Memory is similar to anticipation:
an instrument of simplification and selection.

Alain de Botton






The desire to remember:
W. G. Sebald (Die Ringe des Saturn)
and
Tacita Dean (Donald Crowhurst )



The German professor Andreas Huyssen writes about contemporary culture’s obsession with cataloguing memory. He states that, the past is not simply there in memory, but it must be articulated to become memory. Photographical documentation is often used as an account of human memory, yet an anxiety exists in the relationship of photography to organic memory. Memory and history cannot be accurately reduced to a system of signifiers, partly due to the subjective nature of how we remember events and the influence of established collective agencies. As Roland Barthes says, photographs supplant rather than supplement: The photograph is never in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter-memory.
A person does not directly remember events from a time before they were born and so the memories of past are maintained and controlled by social institutions. Autobiographical memories, on the other hand, are those memories that we have personally created. Following on from this foundation, Andreas Huyssen notes that while human memory might be an anthropological given, it is closely tied to the ways a culture constructs and lives its temporality, the forms memory will take are invariably contingent and subject to change. He sees contemporary culture's obsession with memory as problematic. Generational memory is on the decline due to the increasing modernization and technological advancements which allow us to take memory for granted.

Sebald's text The Rings of Saturn acts as a meditation on memory and trauma. The narrator, while on a pilgrimage around Suffolk, crosses time and space, collecting and retelling stories of bygone eras, some that dwell on the rhythmic nature of human death and imposed destruction. For Sebald, a 1944 German-born academic, the issue of collective national guilt and incomprehension regarding the realities of the Third Reich permeates a substantial quantity of his writing. How we interpret memory and information, and the mediums they are presented in? Quite a number of Sebald’s novels are juxtaposed with photographs which strengthen or contrast the text’s narrative. These images invite us to consider the implications of particular ways of perceiving and remembering the world. Themes of time, history, and memory permeate all of Sebald’s work, his celebrated novel The Rings of Saturn alludes to the repetitive nature of how memories are preserved and re-enacted.



On Dean's part, her work seeks to investigate, connect and interpret memories of historical facts or circumstances while she remains at a safe distance. Series of works reference the memory of disgraced Golden Globe competitor


Donald Crowhurst

She illustrates that there is always an alternative way to remember an event and that details are often overlooked - in this instance, for example, we can choose to regard Crowhurst’s tale primarily as the personal tragedy of an inexperienced voyager lost at sea or as a duplicitous man who, in the face of mounting personal debts, chose to misrepresent his progress in the competition. Her approach to collecting information through film, text and photography is emblematic of our culture’s method of cataloguing and maintaining various overlapping systems of representation and history.

Both author and artist challenge a passive relationship to time and memory when signified through an attachment to photographs, museums, films, and catalogues as a means of recollection. Sebald is equally intrigued by the sites where memories of memories are collected and packaged for consumption. Throughout the pilgrimage in Rings of Saturn our narrator continually visits museums, old buildings, and sites of remembrance such the Maritime museum,


Somerleyton Hall

and the memorial site of Waterloo, all which lead him to remember the ghosts of destruction past. The museum like Somerleyton Hall serves as a place where memory is gathered and categorised to the point where one can never say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist. Upon viewing the panoramic installation of the Battle of Waterloo, our journey man further comments, this is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and we still do not know how it was. Photographic images in Sebald’s texts are a central feature of his study of the relations between memory and representation. The juxtaposition of the novel with numerous documentary-style photographs serves to tease out the reader's assumptions regarding the reliability of mutually supportive media.

Sebald had a clear understanding of the power and manipulative qualities of photography as documentation, noting that the written word is not a true document after all and people let themselves be convinced by a photograph. There is something quite ambiguous about the nature of the photographs within The Rings of Saturn.

Photographs from various origins are non-descript landscapes containing no real landmarks, people, or details, and we rarely seek confirmation that it is the true representation of the landscape. The ambiguity of these images refutes any attempt at authenticity. With other images, such as the painting of the


Battle of Sole Bay

the narrator remarks how the piece fails to convey any true impression of how it must have been... adding to the belief that images fail to accurately portray the past. Though they fail to truthfully reveal the past, we confidently surrender to technology the task of remembering. The problem arises, then, how do we accurately represent history? We cannot. The actual is always in some way permeated by individual and collective imaginings retrospectively. Perhaps instead we must pay attention to the details and seek out the coincidences and connections between facts and inventions as Tacita Dean does. When speaking about place (but easily related to the process of memory) she says it can only ever be personal...always connected to somewhere in our autobiographies - future and past. The description of the place will always reside in the detail.

Sebald had a collection of shoeboxes filled with photographs and postcards to fuel his patchwork tapestry of the past. This obsessive collecting is manifested in the life and work of Dean also: accumulating and archiving has consistently been a system within her work. Her collections comprise elements of the ephemeral, whether the clover collection from her youth or the lost details and borrowed memories of a time and place. Her written style closely resembles Sebald's text and photo assemblages and Sebald's themes of history and memory also feature strongly in her film, text, and photographic work. While Sebald's work gently queries the institutional means of storing memory and the authority of photographic evidence, Dean's approach to memorial is presented on a smaller, more personal scale, stating everything that excites me no longer functions in its own time. Dean engaged in an experimental investigation to take on the tale of Donald Crowhurst’s disastrous voyage at sea. As part of a larger meditation on the sea as representing the time and space of the unconsciousness, she sought to dismantle and heal the cultural memory of Crowhurst held by the collective public as a man who cheated and lied when disclosing the coordinates positioning him as frontrunner in the Golden Globe boat race. For many Donald Crowhurst is just a cheat who abused the sacred unwrittens of good sportsmanship but for some it is more complicated than this, and he is seen as much as a victim of the Golden Globe as the pursuer of it. Crowhurst, an inexperienced sailor in an untrustworthy trimaran ran into difficulties while at sea. A fear of failure and financial ruin led to the subsequent forgeries of his position. Trying to maintain logs of his actual position versus his forged co ordinates eventually led him to madness. The solitude of space and time at sea reduced reality and the present to an illusion, and he committed suicide by jumping overboard. The search that that the artist performs, the recovery of something lost, of a vanished boat, and ultimately the ghost of a lost sailor, can only be recovered in memory alone.

The past is past. Its presence is ruined and is available to memory only on the understanding that the memory itself constantly collapses into an immemorial from which nothing returns, ever. The past is not present in the present as if it were ‘recalled’ in the sense of revived.

Using the commemorative functions of photography, film, and essays Dean was further inspired to produce a number of further works, including the photograph Teignmouth Electron 1999, and the film works Disappearance at Sea 1996 and Disappearance at Sea II. Deans does not so much suppose to illustrate a specific historical memory but rather highlights the nature of time within the infinite space of consciousness (represented by the sea) where memory functions. The fate of Donald Crowhurst is an instance where an extended time spent without the distinguishing features of a landscape or the support of other individuals to locate ones temporality results in the loss of any coherent concept of chronological narrative and memory. Both Sebald and Dean play with the ideas of memory spread across time, an intricate texture of personal memories and collective history. Both artist and author employ the technological achievements of the twentieth century, film and photography, to map the various complexities of representation and memory. The media of photography and film provide an opportunity not only for what can be shown but also to give evidence of that which can no longer be seen. Sebald’s mundane landscapes and Dean’s lingering shots of a moored, rusting vessel penetrate the disappearance of the past, and a desire to recapture the true representation of past. Their artefacts are connected to the absence of any remembered or represented narrative within. Sebald’s purposeful contesting of image and text reminds us to question the production of these shared images and their evidential claims to supply accurate information. Huyssen reminds us that the way in which our culture thinks about time is far from natural, even though we may experience it as such. The plurality of perspectives provided via social media like Twitter and camera phones cannot contribute to a coherent narrative of say, the realities of the Arab Spring revolts. Such media can only serve to feed the expanding contemporary development of spectacle. The indeterminate features of the ways we gather and process memory is in danger of becoming increasingly mediated and abstract. This progression leads to the erosion of subjective authentic experience. Sebald had an acute awareness of how memory predetermines how we engage with our present. In a newspaper article fittingly entitled The Last Word Sebald sums up the importance of our relationship to memory.

The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. It seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago.