The Substance of Absence

I lost my father
during the pandemic:

COVID Haiku No. 1

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Rachel Whiteread’s House was a study in the presence of absence. In 1993, she made a cast inside a Victorian home. When the walls were removed what remained was its impenetrable concrete interior.

We’re studying Whiteread’s work in glassblowing class as we prepare for our final project: designing a site-specific installation that involves a series of mold-blown objects. Among other things, House is a way to think about negative space and what it means to occupy a place (real or imagined?) with something gigantically inaccessible, particularly something that resembles a home, a place of welcome, of family, of shelter.

The combination of gentrification and pandemic have made many such anti-dwellings in my city.

What do I make of that?

As a citizen I could say a lot.

But as a novice glass artist with a lot on her mind I’m haunted by House on a more personal level, and I’m turning to Uros Cvoro’s analysis of the work because it’s helping me think through something beyond (or maybe inextricably bound up with) my class project. Citing Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss’s book Formless, Cvoro says Whiteread’s casts are “stuck in a posture of referring to the spot where the real thing existed in all its particularity.” And, if I understand this correctly, such casts can be understood as traces of things that have become formless, showing that things that are gone aren’t really gone. Such things, formless things, have presence whether their forms are still visible or not.

Heather in Dad Hat

Today I held a photograph of myself as a toddler wearing my father’s hat. My father is absent–he might have been the person behind the camera. Within a couple years my parents would split and I’d see him only once or twice a year. A kindly but mostly absent, absentee sort of  father. For most of my childhood, his absence was the most palpable thing about our relationship. And now, according to my recent DNA results, it’s unlikely he was “really” my father. I see the photo, and the hat in the photo, as evidence of a relationship that existed with the man who probably believed he was my father, and the relationship it references has weight and presence; it has form. My mother also, within her currently accessible memories, would likely say he was my father. But her memories too are a kind of trace, a cast of a mind that has changed.

House refers to a home in a neighborhood where such homes–and in particular that home–used to be. My envelope of family photographs was a gift from my father’s sister a few years before she died, accompanied by handwritten notes about my earliest years–when we were all still in New York–and about my ancestry, so I’d know more about the people and places I was from.

There’s a photograph of her mother’s parents and friends in the 1800s posing before they emigrated from Fehmarn, an island off Germany in the Baltic Sea. For much of my life, when I would feel a lack of belonging with my father’s second family, or a sense of queerness or outsiderness just in general, I found kinship within the idea of Fehmarn. It somehow made sense that I came from a distant island–my need for big water and open sky and coastal prairie, my affinity with the glint-eyed adventurers on the windy hill, heading somewhere else.

I’ve nearly made peace with the loss of my father’s DNA. But I’m not ready to give up Fehmarn, a place I’ve never been. I am preoccupied with its gigantic inaccessibility.