Sometimes late at night I make believe I am sleeping next to someone so I don’t feel so alone.
A meandering row of worn, travel-marked suitcases tracks its way along the wall of the Yukon Arts Centre’s Community Gallery. Above them, personal statements, typed on cream-coloured paper, form a gentle arc that belies some of their incendiary contents. Because of her, I can’t stand the sight of redheads.
These are not excerpts from Jessica Vellenga’s personal emails or journals.Emotional Baggage is an explosion of anonymous comments.
Instead of creating a portrait of one person’s biography, Vellenga wanted the exhibition to be “a community voice, about commonalities between people.”
Vellenga put out a call on her art blog to ask for anonymous submissions of confessions, emotional baggage, anything people wanted to get off their chests. Some of her own baggage is mixed in.
The wavering lineup of suitcases looks like a bit like a train station. More like a train or bus station than an airport, because the suitcases are vintage.
Why not use new gear? Our memories are battered and well-used, as we are.
“We travel around the world showing signs of wear, and the comments people share are also ways of us showing our wear,” Vellenga reflects.
“I’m hoping people will find it a relief both to contribute to the show and to experience it.”
An earlier version of Emotional Baggage was invented in the context of a travelling show Vellenga co-curated with Douglas Drake, now also a Whitehorse-based artist and designer, in 2007.
This Hamilton, Ontario project saw seven artists create work that could be shown in the “alternative gallery space” of individual suitcases. The art-luggage toured Hamilton from April to May that year under the name No Fixed Address. Vellenga’s suitcase displayed confessions submitted anonymously, written onto blank luggage tags.
At the YAC, Emotional Baggage expands and reaches out across the walls, hovering over a group of suitcases instead of just one.
Many of the confessions, so far, revolve around messed-up love, feeling lost in life, being damaged, or losing someone. The white wall provides a lightness and spaciousness for the sometimes heavy, sometimes poignant, thoughts to occupy.
Occasionally entries are long, with lucid paragraphs that stop your heart, like the ones that follow this sad sentence: Molested in grade school for three years and never telling anybody until I was fifteen.
The strangeness of confessing anonymously to a general public – equally anonymous – strikes home with the more weighty stories like this one.
Did Vellenga edit the words people sent?
“No, these are unedited so that viewers will have an authentic experience of what people wrote. It’s meant to be raw,” she says. The few that have swear words are higher up, above kids’ line of sight.
Vellenga can’t tell where most of the entries came from, or whether they’re mostly men or women, young or old, since the majority are submitted anonymously.
Currently there are about 45 statements on the wall. During the exhibition, people are invited to come in and write their own, which Vellenga will then add to the wall.
“I hope it’s a cathartic experience for people to write their thoughts out, to check their baggage and leave it here,” Vellenga says, thoughtfully.
Vellenga’s earlier art work includes an exhibition called Secrets at McMaster’s University, where she earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts. She moved here in 2008 for a job, and like many Yukoners, hasn’t found a reason to leave.
Artistically, her shift from making space for secrets – which people keep in special places, either psychologically or physically – to making space for “left luggage” – which people don’t really want to pick up again – is intriguing.
Is she making work that gives participants the exhibitionist pleasure of the confession, or the relief of unburdening?
The art balances between the two options, refusing to answer the question. Which makes it more alive for the rest of us.
Vellenga mentions being influenced by second-wave feminist art in the 1970s, which pointed out that a person’s individual experience is worthy of being the material for a creative act, or even being considered a creative act on its own.
Unexploited possibilities tear around the room, unignorable as the maniacal children of guilt-invited guests.
The artistic possibilities of Emotional Baggage will be at the Community Gallery to experience, and add to, until January 28.
Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.