Pauline Rowe: As children we are given received versions of someone’s life/death, not to be questioned. Is The Unforgetting challenging this in its presentation of items of evidence – evidence of your Mother’s life?
Peter Watkins: To an extent I think I was looking to substantiate my mother’s life in some way; to dedicate the necessary time to understand something of my families shared history that has at once been very present in my life, but yet throughout my childhood had been a source of deep repression. In that sense The Unforgetting was about taking memory as a starting point—my memory—but reassessing and reconstituting this memory through objects, documents, and creating staged situations that I guess rest somewhere on the fringes of a documentary practice and something more metaphysically oriented and difficult to pin down.
Early on in the process I interviewed my family, and came to realise that the series of events leading to my mother’s death had been reduced down to simple narratives, as if the ensuing years had stripped away any palpable sense of complexity and depth or accuracy, and had been replaced with a few factual occurrences and a good measure of reverence for the dead—the kind that is almost always afforded to those who die young and in tragic circumstances. My memories of her manic episodes before her death far outweigh any other memory I have of her, and so in a way I’ve been trying to come to terms with the trauma of this experience. The objects have this totemic, monumental quality about them, and I think because they have been isolated, obscured from a greater whole, and reimagined as photographic representations, they take on this heightened sense of purpose, and we are offered to meditate over them as such and look for connections in the space between the images. They are evidence of lived experience, things that remain from a person, but they obscure as much as they reveal, and speak universally, rather than with a sentimental, overtly personal tone.
Walter Benjamin described aura as a things ‘unique existence’, and wrote that the aura of a thing is stripped away by the photographic representation—the object loses its uniqueness in the face of potential innumerable reproducibility. But through the transformation of object to representation the resultant image also has this innate connection to time, to place, the specific moment or situation that it was created in – that is forever irrevocably lost to the past. So in this sense the object is not only lost in the act of transformation from object to representation, but the moment is forever lost, along with the object: In this way it can be a mournful act to photograph an object, and the representation becomes something quite different to the object itself.
PR: For each of us there is importance in finding our own stories or narratives that make sense – do you feel you can’t make sense of your story fully because you are compelled to search after something unanswerable?
PW: I think that there is so much that is unanswerable when you go out in search of some form of truth or authenticity in your past, something which I think we all feel compelled to do at some point in our lives. To make sense of the past is to attempt to ground our lives, to afford it meaning and a sense of deep-rootedness, even if it’s painful to go in search of this. These stories and narratives that are passed through families are just that—they’re stories. They have narrative arcs and moral punch lines, shared through generations in a way that builds a foundation of meaning that justifies our experience and offers purposefulness. I think with this work I was holding up these narratives to account somehow, even if this is not perhaps fully evident from the works themselves. There is a futility to making sense of your story, and a delusion in searching for truth. What I’ve made is an abstraction, it doesn’t capture the essence of my mother, or my wider family history, but looks at that which can’t be fully grasped, which lies somewhere in the space between fact and what is only partially remembered / a kind of forced remembering.
PR: When a parent dies there is a risk of secrets and silence – has this been important in your formation as an artist?
PW: I started working on The Unforgetting, or earlier iterations of the project shortly after my father passed away, so yes, the possibility of never finding out about my past became a very real possibility. It suddenly felt like something that was really urgent to me as I came to realise that we had never talked about what had happened to my mother, about this shared experience. I read somewhere that the sudden loss of a loved one can spark in us the repressed memories of a past loss, and that instead of focusing on that immediate loss, we look to the past, to that which we failed to come to terms with previously.
My grandmother has been the archivist of the family, and her house has a museum quality about it, and had always given me that false sense of unchanging fixity. She has kept everything of my mothers exactly as it was, and would archive everything from achievements, photographs, to newspaper clippings that reminded her of her lost daughter, each annotated on the spine explaining why the article had triggered some memory in her—often unwittingly forming image-text relationships. All the work was shot in the village where my Grandmother lives, in the house where my mother grew up. I would convert her old shop, which was at the front of the house, into my studio when I’d come to visit, and then create these object assemblages from the things that she kept, shooting mostly at night. You see the shop windows and fabric curtains from this room in a couple of the photographs.
PR: The objects depicted suggest that one important aspect of life is sound or music (the accordian, the tapes, the audio cassette – again suggesting evidence, something to be replayed and heard). Can you comment on this?
PW: There are layers of narrative hidden behind the images. The accordion, for example, was my Grandfathers, and playing it was how he met my Grandmother. The rolls of Super-8 film contain moving images of my mother and family on various holidays in the 60’s and 70’s, invariably smiling, happy, bathed in sunlight. The still life image became a way to conflate all of these images into a single, unified one, albeit withholding somehow the image of happiness. My mother was a linguist, and she used to teach herself languages by recording her own voice on a Panasonic tape recorder from the early 80’s, carefully recording the words and phrases she was practising, and checking back for good diction. She would sit cross-legged on the dining room floor with the tape recorder between her legs and practise. The tape I photographed was actually a mix tape that she had made, and left in my Grandmother’s car, and as the radio never worked, this became my soundtrack to the project. Another tape I have is of me, at two years old, singing nursery rhymes with my mother, the only recording I have of her voice.
PR: Another important aspect of life here is shared history, warmth (the wood), drink, books, stories, the forest etc., Does this mean for you that the necessities of life include cultural matters as well as family archive – other photographs?
PW: About wood, about this idea of shared history, the glasses, the forest? The glasses are called Roemer glasses and are a traditional German wine glass, and the inscription carries the name of my Grandfather, and they were given to him for each years full attendance of choir practice, something he kept up his whole life, and each represent a milestone of time. He is also pictured as a young man in a small photograph rested against the blade of an axe. He passed away during the course of this project, but one of the last things we did together was to chop wood, and I had a sense at the time that this would be the last time we would carry out this repetitive, masculine activity together. I filmed the whole thing, and took a log away which appears in this exhibition cast in concrete, and repeated three times. Wood is repeated throughout the project. For me it speaks of the folkloric, of Germany, of this German sense of ‘Heimat’, but also of the passing and splitting of time. In the photograph of my brother suspending a large piece of beech wood for the camera, the wood appears to flow from his arm, and there is a certain liquidity to the image, or sense of suspension, which I think is echoed in the photograph of the baptismal dress, and the books.
PR: Did the making of this collection feel like an honouring of your Mum? And what do your family feel about it? Have you been able to respond differently as a son/brother to bereavement because you are an artist?
PW: I think the pain of loss is something that never really leaves you. If you have experienced it young there is a certain shift to the way you think about life, and you consider questions of mortality too young. I think I’ve approached it with a willingness to understand something that has oftentimes been difficult, but everyone deals with mourning in different ways. I think as more family members have passed away, I have unwittingly become the family archivist, although my approach is from an artistic standpoint, and not how you would traditionally catalogue a family history.
PR: Is this an archive of memory – an attempt to understand more about your self in relation to loss?
PW: I suppose it’s an archive of sorts, but I don’t really think about it strictly that way, although it does obviously reference certain display methods used in museums and does tap into the archive, but I was very careful not to include too much information, or rather careful about how much was out there. The Black Bag and the Letter from the Dutch Police 1993 are the only actual objects on display in the project, and come to stand as a kind of dark star around which the rest of the works revolve. Their significance is made more prominent by their selection ahead of the multitude of other things. Supplementary information such as this interview, or articles that have been written about the work, can always be looked at to offer an expanded experience of the work, to peel back some additional layers, but really I’m more interested in what the viewer can bring to the experience. It’s very personal work, and I’m hyperaware of the fact that I’m putting it out there, so I have had to be careful about how much personal information gets out into the open.
PR: What lies between these images seems so important – do you know if they have helped other people to approach loss/grief in a different way?
Would that be important to you?
PW: I think I touched upon the space between the images in some of the previous answers, how there is space for connection, and how the works stand to reinforce each other and make each other stronger and have an implied narrative that is completed or reinterpreted by the viewer.
People do write to me sometimes when they have come across the work or read about the project, and tell me how they have related to the work in terms of their own experience, and they often tell me things that have happened to them. These correspondences seem to always come out of the blue, and you only then get this sense that the project is out there in the world, and that there are people who attempt to relate to such things. Mostly, though, people seem to wonder whether carrying out the project has helped me in some way to come to terms with my past and my place in the world, and its something that I guess is forever an ongoing process.
PR: When you exhibit a collection are you presenting a narrative or hoping the observer will make their own narratives from your work?
PW: There certainly is an implied narrative, but it’s non-specific and requires audience participation. I think that there is a space between the images where connections can be made, and an oscillation between photographs that are representationally clear and others that are less straightforward and ambiguous in nature. Materially there are connections made between everything, in terms of playing with the opacity and transparency of materials, their spatial relations to one another in space, and how the viewer must navigate the space of the exhibition to view the works. It’s important to me that the audience feels a sense of embodiment in the space, and I think that this encourages a certain amount of participation.
PR: Unforgetting is very different to remembering – it feels like a hard won fight. Would this be overstating the difference between the two for you?
PW: Chris Marker, the late filmmaker and artist wrote that ‘I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting but rather its lining’, by which he was in part referring to how memory is not something that is fixed, that it is always subject to change and reinterpretation, much in the same way as history is subject to being rewritten. The more you dig into memory the more it seems to move away from those seemingly pure flashes of memory that we hold onto from childhood. The image of my mother became irrevocably changed once I started to dig into the past and into my memory.
PR: Can you say something about the Christening gown?
PW: The Christening gown was something that came very late in the project. When I thought I had sifted through everything my Grandmother pulled out the dress, along with a lock of hair of my mothers from a cupboard. The dress is pale yellow and is photographed in black and white, seemingly impossibly suspended in front of a fabric net curtain, in the makeshift studio where I shot most of the work. Both materials appear to float weightlessly, and perhaps have that feeling of liquidity I mentioned earlier. The circularity of the baptismal act and my mother’s death by drowning is perhaps what drew me so magnetically to the dress. The photograph is framed behind yellow glass, and here I was really thinking about the idea of putting colour back into the work, and about the falsity of artificially putting yellow back into the dress; the strangeness of applying this wash of colour over the piece. Yellow is the colour of warmth, of light, and colour brings with it emotion, whereas black and white can signify a more evidential, calculated approach to working. But the colour yellow is also the colour of decay, of death, of the hallucinatory space in the mind, and of dreams. The work is almost uniformly monochromatic, so when colour comes into the work it introduces colour to all the work—but it’s a false colour, something applied to the work after the image has been made.
Poems for further reading linked to some ideas in Peter Watkins’ work:
The Wild Iris: Louise Glück
My Son, The Man: Sharon Olds
In the Museum of Lost Objects: Rebecca Lindenberg
A PDF pack containing interviews with each of the artists exhibiting in Open 2: Pieces of You is available to download here.