Side-by-side, in a space dedicated to the search for meaning through religious belief and practice, two artists deploy objects, words, images that represent their own searches – but also, in my own reflections on the work, all our forlorn searches. If I say that both pieces of work – Stephanie d’Hubert’s ‘What Remains’* and John Umney’s ‘I keep looking for him’** – fall short, it is not to undermine them as artworks; far from it. On the contrary, it is because they fall short (of supplying any answers, any resolution) that they work successfully as artworks; that they stand in for our fruitless longing.
In ‘What Remains’, Stephanie presents precious objects and photographs that she retains, which belonged to her mother; together with a book, with the same title, that brings together images of these objects and a few associated words. This installation, though, has the actual objects:
It is an intensely personal project relating to what must still be painful memories of a sudden and shocking separation. And I, who have no such experience, cannot usefully or sensibly seek to read this work through the viewpoint of its maker. Instead, I find small points of resonance – even just the dates … what was I doing at the time; or through a ring that belonged to my own mother, which was on my wife’s finger as we both stood looking at Stephanie’s work. In this way, the objects and the photographs and the words represent not Stephanie’s memories and loss but all objects and memories. That is their role here, I think, displayed so thoughtfully and carefully in this significant space – to represent our eternal dilemma between the pointless irrelevance of our trivialities and the overwhelming and permanent significance of the trivial thought or experience.
John’s ‘I keep looking for him’ is another highly personal project exploring memories of a parent – this time, though, a difficult relationship with his father. Once again, there are objects that belonged to his father, presented alongside images and words:
The monitor loops a ‘slideshow’ of John’s photographs of ‘Pergatory’; of the few objects from his father’s life; and of resonant text through which he relates to objects, images, memories … The specially constructed box on the table (right) contains the objects themselves, plus what one assumes to be photographs of his father. The ‘slideshow’ I have seen many times before as I have watched the work develop, but something entirely ‘new’ are the words displayed on each side of the box – John’s description of the events surrounding a birthday when he was “… eight or nine, or nearly both”. And I feel, as I have done before with this project, that there is little use me trying to read the work through John’s experience. What value in trying to relate to the emotions embedded in these objects and words and images. Instead, as with Stephanie’s, they stand in for all such – and the impossibility of pinning down a truth through words and objects and images.
John has constructed a story about a birthday present, for example; and displayed it with the objects and digital images – but how does it help in “looking for him”? Printed and presented as they are here, there is an authority about the words. There is the semblance of an autobiographical, diarised record of a significant event in his life, based, perhaps, on an often revisited set of accepted ‘facts’. Or is it a carefully constructed narrative that brings form and substance to a set of fleeting mental images? That is, after all, the way in which we usually construct the memories on which we rely. Is it, even, a complete fiction – either constructed with deliberate intention or one based on ‘false’ memories? Mostly, I think, all these words, objects and images represent all memories (and their falseness); and John’s search in which he ‘keeps looking’ is the search we all undertake, for a truth, for a reality, for the Real … that we will never find.
Thank you, Stephanie and John, for sharing your searches.