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Getting to see James Bouché’s latest show is not easy. Located in a storage unit at Extra Space Storage in Remington, Family History Center requires that viewers request an appointment in advance then follow the artist along a snaking, fluorescent-lit hall flanked by identical white metal doors. It’s akin to entering a top-secret vault. Finally, Bouché arrives at unit #3209 and unlocks it to reveal a 10’ x 20’ room with seven silver-toned screen prints. 

The compositions are clean and minimal: A chain circle intersected by a rectangle; two rodents with interlocking tails; two hands holding a rod inscribed with the words “Hold To Thy Rod” in Old English font. The scenes float in an otherworldly glow and the titles hint at an afterlife (“It’s Easy To Say ‘Forever’”; “Second Thoughts Before Eternity”). The room feels like some strange colorless limbo where a person might await judgment, but each print is velvet flocked on aluminum, allowing a certain softness in this cold and sterile surrounding. 

Family History Center, on view through January 26, explores the Mormon practice of genealogical research and Bouché’s own experience being raised in the faith. The show’s unique location was in part inspired by Granite Mountain Records Vault, a storage facility in Utah that houses Mormon genealogical records and is managed by the Church of Latter-Day Saints.

This isn’t the first time Bouché has explored the subject matter—The Holy Ghost Goes to Bed at Midnight at School 33 touched on similar themes—but Family History Center feels like Bouché’s most explicitly personal show to-date, maybe because he is there to guide you through the material. 

He prefaces the work by saying it’s specific to his own experience in the church and not critical of anyone’s faith or personal choices. “I do try to be objective in describing the practices that are part of the Mormon faith,” he says. “Shedding light on some of the shroud of mystery surrounding the church is enlightening to people and they can make up their own opinion.” 

After 11 years in Baltimore, Bouché will move to New York next month with his partner, making this somewhat of a farewell show, although he promises an eventual return. (Full disclosure: Bouché and I are friends and former roommates). I chatted with him about Family History Center, the Mormon practice of baptisms for the dead—in which Mormons are baptized in the names of people who are deceased—and his decision to leave the faith at age 16.

James Bouché, Family History Center installation view (photo by Tyler Davis)

Nora Belblidia: Can you tell me about your family’s history with Mormonism?

James Bouché: My family joined the Church in ’97. I was already 7 years old and my sister was 6 so we were not born into it. After I left for college, two years after I stated that I didn’t want to be part of the church anymore, my family started to not go. So their time in the church was only about 12 years and now nobody in my family is Mormon anymore. 

How did your family convert? What was the impetus? 

It was my fault. When I was in kindergarten I had a friend who knew sign language and, at the time, my mother was going back to school to be a sign language interpreter, so we started talking with this girl and her parents about where and how they knew sign language because nobody in her family was deaf. She invited us to these free classes at her church Sunday nights and after going for a little while they invited us to go to their service earlier that day. We started going to these deaf Mormon services and over time we made friends and we liked them, so we converted after that. 

Was your family religious prior to that?

Not really, no. Not really at all, actually. 

You’ve mentioned that a lot of work in this show is in reference to Granite Mountain Records Vault. How did you find out about it and what was your interest there? 

I found out about Granite Mountain Records Vault through a couple of ways. One, genealogy is a cornerstone of the Mormon faith. My show at School 33 in 2017 was mostly about the practice of baptisms for the dead and I think of this show as a continuation of that, but more of the research/analytical side. Inside each Mormon church, everyone has a family history center where members can go and do genealogy research on their own and they’re encouraged to do that. I knew I wanted to make a show about genealogy and the work put into finding names of deceased family members so I started searching Mormon databases and facilities where they house this information. Granite Mountain Records came up pretty quickly but I didn’t know about it when I was in the church.

Can you tell me about your choice to show this work in a storage facility and the connection to the subject matter?

I really wanted to make sure that the use of the storage unit wasn’t arbitrary or just me throwing together my own show. Once I found out about Granite Mountain Records Vault, I realized the storage unit made sense because Granite Mountain is just a research facility, it’s not open to the public. As far as I know, very few appointments can be made to go see it. It’s just for archivists and researchers. So there’s this very private, secret nature of record keeping that I thought lent itself to a storage unit that was private, appointment-only, not open to the public, but still easy to access in some ways, but also you had to work to get to it.

Right, it’s not some place you can just walk into.

Yeah, and aesthetically I wanted to make sure that all of the work tied into the space too. So all of this work was made for a storage facility, specifically this one, and it was made for a room this size. There’s seven pieces total and all of the velvet on the aluminum prints matches the color of the metal walls. The embroidery on the curtains matches the metal of the walls and the flocked velvet in the prints. I wanted to make sure everything was connected. The ripples in the curtain are to mirror the ripples in the walls also, and the way the lights are hung mimics the lights in the rest of the storage facility too.

I’m glad that you brought up the materials because I wanted to ask you about them. All the pieces are velvet flocked aluminum?

Yeah, I screenprinted an enamel-based ink on these pieces of aluminum dibond which is just aluminum mounted on plastic, and while the ink was still wet I flocked powdered velvet. I wanted the prints to feel soft both visually and physically and I wanted the connection to the curtains. The curtains were important to me for a few reasons. Like I said, they mimic the ripples in the wall, but I also wanted to reference medieval tapestries loosely, especially with the Old English text found throughout the exhibition and the medieval manuscript layouts I used to compose many of the images. I wanted it to be hard and soft but the whole thing cold. None of it is warm. It’s not reminiscing. It’s a very cold, analytical approach.

Right, and when you’re dealing with something like family history, that’s something that could easily be nostalgic. 

My family has done genealogy research, but I have never found it particularly interesting. But I love that when anybody starts talking about genealogy, there’s an excitement. Everyone has something they want to share about their family history that they love or something that helps make up who they are, and I wanted to make a show about the research behind that. It’s not stripping it of its familiarity or the warmth of the family, but it’s just the absence of it. I was interested in the bureaucracy and the paperwork behind family history.

Why does that part in particular interest you?

The reason why genealogy is so important in the Mormon faith is because Mormons believe that you can’t get into heaven unless you’re baptized, even if you’ve passed away. So it is up to the Mormon community to collect names of everyone who has passed and get baptized in their name. This doesn’t have to be their family members, it’s just anyone and everyone.

Which is controversial. 

Very controversial, especially among the Jewish community because Mormons keep baptizing Holocaust victims’ names and the Jewish community is understandably like, “These people died because they didn’t want to convert or they didn’t want to be forced to convert, and you are now converting them in death.” But this has been going on for quite a while, a few decades, and Mormons still feel like they’re doing the right thing because it’s a cornerstone of the faith. As far as I know it’s still happening.

You’ve mentioned wanting to approach your art without much personal history attached, and walking that line between the personal and universal in order to let a piece stand on its own. I was curious about how you feel this show fits into the context of your work as a whole, and whether your view on personal history and art is evolving at all. 

The show at School 33 was much more about feeling than this one. It was nostalgic. There were deeper levels to that show—I left clues but it wasn’t necessary for people to pick up on those signifiers to still get the feeling. This show is different in that, although people can appreciate the work and the installation visually, it cannot stand alone conceptually. I think it’s important that I guide people through it, if anything to lead them into the different practices slowly, as to not overwhelm anyone, which is also a practice that the church does with members. Over time you slowly learn new things as to not be dismissive or be scared or question practices. Describing the work to people multiple times a day helps me to really hone in on what I find most troubling about my experience. Remembering childhood things is always frustrating because it’s fleeting, but the more I talk about the memories in a concise way, the easier it is to make sense of it. 

What are those things that you find most troubling? 

I still feel some guilt for the baptisms for the dead. I went to the temple and I didn’t bring any names that I had found so I let them pick names of people for me and I got baptized for maybe seven or eight people. None of them were probably Holocaust victims but I don’t know who they were and I don’t know their story or their life decisions and so I feel a little bit of guilt. Even though I don’t think the belief behind baptisms for the dead is true, I feel guilt in this practice of converting them in death. It feels like indoctrinating someone without consent. Although, the Mormon faith argues that you getting baptized for them does not automatically make them a member, they still have the option of choosing while they’re waiting to get into heaven whether or not they accept it, but you can’t really escape that feeling, like you’ve taken someone’s name and you’ve done something with it. 

But also, as a child, you weren’t necessarily able to consent to engage in that practice.

Oh yeah, it would have been a huge controversy if I had opposed it at a young age—I was 12. Also, you’re not really old enough to question anything at that age when you’re surrounded by such an all-encompassing force in your life. And that’s taught by the faith quite a bit to not question. Any sort of questioning is frowned upon. 

Are there any specific pieces in the show that deal with that guilt or questioning in particular? 

This one with the hands is titled “Hold To The Rod” which is what the text in Old English on the pole says. It’s actually a much larger, scaled-up drawing of a keychain that many Mormon youth carry. It’s just a little rod and sometimes has little sculptures of hands holding on to it. Without getting too much into the biblical references, it’s just a constant reminder to not waver from the church. That one’s a guilt reminder. 

In what way?

I used to have that keychain, I used to wear it. I remember feeling like a very self-righteous child, like I was right and it was my job to share this with everybody. I don’t know if the rest of these pieces deal with guilt as much. The School 33 show was more about guilt. Family History Center is more about trying to leave the church and finding it difficult. Another cornerstone of the Mormon faith is being sealed to your family for eternity—all of your worthy family members. So in an ideal situation you would create this chain in a family where everyone is linked together and they can be together forever. But one unworthy member breaks that chain. It’s pretty common for people to not want to talk about family members who have struggled with drug use or alcoholism or even depression. A lot of Mormons want to portray this very idyllic family unit to prove to themselves and their fellow church members that they are doing it and it’s successful and it’s working for them. So there’s a few pieces in the show that reference a chain. In the biggest piece in this show, the one that uses my Mormon ID number (“The Weak Link”), the chain fades in and out, symbolizing weaker chains, and the more visible chains are the stronger ones. 

James Bouché, "It's Easy to Say 'Forever,'" velvet flocked screenprint on aluminum (photo by Michael Bussell)

Was the concept of the chain part of your decision to leave the church?

No, it wasn’t an association that I made until much later. I didn’t even really think about being sealed forever as anything outside of the ordinary until later on. Then I started thinking about how comical it is to think about eternity as an obtainable amount of time to be with someone. The first piece that you see here when you enter are two church mice, or two church rats, entering this space that I thought of as the temple to be sealed together for eternity. The title of that piece is “Second Thoughts Before Eternity” and one of the mice is having second thoughts and looking back, but still going forward. It’s a little bit about my parents’ separation. Nobody would ever be able to pull all of this from that but it’s about my parents agreeing to eternity and then about 10 years later starting to fall apart. And 10 years is such a short amount of time in comparison to eternity. It’s so easy to say forever but it’s such a funny concept to strive for. 

Right, “til death” is pretty big.

Even that’s hard for most people. So although nobody would really know the full impact of that message for me, in some ways this piece is the easiest for people to digest because it’s not heavy in the symbolism visually. It’s simply two rodents with interlocked tails about to enter this space and one looking back hesitantly, much like the viewers of this show who are presumably not church members potentially looking back, wondering what they’re about to get into. 

Can you tell me about the pieces that reference piercings?

Yeah, I’ve used piercings a couple times in my work in relation to Mormonism and a piercing is one of the easiest ways to signify a Mormon youth’s active or passive resistance. It’s not even an active resistance, it’s a really passive thing to do. Simply getting your ears pierced if you’re a cisgendered male is a huge controversy and getting two piercings in one ear is equally as controversial. 

For anyone?

For anyone, yeah. So when Mormon youth start to question and leave the church, they tend to just get their ears pierced. It’s actually one of the first things I did when I came to MICA. I went to Towson Mall and I got my ears pierced for $20. As soon as I went home for break and I had to go to the service again, nobody had to ask me what my views were on anything anymore. Or nobody asked me if I was going to the church in Baltimore because my ears were pierced. They all knew. 

How much did coming out relate to your experience with the church?

Oh, it was 100 percent negative. Within one week I told my parents—I told them one day that I wasn’t going on my mission, and then two days later I told them I didn’t believe in God, and then two days later I told them I was gay. So it was a very intense week and then for the next two years, before I left for school, it was tough. There was no hanging out with my classmates who were not church members outside of school, because as my mom would say, “Nothing good comes from hanging out.” I was very much kept at home and at church. Those were the only two things I was allowed to do—and go to work. I worked at a smoothie café. So I was very much kept at home. None of this work in the show is gay actually. The mice aren’t gay [laughs]. But I think the School 33 show was kinkier. This one, the only kinky thing is being in this weird metal box room with these weird ambient lights and no shadows.

There’s text in a few of these works. I’m thinking specifically about this piece with your Mormon ID number (“The Weak Link”) and the www.ancestry.com one (“It’s Easy To Say ‘Forever’”) and I’m curious about that choice to have an obscured message where it’s kind of a secret.

All the text in this show is all the same Old English font that I had on my computer. I chose it for a few reasons, one of which is just aesthetically I think Old English is really cool, but I wanted it to also tie into the manuscript and tapestries in a more historical context. The obscurity is important to me because when text is used in a piece, it makes it too easy for the reader to dismiss because you read it and then you walk away. By obscuring the text or recontextualizing text you make the viewer have to do the work to understand it and it becomes more about the visual of it than just the information.

Your work is very research-based. Do you feel like even though you’re not practicing, your interest in research has links in Mormonism? 

I’m sure there’s some correlation between my love of structure and my experience in the church. Definitely. I sometimes worry that I am too self-righteous with some aspects of my life. I’ve recently been making a list of things that you’re told not to do as a Mormon that I did after I left and now I’m wondering if those were actually good practices, and I’m working on a piece called “Maybe I Should, Maybe I Shouldn’t.” Some of the things were “maybe I shouldn’t do drugs, maybe I shouldn’t stay out after midnight, maybe I shouldn’t drink alcohol, maybe I shouldn’t drink coffee.” This list goes on and on but what I find troublesome with that is the absolute in “should” and “shouldn’t.” In the church it’s a hard and fast rule to not do certain things even in moderation. The more distance I have with the faith, I have this worry that I’m romanticizing their rules in a weird way.

And so many of the ones you mentioned just have to do with getting older. 

Yeah, like maybe nothing good happens after 12 o’clock at night. I’ve been out at bars at 2 o’clock in the morning and I would have probably been better off if I had just gone home at midnight. Or, like, drinking alcohol is not always fun and is terribly bad in a lot of situations. So that’s a funny thing to think about. I mean the homosexuality rule I still don’t agree with for a few reasons.

I know that you’re leaving Baltimore soon. What has Baltimore meant to you as an artist? Especially since you moved here—it seems like it has a lot to do with your leaving the faith and your rebellion. 

Baltimore is the only city I’ve lived in as an adult, so I associate it with my independence and my free agency to choose what I want to do. And the city has provided me with many things. It’s cheap to rent spaces so I’ve had a studio since graduating, I’ve been able to afford one. The community is very accessible and small—for better or for worse—so meeting up with gallery owners and having conversations with them has always been a very obtainable thing. I think that if I had left Baltimore after graduating, I wouldn’t have nearly as much work as I’ve done. There’s been a lot of freedom, I think. It’s going to be sad to leave, definitely.

Exciting though, too. 

Exciting, but I’ll be back, I’m sure.

**********

Family History Center is on view, appointment-only, through January 26 at the Extra Space Storage at 2400 North Howard Street. To set up an appointment, message the artist on Instagram: @jamesbouche.

Featured image: James Bouché, “The Weak Link,” velvet flocked screenprint on aluminum (photo by Tyler Davis)

Photos by Tyler Davis and Michael Bussell

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