Once Alive • Jemima Yabes

Sep 8 to Sep 24, 2021 • Upstairs Gallery

A year into this crisis, there is nothing else that we need more than rest. But with lives at risk and tomorrows in peril, to rest has become an invitation for guilt and an admission of defeat – so we begin to mistake chaos for calm because all our life we lived in storms.

Such are the contradictions and the elusiveness of rest that Jemima Yabes confronts in Once Alive. Taking off from her quest for peace after more than a year of quarantine turmoil, Yabes seeks calm through images of seemingly lifeless forms. Yet in this process, she discovers something more: to be still is not to resign possibility, but to persist. After all, contradictions abound in today’s unending unrest: life is at a full stop, but it is also on the verge of collapse such that chaos and calm become entangled and we no longer recognize their singular forms. So Yabes comes up with a hybridized state: the state of being once alive – where movement resists stillness, and life endures despite death.

In this pursuit, Yabes mobilizes stillness to bring forward the movement deceptively inherent in these inanimate images. Do Dogs Dream? depicts her fascination with the tranquility of sleep that betrays the flurry in one’s dreams. The conflation of life and death is also demonstrated in her emblematic meat paintings, where she puts forward the irony of meat acquiring its nutritional – and, by extension, life-giving – capacities only through its slaughter. Her intentions behind her reproductions of the bird’s nest and tea leaves using frayed paper transfer also operate on a similar line: to demolish only to rebuild, it is a ruin that reconstructed nature – nothing less than life.

In one aspect of the term, these objects were once alive – once living, once lively, once devoid of destruction. But as Yabes contends, what was once alive may still find life. Amid ruin, madness, or catastrophe, one may still triumph and regain lost life. This conflation of life and death, victory and loss, is indicative of the contradictions of our times: on the one hand, the world is at a standstill; on the other hand, it is falling apart. In any case, the possibility of life and victory remains. Thus, to rest, to halt, and even to die, is not an ultimatum in life. Because life can still be reclaimed even after pause or defeat. To be once alive, then, is for hope to persevere. (Chesca Santiago)