In Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Married,” a man crawls around his apartment in search of hair—his wife’s hair, his dead wife’s hair. “For two months got them from the drain, / from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator, / and off the clothes in the closet,” he says. “But after other Japanese women came, there was no way to be sure which were / hers, and I stopped.” That simple subject and verb—“I stopped”—means so much because it wants to come apart; it wants to not mean anything. But then, a year goes by, and while “repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find / a long black hair tangled in the dirt.”
So too does Robin Cracknell’s Notebooks begin to come apart almost everywhere we look. Like Gilbert’s poem, these photographs gather the stray hairs of a lover, always at the risk of finding the last hair—and stopping. “[T]he creative process kept me alive because it kept her alive in me,” says Cracknell. “It created an ‘us’ where there was no ‘us’.” Or a belief in “us.” So much in this work is about belief and our need for loss to mean something.
But there is so much more in these photographs that comes together than comes apart. Rarely have I taken such pleasure in someone else’s beliefs.
Six years ago, I began a series of notebooks called “How Do Particles Adhere?” I wanted to do something about connections, about the ways people find and lose each other. It began randomly; pictures of flowers a lover had left me that had long since dried and decomposed, hanging over wishbones. A photograph of her bare back perforated with braille. Stray hairs I’d saved in glass transparency mounts. Penciled lists of things we’d talked about overlaid with intricate diagrams and constellations as though she was a puzzle to be solved. If the freckles on her wrist matched Ursa Minor maybe this dissolved affair could be magicked back into life.
Was I suffering from apophenia, a tendency, as a yearning human, to perceive meaning where none exists? Was I mining for truths, divining truths, precisely because there is no “divine” truth? I continued with those notebooks—all the years we were apart. Obsessively converting her words to braille, comparing those dots to star charts, the letters of her name to mathematical equations, anagrams, graphs, all these marginalia barely decipherable now, as though written by a heartbroken stranger.
Although my house is full of religious objects—a large crucifix hangs over me as I write this—I have no belief system. In the face of so much actual beauty and horror assailing our senses every day, isn’t belief just a convenient “turning away” from reality? Someone finds their lost wedding ring in a field where a child was murdered … what belief system can explain the baffling contrast of chaos and grace in our lives? It’s charming to imagine that the sun is dragged across the sky by a chariot but fables don’t protect us from a home invasion or marauding cancer cells. Yet, we continue to construct belief systems, choosing the thudding muscle of the heart over the constantly firing mass of neural tissue that is actually keeping us alert, warm, safe, communicating … alive. Why? Because we are pattern seekers. Patterns are comforting. They make a beautiful “something” out of a silent, frightening “nothing.”
Baby P is battered to death as his mother watches. “Everything happens for a reason,” we tell ourselves. The most arrogant, insulting and illogical little slogan ever uttered yet our default consolation when life confounds us. Like connecting random stars to make a picture of a horse, the world is more manageable somehow when the sky becomes a giant storybook. We all want so much to belong, to matter, to feel connected. To be part of the greatness around us. Of course, I so want these things too.
I barely remember the person I was then but, in hindsight, I see that the creative process kept me alive because it kept her alive in me. It created an “us” where there was no “us.” Those connections were my belief system. The notebooks were not so much about adhering to her but the fizzing, desperate particles of my self adhering to each other. What art does; maintaining “self.” Not so much art as therapy, but something higher: art as alchemy. Transformation through creation and combination. All these seemingly random connections, that pile of pages scribbled with star charts, equations, maps and anagrams … This is my belief system.