Taryn Simon

An Occupation of Loss

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

It is three weeks since my mother passed away. Much of that time I have spent with my father and sister: naturally enough, we have attempted to look after each other. Perhaps harder even than my mother’s passing is seeing my father be strong and at the same time upset, seeing him come to know his life will be lived in a new way. The complexity and multiple directions of loss took me by surprise. Mourning comes not only with raw emotion, but with also questions of how to now go on, a horizon which marks the that has been, and that which is to come. A difficult balance is struck between trying to think to the future whilst ordering memories of the past. You do not only look back.

For the moment, I cannot write about loss only at a distance. But it seems also that it is always both near and far, particular and universal, emotive and analytical. It is not as simple as the specifics of my loss or yours, or the abstract commonalities we share. Neither is mourning simply a manifestation of loss: the rhythms of its puncturing wounds and subsequent healing, whether fast or slow, follow in successions. Its facts undo artificial dualities.

It is strange to consider, in something which seems so personal, that mourning is also a vocation; that is, a task, a role, an occupation. It is strange because a western assumption is that grief is personal, tied to the one. It should not be a surprise that it is also experienced by the many, as a multitude, even if those magnitudes vary. Nor should it surprise us that our grief is not teased out by ourselves alone. In mourning, it is often contact with others which brings out the strongest emotional responses: gestures of kindness and consideration which frame and amend our own perception about how we are coping. These unearth vulnerabilities that we have come to cover. Contact with priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and counsellors facilitate a coming to terms, accommodating and enframing. Professional mourners occupy a similar role in many cultures. What appears to some eyes as a synthetic or staged form of loss, is, perhaps to the ears a contribution towards – a permission to embrace – its full sensations. Here is also its overcoming: the necessity of mourning recedes only once it is given space to emerge.

Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss began as research into the roles of professional mourners, an extension of her enquiries into bloodlines in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII (2008-11), and structures of social order, such as Contraband (2010) or The Innocents (2002). Its ultimate form is as both a performance – of the mourning songs, laments, and crying, performed by mourners from a variety of countries and cultures – and as a documentary administrative record, in the form of a book with Hatje Cantz, which aims to reveal something of the global conditions of mourning and the passage of people. Performed first in New York, and more recently in London through an Artangel commission, the performance is visceral and moving, an encounter which brings emotions to the surface that are long suppressed, at the same time demonstrating mourning’s specificities and universalities. By contrast, the book is colder, with a stronger emphasis on witness, testimony, and its passage through bureaucracy. It is a challenge not to cry in response to the apparent mass sadness in the performance, and hard to respond emotionally to the bald and complex administration of the state.

It is clear that Simon intentionally allows for two separate experiences to co-exist. Indeed, upon entering the performance, little information is given over to visitors, so that a clear experience of mourning is uninterrupted. It does not matter who or what is mourned: instead a theatre for mourning is provided, a space away from distraction. It is only upon leaving the visitors are handed small booklets that reveal details, also in the book, which names the performers, the complex immigration process of bringing these mourners together in one place, and the professional testimonies which are needed to support the visa applications.

If such contrasts between performance and book are more than jarring at first glance, they come to demonstrate a key aim of Simon’s project in demonstrating duality while also revealing how they are closely interlinked. Personal and public mourning, emotional experience and cold administrative explanation co-exist, as do staged and natural experience, the tears of professional mourners, and the emotion they release in others. Neither polarity can be exorcised, even if each position calls for the abolition of the other, especially in polemical times. It may appear that Simon’s book details the complex bureaucracy undergone in order to achieve the performance, but this is a reductive reading, which aligns with the privileging of visceral experience. Instead, it takes us deeper into the labour of mourning, as a component that the mourner can hardly pay attention to in their moment of grief.

Though initially resistant and seemingly straightforward as a document, Simon’s use of the visa application papers functions as a framework to provide fundamental details and draw attention to the number and variety of cultures which work with professionalised mourners. Alongside these bare facts, the visa requires cultural explanations of the rites of loss and recovery, which Simon extracts to draw attention to the many forms of mourning. Rather than supplementing the performance with complimentary texts and other forms of assembled contextualisation, Simon finds in the visa papers a sufficient matrix which moves between the details of a ruthlessly simplified bare life, and the complex cultural constructions which underwrite communities and their nuanced responses to the universal experience of death. Such is the dominance of this material that Simon’s photographs of the performers, set against neutral backdrops, appear tertiary, adding little to the work. Arguably the project would be stronger, the contrast more pronounced, without them.

All images courtesy of Artangel. © Hugo Glendinning

An Occupation of Loss performance was co-commissioned by the Park Avenue Armory and Artangel.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Paddy Summerfield

Empty Days

Book review by Gerry Badger

Empty Days is Paddy Summerfield’s third book for Dewi Lewis, but the first I can review, because I wrote texts in the other two. So this is hardly an impartial view, I have known Paddy and admired his work for decades. I am pleased, however, that the books have begun to bring him the wider recognition he deserves after being one of British photography’s hidden gems for so many years.

One reason I think, why his light has been hidden under a bushel apart from a natural disinclination to push himself outside Oxford is because his work is difficult to classify. He is neither an obvious documentary photographer nor an art photographer; neither surrealist nor diarist, but a combination of all these things. In three pages of notes he once sent to me, he refers to himself a documentary photographer, but one who, in Empty Days, ‘weaves the images into a personal document, a subjective story where everything is tragic, but there is also hope.’

He is no doubt a singular photographer. Each of his books is different, yet linked by an absolutely distinct voice. One might say that it’s an odd voice, and it certainly is, although I do not mean that in any pejorative sense – quite the opposite. I have often thought that Paddy Summerfield was a kind of British Ralph Gibson, but much less calculating or mannered. His ‘oddness’ is the real deal.

This is clear, I think, in Empty Days, which by Summerfield’s own admission explores the darker side of his psyche, encompassing religion, depression, sex, alienation, and Rock n’ Roll (in the shape of his beloved Beatles) but you hardly need to know him to get a clear sense of this. The book explores aspects of the human condition, of a troubled soul, in a beautiful series of always surprising and quirky images, chosen from fifty years of work. It can be regarded therefore as an autobiography, or a fragment of an autobiography, because all Summerfield’s work is essentially biographical – as, essentially, is most photography – and the other two books, Mother and Father (2014) and The Oxford Pictures (2016), which are quite different from this new work, show other sides of his personality.

As I have intimated, his aim in Empty Days is quite clear: ‘I show the sadness in the world – I don’t know if I show it to push it away or hold on to it.’ If that sounds excessively gloomy, remember that this is a work of photo-literature, not a stream-of consciousness confession to a therapist. These are photographs, woven into a loose, suggestive narrative, and both their formal and symbolic qualities are there to be enjoyed. The imagery covers a number of photographic genres, from landscape to portrait to nudes to still-lives to Paddy’s inimitable ‘street photography’, which is usually done on a beach, and unlike the work in the recent show of British beach photography at the National Maritime Museum, London, which he would have graced, generally features single figures, which only shows he doesn’t go to the beach on Bank Holidays. The single figure shot is a striking feature of the book. Frequently, although he gets close, their facial features are indistinct, turned away from the camera or photographer’s gaze, so the sense of sadness and alienation is underscored. Indeed, Summerfield may well be one of the best photographers of loneliness around.

Summerfield also tackles religion, though whether he sees this as solace or a cause of our modern ills, is, like much in his work, left tantalisingly open to question. ‘In the book,’ he writes, ‘beneath the surface there’s a strand of spirituality implied, a layer of religious symbolism.’ It’s hardly beneath the surface. We begin with a cross tattooed on an arm, and progress through a stature of Christ, a child lying in a crucified position to another cross in a cemetery. His attitude to sex is also far from clear. There are a number of sexualised images, nudes or semi-nudes, but again, it would seem that, in a manner similar to religion, sex leads only to melancholy and disappointment rather than ecstasy or fulfilment. These figures seem to find little sense of connection in what should be the most connective act of all.

This all sounds like an incessant catalogue of gloom, but there are many consolations in Empty Days. Firstly, many photographers make diaristic books, but much of them are superficial, narcissistic views showing little self-awareness or questioning – neither exploring an inner life nor the potentialities of the camera. If Empty Days is diaristic or biographical, it is not in a me, me, me onanism, and one gets the impression that, although the story is important, so too was the making of the images. Summerfield gets his own joy and consolation from making striking and distinct photographs, and so can we. It is so good to see a photographer concerned with photographic picture-making in the basic sense. Engaging his eyes with the world, and making elegant, simple photographs that, when put together using a keen brain, are not as simple as they look. Empty Days is not so much documentary or diaristic or whatever but a visual poem of great beauty and useful meaning.

I end with a musical analogy (not the Beatles I’m afraid). Ludwig Van Beethoven had an extremely difficult life, his renowned deafness being only one aspect. He was in constant pain and was increasingly isolated towards the end of his life when – completely deaf – he composed his late string quartets. In these searching, elegiac works, there is every emotion, from bubbling joy to profound sadness, except one – there is never despair. While hardly seeking to equate him with Beethoven – John Lennon is enough – the same could be said about Paddy Summerfield. He makes sure to end Empty Days with two images of hope – a bird wheeling and dancing in the sky. As I have said, this is not a wholly impartial review, but this has to be a strong contender already for one of the best photographic books of the year.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Paddy Summerfield

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski

Ghost Guessed

Book review by Natasha Christia

For her piece In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective for e-flux journal #24, 2011Hito Steyerl writes: ‘Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground. (…) Paradoxically, while you are falling, you will probably feel as if you are floating – or not even moving at all. (…) As you are falling, your sense of orientation may start to play additional tricks on you. The horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries. Pilots have even reported that free fall can trigger a feeling of confusion between the self and the aircraft.’

Ghost Guessed by Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski is a brilliant meditation on disorientation amidst a groundless world of increasing digitisation, expanded horizons and prolonged absences. In their book, the voice of a narrator is deployed to bring together two stories centred on the theme of loss: firstly, the tragic accident of a young pilot, Grigg’s cousin Andrew Lindberg, who crashed while on his way to a hunting trip in northern Minnesota in 2009; alongside the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, undoubtedly one of the greatest mysteries in the history of modern aviation.

Combining intimate prose with photographs, Ghost Guessed examines the after-effects of these unfortunate incidents. It looks through the multiple emotional strategies people employ to process absence caused by death in an era of high-tech visual media; images here are seen operating both as a means to validate facts and as cradles of comfort insulated from pain and self-delusion. Three chapters divided in subsections arrange the project chronologically. ‘Vanish’ awakens memories of the two accidents, their media coverage and impact; ‘Search’ focuses on the narrator’s failed attempt to reconnect with his family through an unsuccessful return to the crash site; and ‘Return’ is a flashback to a trip to Kuala Lumpur, presumably three weeks after the news of MH370 broke.

Ghost Guessed adds up to an alluring fictional essay on the visual culture with which Griggs and Kwiatowski grew up. Long passages of text alternate loosely with a variety of registers that encompass the visual archaeology of the last 30 years: Family photographs, stills extracted from home videos, forensic reports from the crash scene, press images, TV screens and aerial photography offer one level of imagery, in tandem with the authors’ own photographs or digital collages. On the one hand they set the tone for dealing with demise and pain, but at the same time, they address how media – from domestic video cameras to today’s online streaming – have been paramount in creating our rational and metaphysical understanding of the self and the exterior world.

Ongoing digitisation and its intrinsic technological and aesthetic modes have been at the core of the skilful intertextual construction of Ghost Guessed. What began as a sporadic Skype correspondence between the two artists turned into a poignant co-authored memoir of life interconnections and synchronicities. The revelation of Andrew Lindberg’s accident during the conversations provided the breakthrough from theory to life, triggering a series of strange coincidences and life experiences, such as an unexpected opportunity for Griggs to undertake a trip to Malaysia, and his decision to revisit the crash recovery scene. Project and life started to collide.

Ghost Guessed eloquently addresses the pronounced shift of our times from the zapping condition, where screen and spectator are still physically and ontologically separated, to a form of second life, where orchestrated reality literally takes over. As early as the eighties, Andrew Lindberg’s grandfather is the first of the family to step into an alternative reality. Enclosed in a flight simulator during an aviation convention, he manages to channel his frustrated dreams of becoming a pilot without any risk of failure. Later, it is the narrator who undertakes the same route as the MH370. Surrounded by a screen in a controlled airspace chamber at Pavillon, one of Kuala Lumpur’s most popular shopping centres, he is able to position the aircraft safely back on the runway, rewriting history and restoring hope. If simulators perform it explicitly, this euphoric re-enactment of fate implicitly undercuts the whole Ghost Guessed. In order to make sense of reality’s haphazard and heavy events, the protagonists resort to social networks, snapshots and amateur video cameras –‘their eyes wandering non-stop through floods of images’. Eventually what is real has to take place in the realm of the virtual.

And yet the very thing that gives the overall narrative its linchpin is that which is impossible to reach. ‘Located deep within the wilderness of the White Earth Indian Reservation’, the event has not been recorded. The day Andrew’s body is recovered the gathered family is not allowed access to it. The body cannot be seen; no image is produced. ‘Years later, on the drive to return to the crash site, the narrator is lost and unable to make the photograph. By the time he is almost there, it is too dark’. Arriving at the scene neither ensures the success of the experience nor does it make him feel closer to his family. Ghost Guessed deals with this paradox – the excruciating albeit redemptive resistance of the fact. In the aftermath of the accident, the narrator, ‘floating through time with no structure’, appears watching for hours the lives of family and friends through social media. There is always the screen mediating, as if the relieving pure truth lay unreachable in the blind algorithmic parts of the simulation cabin.

In her video essay In Free Fall (2010), Hito Steyerl examines how the paradigm of linear perspective today is currently supplemented by groundless vertical perspective. Likewise, Ghost Guessed is replete of ‘vertical cities that measure the distance to the horizon in blocks’, and of views from above or towards the sky. This condition of verticality is even further accentuated towards the end of the book, pointing to the ultimate fragmentation of experience in a hyper-reality devoid of foundational schemes as Kuala Lumpur evokes a claustrophobic glass shimmering dreamscape. Under its discoloured sky, any sense of orientation is disrupted and multiplied into a million pieces. Even the views of Hawaii from the pilot’s cabin end up looking as a simulated landscape; the horizon is melting before our eyes.

‘Blue skies, clear skies, everything is ok’. A fascination with birds, flights, and clouds – both natural and virtual – too is vividly apparently in Ghost Guessed. Different cognitive systems, such as astrophysics, meteorology and religious omens, hint at solutions to enduring questions but these expectations crash against the narrative’s disquieting mix of conspiracy theories and endless media speculations. Extracted from video stills of jet flight crashes, the collage of the four planes in the middle of the book signals the mediatised hijacking explosions as it was exemplified in Johan Grimonprez’s glorious Dial History (1997). The sky is consolidated as the sanctuary of destruction where our more precious memories are anchored to impossible images. Up there, aside from the unlimited time of fall, there is no stable paradigm of orientation onto which we can hang. As Paul Virilio once remarked, each technology invents its own catastrophe, and with it a different celestial insurance. Ours is the permanent vertical fall.

All images courtesy of the artists. © Tom Griggs and Paul Kwiatowski.

Natasha Christia is a writer, curator and educator based in Barcelona. 

Valeria Cherchi

Some of you killed Luisa

Essay by Emma Lewis

On 16 June 1992 a priest from the Sardinian region of Barbagia received an anonymous telephone call guiding him to a remote mountain road. There he found a package containing the following: a photograph of six-year-old Farouk Kassam, the upper part of the child’s ear, and a letter threatening his demise in horrific circumstances. Kassam, the son of hoteliers, had been held hostage for five months, in caves and other mountain hideouts. His kidnapping was by no means unusual: close to 200 people were held for ransom on the island between the 1960s and late 1990s. But his story precipitated an unusual wave of defiance against the ‘Anonima sarda’, the bandits who operate independently but in accordance with omertà, or code of silence. Hundreds of locals placed ‘Free Farouk’ signs in shop windows. White bedsheets were hung from balconies as a symbol of solidarity. Pope John Paul II appealed for the child’s release.

On 10 or 11 July – reports differ – Kassam was let go. Matteo Boe, one of Italy’s most wanted, was among those convicted of his abduction. Twelve years later, Luisa Manfredi, Boe’s fourteen-year-old daughter, was shot dead as she hung up washing outside her home. No one was ever charged for her murder though there remain several different theories as regards to the motive.

Most children, at some point or other, experience a fear of being taken from their parents. For Sardinian-born-and-raised Valeria Cherchi and her peers, this fear had a different gravitas. Cherchi was about the same age as Kassam when he disappeared, and has vivid memories of the white sheets that summer. She recalls, too, watching the news reports of Manfredi’s murder, and observing the contrast between the portrayal of her mother, Laura Manfredi’s, grief, compared to Boe’s. Over the years, Cherchi’s preoccupation with Sardinia’s kidnapping phenomenon intensified. Wishing to learn more about the history of her home island and – somewhat idealistically – ‘decode the complex structure of the kidnappings’, she began researching Barbagia’s small and closed communities in relation to omertà. Over time her focus narrowed to, as she describes it, ‘the desperation of two mothers: one unable to control the fate of her young kidnapped son, and the other unable to find justice for her murdered daughter.’ Both had pleaded for people – women especially – to speak out. One day, Manfredi walked into her town square and graffitied in broad daylight: ‘Qualcuno di voi hanno ucciso Luisa’: ‘Some of you killed Luisa’.

Part of the narrative around these events, of course, is that there is no reliable narrative. News reports from the time note the uncertainty surrounding the chronology on the 10 and 11 July. ‘Almost immediately after the boy’s release,’ described one New York Times article, ‘questions and discrepancies began to intrude.’ Details had to be ‘pieced together’ by the police, the victim and his family. According to Cherchi’s written accounts of her interactions with the Barbagia people, inconsistencies remain a key characteristic.

It is apt, then, that Some of you killed Luisa takes the form that it does: a combination – piecing together, if you will – of television and VHS stills; staged portraits; mise-en-scènes inspired by Cherchi’s own memories and those of the kidnapped; and reports of her investigation, including transcripts of oral testimony by kidnap survivors and those in the local community. The mood is unsettled, unsettling; the atmosphere enigmatic. This approach to conveying real-life events, prevalent in contemporary photography for a number of years now, is one that I think of as a kind of collaged approach to the documentary form: assembling a many-layered, multi-textured picture from disparate sources that may not otherwise be in close proximity. Regine Petersen’s Stars Fell on Alabama (2013), Jack Latham’s Sugar Paper Theories (2016), and Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation (2017) are a few acclaimed examples. Often executed over a long period of time, the photographer embedded in the community, a case could also be made for them operating as part of the cult revival of investigative and long-form journalism.

And yet like the collage elsewhere in art, literature, and documentary film, this approach remains deeply subjective. Archival material is, by definition, decontextualised; selected or omitted according to personal criteria. This is the narrator’s prerogative, to convey the story that they wish to tell, in the manner in which that they wish to tell it. It almost goes without saying, too, that bringing a story alive after the fact requires imaginative use of non-documentary material – be it archival, staged or otherwise.

If this collage form grants freedom – in treatment of content, and in style – it also highlights the photographer’s responsibility to their audience and subjects. Certain questions have to be asked. What does it mean, for example, for a photographer to state that they are ‘investigating’, especially where criminal activities are concerned? What is motivating the protagonists to speak out? Is this the only the way that they feel their voices will be heard, and if so, whom do they believe to be listening?

The most robust examples of such projects – and I include Cherchi’s, and the three aforementioned, in this – address these questions by making the photographer’s position clear. Asselin’s project is, without ambiguity, an exposé. Latham and Petersen, by contrast, each state that their primary interest is photography’s relationship to the events in question. Some of you killed Luisa is successful because Cherchi makes it clear that she is delving into a subject that has needled into consciousness for decades. The inclusion of stills from her own family’s home videos – a nod, she explains, to her pained awareness that her life continued, while Manfredi’s did not – is a particularly effective way of introducing her presence. Likewise her reports: by turns factual statements on the how, why and when, of her research, and poetic but lucid accounts of time spent with Barbagian communities, as she navigates the regional differences, and the secrecy. As an outsider, this is fascinating: mysterious without ever becoming nebulous. One gets the feeling of being guided through the dark, almost, as Cherchi shares what she knows about this unknowable place – and what she is only just beginning to piece together.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Valeria Cherchi

Emma Lewis is an Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, where she organises exhibitions and displays and is responsible for researching acquisitions for Tate’s photography collection. Her book Isms: Understanding Photography was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall

Essay by Max Houghton

Photography might have been invented to give credence to Rimbaud’s famous expression ‘Je est un autre’; his grammatical slippage expresses the I and not-I of the image as potently as it articulates the condition of self. The poet’s oeuvre, as well as that of another feted Symbolist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, haunts and animates the work of Tereza Zelenkova, whose photography has been exhibited this year in two simultaneous shows in Amsterdam: The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall at Foam, and The Essential Solitude at The Ravestijn Gallery. Choosing to position herself in such a constellation, the artist invites the viewer to look carefully at the connections between her black and white images; to notice the allusions.

Since her earlier work The Absence of Myth (2013), which includes a close-up rephotographing of a girlishly languid Rimbaud, Zelenkova has been enticing us into acts of contemplation about the nature of reality, or about nature and reality. Within her work, neither state is inhabited and instead we are enveloped within the realm of a fecund Symbolist imagination. It is not a slow descent from here to elsewhere, but rather a sudden tipping, reminding us of the unsteadiness of the very ground beneath our feet. Zelenkova traps us in a claustrophobic interior world, as inhabited by writers and artists in order that they make the necessary journey inward.

Zelenkova quotes from Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (1957) in her text for The Essential Solitude, picking up on his relentless quest for a ‘different’ truth, as well as the ways in which his work was influenced by Symbolist antecedents. Her preoccupation is the same, and in order to seek out this elusive truth, she employs both image and text, which, as another Symbolist, Georges Rodenbach knew, offers a rich form for such exploration. Rodenbach’s 1892 literary attempt to raise the dead amid the streets of Bruges is punctuated by ghostly photographic imagery, among the very first works of fiction to be so.

However, it is specifically a novel by Huysmans, A Rebours (usually translated as Against Nature), which serves as epigraph for The Essential Solitude, and in which the protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes, exiles himself within a library, in order that he can gorge on aesthetica, and closet himself away from stinking brutish reality. Zelenkova chose a very particular site as a set for this story – the Huguenot House on Folgate St, London, created by the late Dennis Severs, whose loyalty was to historical imagination (as opposed to facts), and whose stated desire in creating his non-traditional museum was ‘to bombard the senses’ (he succeeds). The subject of the images (The images … scarcely mentioned so far. What an oversight. Like in Rodenbach, (like in Sebald), these images do not hold to the tick-box standards of contemporary photography. Instead they ask to be considered as flashes of understanding, trapdoors to other senses, a way of seeking new perfumes and stranger, even darker, flowers.) … is a woman with floor-length hair. She variously sits at a desk, sits blind-folded, looks out towards the window, lies in sensual repose, but we never see her eyes. A remarkably long-haired woman has appeared previously before Zelenkova’s lens, in a 2011 image called Cometes, which translates as a comet, but also as a portent of disaster. Hair observed thus becomes its own world, with its rivers and tributaries and unexpected surfaces. It hides things. It can grow even when we are dead.

The atmosphere conjured throughout this series is that of an opium den; dark, soporific, oneiric. Sumptuous, sensual fabrics drape thickly, carrying the scent of centuries within their folds. A dressing table is laden with precious objects: pots, pearls, feathers, an open book. Closer inspection reveals a tiny ceramic hand on a stick, for scratching the unreachable itch – could any item be more essential for a life of both solitude and creativity? Two poppy heads – papaver soniferum – in negative and positive, lull us to the edge of sleep, to the uncanny landscapes of hypnagogic hallucination.

This essay is strewn with the names of dead men; the Symbolist mode of expression is not very well populated by women, other than as dead lovers, or virgins or femme fatales, so it is all the more pleasurable to Zelenkova begin to carve her own path. She does this most vividly with the image The Unseen, from her most recent work, Snake, in which three women are seated at a lace-clothed table, a fourth stands; each face covered by heavy white cotton veils. Had the artist pinned back the veils, we may have entered the territory of a Vermeer painting, or even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Instead, we are suspended in a moment of acute expectancy, as we observe this sightless, silent quartet, who seem to have emerged from another realm of being altogether. Their presence is even more unsettling within the series of images, which otherwise depict significant sites in her native Czech Republic, photographed – always in black and white – with unforgiving flash. We see much imagery from the forest, in which the ‘natural’ is always open to question or to incursion. Zelenkova may be alluding to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the female serial killer who inspired Dracula or to the writing of Gustav Meyrink (his death mask is among her images). Meyrink wrote about the Golem of Prague, a creature that becomes visible in the city every 33 years, appearing with a doppelganger.

Perhaps this is what the snake sees, when it disappears through the hole in the wall (the hole is pictured too), or what we each see on the other side of the mirror (I is another). Zelenkova says this series is unfinished, and may remain so, leaving the reader to unpick this strange and complex weaving of a literary photography in parentheses for years to come.

All images courtesy of The Ravestijn Gallery. © Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall was originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Anton Kusters

The Blue Skies Project

Essay by Martin Barnes

Over the last five years, Belgian photographer Anton Kusters has dedicated much time, travel and sensitive thought to a project relating to the Holocaust*. It is probably the most documented event in history, and one of the most complex and difficult subjects that any artist can choose. Towards the completion of his project he concludes that it is a failure. Recognition of failure is not usually an artist’s preferred resolution. Yet this realisation does not seem to fill him with disappointment or regret, only a humbled sense of acceptance. The apparent failure in Kusters’ project is not through misrepresentation of his subject, or through any lack of commitment or productiveness. Rather, it is an inability, encountered by many who engage at a conceptual and expressive level with the atrocity, to truly comprehend it. This kind of ‘failure’ is in fact a profound resolution of sorts and should not be judged solely and restrictively within conventional cultural terms. For the subject of horror and trauma with which Kusters has carefully grappled has always tested the very limits of representation.

Kusters’ The Blue Skies Project was initially prompted back in 2007 with the death of his grandfather and a mysterious story concerning his time during World War II. Although he was neither Jewish, nor a member of the Belgian resistance, Kusters relates that his grandfather was nevertheless targeted for deportation by the SS in 1943, when they came specifically looking for him in his small Belgian village. However, he was able to flee the night they raided his house and was never captured. Kusters was not able to ask his grandfather about the details before his death; and so a link with this unresolved past and a trail of speculation was established. What if his grandfather had been captured, and where might he have been taken? What would he have witnessed and remembered?

Kusters began researching the Nazi’s sites of detainment and official concentration camps, using major publications dealing with Nazism and the Holocaust: the German, Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager. (The Place of Terror: History of the Nazi Concentration Camps); and the US-published Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Until these multi volume publications appeared in 2005 and 2009 respectively there had never been such a comprehensive listing of the Nazi’s sites of detention, persecution, forced labour and murder. The information the encyclopaedias contain is overwhelming and the locations of the crimes much more widespread and varying in their scale than is popularly understood. The well-known sites and numbers of estimated deaths at them are of course listed; but many smaller sub camps and centres appear too, some hidden in the heart of towns and cities. Kusters has taken the data in the encyclopaedias and turned it into tangible visual form, echoing the publications’ process of research and taxonomy.

Traveling to 1,078 locations in Europe listed in the encyclopaedias, Kusters decided not to make a forensic set of descriptive or documentary images, as might be expected with such a research-based project. Instead, he made just three unique 8 x 10 cm Polaroid photographs as close as possible to each site. These he tagged with the GPS coordinates and the number of deaths estimated at the location. The numbers are blind-stamped into the photographs by the hammers of his manual typewriter. Such stark data and his systematic approach make a chilling reference to the catastrophic efficiency of the Nazi’s programme of extermination. Yet the subject found in the images eludes expectation. Here, we see no rooms, buildings, streets, landscapes or people. No signs, scars, reference markers or discernible traces, if any could be found, of a traumatic history. Instead, planning his visits to each site according to the weather forecast, Kusters waited patiently for days on which he could point his camera directly upwards, aiming for a cloudless blue sky.

By keeping the camera settings the same for each shot, the varying luminosity of the sky itself dictated the levels of exposure. The images therefore vary individually from bright to dark, creating a subtly shifting range of tones within the colour blue when seen together. To enhance this effect of individuality within similarity, one original Polaroid from each of the 1,078 locations is arranged and displayed to make up an imposing framed grid. The images alone contain no other visual information than the sky and occasional clouds, and appear therefore abstract and disembodied from time and place. Only the ruthless typed data captions anchor them. Except for our crucial knowledge of their meaning, the numbers are as innocent as the skies. The digits are deft markers of gathered evidence; the heavens are a poetic evocation. Together they form an axis of distant but connected poles, between objective data and suggestive resonance.

Our first common associations with blue skies – freedom, expansiveness, and the spiritual realm – may sit at odds with what we know about the trauma and murder perpetrated at the sites. This, coupled with the deliberately ‘empty’ images, and their capacity to be read as abstract compositions – or a backdrop ‘screen’ for personal discovery – might suggest an inappropriately aesthetic approach that poses ethical and moral questions. Kusters was intuitively drawn to, yet troubled by, this subject choice. After a long journey of photographing the skies he found legitimacy in a surprising eyewitness account, Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, the memoir of eminent Israeli historian Otto Dov Kulka. In 1943, at the age of ten, Kulka was deported with his family from his home in former Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His sister, mother and father perished but Kulka survived. It was not until some seventy years later that he wrote about his childhood memories: ‘There is almost no return to that Metropolis, with its somber colours, with the sense of the immutable law that encloses all its beings within confines of allotted time of death; that is, there is almost no sense of a return to that world without a sense of return to those wonderful colours, to that tranquil, magical and beckoning experience of those blue skies of the summer of 1944 in Auschwitz-Birkenau.’

As one reviewer has noted of Kulka’s memoir, ‘… even in Auschwitz there are moments of protest, black humour and beauty … like the bright blue of the sky over the camp that Kulka’s childhood mind snaps and files away like a photograph.’ Kulka’s evocative account fuses the fragments of childhood memory and experience with his adult historian’s understanding. In their multiplicity within the arranged grid, Kusters’ simple images poignantly imply the millions of other such ‘snapshot’ memories of individuals who did not survive.

It matters in this case that the photographic paper of the unique Polaroid is an analogue process that leaves a chemical trace. Kusters’ choice of process implies a parallel between the sensitive surface of the paper and the receptive memory or psyche of the individual who receives a similar imprint. He suggests that his photographs, like the sky above which they depict, might at some infinitesimal level contain the last molecular traces of the individuals who died at each site. Even if these are only poetic ideas rather than scientific facts, it is clear that Kusters’ journeying to each location is crucial to him and the meaning of his project on several levels: as a mode of personal, individual commemoration for his grandfather; as an act of witnessing; as an attempt to understand the Holocaust; and as an offering of respect.

Writer and theoretician Ulrich Baer has written incisively about the problematic intersecting relationships between contemporary art photography, the subject of the Holocaust, and what might be construed as ‘disaster tourism’. He has outlined a concern for a reliance on ‘the auratic “experience of place” to commemorate the destruction of experience and memory’; and noted that we risk, ‘a promise that we can transcend the photographed void to reach some comprehensive, and thus consoling meaning’. The Holocaust, he implies, is too complex and extreme in its trauma and erasure to be contained in either memory or forgetting, or for us to locate within it traces of redemption. Kusters’ images do deal with both ‘aura’ and ‘void’, but crucially his typed captions introduce a closely researched specificity. In combination, these elements illustrate, as Baer has argued, that even if we can quantify and pinpoint a sight of trauma, ‘we are forced to see that there is nothing to see’. Showing the emptiness however still triggers a response, a range of emotions and questions. The skywards perspective posits questions that are both formalist and conceptual. Where is the proper vantage point in relation to such places freighted with violence, trauma and historical distance? Does averting the camera’s lingering gaze upwards offer relief, denial or a necessary distance giving room to assimilate? The Blue Skies Project therefore demands an engagement from the viewer beyond a superficial glance. Kusters’ view without a fixed point of perspective is exactly the point. In this way, seeking a physical and moral perspective, the observer becomes implicated and involved.

A common trope in writing and imagery concerning the Holocaust is to describe it as ‘unspeakable’, ‘immeasurable’ or ‘inaccessible’. It is a realm where neither immense accumulation of knowledge nor metaphors of the void seem able to attain closure. While too much focus on evidence risks overwhelming the space for personal reflection, too much abstraction risks ignoring the evidence and repeating the injustice of denying victims singularity. In The Blue Skies Project, Kusters includes both the measurable and the immeasurable, and aims for a point between abstraction and specificity.

As the last survivors of the Holocaust now reach old age, the modes of both capturing and imagining their experience are shifting. In her book, After Such Knowledge, writer and academic Eva Hoffman charted each generation’s prevailing response: the 1950s ‘latency’ phase of forgetting or even denial; the 1990s ‘memory period’ of museum construction and anniversaries, when remembering seemed perhaps more important that reflective thought. Now, the descendants of survivors and the wider public are inheriting a legacy that in the 21st Century is further removed. Facts become separated from the living embodiment of a person. Memories of experiences are no longer first-hand, and are filtered and interpreted through technological media. Perhaps Kusters’ The Blue Skies Project are reflective of this new generation’s response. A tail-end analogue project realised in a digital age, it marks a transition from direct engagement with trauma, evidence and memory towards a more abstracted and contemplative form of representation.

At their most fundamental, photographs record traces of light and time. They are often seen as mute witnesses of events, envoys from the past, and generators of memory. The photographer inflects them with meaning by a choice of subject, framing and technique. Ultimately though, the images rely on the viewer to give them voice, seeking an echo of the photographer’s intention and the residue of the place and moment that was captured at their time of making. Images become activated by the interplay of components: the location and event at the moment of exposure; the photographer’s literal and conceptual viewpoint; the additional information we are provided with or discover for ourselves alongside the images; and the personal histories that we bring to those images as individuals. Sometimes, as in Kusters’ Blue Skies, the equation becomes more complex, fraught by a tangle of historical, aesthetic, moral and personal questions. The event that he set out to explore and capture is already a fading memory. The places, even if they can be accurately located, refuse to be contained, and cannot be encompassed by a single point of view. The artist has chosen to witness at the spot the event’s vanishing and most intangible residue in the form of reflected light. Yet between the fractures of evidential specificity and the abstracted trace, a space is opened up for reflection. This is a space to judge, grieve, remember, learn, and perhaps to understand. Kusters has only ‘failed’ by journeying far enough to encounter the boundaries of representing catastrophe. Yet he has succeeded in balancing the roles of both a witness and a creator. And his tragic, beautiful and haunting images encourage important questions about ethical ways of seeing.

*I use the term ‘Holocaust’ throughout, recognising however the contested nature of the term and the use of other terms such as ‘Shoah’ and ‘The Final Solution’.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Anton Kusters

This essay is adapted from one of the accompanying texts for The Blue Skies Project, due to be published by Lars Müller and has been reproduced with kind permission. The Blue Skies Project is being produced by Monica Allende and Screen, the visual storytelling production company.

Martin Barnes is Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, which he joined in 1995.