There is something long-gone about Frances Melhop’s photographs. As an experimental portrait artist and former high fashion photographer, Melhop is used to working in a medium where comparisons to the real thing come first. No matter how many portraits we’ve seen, our brains want what they want, which is an image of a person that makes visual sense. Melhop has never offered this, and she doesn’t start with her latest work—a cyanotype series titled “Mourning Piece” from her now-postponed MFA thesis. Instead, we get traces—partial people who hover somewhere between memories and ghosts. Second selves we can project ourselves onto.
A full season into social distancing, projection has become my preferred form of self-preservation. After gorging myself on an all-consuming social media diet made up of the dumbest tweets ever written, @ebonyrussell Instagram posts, and footage from an actual national crisis that has the power to either change our country forever or turn us all into the worst kind of slacktivist—it hits me how far from over everything is. Living inside of a months-long quarantine inside of a years-long panic attack, I can’t summon the part of me that knows what to do. Late at night, I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and wonder if the space between my eyebrows is spreading, if my hair is turning red. My mother stares back at me. It’s almost me.
In late April, when Melhop begins to post daily images of “Mourning Piece” on Instagram, I have a moment of recognition. A picture that looks like a hazy hand feels like a self-portrait. Disjointed, faded, floating in space. Everyday for the next 35 days, a new ghostly cyanotype depicting a milky hand, foot, or face embroidered with thread pops up on my phone, fingers and toes reaching through a Prussian blue background and pressing up against an invisible barrier. A screen? A 6-foot bubble? The Other Side?
Meant to be loose representations of the 51 victims from last March’s mass shooting at two mosques in Melhop’s hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand, the actual body parts belong to the artist.
From Melhop’s artist statement:
In shock, I began printing myself, holding fleeting impressions on cotton fabric soaked in cyanotype chemistry, a solution containing; Potassium Ferricyanide, Ferric Ammonium Citrate and Potassium Dichromate. Each cyanotype represents 10-15 minutes of utter stillness and quiet. Holding a position so that the shadow and the contact points are registered through sunlight and darkness.
What appears to be a single moment of visitation—a memory or a spirit—is in fact a prolonged meditation in the sun, developed in isolation. A too-perfect metaphor for surviving whatever distinctly American circle of hell it is we’re living in.
Even Melhop’s virtual rollout mirrors the oversized, mediating presence that screens take up in our lives—adding an extra layer of separation between the viewer and the victims, the artist’s moment of utter stillness, and the experience of standing next to a large, soft textile. These gaps between the inciting event, artistic process, and resulting work leave us more alone, clutching our phones, numb to the shock of death but alive to the sense of loss that surrounds us like a blue void.
Seeing myself as a hand, a foot, my mother, is—in some ways—an act of estrangement that is both self-imposed and world-afflicted, conjured by “Mourning Piece” but not created by it.
Tomorrow will be the 24th anniversary of my mother’s death. It’s a number of years that is hard for me to believe because her absence has become such a presence that I often mistake it for something closer to a physical feature than a memory. Like her brown eyes, her wide feet, her freckles or the lump in her breast, the simulacra of my mother takes on different incarnations at different times. This morning, it is a cyanotype of pale, pressed fingertips on Instagram. On Wednesday, it was a picture of an evening primrose that my friend Heather texted me. It is the poem “Unconscious” by Ann Keniston. It is a photo of my mother, and—all the time—it is my own face.
When I call my little sister in the morning, she will remark about the likeness, as she always does. Three years younger than me, it is impossible to tell how many of her memories are reconstructed from pictures and stories. She only knew mom for nine years, a short period of time compared to the three decades she’s been mining my face for signs of someone she half-remembers. But I only half-remember, too. My relationship with my mother now has much less to do with who she was than who I am in the moments I think of her and the points of contact I choose to embroider into my being. She is still with me, in this way. Showing up in the mirror, reflecting my image through her features, defracting my experience through our memories.
I like scrolling through “Mourning Piece” on Instagram every day. Conceptually, the work is clever there, neat and tight like a snapshot. But what I really want is to stand next to the fabric when it is stitched together and hanging from the gallery ceiling in the fall—a quilt made of body parts that doubles as a protest flag. It will be messy instead of neat and tight, like my mother, and subject to gravity, like the flowers in Keniston’s poem:
Sometimes she sits with me
beside a hanging garden whose flowers,
because they are so heavy, bloom abundantly,
their weight enabling the blooming, then
greater heaviness and more blooming.