In 1888 Van Gogh had moved to live in ‘the Yellow House’ in Arles, Provence and was developing his mastery of landscape painting. He had invited his friend Paul Gauguin to come and share the house and had a dream of developing an artists colony in the town. Unfortunately the two artists fell out within two months of Gauguin’s arrival and he left. It was only a short while after this that Van Gogh had the first of his mental breakdowns and was committed to hospital.
Van Gogh painted two ‘portraits’, Gauguins empty chair with a lighted candle, and his own empty chair. These two paintings are hanging side by side on the Royal Academy in London just now in the big exhibition I went to today called The Real Van Gogh, The Artist and his Letters. I found both paintings are full of feeling and expression.. powerfully giving the feeling of emptiness I have been looking for in this project about absence and presence, and also suggesting dreams and plans that have crumbled to dust.
When I was on a work assignment in Singapore I visited the Kranji War Cemetery where just under 4,500 people are buried. It is an incredibly peaceful place, about as far from violence and warfare as one could imagine, and yet very moving. I read a lot about the fall of Singapore while I was there, initially inspired by the autobiography of of Eric Lomax called The Railway Man. As young Scottish man he joined an engineering regiment and was sent out to fight in Singapore just before it fell to the Japanese. He was held prisoner of war and put to work on the Burma Siam railway and then sent to the notorious Changi prison which still exists. His story of survival, and coping with the psychological consequences over subsequent decades is inspiring. I would recommend it to anyone. I read the book nearly twenty years ago, but often think about it and talk about it with others.
I got into college today, the first time this term, to find I was already there.. I gave me quite a fright! How nice to think that whilst I am away over the next 2 weeks my alter ego will be having a happy time in Telford with all my mates. This is a scarily good likeness, complete with scruffy footwear.
According to Laura Cumming at the Observer Christian Boltanski is France’s greatest living artist, and an installation piece made by him has just opened in the Grand Palais in Paris as part of the Monumenta series (the Parisian equivalent of Tate Moderns big exhibitions). There is a short clip of an interview with the artist and footage of his work if you google vernissage boltanski and personnes – but below is a summary from a reviewer on the vernissage website page:
For Monumenta, Christian Boltanski created a work in sound and vision titled “Personnes” – meaning both “people” and “nobodies”. Personnes is a “social, religious and humanistic exploration of life, memory and the irreductible individuality of each and every human existence – together with the presence of death, the dehumanisation of the body, chance and destiny. Conceived as a work in sound and vision, Personnes takes up a new theme in Boltanski’s work, building on his earlier explorations of the limits of human existence and the vital dimension of memory : the question of fate, and the ineluctability of death.
Cumming describes the effect of walking past all these clothes scattered in between these metal posts and the fact they seem like memorials to the missing and how moving is this experience. There is also a recording of many many heartbeats. To one side there is a huge pile of clothes with a metal grabber that descends, picks up a handful of garments lifts them high and then releases them to fall back down again. My understanding is that the clothes and human possessions have come from as and where, no particular source.
This work is close to some of the ideas I have been thinking about.. the traces we leave, is there a difference that is because I was. I will probably come back to this post about Boltanki’s Personnes in a wee while but at present I find myself irritated by it. I have a very strong image in my mind of visiting the WW2 war cemetery in Singapore, with the lines and lines of graves and huge marble slabs about 10′ high with thousands of names of real people killed. And at the moment the television and newspapers are full of heart rending scenes of real people dying or dead in Haiti. It seems a bad time to be making a piece about fictitious missing people.
I will come back to this post at a better time.
.. .and wanting respond to the news of the terrible earthquake. I have never been to Haiti, but have been to Puerto Plata, just over the border in Dominican Republic, where the people I met were kind and friendly and also very poor. The news is full of images of a devastated people searching for their lost relatives and trying to dig people and bodies out from under the rubble and ruined homes and lives. Snowy Sussex seems like a different planet, but actually we are less than 9 hours by plane, the same time it would take to drive back to Edinburgh.
Just thinking about the marks we make.. shadows..for which we must be present.. the sun is so low at this time of year it catches us having breakfast..
and indentations..for which we need to have been present once..
and they remain afterwards… In this context the phrase carbon footprint leaves me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.. given its enormity.
Leaving on such a beautiful morning..a carpet of icy snow granules sparkling in the sunlight was very difficult. This recording is of the first 766 seconds, two seconds for each hour I will be away.