CAM Raleigh installation And Then the Sun Swallowed Me, by Durham artist Heather Gordon, is a visual interpretation of the contraction of the universe after the explosion of the sun. Black tape, geometrically organized on the museum's walls, represents the cataclysmic moment in which we will return to dust. Centered on the floor is a projection of someone swimming in limbo, going neither forward nor backward, encouraging thoughts of existential ennui in one's daily life. Gordon's exhibit inspired me, as an intern at CAM Raleigh, to question her about her perspectives on home, stillness, and purpose.
HEATHER GORDON ON "HOME"
Concepts of home, existential ennui, and where I'm from can be answered together. I am the child of an Air Force officer and his wife. While my parents can be identified in other ways, this iteration suits the discussion. As an only child of loving and supportive parents, I lived on military bases around the United States until I was fifteen, then in various suburbs, then university, continuing my geographical definition of home base. I was also aware, by the age of eight, that I liked girls, which seemed rather different from what I saw modeled around me on base. But I was loved and cared for, taught and nurtured by my parents, although clearly raised within a microculture of sameness, with clear social divisions through rank and gender, very little communication about emotions, and a great deal of patriotism.
In my thirties I began to consider how this has shaped my thinking, and so started my release from an ennui that I'd carried a good while. As I deconstructed those stories, as if debating with my personal history, they began to mean something different and more accepting. I find it rewarding to question the perspectives that have given me enduring pain. I end up feeling a bit more like I belong here, wherever here is at the moment, and that feels like home.
I associate stillness with a kind of silence rather than a solid state—unmoving, similar to death in this way. In opposition, or in complement, to stillness, "movement" feels like sound to me. Stillness may be the internal moment when we become suddenly aware of our own aliveness, our physicality with a consciousness. All else seems so quiet and still. That's our awareness of us looking down at our hands. But in movement, we are, in some ways, simply learning about ourselves and our environment. We are simply looking at our hands. In partnership with stillness, the movement of the world requires no narrative to be appreciated, although we do so enjoy the crafting of a good story to make us feel more secure in the inevitabilities and unpredictable nature of being alive. Our internal story removes the stillness through which we can merely observe. It makes noise that we confuse with the movement that is actually happening.
This is a question of perennial interest to me, with regard to the purpose of an artist, and specifically to me as an artist. Purpose, some defining driving force, a reason for being, one end-all-be-all, does not exist. It seems a romantic view of the world. We claim a purpose, either by god-given right or crafted by our own wits, and it becomes the measure of our value as human beings, how well we are assessed to have fulfilled that purpose. We often see those who retire have a hard time with the sudden visceral question of purpose. They often don't know what to do with their bodies. Some stop moving, or at least, move a whole lot less. In the past, I have prescribed myself a definition of my purpose, and I simply go about checking those boxes. I perhaps confuse having purpose with having objectives. But I do find that a bit of purposelessness gives grace to the shifting purpose which I often face in reality. Today, my purpose may be to get my laundry done, or spend an evening drawing with my four-year-old son, or have conversation with a friend, or pay the bills, or work on an art installation. If I set about defining my purpose, to live as an artist, then I will likely encounter a sense that life isn't what I'd hoped, given that I spend very little time making art in the scheme of all that I do. Life could feel lacking and counterproductive, and I prefer a view of sufficiency.
So, for now, I've made the pact with myself to observe more and think less about purpose. For example, on opening night for And Then the Sun Swallowed Me, I sat on a bench and watched so many people taking selfies with the work, including friends and family crowding into the frame, making an effort to preserve a moment, an experience which they had through some work I had the opportunity to make because CAM opened their doors to me, and because some pot of resources allowed them to do that, and so on. Each link in the chain agreeing that having art in our lives is important stuff we value, for whatever reason we do so. I get to be part of the overall movement that allows for some idea in my head to become something real and shared, and that seems pretty wonderful to me. My purpose is wrapped up somewhere in that.