Australian Video Art Archive

Catherine E. Bell


Felt is the Past Tense of Feel

00:52:12 (Two videos: static footage and close up footage) 2006

People say you are so lucky you got the chance to see your Father before he died. Am I?
I think this statement is supposed to make me feel better but I would have felt luckier if I saw him die quicker.

The stage becomes an arena for enacting the death of my father. This performance involves submerging the self into a liminal zone, like the theatre where it was performed; it is a space that allows the individual to perform a cathartic act or role play, before returning to quotidian life. There is no audience for this private ritual just the semi-circular glow that illuminates the performance captured on video. This light is representative of the family’s presence at my Father’s bedside. Huddling around him we became witnesses to a surreal and distressing disappearing act, the moment his life left his body.

Once the loved one passes, the haste and necessity of the funerary ritual focuses energy away from private grief to preparation of the public spectacle. Formal decisions must be made from announcements in the paper, to what my father would be buried in, to how many sandwiches must be catered for at the wake. This process is akin to producing an amateur theatrical event but the challenge for the family becomes the suppression of emotion in order to deliver this event with dignity and composure in the face of the congregation.
This performance explores the idea of repressed emotion and why we are conditioned to “suck it up” and not wail it out. The methodical and controlled action of sucking the squid belies the hysterical skirmish traced on the stage. It is this psychological struggle that I wanted to capture, the tension between the mind replaying the traumatic scenario and the point at which we decide to resist or purge the emotion.

A formal suit of my father has been covered in pink felt, a material that Joseph Beuys used to signify healing, insulation and protection however this costume becomes the repository for the emotions I felt. The performance recreates the traumatic memories of my Father’s bodily deterioration, his legs seeping salty liquid, his body attached to plastic tubes that draped from him like tentacles, the nurses probing him with sharp suckers to relinquish phlegm from his throat, his tortured gasps for air, septic gurgling and laboured choking on his own bodily juices.

Violently sucking 40 squid to relinquish the hidden ink and spitting that ink onto the felt covered formal suit owned by my dead father constitutes an act of erasure. This erasure becomes my desperate wish for him to die without further suffering and humiliation. The forced enactment of the squid’s instinctual defence mechanism of squirting ink when vulnerable or threatened is a also metaphor for my desire to escape the sympathetic gaze of others or from my Father’s perspective, the devastated faces of his family.
- Catherine Bell

DVD available.