by Coline Milliard*
Walking along the beach, picking up the flotsam spewed on to the shore, facing the sea like facing oneself; Jane Tudge’s installation Saudade (2006) was triggered by a visit to the favourite seaside of a dear relative now deceased, and the piece encapsulates the quietness of this moment of contemplation. On the gallery floor, ordered in large geometrical panels, pebble-like plaster casts bear the hollow imprints of the debris Tudge collected that day. Sometimes identifiable as a feather or a bottle top, sometimes no more than a scar on the soft skin of the plaster, these marks of absence signal the confusion of remembrance, which jumbles up the readable with the unreachable, vivid recollections with vacuums.
In Saudade, the cast roughness of a dirty polystyrene bubble coexists alongside the markings of a fragile cowry spiral, everything embraced in the same inclusive impulse. ‘I did what she did’, says Tudge, ‘I picked up things without discrimination, which is how she approached people’. This parallel between the artistic process and the personality of the beloved turns Saudade into a site for mourning, a monument built with voids. ‘I wanted to make an image that wasn’t’ the artist says, summing up the gnawing sense of lack that characterizes her piece, but like the Brazilian term, Saudade signifies a positive sort of nostalgia: it is the pain of needing as much as the joy of remembering. Loss can also be a driving force.
On each side of the installation, the casts are piled up and gradually broken down, like stones slowly becoming sand. Though Saudade reaches beyond the coastal site that gave the piece its materials, the image of a seashore is constantly evoked. The dust, the shells, even in the whirl of white plaster posing as the foam at the crest of imaginary waves, they all remind us of the piece’s place of origin, emphasizing the link between stimulus and outcome – a recurrent pattern in Tudge’s work. Small and polished, the plaster casts are the shingles of this symbolic seaside, seemingly waiting to be picked up, collected once again, by the visitors.
Saudade marks a turning point in the artist’s practice. Previously, Tudge had been working on a series of paintings based on the harrowing pictures of Abu Ghraib prisoners. Perhaps realising that no image could compete with the horror of the existing photographs, the artist started to develop a visual language based on evocation more than representation; in which her mute palette of whites and greys and the delicate texture of her materials all contribute to the feeling of peacefulness that now characterizes her work. Saudade also sparked off an investigation into the mechanisms of memory – later fed on by the discovery of Daniel Schacter’s writings – which found its fullest realisation to date in Petites Madeleines Project (2008).
During our conversation, Tudge talked about a time when she didn’t have any childhood memories, and the feeling of unsettlement this provoked. It was only upon seeing her stepmother’s old doll – represented in the exhibition on photographic transfers – that, in a Proustian flash, she started to recover lost moments of her past. These memories form the bulk of Petites Madeleines Project, in which, as if to prevent them from escaping a second time, they were trapped by the artist in tin cans. Each can hides an evocation of a remembered event written on a folded piece of tracing paper: wet Saturday afternoons doing origami, a lost engagement ring miraculously found in the garden, daisies picked on lawns. The actual presence of these minute pieces of past in the cans is fundamental to the piece, and characteristic of Tudge’s method. ‘Everything I do comes from a point of truth’, she says. Petites Madeleines Project isn’t a metaphor for remembrance, it is a genuine archive, stocked with material painstakingly retrieved by the artist.
To remember is to reconstruct, often to reinvent. With Petites Madeleines Project, Tudge takes an extra step in this shift from the experienced to the recreated and turns her memories into objects, allowing them to belong not only to the mental and emotional realm, but also to her tangible reality. This phenomenon of transformation is also visible in the selection process which is at the core of the piece: the memories enclosed in the tins may not be necessarily cheerful, the painful ones have not been edited out. Petites Madeleines Project is an attempt to objectively survey and record what remains – but not, as in Louise Bourgeois’ work, a strategy to exorcise a difficult history – it is a position taken for the sake of neutrality, a decision made by the artist to ground her present in the positive aspects of her past.
Individually, the tins work like pieces of book art that can be opened and read; when displayed together, their content becomes inaccessible, locked up in a tantalizing heap of sealed boxes. Only the images on the labels hint at what is jealously kept inside. Many cans are also left unmarked, sometimes crushed on the floor, pouring out empty pieces of paper. Like the erased plaster casts in Saudade, these are both patches of oblivion and memories-in-potential, waiting the right stimulus to be activated and retrieved. In Petites Madeleines Project, viewers are left to imagine what this past, sketched under their eyes with a few intelligible signs, could have been; they are invited to navigate a map defined by its blanks as much as by its symbols.
Another way to engage with Petites Madeleines Project is to get into the artist’s game: the images on the labels, banal enough to be evocative for many, can function for the viewers like the soft tea-soaked cake did for Proust. More than just a partial disclosure of the artist’s memories, these pictures encourage the viewers to rediscover their own. During a residency at Ludlow College, Tudge extended this inclusion of others in her work by asking some of the students with whom she was working to write down their own recollections, which were later included in a second version of Petites Madeleines Project. For the exhibition Fragile Power, Tudge invites the visitors to contribute to a further version of the project with one or more of their personal memories. Once collected and canned, they will find their place in a larger installation combining the piece’s three versions: a conjugation of to remember at the first, second and third person.
* Coline Milliard is an art writer based in London. She is a regular contributor to Art Review, Modern Painters, Art Monthly, Art Press, Artnet and Frieze.com, and has also written for Contemporary, Flash Art International, Untitled, Metropolis M, MAP and Afterall Online. She holds MAs in Curating Contemporary Art (Royal College of Art) and Art History (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne).