In my Assignment 2 tutorial my tutor Wendy suggested four particular projects to look at as part of my continuing quest to pin down what aspects of memory interest me. To these I added a fifth, Bate’s Bungled Memories, largely because I came across it at around the same time as the tutorial and in my head I bracket it with the other four. Over this and related blog posts I will look at each of these projects in turn to identify points of potential inspiration and/or to assist me in refining aspects of memory that interest me most.
Give me your image (2006) by Bertien van Manen
From the artist’s website:
“Bertien van Manen has travelled through countless countries in Europe to photograph photographs. She had to enter dwellings and souls, and also the dwellings of souls and the souls of the dwellings. This was a study of interior photography – if by ’interior’ one means something more than simply the inside of a room – say, the inner essence, the core of human being.” (Yuri Andrukhovych 2006)
There’s a curious combination of genres in this work: it’s not quite portraiture, as the subject of van Manen’s photograph isn’t the subject of the contained photograph; it has some resemblance to still life, though without the deliberate placement that would imply; it’s something like a typology in that it uses a consistent shooting style to capture a series of similar-but-different objects; it emanates a sense of snapshot photography with its askew angles and the evident use of direct flash.
To me what van Manen is capturing here is how the photograph is used as a memory-object. Through the composition of the images in their everyday surroundings, van Manen brings out and accentuates how people use a photograph as a window onto the past, specifically to relationships with other individuals.
One aspect that struck me about almost all of the images I found from this project is that the memory-photographs are not printed large, framed and hung in a prominent position – they are generally incorporated into the decor of the room in a quite understated way. My reading of this is that the memorialisation of the absent party is more about feeling their everyday presence, including them in daily life – rather than putting them on a pedestal. It feels like a warmer, more personal kind of remembrance that formal framed portraiture.
This kind of memorialisation through a photograph brings with it something of Barthes’ assertion that: “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory […] but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.” (Barthes 1980: 91)
I believe what Barthes means by this is that a unary image fixes its subject (person, scene, event) such that other remembrances outside of that image recede and potentially eventually disappear. The photograph therefore places limitations on possible memory interpretations: “it fills the sight by force, and […] in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (ibid: 91).
One of the things that this round of research has helped me with is identifying what aspects of memory are being investigated by particular bodies of work. Memory is, as is often repeated on these pages, a vast subject – defining and refining my scope are increasingly important as I approach the midway point of this course!
To me Give me your image is about how people remember other people. It’s focused on a particular area of memory that it may be useful to define by saying not just what it is about but also what it is not:
- It is about memories – rather than memory as a set of processes or a phenomenon
- It is about individual people (potentially whole complex identities and relationships, reduced to a two-dimensional rectangle) – rather than being about (e.g.) events or places
- At one level it is simply about personal memories, yet by collecting them together and drawing connections between them van Manen also contributes to the realm of collective memory
Though I found this work to be surprisingly complex and thought-provoking beneath the surface, I believe that it covers aspects of memory that are not directly related to that which I am currently pursuing. Its focus on the realm of ongoing personal memories of other people is not my area of interest for this evolving body of work.
My fascination is more with visualising how memory works (or doesn’t work) as a process or phenomenon than it is with examining how people use photographs as memory-objects.
Barthes, R. (1980) Camera Lucida: reflections on photography. London: Vintage.
Bertie van Manen http://www.bertienvanmanen.nl (accessed 05/06/2018)