Mare, mater, matrix, ma…ma

I am in Berlin. I am as close to Paul as physically possible. If this were my last day on earth, this is how I would spend it. He is playing scrabble on the internet with Nancy. The sun is warming the wall opposite our bedroom window and it looks like another nice day. Paul has decided to play hookey from his German classes, so we can spend the day together. We love and we laugh at the craziness of some German words: Krankenhaus – that’s hospital and an ambulance: Krankenwagon. Nouns are always capitalized. Where else in the world could you buy a kilo-bucket of rhubarb yogourt? And it is so good, or Rote Grütze, pots of mixed small red berry sauces. I can’t get that word out of my head. I find myself repeating it often, searching for its source. There is a funny sound in the room. At first we thought it was my stomach growling; then we were positive it was Paul’s. But, it is too regular, an odd undefinable almost mechanical cooing sound that seems to be moving, coming from around the baseboard of the room. Perhaps it is the workers next door. The entire complex is having its heating system changed from individual coal burners to a central gaz system of heated water – a very big job. The coal burners are beautiful tall ceramic stoves in the corner of each room. Whatever will Berlin do with all those obsolete stoves? There is a school in front of this appartment and I can hear the children are now out for morning break. That sound must be the same around the world.

Someone reported that their dog barked when the proton speeding around in the collider passed under their house.  If they make a black hole, Stephen Hawking will probably get the Nobel Prize, one press release proclaims. A proton has now made a test run in each direction; they are not saying when they will actually set them both running at the same time so they can begin examining the colliding.

It feels like I am putting a giant puzzle together. Some pieces fit quickly, stirred by an internal logic. Others, I must hold up and turn first one piece, then the other to find the connecting shapes and patterns. I have to accept that there are pieces missing and their absence is message enough.

On one of my first days in Berlin, I found myself in a quiet half-sleep, half-awake reverie. Kathe Kollwitz is holding out a piece of paper for me to read. On it there are two words:  Maternal form. Yesterday, I went to the Kathe Kollwitz Museum in Berlin. Having spent my inital artmaking years as a printmaker, I am very familiar with her work in lithography, etching and relief. Printmaking is a technique that uses a matrix, a kind of mother mold to create multiple images. Kathe Kollwitz’s blunt, dark and very stark imagery of mothers, children and workers remain strong, socially critical statements. Death is a central character in her work.  Mothers hold children, mothers fight allegories of death and masses of people hover over death’s victims.

On the eve of travelling to Berlin, I received an e-mail from France Suerich-Gulick. She was inviting me to an exhibition of her mother’s work that she was organizing. Hannelore Storm was a well-known Montreal artist and professor of lithography at UQAM.  Born in Germany, she escaped as a young girl with her family from East Germany and they eventually settled in Montreal. She died in 2004.  After a printmaking event in Québec City in 1988, Hannelore and I became very close. We shared art and food and conversation and many expeditions to her cottage. Hannelore was mentor, mother, sister and friend. Rote Grütze, I remember now. She taught me how to pick berries – a yogourt pot tied with a string around our necks and how to make rote grütze. With Hannelore, I loved not just being in the lake, I learned to be the lake. She loved the work of Kathe Kollwitz and Max Beckman and lived with her struggle to accommodate the horror of WWII. In the invitation to the exhibition, France has included some of Hannelore’s thoughts on art and life. I include them here.    

Throughout my life and work as an artist a guiding thread has been the struggle to see a kind of order through chaos and destruction. As an adolescent, I told myself that I had to learn to see beauty in what was crippled inside of me. 2001 

As a child, I sought the interior beauty of things, all that could transcend the basic notion of survival. When I draw someone, I feel that I know him better. 1987

On her work: “Diagrams of emotional states and events that are part of human experience [:] war and peace, darkness and light, life, sickness and death. Some of these would like to be diagrams of healing, starting from a situation of chaos to arrive at a state of fragile balance. 1996

I am not happy without confronting and layering opposing viewpoints – running three tapes at once – otherwise, I feel that I don’t come close to the truth or how I feel about it…Things are not what they seem. 1996

I left the Kathe Kollwitz museum with very mixed feelings. It is privately owned and feels oddly out of step with the work.  Everything museal gets in the way and I found myself constantly putting aside my dislike of the space, the inadequate lighting and the poor presentation of the accompanying documentation. But what does come through for me is the fierceness of motherhood. We are here on this earth living our lives, and we have no idea why or how we got here; generations after generations of us birthing and dieing. But each of us entered through a woman – a woman who shared her body, desired or not.  A tiny indentation on the surface of earth, a fold in matter that held, fed and comforted us: a food body, a comfort body and a molding body – a sometimes suffocatingly tight, rage-body of parasite and host. The Rape, image of a peasant woman left abused, broken and prone on the ground with a small child peering over a fence stood out for me. Perhaps life on this earth is a constant struggle for balance between host and parasite. I keep hearing in my head, La terre est notre mère, mais qui la tue? The earth is our mother, but who kills her?  Both women and the peasant continue to be on the bottom rung of this economically driven world. Will there be enough earth and peasant skills left to feed us? If care were an allegory she would look pretty abused today.

I am always looking for signs. Half superstitious, half disbelieving, I look for meaning. Is the universe listening? There is a photo of my mother. She is about sixteen. She stands alone and looks straight out at who ever is photographing her. But what catches my eye or the ‘punctum’ as Barthes would call it, is outside of the photo. It is something my mother has written in the white space under the photo. I presume she wrote it and I presume it is a name either she calls herself or is her nickname at the time: ‘Mort,’  short for Mortley, her last name. She studied French in High School, she wrote about me in French in her journal. She must have known.

Kathe Kollwitz used her son as a model for a dead soldier. He died in the first world war, scarcely days after first volunteering. The uselessness of his death horrified her and she responded to the call for young men to join the army, with a verse from Goethe, ‘the seed corn should not be milled.’ His death followed her for the rest of her life.

There are some emptinesses that cannot be forgotten, filled or ever resolved. This is an unavoidable part of who I am.  If I am here writing this, it is to give some form to the Mother mold inside and outside of me: a moment in passing, to stop, but not to dwell. There is no way for me to predict the results of colliding  protons and if we did know, we would not be doing it. Death usually drives some banal standard model and more often comes when you least expect it. Both life and death are mysteries that will take more than a collider to examine.