First Sweet Truth

First Sweet Truth is a photographic dialogue with mystical texts written by religious women in the late Middle Ages. These visionary accounts are not only significant historically as some of the first known texts written by women in the West, but also offer a foundation for non-anthropocentric knowledge. In a contemporary landscape informed by algorithms and data-driven forms of knowledge, mystical experience inherently defies the logic of our time. We largely assume seeing to be a disembodied act. In a constant flow of images, our eyes skim, understand, move on—what the philosopher Laura Marks calls seeing-as-mastering. In contrast, I examine what this lineage of female visionary experience reveals about a kind of seeing that instead gestures towards the flowering of reality and the ineffable found at the edges of our vision.

At once an historical inquiry, a personal pilgrimage, and an investigation into the continued relevance of these women’s writings, my project has taken me to the very place some of these mystics lived, Kloster Helfta, a still-active Cistercian convent in Eisleben, Germany. Three of the most prolific female mystics—Gertrude of Helfta, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Mechthild of Hackeborn—all lived at Kloster Helfta in the 13th century. Many of the nuns who live at Kloster Helfta today have taken on the names of these historical women. For them, Helfta is still ripe with the presence of God.

In my photographs, I draw on the metaphors these mystics used—honey, knives, bees—as well as document specific sites, such as an indentation in the wall marking the doorframe where Gertrude had her first vision. Many photographic theorists draw on religious language to speak of the nature of the medium—that photographs, like icons, have the potential to be both image and presence, a representation and a site of disclosure. Likewise, in this work I use emptiness and metaphor to draw on an affective mode of perception rather than visual perception alone, examining the space between both seeing and unseeing, the visible and invisible.

For a medium that has an indexical relationship to reality, much has been theorized about photography’s relationship to the invisible. From early Spiritualist photographers to Kate Bouman’s recent photograph of a black hole, photography has long been obsessed with representing that which is beyond vision. In my work, I look to how photography’s failure—the limits of its representation—might be the very source of its revelatory power.

“Texts do not mean the world, but the images which they tear up.”  —Vilém Flusser

Image List

1. Untitled (Apple Tree at Kloster Helta), Archival Pigment Print, 24 in. x 20 in., 2019
2. Untitled (Cut), Archival Pigment Print, 11 in. x 14 in., 2019
3. When I See Its Left Ear I Think He Had Heard Me, Archival Pigment Print, 11 in. x 14 in., 2020
    [Original silver gelatin print by Sister Christiane Henson, Prioress of Kloster Helfta]
4. Untitled (Leaking Breast), Archival Pigment Print, 16 in. x 20 in., 2019
5. Untitled (Light), Archival Pigment Print, 4 in. x 5 in., 2019
6. Untitled (Curtain at Kloster Helfta), Archival Pigment Print, 16 in. x 20 in., 2020
7. Untitled (Honey), Archival Pigment Print, 11 in. x 14 in., 2019
8. Untitled (Rock), Archival Pigment Print, 14 in. x 11 in., 2019
9. Untitled (Shadow), Archival Pigment Print, 11 in. x 14 in., 2019
10. Untitled (Hand), Archival Pigment Print 11 in. x 14 in., 2019
11. Untitled (Bee in Mouth), Archival Pigment Print, 5 in. x 4 in., 2020
12. Untitled (Eisleben, Germany), Archival Pigment Print, 10 in. x 8 in., 2020
13. Untitled (Sister Sandra), Archival Pigment Print, 11 in. x 14 in., 2020
14. Untitled (Mirror), Archival Pigment Print, 16 in. x 20 in., 2018
15. Untitled (Gertrude’s First Vision), Archival Pigment Print, 30 in. x 40 in., 2020

Installation at ClampArt, New York, NY, from the exhibit When I See Its Left Ear I Think He Had Heard Me, August 2020, image courtesy of ClampArt