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Art & Memoir

On my way to Berlin 2010.jpg

The Sound of Boots on the Stairs

The subject of a portrait is a ‘sitter’, even if they’re standing up. I’m a sitter for my own self-portrait and I have made my mother and father ‘sit’ for me as I built up a posthumous portrait. I began this triple portrait a while ago and I realise now that these things are never finished. But even a few more pages disrupts the arc of a project. How could I portray the tension between a finite memoir and the always unfinished business of family life? 


Tacita Dean’s explorations of what a portrait can mean illuminate this very dilemma. Her film ‘Antigone’ resonates dramatically with my portrait of my father. Watching the film at her Royal Academy exhibition and the BBC Imagine programme about her work, I noted her attention to time, light and sound (not the cliché of ‘space’). I was attracted to her own ambivalences and to her wish ‘not to know in advance’ how her work would turn out.


Tacita Dean told us that she shrinks from ‘visibility’ and that this resulted in a long resistance to working on “Antigone’, the project she began years ago at art school, triggered by the naming of her sister after the tragic daughter of Oedipus, whose name means ‘swollen foot’. Oedipus gouged out his own eyes when he discovered he’d married his mother, Jocasta, who was also, therefore, the mother of Antigone, incest collapsing the generations.


Tacita Dean sets everything up with great care and she’s the most meticulous editor. In between she waits, listens and looks. And we look, and listen, with stillness and intensity. She both tells and doesn’t tell us what to look at and what to make of it. It’s taken her nearly 30 years. Only now does she understand that it’s about Blindness. Unlikely that she would ever undertake a work entitled ‘self-portrait’, I think, at least not head-on, the artist looking in her own mirror.


The most vibrant images and particular snags of recognition for me are first, Tacita Dean’s description of ‘rushing in her mind’ when she’s ‘paralysed’ on the outside, second, her fascination with lameness, especially the sound of lameness and third, her conviction that film is a medium, as marble is to sculpture, not a technology that’s been overtaken, digitally redundant.  Home Movies are therefore significant. Her use of double-screen presentation is characteristic, which she sees as a ‘liberation from linearity’, more binocular and life-like. Her film can’t be shown in the cinema, it’s a different kind of visual art. She retains the sprocket-holes at either side of the frames, to show her workings, how she does it. The five-a-side holes made me think of music manuscript paper, staves of five lines for creating sound. She admires W.G. Sebald and his lateral ways of thinking, gathering material that seems to arrive in his mind and in front of his eyes by coincidence before revealing connections that run deeper.


Tacita Dean’s approach is slow and meditative, more like painting than most film-making, except that her portraits move. Her triptych of Hamlets in the National Portrait Gallery show was mesmerising because of this surprise. At first sight they’re a homage to Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, whose work is placed alongside, but then you see each of the actors moving in his minute frame: the youngster, the middle-aged, the veteran.


Talking about her Berlin projects, Tacita Dean says she aims to match her work with its setting. Film critic Adrian Searle says it’s as if you’re inside her camera. She was given her first Super-8 as a child and became entranced by light and by looking, the paying attention. This camera, she says gave her ‘the best short form’ and was the origin of her conviction that film could never be replaced by anything digital. I think about the possibilities of ‘short form’ in the structure of my memoir. Her miniatures were neither painting nor cinematic film but they matched her imagery and artistic intentions. (Her films aren’t all that short, of course, but they are focused.)


Tacita Dean loves the sea. It’s ‘erasable’ quality in painting, its erasure of time. She grew up in Sussex and went to art school in Falmouth. She made a film about the round-the-world yachstman Donald Crowhurst, who was lost at sea and who had filled his log books with a pack of lies. She found the tension between his agony and hubris compelling. He was ‘deeply chaotic’, his was an ‘archetypal narrative.


‘Antigone’ is really about Oedipus and his archetypal narrative. And here are the leitmotifs of my own story: the swollen feet, the sound of a stick on the steps, the sound of lameness itself. Here’s my father, my ‘sitter’ who couldn’t stand up. We see Tacita Dean’s family friend, affectionately knicknamed ‘Boots’ because of his built-up shoe and unsteady gait, climbing the staircase at Casa Rosa in Porto. Slowly. The only sound his boots on the stairs. The sound of my childhood. Perhaps I’ll begin my project with the sound of my father ‘walking’ down 14 flights of stairs during a power cut at the Economist offices in 1965. A slow drama so powerful I believe I was there with him though I know I was not. Tacita Dean is lame, too. At the private view of her first solo exhibition she tripped in her smart shoes and has walked with a limp ever since.

A Sense of Place- Berlin

A place: powerful, instantly familiar but also shifting in its outlines, identity and meaning.  I saw French artist Sophie Calle’s ‘The Detachment’ (1996) at the Whitechapel Gallery in late 2009 a few months before I went to Berlin to retrace my parents’ 1936 Olympic Adventure. This is how she introduced her project:

I visited places in Berlin where the symbols of East Germany have been removed. I asked passers-by to describe the objects that once filled these empty spaces. I photographed the absence and replaced the missing monuments with their memories.

In the Soviet Cemetery near Michendorf railway station in Potsdam, where more than 5,000 Russians were buried, a young soldier had stood with a machine gun since 1947. He was painted black and held a red flag. Calle’s photo shows an empty, damaged, stone plinth, in the centre of a square pergola, of classical design, with laurels and pine trees. Passers-by told her that it fell, onto its back, the right arm coming off. They said that the red flag was found in three pieces, or it was curved so it was ‘probably caught by the wind’. Or they said it was taken by hooligans, though there were no tracks or footprints. ‘I didn’t associate him with war at all’, said one man. ‘We had a wonderful relationship with the soldiers and the officer. It was red, it was black, it was silver. There were flowers for the soldier, and a name: Egon. ‘I miss him’, said one. It’s a ‘naked graveyard’, said another. ‘He will come back, he must come back.’

On another monument’s bas-relief, there’s a pre-adolescent child, wearing only trousers, holding flowers to give to the soldiers on the larger ‘Combat Memorial’ , now empty, which he faces. The relief also shows soldiers, workers, and other children, as if it was a May Day parade. People said: ‘Why mix a child up in their filthy war?’, I call it ‘The Devil’s Slide in winter’, ‘There are no more real men left’, ‘A boy, some soldiers, history – together these lead to peace’. It was very simple, ‘typical of the German Democratic Republic: history led to revolution to the GDR combat groups to socialism to peace’. The relief was frequently defaced. There were 23 men in the relief. One mother told Calle: ‘the bus stop was just in front. I taught my son to count using the helmets, all the way up to 23.’

On Spandauer Street near the Rathaus and the Klosterstrasse ubahn station was a 1980s Picasso-esque style wall ceramic by Nikolai Viertel. Inscribed above the bird was ‘BERLIN’, and below, ‘STADT DES FRIEDENS’. People remembered that it was bronze, that it was white, that it was gold, that it was brass…And that it was inscribed: ‘CITY OF PEACE: BERLIN’, or it was inscribed ‘CAPITAL OF THE GDR’. They said: ‘It was more effective than ‘blatant’ monuments of troops, or tanks on pedestals’, ‘I never saw the peace dove as a threat’, ’We don’t go to West Berlin and remove things, do we?’, ‘I was against its removal because it was a starting-point for discussion.’ It was a tribute to Honneker, but ‘cynical’, because ‘peace reigned in the GDR but it was a graveyard peace’.

There were 11 photographs of absent monuments. I was stuck by how wildly different were people’s recollections, feelings and judgments.



Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel Go Went Gone tells the story of widower Richard, a recently and reluctantly retired academic in the former East Berlin, and his developing relationships with a group of asylum seekers.

A border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be, battles fought on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin Life, a border has suddenly sprouted.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing on the balcony and gazing out into the darkness, his friend Peter told Richard that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where the two halves of the universe meet. Is this the scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? Is it a rift between Black and White? Or Poor and Rich? Stranger and Friend? Or between those whose fathers have died and those whose fathers are still alive? Or those with curly hair and those with straight? Those who call their dinner fufu and those who call it stew?

When taking all these possible borders into consideration, it seems to Richard that the difference between one person and another is in fact ridiculously small, and perhaps there isn’t any chasm opening up here at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence in Berlin. Perhaps it’s just a matter of a few pigments in the material that’s known as skin in all the languages of the world.

The spectacle unfolding before him this New Year looks like theatre, and theatre is all it is: an artificial front concealing the real front behind it. Have people forgotten, in Berlin of all places, that a border isn’t measured by an opponent’s stature but in fact creates him?


The woman closes the door and continues on to room 2018, knocking and pressing down on the door handle, but the door is locked. At 2019, she knocks and opens, and against the left-hand wall is a bed on which someone sits writing. Isn’t that the fellow Richard saw with the bicycle on Oranienplatz? The man is very young. When the staff member asks if he’d like to speak to Richard he signals his assent by throwing his head back. He lays the sheet of paper, already covered from top to bottom with German vocabulary, on the bed beside him. Above his head a list of irregular verbs hangs on the wall. Gehen, ging, gegangen: go, went, gone. Only now, as Richard pulls up the only chair in the room to sit down, does he see that the other two beds have people lying in them, asleep under the blankets. That doesn’t matter, the staff member says, so it doesn’t matter. For a moment it horrifies Richard that these young men are suddenly being forced to be so old. Waiting and sleeping. Taking meals for as long as the money holds out, and besides that, waiting and sleeping.

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