Mine the Mountain 1
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The Gallery, Oxford Town Hall
Visiting battlefield sites such as Ypres and Verdun, one is confronted by the First World War’s dreadful toll; hundreds of thousands of men killed in action. One can walk for hours in the immaculate cemeteries, passing along row upon row of perfect headstones. Millions lost their lives, many lost even their names; some all but vanished from the face of the Earth, as if they’d never existed.
This work comprises some 150 postcards from that time, each with a portrait of a soldier on one side. We see the faces of just a few - the rest are turned to the wall, anonymous and unknowable. Those reversed leave behind names, miscellaneous text and kisses, but most are blank, with a space for unwritten words and the name of a loved one.
And between these spaces, for correspondence and address, there’s a marker, a ‘T-shape,’ like a cross planted in the ground; a dividing line that tells us there was more to these individuals than the hour and the manner of their death. They mark not just the death of the individual, but the holes left in their wake - the words left unsaid, the silence left behind.
A bleak and blackened landscape. Hundreds of what appear to be crosses like the white headstones of military cemeteries; crosses which are in fact the dividing line between ‘Correspondance’ and ‘Address’ taken from the back of a postcard from the First World War (see ‘Front and Back I’).
Death isolates individuals. It cuts them from the moment. The future sees them only in their small, eternal annexe. But nothing and no-one exists in isolation. Everyone who has ever lived, has been a part of moments lived simultaneously by family, friends, strangers in the street and unknown millions in the world.
A blackened landscape. Hundreds of lines scratched onto the surface; scratches (like the temporary markers planted on battlefields) which are in fact the dividing lines between ‘Correspndance’ and ‘Address’ taken from the backs of postcards from the First World War.
Between the scratched dividing lines, between these temporary markers, fragments of the blackened surface have peeled or fallen away, revealing behind, colours of a world both longed for and left behind; the colour of the world we inhabit today. Perhaps too they remind us that past events did not happen in black and white. Often our sense of the past is tinted (and tainted) by the media through which we see it - black and white text, photographs and films. But the past, like the present, was in full colour; cataclysms and atrocities such as the First World War and the Holocaust happened too on beautiful summer days.
“‘...You have no idea how tremendous the world looks when you fall out of a closed, packed freight car! The sky is so high...’
‘Exactly, blue, and the trees smell wonderful. The forest - you want to take it in your hand!’”
This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
When we look at a star in the night sky, we can be assured that in some cases the light which hits our eye is hundreds of years old. It might even be that the star no longer exists, yet we can be certain that it did exist. The same can be said of people we see in old 19th century photographs; somehow the light is like the “delayed rays of a star” - an umbilical cord which links us with them and vice-versa.
The moment the light left the body of the photographed being we did not exist; the moment we receive it via the photograph, they no longer exist, and yet here we both are and aren’t at the same time; present and not-present. I wanted a way of articulating this curious juxtaposition which I experience when considering my ancestors in the places where they lived. To stand in the village in Wales where 150 years ago my great-great-grandfather (a miner) stood - a man who knew the land, above and below, like the back of his hand - but to know it at that moment - my first visit - better than he, is like that which I’ve described above. He was present in me, but no longer living; 150 years ago, I was present in him but not yet born.
I wanted to represent this strange coexistence (that between existence and nonexistence) and one way of doing this came as I thought about some of the documents I’d obtained through researching my family tree. Almost without exception, none of my ancestors from Wales at this time could read or write and all of them signed their name (or rather, indicated their presence) with an ‘x’. The ‘x’ therefore becomes a sign of a presence, but one which is anonymous. They have indicated their presence, but have already left behind their names (see ‘Broken Toys’).
I wanted to look at another use of the ‘x’ mark (see ‘Mine’); that being the kiss. I was prompted to do this whilst sorting through a number of World War One postcards. Most are blank, but a few contain some writing; the scrawl of a soldier or something more recent; ‘Mum’s uncle’ for example. One particular card contained kisses - the same mark as that of a man or woman unable to read or write. The ‘x’s on the postcard too, were marks of anonymity. We know they are kisses but we don’t know who they’re for or who sent them, but we know they are symbols of a relationship which once existed, whether between lovers, friends or relations; someone loved someone else.
Many of those who fought in the Great War never returned home; all that did return were a few words on a postcard and kisses - farewell kisses as they came to be. Hundreds of thousands of men not only lost their lives, but have no known grave. Many too lost their names altogether. These ‘x’s on the postcard therefore become symbols for their future anonymity, their unknown graves known only by the Earth.
“Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because one has always spoken of its masses just as though one were telling of a coming together of many human beings, instead of speaking of the individual around whom they stood because he was a stranger and was dying?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that one believed it necessary to retrieve what happened before one was born? Is it possible that one would have to remind every individual that he is indeed sprung from all who have gone before, has known this therefore and should not let himself be persuaded by others who knew otherwise?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that all these people know with perfect accuracy a past that has never existed? Is it possible that all realities are nothing to them; that their life is running down, unconnected with anything, like a clock in an empty room?
Yes it is possible.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
One of the curious things about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was how its effect upon me grew long after I had left. Whilst in Auschwitz, it was hard at first to see this place as the hell on earth it was, although one could sense the terror in the various displays - mountains of shoes, suitcases and so on. In Birkenau the past lingered on, one could sense it in the trees and in the windows of the gate-tower, but it was only in reflecting upon my visit, after I had left, that the place began to reveal itself through the contemplation of my own existence (as opposed to non-existence which I’d considered in the camp), through looking at what I have around me (home, friends, family) and that which makes me human (my coming into being and so on).
There is a sense of urgency about the drawings, as if they are drawn so as to capture the present moment, that space in which life happens and which passes in a second. They are my response to the contemplation of my own non-existence through the frenetic, delineation of those passing moments in time in which I am living - existing. The drawings are made blind with the image of the gate-tower firmly fixed in memory; a memory repeated over and over again, which could only really belong to a tourist. The present is ‘spent’ continually and the ‘’bill’ spiked, but looking at the pile of drawings, we see something else; the brief memories of hundreds of individuals; individuals ‘spent’ and spiked like little more than receipts.
“It’s true enough, of course, no longer to live
on earth is strange, to abandon customs
barely mastered yet, not to interpret roses
and other auspicious things, not give them meaning
in a human future. No longer to be as we have
always been, in those endlessly anxious hands –
to leave even our name behind us as a child
leaves off playing with a broken toy. Strange,
no longer to know desires desired - strange
to witness the involvement of all things lost
suddenly, each drifting away singly into space.
And truly, to be dead is hard, so full of making
up lost ground, till little by little we find
a trace of eternity. Yet, the living are wrong
to draw such distinctions so clearly:
angels (it is said) are often never quite sure
whether they pass among the living or the dead.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
The photographs in this painting are of individuals isolated from a crowd scene photographed in Gloucester Green in 1908. When looking at the original Henry Taunt photograph with everyone going about their business, it’s almost hard to believe that they are all dead and that at the time the image was taken, we did not exist (and in all likelihood, at the ‘shutter’s release’ would never exist at all).
The dust on the canvas has been rubbed to create a surface which reflects, albeit vaguely, whoever is looking; a black mirror in which we see ourselves as indistinct shadows, much as how the men, women and children have become in the photographs.
Death isolates the individual. It removes him or her from the moment, from life, to a small eternal annexe, and to some extent, a photograph does the same. And the vague, reflective surface of the painting works in much the same way, isolating for a time the viewer’s own shadow.
“I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake... I shudder... over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”
The name ‘Deadman’s Walk’ derives from the 13th century when Jews would carry their dead along this route from the mediaeval Jewish Quarter around modern-day St. Aldates, to their burial ground in what is now the Botanic Gardens.
Funerals are of course occasions when attention is turned towards the deceased individual and it’s this focus upon the individual I wish to consider with this work, examining, as we walk the route of those mediaeval mourners, what we, as individuals are made of.
‘Deadman’s Walk’ would appear to be a contradiction in terms, but being as we
comprise a part of every one of our ancestors, we can say that the dead do indeed walk. As we think of the dead and our own mortality we are at once both mourners and mourned and in the contemplation our own non-existence (death), so life becomes more precious.
Furthermore, in considering our ancestors and the unlikelihood of our individual birth, this contrast is heightened further still and through this understanding of the miracle of the individual, we might begin to question our attitude towards others.
University of Oxford Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens stand on the site of the 13th century Jewish cemetery, in use until the expulsion of the Jews by Edward I in 1290.
I have always been interested in the changing roles of places, not only sites such as this (once a cemetery, now a garden), but those such as Auschwitz-Birkenau; once the Polish village of Brzezinka, it became the infamous Nazi factory of death; now it’s a memorial to its more than 1 million victims. As we walk the surface in places such as these, we might consider what lies beneath and behind our footsteps; a mountain - the anonymous mass of history, comprising amongst others our own ancestors - on top of which we are standing.
In Jewish custom, it is traditional to cover mirrors during mourning, thereby focussing the mourner’s attention on those who have passed away rather than themselves. In this work, 100 veiled mirrors are planted in the ground, surface markers for something beneath (and behind) our footsteps. In the mirrors we see our vague reflections but the veils caution us to first consider others.
Only when the veils are removed, when we see our clear reflections can we consider ourselves again - individuals, as much a part of history as all who’ve gone before.