DOREEN UHLIG + JANET GRAU
Laura Park, 2001
I walked into the courtyard and found the gallery on my left. Saw Janet sewing, and for a few seconds felt that awkwardness of not knowing what to do, but she held out the words on the dress she was sewing so that I could see what she was writing. Ooh, I can't wait. But does it have to be a serious word? I don't think I can keep a straight face...or something similar, was what it ended up being after what seemed like hours-in reply to Doreen's sentence, which Janet was wearing on another dress at that moment.
After that, without a word, she made it clear that I was very welcome to read the other sentences that were stitched on the dress she was wearing. I laughed at some of the things she and Doreen had 'said' over the past five days: in bilingual, sewn exchanges, among other things, they'd been gossiping about the woman in the garden on the other side of the courtyard, the woman with curlers, who always hung her washing out and looked over at the action with great suspicion, and Janet had requested chocolate, no doubt out of sheer desperation during those long, long days.
They were in a long white room divided into two equal halves by a white curtain. In each half, a futon, a table and chair. On the table, a box with embroidery thread, a thimble, a little bowl with leftover threads, a small bar of chocolate, and water for Janet, tea for Doreen. It took an age for Janet to sew her sentence. [...]
They had no private sphere really, being on display for 5 days, which is why I was so hesitant about intruding further.
Not talking. Interesting how their not talking meant that I couldn't talk. It seemed incongruous when visitors spoke in their presence, breaking that spell of silence.
I tried to imagine how time must have passed. How slowly? It started raining, but I stayed in the garden. The longer I was there, the more I found to do. Doreen lay on the bed, displaying her messages, but not doing much else except looking at the spectators. [...]
I decided to leave at some point, thinking I ought to buy Janet chocolate, but outside in the street, I saw a man carrying 2 plates covered with silver foil. That's for the two of them, I thought, and went back in. I found I'd just missed Janet's new sentence being finished. She'd pegged the dress on a washing line, and it was pulleyed through to Doreen, who had taken off her dress, which later she would sew a reply on, whilst wearing the dress she'd just received via the washing line. They both sat down to eat. Janet ate most of her boiled fish and rice, but Doreen only picked at hers, which made me think she was saying something with this. I'm just not sure what. She looked as though she were suffering. [...] Then Doreen put on the dress that Janet had just forwarded to her, and began writing an answer to the comment she had just received. Have I got this right? A three-way messaging, like letters crossing in the post. It struck me how long it took to write a sentence; painfully slow-literally, when you saw the pinpricked fingerscompared to the speed of the high-tech morse code of SMS-ing.
Also interesting was the different cultural influence in the embroidery of the two women: Janet, from America, wrote her messages in neat, round, separate letters, Doreen, however, in elaborate, joined up and swirly letters: a sort of copperplate.
I wished I could come back in the evening to hear their first words after a hundred hours of silence. I wondered what these words would be, and whether or not they would come out in a nervous rush, as happens to me when I've spent a lot of time on my own. I thought about what you can do in a hundred hours, and how we're all in a rush to do so much, to fill our lives with experience, and yet, how this slowing down of everything was probably an equally valuable way of finding out what the purpose of time and life is to anything else. If not more so.
Grey orphan girl dresses filled with coloured words; the only link to each other, the only communication on the other side of a curtain, joined by a washing line. Two Jane Eyre's, cut off from the world, their only contact a box of embroidery silks and a needle. Sewing and waiting. My own thoughts ended up taking over, against the background of that sewing and waiting.
The gallery owner was a nice woman who told me that dark chocolate was the best as it soothed the nerves. Luckily I hadn't bought any: It'd have been the wrong sort.
A woman came along, in her fifties, I'd say. She was crying. Later, I discovered that she was Doreen's mum, and was upset to see her daughter so pale and incommunicado. She said she didn't know her daughter could embroider so beautifully.
Women at home, not going out and not seeing anyone for days. Not talking to any adult, having almost no contact with the outside world. These messages, painfully slow, being their only option. And then, the speed with which they are read. The time taken to think of an answer. The thoughts that go unrecorded; the ideas that are unspoken, but nevertheless caught up in that elaborate embroidering of words saying anything but what the two of them were thinking, because we think so much more than we say. For every spoken sentence, how much is floating round in the air, never captured, never channelled for another person's ears? After they'd started a sentence, did they wish they'd chosen another? Did they revise as they went along? I suppose that's harder in German, given the grammar.
They had nothing else to do in the time when they weren't writing. They simply had to wait and think, and observe and preoccupy themselves with-what? Meditating? What else? How heavily did time weigh on their hands when they weren't in possession of a dress to sew? Was the activity of the writing a burden by the end of the five days? Was it nicer to be waiting for the reply than writing, as it is with getting letters? [...]
Janet sent me an email a few days ago, telling me about her catalogue project, and how she was thinking of asking people who'd seen Devotion to maybe write a couple of sentences about it. I started thinking about how I'd crystallize what I'd seen and thought into one sentence. Didn't succeed, but it got me thinking about it all again. [...]
I remember thinking I should go home and do something similar, just to see what goes on inside you if you rid yourself of almost all encumbrances...and all pleasures. [...]
I was glad I'd gone alone, as I don't think I'd have felt free to stay so long if I'd been with someone else. If you stayed long enough, you began to slow down to the speed of the activity going on before you. At first, it was difficult, and the temptation was to leave after two minutes. You'd seen it all, a woman sewing one letter in a word of a sentence, another woman lying on a bed waiting for the finished sentence to come to her in one hour? Two hours? Depending on how long the sentence was going to be. [...]
This painful pricking-of-the-thumbs silence, listening to your thoughts, not the thoughts of others, not all those cheap, easy words that fill the ether, books, screens, ears. [...]
Computer words are so cheap and quick and dispensable. Press Delete and they're gone. Start a sewn word and you have to finish it (though you can stitch a line through it and begin again. I think Doreen had done that after half a line, but it's hours of work done for nothing). You measure your words more carefully in time and lengths of thread. They weigh heavily on your hands when they are produced with blood and backache.