I have been staring at images of my father taken when he became a soldier at 17 and two years later as a POW in the US. Besides the various uniforms all I can see is a soft, young face, initially thoughtful and often smiling (which with my backwards-in-time glance I find difficult), then serious, and a bit lost-looking. These photos (badly rephotographed by me) frame the unsaid, the intolerable, those times of warfare and whatever that might entail, in a strange kind of before/after way.

I find it impossible to imagine my father, a gregarious, generous, outgoing person with spells of depression and withdrawal, engaged in battle. As a 17 year old fresh in Wehrmacht-uniform he seems in make-belief mode, as if practising for a play. And yet I know he fought and was deeply affected by, and here I hold my breath, what he saw, experienced, did.

Here’s a photograph of my father (he’s on the left) and another young German in POW-uniform in the US, formally posed for a card to send to their respective families as a sign of life. This one is easier to look at, as it signifies ‘after’. Back in November I worked on an intricate piece to do with war wounds, but haven’t picked it up again, partly because my hands aren’t up to tiny crochet stitches, partly because I struggle with the representation of one of Hitler’s soldiers, even my father, as a traumatised being (although the eventual piece will not directly refer to him or any clear-cut identity). I struggle not only because it’s very personal: Everything I do is done in front of a chorus declaring truths, like in a Greek tragedy: Don’t forget the holocaust and all that was inflicted in the name of the Third Reich! Nothing compares! Can I claim my father from what is simultaneously legitimate and an interdiction? The impulse is there, and constantly checked. What does that make me? Gatherer of guilt and shame?

The other day I was looking through an art-book and was struck by an ink drawing by Otto Dix, who fought in WWI, made of himself as a soldier. He is depicted with a fierce bestubbled face and fag in mouth, bearing a machine gun diagonally across his torso which seems to be cancelling him out and elevating him to a killing machine, all in one go. This is how I am to imagine my father, minus the stubbles.

And while I reluctantly try and recoil and recover and try again I question why I use the figure of my father as an access-point in my engagement with German history, why I feel the need to focus on that distinct and distant part of his life which I did not, cannot share. If history begins at home, is it not at the same time a form of taking him down, to which I do not have the right? I try to pull close and never feel a greater division, which tenderness and sorrow cannot save me/him from. I want to spirit him out of there. Carve him out. In a way it is a compulsion I’ve inherited from him, this constant worrying of wounds. He so often was on the brink of speech, esp. in his last years urgent words seemed to weigh in his mouth like pebbles glued to the tongue. That he couldn’t, wouldn’t get them out was painful to see. And somehow, in a process that started years and years ago, I’ve become the official bearer of difficult subjects in the family, an ineffectual Kassandra in reverse. It’s a role I’ve learned to play (sometimes smugly, I must admit) and don’t seem to be able to step out of.

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He is one in a long line of soldier-fathers/husbands/
sons who came home and never talked about their experiences, carried their baggage alone, maybe, if at all, shared with other returned soldiers. But he is also apart (hear that chorus!) because he fought on the German side.

When my parents got married my mother found that most nights her husband woke up screaming. He went into therapy for a year, an unusual thing to do at the time, and his night terrors stopped. He never told my mother or us about the war though. The only thing he could say was that he escaped from a Russian POW-camp by swimming across a river with two other German soldiers. Shots were fired, the water was icy and he alone arrived on the other shore, where he was soon picked up by the Americans army, for which he remained grateful until the end of his life. Everything else remained unspoken, but it hangs in my image of family-life like the shadow of the photographer sometimes does in the snaps he takes on holidays, with the sun behind him.

So: there is nothing but huge gaps which I can’t fill in. He fought in Russia, where terrible, unfathomable things were done, as I know from what I’ve read. Actually: How can I say ‘know’? I know nothing. I’ve read a few things, and quickly closed the book or website when it got too much. I am lucky to ‘know’ nothing.

If I am claiming him it’s because I am his daughter. I can’t do more than try to trace my father’s porous outline (threadbare with wounds, fissures, scarred tissue) and thus place myself too in the quicksand of history. With my double-refusal of fatherland and mother-tongue (push), I draw close (pull) through reading, researching, writing. The best I can hope to achieve is a makeshift relationship to where I come from. That also may be the best one to have, wherever you come from.

At times I feel angry at being saddled with this history by my forefathers. And then like a child jumping on the spot, trying to peer over a world of wall. Through my art I only understand my questions, my uncertainties better.

While I was writing this morning I remembered a recurring childhood dream, which must have started when I was maybe eight years old: It’s a sunny day. My whole family, mother, father, brother, and I, are standing in our allotment. I am facing the other three, standing on bare earth, several meters away. We are looking solemnly at each other. My father’s right foot is in a white octopus, no longer than half a metre, and motionless. I know I have to rescue my father from being swallowed up completely, but we are all frozen in our respective positions, and I fail him.

That sense, of failing him, is with me again. It’s utterly familiar, fits like a well-worn shoe.


Time to shake up my art-practice a little. I am crocheting a set of three baby-blankets that carry injunctions and directly tie in with my inherited memory-project, but also want to explore other angles and approaches that don’t have as their first impulse emotion and meaning. A kind of back-to-basics movement, partly fuelled by an impulse to – if not rid my work of its inherent pathos -, at least question it; to better understand the materiality of my practice, and see what comes if I work a bit faster, away from purpose and planning and conceptualising. Some of the shapes arrived at in the course of making Riefenstahl’s children (how long it took me even to use that name in the title!) fascinate me and seem worth examining in their own right. You may recognise the last in line, which with its contracting and paring down came close to abstraction while still being anchored in outfit-mode, as the starting point.

I began in summer, still in crochet, following an urge towards making that isn’t immediately weighed down by my preoccupation with German history. I needed a breathing space. Salou Raouda Choucair‘s rhythmic abstractions seen at Tate Modern last year, resonated, and those by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, from whom I’ve borrowed the title Irrational forms. (A little engagement with art history is overdue.) These pieces are just shapes, one-layered, and, compared to the variegated or faded tones I often work with, crocheted in strong (for me almost blinding) colours. Although they are slowly growing on me (I find the combined arches and negative spaces very pleasing) I’m not at all sure about them. Thing is, I find this concentration on formal aspects challenging as I always want to say something. Which is why I need to do more of this.

Lately I’ve used masking tape to produce a few textured sketches. Other surfaces await. I’ve also got a series of cut-outs – this is me trying to play…

Last week has been full of unexpected gifts, all bar one delivered online. Two Saturdays ago @rosalinddavis tweeted me and suggested that I listen to @nilsfrahm‘s guest mix on BBC 6, which I loved and keep going back to. In fact I felt like I was crossing a threshold and made my first drawing in years, nothing to write home about, but a start in a medium I find difficult. Then the surprise of the momentous Artists Talking score. Later in the week @Ben_Cove tweeted about Jeanette Winterson‘s lucid The secret life of us which everybody, really everybody, should read. The way she makes a case for art’s living significance, outside and against commodification, made me happy, as did that she illuminated her points by talking about an ambulance driver in WWII. I see/think links to the trauma of war everywhere at the moment, very real when watching the news of course, but also in all kinds of other contexts, where friends and family don’t seem to be able to easily follow me. It reminds me of my dad who wore his memories of war (as a soldier during the last two years of WWII, he was 19 years of age when it ended) close under the skin and in his 70s seemed to be able/compelled to turn every conversation that way, without being able to speak. Co-blogger’s @ElenaThomas1 tender engagement with a greatcoat made me think of him too.

And yesterday I caught up with Alinah Azadeh‘s The Gifts of the Departed and was again moved by the generosity and sumptuousness (if that’s the right word) of feeling, reflection and spirit in the face of mourning, and the beautiful work created from a bleak&breathing place.

One present though arrived by post, a small and rather special chair, with a lovely lovely message of art/life connection.

That the first part of AeschylusOresteia was on R3 on Sunday was the icing on the cake, as Iphigenia is often on my mind (the second part is on tonight).

It’s been a good week.

Oh, and before I forget, I’ve got a stake and five pieces in Strand. Hair in contemporary art-practice, alongside work by Ken Ashton, Jane Copeman, Tabitha Moses and Jeanette Orrell, at OrielWrecsam.


Well, you have surprised me! Not only no. 1, but leading by a country-mile! Not bad for someone who may run out of steps before she gets to the garden. Thank you.

Can’t quite wrap my head around the score. I had no idea that my need to deeply engage with The Beginning of History, to explore and process the relationships between the pieces, was of such interest to you. In fact I kept wondering how I could pull people in, how to make the show come alive for you who hadn’t seen it. And now this. The relative distance between my worriful fantasies (what I’m doing just isn’t good enough) and ‘this’ is so big that it seems non-sensical, but the thing is that I came back from G. to find the comments box empty. Well, now all I can do is bow to your very good judgement and say thank you thank you thank you. And please keep coming back, and maybe even leave a wee word or two while you’re at it.


Good to have had a break. Good to be back. Strange to be back. Strange to be talking to you again. You must exist as every now and then I find my blog on a-n‘s top ten list, but I can’t name more than a few of you who put me up on that lofty height (thank you, by the way), and am wondering about how better to initiate dialogues/trialogues/multilogues.

Last weekend I had an unspeakable day, 24 hours really, beside myself and utterly inside myself with fatigue and pain, to the point that I couldn’t speak. Even my voice was unhinged, that last door. Everything was suspended; nothing hung in the balance. The earth turned in its normal unhurried way, temperatures dropped somewhere, war raged somewhere else. And I lay on bed like a question mark drawn by an arthritic hand, all angles and edges. Now I glance at this day from an unsafe distance and grope for entirely inadequate words.

It is easier to talk about partial pains. Take my hands, for instance. M.E. has strange effects on how I perceive them: One day they seem rammed into gloves that are much too tight, extra skins made of an unstretchy material that readily steadily releases pain-inducing toxins; another time they are just pulsing fields of pain; sore as if trod on in rubber boots (I am strangely clear on this: not leather soles, no stamping, but an adult’s foot!); fingers no more than brittle twigs, waiting to break; both middle fingers symmetrically hurting down to their roots; tips sharply pressured as if about to shoot off. I could go on. A friend to whom I had written asked if a different person had addressed the envelope, as the handwriting looked large and expansive. It was my hand, but early one goodish morning, before energies had seeped out of me as they had the night before when I was writing with cramped and painful paws. A hand is a hand is a hand – when they don’t hurt my hands don’t seem any less strange nowadays, just passing through one of many possible states. My crochet hook spells c-a-r-p-e d-i-e-m when much else fails.

An image stayed with me from a Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performance at Sadler’s Wells many years ago, an image that got its power from the widening gap between opposites. A dancer in a red dress stood centre-stage, alone, unmoving, while Aram Khatchaturian’s Waltz played at high pitch. The longer the dancer remained motionless, the more the waltz seemed heated, hectic, hysterical even. The longer the waltz played, the more the dancer’s perfect stillness was enhanced, and puzzling, as the viewer’s/listener’s limbs were lashed into (suppressed) motion, the audience like one huge twitching muscle.

Even longer ago, while still at college, I made a video-installation called Perpetual Present. I filmed the faces of several students in close-up for eight to ten minutes, having asked them to look straight at the camera and move as little as possible. In the editing-suite I cut out all the blinks and put the footage on loops. I hung three monitors from the ceiling, screens upwards. Three pairs of eyes returned the viewer’s gaze with their extended, unrelenting stares. The work hovered somewhere between an animated photograph and an arrested film to the point that for instants you couldn’t be sure whether you where looking at a still or a moving image, visible movements (breathing, swallowing) so minute that you could miss them if you blinked. The drama of these small ‘events’ unfolded only if you stayed and engaged beyond the first determining glances. But the last strangeness, of an uninterrupted stare, was harder to perceive.

Stillness is an in-between: not fixed, not moving. It isn’t complete, total. It breathes, is alive. The production of this moving image had at its base the loss of other images, those blinks, those moments of darkness that make seeing possible.

Could my unspeakable days, which I tend to consider lost, be instants of darkness that allow me to perceive something which I couldn’t otherwise?

Perpetual Present (1997)
Video-installation with three 14″ monitors; 3×1 hour loops, silent