I have been thinking about death for some time, not in the usual sense of the end of life as we know it, but more in cartomancy’s reading of death as change, particularly permanent and irreversible one. There are potentially many of these changes throughout life, and sometimes it becomes clear when they happen, but often we are not paying enough attention to notice, only realising many years later. The worst cases are those in which we refuse to accept change, even though it is painfully obvious, or when we are too pessimistic and believe there is inevitable, fateful change when there is still hope.
It is quite interesting then, that I have recently come across, as part of my research into Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, a video (see link below) in which towards the end Calle talks about another work titled Pas Pu Saisir La Mort (Impossible to catch death), which consists of 11 minutes of video showing the last moments in the life of Calle’s mother.
She mentions in the interview that it was not possible for her to “…know if she was alive or dead. That moment that I have caught, where you don’t know, you could put your finger, like on the last book, the last mile, the last phrase, the last words, but the last second, the last breath was impossible to catch” (1). While I am not particularly concerned about the moment of physical death, I share her view that is quite hard to capture the precise moment when “death”, as a metaphor for irreversible change, takes place. In the case of Pas Pu Saisir La Mort, this was shown as successive persons putting their fingers in front of Calle mother’s nose and mouth, trying to ascertain if she was still breathing. In this work, the materialization of the concept is made clear by the context (somebody lying on their death-bed, people trying to ascertain), but in a more ideal sense, when we are dealing with circumstances that are less tangible, like broken relationships, falling out of grace with a mentor, leaving the village we grew up in to seek a new life, it is hard to sense when permanent change happens.
I have been thinking for some time about how to represent irreversible change in photography. In video, as seen in Calle’s work referenced above, the moment of change can be broken down to fractions of a second or slowed down to allow the viewer to digest and understand the moment. In literature, a moment can also be stretched over several paragraphs, freezing time even more effectively than movies. Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga was a master of this, particularly in his short stories such as Wild Honey (translation available here), Adrift (translation available here) and The Dead Man (translation available here). A photograph, on the contrary, seems to contract rather than stretch time, showing just a frozen moment, fractions of a second. Unless that moment is followed and preceded by other moments, like in a sequence, it is hard for an image to capture the essence of a concept in just a moment. As a best approximation, one could imagine, for instance, that a carefully selected still from Calle’s Pas Pu Saisir La Mort could successfully convey the idea that we are in front of somebody who has just died. But that in itself does not fully evoke the feeling of uncertainty, the anguish or the resignation that change brings, particularly when one realises that the change has happened. Furthermore, those feelings may be fully interiorised by the affected subject, which further complicates their graphic representation.
My first attempts at trying to capture these feeling was through photographing temporary objects: bags, leaves, cigarette butts. These objects may degrade and change over time, some faster than others, but I was primarily concerned about their permanence among us, which is even shorter. A leave or a plastic bag do not stay still on a windy day, and many of these objects are swept on a daily basis. We see them today, and maybe again tomorrow, but then they disappear from our lives for ever, never to be seen again. That is the essence of change, expressed through objects to which we have no attachment and consequently, incapable of generating any concern or anguish to us, but change nonetheless.
Another possibility, which is one I could explore in this assignment, is to look for signifiers of permanent change, items that evoke that idea. There are many of these that are universal, others are more local and yet some others are quite personal, and sometimes it is hard to perceive which is which. An additional challenge with this approach is that some of these signifiers may be temporary in themselves, part of a change which we perceive as permanent but that with sufficient time, mainly beyond our lifetime, may actually turn temporary. At some point, it becomes debatable if a change is permanent or not and I think it would be interesting to see how my selection of signifiers tallies up against the opinion of the viewers.
(1) Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. 2017. Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/venice-biennale-sophie-calle. [Accessed 21 October 2017].