What would you save if your home were flooded? Would you rush for the sentimental (old photographs, notebooks, childhood toys) or the practical (mobile phones, laptops, camera equipment)? Our relationship with our possessions, the objects we cherish and express our identities through, is an intriguing and often poignant one. In spite of our throwaway culture (and continual shopping trips), certain objects are irreplaceable.
The idea of acquisition as an art will be familiar to those who visited the Barbican’s Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector show. From Hiroshi Sugimoto’s collection of prosthetic human eyes to Andy Warhol’s cookie jars, the universal desire for, and possession of, bizarre and beautiful objects is writ large.
The same applies to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current exhibition Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Showcasing iconic, outward facing status symbols and quirky, intimate objects passed down through the generations, it reveals the personal tastes and aspirations of individual owners, and the way in which belongings are charged with emotional significance and value. Whether it be safeguarding precious memories via the coping mechanism of mourning jewellery, or flaunting fashion-savvy footwear (check out the eighteenth-century yellow silk taffeta heels), all the objects on display were once inscribed with a sentimental or functional value that ensured their painstaking preservation.
Preserving possessions is also at the heart of Ishiuchi Miyako’s 2013 series Frida, a photographic record of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe and belongings that is now on display at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery. One of Japan’s most notable female photographers, Ishiuchi here builds on earlier works such as her series Mother’s (in which she photographed the personal articles of her late mother) and her 2007 piece documenting the clothing and personal items of victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Although Ishiuchi knew little about the work of Frida Kahlo before embarking on her recent project, her training in textile design and appreciation for the delicate subtleties of the forms, structures, colours and fibres of the garments she photographs offers us a tender portrait of the artist. Using only a 35mm Nikon camera and natural light, Ishiuchi diligently recorded Kahlo’s most intimate things, which Diego Rivera, her husband and fellow artist, had collected and locked inside the bathroom of their house in Mexico City. Left untouched for nearly 60 years, these abandoned relics range from leftover Revlon nail polish to dresses, corsets, sunglasses, and prosthetics.
An invalid throughout her life and crippled by polio, Kahlo was involved in a near fatal bus accident at the age of 18 that resulted in numerous surgical interventions, and many of the artist’s subsequent sartorial choices sought to creatively camouflage her physical ailments. As Ishiuchi’s images show, Kahlo’s clothes have an intensely festive, flamboyant richness, which, as the biographer Hayden Herrera argues, hid an anguished interior. In both her works and her carefully constructed becostumed exterior, there is a peculiar urgency about Kahlo’s desire to be seen and known. Beyond her mythic heroine persona, she insists we recognise her vulnerability.
Ishiuchi cuts through the ‘Fridamania’ and side-steps Kahlo’s celebrity status to document the specifics of the artist’s individual history – Ishiuchi knows it is the traces that Kahlo as a woman left on her belongings, the paint stains and stitching, that convey the truest statements of her identity and beauty.
This documentation of traces of the past takes on a deeply personal and moving tone in British photographer Phil Toledano’s latest book, When I was Six, which contains a mixture of text, still lifes, and atmospheric space images. Continuing a poignant journey into his past that started with Days With My Father (dealing with his mother’s passing and the effect of this loss on his father, who suffered from dementia) and A Shadow Remains (addressing his father’s death), When I was Six sees Toledano return to 1974, when his sister Claudia died at age 9. Although his family never talked of her again, when Toledano’s parents died he discovered a box of his sister’s belongings, including her clothes, toys, a pencil with her name on it, family photographs and, perhaps most heartrending, a lock of her blonde hair.
Describing the contents of this box as “like a museum”, Toledano systematically photographed Claudia’s items in partial shadow within a couple of months, and found that the process gave him “a second chance” to know his sister. The strange air of searching and susceptibility that permeates the images reminds us that, almost from its inception, photography was used as a way to remember the dead. The flickering of absence and presence in photography, the way it makes real the loss but transforms the grief, sees it step beyond the shackles of classification and such terms as ‘art’, ‘technique’ etc.
The fundamental roles of emotion and subjectivity in the experience of and accounting for photography lie at the heart of Roland Barthes’s essay on photography as loss, Camera Lucida. Written while he was grieving for his mother, Barthes states that he finds in photography “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead”. Exploring how photographs fascinate and intoxicate us, what really matters to Barthes is how we are indelibly touched by poignant details, moments of suffering or pathos that break through images and exert a definite hold over us.
On the day of his death, Barthes left on his typewriter an unfinished text entitled ‘One Always Fails to Speak of What One Loves’, but as the photographs of both Ishiuchi Miyako and Phil Toledano show, sometimes the cliché is spot on and a picture really is worth a thousand words. With photography, our most treasured possessions can never belong to the past. A photograph reveals what matters most to us and how we urgently make sure that those we have loved don’t disappear. Won’t that always be worth battling to save from the rising flood waters?
Treasured Possessions From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, until 6 September, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Frida by Ishiuchi Miyako, until 12 July, Michael Hoppen Gallery, London
When I was Six is published by Dewi Lewis
Unidentified English maker, Silk taffeta shoes bound with ribbon, c.1700-30 © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Frida by Ishiuchi #23, 2012-2015 © Ishiuchi Miyako, Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery
Frida by Ishiuchi #36, 2012-2015 © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery
Images from the series When I Was Six © Phil Toledano