What is it like to go through life not knowing who one's real mother is, knowing neither the sound of her voice nor the touch of her hands, not what she looks like nor even whether she is living or dead?
For people who have not experienced it, such an absence is all but unimaginable. It cannot be put into words; it is -- for some -- a loss beyond words, beyond description of any sort except, perhaps, as a kind of haunting emptiness, a painful longing of the soul for which there is no cure.
Yet this is the experience that artist Ann Fessler, who was raised by an adoptive family and never knew the woman who bore her, bravely attempts to express in her deeply moving installations, Close to Home and Everlasting, both on view through March 16 in the Decker Gallery of the Maryland Institute College of Art.
It is a measure of Fessler's success in communicating the nearly incommunicable that, after experiencing her art, we, too, may gain at least a measure of insight into the terrible psychic toll exacted by an irreparable privation.
Fessler grew up in a small Midwestern town, raised by adoptive parents who she gives us no reason to believe were anything other than loving and kind.
Yet, the abiding discontent of her life has been the enigma surrounding her birth mother's identity and the circumstances that drove her to surrender a daughter to strangers.
In Close to Home, the first of her installations, Fessler tells of a chance encounter years later with a woman who believed herself to be the artist's mother. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, but the incident eventually prompted Fessler to initiate a search of her own for the woman who had so abruptly disappeared from her life shortly after it began.
The installation consists of several life-size steel-mesh corncribs like the ones that dotted the rural Ohio landscape of Fessler's youth. Inside one of these, the artist has created a rough-hewn little theater in which a nine-minute video collage tersely recounts her childhood feelings of abandonment and her subsequent efforts to track down her lost parent.
In Everlasting, the companion piece to Close to Home, the voices of women who, like the artist's mother, gave up their children for adoption, emerge from wall-mounted speakers to wash over the visitor in waves of anguish and regret.
These disembodied voices, whose shared pain endows them with the tragic dignity of a Greek chorus, symbolize the generations of unmarried women in America who allowed themselves to be coerced and humiliated into giving up their babies because society deemed them unfit to be mothers.
This show owes its existence to MICA curator-in-residence George Ciscle, who invited Fessler to create the two installations for a class he teaches in exhibition development. (Before joining MICA's faculty in 1997, Ciscle founded the Contemporary Museum, which he headed from 1989 to 1996.)
The exhibition seminar is designed to give graduate and undergraduate students hands-on experience in putting together museum and gallery shows. Students in the seminar learn how to work with artists to develop exhibition ideas, design lighting and create exhibition texts.
Fessler never tells us the ultimate outcome of her own search for the woman who bore her, though it is clear from the video that she is probably still alive (though unaware of her daughter's search for her) and that the artist's feelings about a reunion are ambivalent. Nor does Fessler ever show the same sort of interest in uncovering the identity of her natural father.
Yet these seeming inconsistencies do not strike the visitor as strange, but rather as more evidence of an emotional complexity few who have not lived through such an experience can truly comprehend. We are finally brought to a realization that, in such situations, there may well be secrets of the heart destined never to be unlocked.
The Decker Gallery is located in the Station Building on MICA's campus. Hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call 410-225-2300, or visit the college web site at www.mica.edu.