Experiencing Material Traces of Frances Mezzetti’s Between and Beyond (2008)

by Kate Antosik Parsons

Frances Mezzetti, Between and Beyond, Out of Site, Clontarf Promenade, November 2008.

A description of the performance from Open Spaces brochure published by Dublin City Council reads:

Frances Mezzetti – Between and Beyond. 2.30-3.30pm
Nestled in the trees along the beginning of the walkway the artist will create a portrait based on her interactions with the local nursing home.[1]

I was there that cold, rainy day on the 8th November 2008, where I witnessed several performances from Out of Site, the public outdoor exhibition of performance art curated by Michelle Browne. Out of Site included works by Amanda Coogan, Pauline Cummins, Gareth Kennedy, Alastair MacLennan and Dominic Thorpe, and others sited at different locations along the Clontarf Promenade and the walkway end of Bull Island. Intending to spend the day with the performances, I went first to the Bull Island performances before heading down the promenade, thus inadvertently missing some of the performances sited in the opposite direction. I was surprised when I later learned that one those performances, Frances Mezzetti’s Between and Beyond, was concerned with Rose Parsons (1930-2010), my partner’s elderly great-aunt who at that time was resident in the Clontarf Private Nursing Home.

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When I recently met with Mezzetti to discuss her art practice she gave me a bundle of materials relating to Between and Beyond. Included were preliminary sketches of Rose in her 30s and as an ageing woman in her twilight years, a family tree that aimed at understanding Rose’s place within a large family, and detailed notes relating the different journeys Rose made around Ireland and abroad. As part of the research process Mezzetti also recorded an oral history with Rose. From the material traces I learned that Rose had a sense of adventure, and as a member of the Legion of Mary in the 1960s, she travelled to Venezuela where she lived for three years. Mezzetti told me that the local people Rose met were puzzled that she did not have a child. When she explained she was unmarried, they told her that was not important in their culture and that even the local priest had children. I tried to imagine Rose’s shock upon hearing this.

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Mezzetti unfolded a large white translucent piece of fabric hemmed at both ends for me to view. I was reminded of a voile curtain panel, the kind often used to let light into a sitting room while still maintaining privacy. It bore a larger than life bust portrait drawn with a felt-tipped black marker of young Rose wearing a cross necklace, indicating the special place that spirituality held in her life. Grasping it in both hands, I held it high, gazing into the eyes of someone unknown to me but so incredibly familiar.

Mezzetti explained this fabric was suspended top and bottom by wire strung between two trees. She described the difficulty of constructing this hanging portrait, and the necessity of pressing the fabric up against a hard surface to provide the resistance enabling her to draw on it. I ran my hands over its surface, visualising the challenges this fabric posed for mark marking and imagined how Mezzetti’s hands touched where I touched. Evading my grasp, its silky texture slipped from between my fingers. Perhaps this material alluded to the elusiveness of memories, so real and yet distant. Mezzetti pointed to Rose’s hair where a faint trace of a word was still visible. In the course of the performance, she inscribed parts of Rose’s biography onto the fabric, and in turn, these composed the cohesive image.

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At home I performed gestures of my own as I held Mezzetti’s two sketches of Rose in my hands. I swivelled my head between them, old/young, old/young, repeating the action several times looking at each feature: eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth, chin. I did so in the hopes that these encounters with the documentation might enable me to identify shared resemblances between Mezzetti’s portraits of Rose and my children, one of whom nearly shares her birthday and exact name. Though I wasn’t in attendance at the live performance, I attempt to construct an understanding of it based on Mezzetti’s descriptions and the material traces of the performance I encountered, coupled with my recollection of the cold air on the seafront that day. Remarkably, Rose, at 79 years of age, was present that day to observe the performance. What was she thinking as she stood there on that windswept promenade watching an image of her youthful face unfold in front of her? Did it harken back to that exciting time when her travels took her overseas to faraway places? Did people watching the performance recognise the past and present faces of Rose?

When I showed some family members Mezzetti’s sketches and explain that Rose was present at the performance, they were fascinated. One recalled Rose returning from Venezuela and speaking only Spanish. Another remarked that Rose was a reserved person and marveled at the artist’s skill in establishing a trust with Rose. Recalling Mezzetti’s previous work as a nurse and midwife, I consider how her deep listening techniques and quiet confidence enable her to make meaningful connections with people. Examining the documentation and contemplating the performance eleven years after it took place, Between and Beyond raises several points of interest. I think of knowing about someone but not knowing them. I consider ideas about the meaning of individual memories in the context of wider familial histories and how performance art facilitates engagement with these histories. Though Rose’s life history does not belong to me or Mezzetti, the history attached to this specific performance finds new life in the present through our mutual engagement with it. When entrusting me with the performance documentation, Mezzetti extended her performance, enabling it to move between and beyond different layers of histories and their absences. In turn, this remembering and retelling of the performance suggested ways in which it is possible to enact new relationships to past performances.

[1]http://www.dublincity.ie/sites/default/files/content/RecreationandCulture/ArtsOffice/Programmes/Documents/OpenSpaces_Programme.pdf

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