Outsourcing Memories: Why My Past is a Lie
I do not remember the exact moment when I began questioning
my memory. And until recently, it was not the center of my practice. In the summer of
2012, I was hospitalized as part of the final phase of chemotherapy to treat the
Hodgkin’s disease I had relapsed earlier in the year. I do not recall in great detail much
of what happened. This had nothing to do my memory, instead this selective amnesia
was brought upon by the mundane day-to-day life of lying in a bed. I could not tell you
what I ate, or wasn’t eating. I could not tell you how much weight I lost, or about the
weather on the other side of my window. I was caught in a routine. What I can recall,
in great detail, was the shaking hands of the medical student doing work experience
that could not find my pulse. I remember the bulging eyes of the senior nurse as she
read 39.2 degrees from the thermometer. But most of all, I remember the furrowed
eyebrows of the doctor with a pen to his lips who stood, bewildered because he could
not tell me what the next few days would consist of. These gestures reminded me of
an artist whom I had looked to for visual advice.
Mimic changed the way I looked at a photograph. Before researching Jeff Wall’s work, photography was technical to me. I cared only for which f-stop and shutter speed combination would yield me the sharpest image. My eye for composition was developed, but my sense of concept was not. It was after thoroughly investigating Mimic I realized that hidden in plain sight are the micro-gestures that drew me into the image. It made me believe in this situation. Micro-gestures, as described by Wall, are “mechanical, automatic or impulsive” urges that are the result of “stress, stimulation or provocation.” Created in 1982, Mimic was the image that took Wall outside of the studio and into the more uncertain environment of the streets. Street photography is the dominant movement during the post-war period, with artists such as Robert Frank leading the way. “Feeling that [photography] was aesthetically limited... Wall invented what he calls his ‘cinematographic' mode of photography, in which he can recreate something he has witnessed with the look and feel of documentary photography, but as a fiction, using the techniques of a filmmaker.” This was the language I wanted to use in my own work. I craved the novelty of cinema. Cinematographic became the modus operandi I used to realize the scenes I had in my mind.
As I lay in bed, struggling to rest, I tried to remember those twenty two days I was away from home. With my partner, Catherine, lying next to me, much as she did when I was hospitalized, we spoke about how we made it through. We spoke about my promise to go away with her on holiday when it's all over. She told me about how whenever I was weary or struggling, she would remind me of how we met, and the great times we’ve shared to that point. She then confided to me her anxiety regarding being alone; how startled she felt anytime she heard something around the house. She told me about her daily cycling commute to visit me. It was in this moment that the outline for my next photographic series manifested.
Sigmund Freud had a distaste for biography. To him it represented
the dangerous and misleading claims one person might make about knowing another.
Biography’s intentions become overshadowed by the bias of the biographer. It is
contaminated by the relationship that took place before the event. Christian Boltanski
once famously claimed in an interview, “I no longer have any childhood memories. I
have erased them by inventing so many false memories." What is remarkable about
this quote is that Boltanski has been known to refute it on many occasions. A multimedia
artist, Boltanski felt, much like Freud did, that biography had to tendency to make people “mythical.”
My adopted role as the biographer is being defined in my practice. My photography is partly autobiographical, partly biographical, and mostly falsified. The fabricated world depicted in the series is one in which intimate events are being documented. These events are based on reality and the emotions documented were eminently real. Some of the photographs document struggles with distance and apathy towards self while others depict loneliness; both physical and mental. But these photographs are not intended to act as excuses for catharsis. Instead, they are a way of investigating the emotional stake we have in the people we care about by pitting representation and remembering against each other.
Christian Boltanski’s art gave me the permission to challenge the truths of a biography. A great part of his subject matter is his identity and he uses the photographic platform’s association with truth to challenge representation. Presenting himself as the everyman, Boltanski used actors and stand-ins to represent him in 10 Portrait Photographiques de Christian Boltanski 1946 - 1964. The series portrayed “Boltanski” growing up from age 2 onward and featured the 28-year-old artist standing in for himself as a 20 year old. What this work did well was straddle the line between what is shown and what is believed. The artist gives no context other than the title. And in misrepresenting the truth, he distances himself and the viewer from the life this work represents: “he no longer lives and his unique past is no longer solely his, but rather a generic past which could belong to anyone.”
Felix Gonzalez-Torres has a list of influences, but he considers Bertolt Brecht to be the most important. In an interview with Tim Rollins, Gonzalez-Torres expressed how he approaches representation and the narrative using a Brechtian model: “more than anything, break the pleasure of representation, the pleasure of the flawless narrative.”
The question of representation playes a pivotal role in my
production as I struggled with how to stay honest with these events and the people
involved. Unlike Boltanski’s photographs, Felix Gonzalez-Torres' approach is to not
show the body, but instead, the photographic referent is an experience, a lived space,
and the site of an event. “Untitled” (Lover Boys) is an installation made up
of an endless supply of cellophane-wrapped blue candies. What this work does
excruciatingly well is present two lovers to the viewer. I do not use the word excruciating
without thought; this work is truly painful. The weight of the sweets equals the weight
of the artist's and his lover’s ideal weight. It represents the body by abstracting it and
avoids any direct form. Yet the physicality remains intact, mimicking our bodies' “frailty,
vulnerability, and capacity for sensual pleasure." There is a physical presence which
invites the audience to interact with it. By choosing to pick up and eat a sweet, the
audience facilitates a melting of that body both physically and metaphorically; it
represents the body dissolving, melting away grief and loss,
“life leading to death”.
“It’s a metaphor...And in this way, my work becomes part of so many other people’s
bodies,” Gonzalez-Torres remarks in reference to "Untitled" (Lover Boys).
My research into representation with consideration of biography led me to create Untitled (Granocyte). While envisioning this scene, I was very aware of Gonzalez-Torres’s billboard, “Untitled”16 1991, where he plastered an image of two pillows showing signs of a previous presence on a double bed. And I combined this language with the language of Jeff Wall to piece this scene together. The elements that are left in the photograph dictate what is happening outside of the frame. The ruffled duvet along with the mug could possibly illustrate an absence; of a physical body, of consciousness, or it could be none of those things and just be where the female holding the needle has just moved from. These elements of the studium represent the bias that I, as a biographer, bring to recreating this memory. I only take on the title "biographer" because I am interpreting these scenes from actual memories shared by my loved ones, who, knowingly and unknowingly, participate in the scenes portraying versions of themselves. But given the cinematic quality, dramatic lighting and a carefully arranged setting, it could be suggested that my role is actually the director. One could assume that since I have defined myself as both director and biographer, this photograph is nothing more than a work of fiction; “parodic monument of our wishful relationship...”
My desire is for the audience to confront my work with their own bias intact. They
should bring the politics and culture which govern them and use those situations
to challenge what they see. I want them to meet me on the same level because
these photographs are riddled with my skepticism, beliefs, and culture. For example,
one recurring element in my images is the color red. Automatically, based on the
viewer's sociocultural circumstance, the color red either brings up feelings of passion
and lust, or the connotations of death, disease, or trauma. These conditions are what
the would be punctum of the imagery feed on. By very definition, the punctum is
subjective and out of the control of the photographer. My personal encounter with
this phenomenon came when I arranged the physical photographs in the series on
a wall in the studio. Hung up according the dates they were made, not necessarily
the order I envisioned of the series, one unsettling detail broke through the narrative
and interrupted my investigation.
I am an devoted drinker of tea. It accompanies me in all three stages of my work; preproduction, during production, and post-production. I did not realize that this habit was slowly creeping into my images. I struggled so much with the idea of representation, I did not notice this actual biographical item slipping into multiple scenes. This item, a Wizard of Oz memorabilia mug, snuck up and revealed itself to me in the same way the murderer from a horror film confronts his victims. I was mortified, both with shock and the anticipation of seeing it in the next image. This motif truly disturbed me in the way Roland Barthes claimed it had the power to: “What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance.” That anxious experience allowed me to view these images much differently than what my intention outlined. It was personal. And this is the experience I want my audience to have. This series is presented without context or back story. The audience should not be aware of what the referent of this work is, only the photographic referent which they see. They should not be aware of me, as I am not the work. They should not be aware of why this work is what it is; a thank you, an apology, a love note.
Before beginning this conclusion, I find myself tapping my fingers to no particular
pattern on the keyboard in between glances over to my mobile phone in which Google
Keep is opened. I notice all the topics I did not get to cover in this essay such as
“Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Lewis Payne” to help understand punctum, or
“relate the photographic idea of aprés-coup to recovering.” I then noticed all of the
entries in between those of the essay. The entries that read, “transfer £65 to your
savings account,” and “Write a change of address letter to Bourn Hall.” I realize that
weeks have passed since I’ve written these things down and I have not done either
of those tasks. How useful is an external memory apparatus if I do not check it? Does
it not fall into the same traps of my actual memory? If I am not aware of a memory,
or in this case my note of a task, it essentially does not exist until the trace is triggered.
What does this then do for me; someone who creates works in which biography plays a dominant role? What happens in the time between forgetting something and then finding a record of it exactly as I wanted it remembered? This is where my necessity to make art comes from. We all have personal needs to make art; Jeff Wall wanted to bring photography to the level of old classic paintings, Christian Boltanski wanted to challenge representation and evidence; Felix Gonzalez-Torres wanted to reflect his struggle with the public defining his private life through art; and I want to know what happens in between, inside the lacunae that exists in between an experience and recording that idea, task, or memory.
I hope the people who experience my works, the same people with whom I share my culture, have a thinking experience. I want them to reflect on what they saw and in some cases, what they did. The viewer should be “intellectually challenged, moved, and informed.” This is my cultural need; to activate the viewer. The events I put on, whether they be photographic or installed, are designed to encourage self-reflection. More than just an object, the works I have discussed allow the audience to experience a temporal event, one which can never be experienced the same way by someone else. They have a personal stake in the work; they changed it; they projected their emotions onto it; they created it. These are the politics that make my art possible.
BURNETT, C. Modern Artists: Jeff Wall, 2005
FUCHS, R., The Authorised Viewer featured in J. AULT: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 2008
LUBBOCK, T. Remembrance of things past, 1994
MCGURREN, D. Becoming Mythical: Existence and Representation in the Work of Christian Boltanski, 2010
PHILLIPS, A. Darwin's Worms, 1999
PLATZKER, D. 10 Portraits Photographiques de Christian Boltanski, 1946-1964
ROLLINS, T. Interview featured in J. AULT: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 2008