The photographs I’ve been looking at sway deliriously between public and private spheres. They are highly significant for me now; even more so for my dad’s (widowed) mother who at some stage will have received one of these cards; but also part of a big (world-wide) military machine that in some of its cogs had room for humane practices. How the heart must have seized on this sign of life. And was there relief too, when war was still raging and the German side losing, in knowing that the son/husband/brother was not on the battlefield anymore, and his chances of survival had increased? In these circumstances it seems phenomenal to have a photograph and not just an impersonal notification. You could search the face and what is visible of the body for clues: Is he well? Was he wounded? Did he loose an eye or a limb? Does he get enough to eat? His mother would have been better placed to read her son’s features than I am all these years later. And I wonder if the PoWs were allowed to fill in the address themselves, their handwriting an additional personal element, or if the details were taken from files.

This would have been the only contact while interned. I imagine his mother keeping the card in a special place, a drawer in her bedside table, or maybe in her bible or prayer book (she was devoutly catholic), until he came back in 1946,
aged 20.

Registration. Notification. Remembrance of someone who is far away. The photograph’s character and function changed once more (with all those others hanging from its tail) if and when the PoW came home (whatever that might have been at the time). In my dad’s case the set of photo-cards (individual, pair, group – blank, unused) ended up in his photo-album which starts with his arrival in the world and ends 32 years later when he and my mother married and both their albums merged… A different kind of remembrance now, of something that is – at least officially/externally, over. Did he include them as an attempt to achieve a probably tenuous sense of continuity? Was it also a way of moving from history and heteronomy (learned a new word!) towards everyday life?

Without thinking why I’ve focussed on the card which shows him and a second young PoW. Imagining him traumatised by war, without bearings and suddenly on another continent (as far as I know his first experience of ‘abroad’ was brought about by war too, more about that another time) do I console myself, let myself be lured into thinking when it’s no more than wishing, that the second person might have become a sibling of sort, a friend?

But I’ve also chosen this photo in order to juxtapose it with one of my brother and me as children. There are similarities in pairings and postures and – in the widest sense – the relative formality of the setting (ordinary and extra-ordinary), outside home. I brought cuttings of the two images together in my earlier collages and now have simplified further and exchanged (= crudely photoshopped) mouth and eyes of the adults with those of us kids and vice versa. The outcome is strangely disconcerting.

I am interested in the fact that everybody is looking slightly to the right. We share four visible arms; both my dad’s are invisible. I’ve also brought our young faces more directly into their adult ones – just half a kid’s features changes the PoWs’ completely. Confession: I catch myself shying away from showing these, as I do not like the new, accidentally created expressions. Interesting… Note to self: beware of idealisations.

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I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing what I’m doing here and what I’m achieving, if anything (I call it artling). There’s some sense to it: Both my brother and I were profoundly influenced by my dad’s (unspoken) experiences (all that happened before he became a PoW – behind that door of darkness lies so much we’ll never know), but I also wanted to show us implicated (unsuccessfully, I’m afraid). How do I explain this? Every post is harder to formulate than the one before (my sentences wind on and on, brackets abound and I can’t always squeeze my texts into 700 words), as each statement, no matter how tentative, has a bundle of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ on its shoulders.

Which is no more than allowing the bigger picture. For example: my father was glad to have been a PoW in the US. He had previously escaped from a Russian camp, and had he not, his chances of survival and relative well-being would have been greatly curtailed. He ended up in California and for much of the time worked on a farm (there is a photo I think of him with the farmers and their grown-up daughter), where he was treated very well. But but but: the Germans regularly treated their PoWs atrociously, made differences based on their ruthless hierarchy of nationalities and races. Often enough they killed captured soldiers outright, in high numbers. And where should I even start on the subject of forced labour? I’m constantly trying to weigh up things that can’t be, not in any way at all. And how can I set myself apart from this? I’m not even thinking about whether guilt can be inherited, but much more simply trying to consider how we as a post-war-generation might be implicated, and on the most basic level conceding this: we can’t say what we would have done had we lived in that time. No amount of retrospective wishing that I’d had the courage of a Sophie Scholl gets me anywhere.

I’m afraid I may have gotten a bit lost in this post. Brain and heart are in knots; the gap between what I’m exploring, and my ability to give it shape through writing and artling seems huge just now. Still: I’m keen to show you more work. One crochet piece was finished a while ago, but I’m unsure how best to photograph it. And a couple of pieces-in-process involving stitching with hair and yarns lie in wait – fingers not so nimble just now.

A big thank you to Artists Talking blogger friend Jean McEwan, whose work with family photographs has long inspired me, and who recommended some essential reading.

This resonated strongly, from Annette Kuhn’s: Photography and cultural memory: a methodological exploration: “Memory work is rather like peeling away the layers of an onion that has no core: each level of analysis, while adding more knowledge, greater understanding, also generates further questions. Analysis, as Freud might have it, can be interminable.” (p. 290) in the end it’s mostly analysis of self, isn’t it?


There’s something uncanny about looking at these photos of my dad as a prisoner of war. That they survived, that my father chose to hang on to them, put them in his album, although it’s quite in character too: this was part of his life after all, and the only period of which no images exist is the time when he was fighting. This gap coincides with the gap in what he could communicate to his family. A chasm really, which neither words nor images could bridge.

I’ve made copies of these formally posed photographs: of my dad alone; of my dad next to another very young-looking soldier; even one of a group of PoWs, of various ages (why photographs were taken of pairs&groups is unclear to me). My dad never looks at the camera. For the individual photo he sits half-turned, as you would for a passport photo, with left ear visible. In the group-photo (two kneeling PoWs in the front-row, one of whom is my dad, the others standing) his gaze is unfocused, seemingly turned inside. In the paired photo he sits a little behind the second PoW (about whom I know nothing), their bodies touching, and looks to the right of the camera, with slightly open mouth. Everything I try to glean from these details, beyond the photographs’ factual context, is contingent on what I think I know about my father.

All three were made into small Prisoner of War Post Cards, marked as such on the reverse side, where the person could note the address of a relative, nothing else. Each prisoner must have been given several as my dad had some to take home. They served multiple purposes – registration, notification, linking into the world – as laid out in the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 1929. I’ve always been baffled (and grateful) by the fact that there are rules&regulations pertaining to warfare which to me seems something utterly beyond any (comprehensible) bounds.

I am working with the photograph which shows him with the other soldier. Strangely it contains no clear indication that they are PoWs: the letters P and W were marked on the uniforms’ opposite sleeves and trouser legs and are invisible here.

Let me share three very simple interventions, each of which throws up different questions:

First I placed a loosely crocheted hair-web on the photo. I find the effect both beautiful and moving, which makes me suspicious. Truth is, I almost can’t tear my eyes off these two pale faces under those ink-black loops. The photo is b/w (the original has a hint of sepia) which seems to put the figures at a further remove, make them stranger, less real. Silent movie stars. It’s almost as if my father had fallen further into the past. To a safe(r) distance.

Next I stitched into a sepia-toned copy with a fine mohair/silk yarn, setting its soft&fuzzy quality against the image’s consummately masculine context. In effect I’ve coated/covered/camouflaged those unknowable faces – an act both protective&piercing, delicate&damaging. Will do the same with hair next.

Last I rolled up a photo and connected two edges with a piece of crochet. It doesn’t quite work as an object, but I’m interested in the views through the camera-lens, with distorted proportions.

Mostly I’m feeling my way here. Photography isn’t my medium and I don’t know enough about its conventions – time to catch up. And I haven’t experimented for ages – I like it! Speculation and crochet don’t go together easily, and now that I am kind of artling with these photographs I wonder if it’s partly because it allows me to breathe while considering hard-to-bear subjects.

I worry that these pieces speak to me and me alone. The knowledge I have of history sharpens my gaze, personal identification tempers it. I’m also prone to conflicting superstitious impulses: trying to check sentimental urges I research the forms German warfare took (no breathing). But then I delete my recordings of Channel4‘s Hitler’s Rise. The Colour Films, because I can’t bear how voice&venom infiltrate my living-room, leave toxic traces… At the same time I’m overcome by a childlike notion that I can, as if by magic, retrospectively scoop my father out from all of ‘it’. I want to save him! If I’ve inherited a part of the big dark cloud that hung above and occasionally enveloped him, it means I want to save myself too.


Too many medical appointments in January left me exhausted. I was lucky insofar that pain-levels were very bearable, but had times when I felt as insubstantial as a ghost. If only I could move through walls. Or, being short of steps, enter another world through my wardrobe.

With M.E. you never know exactly which form the fatigue will take from day to day. Lately it’s invaded and mucked up my reading more, which feels as if another shutter has come down. Before M.E. I used to be a voracious gobbler up of texts, could loose myself in a book’s universe, find my dreams inflected by its mode of speech. Now physical and cognitive symptoms mar these pleasures: with increasing tiredness my vision blurs (I literally can’t focus my eyes. Even those tiny muscles slacken!), concentration wanes and waves of nausea rise. In the end a kind of grid falls over the page and compresses the text into an impenetrable block where single words can’t be identified, and chains of them never get to speak, to mean. The page becomes pattern, nothing more, nothing less.

Reaching for a book wherever I lie is still a reflex, my hunger for stories, theories and other lives undiminished. But short-term memory is one of M.E.’s many calamities and at my worst when I turn a page, even on my kindle, the moment of switchover not only erodes but erases the content of the page I just left. As fatigue twines the tight coils of my brain with barbed wire I forget that I am an intelligent human being.

A small comfort: there’s a place in me that I can still reach into – through layers of weariness – and let a string of words swim up from its sediments. I have fun with tweets: 140 characters can become instances of creation!

At the end of last year I treated myself to Ishiuchi Miyako‘s mother’s 2000-2005: traces of the future, a book I’d long coveted but beyond my means until I found a copy at an affordable prize in Switzerland. The wonders of on-line commerce! IM photographed her mother in the years before her death and then focussed on the clothes, dentures and make-up utensils she left behind. I find her work haunting, beautiful, devastating even. There are close-ups of her mom’s aged skin, of scars left by severe burns; images of kimonos, shoes, lipsticks and, most affectingly: undergarments so delicate and of a transparency akin to skin stretched over a frame, and – although entirely old-womanly – inhabited by the spectre of desire and other matters of the flesh… The sense of vulnerability and mortality, decay, is overwhelming. And of exposure, nakedness, although we never see the mother’s face or figure.

Is there always/necessarily something ambiguous about making work or writing about a parent, a dismantling of sorts, no matter how much love? It pierces me to think how my dad would react to the work I’m making now, delving into something that pulled the ground from under his feet. Yet on I go. And I know that history floods in through the tiniest of gaps: the burns on Ishiuchi Miyako‘s mother’s skin stem from an accident, but my mind’s leap to Nagasaki and Hiroshima was immediate, and looking for a website to connect her name for you I found that on the strength of mother’s she was commissioned to photograph objects from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

The other day I was retouching one of the photographs I copied when at my mom’s last summer and had my father’s youthful face enlarged on the computer screen. It was eerie seeing his features up close, decades younger than I am now, and a strange thought momentarily stirred me: he could be my son. Tables turned. Upturned really, by the shifting of powers and the context in which I’ve been staring at these images.

Using the outlines of my Irrational forms (see post#85) as guides I’ve made some small makeshift collages from childhood photos of my dad and his brother, and my brother and me, placed with/against one of him as a POW. I’m not very good at operating a scalpel knife, it requires strong&steady hands, and absolutely can’t be done lying down. But for now I do want to make the cuts physically (not photoshop them), make collages where layers can be traced and felt, by fingertips&eyes. None has been glued: I keep shuffling the partial images and bringing them together in different ways. Work in process.


Now that quite a few of my hair pieces are in Strand, and there’s a possibility of them going to another exhibition, I’ve decided it’s time to re-assess them.

I work with artificial hair. It is a sensual material, soft, smooth, kind of gleaming when I first unpack: three thick silken strands loosely woven into a plait, cool to the touch. These qualities change as soon as I divide a length of hair into thin strands: suddenly knots and tangles abound, while infinitesimal electric currents seem to course through every single fibril. Working with this material in the home-environment leaves strange traces – at the end a fine web of hair is spun all over my carpet and knots of hair reappear in other rooms like spiders. And in my clothes…

The first piece I made is My mother has golden hair. I actually said that to the girl who sat next to me in class in fifth grade – my head already filled with notions of ideal beauty, mostly gleaned from fairy tales (I am the only of 15 cousins on my mother’s side who has dark hair). For me the work has performative elements and questions gender as well as the reality and fictions of the mother-daughter relationship.

Next was I don’t need a muse, I need a wife. The masses of hair with which I replaced the original steely bristles in both works make these objects (conceived as multiples) as contradictory and ambiguous as the emotions behind them. How I loved the handling of the hair – separating and tying up thin strands and fixing them into the brush felt as pleasurable as it felt obsessive. I bet the viewer wants to touch as much as the maker!

As I tried to crochet the hair that was so malleable became recalcitrant (I’m writing as if hair had a will), and unraveling is a nightmare. It’s crochet in fits and starts: each strand makes for twelve to thirteen double stitches, then a new one has to be taken up, which slows the work right down. I often let the ends of each strand hang, inside or out, depending on the textures I want.

When they aren’t out in the world my Five perfect maidens hang here at home and I realise I’ve stopped seeing them. The dresses are small, but intense and a bit scary in a fairy tale sort of way. There is an innocence here, mostly in their (toy-) size, which lures the viewer in, disarms. Female body hair is such an object of cultural anxieties and pressures, esp. in the Western world, and I wanted to waylay some of these notions, have fun with them. This reminds me: One Sunday many summers ago, when I first came to London, I sat in a park reading, and was accosted by a guy who took offence because I had not shaved/plucked/waxed/
done away with the hair under my armpits and forcefully expressed his disgust. Not a trace of English humour! I was speechless and shook up by his vehemence, as similar prohibitions did not (yet) apply in Germany. Now I think it’s ubiquitous.

The dresses are loaded with humour, anxiety and contradiction. The hair, the material itself, evokes, in different degrees bodily things, instinct, desire. Diverse aspects coexist: the pretty and the disconcerting, the domesticated and the wild, innocence and excess. A friend of mine literally shivers and gets goose-pimples when she looks at them or any of the other pieces. What to me is beautiful is repulsive to her. But then my head brims with hair-motifs.

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My mother has golden hair (2004) edition of 2
Materials: debristled brush and artificial hair
Dimensions: 21cm x 4cm plus 65cm hair

I don’t need a wife, I need a muse (2005) edition of 3
Material: dustpan and debristled brush, artificial hair
Dimensions: 80cm (incl. full length of hair) x 41cm x 10cm

Five perfect maidens (2010/11)
Materials: crocheted from artificial hair; double-pointed knitting needles, twigs, wire
Dimensions: each dress between 20-25cm wide and 25-30cm high