And no one else
Paola Bernardelli at WILD TULIPS
with text commissioned from Dorothy Hunter (below)
Preview Friday 17th September 2021 | 6 – 9pm
Exhibition runs 18 / 09 / 21 – 09 / 10 / 21: Thursdays to Saturdays, 12 noon to 5pm
Image Credit: Paola Bernardelli, 2021.
There’s something externalising about an atmosphere resting on your body, making you the negative of everything. A quiet act of location. Perhaps not consciously felt, eased into in space and time, sightless, but something that becomes more pronounced in certain conditions.
Sifting of senses can be placed on hold when there’s no need to filter experience into language, and ambiguity can be. Once alone, the mind may not pre-empt as usual, with no audience to translate for or connect to. There’s some irony to that: external distinction can be realised from not having to exteriorise. The lack of another human body that enables the completeness of our own.
‘The body’ is not usually felt to be an object. But an object is always some kind of body, albeit fairly unacknowledged. Only on par, for now, in the ways the anthropocentrism of language—just for us!—can hold or bend to a common force to exist. A body of water is one example, which for the most part has its own skin.
Sometimes writing is taking some sub-lingual affect and stretching it out, running holes as you go. At the moment I’m sitting between mounds of unfamiliar paper in blue-lit solitude, listening to an old fridge hum and rain cascade from a broken pipe. All immediate things (passed and past, to you), with the associated clarity. I pull that along on semi-forgotten remnants of damp coolth, a staccatoed timeline, and a piecemeal-ing of events that may not have happened. Perhaps this draws something similar out of you: familiarity that lacks precision to a moment, making exact description impossible.
I don’t know whether the suspension would be evenly distributed. I don’t know if one could move it around like treaded water or if there would be a strict order of diffusion at play. “What happens at the edges?” is another idle question. I don’t think that far, can’t see that far, and don’t feel that far. I can’t draw those lines into a vanishing point of speculative aloneness. One doesn’t just arrive there, usually, in that moment.
In 1934 the explorer Richard E. Byrd travelled to the Antarctic to maintain a small weather base by himself. This was partially out of material necessity (machinery could not withstand such extreme temperatures, limiting transportation from the larger base), and partially from the curiosity and enticement of seven months of pure solitude.
In Byrd’s memoir of this time, titled “Alone”, he describes the heightening of his senses in the vision-cancelling weather conditions, and the mental supplementation that came in its place. With no other bodies around, relativity of scale ebbed from his understanding. Natural light phenomena, mirages, and hallucinations compounded in his powers of perception.
With phenomenal irregularities so expected in the experience of these alien surroundings, as well as the strain of such solitude on mental health, Byrd’s long poisoning by carbon monoxide went undetected for some time. Once this was discovered, his need to stay warm had to be balanced with the noxious atmosphere created by his faulty equipment. In this miserable seesawing, the solitude he craved became a torturous object in its own right: “when my voice stopped, the silence crowded in.”
Byrd’s turmoil is evidenced, and partially evoked, in the breaking quality of his diarisation in the book’s log entries. He explains the given situations with more lucidity (but also more distance) in the exegesis he wove through them four years later, for the purposes of their publication. This diachrony between the (fractured) clarity of immediate experience and retrospective contextualisation is a locus point of Byrd’s vulnerability: to the environment, the structural and coincidental forces that impacted his fate, and the long-term impact of his traumatic experience. The arrangement of disparate times and lingual structures contrasts the mortality and fallibility of humanity with the societal duty of (male) strength, valour, and selfless service to nationhood, and quantifies their breaking points in unique and rare (and thus more acceptable) circumstances.
With “Alone” as a thread through “And no one else”, we sit contrastingly in chronology, indisposed to time in a period of its stretching; its proximity too close, still, before it can be quantified any which way. The sublime of solitude is intact, distantly threatening, still beautiful. There is the back-of-the-head material limit of location in a pandemic, collectively shrinking spheres, which made them newly strange for a time.
With none of the anchors of personned space to make it recognisable, in any way hospitable, we are seeing through a space of experience, the actuality of life remaining quite formless. Through the lens of the depeopling inclination in Northern Irish photography (long sick of the false specifity of photojournalism), any sign of human architecture, apparatus, or even solid ground, is even further withheld, as is any enlightening quality. This is not abandonment, but our own grappling. There’s a body—bodies—there, pressing down as needed, yet the thought of such affirmative presence is almost upsetting. We were all alone. Did the knowledge of its universality change the texture of that solitude?
Humans demand illustration; meaning to cater to our capacity to understand, that can be explicated away as divine evidence if not. To not know, to not place, is a state of spatial dementia, allowing everywhere to become nowhere, to be nondescriptly sacred. In a similar vein, hindsight past trauma makes events feel fated. State-structured loneliness, for meteorology or virus containment, is something that lies like a memory, even whilst lived and keenly present. In times of extreme stress, the body streamlines its sensations, undoing that potential sensorial heightening once again. It just depends on one’s own threshold for being alone.
 This is not to disregard the wet-meet-wet of membranes in atmospheres like these.
Text by Dorothy Hunter
This project has been supported by Derry City and Strabane District Council Artist and Cultural Practitioner Award 2019/20 and Culture Night Funding 2021.