‘Never go back.’ This familiar chime is surely the most common piece of advice to be adhered by nobody ever. When the present suddenly feels unbearable, it happens that a thought occurs to us, a ‘memory’, perhaps, that there was a place where we were happy, or a time that felt like ‘our time’. An entire industry exists around this modern, human, impulse to retreat into an idea of the past, even (especially) when it is not your own.
It would be easy to be critical of it, if it were not for the fact that, like alcoholism or depression, it is an affliction that can and often does affect anyone at some point in their life. My fascination with the history of photography has always been a fascination with the origins of the human impulse to return to somewhere, to revive something; but what, exactly, and why?
And what happens when we do return? One could compile a list, an entire genre, of cultural production, from all corners of the globe, that has ruminated on these outcomes. Perhaps it is considered indulgent at best, fraught with danger at worst, but it is rarely encouraged and often cautioned against: never go back; you can never go back.
On the flip side of this is another modern phenomena, now commonly referred to as ‘ghosting’, whereby one ‘vanishes’ from a former intimate’s life without warning by basically ignoring their calls, blocking their profile, hiding when they come knocking at your door, etc. Anyone with a long-lost relative (hands up!) will know that this has been going on since before smart phones and social media (wars have a lot to do with it, or conflicts of any kind, or dreams — Shakespeare notably abandoned family in Stratford for a new life in London as a writer). The surprise revealed by these contemporary stories is not necessarily how easy it is to ‘disappear’ from another’s life, but now common it now is to meet and come close to, even intimate with another person, and then never go back.
To do otherwise, according to one of the testimonies in the New York Times article, ‘Exes Explain Ghosting: the Ultimate Silent Treatment,’ is a sign of weakness. People who do not simply let go of the past do so out of some desperate need to be loved, even in the face of irrevocable difference. But the phenomena of ghosting, concurrently, exposes an equally weak sign: an inability to face up to choices made and decisions acted upon, for whatever reason. What if sticking around, probing the past, brought new discovery and positive change for the future? The term ‘ghosting’ has a double-meaning to me in this context that suggests, to me at least, that the act of walking away, to never go back, is not always that simple. People may ‘vanish like a ghost’, but a ghost is a soul not at rest; it haunts.
I have moved around a lot over several years. I have made homes wherever I have ended up, and lifelong friends. I have often taken pride in my ability to do so. But for all that is gained from all the endless moving on, something is lost: something barely noticeable unless one returns to find that moving on is not merely a privilege of the one that does the actual moving. Time inevitably moves us all on, nobody is ever stuck in time, but perhaps only in the memory of others. Things ever grow while appearing stationary; wonderful things can occur through stillness, careful observation and patience. Perhaps, though, this discovery is the product of (or the reward for) leaving and returning.
I feel comfort when walking the streets of a town once common to me. I associate this place with comfort, nowadays, when a certain mood moves me, although I have, of course, also felt plenty of its opposite here. Alone, caught up only in my own thoughts, it is a warm feeling of escapism that grips me, a world of my own creation comprised of selective memory, but then something inevitably comes along to jar the fuzzy scene in my conscious mind and snaps me out of ‘yesterday’. In that instant I feel jetlagged, suddenly faced with the task of aclimatising to a peculiar timezone, neither present nor past. It makes me act strangely, in ways I find difficult to account for. I am forced into re-thinking my relationship to my past, present, and future. I have returned but have not made it back. Trying to interact with familiar faces in the streets, I wonder if they think I have become a real weirdo.
While occupied with these thoughts I wandered, appropriately, into the Nottingham Contemporary, where the current exhibition Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth is showing until 20 September. This exhibition effectively put all my mixed-up thoughts at that time into focus, dramatically enacting across the exhibition rooms what I was feeling: just like Bronstein’s work, I was caught between time, and it was not so much an affliction I felt as it was a sense of freedom. What a wonderful realisation!
There is a hackneyed saying from greetings cards that says that today is a gift; that’s whey they call it the present. For Bronstein the past is full of treasures. For this exhibition he has carefully selected objects from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Works by Rembrandt and Franz Hals, Delft porcelain, the coronation chairs for William IV and Queen Adelaide, and a colossal Roman marble foot appear within and alongside original work by Pablo Bronstein, across the galleries of Nottingham Contemporary.
These objects and works have been deftly presented to impose an ambiguous but jarring atmosphere upon the space, inviting many possible reactions and interpretations from audiences. The strict order of time and period imposed by conventional narratives of historical interpretation have become flacid and pliable in the hands of Pablo Bronstein. On a monumental scale he has digitally recreated images of the palatial Chatsworth House and plastered them on the walls surrounding a central grouping of Louis XIV period furniture. It feels like a combination of reverence and playful mockery, leaving these once dominant architectures of power somewhat exposed and manipulated.
Elsewhere it is my own observations that send me spinning fancifully in and out of time. A William Kent chair from 1733 is displayed on a plinth in one of the galleries. William Kent is known for the leading role he took in establishing a new design aesthetic for the Georgian period, when Britain found itself newly ruled over by Germans and was subsequently defining itself as a new nation. I, however, am drawn in by the chair’s adornment of golden leaves and the face at the base that remarkably resembles the Green Man of English pagan tradition, which commonly adorned church buildings from as early as the eleventh century. Could it be that this chair represents a silent protest to the imposition of new foreign rulers? My heart flutters at the thought of this personal discovery.
Fellow gallery visitors admire the exquisite rendering from 1623 of Pope Urban VIII being carried reverently down the nave of St Peters. For me this pen and ink drawing brings sharply to my mind the infamous, haunting image of Bacon’s ‘screaming pope’; a painting that drew upon the past in the present. In what was such a defiant statement, Bacon’s image reverberates through me still today and haunts my interpretation of this almost 400-year-old drawing before me.
Pablo Bronstein’s own drawings revel in a time in part familiar yet wholly unknown. His ink and watercolour work, ‘Design for a large clock in the Louis XV style, representing The Sun Rising over the Dead’ (2012), recalls 18th-century aspirational design alongside 20th-century Surrealist fantasy, via. nineteenth-century steampunk. Bronstein paints with broad brushstrokes from a loaded temporal palette. The affect is a world pregnant with possibilities.
For me, art takes something real but apparently unthinkable and puts it into perspective, even if it is just to say that there are phenomena in this world we have no rational language to explain. Our feelings and impressions of this world can be in effect enough to topple even the strongest and highest notions of rational thought. Professor Boris Groys reminds us, from his essay ‘Comrades of Time’ (E-flux, 2009), that Descartes defined the present as a time of doubt—of doubt that is expected to eventually open a future full of clear and distinct, evident thoughts. Through his work, Bronstein frolicks in the undetermined space between received notions of past in the present, and invites us to join him.