Of Ghosts and Atlases – Dr Jess Berry
“The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way.”
― W.G. Sebald, Vertigo
― W.G. Sebald, Vertigo
Glen Skien’s Mytho-poetic project is a constellation of postcards, letters, photographs, drawings and objects that the artist stitches together and obscures through the processes of etching, drawing, collage and construction. Fish and birds, boats and houses, solitary figures and cryptic inscriptions appear frequently as myths and icons. These motifs are highly evocative of familiar places, lost encounters, life histories, and autobiographical chronicles. The secret intimacies and fugitive relationships he intuits between these ephemeral sources are repetitively re-configured across the artist’s oeuvre. Each of Skien’s exhibitions is a reminder of past spaces and relationships, where traces of previous works are phantoms in the present. The result is a meandering and melancholic narrative of absence, displacement and loss, underlying which, is the spectre of History - a silent presence that is constantly circled around and gestured toward.
Skien’s work is a metaphoric atlas of sorts - an on-going mediation, through montage, on the mnemonic image and its relationship to the ghostly. As such it has strong resonances with the projects of a number of European artists, poets and scholars who have organised word and image in such a way as to reveal a model of historic consciousness. The art historian Aby Warburg’s image clusters of photographs, newspaper articles and ephemera that make up the philosophical Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929); Walter Benjamin’s unfinished meanderings on city life, in the palimpsest text The Arcades Project (1927-1940); author W.G Sebald’s use of personal photographs and interior prose in his elliptical treatment of the Holocaust in Austerlitz (2001); and Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1962- ) of photographs, sketches and newspaper clippings that are the source material for much of his work; each, in some way, undertake a detached and oblique mapping of Europe’s traumatic history and its reverberation in the present.
As with the afore mentioned atlas cartographers, Skien’s images of the past are fleeting, recuperated from lost and forgotten sources. However, his is not a specific history of place and time, but rather an understanding of history as a process of destruction and fragmentation – a strange space where memory, fiction, reality and dreams intersect. Despite the possibility for sentimentality that is associated with the images and iconography that Skien works with, there is little room for nostalgia, rather, there is something disquieting in the way the artist obliterates elements of the past with slashes of red ink, roughly hewn sutures of thread or opaque layers of encaustic. In their reconfigured state the original images become almost unrecognisable, echoing the way memory plays the game of Chinese whispers, obscured by what we know and see later.
Thus, Skien mobilises his ghostly atlas of images, objects and texts to remind us that history is an apparition of the disappeared and the departed. While we might be confounded by the obscurities of these histories, ultimately there is some comfort in knowing that in the case of Skien’s work these narratives will resurface in some form again and eventually we might better understand them better.