Following on from my earlier exploration into family ties, I wanted to create a work which celebrated my family and all the its members back through generations. It should recognise time passing, people fading from memory, new individuals joining the cohort, the numbers of generations.
I like the idea of using textiles and embroidery but this is rather beyond my ability and timescales. Another idea would be to use light, ideally neon tube bent to spell names which could flicker on then off. Gradually you would end up with more names lit. This is definitely beyond my abilities.
One idea was to write names on strips of paper and gradually glue these down to a support so that they piled up but also obscured earlier names. I thought that this could be photographed and presented as a time lapse video. Paper as a support lacked significance, and I elected to use stone, preferably slate. Slate was used for black boards, of course, but also for tombstones, gate posts, lintels and standing stones, all of which related to the idea of something standing and enduring down through generations. Isolated stones were venerated in preChristian times and were sometimes carved with spirals or concentric rings, eg at Newgrange or in Malta, which are interpreted as fertility symbols, water or female symbols by archeologists (Rudgley 1998).
Using slate would allow me to over-write names without fully obscuring them, rub them out, give them different weight or size. I have a large piece of slate which an alpine trough usually stands on. This was liberated for the task. It was selected over smaller, smoother pieces for its scale, character of surface and irregular top edge. This makes it look more like a standing stone or a tomb stone.
Over the years, I have researched family history and created a list of all the family names I know of, going back to about 1500. There are a lot of Johns, Marys and Anns. Armed with this list and some chalk, I fixed the slate in the garden at an angle to be well lit but not reflect light. I chose a bright but overcast day so that the exposure would be constant. A camera was set up on a tripod with a cable release, and a frame taken each time a name was added to the slate. The frames were combined into a short video.
This first attempt unfortunately includes my feet, in places. The other improvement which I wanted to make was to add a greater sense of the ephemeral. My preferred option for this would be to draw on the slate and then capture it being rained on and the names gradually disappearing. However, after trying for a couple of weeks, to get the right weather for the exposures and then the rain (and protect the camera), this idea was abandoned in favour of a water spray bottle.
In the second video, the support moved slightly as I wrote on it.
As I worked on this, I was also working on my piece about mDNA and decided that the names should be just female. The initial names should be faint because these people are lost in the mists of time. Reviewing the latest video, I thought it needed to be crisper and cropped, with smoother transition between frames and that colour was irrelevant and possibly a distraction. The simple Microsoft bundles video editing software doesn’t allow cropping of exposure manipulation, so my next task was to work out how to do this, identically across each frame.
The final video is here.
Writing on a slate has precedence in art. Candy Chang invited people to participate in her ‘Before I Die’ project in which she erected boards in public places and invited passers by to complete the statement ‘Before I die…..’ The project was very successful and has been repeated in many locations, as she discusses it this Ted talk. Its success lies in the power of the idea, the collaboration and the process, rather than in any finished work of art.
My idea was closer to Tracey Emin’s ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995′ in which she used a catalogue of names to evoke her own history. The tent gives the list a context; an enclosed, private place with a mattress. I tried to use slate as a significant support but with very limited success.
I am pleased to have explored making a video of a three dimensional work (just) which changes through time. Whilst it has significance to me, I don’t feel that I have conveyed that adequately to a viewer. I think that the underlying idea was sound but that I have created something of enough consequence using video. The names needed to have more presence in the work and the video itself is insufficiently involving. I don’t think that this is a problem with the medium, just my use of it.
In the end this is an experiment which failed but was nonetheless worth while.