The Time Being. Who can tell?

By Bernard Dewulf

Meanwhile, it is almost thirty years ago; those fifteen months I spent working in an old people’s home instead of doing military service. It was a profound experience that marked me.

In a certain sense I saw, whilst being in the so-called ‘prime of my life’, the end of it all from close hand.

Afterwards, I wrote a story about it, which mainly consisted of portraits of the residents I had come to know. One of them was a certain Louise: “Of all the residents, Louise is closest to my heart. I listen at her door and hear mumbling and shuffling. Inside, I must first get accustomed to the darkness to see a familiar scene. Louise has heaped the contents of her wardrobe onto her bed. Almost every day, she makes an inventory of her belongings. She can spend hours chatting about this with a neighbor who lives in the wardrobe mirror.”

The end that I witnessed was sometimes tragic, sometimes terrifyingly lonely, but sometimes also wonderful.

When I first saw the “Alzheimer heads” by Alexandra Cool, those residents immediately came back into my head. I could again hear some of them chattering, while others appeared quiet and uncommunicative. Also, Louise’s beady eyes came back vividly to me.

I was glad that they were still inside my head. One never knows with the head. Some days it seems deserted, other days it is suddenly remarkably inhabited. And maybe there comes a time when the head is both completely abandoned and incomprehensibly inhabited.

Thus, more or less, I imagine it will be for me one day. Meanwhile, I look at the heads Alexandra Cool has ‘made’.

How quiet they are. But perhaps how feverishly they are working inside.

Who can tell?

Perhaps this question inspired Alexandra Cool when she embarked on these heads, faced with the ineffable, or speechless faced with speechless.

What I see is muteness. But however mute the exterior looks, who says the interior is not talkative and full of life, but not life as we know or recognize it.

This tension inspires these statues.

The heads are those of Alzheimer patients; that phrase is chilling enough. But also: the mercifulness of these heads.

They exist in a rougher version and a softer version. The latter is coated with wax. This gives the heads a semblance of transparency. It’s just a semblance; we get to see nothing, at least nothing of the interior.

Yet these heads suck us into their interior. They look inwards on themselves. And we would like to look with them, just to know something about these enigmatic people, but there appears to be no possibility. Where their gaze begins, ours is transfixed and our questions remain stuck in the wax.

What do they see within themselves? Do they see anything? Do they want to see it? Do they understand what they see? Would they want us to see it or not? And where do they actually reside, in which time and place?

However much these heads lure us into their unknown interior, all we have is the exterior. The rest is conjecture. In that sense, these images speak about much more than just Alzheimer’s. Nobody is known; behind each skin and glance, however healthy, a secret lies.

But these statues are even more complicated. Is there a suggestion of a ‘secret’? We know that Alzheimer’s can completely disorient, scramble, and sometimes even wipe away an entire life as if it had never been. So, what remains?

Where are these people looking within themselves? Is it only their outer shell that remains? The appearance of an appearance?

Or are they looking at something that we, the supposedly healthy, still have no idea about?

Who can tell?

This question hangs like a shadowy aura around these heads. There is so much life etched onto those faces, but which life? Where has it gone? Is it still there inside? Has it dissolved in the wax?

And what, finally, are we seeing here? What moves me so much about these heads?

The heads are shrouded in a silence that is as unbearable as it is merciful. How telling they are, because what they articulate is the inexpressibility of us all. Perhaps we all live in a mirrored wardrobe.

Bernard Dewulf

Vertaling Elizabeth Morrison