Speaking for the Dead

Speaking for the Dead
2016

Speaking for the Dead presents an otherworldly encounter in a domestic setting. The exhibition responds to a series of 1930s studio portraits of anonymous German children on their first day of school, which I collected during the seven years I lived in Europe. Most of the children in these photographs understandably look nervous. In Germany, the start of school marks the beginning of Ernst des Lebens (the serious side of life), as a child leaves behind their previously unstructured life at home to encounter the discipline and challenges of formal education. The children hold Schultuete: cardboard cones filled with sweets that are traditionally given to compensate a child’s anxieties on this long-anticipated day.

The children in these photographs almost certainly witnessed Germany’s dark history under National Socialism and its unspeakable crimes. But what do we know about their lives, their deaths, their experiences, their trauma? When we confront history it is a story that is always already told: a set of inherited interpretations, of mashed-up moments, of forgotten details, of lives lost in the backward recounting of grander narratives. We have learnt to read it so.

The cones the children carry resemble the metal hearing trumpets used in nineteenth century séances to listen to the voices of the dead. What language do the dead speak? What stories can they tell? While photographs are themselves silent things they are also occasions for looking and for listening. In a photograph, we look to listen to the dead.

People who have lived through trauma carry a kind of double burden: first the trauma, and then the ineffability, the insufficiency of words to describe it. For the traumatised dead the burden must be even greater. The dead must also find a medium.

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