GRIEF AND OBLIVION
by Matt Price
The title of this exhibition takes its name from chapter 1 of volume 6 of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past), in which he considers his recollections of, and love for, his deceased girlfriend, Albertine. The exhibition, which features works by Sally Payen, Jane Tudge and Viv Sole, has many points of departure, but perhaps the most obvious in regard to Proust’s magnum opus is Tudge’s Petites Madeleines project (2008-), in which the artist references an episode in volume 1 whereby Proust, on eating a small soft cake popular in France, recalled his Aunt Leonie giving him some of the same cake many years before, as a boy, before mass on a Sunday morning.
The term “the petite madeleine phenomenon” has since been coined by neurologists to describe incidents in which memories are involuntarily triggered. In conversation with critic Coline Milliard, Tudge spoke of a period in her life in which she had no recollection of her own childhood. On seeing her stepmother’s old doll, “in a Proustian flash she started to recover lost moments of her past.”[i] In response to this, Tudge first made a work entitled Nanny’s Dolly (2008), comprising four black-and-white transfer prints on watercolour paper of the doll in different stages of being dressed up. This was the starting point for the Petites Madeleines project, the artist’s investigations into her own memories – a daisy reminiscent of the family’s lawn, a ring that had been lost and found again. The myriad objects and images that Tudge sourced were then printed onto labels and attached to tin cans, building into an imposing archive of tinned memories.
This almost literal process of preserving her memories involves a certain degree of sadness, an equal measure of happiness and a considerable amount of nostalgia: sadness for people no longer with us, happy times shared and now long gone, once familiar places and things now just distant memories. The sense of time passing that keepsakes embody is not only “bottled” but reproducible in Tudge’s work, memories that are not only saved but shared. In subsequent versions of the project, Tudge has invited other people to contribute their own memories to the work, building into a pantry of recollections, a larder of mementos. The work has perhaps prevented Tudge’s and others’ memories slipping into oblivion, into l’oublie, the abyss, nothingness – meaning is somehow taken and kept alive, even if the world as it was around the objects has now gone, with time and life having moved on.
In another work by the artist, Fragile Precious (2010), the artist considers how vulnerable human life is. Having recently survived a car crash, Tudge was inspired to create a work in which pages from her diary are reproduced in plaster with a sledge hammer poised above. It is as if a sword of Damocles hangs over her existence, the collected account of her own history hanging by a thread. That Tudge’s practice is a combination of record-keeping, documenting people’s lives (including her own) and bringing human emotions to the surface is made equally apparent in the body of work A Counting (2006), a project that began when Tudge read about the 7000 prisoners held at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq War. Tudge started making a tally by scratching marks into wax, rendered with earth pigment, one mark for each of the prisoners detained there. This time-consuming process built up into page after page of marks, forming a pitiful register of the prison, which had become synonymous with the mistreatment of its inmates through a number of images that entered the media, and in particular, the image of a prisoner dressed in a blanket and hood, made to stand with arms outstretched on a small box. Interspersed among the pages of tally marks are drawings made by the artist informed by these now iconic media images. The work gently demands of the viewer that we take time to reflect on the Iraq War, consider the disheartening actions of the United States armed forces at the prison, and contemplate the undignified and harrowing experiences of those in their charge.
In Flashback (2010) – an animation work made by Tudge especially for the Grief and Oblivion exhibition – drawings of toy soldiers flash up onto the screen, gradually increasing in numbers, overlapping each other. At a certain point, they fade and blur into the background, with new drawings appearing on top, like palimpsests. Tanks appear, guns emerge, similarly increasing in numbers and forming layer upon layer. The work is quiet, poetic and poignant, its message elegant in its simplicity: wars keep on happening, more and more weapons are manufactured and ever more numbers of soldiers die. As one soldier dies, another steps up to replace him; as one tank is destroyed, another is delivered to the front line. While they are toy soldiers in the animation, they clearly represent the lives of real people, each one leaving behind bereaved family and friends. Each time the screen flashes, it is as if a painful memory is being re-awoken in those who have experienced loss through war.
Matt Price provides curating, writing, editorial, print and publishing services for the contemporary art world, as well as selected projects for the fields of architecture, design, music and fashion. Working for high-profile clients in both the public and private sectors, he offers a variety of services, from organising exhibitions and exhibition materials to project managing major trade publications, writing catalogue essays and editing texts.
[i] Coline Milliard, Catalogue essay for Fragile Power, a solo exhibition by Jane Tudge at the Robert Phillips Gallery, 2008.