Christina Roth & Tamsen Wojtanowski: One More Day: An Essay by Jennifer Zarro
Christina Roth & Tamsen Wojtanowski: One More Day
An Essay by Jennifer Zarro
I began writing this essay on December 21, 2012. As it was widely known, this was the last day of the Mayan Long Count calendar. The world didn’t end but a new b’ak’tun has begun. December 21st was also the day the NRA addressed the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting. Their proposal for a new era includes placing armed guards in schools to protect against armed intruders, an irresponsible suggestion that puts more people in the crossfire. In Margaret Atwood’s 2010 novel, The Year of the Flood, people hide their firearms after the reigning corporation CorpSeCorps outlaws private gun ownership in an attempt to hoard all power for themselves. The novel’s main character, Toby, walks through a terrifying portrait of a post-apocalyptic world in order to arrive at her former home to dig up the rifle she had buried there. In Atwood’s MaddAddam series of books, guns are a necessary part of life in an apocalypse. But what else would be important? If you could bring anything with you into a new era, apocalyptic or not, what would it be?
This is the question that Tamsen Wojtanowski and Christina Roth considered for the exhibition One More Day. Both artists explored the idea of life after a “soft-apocalypse” by making lists of items they’d need or would like to have with them in a new version of the world, one where life has been dramatically altered. The results of these lists represent both the practical and the intangible: ideas, a recorded history, love, partnerships, food and shelter. Tamsen presents the more theoretical and metaphorical considerations on this theme, while Christina explores the pragmatic. Through this collaboration, the artists present a well-rounded story about what life could be like in a new world.
The works of art in One More Day are deeply personal, a result of thinking hard about what’s important in this life. Tamsen’s process is an intuitive one, and although Atwood’s MaddAddam series inspired One More Day, it was not the sole starting point for this exhibition. Nor is the medium of photography, in which Tamsen is trained. Tamsen flips the traditional uses of the camera, noting that she prefers to “turn the camera the other way,” to use it as a tool for introspection rather than observation. A series of nine photographs, hung in grid formation, reveals these inner thoughts and shows a life-cycle of sorts, an allegory of significant stages and emotions all humans share.
The series begins with the self. In the initial picture, Untitled #2, a body appears before a small rectangular mirror, the left hand reaching forward to the mirror’s surface in a gesture which makes the real and the mirrored hands meet uninterrupted. It’s an image about discovery, meeting the self, learning about the body’s edges. The three initial photographs on the top row together share a theme of looking or mirroring the human body, or parts of a body that may be particularly desirable. We see a woman’s lips as the focal point in the slide viewer in the center image, followed by a photo of the cover of a science textbook and its mirrored image; it appears to be two profiles about to kiss. The second row of images focuses on the disappearance of the body, even death. A turtle’s vacant shell and a dead bird confirm that bodies are vulnerable and disappear. The dramatic tenebrism evident in her use of extreme lights and darks enhances this Romantic drama. At the bottom row, two contemplative voids appear at either end of the grid, centering a dramatically lit science textbook. These photographs consider the body and what science may teach us, but ultimately the series ends in voids and darkness, as seen in the final image titled “The Breeze.” Is this the end of the world that Tamsen and Christina have considered for this exhibition? What happens after darkness engulfs?
Tamsen stated that when she was editing these photographs she started making connections to life cycles in ways similar to Thomas Cole’s 1842 series, Voyage of Life, a series she’s been familiar with since childhood. Cole’s dramatic, allegorical paintings illustrate four life stages: Childhood, Youth, Manhood, Old Age. The young child in Childhood emerges from a dark cave to reach out to the lush, green world (the first image in Tamsen’s series shows a similar reaching out). In Youth he takes his boat by the rudder to steer himself on his river-path towards a ghostly beacon. Manhood illustrates the tumultuous course of middle-life (perhaps akin to Tamsen’s shed snake skin and empty turtle shell). The man in Old Age relies on his guiding angel, who has been with him throughout his life, to lead him toward the final heavenly reward. Cole, an artist who also explored an apocalypse in his famous series, The Course of Empire (1833-36), tells us that God’s heaven awaits us after the end of this life.
Thomas Cole’s 1842 series, Voyage of Life
But in One More Day, Tamsen and Christina show us that a heaven of our own making is possible, either in this life or in an imagined next one. In Tamsen’s mixed-media Shelter images, we see solitary structures floating against washes of color and pattern. These shelters become refuges in an unknown world, escape pods, love nests. Two pairs of legs are visible in each of the works. In Desert Tent, we can peer into a partial, silver structure and see that a hand is between the legs of one person. Desire, sex, and love remain intact in this vision for a new world.
Christina’s Seed prints are equally hopeful. In their own sheltered jars, plants grow; abundance and fecundity are evident in spite of an imagined world-ending. Dasher holds three layers of earth, articulated through different densities of stippled ink colors, supporting the life of two robust seedlings. Seed pots such as this are an ancient idea. Native American tribes such as the Hopi regularly used seed pots to save seeds and protect them from rodents between seasonal plantings. In most seed pots the opening at the top is small, allowing for greater control of the aridness and moisture in the jar and ensuring the longevity of the seeds. With these prints Christina may be making connections to time-tested, tribal ways of maintaining and protecting crops from season to season. The graphic quality of the prints confirms the clarity of this message: that life, growth, and sustenance will continue.
Christina notes, “We eventually decided that most of our work would be geared toward the concept of ‘the end of the world gets brighter,’ and focused on beginnings over endings, hence the name of the show, One More Day. Sharing all these thoughts and ideas were the best part of this collaborative project and have been the sole source of inspiration for my prints. The jars hold the fresh starts, the new beginnings, new ways of seeing the universe, colors and lands never seen, full of new maps and goals. They hold the seeds of change, if you will, growing a new reality, where you learn what and who to take with you along the way.”
While Christina’s works illustrate optimism about the practical requirements of life after an imagined end, Tamsen’s pieces maintain a contemplative side of human nature, leaving room for trials and longings. Together, the artists envision a brand new beginning that is hopeful, safe, and nourished.
Jennifer Zarro is an art historian and adjunct professor in Philadelphia. She received her
Master’s degree from Temple University and her Doctorate from Rutgers University, New Brunswick.