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Terri Phillips’ “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” at ArtLab.

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On Saturday, Terri Phillips will give a talk about her intriguingly titled installation "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," currently on view in the University of Memphis' ArtLab. The installation contributes to Phillips' record of presenting striking work around town. Her most recent show before "Castle" took place this past summer at TOPS Gallery and featured a tank of live catfish and a concrete chute covered in faux-silver leaf. Past works by Phillips have included short films, photography, and dance-based performances. 

When she first returned to Memphis after working in California and France, Phillips stayed in the house she lived in as a teenager. During this period, she developed the ideas that eventually informed "We Have Always Lived in the Castle."

For the installation, Phillips selected and arranged objects with some relationship to her youth, all of which evoke a sense of dilapidated domesticity. Toward the back of ArtLab's small space, thorny branches from a plant called the "Arkansas Toothpick" cast shadows across a white wall. The branches, painted white, are placed atop an upended teacup. Sugar cubes are strewn across the floor near the teacup.

To the immediate left of the branches, a photograph of a Victorian wedding dress hangs on the wall, appearing austere and delicate, an effect echoed in two handmade chandeliers that hang centrally in the space, as well as in a collection of white vases that covers much of the floor. 

A soundtrack, also drawn from Phillips' childhood, plays over the installation. It includes sounds of rain, sparse piano music, and an ice cream truck jingle. The sounds are understated, compelling the viewer to spend more than a few minutes in the space to fully grasp their effect. Phillips says about her process: "I began collecting bits of simple sounds — bull frogs at a bog, the washing machine at my mother's house."

Phillips' work feels intuitive, as if she is building it from the inside out, the direction unknown. This ponderous quality works to the advantage of her installations. "Castle" does not feel heavy-handed, though it uses objects, such as rope and wedding dresses, that are traditionally imbued with heavy meaning. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the title of a psychological thriller written in the 1960s by the novelist Shirley Jackson, who is most famous for her short story "The Lottery." The novel's teenage female protagonist, Merricat, lives with her troubled, half-dissolved family in a disintegrating mansion. It is a familiar literary trope, more common in the 19th century than the 20th: females living isolated lives in strange houses that echo their psychological struggles. Most people who sat through high school English can remember Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham or the troubled wife in the attic in Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre.

Phillips’ Toothpick plant
  • Phillips’ Toothpick plant

"It is necessary to invent the spaces you need whether they exist as a drawing or a made-up place, a song, or an installation. They might need to exist in some alternative reality until you can realize them physically, if ever at all," Phillips says. "An installation can also solve the dilemma of reality. The house in the book We Have Always Lived in the Castle started to take shape as a metaphor for the rest of the world."

With installation, Phillips seems to have found her defining medium. In past works, her sensibility has been spread throughout many photographs, short films, and performances, each acting as a sort of jotted note toward the larger picture. In installations such as "We Have Always Lived in the Castle," Phillips combines the broadness of her practice with her excellent sense of atmosphere.

"Working with installation is like making the whole space your canvas," Phillips says. "The performance and film, photographs and installation all happen on top of each other and overlap. Different work needs to happen in different ways. They are all equally important to my practice. They inform each other."

Terri Phillips will give a talk on Saturday, November 30th, at noon at the University of Memphis' ArtLab.

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