Print of the Month is a monthly showcase of a print made by one of Blackstack Studio’s members introducing the ideas and process behind the work.
A. K. Lee, Upstanding
The background to this print:
Pretty much since becoming aware of the Holocaust I had hoped that at some stage I could add something to the response that would not be trite. The topic was always too overwhelming. Anything I came up with merely re-voiced that which most feel or for other reasons seemed paltry.
How one can react to the Holocaust personally can be mined indefinitely but a focus on anyone other than the victims immediately seems vain and disrespectful. It also begs a greater number of obstacle questions of authority, of who should speak on whose behalf and by what right? Although all of my work is personal, none of it is autobiographical and this was the entering wedge into the series of steps which helped me to get past the ‘Who am I to respond?’ hurdle. Then it became ‘What can possibly be said that hasn’t already been said?’
There was nothing that I ever wanted to actually say about the Holocaust. I never had anything to say about it. I never felt that my response was more worthy of attention than anyone else’s. Nor have I found that being an Artist somehow equips me with a facility to see or find or articulate anything new about the Holocaust. Although it can be argued that something of those lost persists in them being remembered by how one feels when one considers their plight I never thought that my own emotional response mattered any more than that of anyone else either. To be yet another displaying shock or outrage or dismay seemed to me appallingly disrespectful vanity when the victims can speak for themselves through photographs and letters and diaries and artefacts at the Berlin memorial, for example, or in the interviews and recollections of survivors.
So how to respond? Though primed for years, nothing came until I saw this news photo from 1970 of Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw uprising. It’s an event widely acknowledged as a cultural chord change which altered the relationship between Germany/West Germany and Poland significantly, coming as it did on a visit during which Brandt also declared the Polish border final.
It was a very public act not just for occurring in plain sight but because its symbolic simplicity has an importance in and of itself. Its symbolic importance assumes or relies on there being an international lexicon of gestures of shared meaning in which, say, spitting at the feet of an opponent would be understood as signalling contempt. Kneeling, with it’s clearly and generally understood association with humility, prayer and the sinner’s hope for mercy is of that generally shared lexicon. An individual representing millions was referring to millions while choosing to knowingly be watched and considered by millions. In this case scale is a vital consideration rather than an observation or backdrop.
While not actually the head of state, Brandt carried a representative quality in the same way that an announcement from Angela Merkel will casually be described as ‘The German position.’ This representative quality is surely enhanced when abroad and, as in this case, greatly magnified by visiting so significant a monument. Nobody knew that he would fall to his knees and nobody could have expected it.
Despite being such a simple physical act Brandt’s possibly spontaneous gesture is also slightly ambivalent not in terms of intent or sincerity but in terms of meaning. Although clearly expressing sadness and regret is it also an act representing shame or guilt? During the war Brandt worked for Allied intelligence as an anti-Nazi exiled in Finland. So, in Brandt’s personal case, was his an act of responsibility accepted by being German? It’s referred to as Warschauer Kniefall or Warsaw genuflection.
The figure added on the right might reasonably be expected to represent the witnessing dead or the viewer. It’s clearly hand-drawn and this drawn figure is only an outline, fragile and somewhat lost so it’s not the viewer’s awareness that the original image has been altered but, hopefully, the drawn figure itself which individualises this widely-disseminated photograph.
Despite being so vague, the hand-drawn figure is of an individual. The original has been altered to now become something else, however I discarded the original and, I believe, needed to, so that the individual hand-drawn figure is thereafter only replicated.
It seems to me appropriate that for the hand-drawn figure to in any way represent those who died in the Holocaust an, if you will, succusive charge, a kinetic charge would – if ever possible – most appropriately be generated though replication. Why must it be through replication? Why must it be via print? Because the original image is a newspaper photo of a very public event the news of which, and the images of which, gained significance with each front page. To counter the most despairing claim about murder, that numbers sanctify? Yes, they can.
Tell us a little about the technique you used to make this print:
It’s printed on newsprint because it originally was a newspaper photograph and I could see no good reason to print on anything other than newsprint.
I used a printing machine from a defunct newspaper the like of which I haven’t seen before or since. It’s a photo etching of some kind but using a very thin metal plate which scrolls like cardboard. The metal scroll was fitted into a barrel-size roller which rolled one way to collect ink and then back again over it’s starting position and on to roll over the paper, all surprisingly briskly and with a sound like very loud skipping ropes.
Unless there’s a compelling reason, my default is 12 copies (edition of 9 and 3 proofs) but in this case it seemed appropriate for there only to be one print available to anyone who might want to screensave it or otherwise copy it.
What do you love about print:
Print because I think in sequences. I very rarely make single images like ‘Upstanding.’ Everyone has their own definition of Art but I think that it involves the process of individuation. In the broadest sense, the topic of individuation is to do or also to do with the many, immediately suggesting that a medium characterised by the delivery of many rather than single images lends itself to exploring the topic. However commonplace, the step of a large edition book, for example, becoming somehow one’s own, in a sense other than ownership, remains the safari.
My practice is as much about allowing as it is about doing so when I set to work on a piece I’m aiming towards what I have in my mind’s eye but am eager to be diverted. Once the version imagined and aimed for is printed one’s free to experiment wildly and print off some versions that couldn’t possibly work without caring. Almost always there comes a point where some colour combination or some other adjustment presents itself as the final chosen version. Immediately afterwards that choice seems blindingly obvious. I’ve no truck with the Spiritual, the final version is not but nevertheless often does feel like the choice of the piece itself.
Which print/artwork would you love to own: So many so many. I treasure a small watercolour by a local Westport Artist who managed to pick out those delicate lilacs I’ve only seen in rockpools and tide-out mud blankets in the west.
I’m a total sucker for post-moderny self-referency head first perfect conceptual circles: In college I was terribly jealous of a colleague I had always under-rated delivering images of postboxes sent through the postal system so that they ended up getting stamped. I wish I had thought of that. Or a photograph I only ever heard of but love already where the photographer, Sebastian Edge (what a ridiculously sexy name) chopped down a tree, planked the wood and built an old style 19th century box camera from that wood with which he then photographed the stump. It’s not just mere neatness, it’s the way that the very idea of the photograph tickles the equilibrium. What on earth could possibly be the most appropriate thing for that camera to take as it’s second photograph?
In Derry there’s a statue of two men reaching out and almost shaking hands. It’s a fine sculpture in itself but after Omagh somebody covered it in band aids. It at that moment.
I met a Painter once who focuses only and intently on the most up-to-date information and telescopic images of the furthest reaches of the visible – as distinct from the known – universe. He then tries to approximate what could be seen at that point and then what might reasonably be imagined slightly further out. It’s like as if he’s racing or maybe surfing on Science. Love it. Love it already. Oh is that what it looks like?
Willem de Kooning influenced me most theory-wise. Although I can’t say I go wild about his prime period paintings, towards the end of his life he suffered from Alzheimers and produced some rather spare abstracts of delicate serpentine wisps which I find deeply moving and also very uplifting but I resent their being dependent on their backstory for their emotional charge rather than being able to stand squarely to be considered as is.
In the National Gallery there’s an Orpen study of his mistress sitting on the edge of their bed pulling on her stockings with sunlight streaming in but mainly missing her. Perhaps you know it. If you want to steal that for me I’d be very grateful.