Am I in pieces?
“This was the hardest thing to internalize; that something permanent but invisible had happened.” The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
In Juliet Davis’ Pieces of Herself, the embodiment and construction of feminine identity as well as the relationship of the female self to public and private space is explored. This work of Elit operates through a drag-and-drop interface which allows readers to comb through different environments of the work for icons that can be “dragged” and “dropped” on the female, paper-doll-like motif adjacent to her environment. In this way, readers are able to see how a woman’s environment inscribes itself upon her. More, readers are able to explore how different contexts, such as home, community, and work, affect construction of identity and perception of the self. “Dropping” an icon on the paper doll triggers an audio clip that typically reveals something about how the space being explored imprints itself emotionally or physically on the woman. The icons themselves, paired with the nearly 400 pictures used to create this piece, seem to denote more than their mere connotation would suggest as well (i.e. blood drop icons in the shower room, diary entries and hidden keys in the bedroom, a fetus en-wombed by a church, a sex toy behind a discreet couch cushion etc.). The mere act of uncovering these icons seems reflective of the many layers of feminine identity and the further act of layering these icons atop the paper doll motif seems to suggest the multiplicity, the mutability, and precarious balancing of feminine embodiment. How each sound is layered atop another until there is a steady cacophony of steadily increasing headache-fuel seems to only further illustrate how jarring and overwhelming a task it is to be all these women–at once. Though seemingly simple in design, operation, and presentation of its ideas, Davis’ work is quite a compelling and profound exploration of the intricacies at work in constructing feminine identity as well as a frightening one in how accurately
and heartbreakingly it articulates how social and cultural contexts can be all-consuming.
Perhaps it is because of my own context–my gender identity, my age, my education–but I found this work to be particularly poignant. Especially as I combed through the unspecified, female narrator’s private spaces–their bedroom, their bathroom, their kitchen, their living room–I felt this growing lump in my throat, this increasing ache in my chest. The diary entry in the hamper–“In my dreams, I’m home but it’s not really home. And I don’t recognize the town but I know where everything is. So why do I keep running into things…”–reminded me of my own journal, sitting beside me as I write this post, and all of the secret parts of me inside its pages no one will ever know. The rain cloud in the bedroom reminded me of the nights no one will ever see. The narrator recalling how hard they tried to but never could quite recreate their own mother’s passed-down recipes–“In the kitchen, where she was forever looking for the right ingredients”—that hurt. It hurt me but also made me ache for all the girls and women I know who–secretly–try so hard to be half as good as their moms. Who are are always almost but never.
I wonder if my own mom aches like this too? The mask at the front door in the living room and the narrator’s recollection of the monetary worth of what they’re wearing–of who gave it to them— made me remember a time when I was showered with all the gifts babe’s money could buy. I remember finding out the return on that investment did not equal love. Maybe it never could have.
Who I became~
To me, this work, in its content, purpose, and design, is one of the most powerful and compelling pieces of Elit I’ve come across. There’s something so inherently moving about making an unseen, hidden process–such as social inscription; more, construction of feminine identity–visible. Maybe that’s the voyeur in me but I’d also argue that Davis is placing us purposefully in the role of voyeur. But, it’s like we’re spying on ourselves.
Is that really spying???? Questions of ownership of the self are raised in this piece and authenticity as a construct seems to be challenged here. Rather than constructing who we are from navigating our environments, Davis’ work seems to posit that our environments navigate us, that our navigation of our environments is decided long before the question can be posed. According to Davis’ work, we are not imprinting ourselves on our environments. No, our environments are imprinting upon us until we are, essentially, composed entirely of pieces of our environments. This work seems to ask readers to really consider the nature of feminine agency and autonomy in a culture that poses so many, often conflicting, restrictions upon women.
Maybe my reading of this work is singular, a response to the many interactions of my life that brought me to experiencing it. But, if anything, I believe Pieces of Herself is trying to communicate the significance of lived experience. Of all women’s lived experiences. Of my lived experience. I think that’s an incredibly profound message. More, I think it should not be as revolutionary as it is and yet….
How ’bout that Kavanaugh hearing, right??
Ultimately, Davis’ Pieces of Herself operates on many levels but, perhaps most importantly, it seems to read as almost autobiographic, allowing the reader to assume the unspecified narrator’s identity as they simultaneously engage in the process, navigation, and negotiation of constructing that identity. Davis achieves this level of engagement through the drag-and-drop interface of the work, the use of audio and commentary, and the visual/design aspects working in tandem in this piece to create an inviting and immersive experience. This work left me feeling overwhelmed and naked(?) as well as left me with many questions about the complex nature of the self and its complicated presentation and representations. How much of me is me? How much is what others want me to be? How do I tell the pieces apart? And, am I broken into pieces? Scattered?
Mostly, though, I was left wondering this:
Can I be a mosaic?
I actually wrote about this piece a while back, during my first Elit “rodeo”. I decided to read what I had previously written after I finished this post. Let me tell ya, it is wild. Like, reading something you wrote when you know you were an entirely different person than you are now is wild. Slightly cringe-worthy. Anyway, I figured I’d provide you with a link to that initial post
for your own entertainment. Also, I think it’s interesting, in the context of reading Pieces of Herself, to compare and contrast who I am and who I was in writing. It was fun revisiting her. I miss her, who I was. I wonder if she sees who I am now and wishes she could’ve done more.
So, this work reminded me of a couple songs I thought I’d share with the class~ I couldn’t help singing them in my head as I was reading this piece and so I thought I’d share that particular level of my experience as well….
~Till next time~