A Considered Space: The Work of Suné Woods

Endurance Tests

A Considered Space: The Work of Suné Woods

By Anna Martine Whitehead January 30, 2014

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.


Kerry James Marshall has argued that black artists in America must “earn [their] audience’s attention every time [they] make something.”1 The implication here is that the black artist is no different from the black American subject at large: That to simply be is to risk remaining unseen. Visibility as a black American, as Marshall would have it, is the result of the persistent demand for a witness. Artist Suné Woods troubles this enduring expectation of black performativity by presenting unspectacular and unresolved moments of intimacy between black people. Her pieces unfold gradually, testing her audience’s attention as they explore troubled familial relationships through partially revealed (and revealing) narratives. Woods has framed this dynamic as a difference between patience and endurance: “Endurance is about strength and will; you needn’t be patient to exhibit endurance. But patience is a considered space that slows things and makes new things apparent. It is the pause between chess moves.”2

Woods’s work frequently draws on the artist’s deep, often intimate relationship with the past—in particular, her own—in order to reimagine it. She has described earlier work as her attempts “to reclaim… landscapes and histories where resistance and violence were plentiful.”3 Bountiful Darkness (2010), Woods’s MFA thesis at California College of the Arts, featured photographs of black women, their partners, and their children posed in a forest, all wearing the same white eyelet dress.4 Woods’ more recent work continues the aforementioned process of reclaiming the past from violence by reimagining contemporary experience. But whereas Bountiful Darkness was mythic, depicting near-interchangeable black bodies in haunting locales, Woods has now turned her focus toward the domestic and, more specifically, her own childhood.

The object of this focus is Woods’s formerly estranged father. Woods has traveled back and forth to Chicago where he lives, tracking down his other children and past lovers, collecting the ephemera and physical traces of his life that until recently she could not access because of the childhood trauma stemming from his absenteeism. Once back in the studio, Woods transforms her findings into a creative practice of reclamation, centering on collaged photographs of her father’s lovers and friends, and found images of other women. Woods’s studio is something like an archive—part real, part imaginary—of her father, housing piles of photographs, clippings, and scraps of memories, only a portion of which are actually her own. Some of the photographs once belonged to her father. Others remind her of the feelings she gets when she thinks of him. She collages these onto photos of herself or onto shiny, silvery squares of cardboard, totems for familial protection.

Suné Woods. Totem (3), 2013. Mixed media collage, 6 x 8 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Woods’s video work represents a different kind of recollection. Würzburg (2013), for example, features a steady shot of a hand deliberately displaying a series of five three-by-five-inch photographs of an empty bed—white sheets and floral quilt—in various states of disarray. One after the other, the photos are laid atop one another by the disembodied hand, which immediately retreats from the frame to produce the next image. A voiceover, first in German and then in English, tells the story of two lovers meeting, but without intimate details. The encounter is revealed matter-of-factly, as though the speaker were describing an encounter between people she does not know. As the story’s narration switches languages, the hand takes the photographs away and the encounter is redescribed, with slightly different details. This retelling seems to encourage audiences—in the same matter-of-fact tone—to reimagine the meaning of each photograph.

The story itself, like the photographs, is not especially titillating, and corresponds with the film’s similarly chaste visuals. And yet Würzburg’s layering of representations complicates them in the process, re-presenting the meaning of the bed in new terms, and then proceeding to remove the images of the bed (and whatever carnal associations they may have brought to mind to viewers) from the frame. The hand, displaying and removing the image of the bed, coupled with the voiceover telling and retelling of the meeting, creates an unstable narrative that calls into question the fixity of the means by which we choose to document the material past. This unfixing, in turn, presents an opportunity for the reclamation of memory.

Suné Woods. Würzburg, 2013. Single-channel video, 1:25, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Woods’s practice of reclamation is built around creating the conditions for such momentary opportunities, which are as provocative as they are encouraging of patience. In her newest dual-channel video installation, Conversation, two characters (an older, dapperly dressed black man in the role of the father, and a black woman in her early 30s as his daughter) face each other across the physical gap between the screens, alternately directly addressing one another or sidestepping questions that feel as if they’ve been left unanswered for too long. In unassuming street clothes, the two lean against separate sponge-painted gray walls in an otherwise empty frame. Their conversation is intimate but mundane, with the daughter’s awkward interrogations eventually leading to her demand for an overdue apology.

The most intriguing moment in the ten-minute exchange comes in the final five minutes, when the daughter harshly questions the father on his absenteeism during her childhood and he responds by assuring her he only dated younger women because he was thinking of her. He seems to be aware that this is an inadequate deflection; the two characters fall silent, both apparently at a loss for words. They fidget uncomfortably, look at one another and away, and wait. Their reticence presents the audience with a simultaneous longing and mistrust. They are desirous of something unspoken; possibly one another, another chance at the failed relationship, or the opportunity to re-create the past. It becomes clear in these bitter minutes that the two also cannot name their desire; the only thing this father and daughter agree on is their mutual inability to get around all that has been left unsaid.

There is something quite unsettling about this filmic representation of black people, alone, in a somewhat austere environment, doing nothing exciting, and with uncertainty. The two characters of Conversation seem haunted by pasts too troubled and painful to reveal in language, but which are writ large across their faces and bodies. So rarely do we have the opportunity to see black folk stand silently and express struggle wordlessly. There is an internal and voiceless sorrow apparent in this couple’s somatic responses to one another that is rarely depicted in either visual art or more-popular media. In its staging of wordless discomfort and pregnant pauses, Conversation is a challenge to our culture’s frequent imperative to reconcile its present condition through narrative (and often heroic) retellings of its past. This burden of linear narrative is especially felt by minority subjects in their efforts to construct legible, normative ontologies for themselves, who must, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot puts it: “isolate the past as a distinct entity” in order to withstand an assimilated present.5 Conversation, however, offers awkward silences and discomfiting pauses in place of such a narrative, disrupting the dominant cultural imperative that black expression be something cumulative, intelligible, and performatively spectacular.

Suné Woods. Conversation, 2014 (still). Video installation, work in progress. Courtesy of the artist.

The presentation of silence in Woods’s work—whether through the physical silence of the father and daughter in Conversation, or the metaphoric silence of the empty bed in Würzburg—also exposes a particular kind of familiarity. “These are mundane intimacies,” Woods explains. “They are flat, matter-of-fact.”6 These representations of ordinary relationships, so often lacking in overt affect and yet deeply affecting to watch, require extreme patience on the part of Woods’s audiences. Much like the daughter in Conversation, who goes silent at the critical moment of confrontation, Woods’s work frequently withholds any promise of gratification. Rather than triumph over adversity, for example, the father and daughter of Conversation seem to almost shrink under the weight of their distinct heartbreaks, a position reinforced by the physical distance between them. They look at one another through monitors, across a chasm, as visitors to the work walk between them. Their estrangement is palpable in every sense.

The patience demanded by Woods’s work offers a space for alternative accounts of past and present to flourish. The quietude of Conversation points to lifetimes of hurt without naming that pain explicitly, letting the audience imagine for itself the damage done. Woods lays bare psychic trouble—and its physical repercussions—but withholds the details, the characters that populate her work neither readily revealing themselves nor clamoring for our attention. Reimagining the interrelations of intimacy and silence in the production of a visible black self is a task left to Woods’s audiences, not the artist.

Notes

  1. Marshall in “About Kerry James Marshall.” art21, http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/kerry-james-marshall.
  2. Conversation with Woods in her studio, December 14, 2013.
  3. Suné Woods. Artist’s Statement, http://www.sunewoods.com/?page_id=47.
  4. crystal am nelson. “African American Women and Photography.” Oxford African American Studies Center, September 2013, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/public/features/archive/0813/essay.jsp.
  5. Michel-Rolph Trouillot. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. (Boston: Beacon Press) 1995, 7.
  6. Conversation with Woods in her studio, December 14, 2013.

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