Musician and multi-talented artist Dudley Saunders saw two of his exes lose their lives close together in the early '90s during the AIDS crisis. As with when anyone dies there comes the question of stuff. Not the big stuff like houses and heirlooms and antiques. Just the regular every day things that people use and then have no more use for being dead.
Saunders got interested in that stuff, and it's the subject of his In These Boxes project. Years after his former lovers were gone, he realized that he no longer knew anybody that remembered when he was with them. The few objects he had as mementos were the only witnesses to the past beside himself.
"I had a number of objects, but two stay top of my mind," said Saunders in an email interview. "One was a simple cheap chain, the kind people hang around their necks to display a cross or St. Christopher's medal. That was from my first lover, an emotionally scarred Vietnam veteran. He was a tough guy, very distant, but his eyes showed rare emotion when he hung that chain around my neck. I felt like a lone witness; I don't know if anyone else knew what was inside him.
The other was a cassette tape of my second lover singing. He never let me hear it in life, and for years after his death I couldn't listen to it. Then I did and it nearly killed me. It made me wonder if Virginia Woolf was right that certain things should be kept but never examined too closely."
Saunders is bringing In These Rooms to Houston at 14 Pews. The performance uses video and music to tell stories of the lost items the dead leave behind that Saunders has decided to showcase. Though most of the songs in the show are fictional, they are based on real stories. The video objects are recreations or repurposed items that Saunders rescued. It was the garbage thrown out by New York City landlords after tenants passed away stuffed into garbage cans that inspired the show.
"A few objects that haunt me -- when I look at the hunting knife in "The Rosewood Casket", I am haunted by how such a common, utilitarian object can also be an object of horror and guilt without anyone else knowing it," said Saunders. "Or the video game joystick for "The Man in the Game" - you might see it in a yard sale and never know how much lonely hope and desperate longing it once held, or what it drove a teenager to do. There are secrets like hidden all around us - stories we can't imagine, and I feel compelled to tease them out of hiding."
So far Saunders has found a receptive audience. All he has to do is mention the project and people rush to tell him about some inconsequential item that has deep meaning to them because of its connection with a passed loved one. I can relate. As I write this my late grandfather's jacket hangs on the back of my chair. I don't really wear it much, but I like knowing it's there.
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People interested in participating in the project should upload photos of their own personal keepsakes of loved ones onto Instagram with the hashtag #InTheseBoxes. Feel free to describe your connection to the object in your post.
Though it seems a somewhat morbid subject, showcasing the leftovers of people's lives, Saunders sees a positive influence in his work.
"A priest at the Washington DC performance talked with me about this," he said. "These objects can function the way religious relics do, which is not as magical things but as what he called 'pointers to the divine', to the love and value that was once physically here on earth and now is physically gone but eternal. The things themselves are not important in and of themselves - in fact, when we die and take their stories with us, they'll become just things again. But if they keep us focused on what the past gave us, then they can help us move forward into a future."
In These Boxes premiers at 14 Pews on Sunday, July 27.