Sometime back in the ‘60s or early ‘70s (which, as everyone knows, was still the ‘60s), a bunch of people got together in a theater to perform a piece of conceptual art. What they did in that theater, up onstage, was to live in it. They just went about their daily lives, 24 hours a day, and, all the while, audience members came and went, watching the “actors” simply live their lives, or as close to that as one can do when one is being observed. Those onstage pretended not to be on view; those watching pretended not to be voyeurs. It was a perfect exemplification of the theatrical fourth wall.
But, more, what this conceptual piece did – besides acting as a precursor of the classic PBS series, “An American Family,” as well as just about every reality-TV show to come, especially “Real World” – was to elevate (if that was the direction) the act of everyday living to a functional definition of art. And, by default, turning each one of those who were living onstage into artists. Art did not imitate life, nor vice versa – they were one and the same.
To extend the argument, aren’t we all, then, practitioners of the art of living? And aren’t the “stages” upon which we “perform” places of art: in design, accoutrement and action? And, therefore, do not each of these places, to one degree or another, have a placeness and, for our purposes here, are discussable in terms of placeness as art?
And, what we have thought about for some time, and which has been brought to bear more intensely recently, is that perhaps the most palpable sense of placeness, and placeness as art, is resident in those places where those who lived there live there no longer, where the overwhelming power of placeness is shaped by the absence of what had once been there and by our memory or imaginings of the people and creatures and objects that once were.
All this, as disputatious prelude, to get us around to the point: that in the past few weeks we have experienced the death of a mother – the last of our parents – and a cat, the last of a litter that was born on our kitchen floor, beginning a mutually loving relationship between four felines and two humans that lasted nearly 19 years.
Their loss has renewed our feeling that among those places most redolent of placeness are those where ones who lived there are gone; that a room we visited – one that once had furniture we sat on and touched, and living beings we communed with and kissed, and smells and sounds and other things we took for granted – now, vacant, seemed somehow more filled with all of that, and with deeper feeling and meaning, importance and urgency: not inhabited by ghosts, but filled with echoes, not seen with a measured eye but apprehended by recollection or by some sixth or seventh sense we have yet to divine.
In our mother’s small apartment, there was a point when she was no longer there but her belongings were, and, truthfully, there was, besides the fact of her physical absence, so little emotion there – just a bunch of dead wood and bought scraps. But, now, those meager items have been removed and, suddenly, somehow, everything is there and, out of the corner of our mind’s eye, so is she – in an odd way, maybe even more insistently so even than when she was really there. (Which begs the question, “What is real?” which will not be answered here, nor any attempt made to do so.)
In our house, in the kitchen, we surrounded the table with cat beds, raised to the level of the tabletop, so that when we ate, our cats ate with us; when we watched TV there, they watched with us – one family, together. Soon, that spot became a central place in our home: no matter where the cats might spend their days, they would find their way to the beds, and us, to be fed, to be rubbed, to nap, each to his or her own favorite bed, or the one that the pecking order assigned each to. When the four became three, there was some shuffling of spots, but mainly it remained the same. When three became two, there was more of a freedom for the survivors to select any bed they wanted, within the parameters of cat power politics. When two became one, every bed was our last cat’s, and she used all of them.
But now, four have become none, and yet … there they all are again, we can see them, in their prime, where they belong, waiting for us: Spike and Luna and J.R. and Chub, in their spots. When there had been even just one cat, it had been a circle of empty beds used by her; with none, they are all occupied by their rightful residents. Strange about placeness: sometimes a complete absence is necessary to experience a complete presence. We felt it and, perhaps, noted it first when we visited the affecting and spectral Springside, in the Hudson Valley. Now, in a parent’s apartment, around our kitchen table, we feel it again. Like an empty stage that still resonates with the energy of the actors that once performed there – all of us, actors on our own stages, in a grand conceptual piece from which the art that then-ness and now-ness and placeness derives and remains.
Where we have been will be, to those who loved us, someplace we will always be, in a way they wish us to be always.