A Deliberate Sorrow: Helen Frederick’s Incorporeal Other

By Paul Ryan

If one life were enough or eternity
had seasons
and were somehow translatable, glacial,
an enormous braille, or simply scored, a scar, its story,
then you could pan the body waters
for those gold tokens, those tiny arms and legs,

heads, hearts, hands, feet, each affliction
in strict relief
on the sanctuary wall, each soul, if we have one,
in detail, meaning: After the beating she would not heal…
or, Like the earth
I have made stones inside me

To which I’ve moored myself,
Little grief harbors – set me, set me asail…
When Guadalupe’s cathedral door
Swung open nearly twenty years ago, I saw them startle,
Shine above the many candles
Lit for the sick, the lost,

the compassed cloud of witnesses,
as though pain could be light’s companion
out on some sea
among the huge schools of mackerel
that surface in the swells, flash and dive
in unison into the nets

to be hauled up, hauled in along the shore.

--from “For the Second Millennium” by Deborah Digges

For Helen Frederick, pain is “light’s companion” – particularly the pain that attends the grief and mourning for the deceased whose lives were taken from them suddenly and prematurely through acts of violence, socio-political injustice, natural disaster, or tragic accident. Recent headlines about the suffering and dying in Somalia, the loss of life in the shootings and bombing in Norway, the murder of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and the victims of the tsunami in Japan signify a multiplication of the candles of Digges’poem, an extension of the “relief on the sanctuary wall.” Frederick’s art is a compassionate and beseeching response to this heartbreaking proliferation. Within the context of her meditation practice and interest in Buddhist teachings, it is a necessary one, reflecting her intense awareness of an Other beyond the earth, a metaphysical dispossessed or subaltern. These deceased, in effect, are refugees – souls fragmented and unsettled through acts of disruption and dislocation; and, Frederick directs attention to this bleak condition as she protests violent injustice in the world. Her appropriation of the Tibetan invocation of hungry ghosts – the lingering, unfulfilled souls of those whose lives on earth have been unjustly cut short – functions, therefore, both as metaphor and implicit documentation.
Although the documentation within Hungry Ghosts is mostly indirect, quietly serving as a political subtext, documentation resonated with more specificity in Frederick’s previous solo exhibition, Dissonance, which occurred at the Eleanor D. Wilson Art Museum at Hollins University last spring. There, specific references to modern calamities – the atomic bomb and the Cold War’s persistent threat of nuclear destruction, the murder of innocent civilians by U.S. forces in Iraq, and the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911 in New York -- were contained within the centerpiece of the show, a video work entitled “Dislocations.” When the two exhibitions are experienced in conjunction with one another, Hungry Ghosts functions as a sequel to Dissonance, drawing closer attention to the victims as they linger within the beyond – a liminal space conceptually akin to that described by post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha as physical space and occurrences where “….there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction…an exploratory, restless movement…” (introduction to The Location of Culture).
Loss permeates Frederick’s work, and a primeval despair haunts the exhibition. She laments the universality of needless loss -- its inevitability in the human condition where evil endures as ignorance, injustice, and aggression. At the heart of her meditation resides a political critique. By extension, Frederick poses two hard questions for viewers, who, after all, are witnesses: How do we cope? What can we do? Though operating quietly, her art is a persistent – even adamant – intervention into the indifference that sadly marks the daily lives of many people. Existing as an homage and altar to the wanderers, Hungry Ghosts shines a light into the liminal space and labyrinth of the Other as it simultaneously shines a light onto the conscience of the living – impelling empathy, and stirring and enlightening social/political awareness. Her artistic responses are aesthetic forms of Buddhist pathways of remembrance, empathy, and mindfulness that link the margin(s) with the center – prayers of acceptance over denial, recognition over avoidance, balance over imbalance, love over exploitation, justice over injustice.
Frederick’s Other is intangible, incorporeal, disembodied. Yet, the concurrent emotions of loss and despair run deeply: they tear, they are inevitably tangible. These feelings are paralleled and evoked in the exhibition through Frederick’s driven tactile sensibility that insists upon the physical as an entry to the metaphysical. This tactility is achieved through aesthetic openness and an inventive, instinctual use of print media in dialogue with processes such as piercing, layering, and texture through the use of large-scale hand-made papers. The installation of Hungry Ghosts reveals a sequential and steady flow from representational to more abstract imagery, and the abstractness of the work signals the silent obscurity of the ghosts, both in their liminal state and within the consciousness of the viewer. Part of Frederick’s task is that of a translator, both in recognizing the translation the deceased have made in their unforeseen crossings, and more particularly in revealing those lives to the living – understanding they must forever be included in the discourse -- without ever attempting to speak for them, for no one but themselves can truly understand their plight. How do we hear, know, discern these deceased? Who speaks for this incorporeal, this absent subaltern who was silenced in this world by death, and a second time through occupying a place as Other? No one does and no one can, but through the physicality and abstractness of her art, Frederick makes the absent present. As pain and darkness are “light’s companion,” the art of Helen Frederick shows us that absence is the companion, the confidant of presence.

An artist and art critic, Paul Ryan is Professor of Art in the Department of Art and Art History at Mary Baldwin College. He is also the Director of Hunt Gallery at Mary Baldwin.