Absence of presence

Introduced at the event as a ‘Study Day’ and suggested to me by Sharon as a conference, the “Family Ties Network: ‘Parental Concerns’” event on 3rd July was hosted in the Post Grad’ centre at the University of Bedfordshire – a fine facility despite the malfunction of the air conditioning on a very long warm and inspirational day.

‘Parental Concerns’ addressed on the day by three lens based artists: Colin Gray, David Jackson and Jill Daniels. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session moderated by one of the organisers. Each work represented a very personal perspective of a view of ‘parents’. Each told stories that whilst I recognised, with their observed familiarity a disjunction to my own, and perhaps no more so than that of fatherhood. One of the first works cited was Peter Day’s “Pictures of my Father” where the author sought to uncover/recover his late father by visiting familial homes:

What I found was space like it had never been before: empty and excessive. A vast emptiness, open in the totality and tonality of its knowledge, infinite in form, ambiguity and some memory (often vague and just then recalled) of what was there in the nothing that was still there.” P7. And then:

Quite literally in the house, my father’s house, there was nothing. Nothing tangible of the events, no records, just nothing and no more – no more personal stories being created. Its emptiness was everything that once held the memories in its indefinite space. Here there is nothing left but space, an abstraction, this emptiness that has not been scooped up and disposed of but that somehow remains. And yet this is so real. Not one thing remains except the aberrations – the marks, the dust, and the dirt. The by-products of life that have no real value are created by this attrition of life itself. A quintessence of dust is described in the somewhere that there was; and that had been a man.” p12

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Colin Gray, the first speaker started taking pictures of his parents when he was five, but started the series “The Parents” in 1980. Twenty years later, and still part of the overall The Parents’ work he produced “In Sickness and in Health” which formed the final stage of the work. Gray presented and talked about images for more than an hour from the huge archive he has created, all of which appeared collaborative, many playful. A fellow artist remarked to me after his talk that she felt concerned about the ethics of this series, that the parents were depicted in a fiction not of their doing, unimagined by themselves but formed from another perspective; I was less concerned about that. The series ‘In Sickness and in Health” has been published by Steidl and – from his website: ”In Sickness and in Health” forms the final stages of “The Parents” series. Begun in 2000, it shows his parent’s deterioration and, ultimately, his mothers’ death. The hospital and church visits became more frequent, the ailments more serious, the drugs regime ever more complex. Whilst his father struggled with his new role as a carer, Gray found that his photographs helped make sense of the deterioration and loss he was experiencing. Having reached the age his parents were when he started the project, Gray now sees their history in his own future.”

David Jackson presented work on his relationship with his father; a film, a spoken narrative and still images. I am interested in narratives about the father son relationship and Jackson, like me, recognised that his work is as much about him as a son as it is about his father. This duality is matched in my own work inasmuch as my work is also about my role as father. Jackson discusses various texts on the subject of fatherhood and read a long quotation from the six volume autobiography of Karl-Ove Knausgaard on the same subject, where the son decides to accept something very unpleasant rather than admit to his father his frailty, something I recognised acutely; a sense of subsumed pain providing the agency of control in the relationship. Knausgaard’s tale ended well for son and father – at least in the episode repeated by Jackson. I found the narrative of Jackson’s film to be one of reclamation of his father into the family fold. His parents had left England to go to Malta, the mother’s childhood home and when she died the father felt no need to stay and wanted to return home. Jackson, seemed to want to record that ‘reeling him in, back to a familial place’.

Jill Daniels’ introduced her work – an hour long film on the subject of her parents – with a short introduction where she quoted Michael Renov from his book ‘The Subject of Documentary (Visible Evidence) “We are all lost in the chasm before our desire to recapture the past and the impossibility of a pristine return.” Which seems to suggest that whichever way we look at the past it can never reveal ‘the truth’. Daniels also suggests that ‘secrets keep families together’ which primes the viewer to concern themselves with addressing what that/those secret/s might or might not be. And, as in the nature of secrets, they can only be secrets if left un-revealed. The film hints at secrets and purposefully reveals others. The film is less pertinent to my own work, but I found it fascinating to consider, in that I sensed a need, by the artist, to shine a light on those long hidden secrets and in the post presentation discussion she hinted at yet more. During the making of the film her mother passed away leaving her with her father and we, the audience, become aware that some revelations now have no path to the light – that impossibility of any form of return, let alone pristine.

Whilst the artist Peter Day went in search of his late father and found him in the presence of his absence, I went to see my mother immediately after the conference and found only an absence of presence. I had wanted to find memorabilia of him to enable me to place him in the frame, to incorporate his presence into the narrative. The small purse of assorted cheap cuff-links and shirt studs were all my mother had of him in the bungalow she downsized to after he passed on. After my father died I was given three rings by my mother and a gold chain (I presumed this was a necklace, though I never remember him wearing one). I remember only two rings, both of which had to be cut from his fingers prior to cremation – where this third one came from I have no idea. It seemed profoundly odd that my mother must have cleared out a great deal of his ‘presence’ to leave such a tiny remnant behind, and why keep these? She doesn’t want them back – I won’t want to keep them. Looking around the sitting room that she now inhabits, there is one photograph of my parents together – celebrating a wedding anniversary alongside a press-cutting of the event. Other than that he is absent, other than in the memory

I now plan to create a way to take my father into the frame and into the land and one of the thoughts is to take these negatives and place them in the land to include him. These are the only photographs I have of him that I made, they were made as a request by two of my younger sisters who wanted a memento. We all knew at the time that he was bearing the brain timor that would claim him soon after these negatives were made. I seem to remember making a few, maybe two or three prints for sisters, nothing more. These latent images have now lain dormant for nearly twenty years; perhaps they will accompany me into Purgatory.



6 thoughts on “Absence of presence

  1. I will be interested to see what you will do creatively with the negs, John. Just recently I made a ‘token’ image, using plates in a wood, that is a stand in for my relationship with my mother. I use the word token because the image represents an unmade one that I was not ready to make and maybe never will.

    • I have a few thoughts, nothing definite, around making images of the memorabilia and then lacing that into the land, making cyanotypes of these negatives and doing the same with them. I just it wasn’t so damned sunny all the time! Ha ha.

  2. That looks such an interesting day you had. I was particularly moved by the Peter Day work because it reminded me so much of how I felt after my parents died.

    Why cyanotypes?

    • It was a good day. I’m not definite about cyanotypes, just throwing things into the mix, as it were, to see what comes out. Hopefully I’ll have something to show at the TV meeting, otherwise I’ll watch from the sidelines.

  3. Pingback: In Sickness and in Health | Body of Work

  4. Pingback: Introducing the work | Body of Work

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