Do you remember

A dialogue between Tristan Cai and Milja Laurila

 

“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered... the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls... bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

—Marcel Proust

 

Meet Mr Toivo Laukkanen, a debonair military man fast fading away in his twilight years. He lives in a desolate mansion by a lake. Yet his apparent wealth is no disguise for the abject loneliness that stalks his waking hours. He was raised in a traditional boys' boarding school and later drafted into the army—it just seemed like the most natural path for a young man of his times. Tovio forged a decorated career, furnished with stars and stripes before retiring as a war veteran. His wife is absent, probably dead. He has a daughter, possibly a son-in-law as well, and they celebrated his birthday together before. A man of great measure no doubt, whose life ended in not more than a whisper after being stricken by seasonal affective disorder. “The Physical Realities of Death” seems like a convincingly straightforward narrative of birth, family, work, love and death. And it could remain that way, a revolver in a velvet glove, seductive and potent, striking in your most unwitting moments - the moment when Singaporean artist Tristan Cai chooses to reveal, “There are five different people in the work.”

Now meet Mr Laurila, the father of Finnish artist Milja Laurila. Our image of him is hazy; probably so for his daughter as well, having passed away when she was eleven. An avid photographer, he leaves behind his legacy of love – an immense collection of family photographs, some bearing the last intimate markings of his scrutiny and editing. He appears fleetingly in a reflection and is almost always in the backdrop, behind the camera. But he’s now alive, breathing. We’re seeing him literally through Milja’s eyes. Using the technique of multiple exposures, she constructs surreally beautiful tableaus merging her adult self into old childhood photos that her father took of her. Both father and daughter, separated by a gulf between the living and deceased, are now reunited on a single photographic plane. “To Remember” is a not only a heartbreaking story about love and loss, but a deeply layered reading on photography, nostalgia and the archive.

The exhibition “To Remember: The Enigma of Memory” presents a delicate conversation between Tristan and Milja against the backdrop of several overlapping themes: that of kinship, the masculine role in family and society, power, critical nostalgia and an enquiry into the concept of time and reality in photography. More crucial than illuminating their similarities, is perhaps a contemplation of the paths they diverge upon.

 

Deconstruction and Reconstruction

Very much like a cinematic script conceived in a directorial fashion, “The Physical Realities of Death” involves “street casting” an actor, staging various significant moments of his life, and then furnishing the fictitious narrative with archival documents - family photos from a mélange of sources - carefully and purposefully selected, curated and arranged. According to photography critic A.D. Coleman (1998), almost every photographic work is a presentation of an intimate and personalized universe, crafted by the image maker’s objectives and stylistic sensibilities. This shaping comes across more overt and deliberate for artists who choose to operate directorially, eventually orchestrating a slip in photography’s pretence of “mirroring reality” to reveal its true nature of being a montage of signs, codes and signifiers, “a way of how things could be made to look”.

Whereas other manifestations of mise-en-scene photography - those that deploy strategies such as photo collages, elaborate stage sets, costumes or image-text juxtapositions easily make it impossible for viewers to believe in the image as a reflection of reality, the suspension of belief is much more delayed in “Physical Realities”. Until the point of discovering that the narrative is very much a fictional construction, both artist and viewer are “operating consensually, within what the late sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘the theatrical frame’”. (Coleman, 1998) The artist sets up a bait to seduce and convince, while the viewer acts as a vicarious conspirator in wanting to be persuaded.

A rupture in this complicit partnership immediately renders the viewer vital objective distance in sizing up the intent and methodology of the work, hence giving way to decryption and new discoveries.

While trying to secure meaning and connections between each frame, viewers often seek a strand of familiarity or visual anchor to develop a wider field of comparison and context, and in this case it is most likely the aspect of physical resemblances. The act of seeing hence becomes a conscious one of studying and puzzle solving, akin to assembling fragments of a jigsaw to form meanings. (Mc Tighe, 2012) Interestingly, this mimes Tristan’s own research practice, which involves sifting through various personal archives and navigating both personal and social histories to assemble a cohesive narrative. This process of stringing the pearls together is also echoed in the layout of the artwork. The use of large and small frames in a dynamic, rhythmic arrangement constantly keeps the viewer on his toes, as he transcends the isolated frame and establishes relationships between subjects and documents.

By undermining the purported credibility, neutrality and objectivity of the photograph, “Physical Realities” also puts the image in question. Yet, the seed to every convincing lie is a grain of truth. Conceived when Tristan was a visiting student at what is now known as Aalto University in Helsinki, the series was inspired by his interaction with depression patients at a mental health rehabilitation center. Conducting intensive research into the illness, he found seasonal affective disorder to be one of the most lethal killers in a country where sunlight is practically absent in the height of long and frigid winters. “At springtime, the suicide levels tend to peak because people are expecting things to look up, but when things don’t go as desired, that’s when they fall to the pits,” he observes.

 

"I wish to challenge the historical baggage that forbearers of photography have created for its successors."

– Tristan Cai

 

Upon closer inspection, aesthetic imperfections start to surface - light leaks, camera shake, colour cast and wrong focusing - all the mistakes considered cardinal sins in mainstream professional photography. In fact, the tonal palettes of some of the frames are faintly reminiscent of vernacular photography like lomography or instagram, carefully created to evoke nostalgia and fantasy. Despite the amateurish-looking techniques, we are somehow oppressed by the label and aura of “fine art” to sweep its shortcomings under the carpet. “It is my sarcasm at work, a critique leveled on the norms of photography and a desire to reveal the sutures of this ‘constructedness’,” says Tristan,”

I wish to challenge the historical baggage that forbearers of photography have created for its successors. The importance that the medium has established for itself in fields of documentary reportage and journalism since its invention has seen it being manipulated to advance political ideals and commercial greed. And often, the genre has been overly romanticized...perhaps till the point of pretension. ”

 

"I was thinking about the ways in which our past is present in our lives and how all our experiences influence who we are today. I lived in Africa for the first four years of my life, but I could not remember my childhood or my father. Still, I felt that they affected everything I do and are with me, by my side all the time."

– Milja Laurila

 

Milja’s “To Remember” is a construction in many ways as well. With its associations of play, fantasy and abstraction, the visual phenomena of the photographic multiple exposure has influenced diverse painting movements from German expressionism to Surrealism and Dadaism. In parallel to how memory is often a patchwork of fragmented perceptions and experiences, the photographic surface for Milja becomes a palimpsest to be written and re-written on again. She explains, “I was thinking about the ways in which our past is present in our lives and how all our experiences influence who we are today. I lived in Africa for the first four years of my life, but I could not remember my childhood or my father. Still, I felt that they affected everything I do and are with me, by my side all the time. They have become a large part of who I am.” Her images, like hieroglyphs, compel us as viewers to visually decode and decipher them in an attempt to appreciate them as more than the sum of its parts. In the process, we are stimulated to excavate our own memories, to leaf through the family photo album buried in our hearts.

Two aspects “To Remember” shares in common with “Physical Realities” are the use of the ubiquitous family photo album as a resource material, as well as harnessing the transmutable potential of images through the technique of recycling. To quote Susan Sontag (1978, p.174), “rather than reproduce the real, photography recycles it – this is one of the key processes of modern societies. In the form of these images, events and things assume new functions and are assigned new significations...” Both artists have also adopted a similar kind of sentimentality to their practice – what Belgian philosopher Henri Van Lier calls the “cosmological” approach, and defines as a process of tracing, interrogating and disseminating resemblances and differences within the family album. What biological and cultural traits are yours, and which originate from someone else? Van Lier contends that inasmuch biological life originates from a myriad of permutations and combinations, the photograph, through its sheer number, pattern, indices and malleability is proof that signification and meaning are but “fleeting precipitations from a cloud of possibilities at a certain time and place that can never be pinned down”. (2007 pg. 93)

Yet, the intents of both artists differ in how “Physical Realities” utilizes sarcasm as a critique on romanticism and introspection, but “To Remember” confronts the idea of nostalgia and longing head on, with relatively high degrees of success. While an attempt to unpack “Physical Realities” often involves a game of wits and some cunning, “To Remember” appeals to the emotive side of us, in the artist’s deliberate abandonment of physical exactitude to evocate the reality of feelings more poignantly. Yet, nostalgia, when manipulated to serve certain socio-political agendas, can take on darker undertones, and Tristan carries on exploring that line of thought in his sculptural works.

Power and its discontents

Subtle but potent, power is one dominant thread binding all the works in the exhibition together. “Physical Realities of Death” launches an inquiry into what constitutes the masculine identity in Asian culture, our expectations of male members of the family, as well as the conflict between traditional and modern roles males play in contemporary society. It is in many ways a form of cathartic self-expression, as the artist himself, the eldest son of the family, often faces pressure between pursuing an artistic career and aiming for pragmatic success. Toivo, the protagonist in the series, is an embodiment of society’s patriarchal order and a representation of what social norms have defined as an accomplished man – one who not only serves his country but maintains his family well. It is significant how the series ends with a military portrait instead of a familial one, implying that a man’s first obligation should always be his motherland, and his measure of success is ultimately how much he contributes to it. If our final vision of Tovio is a formal portrait, austere and inviolable, what about our first? What about those in between?

This draws to my next point on the gaze. The photograph is a point of intersection of numerous looks and gazes, such as the look between the subject and the photographer, the looks exchanged between subjects in the images, the look of the viewer, and other invisible external gazes- cultural, institutional or ideological- that frame the act of picture taking. Academic Marianne Hirsch calls the photograph “a document in which this complex exchange of looks and gazes is reflected.” (1999, pp. 16) “Physical Realities” features a hybrid of gazes and vantage points within the series itself, alternating between the dualities of insider/outsider, historical/contemporary and emotional/clinical. Is the viewer’s position that of a family member, a forensic worker or archivist? Is Tovio merely a passive object of our voyeuristic tendencies or is he drawing us in to participate in a thicker plot where the lines between spectator and spectacle are blurred? This ambiguity intensifies the richness of the series.

In “To Remember”, the picture composites are where gazes of Milja and her father intersect, first in the exchange of gazes between him and her when the picture is taken, and later her adult self lingering upon this moment, typically from a safe distance. But these gazes are never entirely value-free. They are relational, exemplifying how, in this instance, her parents define themselves and their roles with respect to hers. Moreover, the act of taking a family photo doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is informed by prevailing scripts of family life, individual versus collective mindsets and influences from media and popular culture. The internalization of these factors reflects back on the artist, culminating a familial gaze that defines her. Not to mention, in how Milja meticulously re-composes, re-frames and sequences her images, she has unconsciously subverted and overwritten the power of the archive - an assemblage of visual records previously gathered, selected and preserved by her father - what he felt was her childhood in his eyes.

Furthermore, the act of seeing, as James Elkins (1997) reminds us, is never completely rational or emotionally neutral. On one hand, the experience of seeing and of being seen can convey acknowledgement and affirmation. On the other, the opposite implies disconnection, visual indifference, disregard, and “the annihilation of the subject- as-spectacle and correspondingly, the possible decrease of the spectator’s own self-awareness and self-assurance.” (Haustein, 2012) The works of both artists are testimonies of how visual perception is often drenched in feelings of unconscious affect, love, desire, possessiveness, jealousy and fear. The aspect of not seeing or not being seen manifests more in “Physical Realities”, where feelings of exclusion and solitude the protagonist encounters in his struggle with depression translate visually into his alienation with the viewer. While gazes tend to meet more between viewer and subject in “To Remember”, they are never confrontational but invitational, beckoning at self- disclosure and a gentle luring into the artist’s inner mindscapes.

Beyond the social unit of the family, Tristan projects his explorations of the paternal figure into society at large, with his sculptural installations “Loom” and “Utopia of Euphoria”. Having lived abroad for close to four years, re-immersion into Singaporean culture came as a virtual shock for him each homecoming. The foreignness he adopted gave him the vantage point of an outsider to critically evaluate the Singaporean identity – how it is manufactured, maintained and negotiated. Italian political theorist Machiavelli says in The Prince, “It is essential for a prince to be on a friendly footing with his people, since, otherwise, he will have no resources in adversity.” What Machiavelli has not elaborated on, is how this “friendly footing” may be achieved through various tactics and guises, including genuine respect and sincerity or subtle manipulation and coercion.

In Weberian thought, legitimate domination is possible only if there is compliance from the dominated, and this endorsement of authority is often sought through traditional, rational or charismatic means. “Loom” and “Utopia of Euphoria” are hence metaphoric representations of the intricacies in weaving this tapestry of nationhood, as well as the tensions and struggles that exist between individual and state interests.

In the Reverie of Memory

The terrain of memory is an important one for both artists, especially Milja. According to critic John Berger, it was the faculty of memory that served the function of photography before its invention. (Evans, 1997) To interpret a picture is therefore to lend it a past and a future. Yet, given that memory is a fragmentary trace of a collective event that does not adhere to a linear or cohesive chronology, its retrieval is often fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity. This is illuminated in Milja’s “The Family Album”, a work devoid of images save for descriptions of old family photos provided by her mother. A manifestation of her long-standing interest in the relationship between text and imagery, the project was inspired by how when she was young, her parents would show her pictures from their stay in Africa and tell her about their lives there.

“I have grown up looking at photographs but it felt strange because I could not remember anything but had to believe all these experiences existed because of visual evidence, “ she says, “This led me to think about photography's relation to memory. For me, photographs do not bring back memories; they are silent and need words to accompany them.”

To quote Roland Barthes, the written and spoken word represses the image by limiting its reading through “fixing the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs.” (Feinstein, 2010) A family photo album with just pictures alone bears no meaning for a stranger who picks it up, since there is no way to interpret the specifics of the narratives without a context. In a similar vein, the archive of slides belonging to Milja’s father, being in total disorder without proper labeling, is “mute” to her. Hence Milja resorts to excavating childhood memories through the recollections of her mother, who plays the role of a living archive in passing down an oral tradition of contextualizing how, where and when the pictures were taken - knowledge that only she is privy to. Interestingly, both “To Remember” and “The Family Album” seem to imply that the past is only accessible through detours or mediated forms like words and imagery, rather than immediate physical experience.

 

"For me, photographs do not bring back memories; they are silent and need words to accompany them" – Milja Laurila

 

The very essence of memory for Milja is obtained by filtering it through multiple mediums, such as her father’s vision, her mother’s memories, her personal recollections and her reflections on them in retrospect. Furthermore, by editing and simplifying her mother’s interpretations, the phrases are rendered generic enough so that everyone could relate to it and even trigger recollections of their own. In being both personal and universal, “The Family Album” challenges what Barthes raised in Camera Lucida of a photograph of his mother: “It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture.”

Text also plays a role in “To Remember”, where handwritten names of birds in Milja’s childhood diary are superimposed onto her self-portrait in “Starlings”. The word "Kottaraisia" literally means starlings in Finnish, a remembrance of how she used to go bird watching with her father when she was young.

 

Concluding thoughts

German philosopher Walter Benjamin once mentioned in Berlin Chronik, “Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre”. This cannot be truer in “To Remember: The Enigma of Memory”. Merely surveying memory in pursuit of the past is insufficient, there has to be re-interpretation and re-presentation to make contemporary sense of history. An audience is essential too, for personal memory to be positioned back into the larger context of social experience and social memory.

It is also important to realize how memory is a simultaneous act of possessing and discarding. Remembering and forgetting are eternally intertwined, as each time we remember, we remember in traces, selecting haphazardly while forgetting the rest. Thus, the only thing remembrance remembers is obviously not itself, but its dialectical partner, namely of forgetting.

Nevertheless there is never a single approach to something remembered, says Berger. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end of a line. Similarly, this exhibition can be read in so many diverse ways and hold so many different meanings for each and every one of us. It holds up a mirror, allowing us to learn more about ourselves through observations of the other. It transforms the very space it is being showcased in, allowing different strands of memories and histories to meet and mingle. As American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes famously remarked, “Theoretically, a perfect photograph is inexhaustible.” The starting points and possibilities to explore these works are endless and infinite. But what is perhaps certain is, this is one exhibition to be remembered for a long time.

 

Resources

Berger, John. (1997) "Ways of Remembering" in The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography edited by Jessica Evans, pp. 42-51. London: Rivers Oram Press.

Coleman, A.D. (1998). “The Image in Question: Further Notes on the Directorial Mode”, Pp. 2-11 in Depth of Field: Essays on Photographs, Mass Media, and Lens Culture. USA: University of New Mexico Press

Elkins, James. (1997). The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing.U.S.: Harcourt Brace.

Feinstein, Kenneth. (2010). The Image That Doesn’t Want To Be Seen. New York: Atropos Press.

Haustein, Katja (2012). Regarding Lost Time: Photography, Identity, and Affect in Proust, Benjamin, and Barthes. UK: Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing.

Hirsch, Marianne (1999). The Familial Gaze. UK: University Press of New England.

McTighe, Monica (2012). Framed Spaces: Photography and Memory in Contemporary Installation Art. UK: Dartmouth College Press.

Sontag, Susan. (1978). On Photography. USA: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Van Lier, Henri. (1983). Philosophy of Photography. Belgium: Leuven University Press.

 

About Kong Yen Lin

Yen Lin works full time as a photo sub-editor for an international news agency.
She was the Education and Outreach Programme Manager of the 2012 Singapore International Photography Festival and has participated as a guest curator in Brighton Photo Fringe’s Open 2011. The photo book “The Epiphany of States”, which she contributed a foreword and essay for, was selected in 2012’s Photobook Show, exhibiting in Brighton and Helsinki. Her writings on art and journalism can be found at www.inneryennings.wordpress.com

 

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