Ruth Rosengarten »

considerations

 

Because I could never quite decide what I wanted to do – between making things and writing about people who make things, there wasn’t really a choice, since I’ve always loved doing both – I landed up doing both, and possibly paying for it by a chronic dispersal of focus. For a long time, this combination produced a schizoid frenzy of time management (not least because there was a divergence between what I was writing about and what I was doing), but more recently, my activities have become more sympathetic to one another, and even converged.  This has, no doubt, been nourished by the breakdown of medium specificity in the arts, and the tonic provided by a growing presence of other practitioners whose work moves across media and disciplines. Possibly, if I’d chanced upon a different lilfe and not been in South Africa when I was a student in the 1970s, I’d have realised earlier that my activities could have flowed into each other, but that might just be to blame happenstance for my own inability to forge ahead…

mama papa and baby bearusMy mother had it that, as a toddler in Israel, I would be placed on the rug in our tiny sitting room and instructed not to leave its confines, and there I would sit and entertain myself for hours on end, sticking wool and dried beans onto pieces of card and adorning these early collages with wax crayons, grimacing with concentration.  In a sense, I’ve never left that rug. Some of the most meaningful activities for me still take place in a bounded space, indoors, on my own, though arguably, all that image evokes is a child willing to comply to orders and fearful of her mother’s authority!

We left Israel when I was eight and moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, whence I bolted after completing a Fine Arts degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. The course at that time – the mid 1970s – immersed us in an aesthetic of American painting of the 1950s (abstract expressionism and colour field) and British drawing and sculpture of the same period, and the legacy of this anachronism dogged me for two decades, into the 1990s. In the 1980s, when I was living in Lisbon, the atmosphere generated by a “return to painting” in the so-called art world, and especially by an expressionist moment that accompanied the first theoretical formulations of post-modernism, were condusive to my practice. In retrospect, I see this extended moment as a hindrance to my real interests: a deviation that led me down a blind alley for at least a decade. By then, I had already discovered that I had the soul of an archivist, but had not yet found the way of translating this into my work. With a residency in Perth, Western Australia in 1997, almost coinciding with the purchase of my first digital camera, I fell into the idioms that I have been practicing since then. In Perth, my project One Hundred Days, included many drawings, and also one photographic self-portrait taken every day, for the hundred-day duration of my sojourn, at a time when the word “selfie” had not been invented. I was interested in photographs with a flat, everyday effect, serving as a register of something-having-been.

The interest in photography dates to before then – my first published article in the early 1980s was about photography, and I taught a theoretical course in photography from the early 1990s in Lisbon; but it was really with the inception of digital technologies (and their impact on the cost of working photographically) that I started taking photographs, not so much assiduously as compulsively, and then also, drawing from the photographs I took. My writing kept apace with these interests, or actually helped me formulate them,  though in the writing, I remained interested in many other areas, and often affected in my approach by psychoanalytic theory. Now that I have in my possession a large case of old photographs charting, in stops and starts, the trajectories of my deceased parents, I have no doubt that for me, photography is of prime importance as a transportable mnemic trigger; the things ‘we’ took when we moved from one place to another – this plural is both personal and cultural: I come from a family where, in living memory, no child was born in the same country as his or her parents.

I don’t see myself as a photographer, but as someone who uses photography in her practice.  There are many brilliant professional photographers whose work is monumental; I mean that each photograph is a kind of monument. But there are others, whose work I have gradually discovered as mine has nuzzled theirs, whose photographs seem to be closer to snapshots, and yet are not snapshots, photographs that are about nothing in particular, whose appeal is more difficult to describe, but has something to do with the beauty of the uneventful, the everyday,  the unspectacular. Many of my photos have to do with traces, the vestiges of  something having happened, or someone having been there. The Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco had something to say about his photographs lying between the relic and the document, and it is at this juncture that I would situate what I do, even when I am drawing.

Of course photographs – in the old-fashioned, pre-digital sense – are like fetishes, in that they stand in for something lost, and that is their power. Digital photography has inherited the cultural baggage, and the allure of this power, even though it has vastly extended the scope of what a ‘photograph’ does and what a photograph is.  But I have become interested, as my practice has evolved, in photographs that straddle (or apparently straddle) the awkward turf between professional and amateur;  between the public and the private; between travel photography (which is often the exploration of the extraordinary) and the documentation of everyday life. I am constantly moved by the ephemeral, flat magic of the ordinary.