Reconstructed Memories

The art of Louise O’Rourke 

By Kyra Sagal


Louise O’Rourke’s memories are eternalized through her artwork. In 2011, her former partner, who was from Bulgaria, hung curtains from his home country over the windows in his United States house, which carried the aroma of his life in Bulgaria. Later, O’Rourke wrapped herself in the curtains. But the smell was gone. O’Rourke knew, just as the smell faded and would never return, her relationship with her partner could never last. She would never be a part of his personal life.

From that memory, O’Rourke created a video performance with the curtains. The video begins to play: Only her hands are visible against the curtains, grasping them tightly between her fingers. There’s tension. Then she releases the curtains. The sounds of a crying child can be heard, background noise to the deliberate movement of the cream-colored curtains. They surround her; the memory surrounds her.

Smell Scent

Scenes from Laura O’Rourke’s Smell/Scent

 Through her videos, performance art, pieces, and photographic work, O’Rourke combines different mediums to present a unique view of love, life, and ultimately, memory. She said that her curtain piece “Smell/Scent” is a video that shows “a way of being a part of something that you’ll never be a part of.” This manipulation of memory drives her work.

 “I just like to think about, in memory, how things are altered and changed and not remembered correctly.” O’Rourke’s calm and friendly voice echo. Her defined cheekbones add an element of artistry to her persona. It is as if her prominent facial features hold memories of their own.

She describes her work as “photographic” rather than photography because the objects that she does photograph are intentionally altered. A single object can engulf a memory, such as the wig her mother wore when she had cancer. Since 2012, O’Rourke has been collecting her own hair every day. It is a “marker of memory,” falling out without notice. Walking up to the 8 x 12-foot panel inspired by her mother’s wig, O’Rourke’s hair can be discreetly seen in the edges, adding reality to the piece.

Often times, O’Rourke will erase people who have died from a photograph. If a person looked at a photograph that originally showed the face of a person they once knew, would they remember the photograph after the erasing of their face? Such questions motivate O’Rourke to continue her art.

O’Rourke will also find discarded beds in the street and find ways to alter their appearance and photograph them. She shyly spoke of someone she recently was seeing who quickly became important in her life. O’Rourke said after the relationship, she realized why she photographs discarded beds. “It’s because of my feelings that I have in relationships with people. And I feel that I’m easily discarded, and there’s a little bit more to me than just discarding me.”

While O’Rourke has had many jobs, she currently photographs for weddings, artists’ work, and she occasionally works on a paint crew. But she thinks deeply about the intention behind her personal artwork, and she carefully chooses her words. It is open for conversation. Yet she has no intention to sell her memory-based art. “That’s not my goal in life when it comes to art. It’s not to sell it. It’s more to make it to be seen and to be talked about.”

While an undergraduate at Slippery Rock University, O’Rourke’s desire to be an artist was reaffirmed when she dated someone interested in drawing. O’Rourke dropped her psychology major and majored in studio art. Later, she pursued her Masters Degree at Ohio University, with a desire to teach. She currently teaches at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

But O’Rourke, 30, acknowledges that life is tough. It is difficult to make a living. Her father once told her “You’ve got to wear a coat, ‘cause it’s a cold world out there.”

For O’Rourke’s graduate thesis, she created a performance piece based on a letter written to her about the ending of a relationship. After copying the letter and forming crumpled, clay versions of it, O’Rourke performed for six hours, breaking the pieces with her hands. O’Rourke said the silicon remnants fell over her body. She was “antiquing” herself, going back to the age when the letter was written, but covered in the silicon; she was a statue of a memory. As O’Rourke broke each piece, the clay cut her hands. She bled. While unintentional, the bleeding served O’Rourke’s purpose – to summon the raw emotions based upon the effects of a memory. She said the piece was prompted by a desire to discard something that cannot be forgotten because it is now an ingrained memory. Yet she knew when she was done with the piece. Her former lover was married with a child, and O’Rourke could not do it anymore.

“My memories aren’t driven every single time by a relationship that I’m in,” says O’Rourke. She is constantly mulling ideas; once she pulls one from the backburner, “that’s when it becomes something.”