Archived from January 2020

‘All memory has to be re-imagined’

Gaston Bachelard

‘The perceptive apparatus of our mind consists of two layers, of an external protective shield against stimuli whose task is to diminish the strength of excitations coming in, and of a surface behind it which receives the stimuli’

Sigmund Freud

Tree Map giclée

I’ve tested my thoughts about landscape, memory, walking and the pilgrimage, by re-reading many key theorists. Here, I’ll concentrate on five: Sigmund Freud, Eric Santner, Richard Crownshaw, Gaston Bachelard, and Yi-fu Tuan.  

Crownshaw’s warning to guard against commemoration as a form of memory has been useful. What, after all, would be the point of summoning the past if it’s merely to revivify it as a nostalgic echo? To represent Tyneham, or my great-aunt’s sad postcards, or the plight of women who were only allowed to walk virtual pilgrimages rather than real ones would be to sentimentalise their past. As Crownshaw puts it, ‘Commemoration results from the divorce of history from memory, the disarticulation of their interdependence, the unmooring of history from the particularities of witnessing and testimony. It is these particularities that obstruct commemoration’s desire to conclude upon past events.’ It’s a fine line, of course, between commemoration and mourning. It’s here that Freud’s definition of trauerarbeit or mourning plays a useful part. Trauerarbeit, the process of ‘translating, troping, and figuring loss’ is a legitimate part of the representation of memory and time. But the trick is to guard against what Eric Santner describes as ‘narrative fetishism’ which is a ‘need for mourning by simulating a condition of intactness, typically by situating the site and origin of loss elsewhere. Narrative fetishism releases one from the burden of having to reconstitute one’s self-identity under ‘posttraumatic’ conditions; in narrative fetishism, the ‘post’ is indefinitely postponed.’

My artistic practice, focused on the abandoned village of Tyneham, could have strayed into the territory of commemoration in which the ‘post’ would clearly have been ‘indefinitely postponed.’ It’s partly for this reason that I tied the experience of the evicted villagers to the Victorian homework I found padding out the rafters in the slightly rickety former schoolhouse where I live. The idea that whole communities – as well as individuals such as my great-aunt – were forced to comply with authoritarian, patriarchal instruction seemed rich in potential. I liked the idea that I was constructing a spiralised, virtual pilgrimage for my great-aunt and others, paved with prescriptive instructions yet with an empty postcard at its centre to be rewritten by the secular pilgrim. As Bachelard describes those who walk in spirals, ‘One no longer knows right away whether one is running toward the center or escaping. … Thus the spiraled being who, from outside, appears to be a well-invested center, will never reach his center.’ However, the point of my spiral pilgrimage is that its centre doesn’t comply with the incremental instructions on every other postcard. The centre can therefore be reached and its locus is liberating.



There’s a visceral, physical component to my practice: it needs to be walked, literally in the case of the postcards, or mentally in the case of works such as the multi-layered Mindmap. It’s helpful to imagine the idea of walking, imprinting one foot after another on a surface, via Bachelard’s words about the appeal of a path: ‘what a dynamic, handsome object is a path! How precise the familiar hill paths remain for our muscular consciousness. …. When I relive dynamically the road that ‘climbed’ the hill, I am quite sure that the road itself had muscles, or rather, counter-muscles. In my room in Paris, it is a good exercise for me to think of the road in this way. As I write this page, I feel freed of my duty to take a walk: I am sure of having gone out of my house.’ He goes on to say that ‘Each one of us, then should speak of his roads, his cross-roads, his roadside benches; each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadow. Thoreau said that he had the map of his fields engraved in his soul.’ I can’t claim to be inscribed quite so deeply, but nevertheless I drew the five-layered Mindmap from deeply-embedded memories of the footpaths which lead to Tyneham and then to Worbarrow Bay. Folded into its layers are visualisations of an MRI scan I had recently of my brain, making the finished piece both physical and psychic geography. It’s a kind of surveyor’s map of the sort envisaged by Bachelard, but its layers build in a fourth dimension of time.

Mindmap photolithograph 42cm x 60cm

The fact that I can summon to mind a map of walks that I’ve done for years might suggest a close connection to the wild landscape of the place. Yes, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The term topophilia, or love of place, was first used by the poet W. H. Auden. He argued that the term ‘has little in common with nature love’, but instead it sprang from a ‘landscape infused with a sense of history.’ This seems to me to get closer to what I’m attempting to achieve in my practice – both nature love and history love. Topophilia is perhaps most associated now with the work of the human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. He conceded that it was an imperfect term but said that at least ‘it does – perhaps for the first time – present a general framework for discussing all the different ways that human beings can develop a love of place.’


Love of place suggests there must be a fundamental memory of that place. But a memory of place can have its bleak underside of course, one that emerges later as an insistent, nagging echo. Freud defined what he called nachträglichkeit, translated as afterwardsness, to explain how a second event can give a retrospective meaning to a first; returning to a place can provide a bleak overlay to the original memory. But in my artistic translation of Tyneham, and of walking the coastal landscape via postcards and sedimentary layers, I try to dodge Freud’s afterwardsness and instead to introduce beforeness – an attempt to rewrite, to re-inscribe, to reshape that which went before and to transmute it into a modus vivendi for now.

The idea of entropy, conventionally the alteration from a state of order to something which is disordered, seems relevant to my practice. A typical example of entropy would be one of the collapsed, decayed houses on the coast at Tyneham. But if we turn to Freud’s idea of the Mystic Writing-Pad, a common children’s drawing surface in which a layer of waxed paper was used to draw into a wax tablet underneath, the picture shifts. The impression of a stylus would make the tablet stick to the paper, leaving legible marks, but as soon as the paper was lifted the marks would disappear: ‘The surface of the Mystic Pad is clear of writing and once more capable of receiving impressions. But it is easy to discover that the permanent trace of what was written is retained upon the wax slab itself and is legible in suitable lights. Thus the Pad provides not only a receptive surface that can be used over and over again, like a slate, but also permanent traces of what has been written.’ Freud’s example makes clear the ways in which we might look at a ruined house and see, simultaneously, the handsome structure it had once been. It is both as it is and as it was and we see both. At this point there’s a sense in which we might be returning to Freud’s sense of afterwardsness rather than my concept of beforeness. But if we pursue the idea of entropy, and order versus disorder, we can perhaps find a new path through. Disorder is, after all, merely a form of reorder. There’s a grave beauty in the collapse of Tyneham’s architecture and there’s a potentially redemptive spirit in arranging a small spiral of porcelain postcards on the beach. It’s a small gesture towards reorder, as is the freezing of a few fragments of seaweed or a scattering of flowers.



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Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1956). Studies on Hysteria. London: Hogarth Press

Crownshaw, R., Kilby, J. & Rowland A. (2010). The Future of Memory. New York: Berghahn Books

Freud, S. (1925). ‘A Note Upon the “Mystic Writing Pad”‘, General Psychological Theory, Chapter VIII

Freud, S. (1957). Mourning and Melancholia. London: Hogarth Press

Santner, E. (1992). ‘History beyond the Pleasure Principle: Some Thoughts on the Representation of Trauma’, in Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution, ed. Saul Friedlander

Tuan, Y.-fu. (1990). Topophilia : a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values.


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