The Mystery of Unicorns

One of my latest findings on a day trip to the wildlife and holiday resort Catalina Island, California, was a long spiraling sea shell. It felt somehow magical when I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Its spiraling shape, the shimmering tones of cream, redbrown and white somehow reminded me of unicorn horns.

As a child I had been an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles by the novelist C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), in which unicorns were characterized as both beautiful and very noble and honorable creatures.

The unicorn is a powerful symbol of good in early pagan mythology. Almost all images of unicorns depict a white horse of slender build, with a single large, pointed and spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.

I asked myself how contemporary artists were exploring this topic, whether this magical creature is still associated with fairytales and the mystical landscapes of King Arthur in Britain and Cornwall…

 

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008.

Damien Hirst first shot to fame with his “shark tank”. But the image of the beloved mystical figure, the unicorn (he used a real white foal) in formaldehyde is somewhat sad.

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008

“The Dream” belonged to a highly publicized (and criticized) auction of 233 works by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst in 2008. Nearly 20,000 people visited Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises to see what looked like a polished retrospective. With the Sotheby auction called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” the artist sidestepped the traditional gallery system to sell works directly through an auction house for the second time.

Ben Hopper, Unicorn Girl (from the series Naked Girls with Masks), 2010

Ben Hopper is an Israel-born London-based commercial and fine art photographer. His work includes scenery, movement, and mood. He primarily photographs conceptual fashion, portraits of dancers, circus artists, musicians, and risqué nudes. His latest series, Naked Girls with Masks, falls squarely into the last category. Naked Girls with Masks, the series from which this photograph stems, was previewed at the underground London group art exhibition ACT ART 8 in July 2010.

Camomile Hixon, Missing Unicorn, New York 2010

 

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room abandoned building naked floorboards self-portrait

Eating the Darkness. Francesca Woodman’s Wallpaper

 

This morning, browsing through the New York Times, I reconnected with an American photographer, whose work I had only recently discovered. The article grabbed my attention and touched me because one of her pictures titled Vanishing Act, a nude half covering herself with peeling wallpaper (see below) had helped me complete my song, Eating the Darkness. To learn that over 120 of her works are being displayed at the prestigious Guggenheim in New York felt really exciting. The artist is Francesca Woodman, whose oeuvre mainly consists of quite unusual photographic self-portraits.

I love art photography and can easily lose myself scouring the internet like the library of Babel for pictures. That particular day I was compiling a collection of photos, mainly by female artists, a lot of them in black and white, many with a surrealistic approach and somewhat dramatic and staged effects. I didn’t have any specific motifs or topics in mind but just followed my instincts and mood. I downloaded quite a few pictures whose meaning especially struck or touched me on a very visceral level.

Sometimes I use these images to illustrate – or should I say underline my poema and songs – always taking great care of naming the artist. I agree with the contemporary visual artist Christian Marclay who in the context of creating The Clock, stated:

“If you make something good and interesting and not ridiculing someone or being offensive, the creators of the original material will like it.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman Wallpaper empty room self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Vanishing Act (Space2) 1976

These collections of images trigger my own creativity by directing me towards a topic, which has already been slumbering in my sub-conscience. They act like teasers or “dream catchers” or even as surfaces for my own emotional projections. Traditionally, this is actually known as Ekphrasis, which means “description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art whereby the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. It is used to convey the deeper symbolism of the corporeal art form by means of a separate medium. Often ekphrastic writing is rhetorical in nature and symbolic of a greater meaning.

Inspiration for Conveying Feelings into Song Lyrics

In this particular situation it must have all run together and I was both deeply touched and inspired by a photograph of Woodman’s which not only helped me to get unstuck but ended up delivering a (poetic) line for a song. I had been playing around on the piano and working on a song called “Eating the Darkness” (click on the title to read the lyrics). I wanted to capture feelings of loneliness and despair,  staged in the isolation of an apartment or room. These are the first verses and the beginning of a chorus:

I turn the key and stare into a
long, dark corridor
I see the furniture – untouched and cold,
the emptiness starts to unfold.

Dust has settled with no delay
upon my absence, during the day
while everything’s / just frozen in its place
from when I left at twenty past eight

Like with a lot of my songs I went through a strange process: There is an initial spark, the idea or inspiration but still a lot of work to be done. It’s like being in labour with pains and horrible cramps burgeoning into anxiety. But when you summon up that energy and determination to push, you give birth to something that almost immediately takes on a magical life of its own. If you can’t activate that courage to face all of those feelings, it dies.

How to Convey the Gnawing Emotion of Feeling Invisible?

Alas, in the chorus I felt there was a strong image missing. I kept getting stuck. Even playing the melody over and over again wasn’t helping. I felt that the song per se was strong and authentic because it had emerged very spontaneously out of the depth of my guts like from a dark turquoise deep sea cavern. But I wanted to explore and express a feeling of hopelessness, set in that room. How could I convey  that sometimes gnawing emotion of not being relevant, of feeling invisible? Suddenly this photograph entered my mind. It just presented itself. So I opened up my laptop and fished it out of my pictures folder. “Fading into the wallpaper”, I thought. And suddenly the chorus was complete:

And I sit here eating the darkness
and the darkness eats at me
I am fading into the wallpaper
on the second floor apartment number two-o-three

Who Is Francesca Woodman?

Prior to finding that photograph I hadn’t heard of the artist Francesca Woodman before. Of course her name, derived from the same source as mine, caught my attention. But it was after having completed writing the song, that I suddenly wondered where and in which stage of her life I would find her. I set out to contact her. Not only did I want to share my work but also thank her for the inspiration.

It only took a few seconds on Google and I was starring at the ugly word – suicide. Unexpectedly, I just hit the wall. No pun intended.

After this initial shock I knew that my highly sensitive side, also my dark side had intuitively picked up on the tragedy of her death through that picture. Which is ultimately, exactly why my writing had become fluent again. But all the same, suddenly questions started rolling in. Had she perhaps felt that she had exhausted her artistic reservoir with nothing left to say? Had she lived “too fast”? Was she was able to express these feelings so well, which many people fighting depression are plagued by, because she suffered too? Was this why the photograph had had such a deep impact on me?

But did I really want to speculate about her reason to end her life?

I decided to distance myself. I suddenly felt eerily close to the topic, almost intrusive like a voyeur so I began to reclaim my song, take it for what it was and record it.

Images Full of Self-expression, Texture and Sense of Composition

Weeks later and after seeing the article in the newspaper I finally went online to look at more of Woodman’s work. A lot of it I hadn’t seen before and am in awe of her self-expression, use of textural elements and sense of composition. Her open and almost Victorian sense of Romanticism maybe “girlish”, like some critics say, but it is also very exposing. Some of the pictures are in a square vintage style format, reminding me of Instagram with which I photograph and experiment almost daily. I find many of Woodman’s pictures playful as well as incredibly mature. After all at 22 she left an extensive catalogue of over 800 photographs behind.

Like the American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, whose work consists primarily of photographic self-portraits, depicting herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters, Woodman used herself as a model. I love the anecdote that when she was asked by a friend why she obsessively photographed herself, (who perhaps found it oddly narcissistic), she replied:

It’s a matter of convenience, I am always available.”

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper fireplace empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, House #4 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman polka dot dress peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Polka Dots 1976
Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman body print black shoes woman floorboards empty room abandoned house self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, Untitled 1976

Eating the Darkness. Desolate & Abandoned Interiors

And indeed, some images have got the features of a self-portrait. But what strikes me most is the textural quality of the settings, in which Woodman stages her photographs. They are diametrically opposed to the smoothness of her young and flawless body. Frequently, the interiors are empty rooms, decaying with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and flaking paintwork.

The wallpaper also puts the identity of Woodman in a state of flux in two ways – by physically hiding her and by forcing into your mind the very literal and paradigmatic image of a second skin. It joins neatly with the idea of a shifting identity, rather than Woodman presenting herself as a whole. She transforms before us, not into another human being or character, but simply into the wall.  ~ Victoria O’Rourke, photographer

Eating the darkness songwriting inspiration Francesca Woodman peeling wallpaper floorboards empty room abandoned house woman self-portrait
© Francesca Woodman, 1976

These rooms look desolate and possess a strong notion of abandonment. They are very similar to the atmosphere of space I wanted to create in my song without using lengthy descriptions.

Wandering rooms like in quarantine
I’m starring at the clock, on elasticated time
brain waves flickering, mercury mind
like a black’n white TV in 1969

Perhaps that was exactly why I had distanced myself after the initial encounter. I had peeped in to then virtually slam the book shut again. It was just too painful to see her body in contrast with the diminishing interior. Moreover fearless easiness and eagerness, revealing a form of self-exploration, stand out against the ugly environment. I didn’t want anyone else to have experienced this ugliness of depression. I had felt protective and at the same time helpless!

Another sensation that arose however, is gratitude. Suddenly, I felt fortunate that I had connected with this picture through my own story. Not though a biographical prism – the dramatic notion of an artist’s suicide. It can sometimes be difficult to push past these layers of fragmented knowledge and prejudice. Especially in an era of information overload, fake news even, and constant accessibility per Dr. Google.

Only when “absorbing” art in an almost meditative state, is it possible to retrieve what lies beneath these layers and connect with our own authentic thoughts and feelings.

This is exactly what I feel she did in her work, she tried to expose herself and be literally as naked as possible. We will never know whether this specific image, the wallpaper  was created to express a loss of self-worth. That may have been what I personally projected onto it. I am grateful that a fellow artist gave me something to connect with, almost like a piece of her soul. Because isn’t that what every person who creates seeks to achieve? We want to touch or inspire someone and almost live on through our work. Francesca Woodman definitely hasn’t faded into the wallpaper.

Thank you for reading!

You are welcome to share any thoughts in the comment box below.

– Frances Livings

Buy your copy of Eating The Darkness here:

 

If you found joy or inspiration in this post  

 

You can also watch The Documentary The Woodmans here: