This gazing at what lies beneath the civilised world
A century ago, André Breton published ‘The Surrealist Manifesto’ in which he declared “the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful”. His conception of the marvellous was by no means pretty. Drawing on the theories of Sigmund Freud and others, the Surrealists sought to access the unconscious mind; to abandon themselves to its expressive flow by releasing that which was trapped beneath awareness. They relished the frisson they felt in disrupting the blandness of a normality they considered artificial. It was, in Breton’s word, convulsive.
That said, Breton considered Surrealism to be a liberating force, even one of love. Looking back across the span of the century, the art historian Hal Foster drew out a darker aspect, less convulsive than compulsive. An obsessive “return of the repressed for disruptive purposes”. An entangling of trauma and desire that he traces to Freud’s concept of the death drive, the flip-side of human motivation in the binary of Eros and Thanatos. In Hal Foster’s analysis, the marvellous is found within the uncanny; that haunting sense of the otherworldly contaminating the homely. Whereas Breton’s conception of Surrealism centres on the individual, Hal Foster’s sweeps outward into the social, the political, and the economic. Tracing the development of Surrealism across the twentieth century he characterises it as “the re-enchantment of a disenchanted world, of a capitalist society made ruthlessly rational”, its darkness matching the benighted underbelly of neoliberalism.
For the Canadian artist Frank Rodick, personal and historical trauma have become the wellspring of a creative practice unafraid of the crepuscular world of the unconscious flowing beneath the icy veneer of rational civilisation. His images marry the convulsive abandonment of André Breton’s marvellous beauty with the dark obsession of Hal Foster’s compulsive, iterative return to the sites of psychic trauma. The things the mind tries to freeze out of awareness are brought forth in the intimate warmth of an artmaking that is a kind of love. A dance of Eros and Thanatos across a crazed and fragile ice towards the darkness below.
The atmosphere of much of your work is dark. There is a sense of decay and disquiet. What draws you to these kind of themes?
It’s not unusual for art to grow from a wound, is it?
My parents grew up poor, in dismal environments, and that stayed with them, informed how they lived. My father’s family died young, before I was born; tuberculosis was a scourge. As a child, my mother suffered from vicious antisemitism, including physical attacks. Her home was unsettled, sometimes violent. Then came the Holocaust. Her family was in Canada, but she’d tell me – over and over – how her father’s family was murdered in Europe. She was hurt, angry, obsessed. When I was very young she’d rage and force me to look at photographs of concentration camps. It felt like she was trying to pull me into this dark world in which she lived. It was terrifying but there was also this perversely seductive power about it: so much mad passion in the face of horror and death, this gazing at what lies beneath the civilised world.
Disquiet just became the waters I swam in. Growing up I didn’t question it. Or feel sorry for myself. It just was.
Tell me about ‘Revisitations’.
This was the first series I made after my mother’s death, which was really savage, including years of dementia. It pains me to say it, but my mother was the most important person in my life. She was the most natively intelligent person I’ve ever known, extremely sensitive at times, but also tortured, destructive. Today she’d be considered mentally ill. So our relationship – I was an only child – was tortured too. Anyone who’s experienced an abusive, powerful parent knows that this stays with you.
Psychologically, her death freed me – unexpectedly – to directly explore my family experience and history. My parents were hoarders, so I had mountains of stuff to look at. I unearthed things I remembered from childhood, like photos of war and the Holocaust. Some of that found its way into ‘Revisitations’, alongside images of my own, like the picture of my father after his death in 2004.
What ideas or feelings did you seek to express through this revisitation of the past?
I never start out consciously thinking about ideas and feelings. I just work, trying to make pictures that viscerally appeal to me. Pictures I want to look at. And one image usually leads to another. So, if I talk about ideas and feelings that’s my post-hoc speculation on why the images appealed to me.
I realise now I was beginning to directly engage my own issues around trauma, revisiting and reliving memories, exploring them visually. I’d done that in earlier work, but more obliquely. All of it felt very raw.
You have said that you like to work in a way that you call ‘aphoristic’. What do you mean by this?
I mean that when I work I’m engaging a single image, not conceiving it as part of a larger whole. I see where it leads. Often that’s nowhere, though dead ends are great teachers. The process gives me freedom but also focus. And it’s important to me that a single work can stand on its own.
Round about 2011 your work circles in to focus on your mother and father at the end of their lives.
By late 2010, I was immersing myself in what I thought I knew of my parents’ lives and how their lives intertwined with mine. I relived a lot of tragedy – I also recognised this relentless will to go on that the three of us shared, albeit very differently.
What became clearer was how much violence and negation there had been, more than I’d ever thought. My mother’s death was slow and degrading, biologically violent, made worse by the experiential chaos she felt. That got me diving more into how this affected me. For decades I’d only rarely engaged this consciously, probably because it was too dangerous.
I also felt this sadness. Two people, overmatched by life and history – the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the curse of sickness. It fairly crushed them, and I’ve come to understand how these things echo through generations.
It may just be my perspective, but the images of your mother seem to suggest a kind of violence – in several her face has been obliterated – whereas the images of your father are more peaceful, decaying slowly. How did you choose the mode of treatment of the various found images and why?
My mother’s life was more violent: her childhood, the Holocaust, the violent hatred she carried inside her. And – uncomfortable as it sounds – there was a violence in the hatred I sometimes felt towards her, alongside a painful and complicated love. That hatred manifested psychically not physically, but look what I did with the pictures. I defiled that beautiful face of hers. Still, the pictures are about more than that – her choices, freely made or not, history itself, they scarred her. Yet, as much as the pictures are about her, they’re more about me, and the way we were entwined.
But it was different with your father…?
I never thought I’d make pictures of my father. He left a light footprint in life, unlike my mother who was like the hurricane who erased footprints. I thought he wasn’t important enough. And, as with so many things, I was wrong.
My father was a passive figure. He did some good things for me: he introduced me to photography; he didn’t beat the shit out of me, which was something. But I came to realise how he permitted a lot of the abuse, through a calculus of self-preservation. This is painful for me because I craved his protection. But, years after he died, I also felt compassion for him, some sadness. He was so alone. Maybe this mitigation makes the images look less violent.
Ten years after he died I got to ruminating on that impossible riddle of a long life, and I wound up studying a set of photos of him from a small boy to a dead eighty-seven-year-old man. And I went through the last words he wrote – he couldn’t speak – on his deathbed, which I would overlay on my images. It blows my mind to think of that three-year-old boy becoming the old man who scrawls “I’m not ready to go”. All of it in a cosmic instant. That’s me too, soon. All of us. Death is time collapsing on itself, like nothing was ever there.
In ‘everything will be forgotten’ you transform images from your childhood in a similar way to those of your father. Later you added to this in ‘season of mists’ with images of your adult self, echoing those of your childhood.
I found three small photos, taken by my father, that show me, age three, standing naked in a bathtub. I kept looking at them… I let them sit with me a long time.
I started working these photos the way I always do, looking to transform them in a way that might reveal something to me. What I came up with shocked me. The boy looks shattered, and that resonated emotionally. I was a fearful child, desperate. That’s not easy for me to admit. It feels shameful, even now. I wanted to turn away, but the process of artmaking forced me to look. The art, as they say, was smarter than the artist. Braver, certainly.
‘Season of mists’ was more deliberate in that I decided to apply the same techniques to my adult self. My reaction – not the gold standard necessarily, the artist doesn’t have a monopoly on meaning – was that we may change, but much inside us resists. The boy holds his own inside the man. Of course, the man is aging, closer to death. That’s where the title comes from: Keats’ poem ‘To Autumn’.
You are a psychotherapist by profession. Do you draw on those ideas – theoretically or in specific narratives – in conceiving your images?
Theory would suck the life out of the work. So, no, I don’t draw on that. But I think it’s unavoidable that what my clients shared with me became part of my experience, finding its way into the work not as specific narratives but in terms of sensibility.
For example, I spent a couple of years working with Rwandan women who survived the genocide. Their stories were wrenching, I’d dream of them. I never made pictures about that specifically, but those dialogues became woven into who I am, and that finds its way into the work.
What motivates you to make these images and does the process (or the creation of the finished object) change things for you?
If I don’t work I feel worse, very restless, painfully so. I think that’s familiar to many artists. As they say: artists don’t work because they want to; they work because they have to.
There’s also something exhilarating about it. Regardless of how unimportant it may be to anyone else, it feels like the stakes are high: be real or get out. With life so full of vacuous, unreal things, that’s like a refuge. My work is a bread-crumb trail, a marking out of the path of experience. Maybe it’s some proof that those experiences and feelings existed. That I existed. When you live with as much doubt as I have, that means something.
That is very personal to you. What is your purpose in sharing the work publicly?
It wouldn’t occur to me to make art that wasn’t extremely personal, though that doesn’t answer your question. I think I have a strong desire to be seen for who I actually am. Ego is part of it, but not just that; after all, there are other ways of satisfying ego: money, power, status, none of which I’ve ever really gone after. But being seen for who I am is a big thing for someone who grew up never feeling that; feeling instead a need to hide myself, in order to survive. To not be seen is negation, a death. Perhaps making art was a stealthy form of revelation.
In your series ‘untitled selves’ you move away from using found photographs to working on self-portraits. How did this new work begin?
There was still this draining hangover of having engaged my parent’s deaths and memories of childhood… But I was living with something else that was – and is – huge in my life: my partner’s painful and debilitating chronic illness. She’s gone through several life-threatening crises. It’s been a nightmare for her, and it’s affected me a great deal.
Living as witness and caregiver in a house of sickness brings you closer to difficult things: mortality, the travails of the flesh, one’s own shortcomings – that background hum of entropy that becomes a screech. Most of the time we push it away. But there are times you can’t avoid it.
Although these portraits seem to be disintegrating or dispersing, they do not (for me) have the darkness of mood about them of much of the preceding work. They seem to be more about a kind of acceptance. Did you consciously change your mode of working?
I’m not sure I’d call it acceptance. Maybe its cousin, resignation. But you’re right: I changed how I worked. I needed something sparser, something more distant from narrative, more expressive of a state of being.
You have described your most recent series, ‘The Moons of Saturn’, as ‘disjecta membra’ – the kind of fragments of the past from which we attempt to understand it in distant retrospect. Is that how you see this work, as a kind of fragmented retrospective view from some future point looking back to our lives today?
A difficult question. The source imagery for ‘The Moons of Saturn’ is vernacular photography. On one level, that anchors it to the past. But the past is never the past per se, especially when it’s emotionally loaded. It’s our memory of what we conceptualise as the past, filtered through our ongoing experience. The objects of memory slashed through by our needs, emotions, prejudices… fragmenting and reworking them. It’s a lot more disorderly than we like to think.
What have you learned through making this work?
This may sound prosaic, but I’ve learned that I’m tougher and more resilient than I thought. As they say in show business, when it came to the art grind I showed up. And kept showing up, which working artists know is harder than it sounds. I may have stumbled plenty between the immensities, but each time I’d get up. A little more broken perhaps. Much of that was luck, some of it was me. I don’t expect that to be important to anyone else. But there it is.
Frank Rodick was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1959. He has a bachelor’s degree in political economy from the University of Toronto (1981), and a master’s degree in counselling psychology from McGill University, Montreal (1988), as well as studying film and film theory at Concordia University, Montreal (1985–86), and photographic printing at Ryerson University, Toronto (1990–91). His work has been presented in forty-four solo exhibitions in Argentina, Canada, China, Colombia, Paraguay, Russia, Uruguay, and USA, and has featured in a further fifty-nine group shows in many parts of the world. His photographs are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including those of the Museo Nacional de Bella Artes de Buenos Aires (Argentina), Musée de la Photographie à Charleroi (Belgium), National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), Kunstmuseum Brandts (Odense, Denmark), Brooklyn Museum (New York, USA), Philadelphia Museum of Art (Pennsylvania, USA), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Texas, USA), and New Mexico Museum of Art (New Mexico, USA).
He has received over a dozen national and provincial government grants and won awards including the Canadian Association of Labour Media Award for Photography (1997), first prize for portraiture at the Robert Cornelius Awards (2010), and overall winner at the Sixteenth Annual Pollux Awards (2021). His work has been widely published in catalogues, magazines and journals around the world. His monograph ‘Liquid Cities and Celestial Abattoirs’ was published by Akina Books, UK, in 2013, and ‘Labyrinth of Desire: Work by Frank Rodick’ was published by Deborah Coltan Gallery in 2010. Frank Rodick lives and works in Toronto, Canada.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.