Carina Ripley – TEDxSWPS TRANSCRIPT
All stories are important. Even the ones that are never shared, the ones that stay hidden. Now, I’m not saying that sharing stories doesn’t matter. Because it does. Our stories can be used to share experiences, share knowledge, and make connections. It can also be extremely cathartic to give your story to someone else.
Last month, I took part in the first installment of a story-sharing project called “Patchwork Stories”. We wanted to give people the opportunity to share their experiences, with the hope that those stories would help others to answer their own questions. In a lot of cases, this was true.
But I also started to see that sometimes, it’s enough for a story simply to have happened. And that’s what I want to talk about today. While we were collecting stories, we spoke with several people who’ve been struggling with addiction. And afterwards, we were discussing as a team how best to deal with it when someone gives you a really difficult or painful story.
And one team member, who has been a drug addict herself, shared an interesting point of view. She said that when you’re in that state, you’re unable to sense yourself. You can’t help but share all of your stories, because you cannot see beyond them. People need to be given the opportunity to share if they feel the need to, so that they can start to heal and move forwards.
However, what I found the most valuable was when she said that as she started to get healthy, that need to share is gone. She wants to leave those events behind her, and move on with her life. Her stories and experiences don’t diminish because she’s not telling them anymore. Stories are important because of the impact that they had on that person’s life. And in my view, the telling of a story isn’t really what matters. It’s the living of the story that matters. I’m an artist who is inspired by stories: other people’s, as well as my own. And almost all of my work has a narrative, and contains some stories of some kind within it.
But it’s not important to me that when someone comes to view my work, when the audience sees it, that they are even aware that those stories are there. I’m going to tell you a story now that I find quite difficult, and until recently, haven’t really wanted to talk about with anyone, other than my close family and friends. But nevertheless, it’s important in my life, it’s… well, it’s been important in my life. On New Year’s Eve, last year, a friend of mine went missing. He was missing for three weeks before his body was found in the canal. I find it quite difficult to fully articulate how I was feeling at the time.
But I’ll try my best. I felt like I was trapped. I’d entered this world where everything was different, and I didn’t want to be there. I felt like I was different from those who weren’t involved. As I imagined, their lives were totally normal and the same. And I felt different from those who were involved, as we were all processing things in our own way, and I felt like the way I was processing it was wrong. I was able to take what I was feeling, the story I was living through, and pour it into my artwork.
The story of my art wasn’t the story of my friend’s death, it was the story of how I reacted to it, and the emotions that I experienced. After any kind of a traumatic event, I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to react. But at the time, it often doesn’t feel like that. I felt like I was grieving wrong. Sometimes I felt that I hadn’t been close enough to this friend to really justify the way I was feeling, while at other times I felt like I should have been more affected.
Sometimes I just wanted to forget about it for a bit. I altered these photos inspired by my feelings of being trapped. I sewed cages onto photos I’d taken on a recent holiday to Cuba, before my friend went missing. I also created this installation. I wanted to give viewers the opportunity to look at the world through a screen, which was representative of how I felt removed from the real world.
If you were to spend some time looking at a piece of my work, you’d gain your own interpretation of it, influenced by your own life, and your stories; while to me, these pieces will always tell the story of a very difficult time. Art was my escape. It was my way to heal. I was able to make art about something that I was feeling, but was in no means ready to talk about. In the year and a half since this story started, its importance to me hasn’t changed.
When it first happened, I just wanted it to go away. And since then I’ve moved through being able to make art about it to now, when I can talk about it if I need to. The telling, or not telling of this story hasn’t changed its meaning. And the story itself has had the same importance to me throughout. Art helped me to process what I was feeling, but I still felt that I needed to hide my story. I wanted to explore my feelings while never being too vulnerable. I wasn’t thinking about how others would react to my work.
I was simply letting myself feel while still being protected. In retrospect, I was able to take something that was hugely emotionally charged for me, and make something that people can interpret in many ways. Since I didn’t explicitly show the story, people can have their own response influenced by their own experiences, and gain their own understanding. When the others who were affected by the death came to see my work, I didn’t tell them what it was about.
But almost all of them found something within it that spoke to them. And although not a single one related their feelings about the death to my work. Instead, they found their own ways to interpret it influenced by their own experiences, desires, and stories. One friend of mine looked at this piece and said, “Oh, I want to be in a holiday cage!” To her, this piece was about a longing for the beach so strong that she wanted to be trapped there. Another friend saw this piece, and knowing that the photos were taken in Cuba, interpreted it to be a political statement about how difficult it can be for Cubans to ever leave their country.
I set out to make a piece of work purely for me. I wanted to share my feelings while keeping them hidden. And I achieved this. I also discovered that each person who views my work adds their own interpretation and their own story. The art becomes like a person, and more stories are added the longer it lives. This has become an integral part of my practice. And since then, I’ve made several pieces that carry these silent, untold stories. Now, I haven’t got that much time left.
But I just want to mention a piece that I’ve made in the last few months, that looks at the same subject from a different angle. It’s called “Untitled: Ways to Count the Dead”, and was inspired by this Iraqi poem with the same title. It can be hard to really relate to a death when you don’t know the person or fully understand the situation. Reading in the newspaper 30 civilians were killed by a car bomb on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad doesn’t really mean anything to most people.
This A0 drawing is made up of over 1,000 hand-drawn Sharpie crosses. Each one represents a life lost through war and the many stories that person would have left behind. Stories that never got to be told, and now will never have the chance to be told. But these experiences matter, because they happened. And that’s true of all stories. Always. They happened to someone. They had an impact on someone’s life. And stories like this are happening every single day to all people.
Even if no one hears them, they are happening, and they are important. When you meet someone for the first time, you’d never expect to know all about them immediately. You’d spend time, getting to know them slowly and learning their stories, sharing your stories, and making new stories together. Why then, when you go into an art gallery, do we expect to immediately be able to make a judgment about a piece of work? I believe that you should get to know a piece of art slowly. You should learn more about each other each time you have a conversation. Ultimately, you can never know everything there is to know about a piece of art, or a person. Some stories will always stay hidden. Thank you.