A Walk Through the Forgotten
The Tate Gallery, a collection of fine art, doesn't mention photography in its stated aims," says Frances Morris, assistant keeper in the Modern Collection. "But in the last few years we've become more adventurous and bought photographs - or works of art made by using the camera."
Ms. Morris's responsibility (she joined the staff in 1987) is postwar European and contemporary art. For the past three years, she has been organizing exhibitions of new art, the museum's "Art Now" program.
The kind of photographs the Tate now collects are not documentary, or solely the recording of conceptual works. A remarkable example is Hannah Collins's "very, very large" silver gelatin print mounted on cotton, "In the Course of Time II" (1994). Although the title does not say so, the work shows part of Warsaw's Jewish Cemetery.
It "has a sensibility related to fine art in other media," Morris says. "Certainly, Hannah's is the ambition of a great landscape painter: to make something almost sublime, in a modern sense, that moves you. Monumental, yet intimate and pictorial. It brings together a sculptural tradition and a photographic tradition in a new formula."
The work has more to do with "installation art" than with photography, she suggests. "Installation artists have become increasingly ambitious about enlarging the experience of art; they play with light, dimension, atmosphere, space, scale," often making "three-dimensional environments."
This work is flat art on a wall, but "in effect, it does the same thing. It has this almost physical impact," Morris says. "Every person who looks at this has to walk along it - you can't really take it all in - and the image has a central oblique, which is the pathway running through this neglected graveyard. It does something very weird: It almost pulls you in."
As a photograph, "rather than being a kind of window on the world, or a snapshot through a small aperture, it creates an immediate physical relationship to the viewer. You can't get this in a reproduction, but it is immensely striking in the gallery. It also has an extraordinary surface. Like a theatrical curtain. It buckles away from the wall. You're aware of its surface as it rises and falls. It flaps as people walk in and make a draft."
"Now" is a word that recurs in Morris's strongly felt discussion of this work. Although she characterizes it as potently nostalgic, "it's rooted in this idea of the past in the present. A whole generation of artists is very interested in this because, at the end of the century, the postwar world has come to an end. Something has come of age - and disappeared. We are, in Western Europe particularly, aware that the past lives on in the present in a rather peculiar way. I suppose the word is 'resurfacing.' That's a very apt word for this image: these broken-down gravestones resurfacing through this dense, decaying undergrowth.
"It's not a 'history painting.' It's an act of recognition. It doesn't glorify the past. Hannah is trying to retrieve history for you, the viewer."
The work's "enormous relevance to 'now' is crucially bound up with Hannah's end-of-the-century mentality. And our own." This phrase is almost a quote from a poem Collins wrote about her experience when she visited the cemetery. It's called "The Hunter's Space." Morris reads an excerpt:
...A faint path through the vertical
trees marks the hunter's space.
The hunter carrying flowers searches
around the flat grey stones overcome
by nature's abandon in a mass of
peaceful green. In this most absent
of crowded places the visitors search
their childhood experiences and
their souls keep company with my
end of century mind. The Hunter
moves through this overgrown space
in the quietest of ways allowing the
breeze to lift his spirit gently.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" Morris says "I love that phrase 'in this most absent of crowded places.' It sums it up. It's empty and yet - it's full."
The Jewish Cemetery has personal relevance for Collins, but Morris finds the work universal. "A lot of graveyards are neglected places," she says. "What's so moving is that gravestones are monuments; the graveyard is a public forum. Here we come to acknowledge, celebrate, remember. Yet all the attention has disappeared from this graveyard. It's become private through neglect. What Collins has done is re-memorialize it."
Paradoxically, "right through this neglected place, there is a pathway. Somebody is walking that pathway every single day, witnessing the neglect. It says something about communal, as well as family, neglect. Maybe it's bound up with Poland's more recent history of turbulence.
"But it's fascinating that it's a shortcut." Then she adds: "And you are invited to be one of these people who walk through it."
* Last in a series. Other articles ran April 7, 14, 21, and 28.