The desire to make more collages this week followed hot on the heels of my deep reflections last week about the action of cutting. Possibly the power of the scissors is akin to the power of the pencil? The hand cuts directly into the material - a signal sent into the hand without mediation, and capturing a feeling instantaneously.
The misty images (like the one above) transforming into more readable sharper abstract shapes.
The collage I began this time I realised had been in my thoughts for many years. When I have completed it I will post it on here , but for now I wanted to set down what is happening in the making of it. As with all the other recent collages I found an old photocopy of a photograph that satisfied my sensation of the moment.
Today I was concerned with outside and inside, windows and light. The one I set upon was of a hotel room in southern Europe somewhere - our Grammy in shadow - deeply involved in what looked like eating breakfast in the room. The action of cutting into the upper half of the photocopy at first felt difficult, but once in there I began to imagine I was in the room with her and as the scissors worked around the table edge and window frame the sensation of 'being inside' the space was heightened...
Once satisfied with the cutting out of different elements I began rearranging them to express my own feelings about the stories we were told about her travels, and also my confusion over where these stories ended. Some of the remembered shadows of childhood emerge during this process... The collages are about memory and emotion. But the sticking of the positives and negatives becomes a healing process that allows a new image to surface.
Last week a wonderful friend and old colleague came to the garden to talk about a possible project that we would research to continue the flow of ideas that we have been working on for over 20 years.
We wondered what the drivers were for the impulse to work in a particular way. Why was language, representation and collaboration so important to us? We shared many deep thoughts about family, early experiences and the need to understand the motivating forces that impacted on us as artist and researcher.
Our slow but animated conversation led us to think about the creative elements that might inform some work in our much loved city with families who want to share their histories in new ways. 'Literacies to heal' which might include collage and oral histories felt like a good place to start. The ease of cutting and sticking and the sense of (re)forming, and making new images from old (memory) flowed through our discussion.
Each family tree made up of a direct but different language that can be shared between generations.
I am beginning to think more about the ongoing appearance of particular forms and what is the intention of the pieces I am making. Jack Whitten's exhibition a few years ago reminded me that the form you choose to make the work - the process of the making - should reflect the ideas you are trying to convey. The painting above is called The Gift: dedicated to the memory of Packy, 1988. Packy was a student of Whitten's who had died prematurely - and so he posed a question to himself 'how do you memorialize a person or event without resorting to illustrational devices?' he goes on to write in his journal that he uses material to transfer this information..the fragments of the acrylic in the painting are describing a set of feelings.
Many, many years ago I first started thinking about the way family myths and narratives (often circulating within and next to the old photographs and baldessa camera ever present in our childhood...) can impact on the way a child perceives the world. And this impact has constantly played over in my mind as soon as I settle to making a piece. These pieces I have made for over 20 years are consistently trying to redo, reinvent, massage and recreate. And in choosing to use the medium of sewing and collage I feel able to cut, stitch and remake.
What am I remaking?
The beautiful photographs I received from cousin Helen, together with the magnificent albums my friend showed me of Carl Tighe's collection of Polish photographs, reminded me that my history is not simply of a gaping hole, a grainy black and white image of genocide, or a loss. It is of presence amongst the absence. I can reimagine my great grandmother's thick textured cloak with the crochet style detail peeping through behind the clasp and think about how she must have lingered around the rolls of funky textiles in Lodz, maybe sewing and resewing, stitching and creating.
So here we are again, Finding Helena is finding the medium...
I wanted to say something about the titles of things I do.
It seems they are a way of pulling things together but they often change....So why 'Finding Helena'?
Helena was the name given to me 'because it was your great grandmother's name- she was left behind in Poland'.
And for all these years up until the landing of the box from Cousin Helen I hadn't been able to work out if I'd ever seen an image of her. The only place I'd seen her name was on the Chemnitz monument in the large Jewish cemetery there.
And so seeing her with great grandfather Tobias (I knew what he looked like as Mum had once confirmed that a long time ago when looking through the photographs she had) was a moment of confrontation as much as contentment. The fixing of her image in my mind set in motion more questions than it answered.
Standing clutching her handbag in a beautiful embroidered cloak, Helena looks directly to camera. But there is no story to accompany the image. A blank is lodged there, making the 'seeing' of her particular smile and dark eyes a powerful but difficult moment.
So I asked myself why at this point I wanted to begin making work on something that caught the essence of a search or a 'finding'.
What are photographs without a context?
Or maybe the context is the absence?
The context is the knowledge of her murder and of the silencing of her story to muffle the deepest pain the photograph must have brought when looked at by her surviving children and grandchildren.
These are the questions I want to ask, amongst many.
I realise 'publishing' her face or any of the other 'unknown' women's and children's faces online is complex. This is part of a long and complicated journey which began with the first installation I made in 1997 .
The details I picked for this blog are of small corners of the photographs. A visual grazing which is part of the 'Finding'.
The search for the Finding of Helena I am sure is not for the simple 'recognition' of the image but of something else....
And I will add more to the blog as I delve deep into the reasons for these dreams of longing and constant excavation. The little corners I have posted are from the new set of photos, and they are small spaces - ones I can hide behind.
Like the pieces I made for 'Cornerworks' in 2007 they skirt around the people that were there at the moment of the shutter clicking. You sense they are maybe ghosts at the edges where a figure is pictured further to the left, right, above or below...Lost in space.
Making the new collages at the same time as writing this will I hope will bring me face to face with these difficult questions.....
Just posted a collage I'd made in 2016....It was all about presence and absence, positive and negative, loss and recovery...
These are all the things that have been on my mind as I begin this next 'Finding Helena' project. I realise thought that this really isn't the 'next' project as it isn't a new one. It is part of an ongoing one....
I have so many pieces lying on the floor or on the little shelf in the basement all covered in blue and purple. I have made them after a session with a group of the 'real' photographs - the actual paper objects with all their little tears and marks.
Like this one.
Its always the same - whether in plaster (here) or chalk or paint. Blues and golds and a tied up uncontrolled form. It seems that I can never get to the bottom of the thing, to the story in the picture I have looked at. So lost and so often terrifying. The time after the photograph is taken ends in a black and white image of the gates of Auchwitz.
So making this is all about recovery. The tangle is all there but the lush beauty - the deep textiles, the mystery of touch; I have tried to capture these.
And the new box of images has meant I am revisiting all these pieces and looking at them afresh.
So the box of (cousin) photos is sitting on the table next to my paints and bits and pieces. They are still cradled in the two plastic fruit trays I tipped them into on arrival. Although I know these photographs are simply pieces of paper covered in a special film, the object (photograph) seems to bring on a sense of 'other time' in my mind...I have been thinking about this over and over with past projects....How the absence of the people in them is made more poignant by the presence of the image sandwiched in the paper. As though the paper itself has captured something of their aura?
Whatever it is it feels quite monumental - at times comforting and at other times slightly threatening...
I will go back to reading Barthes, Berger and Sontag
It feels so important to think about touch and how the camera captures those fleeting moments of connection.