Reviewed by Sarah Williams
“There comes a time when you look into the mirror and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. And then you accept it. Or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking in mirrors.” –Tennessee Williams
A writer friend once commented on his annoyance with a misspelling of his name in print: “its one of the few things we have, our name.” As writers, as artists–most of whom are not going to garner great wealth from our work–in the end, our good names might be all we have. What does it mean to lay claim to your name? What does one’s name signify? Or, if you will…Who’s In A Name?
Artist Susan Silton’s book with this titular question documents her intervention of John Baldessari’s “YOUR NAME IN LIGHTS,” a project exhibited in 2011 at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Baldessari’s piece allowed participants to register their names on a website and were given a time when it would appear on the 100ft LED screen outside the museum with a 24/7 live stream on the project’s website for those not in Sydney. A new name popping up every 15 seconds.
With her intervention, Silton invited artist friends and colleagues to register their name as well as the name of an artist who had committed suicide–names culled from a Wikipedia site devoted to the archiving of public figures who had ended their own lives. In the book, coupled with plates of both the living and the dead artists’ names on the LED screen are 200 word bios, commissioned from writers in the community, for each of the participants as well as those who had committed suicide.
If Baldessari’s piece is a cheeky nod to Warhol’s prediction that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame, suggesting that in our our digital age, it’s been whittled down to a 15 second blip, what does the equalizing 200 word bio stand for in Silton’s book? Perhaps a morbid reminder that no matter how long your life lasts and no matter the way in which it ends, it will regularly (if you’re lucky to be written into history in this way) be whittled down to the 200 word bios that find their home at the end of a press releases. And while 15 minutes, or seconds for that matter, might seem prematurely halted, so does 200 words seem insufficient in telling the story behind the name.
My childhood friend’s dad committed suicide when we were eight years old. He was a dentist, or at least I think he was a dentist. At the time, I had somehow pieced together parents’ quiet murmurs and rumors–in the way kids do to make sense of aspects of the world adults aren’t being transparent about–that he had taken too much laughing gas and crashed his car. This made sense, because he was a dentist. I found out years later, in my 20s that he actually hung himself. Our Girl Scout troop went to the Sanrio store and bought our friend lots of little gifts: a stuffed Hello Kitty, gum, candy-shaped erasers, pencil toppers. How much Sanrio stuff helps ease the pain of your dad killing himself before you get to Middle School? At eight, you definitely aren’t equipped to understand the complicated set of circumstances that could bring someone to end their own life, perhaps even as adults, we can never fully understand someone else’s reasons.
Who’s In A Name?, provides some glimpses: “(Julia) Acker was driven to suicide by constant threats against her life and her culture,” or “(Georgette) Agutte to follow her husband, leaving a note hours after he died, ‘He left twelve hours ago. I’m late.’” Or “(Jack) Jackson who opted to end his life at his parent’s grave following a prostate cancer diagnosis,” and Leon Bonvin, who “beset with debts…A day after an art dealer refused to buy his work, the artist hanged himself in the forest of Meudon.” Some writers give us no lead as to how or why the person died, some perhaps as an editorial decision to say, that isn’t the important part, or perhaps because the information wasn’t available. Even when we do know how their end transpired, it’s still just snippets, neatly packaged, often romanticized in the way we have to accept these circumstances.
There is a lot of myth around the brooding artist or writer, the idea of the tortured creative soul. Individuals so emotional and wrapped with intensity that when they kill themselves, it seems natural. Those who are too sensitive, open, experiencing of this world and of their own feelings that the only way out is to silence those synapses. There’s myth around everyone. And these bios, all bios despite their factual ambitions,whether they are written down or not, are all a form of creating a story, what’s pieced together to help us make sense of another person.
In her essay in Silton’s’s book, art historian Liz Kotz writes: “A name is simply a node, a connection point among networks and discourses.” This book does a great job of making this point manifest. Put your own name down, pick someone else you connect with for some reason, craft a remembrance, get to know the person even in their death, a writer from the same community takes part in their historicization, positioning the dead in this network, creating another connection.
Having a fairly generic name, I never gave thought to it meaning much on it’s own. In any database, doctor’s office or university directory, there are likely at least a few other people named Sarah Williams. Who’s In A Name? poetically exemplifies how names, even generic ones, come to mean something through a network of associations, work, collaborations, friends, lovers. Maybe who we are is all that we’ll ever be, but who we are is perhaps most defined by what it means amongst the constellation of people we know, exist amongst, work with, love, and who will remember who’s in our name.
Susan Silton, Who’s In A Name?, (Self-published, 2013)
Images: Cover and interior of Who’s In A Name?