Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatreWalter Benjamin
Memory is contingent and it is relative. No memory is ever wholly accurate; it is set in the context of other experiences and, more broadly, the way we have come – by attitude or by habit – to view the world. But perhaps this is just what makes our memories so intimate: they are not simply the accumulation of facts but the weaving of personal stories told by narrators who are also always evolving – ourselves. As Walter Benjamin suggests, memory is not so much the playback of data as it is a creative art.
The German artist Thomas Friedrich Schaefer has brought a finely detailed dramaturgy to the reconstruction of fragments of childhood memory. In recreating scenes from the family home, he is both exploring his memories and understanding them as highly subjective, refracted through the lens of his own experience and from his personal perspective. If these scenes were recalled by other members of his family, they would undoubtedly be cast in a different light; episodes in a different narrative.
Although the theatrical sets are physical structures filled with real objects, they exist only for the period of construction and shooting. Once photographed, they are dismantled. In this sense, they are ephemeral, just as events flow always onward and any given moment slips quickly into the wake of time. The photographs remain (as photographs always do) as reminders of things that must, by their nature, reside in the realm of the past. They carry within them a kind of nostalgia that blends, on the one hand, the insights of subsequent experience applied in a reassessment of childhood experience and, on the other hand, the soft glow of personal myth. And, while the specific memories may be personal to the artist himself, the phenomenon of memory is one we all experience, offering each of us an idiosyncratic route into the work through a resonance with our personal experiences of remembering.
Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?
Thomas: In a way, I became a photographer by accident. Initially, I studied architecture. I was inspired by spatial effects and the way elements in an environment can form a visual composition. Those interests led me to move from architecture to photography, hoping (perhaps knowing…) it would prove to be a language I could use to express myself.
I bought an old camera and began to study hard, devouring all the information I could find in books, on the web, in online tutorials… Within one month, I had got my first job! It was an assignment for an important five-star hotel in my hometown of Mainz. For the next two years, I worked as a commercial photographer.
But, somehow, I was losing myself in the process. I wanted more. Assignment after assignment… campaign after campaign… the days were becoming monotonous. I decided to study art and enrolled at the Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule [Berlin university of art and design], specialising in photography.
Tell me about your first body of work, ‘Holiday Conformations’.
This was my first personal work (as opposed to the commercial assignments). It was meant to be a documentary about beach life on Rügen [a German island in the Baltic Sea, known for its beaches and white chalk cliffs]. I was standing on a huge sand dune, thinking about how I would portray the scene in terms of action and composition…
A ‘conformation’ being the spatial arrangement that elements of a system adopt in a constantly changing dynamic interaction.
…Yes. I was searching for the ‘perfect scene’, the perfect arrangement of figures… even more than that: I wanted to capture the iconic image of German beach life. The ‘distilled’ mental image – the way I would remember it. This was the ‘seed’ inside me as I began to think more deeply about how I reflect upon situations and subsequently define them in memory.
In a way, that led to my next project, ‘Fragments’, which also deals with the question of memory.
At first sight, these are very different bodies of work. One shows distant figures in space, the other is a series of environmental portraits of people with dementia. In the first the people are anonymous, in the second they are emphatically individuals.
In the first, I was thinking about how we remember scenes, spaces… This second body of work began as an exploration of how people reflect on their memories; how they think about their past. After a few months of researching, I was introduced to some people who were suffering from dementia. Together, we then tried to investigate the nature of their blurred, fading memories; what they were, or could be. I spent some time living in a mental-care home photographing the people living there. ‘Fragments’ was about how other people try to reflect upon the past … or it might be better to say it was an exploration of which memories are retained, keeping them in mind, feeling a sense of nostalgia.
These two bodies of work were, in effect, studies of the ‘index’ and the ‘icon’ that led me to begin the ‘Experiential Spaces’ series. [An icon depicts the visual nature of a situation, what we can see; an index describes the way what we see points to something we cannot see directly. For example: a photograph of a sundial is an icon that indicates (is the index of) time, which we conceive but cannot see.]
What drew you to recreate your memories in such an elaborate way?
I’m a perfectionist. This is not a strength, more a weakness. [laughs] It starts with the kitchen sink, which ‘needs’ to be clean and empty; the reading chair in our living room, which ‘should’ stand at just the ‘correct’ angle from the wall… And it ends in my installations, where each element must find its precise place to match the image I already have in my mind.
How do you go about staging one of these tableaux images?
The concept for the project developed while I was still at university. I read Gaston Bachelard’s book ‘Poetry of the Space’, which is about the way in which rooms and spaces have an impact of our memory. Even more, he describes the way that our first memories and feelings are defined in and by the rooms of our family home: memories of ‘hiding in the attic’, ‘locking things away in the basement’… [Bachelard took a phenomenological approach to architecture. This was very different from the Enlightenment view that understood architecture in terms of its historical antecedence. The phenomenological view considered architecture in terms of how we experience it directly and personally.]
It may sound a little like ‘pop psychology’, but I dreamed about some of these scenes.
Can you give examples?
Well, the image of the man standing in the garage and the one of the child sitting with his toys in the attic. The man is my father and I am the child. In a way, we are both ‘hiding’. I am hiding in the attic, playing. It was my ‘safe place’ and for me this is a good memory. My father used to ‘escape’ to the garage, that was his hiding place. Outside, half hidden in the grass is a football… perhaps the football represents me…?
But they weren’t all dreams. Other scenes were developed by consciously thinking about and remembering the past. The boy studying in his bedroom is me. I would have been playing all day and now I had to do my homework. I loved cars (my bed was shaped like a car), my Dad loved football (he’s watching the match on television while I work).
How do you build the detail of each image?
To begin with I just have an indistinct memory in mind: my mother or grandmother working in the washroom while the children play, for example. I begin to sketch the idea out on a piece of paper – the composition, the room, the furniture and, of course, the people. Then, in my studio, I build the walls, decorate them, add the furniture and all the small details that make it more precisely accurate… more perfectly what I want to show… everything from the exact angle a pencil lies on the desk or the shape of a bush outside the window to the specific pose adopted by each actor. Every detail needs to be precisely defined. Once I can truly see and feel the image of my memory or dream, I take a picture to preserve it. After that, the whole installation is dismantled.
Because memory operates indirectly: the taste of ice-cream can take you back to childhood.
I think they call that a ‘Proustian moment’, when a taste or a smell brings old memories vividly to life. [In his novel ‘À la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ (in search of lost time), Marcel Proust described how the taste of a small cake called a madeleine brought him such joy that the troubles of life seemed to melt away. Later he realised that it was because its taste took him back to childhood.]
The way we see the world is not only influenced by our surroundings. It is more about the relationship between what we are experiencing now and our memory of previous experiences. It is not possible to think or act or judge the way we did in the past because memory and experience are always recombining, evolving…
In creating the historical mise-en-scène, do you rely wholly on memory, or do you research the styling of a period to ensure accuracy?
It is a mix. I do try to work as accurately as I can through the ‘index’ of my memory, but it is not always one hundred per cent possible. So, as I try to define the ‘icon’ of a given memory, I also draw on the ‘collective memory’ of what is more generally known about that time and those circumstances. Drawing on the general to capture the specific has its limits, of course. It would be like not simply trying to bake the same cake my grandma used to bake (which is possible), but making it taste the same as it did when I was eating at the age of six (which is impossible). Newer memories, newer tastes, overlay the old ones. Newer experiences change the way we experience taste, just as they change the way we recall old memories.
That is why I must destroy each installation and keep only the photograph. The ‘Experiential Spaces’ show my memories of childhood as they are remembered by me at the age of thirty-two. Ten years from now, the images would be completely different. So, even if I could keep the installation ‘alive’ in my studio, it wouldn’t make sense in terms of these concepts of memory as something that evolves over time and with each new experience.
Given the memories that form the initial impetus for the work are personal to you, what is it you want to communicate to the viewer through your work?
I hope the work might give the viewer an opportunity to consider whether the scene is ‘just’ an image of my memory or if, perhaps through similarities of experience, it could also become an ‘icon’ of their past that allows them to immerse themselves in a sense of personal nostalgia.
Who are the Schmidts?
The image of ‘The Schmidts’ was made in the period between my university studies about collective memory and how it is constructed, and the ‘Experiential Spaces’ series in which I reconstruct my own memories. It is an image of a German family, though I would emphasise I am not making a broad generalisation; this is not supposed to be the (definitive) German family. I wanted to restage or ‘rebuild’ a family scene, with each family member defined through the way the actors portrayed their respective characters. In the end, the figures were portrayed in a very ‘static’ way – perhaps too static to appear simply natural. This was the beginning of a new way of working, which was later realised in the ‘Experiential Spaces’.
Yes, in many of these images the figures look posed, almost like waxworks. Why is this?
In a way, I see my memories like still lifes, beautiful but fragile scenes. They capture each figure at a point of hesitation, a suspended moment. There is no specific action or interaction. In this way, I hope that the viewer can be more open to his or her own imaginative reading of the scene: “what did I do in the attic?”, “what did my mother do in the kitchen?”, and so on…
How have the ‘Experiential Spaces’ been received by the public?
To be honest, I never imagined the series would have such an impact. I get a lot of feedback. People email me or call, saying that the scenes really triggered something in them; that they felt a nostalgia, felt their own experiences and could identify with my work on a personal level. I have been told that some people laughed when they saw the images, others cried. One man was reminded of a joke told by his grandfather one Christmas Eve, a long time ago.
The image of the hallway – which shows a man and a woman in different rooms, a moment of hesitation following an argument – made a woman cry because it brought to mind her own parents fighting before they got divorced.
What have you learned through the making of this work that you did not understand before?
I think it is clearer to me now why I made this body of work and where I will go in my future work. I can see my life, my ‘autobiography’, in more general ‘narrative’ terms. My search is for a kind of ‘authenticity’ and the way in which it is defined. That started with (and inside) my memories and continues as I embrace my present and future.There is an image of a lounge at Christmastime. The tree is decorated, there are presents under it, the room is perfect. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, a mother stresses over the festive preparations. Through the window, we can see the neighbour’s house, the neighbour’s Christmas tree. Our memories are full of contradictions and contrasts, but they are also shared by other people, each in their own way.
Thomas Friedrich Schaefer was born in Mainz in 1983 and grew up in Germany and Brazil, providing him with an opportunity to observe social and familial environments within distinctly different communities. As a photographer, he has shown in a number of international exhibitions and worked in Europe, North America, South America, South East Asia and West Africa. He currently lives in Berlin.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.