I received the news that Sleep-drunk I dance once more led the Artists Talking Top Ten on one of those blotted out-days when M.E.-fatigue fills body&brain with leaden pellets and activity of an artistic, intellectual or almost any other kind is beyond the pale. On such days I check my e-mails, just to see if I’ve received a message, although I may not be able to read it. There was just enough room in me noggin to take in a tweet, even do an imaginary jiggle. A ghostly fist may have been raised: yes! So thank you, readers, you made my day, and fire me on.

As I keep wondering about my exclusive focus on my father’s photographs (to be precise: my copies), and the limitations of such personal explorations, I thought I should check ebay again for images of WWII German soldiers. There’s a huge amount! But looking through the offers my reservations grew about working with&into photographs of men about whom I know nothing. I’d need to think hard about my relationship to such images, consider questions around ownership and entitlement, and the boundaries between public and private. I might feel different if I were given photos, if someone entrusted them to me. I also worry about buying from sellers whose motives (apart from making money) and political inclinations aren’t transparent. Many will have acquired photo-albums or small collections as part of household clearances, but what about those specializing in war images and other militaria? Most shocking though: you can buy snapshots of dead soldiers. So I signed off, grateful that I’ve got my dad’s pictures.

I do learn through working with these photographs, and often what I learn is revealed to me when I write. It’s all in the processes, the contingencies, the returns and repetitions, and while I’m still&always anxious about not presenting finished pieces, this is where I hold my breath, clench my heart, knock my brain about, and ultimately am alive to complexities which evade me when I read historical texts. On the whole I need a personal voice to draw me in (i.e. a novel or biography); need to almost get entangled to even begin to tenuously, tenuously comprehend. The deeper I delve the more I see that I’m exploring from a safe distance, and yet that distance is unsafe too, as the bonds with my father make me tie myself in knots sometimes, with doubts, hesitations and heedfulness. More important though they carry the life-blood of my investigations.

So far I’ve been looking at images of my dad as a PoW. In a way I shielded myself: he is past combat, physically unhurt and out of danger, but, given that he had been part of the German war-machine, no matter how I turn a wretched weight bears on me, even from the little I know about the often ignominious deeds of the Wehrmacht. So I’ve taken in mind and trembling hand a photograph of my dad in a different uniform, bar any insignia, which marks the beginning of him joining the ‘masses’ (his words, in an annotation in the photo-album). It will have been taken in the autumn of 1942, a few days after his 17th birthday, when he was drafted into the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service), which preceded military service. By law the age of entry should have been 18, but the state needed soldiers. The RAD, which gathered its conscripts in labour-camps where they were subject to military drills and national-socialist indoctrination, initially deployed its workers in ‘civic’ projects, which spanned from agricultural schemes to helping build the Autobahn-network and concentration camps (I shudder to list these in one half sentence). In time the RAD became a military organisation, working to support the army behind front-lines. From 1942 on many were sent from their labour-service directly into battle, esp. on the Eastern front, without ‘proper’ military training.

In contrast to the diffused look which unsettled me in the PoW-images here my dad’s gaze is straight out, serious, maybe a bit sullen. As you know I’ve been trying to bring material&haptic qualities to the photographs, and now I’ve crocheted a kind of soft-focus visor which I’ve sewn to the photo. I made the shape to fit one (real) face and hem in the other. You can either see features (for which you have to get up close, pulling the weave on like a back-to-front cowl) or uniform. A quick sketch around an idea by someone who is on guard. I’m taking things slowly.


After-the-fact – and proof that I’m slowly reviving – greetings from an outing across the river, across time, across the pain-limit (consequence), across the pleasure-threshold (immediate), all imbued with the sweetness of motion and possibility (momentary), long awaited, planned for, and already passed into memory: Last Thursday a friend and I visited the Hannah Höch-exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, where we didn’t find the German Girl but an otherwise glorious, glorious show. Finally I saw her collages outside a book, those bold combinations of partial images, cutting through time and culture. If only I could have run a fingertip across seams and edges…

Hannah Höch was born 1889 and alive through two world wars, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich (when her work was classified as ‘degenerate’). While I lay waiting to be restored to improved if not good physical function I pondered the memory of two great-aunts of mine, contemporaries of Hannah Höch.

As I was small when they were old, and my nose was in books more often than not, my father’s maiden aunts, Tante Maja and Tante Frieda, were to me like figures sprung from fairy-tales. Tante Maja, tall and with a saintly, not-of-this world aspect, an ancient Frau Holle, ready to reward even the slightest show of goodness; Tante Frieda, small, rotund and resolute, an old crone who may have lived in a little house deep in the forest for centuries, where she commanded the broom to sweep, the kettle to boil, pots and pans to cook her frugal meals, and waited to test, try and rescue those who lost their way. It was inconceivable that they had ever been young, that they had led professional lives, taught until 1933 when they refused to join the NSDAP or any other national-socialist civil servants’ organisation, and were banned from teaching. Both had to leave behind their respective flats and independent lives in B. and K. and came to share a room with a double-bed in their brother’s/my father’s father’s house.

I cannot say if my memory of Tante Maja comes from a photograph I’ve seen, or from reality, or a composite of the two, as I see her as if posed for a camera-lens, standing still and looking straight at me. Her bespectacled face had a serene radiance, and a gold tooth blinked when she smiled. Her younger sister, Tante Frieda, I remember better. When we visited her on Sundays, after church, in the catholic old people’s home, she would sit in her armchair wearing a dress and jacket, blue hat on brillo-pad hair, and a handbag lying in her lap (although beyond going out), looking mischievous. These were the times of Sunday best and measured afternoon walks along the promenade where men would raise their hats in greeting. Writing this I wonder what age I spring from and want to wipe my words clean from nostalgia… I don’t wish to go back, no way, just hold on to my small stock of memories, and marvel that I once was a child – which seems incredulous to me at times.

Later, when Tante Frieda could no longer rise we would find her in bed with books, Readers’ Digest, said handbag, and, much of the time and thrillingly interesting to me, her dentures in a glass on the bedside table, pink and glossy, a sea-creature trapped in a tiny pool, exuding a hint of menace. (This reminds me of the Chinese paper flowers my father sometimes brought us, which swelled and opened in water and floated like beautiful wounds.)

History and the first inklings of other languages, people, worlds which existed beyond what I ‘knew’ first came to me from fairy tale books, Grimm, Andersen, Hauff, to name a few. Ice-queens, brothers in raven-form and Rumpelstiltskin seemed as real as the ruddy crumpled neighbour who was often drunk; I encountered Scotsmen with checked trousers and long sideburns, Turks and Arabs wearing fezzes and turbans, their princesses in pantaloons and pointed shoes; robbers’ inns in the Spessart; caravans and deserts and grand viziers; but also wandering apprentices, serfs, servants, slaves, hungry children, cruel punishments. Or did I see these as tall tales and was startled later to see how much was real?

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A lot of funny anecdotes exist about my great-aunts, with a patronising bias, rendering them slightly ridiculous, even tragic figures, partly because they were spinsters, partly because their peculiar habits and idiosyncrasies now seem odd, and very old-fashioned. The way I have them walk in and out of fairy tales isn’t much different. Time to picture them as competent, professional women: Tante Maja taught at primary school, having a way with young children; Tante Frieda taught teenage-boys, and had their respect. Both loved their work, thrived. I wished I could describe them better, do them justice, in real terms: When it counted they made courageous decisions, small ones in the greater scheme of things, maybe, but I admire them for the stand they took. They never worked again.

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I have just listened for the third time to David Grossman talking about writing, listening, engaging, opening to an other. ‘This is what books are for, to unearth you all the time, the writer and hopefully also the reader, to take them to places where in your normal protected life you do not dare to go.’ And: ‘Art is the best way I know for us to scratch a little this hermeneutic exteriority of death. It is the only way we can feel things and their loss simultaneously.’

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As you know several of my pieces are in the exhibition STRAND. Hair in contemporary art practice, at Oriel Wrecsham. For tomorrow, 19 March, a Creativity and mindfulness seminar has been organized, an event which will include talks and practical activities relating to how artists balance their practice with health and well-being. I will not be there in person, but my DVD Lying low and reaching high: On practising art and living with ME, made 2010, will be shown.


Where do I start? I’m following so many strands now that identifying one for a post is hard. In the end though the process of editing my proliferating texts helps to temporarily disentangle the mass of knotted threads that hang from my hands. Very tired time too, body&brain. When I can’t even manage a little crochet my arms become strangers, the day stays incomplete.

Blessed be my iPad… Have been doing bits of what I call heavy-heart research – trailing photos on-line of WWII child-soldiers and partisans aged 12/13/14/15, compared to whom my dad, who entered war at 17, seems like an old soul. Have also looked at photos of PoWs, from all sides. Can see why my dad considered himself lucky. Started reading Marianne Hirsch‘s Family Frames, peeked into Gabriele Schwarz’s Haunting Legacies, listened to Michael Goldfarb remembering Alice Herz-Sommer, to a programme about the memory of genocide in Rwanda, to another on trauma transmitted through generations and conflict-resolution, one about how Long March is recalled in China, saw pix on the tele of scarily masked men organising into militias on Krim, etc etc. Everything seems to connect.

Coming back to the photos I’m working with, their shifting meaning, and their passage to me: their entwined personal&official nature. They are documentary evidence that my dad was a PoW in the US, and declare a change of status and location: from soldier of the Wehrmacht to prisoner-of-war of an allied state (a kind of passage too). I found them in a photo-album at my mom’s, where my dad assembled them after his return to civilian life, and re-photographed them. Now I’m looking at my copies here, decades after the fact, and showing you fragmented views. Questions about borderlines beset me wherever I turn. In some ways I’ve become, or rather, declared myself their owner. Am I also their care-taker if I chose to work with them? All the while my dad slips in and out of view.

The lack of presence I perceive in his smooth, young face pulls me into vertiginous territory. Barthes talks about ‘discovering’ (not just recognising) his mother in that image of her as a little girl. It’s her eyes that hold him, connect him. In none of these photos does my dad look into the camera (or back at me): not when he is shown on his own, not when he sits next to the other young PoW, not when he kneels in the first row of the group of seven. His gaze teeters out towards his right, unfocused. He is somewhere else.

Barthes also talks about dress locating someone of a previous generation in history. Military dress does that even better. Here is my dad in a uniform which replaced one I find even more troubling, that of a Wehrmacht-soldier. Face, gaze and context throw me about – between closeness and distance, rapport and alienation, wanting to lean in and turn away, some of which finds tentative expression in my work-in-process.

For example: I’ve been stitching into the image which shows him alone, adding layer on layer of crisscrossing blue thread. I want to build up more, create a form that juts out from the image like an extra-limb. It seems to me that not only do I want to give the photo a haptic quality, I want to give it ‘body’.

The dense web of mohair/silk yarn over my dad’s face has aspects of abjection as well as protection (mine? his?). The working process is slow, tender and piercing: a caress and a severing; also a bit like wrapping a beautiful bandage around a wound on someone’s head. I imagine breath underneath, and now I hold mine.

As my hands denied more stints with the needle I explored this in photoshop, closing in on that wavering gaze, its blurred shift to the right. Again and again I sat at the computer to stare at it.

Then I played, putting together mirror-halves, which led me to places where the sense of abjection and alienation assails. Much of this work-in-process doesn’t exist in real terms, the collages aren’t glued and can be re-arranged, these mirror-pieces reside on my computer, everything is contingent, and thus unsettling to me, who wants to present finished pieces. Part of me thinks that this may be a good thing, another part worries I’ll grind to a halt.


I’ve been thinking about knowledge. Of course
I know about German history, the Third Reich, the Holocaust, have learned much at school, through reading, watching documentaries, listening to interviews, visiting two concentration camps, and was almost muted by terror and shame. But: I realise now that while I keep going back to the subject, obsessively according to some friends, in my mind, in conversations, and once more with my art, I know at a remove. Through my investigations into the photographs of my dad I am pulling history close.

I had a very tired few days and as I wasn’t able to take much in picked up a book I first read at college, Roland BarthesCamera Lucida. We were ingesting a lot of critical theory at the time and it came as a huge relief to find a text (written by a man) that so openly combined the personal and the cultural. It beguiles me still and although I can’t decipher the tiny scribbles I made at the margins I am touched by the intensity of my original engagement, visible in those earnest marks in pencil and pink felt-tip pen. Over the years Barthes’ concepts of studium and punctum have inflected the scrutiny of my work, whichever medium I chose. This time too there was much that resonated, again, anew, and as the book is as much about photography as about his relationship to his (dead) mother I hoped it would help me think (and feel?) deeper.

Regarding photography Barthes said: ‘I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think.’ What is at stake for me/my project is how to make thinking and feeling join in ways that allow an unravelling towards understanding. The tension between studium and punctum – between the photograph’s ‘evidential force’ and the suddenly, unexpectedly, emotive detail – is as exacting as it is (can be) fruitful. Of course when we read we try to bend sentences to our will. When Barthes writes ‘… looking at certain photographs I wanted to be a primitive, without culture’ – I added ‘without history’ with a deep sigh. Borderlines, thresholds, which I approach and retreat from, and approach again.

One of my most treasured possessions, a heirloom really, is a little post-it note, inscribed by my dad with the word ‘pst’, which can mean a whispered ‘hush’, ‘be quiet’ and ‘look here’, ‘here I am’ from someone who is hiding and beckons to you (but not others). When I was at art-college my father, unbeknownst to the rest of the family, sometimes sent me a little money, accompanied by such a ‘post-it’ note. In the context of my project ‘pst’ becomes a more severe injunction/
prohibition, which I used to explore the coding of silences, borrowing language that speaks under fingertips, or, to the initiated eye, across the oceans of the world. The quality of the photographs isn’t very good, esp. where the baby blankets are concerned, which I snapped separately laid out on my carpet, to give you an impression. If they went to an exhibition I would want to show them folded, further withholding…

This going-back-in-time can disorient. Yesterday when I got up from where I lay I absent-mindedly tried to slip a foot into a minikin of a shoe, one of a pair of children’s clogs which I always have nearby.

It also heightens your attention: watching the news about what is happening in Ukraine, hearing the kind of language that is used, knowlingly, to produce and fortify polarisations, to blow up a country’s tenuous cohesion along its faultlines – scares the living daylight out of me.

And in the spirit of making the most of what I’ve got around me: the pains my nervous system posited at the outmost points of my body this week – palms, soles of feet, skull – helped me think about the limitations of knowing – not totally, with every fibre of my being, but something briefly, partially gleaned. And borne.

Injunction – collages (2014)
Dimensions: each approx. 15.7cm x 12.6cm
Materials: photographs, masking tape

Injunction – baby blankets (2013/14)
Dimensions: each approx. 50 cm x 72 cm
Material: Crocheted from wool/cotton yarn