What’s on? Artistic variations on WG Sebald

I was reading in New Scientist the other day about how you could inherit trauma from a parent or even grandparent, that fragments missed by a ‘cleaning process’ might remain hidden in the embryo, contributing in later life to psychological ailments such as bi-polarity or depression. German author WG Sebald prods at such splinters, embedded in the inheritors of Germany’s Nazi history. His books aren’t well known in Spain, which makes his prominence in art exhibition Sebald Variations, currently at Barcelona’s CCCB, intriguing, yet his themes relate so closely to those of this country and its own uneasy relationship with the past that such a show is prescient.

Max Sebald 1944 - 2001

Born in Bavaria in 1944, Winfried Georg (Max) Sebald spent much of his life in Norfolk in Britain, where he was professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia until his early death in 2001. His books: Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, marinade in melancholia veined with an irony so light that I’m led to wonder (and not for the first time in recent months) whether a German is joking or not.

Reading Sebald

Shifting in genre between non-fiction and fiction, between travel literature, biography, autobiography and just ‘story’, reading Sebald’s books that are narrated by the author or a variation of the author, I reckon, might be like being stuck in one of his tutorials; one that has gone wildly off track, in which he’s blocked the door with some enormous volume and loaded up the projector with personal slides of his travels. There’s a lot of academic namedropping and random incidental detail: Wittgenstein’s attachment to his backpack, in Austerlitz, Nabakov’s interest in catching butterflies, in The Emigrants. They often describe some trip or other, or a series of them, to rather un-exotic places, like Brussels or East London, and include photographs or diagrams of sites or landscapes, timetables, train tickets, or other such travel memorabilia. Such images appear mid text, as if the scrapbook or travelogue has been mangled with the academic essay, as if, James Elkins suggests in the catalogue, visual evidence were required as concrete evidence to back up the narrative, and assumed to fulfil this role adequately.

NSA/GCHQ Surveillance Base, Bude, Cornwall, UK, 2014. CCCB © La Fotogràfica, 2015

Art shows about ‘great’ literary figures and their books tend to piece together lengthy extracts and biographical detail, to impose on us – via tenuous life-fiction connections – someone else’s imaginings of a literary world. Sebald Variations, curated by the Catalan writer Jorge Carrión, pays much more heed to the artists chosen: an international, well-established bunch, the majority of whom seem to be from the Americas.

Wandering and Wondering

The show deals with methods, processes, journeys, maps, research and the display of it through personal narratives that challenge collective histories; that is, what we generally assume to be true. The relationship between artists, and artists and writer, are uneasy ones, as if they’re all packed together into the same metaphoric metro, criss-crossing the hazy space between truth and fiction, questioning the veracity of image and text alone or together.
Artists are often going places, yet the notion of progress or purpose to their journeys is subverted: Mariana Castilla Deball has gone back in time, methodically displaying her collection of old German train tickets and timetables. Andrea Geyer screens her granny’s travel pics from the 1940s. The men, for some reason, are more physically dynamic: Simon Faithfull enacts an exhausting pilgrimage along the Greenwich Meridian, scaling fences and ending up in the North Sea; Guido van der Werve embarks on a gruelling triathlon inspired by some puzzling connection made between Alexander the Great and the composer Frédérick Chopin; Jeremy Wood prints a shimmering explosion of luminescent trails on black silk, evidence of hundreds of trips across London recorded on his GPS.

Jeremy Wood, My Ghost, 2015. CCCB © La Fotogràfica, 2015

As a psychiatrist I sat next to on a recent plane trip from Berlin to Barcelona advised: ‘Don’t go looking for things expecting to find them.’ This is a show about broken connections, in which established ways and means are vigorously tried, tested… and fail. Meanings unravel, truth dissipates, facts fragment and we are left in a state of wandering, wondering, or both things. The artwork may not inform or even reflect on Sebald’s work so much as mirror his methods, echo a motif, or reference him in a footnote. Carlos Amorales’ spectacular swarm of black paper butterflies that sweep you in through the CCCB’s vast foyer was inspired by his own granny, only later did the artist realise that the butterfly motif appears more than once (but not quite in these numbers) in Sebald’s books.

Black Cloud, 2007. CCCB © La Fotogràfica, 2015

The second time I saw the show there was only one other visitor there. Just near the entrance, a middle-aged man in a grey suit was tugging at the wing of one of Amorales’ butterflies, right beside a sign prohibiting it. I noticed him again inside, dutifully reading the captions before looking at the artworks: peering at the postcards testifying to decades of a pen pal relationship between the author and the German artist Jan Peter Tripp, pausing at Josiah McElheny’s colour-stained slides, at Trevor Paglen’s blighted landscapes, in which the archetypal beauty of the Cornish coast is troubled by the presence of NSA surveillance equipment. I watched him methodically progress through Taryn Simon’s portraits of absence/presence/absence, documenting the Indian government’s official denial of the existence of one of its citizens – and several members of his family. And he was the only other person seated in the auditorium at the end, watching, from the back row, a Q&A session with Sebald, recorded in New York just months before his death in a car crash at the age of 56.

Sebald Variations / Las Variaciones de Sebald
until July 26th 2015
CCCB – Barcelona
all images copyright the artist/cccb