Marie Shannon, The Rat in the Lounge, 1985, gelatin silver print, 18 1⁄8 × 33 7⁄8".

Marie Shannon, The Rat in the Lounge, 1985, gelatin silver print, 18 1⁄8 × 33 7⁄8".

Marie Shannon

Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

There is nothing unique or original in the idea that our families, and the spaces we share with them, turn us into who we are. And yet contemporary writers from Karl Ove Knausgaard to Maggie Nelson have highlighted that, within this ubiquitous truth, mysteries and revelations can still lurk. The New Zealand artist Marie Shannon has been making similar self-exposures and confessions, with a literary bent, for more than thirty years. Organized by Dunedin Public Art Gallery in New Zealand and subsequently shown in Wellington and Christchurch, the survey “Rooms found only in the home” showed how Shannon, time and again, transformed the nuclear specificities of her life with the late artist Julian Dashper, their son, and the family cat into a kooky, fairy-tale exploration of how we are shaped by “home.”

One of Shannon’s best-known early works, The Rat in the Lounge, 1985, set the show’s domestic agenda while providing clues as to where much of her subsequent work would head. In a panoramic photograph sutured together from several images, Shannon sits alone in her living room wearing a cardboard rat mask, hands clasped in her lap. The work is based on a real event: Shannon was waiting for a friend to pick her up for a costume party, which turned out not to be a costume party at all. Shannon casts herself simultaneously as intruder—the rat no one wants at their party—and the cause of her own embarrassment. This TMI approach later found expression in works that gave accounts of her own dreams; she would write the narrative on 4 × 5" negatives and process them into prints. In Peter Peryer Diptych, 1995, Shannon recounts two dreams she had about the older New Zealand photographer (who passed away last November) named in the title: In the first, a classic anxiety nightmare, she is looking after Peryer’s bright yellow yacht (he didn’t own one) as it rolls, does a full 360, and reemerges from the water; in the second she has to take a photograph for Peryer while he’s standing next to her. Dashper’s dreams were fair game, too: In Julian’s Nightmare, 1995, she describes a dream of his in which she ate a hot dog while wearing his new Christian Dior polo, spilling mustard down its spotless front. Their son, Leo, had occasional cameos as well. Sorry for Being Grumpy, 2005, is a photograph of a child’s handwritten note: I LOVE YOU, it reads, & SORRY FOR BEING GRUMPY—a heart-fluttering picture of a young boy’s mortification at upsetting his parents.

After Dashper died in 2009, Shannon made several video works about their lives together. The Aachen Faxes, 2012, reproduces passages from messages he sent home while on a 1995 residency in Germany. He loves and misses her, and tells her time is passing slowly. But home-front realities rear up again: HAVE YOU TAKEN UP THE HALLWAY CARPET YET? he asks. In What I’m Looking At, 2011—the title playing on What I am reading at the moment, a 1993 work by Dashper featuring every issue of Artforum published thus far, stacked next to a worn reading chair—Shannon describes (in a deadpan voice as the script rolls in bland Adobe Caslon Pro) the act of cataloguing his studio: simultaneously a Conceptual art list (Dashper is referred to as simply “the artist”), an accounting of a life, and a painful portrayal of the sheer weight of stuff that gets left behind when someone dies. This elegiac symbiosis between Shannon as she is now and Dashper’s memory could so easily tip into “artist’s wife” territory or sentimental mourning. But instead, “Rooms found only in the home” highlighted the emotional acuity at the heart of Shannon’s work: that a shared domestic setting was filled with art not just because two artists lived there, but because at home they became each other’s subjects and objects—constantly bumping into each other in the spaces, both inside and outside their own heads, where they gave each other form.