I’m writing about The Beginning of History by mentally moving through the exhibition piece by piece. It’s a bit like praying the rosary, feeling bead after bead between your fingers, only I’m not following the show’s lay-out in the round but finding my own criss-crossing trail, with similar deliberation. I’m on piece six now, out of 23, so this may well become the slowest exhibition review ever. That my body seems to be stuck in permanent pain-review mode and for extended periods puts my brain on the blink doesn’t help.
At the same time I’m preparing to go see my mother, whose 80th birthday is nigh. I decided to make a photo-book, about her and my dad, whose absence she feels most acutely at this time of year, and started by juxtaposing photos of each as babies, children, teenagers. While I was selecting the images I found myself in a quandary. Should I include a photo of my dad as a young soldier? First I thought, yes, of course, that’s part of what shaped him, and tried to ignore the niggling notion that it might upset my mom who not only has her own memories of a childhood affected by war, but of my father waking up screaming every night at the beginning of their life together. (While I was growing in her womb my father went into therapy, not the done thing at the time and something I really admire him for.)
In the end, sidestepping the self-righteous part of me, I decided I could, even should, allow the book to be without the photo in question. After all I wasn’t making it for myself, nor was it an attempt at Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I still feel ambivalent, but also realise I was imposing my own need to work through these aspects of my father’s life.
In the summer, when we looked through old photo-albums together and I listened to her stories, even recorded them, I had to reign myself in too. She talked about fleeing from East Prussia with her mother and four younger siblings just before the Russian army arrived, at the age of 11, something it’s taken me a decade or two to even acknowledge as trauma. When she described dead horses lying frozen at the side of the trail where a long line of sledges and horse-carts made slow progress, my impulse again was to press her. I thought: why no mention of dead people, and caught myself moments later, appalled at how judgemental I was. What right have I to dictate how she should remember, and what to share? Shouldn’t I respect her way of dealing with what she lived through? On one hand there’s the abstract as well as concrete need of challenging silences and suppressions with regard to German history, on the other is the personal engagement with someone who was a child then and made sense of what she saw and experienced on her own terms. As one of the post-war generation (lucky) I need to find my own relationship to German history, a conscious affect-laden process which challenges me on all kinds of levels…
You could say Verkehrtes Mädchen grew out of our conversations. I actually started crocheting while I was lying on her sofa, listening – I get fidgety if I can’t occupy my hands. Also on my mind was Hannah HÃ¶ch‘s collage Deutsches Mädchen/German Girl, made 1930, to which this is a kind of reply in crochet. Verkehrt can be translated as wrong, inverted, amiss, and verkehren (verb) as ‘put something the wrong way around’; ‘consort with someone’, ‘keep company or do business with’. I think it is partly about her, and partly about me. Verkehrt in different ways, at different times.
Verkehrtes Mädchen (2012/13)
Materials: crocheted from wool/polyester mixture and cotton yarn
Dimensions: 57.5 cm x 36 cm
And before I forget, a small ode to joy: Last week I was able to follow from afar a very interesting talk by @annabeltilley @ZeitgeistAP about the development of her practice since art-college – tweetwise! As ever I would have loved to be there in person, but as I was laid up this was the next best and much enjoyed opportunity, thanks to the nimble fingers and supple mind of legendary @rosalinddavis who tweeted quotes&photographs and even took questions. Thinking back to last year I can say we’ve come far, and I’m really grateful for the continuation of efforts and experiments. Having pix made all the difference. Blogger-friend @sophiecullan was there too and will carry the baton to @Fermynwoods
The start of a new era!