A BABE IN THE WOODS
An innocent person with no experience who is involved in a complicated situation that they do not understand. The term originated in a popular ballad of 1595, ‘The children in the wood’, about two young orphans who are abandoned in a forest and die.
A book is a space and Giene Steenman composed this one as a forest. In that forest you run into curtains, empty rooms, textile fragments and –yes – trees. As a visitor in these woods, you feel lost, maybe lonely, yet not sad or desperate. You stumble upon animals, an old shed and other traces of human presence. A peek into the sky implies that this world is bigger than our earthound existence.
How to deal with loss, how to move on without that what is gone? With this book Steenman creates a space in which these questions linger. Fragments of text are offered as landmarks, as consolation. We are all babes in the woods. When you come out at the other end, you might feel slightly changed, enriched.
A babe in the woods is the outcome of a way of working, an attitude. Steenman has been archiving images and texts for years and puts them in folders with tags like: posing, settings, hiding, tables. Both archiving and outcomes seem to circle around the core of our existence: what does it mean to be human?
Edited by Giene Steenman
Typography Erik Wong
Translation Tim Mitchell
Thank you SanSan
On the very first page of Giene’s book there is a black dot. The full stop at the end of a sentence, as if the book has come to an end immediately. And in a certain sense that’s true; the book resonates with the longing for it to be easier to say goodbye. ‘You can’t throw something away just like that, however much I’d like to’, Giene tells me during our conversation.
That dot is the hope of leaving the past behind, the things, the feelings, the baggage. But the book still has to begin. A dot closes a sentence off and a new sentence usually follows it.
The book ends with an open dot; that dot contains everything, the cosmos, a grain of sand, a round shape that indicates that the process continues, the missing goes on, and the healing goes on. So that you think back to the black dot at the beginning, and so it circles onwards. Who has ever managed to close off a difficult period in their life?
Living with it is the most feasible option, I think.
In between those two dots, the book circles around absence, about how you can give shape to the emptiness: Many photos are out of focus or blurry, they are elusive and that is perhaps the essence of absence.
On one of the photos in the book I read the sentence: A depressed mother is often perceived as not present. Absent. ‘
A depressed mother remains elusive for her children. It’s all you know: this is your mother. At the same time, you miss the closeness, the cuddles, the wide-openarms when you come home from school. I just fill in the blanks. But you can’t experience something that is not there.
An absent mother means less tangible love. Mother is in bed. Absence. The child becomes a babe in the woods.
A babe in the woods. An innocent person with no experience who is involved in a complicated situation that they do not understand.
That sounds catastrophic; dark. Like a Swedish crime drama, misery surrounded by empty forests.
In between the closed and the open dot, I see a lot of empty forests, trees that fill the entire page and which mostly make me think about getting lost.
Countless curtains hanging in folds, with something hiding behind them, changing cubicles, a table for a dead body, a screen in a hospital, an improvised cordon.
You look through them, but never in focus, there’s no wall blocking the view, but the curtains take something away, conceal something from sight. Yet the possibility remains of sliding them open, pushing them away. Sometimes I see despair in a curtain, like that long rail from which a length of fabric hangs in front of a window, on the outside. It looks so disconsolate, or even disconcerting. Sometimes a corner peeks open as if the curtain has embarked on an interval. Like a dance. Something that lights up in the darkness.
In the documentary ‘Mothers don’t jump from blocks of flats’, there is also a transparent curtain hanging behind the psychiatrist and a hint of what’s outside can be glimpsed through the curtain: the trees, the bushes, the flowers. And in the sterile corridors of the clinic, transparent white curtains fall from the ceiling to the floor. Useless, but present.
A photo of a dead man. An almost dead man because a tear falls
Loss, but how and what? Mourning can be intense, unbearable, too great for a body. The loss can take over everything, but what if there are cracks in the memory too? This book is about missing, perhaps not missing in the fullest sense: it’s more about the difficult kind of loss.
Out of focus.
Absence, not being there.
A mother shrouded in a black cloth holds the baby who is to be photographed. This mother must be invisible as she shows the baby, but she is so obviously present, like a black ghost, a phantom.
A photo booth, that magic machine in which you couldtake a photo at stations for 2 euros. Two legs are visible, dangling. The stool is a bit too high. The curtain is tatty, frayed by use. Someone takes a photo for an ID: it’s a document that justifies your existence and you can take a photo for it yourself. A babe in the woods is sitting on the stool, an out of focus ‘who am I’?
Giene gathered all her mother’s scarves, almost a hundred of them, and had them dyed dark indigo, as the colour of mourning.
She knots the scarves together and together they become a thick bundle. It reminds me of the Korean bottari, a fabric bundle that is tied around food, gifts orobjects so you can carry them with you. It is associated with movement, both that of travellers and the enforced movement of refugees.
I see this book by Giene as a ritual, just as tying the scarves together is a ritual. The book is a dot on the line of Giene’s life. It continues onwards, always in motion.
I see rituals as a spiritual event, in the sense that it is never too late to heal, to reconnect with someone, even if that connection is rooted in absence. I recognise the absence in Giene’s book; I too had an absent mother.
The emptiness is so tangibly present in the book. What a beautiful ritual to draw that feeling out of your body and to give it a home in the book.
In this collection, Giene is trying to grasp the grief, but it slips away.
A babe in the woods.
Children can fall silent if their mother is depressed; their tears lie deep inside. They can become angry, rebellious, but those tears are still there.
Perhaps we can understand that mother.
‘Depression is the flaw in love’, writes Andrew Solomon in his book The Noonday Demon. ‘To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.’
Like two dots pursuing each other.
As I read his book, I understand the inky black darkness of depression. ‘Love forsakes us from time to time, and we forsake love’, says Solomon. That’s what depression is.
Poor mother in bed.
‘Everything passes away – suffering, pain, blood, hunger, pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes towards the stars? Why?’ (Quote from Mikhail Bulgakov)
Those stars are shining behind the curtains in Giene’s book.
Hanne Hagenaars / Book launch at San Serriffe/ Amsterdam 25 november 2023