The desire to remember: |
W. G. Sebald (Die Ringe des Saturn)
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.