May Heek: Salon Symbiosis
Somebody recently suggested: could I possibly have been one part of a pair of twins? That would explain my instinctive longing for a counterpart and my interest in pairs and duality. It made me hesitate and by the time I answered, I could confirm my zodiac sign is Gemini, that I often get two of a kind and that I find the process of letting go a rather complicated one. Nevertheless, the question left me wondering in particular about the attraction of merging, mirroring and the urgency of living in close physical association.
It is a Friday evening in 2000. I am not sure what to wear, and it’s hard to find matching clothing as the mirror only reflects onebody. I choose a sensual look and at the same time keep it simple to be able to move freely. Later that night, I arrive at the dance school, and it is one of those nights: not enough men present. Just the year before, I had joined a group of high school friends at the local Ballroom and Latin school to sign up for pair-dancing. Even at the time, it was not the coolest thing to do, but it gave us the chance to shake it up and get into close proximity. Obviously, most women could both lead and follow, as it often happened that there were not enough men to take on the leading position within the traditional gender roles. We spent as many hours as possible on the dancefloor and some of us made it to the national championships, though unfortunately not the same-sex couples. It was the year after I fell head over heels in love with my first girlfriend. Dancing still takes me away from the mind, back to the expression of two bodies; two entities melting together.
The enormous power of symbiosis seems more urgent than ever, as there has been more dissatisfaction with the present and anxiety about the future. We could sense that individualism was quickly gaining ground through technology and social media, directing the responsibility of success and wellbeing into our own hands. ‘One hand loves the other, so much on me’(25). More and more people are living in big cities and experiencing the huge effort that is needed to be part of a community. Upper-class or working-class, young or old, passive or active, the social isolation within this metropolis will at some point reach everyone. Navigating London directly exposed me to the layers of isolation. The wide expanses of councils challenge you to get around, and there are always new areas to (re)discover. In the capital, you can commute for several hours a day, and just going to a friend’s dinner on the other side of London will make you think twice. On my way to work on the tube, it was a rare occasion when I could catch a smile or have a chat – for the most part, there was simply no headspace away from thinking. Instead, iPhones, iPads and books became buddies.
A short time ago, I attended the performance of a friend from London. She is one half of the collaborative duo ‘Lea Collet and Marios Stamatis’. They performed at Arti et Amicitiae as part of a prize for European graduates. In ‘Accidental Encounters, 2018’ a couple physically and mentally challenge each other. While enduring constant muscle tension and pulling each other’s arms, they recite an online, intertwined dialogue that feeds back from their iPhone to the audience. I recall the intense emotions of distance and the urge to touch and be touched. At the end, she says to him: ‘I fucked it up!’ The fencing dynamics between the two made me tremble.
Looking at Europe – that melting pot of cultures, languages and people, all made possible thanks to free movement – brings me back to 2015, the year before the Brexit referendum. I had found myself disorientated in a middle-class neighbourhood in North London where only that year the area had experienced an increase of at least 15% percent of homeless people. Having just graduated from an MFA at the Slade School of Fine Art, I decided to stay on, as a resident of Europe. Together with my then-partner, we managed to find a place to land. While it was rather easy for me to stay after graduation as a Dutch passport holder, it had been a complicated process for my partner to apply for a visa as a non-EU citizen. All thanks to Theresa May who had introduced new immigration rules in 2012, scrapping the post-study work visa that had allowed non-EU students to stay in the UK and work for up to two years after graduation from a UK institution. After many sleepless nights, endless distance, time-zone trouble, comparing privileges and financial differences, stress started to function as an accelerant. And then finally, she received an artist visa, and we could live together. Of course, we had to work several jobs to make this happen, so that together we were able to afford to live in London. While both struggling to find the headspace for our art practices and families, we at least had each other and were determined to make it happen. It was literally us against the world; partners in crime.
The route follows the bridges and cuttings of the line, a linear, green pedestrian route takes you all the way up to Highgate in North London. The Parkland Walk is a 4 km pathway that follows the course of the railway line that used to run between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace till the late 50s. Today, this local nature reserve brings together ecological diversity, tunnelled tranquillity and locals and their dogs; perfect matches have been made on this walk. Going up and down the trail, I soon noticed that people had this touching smile on their face as soon as a dog caught their eye. These moments of flirtation and mind-meld with the animal also made the human beings more social and reciprocal.
I kept going on these long walks, until it got to the point that my partner and I decided we would like to have a dog ourselves. We longed for that direct connection; with each other, our dog and the people we lived in close proximity to. That puppy time was intensely joyful. We suddenly got so much attention, and after a while, we were known in the neighbourhood as the artist couple with the cute scruffy terrier called Foxy. It made me feel at home, especially when it was just me in the house over longer periods of time, as I got to talk to people out of the professional arena. During that spring of 2016, I got to know all about the locals, British customs and traditions, and I made friends that I would not have met in the isolated setting of the art scene. I sometimes return to the walk, and I keep Foxy’s passport up to date so we can meet old friends.
I left London for Amsterdam in the early days of 2017. I had begun mourning the loss of my love long before. Grieving for crushed dreams takes time; it makes you value the life you had and at the same time, it makes you cut ties to be able to look ahead. This process of moving on brought a full spectrum of melancholy, from changing career perspective, to splitting up, to redefining the home. Back in the Netherlands, the hardest part of it all was relearning who I was in a world without her presence, and letting go of the island experience. I realized I had no other choice than to first take care of myself in order to be able to take care of another. A life-changing event in which the personal became intensely political.
Last month, on the 29th of March 2019, the United Kingdom was supposed to leave the EU. The Brexit deadline has passed and so far, there is no certainty on any kind of exit. The United Kingdom was once attached to the mainland, and is now an island in the process of drifting away to become someland. Nobody knows what that will look like. Is the UK really eroding as quickly as the white cliffs of England? Half of the nation is afraid of the inescapable isolation, while the other half is determined to get that divorce they deserve. Accelerating political chaos and despair illustrate so painfully and accurately a symbiotic relationship on the cliffs. Misleading narratives, the tantalizing negotiations, the endless delays surrounding the process of separation and the messiness of life in general show how easily we lose the ability to not take sides. An interplay between partners shines in the BBC series ‘The Split’ and ‘River’ written by Abi Morgan, both with remarkable performances by Nicola Walker.
The barriers in the water keep me from swimming to the other side; she feels miles apart above the water and vastly present underwater. Every week, I tell myself that when I make it to the end and keep my crawl well defined, we will be reunited. After my usual morning lanes, I pull myself up from the shimmering pool and quickly get myself into that bath towel – scratching myself softly with her mind.
Messages are being heard on both sides of the Channel; we wonder what has happened. The ending of an era on its way, slowly moving into the seven stages of ‘Post-Brexit Melancholy’. The in-depth awkwardness, unsettling humour and endless resilience are reflected in the Guardian’s ‘Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a divided nation’(29). This brings me back to the persistent illusion of separation that is being preserved by both camps. When we find ourselves in a state of constant disconnection and critical defensiveness towards the rest of the world, then intentionally this assumption of the detached individual is being fetishized, as we are told that only then can we be a someone in someland.
1. Stephanie Lucero & Shirli Calderon, Bachata (video)
2. May Heek, Sensory Gesture, 2014
3. Laure Prouvost, Glass of Champagne, 2007
4. Jayne Parker, Crystal Aquarium, 1995, Film still (video)
5. MH Archive, Shard from One Tree Hill, Honor Oak, London, 2014
6. MH Archive, JPP London, Printed Sample Somerset Velvet Newsprint
7. Laure Prouvost, Tapestry detail. Am-Big-You-Us Legsicon, M HKA 2019
8. MH Archive, Theresa May by Ada, 2016
9. Lea Collet and Marios Stamatis, Accidental Encounters, Arti et Amicitiae, 2019.
10. MH Archive, The Parkland Walk
11. MH Archive, Foxy’s Pet Passport
12. MH Arhive, NOS on Brexit, Dutch news channel
13. Susan Hiller, On the Edge, Rough Sea postcards, 2015
14. Céline Condorelli, Corps à Corps, 2017. Sculpture garden for the courtyard of the IMA and for
the city of Brisbane. Produced with architect Dirk Yates and gardener Pete Shields.
15. Wouter Venema, Petri Discs, 2018. Coloured pencil on paper mounted on wood
16. MH Archive, Two yearlings, Copper Beech, 2018
17. Women Fencing, 1937. British Pathe. (video)
18. Carlos Motta, Deseos/Desire, 2015, Witte de With, 2018
19. Forced Entertainment, Speak Bitterness
20. MH Archive, Science Park, Datacentre AM4 Amsterdam, Benthem Crouwel Architects.
21. MH Archive, Ginkgo Berries, 2017
22. The Split, BBC Series, Abi Morgan, 2018
23. MH Archive, Two Sample Sides, Screen-print, 2017
24. Shana Moulton, My Life as an INFJ, Dreamers Awake, White Cube Bermondsey, 2017
25. Björk, Unison, Royal Opera House, London, 2001 (video)
26. MH Archive, Big Mouth, Ink on Soya Paper, 2017
27. David Lynch, Mulholland Drive, Film still, 2002
28. Ursula Mayer, Gonda, 2012 (video)
29. Brexit Shorts, the End, by Abi Morgan, starring Penelope Wilton (video)
30. Sophie Calle, Take Care of Yourself, 2007
31. MH Archive, Navigating, 2019