House Letters: Absence and Presence

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House Letters

II: Absence and Presence


A note Since publishing the first issue in May 2020, House Letters has experienced an enormous growth. In June, I decided to post an open call for issue two. The response was overwhelming – I received nearly 180 submissions. 35 of these were selected, comprising 20 artists and 15 writers who responded to the theme of absence and presence. I feel extremely lucky to have connected with such brilliant contributors, based all over the world. The terms absence and presence have been used to describe essential states of ‘being’. Through reassessments by philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, however, these terms have gone beyond their once binary, hierarchical distinctions. Absence can now be seen as a form of presence, and vice versa, displacing the importance of absolute truths and focusing attention to forms of mediation, including images, representations and language [1]. The pieces that follow offer international, wide-ranging interpretations of these two terms, and the meanings, tensions and contradictions that arise from them. Several pieces reflect the tumultuous historical moment we have been living through: from the effects of absence of physical presence, to the confrontation with one’s own presence during lockdown, and the absence and presence of both certainty and uncertainty. In recent months, lockdown restrictions have been eased in some countries, while new coronavirus cases and death tolls are rising exponentially in others. Equally, both the pandemic and the explosion of conversations around racial justice have exposed social division on a global scale, raising urgent questions around visibility and invisibility. As the world moves towards a new normal, what do we want to see present? And what do we wish to leave behind? - Bethany Holmes, Editor


Contents 10 Harpswell Tides, by Caro Dranow Caro is a New England-based artist who paints landscapes and portraiture. She is inspired by her love of people and the environment, and considers her work to be part of the fourth wave ecofeminist movement. IG @caro_dranow

20 Remember These, by Lizzie Ballagher Lizzie’s first collection of poetry, for a UK charity, was published in April. Her work has been featured in magazines and webzines on either side of the Atlantic.

11 Orifice Moon, by Teddy McDonald Teddy is a poet and photographer from the Wirral, based in Forest Hill and working for the Society of Authors. His poetry questions heightened experiences, often through Gnosticism. IG @teddymcdonald93 12 En Masse: Epidemics, a Feature of Humankind, by Anja Rohner Anja is a writer from Germany, with a background in plant biology. 16 Be Touching, by Elizaveta Zalieva Elizaveta is an artist and illustrator from St. Petersburg, Russia. Her work considers subtle matters invisible to the eye, the beauty of details, the fleeting and the simple. IG @liza.zalieva


22 Paris5avril2020, by Pooya Abbasian Pooya is an Iranian artist based in Paris. Working with photography, video and drawing, he is interested in ambiguities and transitional states. Through material and technical experimentation, he seeks out poetic flaws. 24 Stillness, by Inês Miguel Oliveira Inês is a Portuguese artist, currently living and working in Guimarães. Her work deals with intimacy and the poetry of the mundane. IG @inesmoliv 26 Less is Moor, by Claudia Platzer Claudia is from Sydney, Australia. She utilises performance, paint and found objects to discuss ideas surrounding labour and existential thoughts. IG @clauud.e

30 When Death Isn’t Elsewhere, and Neither Are We, by Yizhuo Irina Li Yizhuo is a researcher and curator of contemporary art, in particular digital media and social practice. Yizhuo also directs the New York-based art organisation FRESCO Collective.

38 Flor de Placebo, by Manuel Delgado and Lara Crespo Manuel is a Spanish visual poet, currently based in Brussels. He aims to develop innovative modes of writing, with and as art, taking advantage of his studies in law, political science and philosophy. 32 IG Expansion, by Anna Mays Anna is an artist from Dublin, currently Lara is a Spanish photographer based in Brighton. Her practice looks and audio-visual artist. Her work at how the human body is perceived explores nature and the environmental in contemporary western society and impact of plastic products in our lives. technology, and the influence of medicine Pastel colours comprise Lara’s aesthetic. on this. IG @laracrespoph97 IG @nnamays 42 34 A Short Story From a Non-Writer, by The Local, by Martina Morger Manwah Siu Martina is a performance artist who also Manwah was born in Stockton-on-Tees works with multimedia. She reflects on and currently resides in London, where femininity as a device, and claiming space he continues to try to write. as a political body. 44 Orderly Refrigerator (Vanitas), by 35 Andrew Leventis Out of Reach, by Ally Zlatar Andrew is a painter of objects, Ally explores art making as a miniatures, collections, and still life. He methodology that suggests the human has a BFA in Painting from the American condition is more complex than it is Academy of Art in Chicago and an MFA understood to be. Currently, she is in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University pursuing her Doctorate of Creative of London. He is an Assistant Professor Arts at the University of Southern of Painting at the University of North Queensland. She has been involved in Carolina in Charlotte. many exhibition creations and her work has been shown globally. IG @andrewleventisstudio 45 Still Life, by Luis Elvira 36 Luis is a painter and writer born in I am Not Freda, by Rowenna Mortimer Spain and based in London. He studied Rowenna is a playwright, inspired by the BA Philosophy and writes poetry in boundaries between humans and animals, English and Spanish. As a painter he has the metaphorical and the real, to create exhibited work in Spain and the UK. stories of hope and possibility. Twitter @FurtherThanEdge IG @luis_elvira_s


47 I’m Not There, by Darshana Vora Darshana is a London-based conceptual artist with a multi-disciplinary practice in site-specific, moving image and digital art genres. She has exhibited widely.

56 Invisible Armies, by Abianne Humphrey Abianne is based in South East London. She is completing an MA in Social Anthropology of Development at SOAS, with an interest in social justice and how it relates to securing livelihoods for migrant workers.

48 Covid Guidelines #1, and MY PLANS & PROSPECTS, by Merny Merny paints images and makes mixtapes, combining bright colours, sarcasm and despair into uplifting nuggets of creativity. IG @mernywernz

59 Victoria Terminus, by Kinnari Saraiya Kinnari, born in Bombay, India, addresses contemporary discourses of the imperial past from a postcolonial standpoint. She gives voice to the architectural landscape of India that is regarded as a silent witness of the British Raj. IG @art.kinnarisaraiya

50 An excerpt from The Botanicals, by Joseph McGuffog Joseph is a writer from Liverpool.

60 MOVING BACKWARDS, by Esra Nesipogulları ˘ Esra is an architect and self-taught multidisciplinary artist. Born and raised in Turkey, she currently resides in Italy. Her work often responds to personal stories in cultural and political contexts. IG @esra_nesipogullari

52 It’s Messy Out There Innit, by Sabrina Choi Sabrina is a Hong Kong-born artist based in London. She mainly works with 2D paintings, merging her heritage with her art. Her work allows her to express herself through colours and space, while embracing Asian culture. IG @cktttsehbee

62 To See Two Seas, and Look Up, by Sangam Sharma Sangam is an independent artist and experimental filmmaker from Vienna, Austria. Her work is grounded in feminist theory and linguistic models, and her process spans visual art, drawing, mixed media, digital art, sound art, architecture and film-making. IG @sangam.say.sangam

54 Minnesota 2020, by Márk Lakos Mark was born in Hungary and is currently based in Russia. Having lived in seven countries, his work is characterised by the internal and external circumstances of his cosmopolitan journey. IG @lakos.mark 55 Presence, by Winston Allamby Winston lives in London. He enjoys playing tennis and serving in his local church. He is currently preparing his first collection of poetry.


64 A Letter to 4 Pratt Street, by Shawnie Hamer Shawnie was born of the heat and dust of Bakersfield, California. She is the author of the stove is off at home (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) and the founder of collective.aporia, an inclusive arts collective featuring online, donationbased workshops, and *apo-press. IG @collective.aporia Twitter @collectiveapor1

72 Zachary; Willy, by Navot Miller Navot is based in Berlin, Germany. He is fascinated by visuals and sound as a way of exploring sexuality, religion and desire, creating montages of scenes into paper and videos while juxtaposing tragedy and positivity. Navot studies at the University of Arts Berlin and is a permanent member of the art community KuLe. IG @navotmiller

66 Window Works, by Edwin Miles Edwin is a moving image artist, filmmaker and documentarian from the West Midlands. Now based in South London, his work reflects on person and place, home and memory. IG @eajmiles Twitter @eaj_miles

76 Fond of Heart, Sick of Indoors, by Caitlin Heaton Caitlin lives in London, and is originally from Greater Manchester. She has written for Girls on Film, and interviewed artist Christina Banban for Ash magazine. This is her first personal essay. IG @caitlinheaton

68 Grief, by Simon John Simon is based in Cheshire. His interests lie in commenting on the human condition via the human figure and or portraiture, while at the same time developing his own distinct language through paint. IG @s.jpaintingsstudio

78 Quarantine Records, by Florencia Del Fabbro Florencia is an Argentinian artist, born in Buenos Aires in 1988. Her paintings, mostly acrylics, deal with subjects such as everyday life and the existential problems that afflict humans. IG @florencia.delfabbro

70 There are things we can’t find anywhere but we dream they can be found in other people, by Sebastian Perinotti Sebastian was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1989. He is a photo-based visual artist who works with film and experimental processes. Sebastian is based in New York. IG @sebastienperi

80 Untitled, by BR BR is a visualist who fluctuates between poetry, music, the arts, design and visual communication. Her work aims to show how visual representation shapes contemporary visual culture. She explores and experiments with all forms of traditional and non-traditional art. IG @rrebelll and @boutziee


Orifice Moon Ball of sunlit moon, glimmering, sepulchral, like a plucked eye, sometimes looks like a bright orifice and bolus of the night’s real insides; a moment of awareness haemorrhaging unconscious

(opposite page) Harpswell Tides, 2020 Caro Dranow Oil on panel; 30.48 x 30.48 cm _______

(above) Teddy McDonald _______

The time I have spent in quarantine on the coast of Maine has inspired me to paint the land as a means of escape. I believe that creating depictions of our changing world is one of the most profound things we can do to save it.

One day, imagining the silver patterned dome of the moon was something protruding through a hole in space and time, it seemed to depict a consciousness vested in the universe.


En Masse: Epidemics, a Feature of Humankind ‘Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?’ – Yuval Harari Humans, as a biological species, exist in symbiotic relations with some portion of the whole of plants and animals, which we call ‘agricultural’ or ‘domesticated.’ Our welfare as a biological species directly depends upon the extent to which we provide for the welfare of our symbionts: the agricultural plants and animals. Humankind is surely the most prosperous species among all animals living on the Earth; among the plants that grow on the Earth, the most thriving species are those that are cultivated by people. The evolutionary success of both humankind and its plant symbionts is linked with the rise of a strong mutual dependence between the partners. Many domesticated plants cannot survive in nature without human assistance. On the other hand, the survival and prosperity of the world’s human population absolutely depends upon the performance of the main domesticates. The fact that humankind kills its symbiont – domestic animals – and uses their meat as food is not a reason to reject their relation as symbiotic. The symbiosis between humans and agricultural plants and animals is realised at the species level, not at the level of single beings. Unlike animals, plants almost seem to be creatures from a different world. They are constructed from the same materials, but the basic principles of their design are noticeably different from those of animals.


Humankind laid the foundation for further prosperity when it succeeded in establishing symbiotic relations with some plant and animal species. On the long and not always straightforward path of its presence on Earth, humankind has imagined its own role in nature in different ways. In the early stages humans fetishised nature, and then they intended to conquer it. These were, however, nothing but signs of human immaturity. Only now are we coming close to understanding our indispensable connection with other forms of life on Earth. Humankind must now recognise its responsibility to maintain the planet in a state suitable for life.


Anja Rohner _______ This project fuses my photographic ambitions and studies in plant biology. It is about the reconnection of humans and plants, and humans and animals, entertaining thoughts about the kinds of symbiosis humankind lives in. By the time I finished writing, the pandemic had given my piece a new level of meaning.





Selection of works from Be Touching, 2020 Elizaveta Zalieva Rice paper, drypoint, shinkale; 24 x 31 cm _______ This series was conceived as a story about common experiences and the beauty of the simple. Invented in the pre-quarantine era, it became prophetic, resembling the small things that people encounter and miss while in isolation.


Remember These Learn to know this broken, cracked old world anew. Think of walking city walls in dancing shoes as dawn turned night all inside out. Listen now to bells across the treeless town from All Saints’ tower, and bells on shoes along the high street on a silver day with staves and swirling skirts and handkerchiefs, with Jim on squeezebox, Paddy on the violin. Hear wrens crack through an eggshell sky as you stare up at mayflower sprays – petals changing vicious hawthorn to a bridal wreath. Recollect hot days of stepping barefoot onto sand under scimitars of seagulls. Tread salt-flat undulations left by tides: the crush and crunch of small whorled shells. Learn to listen to this broken world anew. Clasp the soft skin of your newborn on your breast – savour that sweetness. Look up! Gaze as chestnut chandeliers light blazing wicks when leaves uncurl. Once more, pitch hay, those slippery stalks of gold, the rhythm of the turn and toss, the scent of summer haloing your hair. Watch blue tits build, knowing nests will not outlast long rains, yet they in hope will line a dusty gutter with bright moss. Then praise, praise the peacock butterfly that spreads its wings on the roof of the hearse awaiting its load in shadow, by the church’s door.


Learn to love this broken, cracked old world anew. Breathe out to see the mist of frost, and then inhale it all again before your lungs have turned to lakes, before the steady throb of your own heart has pumped its last: has ticked the final beat of time and left you to eternity. Remember these.

Lizzie Ballagher _______ Initially I wrote ‘Remember These’ as a way of directing my own focus onto what is beautiful in our world when so much anguish and despair prevail. If the poem encourages others, too, I am happy.



(opposite page and above) Selection of photographs from Paris5avril2020, 2020 Pooya Abbasian _______

(overleaf) Stillness, 2020 Inês Miguel Oliveira Oil, coloured pencil and found objects on twill cotton; 86.5 x 108.5 cm _______

Paris5avril2020 is a visual pause during lockdown. A play on layers of reflectivity, the series includes images of neighbouring windows that have been recaptured from a computer screen.

The first words I wrote on this canvas were ‘and it all stood in perfect stillness’. Perhaps it was because the world seemed to stop, but that’s a false idea, like stillness is too. Things keep breathing, changing.




Less is Moor When the tide pulled all the way back, we could no longer sway the pontoon. Is a pontoon without water just a stage? A stage to perform for the crabs, mud sliding off our endoskeletal bodies. The audience couldn’t relate. With the water comes the debris. Borrowed by the river. Once a bloated dead dog was gifted to us, we stopped swimming after that. Not so good buoy. I wonder why we don’t spend much time there nowadays, seems too far to make the effort to walk down, too much of a commitment. A time suck as Mum would say. May as well? I was just letting YouTube auto play, nothing more important to do today.



Less is Moor, 2020 Claudia Platzer Poem, acrylic on canvas; 45.72 x 45.72 cm, clay buoys _______ The pontoon at the end of my parents’ house sees a daily tidal change; it rises and falls with time’s passing. Less is Moor reflects on the ebb and flow of living in the present moment while also feeling the absence of days gone by.


When Death Isn’t Elsewhere, and Neither Are We Would you be remiss to chant ‘death is elsewhere’ when the global death toll of this pandemic is more than 670,000 and the infections have risen over 17 million? The unsettling tune from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video installation, nonetheless, continues to haunt you. That encounter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the many revisits that followed, was already a reminiscence of last summer, while you and countless other college students were graduating blissfully, mindlessly. In line with the mood, the title of this work sounded jubilant and inviting at first; soon it grinned with a senile smile. In the seven-channel video, two couples walk and sing with guitars in hands, backdropped by the idyllic Icelandic landscape, as the wind interweaves with a song that keeps telling you, ‘death is elsewhere’. Yet the performance has no intention to land with a convincing relief. Instead, it coils, twists, resists your effort to see. Behind the mask of the lens where the performance took place, you imagine a stage that extends beyond the stage. The camera restrings a passive viewer to confront the force of death and the chilling draught between the screens where visitors loiter in and out of the half-enclosed field. The artist views his video as a ‘kinetic sculpture’, encouraging exploration from different physical angles that complement each other. Viewers are moved, indeed, but only to be barred from the illusion created on the screen. It is fairly rare to see a contemporary Icelandic artist premier their work at the Met, rendering the idyll otherworldly from its homecoming nature. You are awed and subdued by this escape from the Met, until you see a visitor approaching the circular screens. Dressed in a bright orange T-shirt, unseemly as those alerting roadblocks on a hot summer day, he appears to be both reaching for the landscape and playfully shadowing himself onto the projected image. The singing couples, of course, do not respond. They are


well protected in a world without cause and consequence – the world is folded into a loop, allowing no accidental bifurcation or deviation – and death is kept away with no passing of time. You take out the phone when a message rings through – connecting you to your world where, unlike here on the lower floor of the Lehman Wing, the signals are robust and constantly flooding you with information and direction – and you realise 45 minutes have passed since you trapped yourself in this loop. When watches often become badges of class, rather than keepers of time, is time freed to elapse in a frivolous manner? You begin to picture a tuxedoed man waltz this way, as if weaving across the seven screens around you, and blindfold you against any passageway. So where do you stand? Which world, if there is any self-contained world, are you breathing in? You cannot tolerate an ambivalence as such, risking your life on a dangling cliff. Yet now, on a long summer day in an inscrutable year, you miss the anguish of ambivalence, rather than the dilemma of to contain or to live, and perhaps, breathe.

Yizhuo Irina Li _______ My article reflects on – and at this time, yearns for – a video installation by Ragnar Kjartansson that disconcertingly brings forth death beneath a surface of serenity and comfort. Its escapism and nihilism feel particularly relevant now.



(opposite page and above) Transcendence, 2020 Anna Mays Digital print on perspex; 80 x 90 cm _______

(overleaf) The Local, 2020 Martina Morger Performance piece _______

Absence and presence work paradoxically in this piece. As the lungs enter the digital realm, they transform into an infinite and timeless state; their physicality is absent. This is exaggerated by the shadow.

This work explores the presence of space. It had been performed right before lockdown in Paris; the visibility of the script suggests execution by others.


The Local In a place you don’t know start walking in any direction your gait is light, yet firm your posture is good, yet casual your gaze is determined and focused take turns randomly, without judging your intuition when you begin to feel comfortable start playing with the tempo of your walk faster, slower, swinging your arms stop when you start to recognise your surroundings

(opposite page) Out of Reach, 2020 Ally Zlatar Collage; 25.40 x 20.32 cm _______ This piece explores my current feelings in light of the pandemic. It has changed things, and has been difficult. When you are alone you can feel absent from reality. However, being present within yourself really changes how you view the world.

(overleaf) Rowenna Mortimer _______ A person speaks. Where are they? Who are they? A dramatic monologue prompted by the question: where is presence, and where is absence? In time, place, or both? And who decides?


I am Not Freda HER: I am not Freda.

I’m not the person you’re waiting for, believe me.


I am not Freda. She was ahead of me, in front. I was behind her and she called out to me to follow her: ‘Follow in my footsteps,’ she said, and then she disappeared. That’s just how it was.

She must be back there still in the thick of the forest.

Somewhere –

You know the crack-slack thick of the forest. Maybe the sound of a frightened bird caught her ear and she just had to look – she couldn’t stop herself and she lingered too long! She didn’t get up and get out when she should have and a bare thorn scratched at her and she was caught – That’s it! She was ahead of me and she fell.

She fell somewhere in the thick of the forest, mortally wounded. The way down was so steep she couldn’t break her fall – the thorns and the dead wood dragged her down, she would have fought – yes! She must have fought. Perhaps – perhaps she fought too hard and then started to fight with herself. Believe me, it happens. Yes.

Yes. Somewhere in the forest back there I fell, too. But the dead wood


cushioned my fall and the wind blew back the thorns and a bird cut me a straight path to follow to bring me out here and I didn’t stop and now she’s behind me!

I didn’t hear her fall. Did you?

Did she cry out?

Because if she cried out, then her cries were no louder than the wind and the wind is unreliable and I didn’t hear them.

Did you?

You tell me.

You know the forest. What happened back there?

You’re asking me all these questions and, the strangest thing is, I only saw her once…

Yes, only once! And then in a row of other smiling women who all looked the same. And I couldn’t touch them, I couldn’t get closer, there were too many years to cross. Even when she called me to follow her, I could barely make her out, there was so much distance between us and I was counting my own footsteps to get myself out –

And I didn’t look back –

Go back there and see for yourself. Go on!

The crack-slack thick of the forest will confirm my existence if you ask it. It will confirm who I am.

I am not Freda.

Step aside now. You’re blocking my path.

I am not Freda.

Not even – maybe – for a breath…?



Si es necesario, levantaré mis ganas antes del sol estiraré mi voz mientras vuelen los pájaros adormeceré mi espíritu más tarde, si es necesario

If necessary, I’ll build goodwill before sunrise I’ll widen my voice as long as birds fly I’ll send my spirit to sleep, later, if necessary



El sabor del hogar se retuerce en mi boca dilato las pupilas y pestañeo las ventanas el presente no marida con mi vino

The flavour of home twists in my mouth I dilate pupils and blink windows present does not pair with wine

Flor de Placebo, 2020 Manuel Delgado (poetry) Lara Crespo (photography) _______ A collaborative project created during the COVID-19 lockdown. It showcases our interpretation of being absent or present, active or passive, positive or negative, and depicts the self-confronting moments of any person during the crisis.


A Short Story From a Non-Writer For the last month, I have been watching a writer attempt to approach his text. I see him in his home quite clearly, owing to the closeness of his apartment block directly opposite to mine, with its large casement windows projecting the blindingly bright ceiling light of his office onto an empty residential street. He attempts to write through night and day, sitting as he does in profile on a low-backed desk chair with his computer hidden from view. An open door to his left faces directly towards me, which – when the light has been left on – gives a glimpse of a small square painting in the corridor. Upon entering his room, he usually begins by adjusting the height of his chair, coaxing himself up and then down, up and down, always with a completely expressionless face. Then he will read the blurb of a book nearby, before setting it aside and picking up another book to do the same. A short sentence will occur to him and he will record a few notes, or he will type vigorously for five minutes with a knitted brow. At least once an hour, he stares blankly out of the window onto street level, sipping at a mug, watching a car pass or a piece of rubbish blow across the one-way lane of our street. Finally, he tips his head back and lets out a deep breath, seeming to unleash a composed but plaintive scream into the insulated rooms of his home. Often, as he tries to rouse himself for another creative spurt, he can sense eyes from all directions peering over his shoulders. There is perhaps a second version of him, who evaluates each word he writes as soon as it is written, telling him that the idea had not been accurately realised by what he had set down, suggesting that things find their true form outside of words, forcing him to erase it. And so as soon as one word is removed, there goes


the sentence again, and there goes the intention, and with it goes whatever elaborate construction had begun in the first place. Seeing the unbearable burden that he considers writing to be, I wonder whether he could rush this novel through to his agent now, haggle a deal with the publisher, and get the terrible reviews over and done with. He would perhaps be given the option to write the book again in five years’ time, under a different title, and see what has changed within him, and then again five years after that. His life’s work would end up being the same book, written at different times under different titles, and lamented by him in different ways. His anxieties suggest to me that there is not an invisible person reading him at all, but it is actually he who is hovering over the non-writer’s shoulder – mine, even. He is invigilating the terms of my life, none of which has ever been set down in words and only ripples out of me and into the world, causing illimitable joy and irreparable chaos. He might finally come to the conclusion – once he has picked over the wordless wreckage – that I am actually the true writer, as one who does not attempt to write. Yesterday evening, as his eyes passed from his clutter to the street scene to the steel zigzagged tracery of my block’s fire escape, the writer caught me watching him. For some reason I’m unable to give words to, I didn’t flinch from the window, and he did not appear to show any outward sign of surprise at my presence. Our eyes locked just for a moment before he turned his head back to his desk and calmly scribbled something on the back of an envelope. Today, as I was finishing my morning exercises, I approached the window again. His blinds were open, as they always were. However, his office had been vacated, with everything – the shredder, the writing on the walls, the creams and sprays, the stationery set, the sepia photo of a family on his desk, the desk itself, the stack of reference books – gone. The room looked in pristine condition, bearing no visible mark of any recent inhabitant. The door was closed. I made my mind up to walk away from my window and go to another room. Manwah Siu _______ A non-writer secretly watches a writer at work, charting the invisible (and often intersecting) lines of communication between one person and another in an act of art.


Still Life This is the diary of an unknown person who lays beneath this skin who gets lost among these buildings from Monday to Friday this is the trace of ourselves we leave behind for an uncertain future when nothing can say anything about us and silence will be our voice these are the words (opposite page) Orderly Refrigerator (Vanitas), 2020 Andrew Leventis Oil on linen; 91 x 56 cm _______

those are the letters written on the glass

I consider this painting to be a type of modern vanitas, as it is filled with perishable consumer goods. It also relates to the presence and absence of food during the shortages of the pandemic.

trying to not spell our names with any mistakes

(left) Luis Elvira _______ This poem is about how the routines of daily life can make us absent within our own existence. The trace we leave behind could just be our names written down in some list or form we have filled out.


(right) I’m Not There, 2020 Darshana Vora Collage; 42 x 29.7 cm _______ A page from These Narrative Landscapes: prose made out of text from the Evening Standard newspaper during lockdown, documenting the altered environments and scientific terms that have become part of global history.

(overleaf) Covid Guidelines #1 (left) and MY PLANS & PROSPECTS (right), 2020 Merny Watercolour and gouache; 14.8 x 10.5 cm, 10.5 x 7.4 x cm _______ Exploration of the human condition, machinery and engineering. Work made during lockdown tackles the unavoidable presence of the virus in our lives, the absence of certainty and the depressing news we’re bombarded with daily.





An excerpt from The Botanicals I woke up and opened up Facebook. I stared for hours at the screen, which was flickering so minutely I couldn’t tell it was happening. This really was the new people watching. I navigated to my own profile. It consisted of songs and obligatory tags. Most of my posts had no likes, they had obviously been lost at sea. An endless bright blue ocean made of holidays, new births and narcissism. I frequently ask myself, why bother? What am I actually sharing each time I click that button? Is it myself ? Is that what I am sharing? A part of myself so entwined with my experience of life that others cannot possibly comprehend it? Or – am I really just sharing a song? Is that what I want people to hear? What do I want them to feel? Each note that hits and vibrates my eardrum, each note that is turned back into electrical signals by my brain, can they not feel this – what I am feeling? Why do the notes hit their ears in the same way, but make them feel different things? Of course I know why, but why do I do this? For whose benefit? I played each song. A diary of loneliness? Pack it up, pack it in – no-one’s listening. They took me to moments of happiness, of dancing round my room. Girl and bottle in hand, sometimes separately. Into deep and dark depressions from which I thought I would never return. Never has music spoken to people so instantly, and with so much volume, than in the modern digital era. We can be permanently plugged in. So much so it almost takes the animateness and organicity away from feelings themselves. It’s all fake, all instant, all half-depressing. I think the best feelings are those that grow – planted like a seed. A drop of inspiration.


Now we can influence our moods instantly with the carefully weaved predisposition humans have to music, from ASMR porn to mindless and soulnumbing Top 40 rehashed tripe, a life raft to oblivion if that’s what you need. I clicked on ‘Paperhouse’ by CAN – work in 15 minutes. Too many savage songs Far too many savage songs, far too many feelings, far too many thoughts, far too many moments. Laugh with him today Cry with him tomorrow, feel sorry for him yesterday. Playing everything None of this is real, nothing really matters – Zadie, Ivy, work, weed, politics, it’s all a game. To waste time on until the pain of the inherent unfairness of this world and its inhabitants comes to an end. You and your mind Me and my fucking mind, who do I think I am. The flying paperhouse The world’s a fucking tinderbox. Way back on the laugh

Joseph McGuffog _______ The Botanicals is a first-person novel about interpersonal relationships. It is told through the eyes of three residents of Liverpool.



It’s Messy Out There Innit, 2020 Sabrina Choi Acrylic, ink and gold pigment on canvas; 30.48 x 121.93 cm _______ This work explores the relationship between crowds and the feeling of discomfort, and how my delusions, imagination and phobias haunt me even when I'm alone in an empty space.



Presence The city sits silent. Winds of fear prevail against spring’s freshness and summer’s freedom. Flags of pride, banners of modernity and pleasure once fluttered on poles of certainty. Now half mast, wrapped labelled: for reconsideration or surrender. Riding the wind and emptied like a storm change has arrived. Unrepentant, unprepared, astonished casualties, forced to the looking glass. Masks are lifted the self sits silent, humbled. Ego coils in fetal position questioning the reflection Where is life? What is death? Who am I?

(opposite page) Minnesota 2020, 2020 MĂĄrk Lakos Oil on board; 25 x 35 cm _______

(above) Winston Allamby _______

As a high school student I spent a year studying in Minnesota and was inspired by the people I met and lived with. With this painting I would like to pay tribute to the lives lost during the protests.

This poem was written while observing the impact of COVID-19 and the resurgent issue of race relations, forcing many to evaluate what and who are important.


Invisible Armies When capitalism halts who gets forgotten? The COVID-19 lockdowns have revealed how governments treat populations differently depending on their importance to capital. The anthropologist Tania Li applies the Marxist notion of a ‘relative surplus population’. She describes how those on small incomes become irrelevant to the needs of capital, creating surplus people who are ‘highly vulnerable in a global economy organised on capitalist lines’ [1]. In this way, lockdown has exposed how the world’s informal economy workers – those living hand to mouth, with no access to a social security net or regular wages – are rendered invisible by the state. India has experienced the world’s largest lockdown. On 8 p.m. on 24 March, the prime minister Narendra Modi gave the Indian population just four hours to shut down. The abrupt announcement left daily wage labourers with no employment in the cities, desperate to join families, but without time to return home. Haunting images of migrants walking from India’s metropolises, including Mumbai and Delhi, back to their villages in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have dominated the media. Some journalists have referred to it as the ‘greatest exodus since partition’ [2]. Devastatingly, hundreds have died while attempting the journey, either in traffic accidents or due to hunger and exhaustion. The central government’s unreadiness for the reverse migration is shocking. The 2011 census claims there are 454 million internal migrants in India [3]. Migrants fall primarily into two categories, either long-term or seasonal migration. Seasonal migrants leave their villages for a short period to obtain work in cities, only to return to their families again. Working in jobs in construction, industry and service work, they build cities, serve food and run the backbone of India’s economy. A survey completed by Chennai Citizens COVID in the southern state of Tamil Nadu found that 95 percent of stranded migrants wished to return home [4]. ‘Shramik Special’ trains


took some migrants back to their villages, but others were left stranded due to not having the means to obtain valid tickets. When in a public health crisis, the instinct is to move close to loved ones and feel safe. The government failed to envisage this inevitability. Indian migrant labourers are part of a precarious workforce which characterises much work within late capitalism across the globe. In the UK, for example, industries that transitioned from ‘low-skilled’ to ‘essential’ during the pandemic, such as cleaners and delivery drivers, are often those on precarious contracts without health and social benefits. In India, meanwhile, the vulnerability of migrants means they are ‘not citizens in the city’, according to scholar Ram B. Bhagat. Migrants have no access to healthcare, rations or water in their destination states [5]. Such a situation is attractive for employers, who can obtain their labour with little social protection and on a lower wage than locals. Migrants exist in the invisible sections of cities; construction workers are housed on-site, often in poorly built shelters, for instance. Many seasonal migrants do not speak the language of their destination state. In industry work, their principal contact is their contractor; many of whom have been uncontactable and have abandoned their workers. The migrants have received scarcely any wages from their employers, despite a government announcement on 29 March that employers must pay their workers throughout the lockdown (which was later withdrawn on 18 May). A survey conducted in June found that nearly 90 percent of those working with a contractor were not paid [6]. Rather than using the pandemic as an opportunity to improve the situation for workers, some state governments have suspended labour laws. The Uttar Pradesh government, for example, has exempted firms from almost all labour laws for the next three years. In a similar vein, the Maharashtra government has increased working hours from eight to twelve. Yet another example of a crisis prioritising policies that favour productivity over the welfare of workers. On 12 May the Indian government released a stimulus relief package. There is considerable focus on long-term credit goals, rather than direct cash transfers for migrant workers. Government rations do exist, but their distribution has been uneven. The policy Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP) aims to distribute surplus grains (wheat or rice) to individuals with ration cards. On 14 May the finance minister announced that this scheme would be expanded to individuals without ration cards. However, it was based on a census from 2011 and so excluded many migrants [7].


Even when migrants do have access to a ration card, there are stories of them being refused food, due to the discrimination associated with being from poorer states such as Bihar. Civil society has stepped in to support the migrants. The Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) has spoken with 16,863 stranded workers [8]. Volunteers ask migrants whether they have received rations and provide a direct cash transfer to those who need it. Meanwhile, a wide range of nongovernmental organisations have transformed into relief agencies, offering ration and hygiene kits. For instance, the Youth of Unity Action (YUVA) in Maharashtra has provided 16,548 ration kits in six cities [9]. Vast amounts of community food initiatives have also responded to the workers’ needs. Evidently, when migrants cannot access the government rations, charities and NGOs act instead. When the world grinds to a halt, it exposes who falls between the cracks of social security. Society must move forward and begin to build a rightsbased approach to social protection that prioritises securing livelihoods, rather than allowing civil society to fill the void in government action. Freemarket democracies depend on surplus populations too much; citizen welfare shouldn’t depend on their relevance to capital. The lockdown has pushed migrant issues from the background into view. This visibility must now continue.

(opposite page) Victoria Terminus, 2020 Kinnari Saraiya Jesmonite and chilli powder; 243.84 x 121.92 cm _______

Abianne Humphrey _______ India has experienced a migrant crisis during the lockdown. Despite the immense presence of the migrants, their irrelevance to capital has left them with no social protection. This article explores their abandonment by the government.

Queen Victoria once stood on this plinth. The act of removal, the vacuum, acts as a space of protest. It challenges the language of monuments through the presence of absence.


MOVING BACKWARDS, 2020 ˘ Esra Nesipogulları Thread and paper on paper; 42 x 29.7 cm _______ ‘Let’s collectively move backwards’. This sentence pushes me to discover tools to go back. In the context of absence and presence, it questions notions of visibility and categorisation in relation to historically overlooked artistic practices.


To See Two Seas (left) and Look Up (right), 2020 Sangam Sharma Mixed media; 28 x 16 cm and 27 x 21 cm _______ These pieces explore togetherness in times of unrest. Small interventions using experimental imagery and queer storytelling. Where is my space in place? Proposing a new outlook.


A Letter to 4 Pratt Street The walk to your door is never the same as the walk from it. When we found each other I was covered in hives, sitting in my mother’s trailer with Merle Haggard. My body rejecting what I can’t help but refer to as home, even in the landscape of dreams, though it hasn’t been for over a decade. 115 degrees of needing to belong to something other than Jesus and oil rigs. I need you now as I did then. My mentor told me it was the perfect match; enjoy this time while you can, she said. It will all end soon. One day you’ll live with giant men that will eat everything you store. The parts of yourself you’ve preserved for winter solstice, blue as the shutters once were. There was a knock on the back door the night I begged to know. I was scared and called a friend. You held my gaze as I unravelled. Absorbed by the golden mandala in the rented carpet. I saw their pain, the reel of faces flashing seconds. I saw his fissure. I see the fathers. It wasn’t me that left, but the man I wanted him to be. And he is me. And the devil outside, knocking. I didn’t sleep right for weeks. So you forced me into bed. Showed me my past life. An old woman tending a bunker bar in the midst of war. She handed me a japer sphere and a Martini. It’s okay, baby she whispered. If you want to know, I’ll tell you. When she finally did, I was sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor. Thousands of miles away from any semblance of you. From any shape or speed we had laid into our blueprint. She compelled me to look at the card, a black wolf, the smell of hot plastic in the bed of a pickup. The pluck and croon of Nick Drake, sending me back into the chasms. Dug by men who wish. The black sticky melody played out on blistered hands.


You had already made me. Leave. Sent death like unwanted guests. The smell of rotting trash. The plague of ageing, of letting go of places we feel safe. Building anew. As the infestation moves under our feet. Repeatedly. I wrote to a friend about how hard it was being under the microscope of ghosts and deities. She replied: be careful with Virginia Woolf, she can be heavy. She left eventually, and it was just you. To tell my fears to. About the hallucinations, seeing monuments in the backyard while I smoked cigarettes. About the faeries leaving gifts of amber and obsidian. About the lovers touching the raw parts, between legs and shoulder blades, always leaving them worse than they found them. The red thread circles and binding spells. The orange carcasses buried in the soil. Don’t bring the lovers here, you said. I couldn’t control myself. Held my body horizontally, over the edge of the bowl. The ravine. Spread legs and invited him in, between sternum and clitoris, between sun and systems. Succumbed to the green and pink. The cracks, confessions of violence. I tasted it, the light. Asked him to meet me here, in our wound. Sang ‘Slim Slow Slider’ as he covered his thin stomach, slipped just out of reach. And I knew you knew. That I was leaving soon. The shutters are painted tan now and the windows hold an abundance of heat. Sweating when I dance around your kitchen. In memories, when Mars is watching. The love you have let us make. On battle mats and shelters we seek. The quiet breath, the quickened beating of belonging to each other and no one but red. I don’t think you are angry. But I am afraid you won’t remember. How our wombs swelled in sync. That you held three generations as I pressed beaches to my broken heart, my belly. The sky glows inky grey and I miss telling you about root formations. And how, once, you gave them to me.

Shawnie Hamer _______ This work speaks to a home that is now absent, but that lives in the body each day. Revisiting this home in memory allows the narrator to become embodied in the present.



Window Works, 2020 Edwin Miles Film stills; 02:32 (left), 05:45 (right) _______ Window Works was completed at the height of the COVID crisis; its empty corridors and streets highlight a time of stasis, a breeding ground for involuntary cerebration. It taps into ideas around memory, home, family and isolation.


Grief, 2019 Simon John Acrylic on canvas; 110 x 90 cm _______ In this piece I was keen to depict the rawness of a family loss, as well as the presence of those who help us. I am mixed race, coming from a Jamaican and white background. My traditional style often challenges people’s expectations.



There are things we can’t find anywhere but we dream they can be found in other people, 2013 Sebastian Perinotti Polaroid prints; 10.79 x 30.48 cm _______ In my work the viewer comes across my subjects – lovers, friends and artists – in found and created situations. I try to capture them somewhere in-between their own self-image and their true, pure self.





Zachary; Willy, 2018–20 Navot Miller Water pastel on paper; 102 x 72 cm _______ This series deals with the sudden separation from a lover and the presence of another over a short period of time. It depicts complex, personal moments of adulthood and deals with melancholy, obsession and desire.


Fond of Heart, Sick of Indoors They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well tell the world that my heart is fond enough, and I want to see my friends. Though of course, the video calls provide some sustenance in this time. And the long phone calls and the texts and the Facebook messages and the WhatsApp threads that come through when I’m trying to do anything but stare at my screen for six hours straight and failing spectacularly. In messages and on calls though, I’m sullen and moody, craving the connection of another person and finding it unsatisfying when I get it because it’s still not what I want. On social media I feel like a dog chasing a car, trying to find something funnier, something more distracting, more compelling and less overwhelming than what’s going on just outside the doors. Stumbling across a news piece in a tweet is like having my head pulled out from under water. Seeing the death toll is like a gasp of reality before putting my head back under the silent waters of Instagram. I’ve tried to fill the void of friends with books instead, which is a short-term band-aid, a feeling of being present in another world for a small amount of time. Wandering in a dazed afternoon between extensive corridors in Italy or at a dinner party in Vermont mixes in with the reality of standing and feeling the carpet between my toes in my own cramped bedroom. However, finishing the books introduces a new ache. Lingering on the last sentence before closing the story feels like leaving new-found friends at a party, unable to return to them, but thinking of them fondly. Going outside now takes on a new meaning. Large spaces feel unbelievably vast. An empty street feels like a blessing, yet a horror when you realise why it is the case. You come to think of everyone else, in their houses, in the same situation, yet you are unable to see them, connect with them, revel in the unity of a shared fear.


But the sky remains the same. It stretches out, unwillingly endless. I’ve come to stare at the clouds changing ever so subtly through my bedroom window, as a reminder that while I may stay still, the world continues on its course, wherever it may lead. In the absence of others, I have come to feel less present in myself. I now realise that in being apart from my friends and family, I am not just devoid of those who shape me, but those who make me. I am made up entirely of the pieces of those that love me and that I love. For now, close the doors, shutter the windows, pull the duvet over my head. I will find myself again soon.

Caitlin Heaton _______ This piece was written on a grey afternoon when I was feeling glum about the weather and even more glum about the world. I was feeling everything and nothing at once, and wanted to put something down on paper to try and make sense of myself.


Selection of works from Quarantine Records, 2020 Florencia Del Fabbro Acrylic on paper; 20 x 16 cm _______ This series portrays some of the meals and selfies that my friends and I sent to each other via WhatsApp, as a way to be present, stay close and accompany one another during the quarantine.



Untitled, 2020 BR Graphic design _______ These pieces were inspired by creating during an Instagram live, allowing my community to see what I do behind the scenes. A way to connect with my art circle but also, as a black female artist, what my art means during lockdown.


Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor from North West England, based in London. She studied BA English and History and MA Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. She writes about cultural theory, the arts and history, and how these subjects relate to urban space, activism and social justice. Bethany works in publishing, and her writing has been commissioned by Novara Media, Port, RA Magazine and Red Pepper, among others. She founded House Letters in April 2020. IG @bethanyjeanholmes Twitter @bethjholmes

House Letters London United Kingdom Issue II published online in August 2020 IG @houseletters Twitter @house_letters

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