I am an identical twin. The two of us grew up blond and bubbly just outside of Montreal. We also grew up fiercely competitive and capable of sisterly aggression that involved a sharp left hook. Such is the nature of constant comparison and of being so much a part of one another that we yearned for a separateness we didn’t actually want.
Recently, my twin sister sent me a photograph of her latest tattoo, taken awkwardly rearward on her smartphone. The result was a profile of her mouth, the curve of her neck bent sideways, and the elongated mermaid scales of the Thai goddess Nang Nguek, sunning herself on my sister’s lats.
The image, when it arrived in my inbox, horrified me, not because I didn’t like the tattoo—it’s rather beautiful—but because I was shocked by the eerie and visceral recognition of my own shoulder, by the evocation of a smile on lips that are mine and not mine, by the effervescent reds and greens on “my” skin, by their permanence, by the pain, even, of their inscription. I felt it all in a split second through my computer screen. It was a shock of self-recognition experienced at the same moment I confronted my twin as forever, markedly “other.” I realized in that smartphone photograph that I’ve always found it hard to discern where my twin ends and I begin.
Upon entering Galerie Samuel Lallouz in Montreal for the vernissage of The Mute Book, a series of startling larger than life images by Toronto-based photographer and filmmaker Janieta Eyre, I was struck by the same contradiction: an agony of separation between self and other experienced at the same time as a pure joy of the join, in the tautness of binding, in the gorgeous pleasure of the seam—a buttressing that bolsters, uplifts, allows us to soar.
In the ongoing transmutation of subjectivity that Eyre’s mute (but not wordless) images project, I find a home, a sense of permissive flowering. Inspired by the 17th-century alchemical text Mutus Liber—a guidebook of sorts full of esoteric images presumably delineating the means of manufacturing the Philosopher’s Stone, The Mute Book unlocks its own secrets.
In a manner uncharacteristic of the artist’s recent work, doubles in this series are singular, but only in the most obvious way—each image (except where a dog or two budgies accompany) depicts one subject: the artist or her daughter. The doubling within each subject, however, underscores the liminal as a productive and generative space.
Indeed, Eyre’s splits, or rather her seams, emphasize influence and how it is we translate what we take in from the world around us, make it our own. Unexpectedly, however, the images also highlight the power of our subjectivity to imprint our surroundings. In Mute Book #6, for example, the lyrical text of the artist’s body dissolves alchemically into the hermetic, incantatory “language” of the wall behind her; the wall is inscribed with numeric and lettered patterns that evoke a rigidity her body defies. With her ear to the wall, she listens for the narrative her body then translates.
Indeed, in confronting the photographs in The Mute Book, it’s not just my identical twin who threatens the permeability of my skin and my consciousness, but a pantheon of artistic sorority—all the punky, hilarious, shit-disturbing and desperately vulnerable goddesses who have left their imprint on Eyre—and I fumble in the face of this layering. And then I realize there is release in fumbling.
Similarly, in Mute Book # 4, with her eyes covered and her headpiece consistent with the patterned and calendric backdrop, the artist decorates the chair she hangs over; she’s upright but limp, surrendering, as it were, to the freedom of invisibility. Yet the viewer is left wondering: Is the artist seeping into the background, or is the background becoming her? And here I am back at my twin sister’s tattoo, facing the ontological query, Where do I end, and where do the narratives we write for ourselves, the inscriptions of who we are and where we have come from, of who we have touched and who have touched us, built us up or torn us down, the tapestries—the camera, even—where does it all begin?
Eyre is never mute. In this show, she screams. This is not Alice going through the looking glass, but rather Alice smashing the looking glass and declaring “Non serviam!” She will not serve singularity, but is, instead, always ongoing and other.
Yet the photographs are haunting even when they celebrate the self as plentiful. I wrestle with this before each one, trying to put my finger on where that sensation comes from. It is not simply a matter of Eyre’s characteristic edge, but something else, something sinister but sad.
Then I see it: each segment of self seems to mourn its disappearance in the process of becoming. Every time the artist splices or collages, she excises a part of herself, and the ghosting of that entity remains in the gaps between her hands, the yearning of her eyes, the fold of fabric, hand-stitched at the body’s midline.
I have long been drawn to the narratives of Eyre’s work. They perform the unnerving stillness of the medium, captured and capturing, but they also swerve continually out of focus into the multidimensionality of who and what we are. Indeed, I come away from Eyre’s images with a brain exploding in associations, but always with a question: Who am I?