Working on the tree last night I discovered, through the Ancestry website, a lady who is descended from a common ancestor. The ancestor in question is my great-grandmother, on my father’s side, Ellen E Lafford whose brother Albert is the direct descendent of the lady I mentioned. Looking at her family tree (I couldn’t help but feel I was somehow intruding, especially as she’s put up quite a few photographs) and looking at the faces of all these strangers, it was odd to think of how we share this common link, albeit one which goes back to the late nineteenth century, and to consider the different paths our families have taken. It’s strange too, to consider the thought that my descendants will, one day down the line, be complete strangers… and then of course the mind begins to wander – or rather run with it all – and positively boggles when considering all those others living today with whom I share so many ancestors; people to whom, however distantly, I am related.
This of course brings me back round to the point of much of my artwork, the idea of all those anonymous people swallowed up by history; the faces on the photographs of Oxford which I’ve started to collect, names on memorials, names lost altogether, and I’m reminded again of the words of Rilke in his novel, ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ when he says (always worth quoting in full):
“Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because one has always spoken of its masses just as though one were telling of a coming together of many human beings, instead of speaking of the individual around whom they stood because he was a stranger and was dying?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that one believed it necessary to retrieve what happened before one was born? Is it possible that one would have to remind every individual that he is indeed sprung from all who have gone before, has known this therefore and should not let himself be persuaded by others who knew otherwise?
Yes it is possible.
Is it possible that all these people know with perfect accuracy a past that has never existed? Is it possible that all realities are nothing to them; that their life is running down, unconnected with anything, like a clock in an empty room?
Yes it is possible.”
Researching my family tree is a desire perhaps to be anything but a clock in an empty room. Rather, to quote Roland Barthes, I would prefer to be what he describes as cameras being; a clock for seeing.
I was recently reading a book of work by Georges Perec, and in particular a transcription of a conversation he had with someone called Frank Venaille. In it he describes himself as a unanimist:
“a literary movement that didn’t produce much but whose name I very much like. A movement that starts with yourself and goes towards others. It’s what I call sympathy, a sort of projection, and at the same time an appeal!”
Again, this describes what my research is all about, something which starts with myself and goes towards others, a sort of sympathy with history, or at least, with those who have been lost to history. It is a projection of oneself onto the face of the past and as Perec states (although this might not be his meaning) an appeal to be remembered.