Thomas Maertens - Artist Statement
My work probes the effects of mental and physical illness and trauma on the psyche through the memorialization of architectural and mundane objects. I seek to press against the brain’s responses to pain to recognize their cost on an individual. Using sculpture, performance, and installation, I fabricate a space where ephemeral memories emerge. This space allows me to revisit trauma in a confined environment. 

In my thesis piece, Wilbern, I have wrapped medical furniture in barbed wire and suspended a wheelchair, overbed table, and hospital bed, fusing the mundane objects significant to my father’s personal history. His life began on a farm in Sweet Home, Arkansas, where barbed wire fencing was ubiquitous. 

Barbed wire, as an agro-historical material, was presented in advertising campaigns dating back to the 19th century as equipment that facilitated “American progress”. It “civilized” the expansive West as it ran alongside the telegraph and the railroad, creating opportunities for growth and expansion. It ordered and secured the American landscape, creating “progress” by denying access and freedom in controlling animals and humans. It reflected “progress” via confinement. In today’s world, the use of barbed wire has expanded to enforce borders and prevent breakouts in prisons. 

My father Wilbern now lives in a constant care facility as his body and mind disintegrate, despite his every effort to escape living out his days there. When he first entered there, my brothers and I were concerned for his life and decided to make recordings of his life story, our familial history, advice on growth, and personal emotions he wanted to communicate. It was a conversational excavation of his personal archeology and an entry into his daily experience. 

Excerpts from these recordings make up the sound portion of the piece presented in my thesis installation, demonstrating my father’s resignation to his mental and physical illness. His loss of psychological and physical agency is described in this exposition of his daily life and is mirrored in the suspension of the objects: they are encapsulated in space and ungrounded, mirroring his experience of time and his own memories. The wrapping of the hospital furniture hearkens to his description of being “[stuck] for the rest of his life” in the nursing home. His body is arrested, this new home is a prison.

During my research process, I visited my father to talk with him about his daily life, and he showed me his notebooks. As his memory fades, writing supplants it, but he does not record his daily activity. He records words. His notebooks are filled with repeated words that are meaningless to an uninformed reader. He fills four pages a day with his four children’s names, attempting to solidify them in his memory. He then writes the name of an object to connect the sign with the referent. The repetition and hard worn use of the notebooks fabricates an environment of madness while reading through them as he tries to joke about his “marked insanity.” However, these were not allowed to be removed from the nursing home due to the pandemic: his home was completely locked down in early March. Despite this, I plan to use them in future work, as I gather family artefacts.

My conceptual process has been greatly influenced by Louise Bourgeois. She has described her works about her father as a re-experiencing of trauma, as with Destruction of the Father (1974). This description of her approach to making autobiographical and familial work not only influenced the way I make art, but the way that I exist. Her candidness encouraged me to be open and honest in my own artistic practice.
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