After yesterday’s viewing, I began to think about the works I’ve produced so far on this residency and what it is that links them; not that there should be a link – I just know that there is one. Despite the differences, there is an underlying theme which unites the drawings, the text pieces, the deckchairs and the paintings. So what is it?
In answering this I have started to think about… dinosaurs. Not something which first springs to mind when looking at my work and if I mention Jurassic Park, then it might seem that I’m losing the plot altogether, but there is a sequence in this film which is relevant to my work.
In the film, the visitors to the Park are shown an animated film, which explains how the Park’s scientists created the dinosaurs. DNA, they explain, is extracted from mosquitoes trapped in amber and where there are gaps in the code sequence, so the gaps are filled with the DNA of frogs; the past is in effect brought back to life with fragments of the past and parts of the modern, living world. This ‘filling in the gaps’ is exactly what I have done throughout my life when trying to imagine the past, particularly the past of the city in which I live.
As well as reading about and drawing dinosaurs, I also as a child, liked to create and map worlds; countries which I would build from fragments of the world around me; forests, mountains and plains – unspoilt landscapes. And in these worlds there would exist towns and cities, created from ‘the best bits’ of those I had visited.
These invented worlds became, as I grew up, the ‘invented’ or imagined landscapes of Oxford’s past; landscapes that were – just as they still are – created from fragments, parts of the past which are still extant in the city; old buildings, walls, objects and so on. Between these structures, these fragments, I would fill the gaps, with my own imagination, with thoughts derived from my own experience. The city’s past and the past in general, as it exists within my mind, is then, to use the metaphor of cloning in Jurassic Park, a cloned dinosaur. The extant buildings, structures and objects within museums, are like the mosquitoes trapped inside the amber. They are broken strands of DNA. All that is required is for me to fill the gaps, and this I can do with my own DNA. I am in effect, the frog.
This metaphor is interesting in that DNA patterns are, of course, unique to everyone. My DNA is different to everybody else’s as there’s is to mine. Therefore, using my imagination to plug in the gaps of the past, means that the ‘past’ will comprise large parts of my own experience; my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being. (See ‘Postcard 1906’). But although my DNA is unique, it is nonetheless derived from my own past, elements have been passed down by my ancestors from time immemorial. The code which makes me who I am, comprises parts of people I know now (parents and grandmothers), people I knew (grandfathers and great-grandmother) and people lost to the past altogether (great-great grandparents and so on). What interests me about this, is that, through stating above how ‘my dinosaur will contain elements of my own being’ I can now see that ‘my dinosaur’ will contain elements of my own being, which is itself comprised of elements of hundreds – thousands – of people, the majority of whom I will of course never know and who have been dead for centuries. I like to think therefore, that ‘my dinosaur’ and my imagination aren’t entirely unique.
This leads me to look at paths – not the route I walk around the castle, or those recorded by my GPS receiver (although these are entirely relevant) but to the paths taken by my ancestors so that I might be brought into being. The chances of any of us being who we are is practically nil. In order for me to be born, I had to be conceived at the exact time I was conceived, any difference in time – even a split second – and I wouldn’t be me. Also, everything leading up to that moment had to be exactly as it was; anything done differently by my parents, no matter how small, how seemingly irrelevant, any deviation from the path and I would not be me. This is extraordinary enough (whenever I see old photographs of members of my family, I think that if it was taken a second sooner or later, I would not be here) but when one considers this is the same for my entire family tree, again, all the way back to time immemorial, then one realises how, to quote Eric Idle in ‘Monty Python’s Meaning of Life’, ‘incredibly unlikely is your [my] birth’. We are all impossibly unlikely. The chances of all our ancestors walking the exact paths through their lives which they walked is almost nil.
Therefore, my walks, my mapping, my identifying (seemingly irrelevant) objects, my recording them, my palimpsests, are all linked. Memorialising objects (disposable or otherwise), snatches of conversation and so on, inscribing them on a slab, shows how vital these fragments are to future generations and to me in terms of my own past. But how does this fit in with my work on Auschwitz-Birkenau, death camps and World War I?
These ‘arenas’ of death were constructions (although the carnage of a battlefield was often random, the battles themselves were always planned, ‘constructed’ for the purpose) in stark contrast to the rather arbitrary paths our ancestors took so that we might each be born. Death in these places was designed, it was planned, particularly with regards to the horrors of the death camps and by looking at these places, by visiting them, by looking at the seemingly irrelevant, everyday objects left behind, we can fill in the gaps, each using our own existence to imagine the lives and the deaths of others. We understand what it means to be human, the near impossibility of birth and the absolute certainty of death.
Imagining a group of a several hundred people walking to their deaths, whether down a path to the gas chambers, or on a road to the Front, we can easily imagine the route; we can in places walk the route today. But imagining the paths walked by thousands of people through time, to bring each of the victims into being is almost impossible: I say almost impossible, but, as I’ve written above regarding each of our births, it’s possible in the end.
Looking at death therefore is to to look at life and its inestimable value, whoever we are and wherever we live. It is to understand what it means to be human and to cherish the lives of others.