Two metaphors and two responses
Diego Ramírez and Claire Summers

In reflecting on a year that was anything but usual, Two metaphors and two responses is not your usual issue of Performance Review. This month, founding editor Anador Walsh wrote two letters containing two metaphors for 2021, asking two writers, Diego Ramírez and Claire Summers to respond. The result is two ruminations on love and loss, art and life and the bleed between these things.

Dear Diego,

I had high hopes of starting this from a place of profundity, but right now all I can think to say is that this year has felt like shovelling dirt uphill. Every time I cleared the soil from my feet, I cast a thick cloud of dusk into the air. It got in my ears, my eyes and nose and I just ended up digging myself deeper into a hole of my own making. It’s up to my ankles now, invading my socks and making me itch. I started this year a psychologically robust woman, armed with a spade and now, leaving it I feel like a little girl wading through the dirt.

Maybe there’s something in that? But also, maybe not? I feel like you’d just laugh and tell me to ‘put the spade down’.

In our private correspondence, the conversations we have concurrently via Instagram DM and text, we’ve covered a lot this year: digital intimacy in a pandemic context, the welcome absence of digital art commissions during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown and your ardent hatred of ‘R U OK?’ day, not to mention being asked “are you okay?” yourself.

So I’m reaching out today, to ask you to dig around in the dirt with me (or perhaps to cast it aside) and to recap the year that both was and wasn’t.

Yours in love and admiration,

Are you okay?

I read an Instagram infographic the other day that said comparing someone’s feelings to the greater suffering of others is toxic behaviour—I blocked that account for lacking emotional perspective. The hardest part about lockdown was becoming the occasional target of care and wellness culture. I have no accolades or prestige, just charisma. Katie Paine told me to apply for a PhD—after I explained to her how lost I feel—but I did not. We interrupt our lives with a performative check in, never offering a worthwhile gesture. Today is the next day—after hundreds of days—and holding our memories is making my hands sweaty. When someone uses the term ‘social justice’, I think of unethical narcotics and violent careerism, because they seem inexplicably intertwined. I am small in comparison to the excitement of your life. My emotional world is not gossip, or a broadcasting station for virtue signalling, it is a private experience: stop asking me if I am okay, I do not owe you a report.

I am licking my sweat because I am nervous about people reading this—it tastes pretty good. Four separate calls have told me family members have died since 2020, each sadder than the last one. Some people never tongue kiss and I do not understand why. I heard a ‘very sad story’ about an artist whose career stayed local because of COVID-19, then I took an Uber and the driver told me that his mother died overseas, but he could not go to the funeral due to border closures. See what I did there? I set up a conflict in the narrative and now the sad artist sounds unreasonably feeble by comparison. I want to hold someone that feels broken and tell them that I shattered, a long time ago. Sorry, I bought a ticket for an art event, not a pity party, can I please get a refund, rhetorical question mark. Every time I see an empty car on the street with its engine on, I think about stealing it for a few blocks. Vaccination campaigns led by art organisations are desperate attempts at appearing virtuous. “That would have been difficult for you”, said my empathetic date with a psychology degree, “it is a small problem for an adult…but a big one for a child”. In that instance, I saw our life together flash before my eyes, but in the future, that never was, we broke up with a delayed pain effect, because our attachment styles deactivated our nervous systems and now we are fucked. So, I replied, “Yeah, maybe”.

This is a review about 2021, the year “that both was and wasn’t”, in the words of Anador Walsh, who commissioned this piece with a letter, asking me to “dig around in the dirt” with her. As I contemplate this invitation, muddy cynicism swirls and bubbles in the swamps of my mind, where I keep thinking of a pervasive style of writing that strikes me as a ‘career move’, disguised as ‘caring so much’. Indeed, an exercise in this type of ladder climbing would find me telling you how incredible we are, because the creative industry surely attracts selfless people and everyone that says otherwise is faulty. The catch with this genre is that if you read between the lines, you would notice that I am elevating myself as the solution, centering my voice as a megaphone for the concerns of a wider group. Pfft, no, thank you. It feels good to hear we are great, but I think we are just okay—suck on that lemon.

Johnny Cash, Hurt. Gif by l-u-c-i-f-e-r. Courtesy of Fan Pop.

This piece is ladened with “I” statements, because I am not interested in speaking for ‘my community’ (please) or totalising my views on lockdown. The renewed capacity to generate a better understanding of self in relationship to others is my main takeaway from this year. It is a wondrous time for tomorrow and contemplating yesterday strikes me as nostalgic, which makes it difficult to discuss shows. However, there is one occasion that I remember with sinister clarity:

I want to be more like Thea Jones and less like myself. It is the 15th of July 2021, and she is standing at the entrance of KINGS Artist-Run, during the opening of her show She let her body sway with the movement of the train, an exhibition about nostalgia. KINGS Artist-Run moved locations and the impulse to reminisce about their old building creates an apt environment for this sentimental theme. Her exhibition features a textile centrepiece called Wagga blanket, 2021 surrounded by a circle of oak chairs titled Autoprogettazione chairs, 2021, offering headphones playing a recording of her voice, amidst white curtains framing the space. The track reads humorous and emotional passages from her life, offering a unique insight into the small, yet significant moments, that have shaped her existence. A musky sensibility of yearning, invoked with wood and fabrics, permeates the installation, creating a melancholic feeling reminiscent of a grandparent’s living room. This wistful atmosphere is typical of Jones, who summons intangible moments with physical embroideries—turning these ethereal and fleeting moments into objects that are rich in texture, carrying a narrative with every fibre.

Thea Jones, She let her body sway with the movement of the train (installation view), 2021. Photo by Aaron Claringbold. Courtesy of KINGS Artist-Run.

A book of poetry with similar content springs to mind as I gaze at this artwork: Nostalgia Has Ruined my Life, 2021 by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. One of my favourite passages from Butcher’s book reads: “Couldn’t make a decision about a very basic simple thing so eventually did an online tarot reading to help me decide. Now I’m getting fingered surrounded by stuffed animals”. Butcher’s language is more reminiscent of blogs, while Jones’ trades in a different kind of intimacy, closer to a bedroom conversation spread across time. However, they both present nostalgia as an engulfing emotion that swallows the present with memories of the past. Jones’ audio narration, Together Forever, 2021, in collaboration with Bonnie Cummings, which is a combination of spoken word and an altered track by Taylor Swift—radically pressed against one’s ear—envelops the senses and transports the listener to older days, that are neither here, nor there.

If memory serves me right, we went into lockdown shortly after Jones’ opening and her exhibition remained there for almost five months. It acquired a new sense of longing by signposting an enthusiastic time of social movement and functional timelines that the pathogen disrupted with rapidity. A curious aspect of lockdown is that it turns exhibitions into concealments, vacating displays from their purpose, which is to be seen. In the case of She let her body sway with the movement of the train, the work gained a spectral layer, by removing something that was meant to be there: the audience taking seats. How eerie to imagine this circle of chairs, holding an audio track that is silent, amidst the darkness of a gallery out of operation, waiting for restrictions to end, like a heartbroken ghost idle with confusion.

Thea Jones, Wagga blanket, 2021. Hessian, hand-spun alpaca and silk dyed with wild blackberries,120 x 120cm. Photo by Aaron Claringbold. Courtesy of KINGS Artist-Run.

Since the end of lockdown, I have only managed to see a few shows, including the beautiful SIMMER curated by Nanette Orly at Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), which deals with the connection between food and culture. And I look forward to visiting the Hyphenated Biennale led by Nikki Lam and Phuong Ngo across multiple locations. When I think of all that has happened since July, my head gets dizzy because it feels like everything and nothing has occurred. Yet, I can no longer relate to the person that walked into KINGS Artist-Run that night and sat on that chair, to listen to Jones’ voice recording and later typed these words—it simply does not feel like me.

Time seems fractured, broken and shattered but I can feel the (positive) effects of seasons gone by. My intention was to conclude this piece by answering the question “are you okay?” with a pun on the qualitative meaning of the word “okay”, as a state that is agreeable without being remarkable. But everyone freaks the fuck out whenever I say “I’m average”, because emotions run high in the creative sector. This is a piece without a conclusion, an ordinary state of mild resolution, a moment that is neither memorable or forgettable, nor regrettable. This year in the arts matters today, but soon it will be another period in a long sequence of events. We will shrug it off as unremarkable, because art is not a priority when people are suffocating in the ICU.

Diego Ramírez makes art, writes about culture and labours in the arts. In 2018, he showed his video work in a solo screening by ACCA x ACMI and he performed in Lifenessless at West Space x Gertrude Contemporary in 2019. He has shown locally and internationally at MARS Gallery, ACMI, Westspace, Torrance Art Museum, Hong-Gah Museum, Careof Milan, Buxton Cotntemporary, WRO Media Art Biennale, Human Resources LA, Art Central HK, Sydney Contemporary and Deslave. His words feature in Art and Australia, MeMO, Blue Journal, Disclaimer, NECSUS, Meanjin, un Projects, Runway Journal, Art Collector and Australian Book Review. He is represented by MARS Gallery, Editor-at-large of Running Dog and Director at SEVENTH.

Dearest Claire,

What is it to open the vein and get in the bath?

I feel like that’s a violent question and that it conjures an equally violent image. But please don’t recoil, hold my hand, stay with me.

When I ask this, I mean to ask, what is it to pour your heart out and to do so without fear of recompense? I see you do this so freely in conversation and I want to ask you to do the same for Performance Review.

This year has felt to me like being caught out the back of a beach, just beyond a sandbar. There’s a strong undertow, pulling me deeper and deeper out and short, sharp waves keep clipping me over the head. Every time I try to come up for air, salt water invades my airways, burning my lungs.

I wonder how you’ve felt and if you’ve felt the same?

Will you join me in the bath awhile? I hope you will.

Yours in love and admiration,

  1. It begins with you: youyouyou. A pulse, a beating, like the heart. Fresh mornings and eager fingers. These are the days of milk and honey.
  1. The heat dies down; the light levels adjust. I am dreaming of a warm love, a common burn. Love that is heavier than air–a weight that sits on my chest, makes strain out of breathing.
  1. Here we find tension points and hairline fractures. We rip, repair, repeat, until the scab heals over. We start again. Go softer, reach deeper, tread lighter. I read analyses of lyrics online in sprawling forums: deep dives on the meaning of words like asleep, clouded and burning. “This annotation is unreviewed”. This love is unchecked.
  1. I ruminate on lifelong–one word, rather than two. It is our deepest call for our lives to be long but for love to be longer. There is a way that people who have held and touched each other still look at each other, years later. In this moment, I can believe that I will always love who I have loved, that my life will be long and my love will be too.
  1. It is a warm autumn of bloated afternoons. There are long pauses between notes struck on a piano.
  1. It is here where the picture blurs, where memory fails to serve reality. Fissures form but I fail to feel them. Everything looks different from where I now stand. What was obscured then is crystalised now, what was formless now is fractals. There are no more soft edges.
  1. Simply because nothing changes, everything does. We become like sand dunes - ever-shifting, ever-moving, but the landscape always appears the same. The path is formed by walking, by changing where we stand in relation to it. The stage is set for grief.
  1. In this, the eighth act, we find ourselves at the moment of impact, the crisis of closure. I fill my mouth with you and hold your name there, my tongue acidic, as the time comes to escape that which fades. They say time passes and it does, but only minute by leaden minute. Yesterday was the last day and today doesn’t exist.
  1. Incensed by loss on the battlefield, the Roman emperor Caligula declared war on Neptune, god of the seas. His soldiers whipped the waves, collected seashells as the spoils of war. Everyone asks me how I’ve felt, how the time has been spent. I think of that emperor, defeated in combat but refusing a legacy without victory. Not all is fair in love and war.

Gaius Caesar Caligula, 2007. Photo by Louis le Grand. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

  1. I take the hand of a new lover and put it on my leg so that he can feel the heat of the sun, trapped in my skin, through the silk of my skirt. Heat transferral displaces affection. I want to be a shapeshifter, to stop making impact, to find myself in the space between spaces. I am asked to pour my heart out, to do so without fear of recompense. Soaking in the dark waters, I wonder if fear is as useless as the heart is.
  1. I think of you and the finite unconditional, the ending of what is endless. I think about atoms and trees and mountains, all infinite, all collapsing, like a crack in the sky, a fracture in the expanse. I think of oceans, of tides, of making myself as hard as water, only water. I find a note in my phone, a reminder of a reason I had loved you, one that I didn’t want to lose. When it rains, do you think of me like I think of you?
  1. Everything changes, everything ends, but life goes on forever. I had a dream about you with your arm around my shoulders. You were as a friend once more. We walk the length of a beach this way. You speak but I can’t make out the words. When I wake, there are soft edges once more. Ache becomes acceptance, the thrum of nothing where something used to be. A friend gifts me a conch, marbled and spiralling. Another infinity coming to an end, the spoils from the war. For secrets, she tells me. Into it I whisper, very best, until soon.

Photo by Lauren Bamford and Sarah Pritchard for House Editions. Courtesy of the creatives and Claudia Lau.

Claire Summers is a writer, editor and photographer. Her work is preoccupied with finding the phenomenal in the ordinary and quietly considering small details to which we assign greater meaning. She is currently working within the team at Melbourne Art Foundation to deliver the 2022 Melbourne Art Fair.

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