I made the pieces pictured here one year after my father died. Until recently, I hadn’t thought they had anything to do with my experience of his hospitalization and the months leading up to it. Flowers, forests, and youthful figures weren’t new subjects for me. But as I was making these, people who saw them in process asked me, where is the tension? Why is everything so pretty and predictable? There’s danger in representing utopias, they warned, especially when they seem nostalgic for parts of the world that have changed.
There’s a feeling of safety that comes from representing something familiar. My experience of the previous year had made the world an unsettling place. I stopped dreaming at night, jumped at everyday noises, had a new aversion to driving over bridges, and mistook inanimate objects for living things. So when a garden of delights emerged in one of these pieces, the addition of fruit bats and apples strung from tree branches was, for me, enough dissonance to avoid cliché; a reminder of death and loss of innocence.
When a detail disturbs normalcy just enough that it changes the frame of reference for everything else, suddenly relations between things shift, and the world is no longer familiar. It becomes uncanny. For me, the uncanny is particularly evocative of atmosphere—the sense of a place, its immersiveness and particularity to a moment in time. Atmosphere is elusive but one of the richest parts of life from which to draw meaning.
Although utopia is not a guiding concept in my work, it is linked to these ideas. The title of this series, Places that can’t be found, bears a connection to Thomas More’s original concept of utopia, a play on the Greek utopia meaning “no-place” and eutopia meaning “good place.” As uncannily idyllic versions of our world, utopias have the potential to reflect our flaws. They allow us to explore what a better world might be like, even while they are haunting and unattainable. Fairy tales do a similar thing, telling us something about social life by mixing the real and recognizable with the terrible and strange. With these ideas in mind, in my work, I explore places where femininity and nature are not defined by the world as it is but are free to exist on their own.
Silhouettes share a history with fairy tales, and layering and illuminating them, as a material practice, lends itself to creating atmosphere and uncanny narratives. Theatrical and participatory—like a pop-up book—the resulting image invites you to look inside from different vantage points. The illusion seduces you but then, hopefully, surprises or unsettles you by showing you something you thought you knew from a different angle, in a different light, or on a different scale. Seeing the world differently changes how people understand and inhabit it. It’s more subtle than structural change, but perhaps more powerful because it can happen outside of traditional arenas of power. This kind of engagement has the ability to create openings for people to imagine what the world might be like otherwise.
It’s an experience I try to mirror in my practice. Femininity and nature are often central in my work, but I didn’t start with an overarching idea for the narratives in this series. Allowing each layer to guide the imagery of the next permits me to see avenues that would have been blocked if I’d planned everything from the outset. Surrendering control is important for exploring the web of associations and meanings that hold together our impressions of the world, and working one layer at a time forces me to do that.
The worlds contained in these pieces had been safe places for me as my own world became suddenly unfamiliar. After time passed, I realized I wanted their politics to become more overt. The next time I exhibited Places that can’t be found, I turned them into a large installation, adding a layer to each piece that would make clearer: this is a politics outside of masculine dominance, a politics of inverted power. A long history of diminishing traditionally feminine skills and discounting childlike wonder degrades the way we treat the material world, the non-human, and the environment at large. I am interested in imagining places in which the childlike and the feminine are valued and where non-human beings are foregrounded.
Yet, I think it is also important to remember that there is a space within politics for images of respite. The places in these pieces can transform if I add or subtract a layer. Sometimes, to face loss and trauma, we need a “good place”—a place to rest and revive and feel less frightened, before picking up, and continuing on.
Image at top: Cecilia Ackerman, Places That Can’t Be Found II, illuminated hand-cut layered paper, 28 x 22 in.