each holding the other by its feet. They are said to be reminiscent of Maori neck pendants, the hei-tiki, which were buried with their owner or were worn as fertility charms (though the pendants were squat and made of greenstone, while Upritchard’s pieces resemble small carved ivory knitting needles). But whatever they were, they must have been magical objects, ones that called forth awe or foreboding, or bestowed upon its owner a sense of safety. They were objects that perhaps even spoke.
But of course I don’t believe in magic.