(Note: all these letters were originally handwritten and sent by post, some elements may be altered, taken away or added in in this submitted version.)
Brussels, 24 October 2017
Dear Wendy Morris,
I have been looking forward to writing this letter, in fact the thought crossed my mind the first time I visited your exhibition at MuZee. If I were to write about this exhibition, it should be in the format of letters, preferably handwritten or coming from a typewriter. In this way, the layers of writing could represent the layers in your videos.
I’m glad to have had the chance to visit the exhibition before hearing you lecture in Prof. Hilde Van Gelder’s class in on photography and contemporary art in Leuven. This allowed me not only to view the work primarily through my own background (history) and interpretations, but it also gave me a notion of the work in its exhibited state while you were giving your lecture. Looking back, I regret not writing a first letter to you before you gave your lecture. Fortunately, I too am a diarist, and so in this first letter I will attempt to recompose my initial reading of your exhibition through my notes.
I visited this, of course, is a work of the imagination right before the opening weekend of Het Vlot. Kunst is (niet) eenzaam, curated by Jan Fabre. The museum was in chaos as they were still setting up the exhibition, and so I was relieved to find solitude between the walls of your exhibition space. However, solitude did not necessarily mean tranquillity. The first impressions that came to me were not yet of visual art, but of the sound. Following echoing voices and deep experimental music, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and focused on the projections.
In my notebook, I wrote about your ‘Letter to Plaatje’. How I heard your voice speak of many men and woman in these histories, how I also heard their voices. How you asked Plaatje where the tragedy of the Mendi was held, where its memory lies. These questions continued to haunt throughout the rest of the exhibition, each video contemplating and posing different answers.
I wrote that the layers of sound and voices are perfectly synchronic with the visual layers of your animations.
The animations lingered. I noticed how, like you said, we see the history of each image in the next. This is perhaps how we each experience our own histories, as echoes and translucent images on top of our memories, morphing and blending, resorting somewhere between fiction and reality. I was not familiar with the history of the Mendi before visiting your exhibition. I discovered the story step by step through your videos. Through the poem recited in Afrikaans. Through the voices of the recruiters. Through the board game and Madi’s Memorial. It is only in one of the last videos that you show a ship almost crashing at sea, you later told us that this was found footage. The SS Mendi lies in the centre of your story, but it tells us more. It tells of the recruiters and their methods, of compounds. It tells of the poets and their interpretations of the legend. It tells us about a representation of history, without explicitly reconstructing the actual event. This would be too concrete and replace every other impression, like a photograph on top of a memory.
I also wrote about Madi’s Memorial. How he didn’t want this monument to be epic. I asked myself if by showing this in a museum, aren’t you too, contributing to its epic-ness? I realized that your animations find a way of telling history without monumentalizing it, because it tells stories through your modest perspective, just as Madi’s initially modest memorial. You mentioned the animation was created backwards, which is interesting because it parallels your process of uncovering these historical events. From a present perspective into the past.
I questioned the bee drowning in water and why this was the poster for the exhibition. I discovered through your lecture that it was a metaphor for the men of the Mendi. How the souls of the men who die at sea are carried by the birds. How your camera could not film birds, and so you decided to film insects instead. An honest remark that also portrays the purity of your work. A historian would have remarked on the absurdity of this reasoning, a poet would praise this for its simplicity.
Seldom have I seen a history suggested in such a poetic manner. You mentioned you work was in-between the perspective of a historian and an artist, I experienced it as a balance between both. I often find myself lost between a romantic perspective or notion of art, and a critical analytical voice. Here they intertwined. Your animations portrayed how the analytical can also be poetic. The analytical drive makes it poetic, and is combined with a playfulness in your animation which allow you complete freedom in your metaphors, poems in themselves.
Tarkovski once wrote: A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books. There is no such thing as a singular history. Your voice is not one of authority, it doesn’t pretend to be fact. It shows different perspectives.
In your lecture, you mentioned your struggle with the legend of the SS Mendi, something which was there and which you could not ‘prod’. Rewriting legends is as difficult as rewriting the stories of the bible. And yet you question the legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria, repeating her fate over and over through the voices of children until it no longer exists. Similar to how a common word or a familiar name starts to sound strange, unheimlich as you say it over and over. The legend or myth plays a similar role between fact and fiction, imagination and reality.
St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine, St. Catherine.
The issue you present now with this history and this legend is of direct importance today. Boats of refugees* being ignored, left to drift. Will legends also flow from these events? Help is indeed not only from North to South. The story of the SS Mendi and this contemporary crisis are treated with the same neglect. And yet you don’t directly reference or link these crises, but choose to leave this over to the viewer. Like your descriptions on compounds.
*I have been contemplating a suitable synonym for the term refugee for a while, for I feel it has the same effect as saying a word over and over, but I cannot seem to find a suitable word which doesn’t sound either inhumane or like an understatement.
When you told us in your lecture that you felt like there needed to be an offering before you could tell a history, it reminded me of the opposite: journalists (and artists) scavenging for stories, gaining through the pain of others, similar to many of the stories that arise in the media about the (refugee) crisis. It reminded me of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, how she states Narratives can make us understand. The offering lies not just in your walk to St. Catherine’s point, but also through your animation, through your thorough investigation and honest imagination. By (re)tracing and (re)creating the original narrative you leave room for thought. You point, you do not push. You suggest, but you do not command.
There is no element of sensation and at the same time you do not accuse or criticize other artists and photographers for their approach like Renzo Martins does in Enjoy Poverty, or Alfredo Jaar does in The Sound of Silence. You find your own way of telling a (your) story, you build your own methodology autonomously.
In a book I was reading (The Future of Nostalgia), Svetlana Boym speaks about the past and future of nostalgia and about monuments in Moscow. How many statues have been placed in a ‘Park of Arts’: those of Adam and Eve, Lenin and Stalin, all ripped from their context and presented together as a collective history. She writes about how Russian monuments Move around in the dark streets of the cities at night. I thought of this when you spoke of Cecil John Rhodes, and Dinuzulu. How statues and monuments are not static, like how the stories of histories are not fixed, but are always contextualized in our present. I wanted to ask: What is your opinion on monuments? Isn’t getting rid of them a way to trying to erase a past? By leaving them, aren’t we constantly confronting people with their painful histories? Or could these statues be a way of exhibiting our ‘progress’?
Upon walking home, I decided to take a detour beside the sea and thought of the men in the Mendi. I thought about the boats in the Mediterranean, the camps in Calais. I thought of how fishermen and pirates are said to wear golden earrings to pay for their funerals if ever they were drowned at sea. I thought of how these men of the Mendi were not buried. Yet they were honoured through the stories and legends, and again through your exhibition. You resurrected their memories from the ocean.
I passed by the statue of Leopold II and examined the hand which was cut off. I have passed that statue so often, but never before did I experience it with such disgust. I saw the rotting concrete of the neighbouring Thermae Palace and the structures that were placed to keep it from collapsing.
I look forward to visiting your exhibition again, with a new perspective. Taking into account your lecture and stories. Then I will write to you again, perhaps with new reflections.
Oostende, 11 November 2017
Dear Wendy Morris,
Last week I went to the library in Sint-Lukas to find your books. I brought home Postings, A Silva Rerum, and Off the Record. On tram 93 I started reading your first postings. I ended up missing my stop at Poelaert, decided to ride until the end of the line and come back. As I was reading, many notes and thoughts came up which I hope will be of interest to you.
I wanted to mention your fourth posting, on the act of possession. On how you explore every detail of the photographs you use by redrawing them. A possession that goes further than the visual alone. An almost meditative examining of each detail, repeating objects in each drawing, allowing you to remember them clearly. The memory perhaps becoming a possession. I have always thought of photographs as ‘possessions’, along with my diaries they were a way to hold time and (or) my reconstruction of it. I have often questioned this notion beside memories. I seldom take photographs of people’s faces, perhaps because I do not want to remember them the way I photograph them. Barthes once quoted Kafka in saying We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. By possessions, do you mean in the form of memories or the actual physical drawings? Can memories be possessed? The more I think about memory, the more it seems to slip away.
When I was browsing through your book on a Silva Rerum in the library I came across a small fragment on one of the last pages: Recuperate: to recover or regain something lost or taken. I found this a relevant word to describe your work, your animations, writings and videos.
Throughout many of your postings you try to find a fitting genre or label for your work. The first term you mention is the documentary genre. I would feel uncomfortable labelling your work as documentary, for I feel it surpasses the problematics on the reliability and honesty of documents which often haunts the documentary genre. It’s an entirely different process because you embrace subjectivity and personal imagination whilst still showing a (your) historical perspective. Your animations are not illustrations in function of something else, but exist independently, as autonomous metaphors describing historical events. Your work does not display ‘evidence’ as a document does, but is more of an indirect account, like a letter.
Further on, you question whether they could be described as visual poems, but argue that poems do not provide the discourse you wish to provoke. Visual poems are a component of your work, they especially live in the metaphors throughout your animations. But it is the combination of all these elements: the historical document, the poetic metaphor, the intermedia installation, which make your work difficult to categorize.
You settle on the term Film Essay, which I agree may come closest to any of the suggested terms. When I think of film essay I immediately think of Chris Marker, and of letters. How he also questions time and memory, the notion of history, themes similar to yours. And yet, his approach is very different. His film Sans Soleil is made up of raw video fragments he either filmed himself or borrowed from other filmmakers. The film is made after the fragments already existed, and so he used them as an archive, compiling them and mounting them along with his letters. Your films are made in function of a predetermined fragment of history, Marker examines history in its entirety. Yet, the more I think of his work and yours, the more similarities I seem to find. Because, although your projects mediate on specific events, they too say a lot about the perception of history in general.
Brooding at the end of the world on my island of Sal in the company of my prancing dogs I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don't film, don't photograph, don't tape. How has mankind managed to remember? I know: it wrote the Bible. The new Bible will be an eternal magnetic tape of a time that will have to reread itself constantly just to know it existed. - Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1983
In a way, the legends about the Mendi are similar to how Marker describes the bible is to ‘mankind’. Repeated, recited and translated innumerably, stuck in our memory like a broken record, or an irritating pop song. This further reminded me of your Heir to the Evangelical Revival, where you question myths around religion and expose them. This video also included repetition. I am atheist, I am agnostic, I am apostate… I am not Anglican, I am not methodologist or Weysleyan, I am not Roman Catholic. They sound almost like the reciting of prayers along rosary beads.
I have watched Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil many times, each time another fragment of his film resonates, as I uncover another detail or reference I hadn’t noticed before. This is similar to the way in which I watch the layers of your animations. Still, I think it would frustrate me to watch your animations in the context of a movie theatre allowing me only one single view. Your process of making them is a slow one, and so should be the process of watching them. Furthermore, the installation of your videos seems crucial, they allow the viewer to walk through each video freely and link them together, uncovering them in time and space. The spaces between your videos are linked by the sea, a metaphor on its own. They reflect your own process of making this project. This is why I find the term ‘Film Essay’ still too limited, as this does not allow the hybrid form of your installation, it does not emphasize enough the materiality at hand.
Upon visiting the exhibition last week, our class discussed the effect of sound in your installations. I wanted to mention how you wrote in your postings that the internal world of the film is soundless, and question this evolution from silence to sound, how you experienced this; Especially because you mentioned earlier your next project will be composed almost entirely of sound. I watched the DVD that came with the book for ‘off the record’ and noticed the sound here was much softer, a classical piece. I have to admit I was disappointed with this soundtrack, and found those on the videos of the exhibition at MuZee much more suitable. The classical piece seems to undermine your videos and creates an imbalance. That said, I am curiously looking forward to your next project.
Two years ago, I went travelling for six months. On my journey, I chose to take my camera, a diary and a sound recorder. Looking back on the traces I collected, those that have the greatest effect on me are the sounds of the voices I met along the way. They seem to lie closer to my memory than the photographs, or even the diary fragments. Indonesian dialogues I can’t understand still take me to the people that delivered them. Just vague enough to access that type of memory that slips away when you see it in the form of a photograph. This is why I think the way in which you present sound in your installations is important. The voices turn the men of the Mendi into people, not just characters of history, even if it is not their voices we hear.
By writing my thought pieces I hoped to avoid what I most dislike in academic writing – the explaining about what I was aiming to do… I don’t want to explain. Like the writer W.G. Sebald who determined to make his point not in an assertive way but with implication and suggestion. This quote taken from your 30th posting seems to reflect the way in which you tell history through your exhibition and animations. The way in which you do not show a literal account of the crash of the SS Mendi, but the elements that surround it. Perhaps also the reason you choose not to include text in your exhibition. It reflects how history in general is not something static and concrete, but vague, dynamic and personal. Again, this points to this play between history and poetry. It points to the delicateness in which you approach these histories. This, of course, is a work of the imagination.
In A Sylva Rerum you mention the refugees in Calais, you retrace contemporary issues through historical ones, at a place where the term originated. This resonates your exhibition, like I wrote in my last letter. Directly it tells us about (post-) colonialism and the first world war, indirectly it tells us about the nonlinear nature of history. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, looking back at history, trying to mend it but being blown into the present. It suggests his messianic understanding of history.
Going back to the exhibition a second time, I realised all the works in MuZee were now bound by the sea through the exhibition Het Vlot. Kunst is (niet) eenzaam, but I have yet to discover these works. What I do know about the exhibition is that it is based on The Raft of the Medusa, a painting by Théodore Géricault. In some ways, this painting could be compared to your work, as it is also a reconstruction of a historical event, of a drowning boat. At the same time, it is the opposite of your work. The painting itself is more comparable to the photographs of journalists, sensational, depicting the suffering of men directly. It depicts the crash you chose not to show.
I found the way in which you plan your letters similar to the way in which you plan your animations. You prescribe sections in your notebook which you fill in on your journeys. Chapters and outlines waiting to be covered by sketches, thoughts and writings, by plants and their smells.
Absence of knowledge could be mitigated by physical presence and exertion, and the Silva Rerum could be the record of this interaction. Again, I think of this word recuperate. To recover or regain something lost or taken. It’s etymology stems from the Latin ‘re’ back ‘capere’ take, a more aggressive approach. Your process includes recovering something of which there is no longer a physical representation, except some buildings or landscapes you pass on your walks, weeds. Later on, you correct yourself and mention: I thought this was a project of recuperation, I begin to realize that it is about projection. Projection sound more subjective, and indeed more suitable.
Yesterday, I followed the ‘Picture Presence’ symposium at Museum M in Leuven. Maarten Vergauwen gave a presentation on drone technology and the ability to create 3D models from photographs. He mentioned a project whereby someone recreated a lost Syrian sculpture by searching the internet and archives for past photographs of this sculpture. Using existing 2D photographs he was able to recreate a 3D representation, the accuracy of which we can no longer verify. This reconstruction is similar to the way in which you approach the past, but instead of image technology and software filling the gaps, your metaphors and imaginations fill them. Furthermore, your reconstruction is not just of photographs, not just visual; it consists of historical documents, traces, echoes and voices.
As I was thinking further of a genre or categorization for your animations I realised it doesn’t need one. As I read your postings and books, I can slowly see your work evolving, becoming even more hybrid in combination with text, sound and installations. Then I was thinking that maybe along the way you lost (or will lose) the urge label it. I, for one, have decided to embrace it in its unique entity.
I hope this letter finds you well.