"Testament to Long Loves" by Mimi Cheng

Added on by Sharmistha Ray.

This essay was written in conjunction with Christina Day: Stills and Composites, on view at CUE October 29 – December 16, 2016.

Film still (1983), home movie from the artist's family archive.

Film still (1983), home movie from the artist's family archive.

The stain of love
Is upon the world.

Yellow, yellow, yellow…
 —excerpt from “A Love Song” by William Carlos Williams

Christina P. Day’s solo exhibition, Stills and Composites, is inspired by recently discovered video footage documenting her great aunt and uncle’s golden-wedding-anniversary celebration that took place at a VFW hall in 1983. The videotape has aged, causing the image to take on a distinct yellow hue. On the evening of the party, a camera was set up and left unmanned at the corner of the dance floor to record the festivities. Like most family videos, the resulting footage is rather clumsy and out of focus: energetic partygoers repeatedly bumped into the camera, which caused it to record long shots of the ceiling or the back of someone’s head. Despite these unintended, meditative sequences, the camera acts as an objective witness to the evening. Many of the individuals captured in the footage have since passed, so for Day, seeing these beloved family members dancing and celebrating fifty years of marriage is bittersweet. It is, she says, a testament to long love.

The new works on view at CUE Art Foundation represent the artist’s reflections on the footage of that joyous evening. Working with found material and actively playing with chance, Day’s works are memories made tangible—whether as small as a powder compact or as large as a room, they are intimate and slightly surreal. Having grown up in the same house for her entire childhood and within a large, close-knit family, Day makes works that are unabashedly sentimental but never maudlin. She combs through junkyards, thrift stores, and eBay for materials and inspiration, and has an uncanny ability for locating patterns and doubles. Over the course of the past year, one of her most consistent resources has been Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR) in Philadelphia, where she was a resident artist in 2015. Located on the site of Revolution Recovery, a sorting facility in the northeast corner of the city, the residency program situates artists within reach of hundreds of tons of construction and demolition waste. The remains of entire homes often end up in the junkyard as a result of demolition, eviction, or foreclosure. Intensely personal items like family photographs and letters are mixed in with stained mattresses and doorframes, allowing for chance encounters between the resident artists and materials that would not have occurred elsewhere.

Of all the things that Day has found at RAIR, two are particularly remarkable. During one of her visits to the site, a photograph of a scantily clad young woman posing seductively in a World War II officer’s jacket surfaced. It was clearly meant for the eyes of the woman’s lover, so Day tucked it away for safekeeping. Later, in a different area of the same pile, Day uncovered another photograph of the same woman, who looked to be at least in her seventies, standing on a beach in a blue parka. In an excerpt from the poem titled, “To the woman who I found twice,” Day writes,

The shape of your mouth and eyes are the same
though age has whitened your hair and skin.

Your hands are at rest in your pockets.

 These photos are still for him and for you.

Day’s innate ability to locate objects that are imbued with meaning is paired with her strong conviction that people live on through specific objects, patterns, and materials. In this instance, even though she never knew the woman in the photographs, the act of safeguarding them is her way of not only preserving the woman’s image but also maintaining an intimate relationship between two lovers. The photographs have not yet been incorporated into an artwork, but the sentiment expressed in Day’s poem can be felt throughout Stills and Composites.

The artist’s decision to keep the party video private and not to display it in the gallery is indicative of her desire to protect the people who live on through her source material, regardless of whether they are family members or complete strangers. There is a delicate interplay between intimacy and anonymity in her work, which manifests in an abstract sense of loss. Day’s works are colored by melancholy, for there is an implicit understanding of a marked passage of time. Cascade (One’s one and only) (2016), is inspired by the corsages and boutonnières worn by the partygoers. A yellowed vinyl seat cushion, found at RAIR, has been meticulously hand-cut and -sewn into a cascading bridal bouquet. Judging by its mustard-yellow hue, the vinyl had protected the seat from several generations’ worth of wear and tear. Despite the associations of vinyl-covered seating with the dowdy homes of old-fashioned relatives, this flattened bouquet is elegant and visually lush. The delicate, translucent layers overlap to create shades of gold that cast warm shadows upon the gallery wall.

Further into the gallery is an audio installation titled Playbacks #1–5 (2016), which is composed of five vintage Pioneer Mimmy headphones through which visitors can hear renditions of old love songs like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and “Side By Side.” The audio tracks are lifted directly from the video, so the singer and his accompanying Casio keyboard sound distant, as if they were emanating from a distant room. In previous installations of this piece, Day connected the headphones to old playback units with found cassettes. Realistic Pocket Philosophy (2016) plays a lengthy, found-cassette recording of an elderly man offering extemporaneous musings on life—amateur aphorisms, like “Only you can program your own brain correctly” and “One of the greatest assets in life is a sense of humor,” give insight to the worldview of the man behind the voice. As with Playbacks #1–5, listening to the grainy found recording in Realistic Pocket Philosophy is like encountering a ghost: vaguely eerie and unexpected. Unlike professional audio recordings that try to capture the original acoustic experience, listening to these audio tracks is to be confronted by time and space.

Day first began creating architectural installations as a graduate student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and such works have since grown progressively larger and more complex. These works use materials sourced from homes that were once inhabited by friends or strangers. Larger works like In So Much As This (2011) and Bystander (2005) incorporate found doors. Untitled (Staircase) (2005) is a freestanding but distorted staircase constructed with a found balustrade. More recent works, like Shift #2 (2014), continue in this trajectory by incorporating walls and wall coverings while playing with forced perspective and depth of field.

The light I’ll be (1983) (2016) is the largest piece in Stills and Composites and quietly alludes to the look and atmosphere of the anniversary party. Rather than being a reconstruction of the VFW hall as documented in the video, it is reminiscent of a dreamscape in which only certain scenes are in clear focus. It is a large, white rectangular cube that stands more than eight feet tall and eighteen feet long, with the walls and exterior baseboard matching that of the gallery walls of CUE. At the front of the cube is a shallow coat closet, framed by a set of faux-wood-grain folding doors. Inside the closet is a row of jackets and coats, many of which were found at RAIR and can be dated to the 1960s and 1980s. The coats clearly belonged to different bodies—some are masculine, others are feminine; a few are quite large while others are more petite. As one walks around the piece, a series of narrow openings in the cube offer precise sightlines into a series of interiors. Each view is meticulously composed to feature a single point of focus—in one instance, a pair of vintage eyeglasses rest on the corner of a table, and in another, a door stands slightly ajar. It is possible to approach each of these views as one would a film still, for the particularities of each view can be analyzed as part of a mise-en-scène.

The closing lines of William Carlos Williams’s “A Love Song” reads, “How can I tell / If I shall ever love you again / As I do now?” As one of Day’s favorite poets, Williams has captured the paradoxes of love—it is at once singular and all-encompassing, fleeting yet eternal. A video of a celebration of love inspired Stills and Composites, but by obscuring the objects of affection and making visible the passage of time, Day plays with notions of sentimentality concerning love and loss. The process of sifting through refuse to rescue objects from destruction or neglect is an inherent part of Day’s practice, and through the skillful manipulation of these objects, she reanimates the lives and loves of those who would otherwise be forgotten.

This essay was written by the ART21/CUE Writer-in-Residence, Mimi Cheng, in conjunction with the exhibition Christina P. Day: Stills and Composites, curated by Cecilia Alemani and on view at CUE Art Foundation, October 29–December 16, 2016. The author was mentored by Sara Reisman, the artistic director of the Rubin Foundation. Cheng’s text is included in the free exhibition catalogue, which is available at CUE and online here.

Mimi Cheng is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She is currently pursuing her PhD in the Visual and Cultural Studies program at the University of Rochester.