Two works about history and death
Recently I went to symposium on photography at Massey University called Making Visible: narratives of place and belonging.
One of the presentations that impressed was that of Heidi Morstang from Plymouth University in the UK who explored how history can be embedded in a landscape.
Her film In Transit started in a low-key way, showing an icon dancing across windscreen of a car making its way into a forest, and then views of the forest and a tree being felled.
Once there the view shifted to the ground being dug over by people commenting on the finds – a medallion, a helmet and then, shockingly, jawbones, teeth and skulls.
As Heidi explained in her presentation following the film, locale was in Karelia on the Russian/Finnish border close to the Arctic Circle. The diggers were local people uncovering the remains of Norwegian soldiers who’d been voluntarily serving in a German SS unit fighting Soviet forces. The fallen, both Soviet and Norwegian, had been left in the forest, covered by a thin layer of soil. Apart from the shock factor of these human remains, Heidi explained that in Norway, these Norwegians were, and are still regarded as political traitors. The question of government money for repatriation of remained unresolved.
The film closed with images of rough wooden coffins where some of the remains, remain in waiting and the angel icon dancing across the windscreen of the car being driven away.
One of the impressive features of the film was the way the content was slowly revealed with a minimum of explanation, and the contrast of the lyricism of the forest and icon, and the bluntness of the digging and finds.
Heidi’s explanation of a family connection to one of the soldiers, provided understanding of why she’d first begun the work, but as she said, the film needed to stand alone without her commentary. Unlike work which strains match its intellectual underpinnings, this short film would have me reaching for other resources to deepen my understanding of its content. In visual art, content has to fly the viewer to the ideas behind a work, rather than the other way around.
Also presenting at the symposium was Hamilton photographer David Cook who provided an explanation of his collaborative process with a writer and designer, to create the book, River Road. Earlier on this blog, I’ve posted a piece about this thoughtful engaging book.
I’d meant to write about highly regarded book Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson some time ago. However, just as I was about to begin, came news of a mass killing spree in an US cinema screening the latest Batman movie. It didn’t seem quite the right time to be writing about a work based on a historic killing event, one of whose major interests is an essay by Luc Sante which explores the way this event, and others like it, have acquired a long and varied life in culture and myth (think Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and other novels and films).
To quote the Photo-eye website, “Redheaded Peckerwood tells the story of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate who murdered ten people, including Fugate’s family, during a three day killing spree across Nebraska… The images record places and things central to the story, depict ideas inspired by it, and capture other moments and discoveries along the way”.
Central to the innovation in the work is the way documentary-style photographs of items and locations central to the crime scene are combined with fiction, associative material and reproductions of documents from the killers and those found on one of the victims. Adding to the viewer’s sense of being on a journey through fact and fiction, is the way the minimal captions are at the back of the book, leaving the reader to make their own connections and narrative (rather like a crime novel without clues).
And I was interested at how much I wanted that narrative – reading, and re-reading the excellent essays by Sante and Karen Irvine (Curator, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago). With contextual information, I kept returning to the photographs to make connections and ‘figure out’ how images fitted the story.
This reminder of how the viewer is interpreter and detective, is one of the things that makes the book innovative.
Yet I wonder if the photographs will linger in my mind in the way work does that’s clearly shaped by an individual sensibility. For me the test of substance is how, much over the years, a book calls to you – a longing that can only be satisfied by looking at that particular work by that particular artist.
And I wonder how the visual artists of the future will represent today’s atrocities and killing sprees?.