Candace Doyal's mother was not there. She was in prison, or she was high, or she was committing a crime to get high.
Then at 40, she died. Doyal was the one who found her mother in her trailer.
On the back wall of Arundel Books in Occidental Square, there is a large print of a color photograph on the wall. It is the one you see above, where the daughter, years later, assumes the position of her dead mother, arms akimbo on the mattress in her trailer, pill bottles and liquor bottles scattered. In other photographs, Doyal portrays herself as her mother strung out in an alley, and lounging in a motel room to hide from police.
If Doyal's staged photographs weren't surrounded by archival family snapshots, handwritten letters addressed "To Candace" sent from a California prison listing her mother's "N"-number (for narcotics), and Doyal's poems about the events posted on the walls next to the pictures, then you might be forgiven for assuming the photographs were made by some well-meaning know-nothing hipster kid or middle-aged do-gooder.
Addiction is the worst cliche, and it looks like one. There's no escaping that. These images themselves, while adeptly composed and printed, are not surprising. But the photographs themselves are not the art. They are documentations of the performance that is the art. Over the course of the about ten years it took to complete the material for the exhibition and book This Thing Is About to End now showing in Occidental Square for the first time, Doyal performed a reenactment of her mother's life and death.
She didn't have a choice.
One day after her mother died, Doyal found herself in the same prison that had held her mother. The uniforms were old and worn. Suddenly she realized she might actually be wearing her mother's clothes.
One way or another she was going to have to reenact her mother's life, and right then and there, she decided it would be on her own terms.
She titled her project This Thing Is About to End, as in, this project will make this thing end. In a triptych of photographs, she even reenacted scattering her mother's ashes in the Grand Canyon. It is not particularly moving to consider a daughter scattering her mother's ashes. But there is a different, unnervingly raw quality to a daughter redoing it for the camera, such a bare attempt to make an image hold the weight of a moment. Can an image do that?
At this point I think I should say that some of what I know about images of addiction, I know from family experience. All children of addicts are forced to perform some version of reenactment. Many of us are performance artists all the time, trying on the various roles in our families, as in Doyal's photographs, to discover what combination of empathy, rejection, forgetting, and remembering will sustain our health.
This week I've seen and considered dozens of images, and hours of footage, of lives in ruin.
It's only fitting.
Seattle is in a state of emergency about homelessness, the mayor said last November. He hired a homelessness czar the other day. The move seemed both welcome and pitiful. Meanwhile, authorities continue rolling through encampments taking all the stuff away and leaving the people with no more options than they had before.
Kids on the streets of Seattle were the subject of a July 1983 LIFE magazine article—another time, like now, when Seattle was being billed as a prosperous and pretty, "highly livable" American city.
The photographer in 1983 was Mary Ellen Mark. The writer was Cheryl McCall. The magazine story was called "Streets of the Lost," but the project became far better known when it was transformed into the legendary documentary film Streetwise, shot by Mark's husband, Martin Bell. Streetwise was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It is a knockout. You can see the whole film on Youtube, and I strongly, strongly recommend that you do.
Starting in September, Seattle Public Library is doing a series of events called Streetwise Revisited.
I had a chance to read the book yesterday at the University of Washington bookstore where it's on sale. That book is the companion of a new film by Bell that's a follow-up to Streetwise, called Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, which first screened in Seattle at SIFF this year, and will play at the library on October 14.
Tiny was one of the original kids in Streetwise, and Bell and Mark followed and documented Tiny's life for 30 years. Tiny now has 10 children of her own, and she still lives in the area and struggles to get by, as does her mother, an alcoholic named Pat. Tiny is now on methadone. A series of recent photographs that Mark shot of Tiny and Pat on a couch is excruciatingly uncomfortable. Pat laughs for the camera, mugging. Tiny shrinks and grimaces, more and more as the shots continue. Much of the story of an addict parent and child is contained therein.
Doyal would like this book. I also saw the new film, Tiny, this week. Be sure to see it in October.
Why do I recommend these? What is the difference between Streetwise Revisited and the Housing Is A Human Right project done by The New Foundation and the library among other organizations in early 2016? Housing Is a Human Right included exhibitions by the artist Martha Rosler and talks about systems and structures of housing and houseless living in Seattle. Both series are attempts to bring art and communal discussion to bear on poverty and its specific and local damages.
Mark's approach was very different from Rosler's—Streetwise and Tiny are personal, not structural. As they say in organizing circles, we need both. Doyal's work is yet another way entirely: performance. Talk to her about her work at the gallery if you like, on Thursday September 1 during First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square. Her book This Thing Is About to End is for sale, and she'll be there 6 to 8 pm.