Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition, On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .
Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.
In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).
Here, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).
Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living). Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American.
The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction.