Sunday, August 16, 2015


My husband died last December. One moment he was there, visible - the next he was invisible. I know there is an after life, and so to me he isn't gone forever. It's just metamorphosis, a change of shape and plane of existence, though of course a very dramatic change from the point of view of human experience. Being the one who is left behind is no doubt the worst, since we are the ones who are left blind and deprived of insight, generally unable to see the bigger picture because we can't remember the truth about life and the life that lies beyond death.

There were in fact many clues that Martin was subconsciously aware of approaching his time, and there have been possible messages to me from the beyond. It was maybe also not so surprising that I found an unfinished video work that portrays him "behind a screen". He had been scanning his own face and metamorphosing them into moving images (six months prior to his death). When he died, the changing slide show on my smartphone also got stuck on an everyday photo of him in a mirror - behind a screen, in other words. Like saying, I'm still with you. Though maybe not all the time or in ways that you would expect, because you also need to get on with your life and have to be able to let go. You have your own karmic bitch to deal with... the stuff you signed up for, if only you'd be able to remember.

I was in fact signed up for two solo exhibitions here in Powys this year. Martin's death was unexpected and left a whole lot of trouble for me to deal with. His junk, both metaphorical and real, was something I had to plough through at a steady pace in spite of being very ill myself. Here's the deal: I have to deal with more than anyone should ever have to deal with. But how can you say that about yourself without sounding ridiculous? I have given up on trying to explain it to people who don't listen. While learning how to pay bills, dealing with foreign bureaucracy and packing up and selling our house, I had to try and deal with my and my mother's health issues and do my utmost to revert the damage. Because if you're gonna survive, you might as well try and survive in the best possible way. Theoretically, at least. My mom was diagnosed with cancer on the day before Martin passed away. My cat was also diagnosed with cancer some time later though he's not in a terrible hurry to leave. But really that's just the surface. I have given up on trying to explain that the grief was the easy part. People don't listen, people don't want to know. Most people turn their backs on the one who grieves. Being so totally abandoned and struggling to survive in the physical world is the worst part, but for some reason also the hardest for other people to grasp. Grief is just an emotion, and a very natural one at that. The rest is not natural in the slightest. The rest is what reduces you to almost nothing at all.

Perhaps one day I will understand why helping those who are needy is so scary for a lot of people.

Anyhow, I wasn't in a good place to try and do exhibitions, especially as it is so physically demanding and I had little help. I did it anyway (though laboriously, I may add). It just seemed such a shame to let the opportunities pass. After all, who can resist one more line on their CV? (I am only joking). I guess I felt there was something to be expressed in terms of the different points of view that Martin and I seemed to have had on invisibility, and I also felt I wanted to honour Martin by showing his video work as a posthumous collaboration. Strangely, he seemed to have left the piece for me to finish off, so the sound track I came up with was very much coloured by his passing and no doubt a heck of a lot more dramatic than anything he would have made himself. I felt that Radnorshire Museum, where he had a solo exhibition once and was going to have another one, was a very suitable venue for this purpose. So I went ahead and put together the exhibition "Visible/Invisible".  It's about the transience of life as seen from both my and Martin's perspective, but is of course also about death.

The main point is - of all the senses (along with other faculties we may possess), people tend to rely on the sense of sight the most. Moreover, the average person tends to only believe what he or she can see with his or her own eyes - with the exception of some matters of faith that have often been handed down over generations. Yet it seems to me that people usually don't really know how to look. What people think they see is usually filtered by their own conditioning. Learning how to see beyond the obvious and peek behind the screen should be as important as learning how to write, but we don't live in a very visionary society.

The show features "I Got Life" by myself, and "A Life Unremarked" by Martin with a sound track I made last winter a couple of months after his death. In addition, there is one oil painting by Martin and some of my most recent collages (no doubt the last ones I'll ever make). Apparently the private view of my exhibition, which features the Hiroshima bomb, was incidentally on the 70 year Hiroshima remembrance day  The exhibition is on until 12th September in Llandrindod Wells and the feedback so far has been generous and encouraging. Now let me retreat to my exercise in physical survival. Art is a luxury item that I cannot really afford at the moment. 


This exhibition draws together two separate projects, work from Project X by Vivi-Mari Carpelan and work from A Life Unremarked by her late husband Martin Herbert (1957-2014), who passed away unexpectedly in December 2014. Both speak of the threatened dissolution of the authentic self in the face of anti-individualist trends, and the fear of being engulfed in the dark abyss of the shadowy side of the collective consciousness. Both projects lament present day social demands to conform to a rather specific model of the well adapted and hard working human being who contributes to society in strict accordance with expectations laid out from the higher levels of the social hierarchy. Though starting out from different premises, the two projects converge into the same fundamental fear of being invisible.

A Life Unremarked from Vivi-Mari Carpelan on Vimeo.

FROM THE EXHIBITION (and no, I wasn't really in mind frame to be writing arty farty stuff):


My husband artist Martin Herbert passed away very unexpectedly in December 2014. 

I discovered the unfinished video work A Life Unremarked (2014) after his death and decided to do a posthumous collaboration by adding an appropriate ending and a soundtrack.

In this project, which amounted to a video work made of numerous scans he made of his face, and an oil painting composed from the scans, Martin was exploring the idea that the skills of the generalist or polymath are no longer valued in our modern day society. Individuals are generally only well-regarded if they become experts in one field. On the other hand, people in today's world are also able to do extraordinary things and have adventures that only a select few could even have dreamt of in the past. Because of an inflation in personal feats, they do mostly tend to go unnoticed. Ironically, Martin's own life as a polymath ended prematurely and thus his desire to become acknowledged for his artistic work was cut short. The memory of him is thus rapidly disappearing into the mist of an anonymous past that appears even more transient in the context of the sudden and premature nature of his death.

Because of Martin's premature death and the nature of the music I came up with without any conscious attempt at matching it with the video work, the impact no doubt diverges from Martin's initial intentions. Because of technical difficulties, I was unable to see how it would all work until the final rendering of the complete video work, and was taken aback by how well it nonetheless seemed to fit. I find the final product rather uncanny as it evokes the idea that we may sometimes have premonitions about our own death (this is especially meaningful to myself in the context of other possible “clues” that I discovered, and the fact that the scans Martin made were physically produced “behind a screen”). The work also takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a prematurely ended life and its impact on those left behind.

Only after my husband’s death did I fully comprehend how much similarity there was between our artistic projects, even though we made no conscious effort to converge. I was working on another kind of invisibility, that of the disabled person. I called it Project X. Symbolically, X stands for many things, but generally it is an abstract sign that stands for a concrete phenomenon. In the context of this exhibition, X denotes an ailment that is unknown to the outside world - one that is invisible but also tends to make the sufferer gradually slip into invisibility due to the rejection of a society that finds it hard to accommodate for that which doesn’t fit a political agenda of health and normality.

In the film I Got Life (2014), war is presented as a fact as well as a metaphor for a stressful life that has undertones of constant warfare. In fact, warfare seems to define our life on Earth. A war mongering mentality pervades all of society and poisons every aspect of the human life experience. For many, there is nowhere to escape from the feeling of being targeted, chased, threatened and hunted down. The unconscious stress reactions that follow aren’t confined to the battle field or the besieged city, but arise everywhere and anywhere throughout our lives. 

The majority of illnesses are generated by stress, and over time, they are increasingly likely to become chronic. It isn’t just our immediate physical survival that is at stake, it’s also the body’s ability to sustain life in the long term. The mental and emotional repercussions are disastrous and the survival of the authentic self is eventually also at stake. For a great many people, life has become a traumatic struggle to manage the invisible forces that manipulate our bodies and mind, and the joy of being alive is gone. 

I Got Life is based on footage from World War I and World War II, as well as footage of myself as the civilian narrator. The circular shape is indicative of the feeling of being targeted. The black and white, and negative, effect highlights the sense of the fundamental dichotomies in life, as well as the starkness of the emotions. 

The film has been constructed around a sound collage I made called A Long Way to Heaven. It features machine sounds, radio sounds from the Cold War and other war related sounds. I performed the song “I Got Life” from the musical “Hair” from 1967, and added it to the track. It was sung on a day I felt quite ill and tired in the same tempo as the song in the 1979 film version. As it is fast and quite a tongue twister, it makes the performance sound shallow and panicky. Though the song's main function in my film is irony bordering on parody, it's also connected to the Vietnam war. At the time, the musical was a radical criticism of religion and warfare, and met with a lot of resistance until entering pop culture for good. By using this highly energised song about the good things in life in the context of stress and war I was hoping to further reinforce the sense of irony and how difficult it is for severely exhausted and ill people to feel that joy of having a body and being alive. Surely this should be everyone’s birthright?

I have dedicated a page on my website to Martin's art.