A river of memory

‘When we think of the reality caught in a photograph as a “slice of time” or a “frozen moment”, we paste the image into a particular type of historical understanding.’ – so writes Ulrich Baer in his introduction to his book ‘Spectral Evidence’. I have much more to read from this book and will return to that later. However this quote chimed with me after attending the TVG meeting at the weekend, where I presented and talked about where my project on Purgatory has reached. Baer goes on to quote Heraclitus about the inability to step into the same river twice and these two thoughts are echoing in my thoughts.

My work is about memory, about a specific time, and the more I consider that episode the more I sense the fluidity of memory which militates against the idea of that ‘frozen moment’ veering toward that metaphorical body of water flowing, escaping from my grasp, not being fully able to trust what comes to mind. These memories that I am trying to fix from the subconscious, to force out like some deep-seated abscess are becoming more difficult to discern, more difficult to take hold of.

The notion of establishing a critical framework for the project led me to Dante and to the second of his Divine Comedies – Purgatory – and in order to experiment with the text I chose to construct images with verses from the text. My strategy was to use text that was abstract, Dante uses a lot of landscape imagery in the text as well as overtly spiritual both of which I wanted to steer away from. My intent wasn’t to illustrate the image with text nor vice-versa, however upon presentation it appears that this conflation of text and imagery didn’t work too well, if at all.

The general feeling about this image/text presentations wasn’t favourable. I had already decided that the presentation of the text wasn’t right – too large a font and its relative position to the image seemed neither connected nor unconnected and, although I ensured that the centre of the text and image matched, they appeared separate. One of the comments suggested that the text was too directive, another that it appeared to be a crutch that I was employing and that the imagery would/should stand on its own.

I had noticed, after printing the images, that these images all had a structural element that I wasn’t aware of, either in the framing of the image nor in their post production. Part of my strategy is to reproduce images as full frame as possible, I wanted to editing to be done in the composition, in the act of image conception; however these particular images had the object/subject central to the frame. And this composition suggested to me at least, either the dominance of the object/subject or the fragility of it; it is something to think about – this inconsistency as it suggests I am not sure what story I am telling.

My concern though at this stage is where to take this project. Image and text seem to me to provide a very real chance to develop dialogue within the viewer. The work I am presenting for the ‘Memories’ exhibition seems to work very well, the ‘openness’ of the imagery and the text allows the reader to enter the work, whereas the general feeling of the viewers to these images was much less so. A suggestion was made about the use of Dante’s work that I could provide a contextualising text which was associated with the work – alongside, but not coupled – to provide that structural contextually, something to think about. There were also comments that the imagery wasn’t as potent as some of my earlier work in the project, whereas I see some very powerful signs in these pieces, so perhaps it is a strong signal to find a better way to be able to communicate. I also feel that the work at present is very focussed and that perhaps I should try and find a way to allow it open up a bit more, allow it to breathe a little which might allow me more opportunity to help me write this fiction.

Baer’s suggestion that photograph’s are a slice of time from a flowing river also concerns me. The fluvial metaphor that Dante employs, running its course from the ‘gateway to paradise’ to the inferno below, is the River Lethe and which, after imbibing from it, the drinker will forget all their sins as if they never existed, expunged from their memory and, by implication, from their sub-conscious. These images I have made aren’t evidences, this work will not be about ‘what happened’, no ‘slice of time’ as I am fully aware that there is much that I don’t remember, nor do I want to revisit that place. However there is a ‘spectre of evidence’ that I do wish to investigate, to depict and to interrogate through this work. But I need to find a language and syntax that does it better than I have managed to find ’till now. I also wonder whether I should step out of the land, and whilst not leaving it, think about other strategies to help describe what I want to express. Perhaps to employ more poetic imagery that I began using and which is being employed in the ‘Memories’ exhibition. After all it seems to have a root in an appropriate trope.

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4 thoughts on “A river of memory

  1. Hi John you may recall from following my blog how many twists and turns I took with my East London work before settling on a path which I was happy with. It feels like you are going through the same process. I guess it is part of the creative process. Personally I feel that your landscapes of Purgatory have great potential both in a literal and metaphoric sense. I think that the text adds to the whole work but I am not sure that you need to relate specific texts to specific images. For me what is important is to present the viewer with the various interpretations of the term purgatory – the spiritual, the personal and the place. All of these are bound up in the single work, enabling you to express your personal feelings about past events, but also allowing the viewer reader to open up meanings for themselves. I see the photographs in a narrative flow interspersed with texts. The texts could be extracts from Dante, personal thoughts, definitions from a dictionary, snippets from the history of Purgatory the place…. The whole work might perhaps play with the ambiguity of the term purgatory…. Hope these thoughts don’t confuse the issue further….

    • Many thanks for this considered response Keith, much appreciated. You are right I am twisting and turning and I am aware that this process is about finding the way through it all – that what I envisaged at the beginning is unlikely to be what will I will be finding at the end. It is scary as well as invigorating. I quite like your suggestions – especially about the text – and think that the personal thoughts might be where it ends up, though I also like the structure that Dante provides (best of both worlds). Onwards and upwards!

  2. I agree with Keith. Have you been able to write down, simply, exactly what it is you want to say – not for reading on the blog but for yourself? There’s a message you’re sending out in all of this.

    Re dominance and fragility – there’s a dialogue between the images going on maybe.

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