The Marriage is a Failure
The recent piece I made called “The Marriage is a Failure” brought home to me a number of elements of making that relate to the making of meaning. With such a small piece, so simple in form, how can I be meaning something? How can I be saying something meaningful? Well, in the making I was surprised. It means a lot. Not to me in particular, although I’m interested. To artistic expression. It means a lot with means in the sense of a verb. This small, simple form speaks very loudly. Perhaps only I can hear it? But I have asked one or two people to consider the piece and they have fed back so much information from it – which was exactly what I meant, what the piece means… So seemingly this mini form speaks a language of art. Again I am surprised because, prior to making sculpture, I had no idea I spoke the language of art in any way others could hear or understand. That was a kind of loneliness. What helps in this “modern” conversation, and also matters – apart from the making and display- is explaining. That was not something I did before. About time to start…
Something to note is that this little piece of olive wood, formed by carving and sanding into what it is, sitting on its rough alabaster plinth, is certainly networked: “when sculpture is set in place, it activates the specific area it occupies, as a set of relations, affects and discourses, like a concrete hyperlink” (Hogan, 2015).
My intention was, is, to say something about marriage. I find the relative silence in society about marriage as a taken for granted institution which many, many people enter into, a sinister silence. I think we should chat a lot more about it than we do. I wanted to say something about this act, this state, this kind of existence of marriage and being married which had some capacity to jolt people out of the taken for granted. My belief is that marriage is a huge deal. To combine oneself with another human being is delivered to our consciousness by generalized rhetoric, as a great and wonderful act. I do not dispute the great part. I am pretty sure I don’t dispute the wonder part. It’s a significant and momentous act to enter into marriage with someone. It certainly makes you wonder in many ways. But it is also difficult, challenging, complicated and then some. It is not all a “bed of roses” and requires tremendous personal resources to make it something worthwhile; to make it work. The first discovery I made in coming to produce this piece about a marriage that is a failure was about size in sculpture.
Is important. In the case of this work, speaking about something so huge, omnipresent, that this piece is 1 inch squared, is important. Deliberately small. Given marriages are rarely examined either within the couple in any thorough or convincing way, and certainly are obscure to view to outsiders, with only very rare examinations of a couple married made in the public sphere, this piece is not big. You cannot easily see its surface contours, its characteristics, its secret minuscule nooks, flaws, errors, debits. Nor is it easy to appreciate the piece for its successes which in this case we can put down to the beauty of olive wood. You have to look hard, long, with patience and even then little information may offer itself up, because it is so small. In the making of it I came to have intimate knowledge of its curves because I was deciding on the exact shape it would take – when and how to carve or sand or stop carving or sanding. In making such decisions I came to know the piece in a deep way. Believe me, it has many secrets, many unknowns that you will never know. It is also resolutely small, stubbornly unyielding to your gaze because you cannot ever size it up to a bigger scale. It will not bend to your will. You will have to take it as you find it and you will not find much to go on. It must be accepted at face value. Just like our view of others’ marriages. We will never know. Only a marriage therapist or a family member or a best friend will ever know something more than we will. Because people do not speak about marriages in any particularly open way. It’s locked in. This piece is locked in. It will not give you any information you do not glean from its outer surface. The size says this, does this, affects this outcome.
The size is also, at the same time, a statement on how little attention we give. How belittled the institution of marriage is to the importance of examination. We take it for granted, assume all is well. It is rarely all well. People find and reach happy enough settlements, if they are lucky. Many people divorce because they fail to achieve even this. Some marriages work and indeed some beautifully but this piece is about the many, many marriages which are not a good match or combination of humans and the tragedy that difficult combining (which often includes the care and emotional health of children) rarely gets help. No one bothers to care. No one dares care. People would seemingly often rather divorce than care to discuss the issues, which are too often not their fault but down to pure incompatibility. I’m sure if society were more open and helpful about marriage, many marriages would survive and survive well enough for it to be a fruitful, valuable pairing in the long term. The piece is small because marriages and people in marriages as married people are too often neglected in that area of deserving help in reaching a settlement to live with and by. In this sense the small size is a political protest. A comment on social mores, with which I disagree. I would compare it to my sense that the Samaritans do great work of listening to desperate, sad and suicidal people in a society which stigmatizes such feelings. Such feelings are taboo. Yet so many people at times feel desperate sad and suicidal. Yet, apart from calling the Samaritans (a charity – not government funded -note the lack of support from the social…) in the dark of night (other times too allowed!) little ready support is within the wider and open social fabric for these feelings. They are seen as dirty, unnecessary, a failure. To be hidden in anonymity over a phone line or in talking with (very kind) strangers.
Marriage is not quite like calling the Samaritans. Helping, healing and being kind to people for being in a marriage is not just a taboo. It’s not even a thing. People in prison or hospital or a school are all there, in those institutions, often without choice. For this we feel pity for them. It is of course mixed with other feelings, but nevertheless the lack of freedom due to circumstances of actions, health or age elicits ideas of pity. Being in the institution of a marriage was entered into (most often) willingly and through a pearly gate of celebration. Choose your poison wisely! So, no pity then. Only an expectation that married people will make a success of it. If not just for the children. The obligation is huge. It is also, given the tendency of incompatibilities between people to raise their natural head, somewhat of a fantasy ask. Like I said above, there is work involved in making it work and that takes two. Hence another issue: what if one party does no work and takes the marriage for granted as a given state that ought to be good and therefore is good? For one. Again size plays its part in the piece. The voice of the dissenting party is unheard. It is little and cannot be heard in the context of the louder voice which says “shut up”, “don’t want to know”, “all is well because I say so”, “there is no problem or problems, and we will just carry on”. This kind of situation in marriages is common. We see it in films, we see it next door, we see it in our parents or their parents or ourselves. Again size plays its part: is any of this important at all, if no one is getting hurt, as such? What is the part, if any, that matters? Perhaps the best thing is that the issue should be small or made as small as possible. At what point does the solid – see below – marriage without obvious or big problems deserve attention? Is this not just stirring things up?
Small as the piece is, it has lots to say.
Perhaps the loudest thing it has to say is that marriage is not small compared to other issues which receive huge attention such as capitalism, covid, war, technology, climate change (this one trumps all others – we are going to fry, sorry but watch out for the trees turning on us in about 30 years…), politics, corruption, romance, birth…etc.
It states this urgent and necessary need for attention, voice, place in the open, by being small. Size as politics.
The piece is made of olive wood. This wood is stubborn to carve and if the wood piece is sound -not rotten or flawed in any way – then it is very solid as a substance. Olive wood has a strange grainlessness compared to other woods which show their grain clearly. This makes it a substance appearing to be without air or space between fibers. This solidity is both a benefit but also a characteristic that is a difficulty in certain circumstances. I have so far (over the course of one week of working on this piece and another – see “The Marriage is a Success” as the follow up piece) broken two expensive electronic sanders on olive wood, catching them on the edge. One quality sander suddenly snapped in two, mercilessly, because the wood had no desire to bend. The other stopped working because it burnt out trying to sand in an area that blocked it in. Just gave up and died. This wood does not give. It is not flexible. A beautiful quality but also a challenge. And if a marriage is solid? How does it cope with times of tragedy, challenge, questioning? One might think it would bend. One might hope so. But the institution of marriage is connected to the mores and rules of the church (or other religious center) very often. Does the Church bend? Does the Holy book listen to humans or is it the other way around? A solid marriage then can be called into question. It can be so solid it is a failure as a combination of people who cannot bend like a reed in the wind, as required for health and happiness in difficult times. Which then leads us to question marriage as institution for the holding together of people. Tight. Too tight? Discuss.
The slightly inwards curves – but hardly at all – are speaking of an immovable mountain. Or limited communication. Or the lack of need, after years of trying, for further words to address the sedimented issues which have disappeared from urgent revision whilst remaining beneath the surface. But there are also two inwards curves and they are roughly complimentary in form, mirroring each other, which suggests the couple have each turned inwards into the marriage as settled state, not outwards towards conciliation or advance. I personally consider all marriages might benefit from internal auditing and reviews: “meetings” just on the topic of being married. The piece as about a failed marriage showed there has been an implosion. I see this as a common and possibly necessary feature of couples who are in a marriage which is not exactly working but which needs to continue for practical reasons or will continue for lack of a good enough reason to cease it.
This piece is, despite the title, surprisingly complimentary of a marriage. In the face of its littleness and its title, the piece nevertheless holds its own. You cannot subtract or add to it because it is not really worth doing so. That would require energy which no-one has. Perhaps marriage then, as institution, serves its purpose. For the support of two people but also of children in the care of the couple. Perhaps it may be failed as marriages go -whatever that means and it does not mean much except if people seek to care – but nevertheless ignores this because the forces outside itself desire it to fail. So it fails deliberately? To spite potent forces of fashion or drives to rebel and break out (for instance sexual freedoms a la mode such as polyamory which redefine the modern marriage concept) and maintain its stance: we are married, so bugger off! Who are we to say what is meant. The issue is so private. So unknown. Those two talk together (perhaps) on the inside of something others know little about: their marriage.
Some art theorists discuss the installation of large scale public sculptures as emphasizing social success and consolidating (or attempting to) the idea that all is well, especially at times of most social doubt and fear (see Wells, 2013, p. 21) and as a sign of a “society building its own reassurance” (ibid, p. 22). This piece, small and intimate, is ironically about exactly the same thing – fear, doubt, desire for reassurance which will not be saved or salved by a sculpture – but due to the private, personal, small nature of the issues of two people compared to that of millions of people, it is not large or imposing but is quiet, humble, unassuming and does not impose itself with size or appearance, which is ironic. Given how much a marriage means to people in it.
The title is also ironic. It seems to be so straightforward: The marriage is a failure. Yet no crowbar and no gestapo will ever discover what it really means. Not even the couple in the so called failed marriage really know much. Perhaps this mystery is a gift. In the face of the bald statement that the attempt at couple-dom has met with “failure” the very definition of failure is missing. Hence a strange little piece of mysterious intent with its ridiculous size and shape, pretending to be sculpture, posing as sculpture, demanding to be considered as sculpture and not backing down. Ever. Go figure.
“Only exaggeration per se today can be the medium of truth” said Adorno (1959, p. 99). As such this piece resolutely refutes this maxim. Truth then is sought by being the opposite of exaggeration or perhaps small is the new large. The personal is political and the political personal.
Adorno, Theodor, W. (1959). The Meaning of working through the past. In Critical models: Interventions and catchwords (p. 89-103). New York: Columbia University Press.
Hogan, Sinead (2015) What is Sculpture? Imma Magazine. Retrieved 18/01/21 from https://imma.ie/magazine/what-is-sculpture/
Wells, Rachel (2016). Scale in Contemporary Sculpture: Enlargement, Miniaturisation and the Life-size. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.