This article was part of FORUM+ vol. 26 no. 2, pp. 21-28
LUCA School of Arts, KU LEUVEN
The suitcase stands empty in the studio. The thousand letters once crammed into it have been sorted by date, logged, read, some typed up and others photographed. Muriel Leysen, the owner of the case and its contents, died in Johannesburg in the 1970s. The father of the artist has been guardian of the suitcase for over forty years. Following his death the artist brought the case to Belgium. Now, in January a new letter has arrived. This one is from Muriel.‘The Suitcase’ is a waystation in Wendy Morris’s ongoing investigation into the role that letters might play in an artistic research practice.
De koffer staat in de studio. Leeg. De duizenden brieven die er ooit in gepropt zaten, zijn intussen gesorteerd op datum, gelogd, gelezen, sommige uitgetypt en andere gefotografeerd. Muriel Leysen, de eigenares van de koffer én van zijn inhoud, stierf in de jaren 1970 in Johannesburg. De vader van de kunstenares had de koffer meer dan veertig jaar onder zijn hoede. Na zijn dood bracht de kunstenares de koffer naar België. Onlangs, in januari, kwam er een nieuwe brief toe. Eentje van Muriel. ‘De koffer’ is een tussenstation in Wendy Morris’ lopende studie rond de rol van brieven binnen een artistieke onderzoekspraktijk.
Muriel Leyson had been a surrogate mother to my father, stepping in to care for him at vulnerable moments in his life. As she and her two sisters became frail in their old age my father reciprocated and took care of them. When they died he kept the suitcase. During visits to South Africa I would open it up, smell its mustiness, extract and read a few letters, and long for a chance to uncover its potential of stories and ghostly lives. In 2017, after my father’s death I brought it to Belgium.
The question on my mind during an eight-month stretch of reading was of how to build further upon Muriel’s republic of letters. I had been musing, independently, over the creation of an avatar or persona through whom I could work anonymously, wanting at times to evade drawing attention to my own history as an artist. The idea was to make works, crafted but ‘unfinished’, that I could pass on to others with the suggestion that they might use the work as material, pass it on or pass it back. I would try to track the evolutions of the work.
This avatar or persona was always going to be called Muriel. It is the name of the owner of the letters, the second name of my grandmother who died soon after my father was born and who left an archive of her own, and the name of her sister who died as a child and left no trace other than a single photograph. As a name, Muriel has long been waiting for an assignment.
And then a specific idea appeared. The three Muriels would become MURIEL and she would be appointed as an emissary to the past. MURIEL would ‘return’ to published texts from any era, alter them by making small (feminine) revisions, and forward them to me as letters. The first of these is in The Suitcase.
The Suitcase is a waystation in Wendy Morris’s ongoing investigation into the role that letters might play in an artistic research practice. The investigation began in 2011 with a set of 52 letters that were written as the reflective component of a doctorate in the arts. These ‘Postings’1 were a search for a form of writing that could be analogous to an animated filmmaking practice. In the six years I worked on the doctorate I filled thirty notebooks, five studio journals and a set of diaries. I had no wish to re-shape that writing into a set of coherent arguments or the chapter structure of a dissertation. To communicate the reflections gained through the research period I was after a kind of writing that was not only about an artistic practice but that was also an integral, creative part of that practice. The formation of the publishable written work needed to be closer to the way the films were created: drawing by drawing. In the films the animated sequences accumulate and are ordered and reordered until they gel into a desired shape. The format of letters as thoughtpieces, each with a different but related subject, allowed for a similar kind of construction and accumulation.
Wendy Morris is a Belgium-based visual artist and animated filmmaker. Her work explores fictional, documentary and autobiographical genres and evokes speculative lenses through which we can investigate fragile histories. A South African artist, born in Namibia, the focus of her work has been on the two-way traffic between Europe and southern Africa. Morris has a doctorate in the arts from LUCA School of Arts and the University of Leuven (Belgium). She is a professor in contemporary arts at KU Leuven and teaches artistic research at LUCA in Brussels.
During her internship in 2018, Myrthe worked with together Wendy to sort, read, classify and photograph the letters in the briefcase. Myrthe is currently pursuing a master's degree in media art at KASK Ghent.
- Postings are the reflective components of Wendy Morris’ doctoral thesis: ‘Drawing on the Past: Implicit: Explicit: Complicit. Doctoral thesis KU Leuven and Luca School of Arts, 2013. ↩