Saturday 29 October 2022 Elemental Memory

I’m a student of memory, and that’s not unusual for a photographer. Photography is about capturing a moment which will not come back, and making it in to something that can be revisited. No wonder there’s so much theory and writing about it, it’s what Barthes (and Sebald for that matter) is all about.

The physical environment is memory incarnate – and where human history is present/visible, it give rise to the new topographics or man altered landscape movement. But I can’t help thinking that memory is omnipresent, and exists on levels that we may not have thought much about. 

This isn’t something I’ve researched much, yet, but here are the bones of my thinking, put here simply as a starting or discussion point, not over thought, nothing scholarly, just kicking the bonce ball around.

There are essentially two things, terrestrially speaking, which permit all life. One is water, the other is topsoil, which I will call earth (I’ll talk about the other elements in a later post). On the basis that everything comes from somewhere, and nothing goes nowhere, these two things have always been present. They exist and reproduce in some fashion. The water you’re drinking has probably come from a well from which it was drawn, having rained down many many years ago. The food (meat or vegetables) we eat is entirely dependent upon the earth which is regenerated from what it has grown before.

Maria Stepanova writes eloquently about sekretiki in her book ‘In Memory of Memory’ (Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018, trans. Sasha Dugdale), it’s an old Russian tradition where young girls would dig a small pit in the earth where they would place their most treasured items. They covered this with glass, and covered the glass in foliage as camouflage. They showed their closest most trusted girl friends these memories, but the boys (stupid as ever), searched for the sekretiki and destroyed them when they found them.  So, the earth supported a memory (but even the memory was under threat…).

A ship sinks at sea and becomes a memory of the crew who lived so long before – there are more examples than I can mention here, but the Titanic comes to mind. Water passes through us as a source of life, but comes back again. Water rains, evaporates, regenerates, etc., the hydrological cycle.

The question is, if we accept that both water and earth have memory, do they have sentience in ways that we do not understand? Recent thinking about the sentience of trees (‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, Peter Wollehben, Greystrone 2015, trans. Jane Billinghurst), entirely reliant upon earth and water as they are, might give us a nudge. If they do have both sentience and memory (are the two separable?), what do they ‘think’ about the changes in their surroundings over time, and I’m thinking specifically about changes caused by our species – pollution, climate change etc., from pumping excrement in to the sea, oil spills, to dropping litter. As an artist, how should this be represented? How do you ‘see’ from the point of view of water and earth? How do you photograph that?

Potentially a life long endeavour.

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