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.
Ken. To be destroyed (2013–16) by Sara Davidmann
This is a curious body of work that I am, even after several re-viewings of the artworks and re-readings of the book, in two minds about. Mostly, I find it to be a highly accomplished and thought-provoking body of work, at the same time as having a slightly uneasy feeling about an ethical question it raises.
A more thorough explanation by the artist is available on her website but in short: in 2011 Davidmann inherited from her mother an archive of photographs and documents relating to her aunt Hazel and uncle Ken – specifically relating to the long-held family secret that Ken had been transgender throughout his marriage to Hazel, from the 1950s until Ken’s death in 1979.
Davidmann had coincidentally (or was it?) been working for several years in an art practice centred around the transgender experience, so unearthing this archive was an irresistible goldmine of highly relevant and poignantly personal material.
The over-arching body of work is divided into more focused projects, though all work with the same small pool of material. The scarcity of the source material does sometimes come through – Davidmann has made a little go a very long way.
Archive and memory
For me, interesting art usually works at more than one level; before looking at specific projects, it’s worth looking at how the whole thing works at the level of commentary on the archive. The introductory essay by Val Williams in the Ken. To be destroyed book (2016) talks about the work in this context:
“The story of Ken and Hazel is also the story of an archive, things kept, not carefully in a museum but stashed in a garage, though not forgotten, only half-remembered, and problematic when they become an heirloom – what do we do with history when it is unassembled, unmapped, bewildering – and ours?” (Williams, in Davidmann 2016: 25)
While this work isn’t overtly about personal memory – Davidmann admits that she has little memory of Ken or Hazel, probably due to her parents discouraging contact for fear of uncovering the secret (Guardian 2013) – it does raise issues that relate closely to memory. The archive is a form of memory and accordingly has characteristics in common with its parent concept; at the most simple level, an archive requires encoding, storage and retrieval, as does memory.
Looking more closely, it becomes apparent that the archive is (like memory) selective and fragmentary: it is not known to what extent the archive had already been explored and edited by Hazel’s sister (Sara’s mother) by the time it had been discovered. The saved documents all related to Ken’s transgenderism, with no indication of their lives beyond this secret (in the book it is suggested that the documents were, at least initially, being kept as an audit trail in case of annulment proceedings). Whatever the reason, we are left with a tightly focused slice of one (albeit important) aspect of Ken and Hazel’s life together. As noted in the book:
“It’s impossible, though this archive material, to imagine Ken working away quietly as an optician, with Hazel taking orders from Ken’s patients and adjusting frame sizes.” (Williams, in Davidmann 2016: 29).
A more intriguing way in which this archive in particular resembles memory is the extent to which it is constructed. All memory is constructed in the present rather than recalled from the past, according to years of study summarised well in Memory: a new critical idiom (Whitehead 2008). Davidmann takes the found archive into the realm of art, where imagination, projection, addition, subtraction and manipulation fill in the gaps and produce something that melds fact with fiction.
I engaged more with some projects than others. They broadly fall into two categories: re-presentation of the archive documents themselves (which to me emphasise the archive concept more than the actual Ken/Hazel narrative) and Davidmann’s interventions on a small set of vintage photographs of and taken by Ken and Hazel. The latter are much more interesting, photographically speaking.
The Dress (2013) is a series of interventions on some photographs where Hazel was wearing one particular dress.
“Each time I returned to the photographs [of Hazel in the dress] I came to the same conclusion – that Ken identified with the images saw through the lens, that he probably wanted to be Hazel; to wear that dress, that hat, those shoes, those gloves. To be allowed to be, and to be seen by others in the way he saw himself.” (Davidmann 2016: 72)
While entirely plausible, what struck me about this is that it is a projection of a projection (i.e. Davidmann imagining what uncle Ken was imagining). Not that there’s anything wrong with this; it’s interesting to me as it speaks to the theory that memory is, to a significant degree, a mental exercise in joining dots: making assumptions, filling in gaps, straightening out inconsistencies – imposing some kind of narrative on a situation to help make sense of it.
The artworks in this series use different kinds of physical intervention on the surface of the prints (actually digital reprints) to obscure Hazel’s head, often in visually quite violent ways, such as these two examples that resemble explosions. One way to read this is an imagined version of Ken wishing to erase Hazel’s features in order to supplant them with his own. Davidmann says this was not her intended reading, however; for her the series was about the surface – how “The marks of time and damage had become part of the image.” (Davidmann 2016: 30). To me the overall effect is less about the surface and more about transformation – still a relevant response, I presume.
Closer (2015) takes this idea of ‘surface’ and interrogates it in more detail (literally). For me this works better as an examination of the notion of ‘surface’, as it gets across the idea that the initially visible surface isn’t the full story – the more you look, the more you see.
The final two projects I want to discuss are those where Davidmann digitally introduced Ken’s face into photos of Hazel. Firstly, Looking for K / Finding K (2014), where Davidmann used a hand-colouring technique to give the images a second air of other-worldliness, in addition to the fact that a clearly masculine head had been transplanted onto a feminine body. I found this to be the less successful of the two projects, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on; they just seem less… refined? than the others, leaning riskily in the direction of parody.
I found the images in For Ken (2015) to be more engaging, possibly for being more subtle and conceptual, less literal than the hand-coloured project. For this set Davidmann used chemical methods to add and remove parts of images – interestingly using hand cream (a symbolically feminine product) as a kind of chemical barrier in some images. These images were, for me, the ones that evoked the (imagined) feelings of Ken; the other projects have more of a detached, retrospective, third person feel to them – they come across as being about discovering that you had a transgender relative, while this set feels more about being transgender – it addresses the fluidity of gender most successfully.
‘To be destroyed’
The source of my unease regarding this body of work is in these three words.
There is an ethical question here: the source material was specifically labelled ‘To be destroyed’, yet Davidmann did not destroy it but displayed it instead. I feel that the ethics of this are dealt with too lightly in the book:
“‘To be destroyed’ was written clearly on the bags and envelopes which Sara Davidmann and her siblings discovered in Audrey Davidmann’s garage, but the terse instruction was put aside, and a remarkable story uncovered” (Williams, in Davidmann 2016: 25).
A harsher interpretation could replace “put aside” with “ignored” and “remarkable story uncovered” with “sensitive confidence betrayed”.
Davidmann’s own words in the book:
“Why did my mother write on the envelopes that the contents were to be destroyed but did not then destroy them? She knew of my work as a photographer working with transgender people, and might have realised that the letters and papers would be of interest to me.” (Davidmann 2016: 71)
Equally, she knew of her daughter’s work and yet hadn’t handed over the material…
“Perhaps she simply wanted this remarkable material to continue to exist.” (ibid: 71). Perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps ‘continue to exist’ was the extent of her mother’s wishes, not necessarily ‘be turned into art’. It’s the second-guessing of others in order to support her own intention that I find a little morally ambiguous.
In an interview with Hannah Booth in 2013 Davidmann offers this response to the question of whether it worries her that she is going against her mother’s wishes:
“At the time of my PhD, I told my mother how important it is that transgender people’s stories are told – that they are understood as belonging in families, rather than being depicted as isolated, living outside of relationships. […] She was happy for Ken’s story to be included and she knew I would not be able to keep quiet about it. What I will never know is when she wrote on that envelope – before or after she told me his story.” (Guardian 2013)
Despite my disquiet at the ethical dilemma, I admit I think Ken. To be destroyed is a brilliant title. It can be interpreted in more than one way:
- ‘these documents should be destroyed’ (the literal reading)
- ‘Ken is unnatural and therefore should be destroyed’ (potentially how society at large would have seen Ken in the 1950s)
- ‘Ken is trapped in the wrong identity and should be destroyed such that the real Ken/K can emerge’ (the sympathetic interpretation of the situation)
Ethical musings aside, I found this to be a breathtakingly impressive body of work – ambitious, thought-provoking, tender, personal and visually experimental.
As with some of the other works I’ve looked at in this round of research, its connection to memory (or specifically the kind of personal memory process that I’m most interested in) is tangential rather than direct. The parallels between memory and the archive – particularly the constructivist approach to both – are significant and worthy of further investigation. The use of image manipulation as a technique continues to interest me, and some of Davidmann’s projects here push my thinking in new directions. Finally, I’m just hugely impressed and inspired by how much she has unearthed from a seemingly limited pool of source material – it’s a real testament to her creativity.
Whitehead, A. (2008) Memory: a new critical idiom. London: Routledge
Davidmann, S. (2016) Ken. To be destroyed. Amsterdam: Schilt
Ken. To be destroyed https://www.saradavidmann.com/kentobedestroyed/ (accessed 11/06/2018)
My transgender uncle https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/16/transgender-uncle-family-secret-for-decades (accessed 11/06/2018)