In a recent conversation about her work Audra Vau declared her love for the writing of Marcel Proust. This is in-keeping with the mores of the last generation to come to maturity under the soviet system; a social group generally considered, by monolingual westerners, amongst the best-educated and widest-read citizenry on the planet. Proust had come up because his great novel In Search of Lost Time is a repository of critical reflections about the interrelationship of photography and memory and the role art plays in developing a keener understanding of life: and buttressing that understanding – by fixing it in pictures or letters – against the depredations of time. Vau’s camera-based exhibition “Three Stories” charts similar narrative territories, encouraging the allusion to Proust, as does the sharing of the title of one of the works in the exhibition with one of the volumes of the novel La Prisonnière (often translated as “the captive” in English rather than “the prisoner” per se). The generational connection with reading can hardly be overstated from a position in 2011 as younger artists, and thinkers, are fascinated with electronic metaphysics and zeitgeist theories that refer to modernist writing as artifacts – paying little heed to the fact that their writerly heroes are often inspired by the great moderns. Never mind.
Proust described his writing as a “machine producing signs of different orders” producing different affects on different readers and issuing a clarion to readers to use it as a machine to help write future texts. With Audra Vau’s encouragement we do as much here. The connective skein in the exhibition – the “One” story of the essay’s title – is that of loss. In the work Exhumation of bereavement, in Instruction of abandonment, and in Prisoner of incarceration. And its past participle – lost – appears in the title of Proust’s novel. All of which means the works, on seemingly divergent themes, converge in the space of the exhibition and in the narrative of Vau’s practice. Loss is an abiding theme in much work produced in post-communist Europe as artists, along with the societies they live in, try and explain their relationships to the great utopian experiment of the 20th century and its demise: a fecund descriptive realm lies in the dialectical space between personal-and-public experiences of the times and in creative attempts to describe positive moments in an otherwise damned era.
Exhumation is the work in the exhibition that touches on this post-communist register. Her subject is the photographic amulets, memento mori, that often emblazon headstones and are typical in Lithuania (as in soviet-times religious symbology was discouraged or denied). She has re-photographed memorial photographs from fourteen headstones in the village where her grandmother lived after returning to Lithuania from a decade of soviet imposed exile in Siberia in 1958. Vau spent five years growing up there, also, as her parents as returned exiles were not allowed to live in the capital, Vilnius. Her mother was a doctor, so a prominent figure in villagelife, and those five years living in a tight-knit community and close to her grandparents have held a long-sway over the artists memory. Tellingly, in a text that Vau has written about this work, involving the remembrance of her family life at the start of her memory around age five, she describes the “smell of a hot meal in the kitchen”, “colourfully wrapped sweets that didn’t taste as good as they looked”, and the quality of light falling at a certain hour, and the shape of a grand mirror (all of which can seem ‘romantic’ or ‘normal’, despite the times). Village cemetery’s, the world over, are imbued with deeper registers of melancholia and mourning as their living populations have dwindled (under force of urbanization and emigration) and their ground often represents a site of pilgrimage and even final return.
Printed on duraclear so they are see-through, and hung away from the wall so they can cast a slight shadow, the yellowed black and white reproductions are imbued with a ghostly register. And the singularity of each image and the expression on each face lets us know that they possess the universality of what Roland Barthes calls of “having-been”. The fact that the images are re-productions, are shot in a full-frontal manner and blown up to A3 (the standard format of “worker-award” portraits that endowed the corridors and canteens of soviet era factories, plants, and institutes) removes or refuses pathos even if the viewer understands they are looking at [a] death. The portraits are unnamed and are unaccompanied by epitaphs so there is no need to guess the subject’s age or measure degrees of their success (and other judgments one tends to enforce). Instead, one can reflect on states of being in relation to an image, or, the photograph.
Vau doesn’t hide herself, however, though strategic re-photography could facilitate such a structural retreat or disappearance. Instead, she provides some small textual clues in fragments written on the wall adjacent to the images. We learn that the artist has visited her grandfather’s grave in the cemetery and become fascinated by the photographs on other graves and has been able to identify people she knew (though never saw again after leaving the village). The audience is left unsure whether any of the fourteen portraits are of people she knew – and have to wonder whether inclusion or exclusion would be more emotive and ethical – or any of them are her relations that she is willing-to-return. One can be sure that her collecting of these images (her archive is still growing) does represent rumination on photography’s role in overcoming exile and its status as a secular memory device.
Proust writes, of this sort of memory-project (a specific term has been coined for recovery of memory in relation to historical tragedy, such as the Siberian exile, “memory work”) that: “When we have passed a certain age, the souls of the child that we were and the souls of the dead from whom we spring come and bestow upon us in handfuls their treasures and their calamities, asking to be allowed to cooperate in the new sentiments which we are feeling and in which, obliterating their former image, we recast them in an original creation.”
Re-photographing and re-staging are pre-eminent strategies of contemporary art practice that tend towards ‘institutional critique’ and ‘self-reflexive’ critique of identity production the bestknown exemplars being the work of Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman, and the early work of Martha Rosler. Here, engages with the strategy of re-photography in a different and personally nuanced way (that is high minded but free of the theoretical baggage associated with the term). The explicit subject, especially the link to her Grandmother, takes us back to Proust and Marcel’s relationship to his grandmother and her dying: a loss that he constantly replays in the novel via reference to a locket of his grandmother he carries that contains a photograph of her as a beautiful young woman he never knew (headstone photos have the same oval and ceramic form as many locket photographs) and the silver-framed specially commissioned portrait the she gave Marcel soon before she dies, which he keeps on a night stand next to his bed. He writes of his realization that his grandmother must have summoned all her strength to appear so serene in the latter image that “a photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shows us things that no longer exist”. Many critics have described photography in the Proust’s slipstream, agreeing upon its ability to depict a person, or loved one, for the sake of testament, or exhumation, but argue on its effectiveness to engage and enliven that image in relation to memory. Even Proust, himself, presents two sides of the argument – of elegiac delight and horror – in different passages of the novel.
Delight and horror are two of the conflicting emotions associated with child rearing: their immanence in relationships with the elderly (in proximity to death) might describe why the winter of life is often described as a ‘second infancy’ or ‘second childhood’. It is in the spirit of delight, however, that parents take more photographs – of their children – than anyone else. And each year that cameras become more affordable photographs of children proliferate; an affect of photography that Susan Sontag set out at the very beginning of her seminal book On Photography and was apparent to her from the mid-1970s. Sontag can hardly have predicted the coming of the digital age in which children live on camera, or ‘on screen’ as the new technology dictates. In fact, a generation of children is disappearing into their digital apparatus as news media is reporting endlessly on the decline of sports, social, and leisure pursuits amongst teenagers: that is buckling national traditions and identities.
Children have long been an object of fascination, and study, in art – in painting before photography. Hegel dedicates a section of his Lectures on Aesthetics (1831) to Bartolemé Murillo’s 17th century paintings of street-urchins, convinced that despite or because of their poverty they are like the Olympian God’s “care free!” He insists, “We have a feeling that for a young person of this type any future is possible”. The same might be said of the children who appear in August Sander’s typological People of the 20th Century as they blur the opposition between the world of work and the world of leisure that makes it more difficult to lend them a simple social identification. The world isn’t as positive in Lewis W. Hine’s extensive study of “Child Labour in America 1908–1912” that concentrated on the exploitation and ruination of youth at the hands of industry and because of the lack of welfare and rights. The children who populate New York photographer Diane Arbus’ images seem equally doomed: by metaphysical and social misfortune as the sons-and-daughters of misfits. Meanwhile, from the 1970s, and especially in his films, the American photographer Larry Clark has reminded us that the children of the middle-classes can also be ill-fated, or, possess an appetite for destruction. In Clark’s influential film Kids (1995) it is the wealthiest of the teenagers in the film ( a poor-little-rich girl) who is diagnosed with HIV. The aforementioned works rehearse the horror associated with children. A family should be so lucky as that of Proust (and Marcel in the novel) who only had to deal with a neurasthenic, or, what they called an – enfant nerveaux.
At a deeper psychological level they are his manual for how to cope with abandonment by his mother – who was forced to leave Lithuania as an economic migrant (90,000 Lithuanians between the age of 20 and 55 emigrated in 2010). The boy is literally, and figuratively, killingtime until his mother returns. The pain of his self-disciplining seems apparent in the cold-anddirect-stare of his blue eyes as they reveal – or are encouraged with Brechtian logic by Vau to make visible – the social hidden in the intimate. Remember, it is the artist who play with the gadgetry – camera and video camera – and not the boy, who, in this day and age, we expect immersed in a screen, virtualizing his ‘kung-fu’ and not practicing it. In the Lithuanian context, where young men are as obsessed by basketball as those in the American ‘hood’, he is also practicing something desperately uncool. The boy is not Olympian and carefree but already belongs to the disenfranchised and disenchanted. Herein, Vaupšienė embraces, as Michael Fried puts it, the tendency of photography to break the complicity between the art of the photographer and the aesthetic capacity of her subject (hoping that his hobby is instructional and redemptive). The audience seals the boy’s future and the odds aren’t in his favour. Proust, however, might wager on the boy as he was sure that “to-morrow corresponds to no reality”.
The Search of Proust’s novel vibrates between temporal modes, from past-present-future. Even if tomorrow has no reality, he constantly reminds us that yesterday is no easier to remember, and today to ascertain. One of the most powerful motifs and emotions unleashed in the novel – that plays through the relationships of many of the principal characters, it is as relevant to Baron de Charlus, Jupien, and Morel inasmuch as it determines the Marcel/Albertine coupling – is that of jealousy. Proust masterfully enumerates jealousy as a fully retroactive, active, and proactive humour: it agitates on a sliding-temporal-scale. For instance, a person can be jealous of their lover’s relationships in the years before they met, can be monitoring them in a social situation as it unfolds, and imagining a calamitous end to a relationship (and feeling justified at it coming true). The same holds for time, a person can regret time wasted, tell a lie to protect free-time from intrusion, and make categorical plans for the future. The titles of three of the volumes of the novel signal that life is conducted in the thrall of our humours and of time, and that men are variously Captives, Fugitives, and are only free when theirs is Time Regained. Even as writing this the ex-convict depicted in nine colour-portraits titled Prisoner is on an alcoholic-bender that started upon his release from prison and has been running for weeks. According to the myth Drinking-and-Fucking, in that order, is what released prisoners (and discharged army personnel) are supposed to do upon tasting freedom – their future – so he may be imbibing his “reality”.
The portraits project differently; as the prisoner seems to be proud in the photographs of having ‘survived’. In several of the portraits he stares directly into the lens, and he draws the special attention, of Vau’s camera, to his ‘dueling scars’ (to use a Proustian idiom) the deepscarring that has resulted from knife-fights, or the homemade blades that inmates call “shanks”. The tattoos seem to indicate a clan-affiliation so he is sharing pride that his survival is demonstrative of the perpetuity or ascendancy of his clan. Prison portraiture is a longestablished trope in the history of photography, moving from a 19th century typological and pseudo-scientific documentation of criminals and the insane, through to the art-photography from the 1950s on by the likes of Robert Frank, Danny Lyon ,and again Larry Clark – that has established a corporeal sign-system for the layman. The scars on his forearms are, however, equivocal as they might be evidence of self-harm. Even so, people who come through suicide attempts are known as “survivors” too. Why then, the binge, the seeming self-extinguishing of a real future? Proust writes an answer in the first chapter of La Prisonnière (reflecting on personal experience):
“the morning on which he sets out for a duel which is to be fought under particularly dangerous conditions; then he is suddenly made aware, at the moment when it is perhaps about to be taken from him, of the value of a life of which he might have made use to begin some important work, or merely to enjoy pleasures, and of which he has failed to make any use at all. ‘If I can only not be killed,’ he says to himself, ‘how I shall settle down to work this very minute, and how I shall enjoy myself too.’
Life has in fact suddenly acquired, in his eyes, a higher value, because he puts into life everything that it seems to him capable of giving, instead of the little that he normally makes it give. He sees it in the light of his desire, not as his experience has taught him that he was apt to make it, that is to say so tawdry! It has, at that moment, become filled with work, travel, mountain-climbing, all the pleasant things which, he tells himself, the fatal issue of the duel may render impossible, whereas they were already impossible before there was any question of a duel, owing to the bad habits which, even had there been no duel, would have persisted. He returns home without even a scratch, but he continues to find the same obstacles to pleasures, excursions, travel, to everything of which he had feared for a moment to be for ever deprived by death; to deprive him of them life has been sufficient. As for work — exceptional circumstances having the effect of intensifying what previously existed in the man, labour in the laborious, laziness in the lazy — he takes a holiday.”
“Three Stories” by Audra Vau meanwhile, is a wager for the future, the commencement of what is for her ‘the beginning of some important work’. Whether that work will continue a love affair with Marcel Proust, who can say? Her future subjects might be jealous and her future textual accomplices might be less old-fashioned. Nevertheless, his words are too rarely written in relation to Lithuanian contemporary art despite their power to describe so much of what typifies experience in a social space dominated by losses, memories, and the uncertainties of histories of the pst, present, and future.
All quotes from Marcel Proust are taken from the five volume Vintage Classics edition of In Search of Lost Time, translated by Scott Moncrieff [London;New York: Vintage Classics; Random House, 1997]