Something good is taking place.
Four weeks ago, I spoke with my tutor Laura about where Other Mothers was currently. To be honest, I felt overwhelmed by the material gathered, coming as it did in a mixture of images, text fragments and audio files. I felt swamped and worst still, stuck in that swamp.
Although I didn’t care to admit it, Laura was right that my re-shot images using smoke and boards became dull and repetitive when that was how ALL the images were shown together.
I retreated for much of one weekend with all of my material printed small and spread them out across a work top and began playing around with various sequences. I began to spot previously unnoticed connections – the shape of Grandma’s dress above her dress and how that paired well and meaningfully with two other images – a lone sock from the After project – and the v-shape, like bird wings of her knitting needles, and then back to the dead bird, lying on the floor.
The experience was playful and I started to see how a small selection of archive pictures of some of the Other Mothers might also work into the piece.
And I started to feel like I was getting to know my material better and differently and a new voice emerged in my thinking – not, as in my previous Other Mothers work, that of an adult, but of a child. This in turn triggered long forgotten memories, such as my father asking whether he could marry Liz (now Mum) and my saying “no” but also of my early cruelty to her once she joined our family.
Then came a realisation that laying out these images upon a desk was like building blocks of Lego, which is touched on in the fog and board pictures, and asking myself what was it about Lego that so appealed. Was it about reorganising the world into simple, more manageable blocks? Squares and rectangles, I thought, rather like photography.
This experience coincided with my coming across Viviane Sassen’s incredible work Hot Mirror. I was immediately grabbed by the similarity of the voice in her text to my own voice coming through in response to my sequencing: The child’s voice.
Her telling of friendships, of alienated belonging in Kenya and of the ambiguity throughout Hot Mirror of what it is to be the seer and ‘the seen’, and whose view are we looking at, was captivating. As was the syncopation between the text and the images, often just slightly out of step with each other, sometimes acting as a premonition into an image to come or picking up from an image still lingering in the mind from earlier in the work.
To expand a little on the ambiguity surrounding seeing, she begins Hot Mirror with the idea that the “eye’ of the eucalyptus tree was responsible for the death of her dog’s puppies. Yet throughout the work all actual eyes are obscured or hidden and instead we have surrogate “eyes”, often nipples, peeping through sometimes painted apertures or tied up bodies. These nipples are held to our gaze and proudly stare back at us. And I’m mindful in the interview, printed on translucent paper in the middle of the book, how Sassen explains her inherent shyness and how she was more comfortable, as a model, communicating with her body. Perhaps there is a suggestion of her looking (via her camera) at her own nipples, looking at us, looking at her? One ‘Hot Mirror’, amongst others in her work?
The work itself has a longing to it, a longing for the friends she had growing up in a Kenyan village; for a time before her father’s suicide; to fit in (she speaks of her jealousy at how her school friends did not have to wear sun cream or a hat); for a balance (she wanted her African school friends to like her doll, but not as much as they did).
What I’m appreciating most in Sassen’s work is the depth of layering in her work. It is not one of those works which is “about such and such”, it is about many things, experiences which are interconnected. It is a rich story.
And it speaks so hotly to me at the moment, because I, in a very different way, and am seeking to create something similar.
Viviane Sassen, Hepworth Wakefield (Gallery and Musée Des Beaux-Arts De La Ville Du Locle (2018). Hot mirror : Viviane Sassen. Munich ; New York: Prestel.