Died Monday 18th May 2015

A remarkable man. I feel his loss deeply.

He wrote the text for my exhibition Loss 2011, when he was first ill.

Here is the text he wrote;

The Line of Loss

Loss is a part of our atomic make-up: as energy persists and develops, so it creates memory of place and time. Our world is a remnant of others’ loss and will be so for those beyond us: much of our presence is confirmed by what we leave behind us. How much easier it is to dispense with a loved one’s possessions when they are still alive is an indication of that shift from the inanimate to shrine.

At this very particular moment in our history loss seems magnified in the media, in terms of human life, habitat, morality and economic integrity. But if loss is integral to existence, what is it that makes it such a persistent and painful presence in our lives? Losing someone enforces our own ultimate individuality as we see, or imagine, that loss manifested in a movement away from this life, a process that we indeed will have to face at some point. Losing the familiar, whether in terms of an object or an environment, stimulates similar mental and emotional processes that recreate through memory a personalised image that in turn becomes a reshaped replacement for the original.

The substitute can thus be a meaningful icon for the survivor, layered with memories and imbued with significance that in time can obscure the reality of the lost. The movement from image to icon in the Middle Ages is one that has been painstakingly analysed by Hans Belting in his book Likeness and Presence[1]. He quotes Gregory the Great for whom ‘”painting, like writing, induces remembrance.” “To call back to memory” is, first of all, the task of the Scriptures, with the image able to play only a supporting role.’ Of course in this context the prime object of remembrance is Jesus Christ, but Belting also refers to a particular aspect of ‘memoria’, that of its content and its potential for looking forward as well as backward:

The present lies between two realities of far higher significance: the past and future self-revelation of god in history. People were always aware of time as moving between these two poles. Memory thus had a retrospective and, curious as it sounds, a prospective character. Its object was not only what had happened but what was promised. Outside of religion, this kind of consciousness has become remote to us.

Loss is often described as an empty space, a negative place. It has become a vacuum for the loser: where before there was a continuity, an on-going relationship, now a permanent pause freezes all that interactivity into some kind of new materiality, a vessel that contains the memory of shared times and spaces. Loss marks moments in the calendars of those who remain that can impact upon the rest of their lives, in some cases overwhelming ‘real’ life.

So, we can see that in trying to describe dispassionately an activity that passes from the known to the unknown, from presence to absence, other forms have to be called upon to fill the space left empty. It might also be that loss has an inherent revelatory element, unveiling the unseen and stimulating a creative potency through fierce stimulation. The survivor is driven to look within for resources to both hold on to memories as well as retell the story of a relationship: a rough artistry is brought to bear.

Art brings vehement confirmation. At the heart of form lies a sadness, a trace of loss. A carving is the death of stone. More complexly: form has left a ‘rent’ in the potential of non-being, it has diminished the reservoir of what might have been.

George Steiner’s exploration of creativity, Grammars of Creation[2], addresses the process of making that involves paring, making absent, until a decision about a ‘finish’ can be made. What the artist decides to leave out becomes an undisclosed part of a work of art’s much wider provenance:

In what ways are the freedom not to be or to be otherwise instrumental in the creative process?

The work of art thus becomes itself a memorial to the creative shavings, both literal and conceptual, that had to be lost in order for closure to be achieved.

The relation between tradition and loss is also relevant to this thinking: tradition represents a holding of the line against inevitable change, a conservation of skill and integrity that tests itself against the need for transformation. The regular pulse of generational rejection and creation that characterises the history of creativity in the Western world has taken us far from the theologically dominated image-making of the Middle Ages. And yet icons are still painted, to be used as well as appreciated.

Traditional materials continue to be manipulated in ways that have remained essentially unchanged for centuries, testament to their meaning for us and our hands: engagement at this quite primary level continues to fascinate and compel. The works of Alice Kettle and Jules Findley in this exhibition exemplify this very positive tension between traditional process and contemporary relevance. Transforming emotion through creative process can be both therapeutic and innovative in its outcomes: the spontaneous development of a public ceremony by the residents of Royal Wootton Bassett to honour returning soldiers killed in Afghanistan has become a new tradition where there was no accepted model.

Continuity becomes all the more vital for survivors in the face of loss: the resort to bronze statues is a crude response, whereas falling water into the basement of the non-space of the Twin Towers in New York offers a more open and shared access to grief and memory. Here there has been a conscious decision to reduce form to a minimum to allow for individual narratives to be constructed and layered onto a simple architectural concept. An emptiness has been enclosed with a specific materiality, shaping that which has passed through, and continues to pass through with each visitor’s memory.

In the face of such omnipresent and continuous loss it is often hard for the artist to make an appropriate response that can stand away from the voracious white noise of the media and the instantaneous feedback of social networking. Rachel Whiteread’s House of 1993, a cast of a Victorian terraced house in London’s East End, became the focus for contemporary controversy as well as extended meditation on the social memorial. Jon Bird, in his text Dolce Domum[3], concluded with a pertinent observation:

Endings are always hard – we resist all finality, retreating into metaphor or denial in the recognition of an impossible relation. But the work of mourning and remembering can only come from the acceptance of loss, that there is within the social a fundamental instability that, through the practices of culture, can have an emancipatory effect.

Jeremy Theophilus

November 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Likeness and Presence, A History of the Image before the Era of Art, Hans Belting, University of Chicago Press, 1994

[2] Grammars of Creation, George Steiner, Faber & Faber, 2001

[3] Rachel Whiteread House, edited by James Lingwood, Phaidon, 1995

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