Critical Distance

A Ferocious Longing: Connie Cohen
May 29 – June 27, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Joan Thomas

1: I dropped in at Ace Art before A Ferocious Longing opened, while Connie Cohen was still at work. Part of me said it was a mistake to s ee the installation in process (the part that knows art as a conjurer’s trick, and doesn’t want to see its inner workings). In fact, A Ferocious Longing had a meaning for me then that faded later.

What I saw was a representation of women’s lives (women as mothers). The space was still lit by natural light, and the passage, the curtained tunnel that led into the installation, was pink, vaginal. On the hardwood floor on either side, domestic objects were scattered: Lamp, baby-bath, tricycle, ironing board. They were wrapped in strips of flannelette, but recognizable, familiar, all drawn from the archive of memory. In their details I saw the imposed delicacy of female culture: lace in the curtains, cast-iron lace on the treadle of the sewing machine, everything softened with fabric, hidden, no hard lines anywhere (Later, when the installation is complete, I will hear a woman’s voice on the tape, describing how hard it was for her mother to be direct: “. . . She’d say something, but she’d really mean something else, and you were supposed to figure it out.”).

It was like going back to an abandoned house, to find pieces of a family’s life on the floor. The children have grown up and left, but the invisible mother hovers, abandoned among all the mummified objects: Purse, hat, pumps, just dropped, the shoes wrapped so carefully that you can see that they are open-toed. These are vamp shoes; I think of red lipstick stains on cigarettes.

Strange that the vamping, the vaginal tunnel, led to this, to ironing boards and stoves. There are things that speak of play, of course, and of adventure: bicycle, wagon, sled, rocking horse. More chores for the mother, things to be stooped over, hauled around, cleaned, put away. On the stage of female destiny, teddy bear and ironing board are one, and all there was. What we need in life is love and work, Freud said. He didn’t try to describe the impact of a life of love and work. At that point, seeing this installation half-installed, the ferocious longing is a woman’s: when children and home have to meet everything.

I try this out on Connie. Not what I had in mind, she says. For me, A Ferocious Longing expresses the feelings of children, and what they feel now, as adults, about their relationship with their mothers, or, if it is about our mothers’ feelings, it’s about what they feel as daughters.

On one level, the wrapping of the objects in flannelette speaks of warmth and comfort, bandaging and healing – on another, of being bound, restricted. . . the way swaddling clothes both comfort and restrict. Two sides of our experience with our mothers. Mothering is not just one thing– or is it? It is interesting how pure the meaning becomes when you use it as a verb, all ambivalence and complexity falling away. Connie and I talk about the iconography of mothers and babies, how mother love has come to be regarded as the quintessence of love: pure, free of self-interest.

What magic turns the woman with the open-toed shoes into a madonna?

And yet, if what happened between ourselves and our mothers is not well represented by madonna and infant paintings, how big it remains. How central to everything that follows: to our sense of our selves and how worthy we are, to how we connect with others. How disproportionately long those early years are, and how large her figure, for better or worse.

2: I stoop and enter the passage. I am disoriented when I stand up inside. The first section of curtain is patterned like a wire fence. It fragments the images on either side. Objects hang in blackness, tipped at different angles, not grounded, distanced from each other and from me. They look like debris orbiting in space, lit with the cold smudged light of stars. A sad light. By the time it arrives it is millennia old, the star may be dead.

In the darkness the passage is the birth canal, like the muscular tunnel you see in fibre optic photos, yet nothing is living here. Everything is muffled, numb. Voices on the tape speak of sharply opposed feelings: yearning and revulsion, comfort and disappointment.

So much happened in the narrow spaces on either side of this passage, where we learned who we were from a mother who may have been preoccupied with her own pain or resentment, who may have needed to protect herself from this relationship and these ferocious needs. On this stage, mother was everything, and not enough.

Connie spoke of Harlow’s experiments, raising monkeys with various surrogate machine-mothers. I remember pictures from psychology texts, the terrible pathos of a little monkey’s ancient face, through its passion making a mother out of a parody of wire and terry cloth, as we all try to make of our mother someone who loves us as we want and need to be loved.

There is the sound of humming. It could be a mother comforting a child. It could be a mother drawn into herself, unavailable. A woman, crooning her own old sorrows.

I take a friend to see the installation. The fabric of the passage touching her face frightens her. It’s terribly claustrophobic, she says. Another friend says, Look at the scissors dropped on the floor, their jaws open. This is a dangerous place. Another, whose mother has moved into the darkness of Alzheimer’s, is transfixed by the memory of her mother ironing. She writes “I stood looking through the gauze, wishing I could touch the ironing board, but knowing I was separated from it forever. Such regret, such sadness. . .”.¹ Clearly, A Ferocious Longing is a Rorschach test– you write your own story in the darkness.

Each time I visit the installation my defences against the feelings it evokes are less effective. The last time, I was taken back within seconds to a world that seemed empty of possibility. So many layers protect us from the intensity of these feelings, so much time, ambivalence, nostalgia, the push-pull of fear and longing. It’s not easy to go back. It’s not easy, but probably vital.

1. Sandra Stuart, from a letter to the artist.

Joan Thomas is a contributing book reviewer to
The Globe and Mail. This response is her first critical writing about visual art.