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Many thanks to Emese Krunák-Hajagos for doing this interview and giving me permission to repost. The interview was originally posted by artoronto.ca in April 2015. 

Emese Krunák-Hajagos (EKH): Your show Everything Will Be Forgotten is about the past, your mother and your child-self.  Why did you decide to dedicate a whole exhibition to that theme?

Frank Rodick (FR): It’s because that’s my most recent work and I’ve never shown it in Canada. I did this work – in particular the portraits of my mother – in response to my mother’s death in 2010. What compelled me most were her life, her death and our relationship. As for the self-portraits – and there are self-portraits of myself as both an adult and as a child – they followed, I suppose, because of this reflective frame of mind. The death of a parent – especially one’s last surviving parent – is a seminal event for most people and it gets you thinking, more and perhaps differently, about your own life. Fates cooperated because I found a lot of old photographs and documents in family archives.

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97532, no. 1 (death of Frances Rodick)
© Frank Rodick, 2011

EKH: In Parade in Petticoat Lane your young mother seems to be walking down Memory Lane with a small wicker basket in her hand. She could be in any old European city but the blind musician hints at an American one. Why did you choose those elements for this photomontage?

FR: This image is based on an old photograph taken by my father in 1952. My parents really were in London’s Petticoat Lane according to what’s written on the back of the photograph. It’s a great picture, the best photo my father – an amateur photographer – ever did. All the figures are in the original photograph: my mother, the woman behind her, the veteran with medals and the chained monkey on his shoulder, and the blind musician. It’s really brilliant on its own. What I did was transform

…when it comes to knowing the world, knowing each other, knowing ourselves, we’re all far more blind than we are sighted.

the image, push and pull it into the shape I wanted it to have. So I injected formal elements like the colours (the original is black and white), the over- and underlaid textures. I scratched over the monkey. I exaggerated and de-emphasized things like facial features: eyes, the shapes of mouths. The little changes – that when you put them all together can mean a radical changing of the overall image – are a version of what R Crumb called cheating – little things you do to push the image in the direction you want.

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Parade in Petticoat Lane (my mother holds her basket)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

When I look at it I feel like the image is a fantastic harvest of humanity as well as part of my mother’s story. There are these tragic characters: the veteran, the blind trumpet player, and that sad chained monkey looking down. The monkey is my favourite; he slays me with his pathos. There’s the woman behind my mother who towers above her with this knowing, ominous look directly at the viewer. And there’s my mother, also looking into the camera, with what’s to me an almost mystified look, a deer in the headlights. For me, it speaks to her anxieties about life and her future – that the world would be too much for her, that its unyielding, violent reality would overtake and crush her. It’s like an apocalypse of the everyday, a sad and dark carnival.

EKH: All the images are touched up and aged. They look even older than their historical time would insist, almost daguerreotype like. Why?

FR: My intention in manipulating the images isn’t to make them look more aged. What I’m trying to do is make the image represent something more real to me, not less. More real as an expression of something passed through my subjective self. I often quote Céline, who is maybe my favourite twentieth century writer. Céline said he wanted to create hallucinations that were more real than everyday life and carry the reader to a deeper and more compelling subjective and personal reality. I get that completely.

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Portrait, Frances Rodick (red pearls)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

EKH: Your mother was truly beautiful but in many of her portraits her face is destroyed. It reminds me of the damage that sometimes resulted when the glass plate photographers used got dirt stuck on it or some acid ran on it. It looks like something similar happened to the photos of your mother’s face. The image appears cut or eroded by acids or smashed by some dirt and these attacks wiped off her identity (Portrait, Frances Rodick series). What did you intend to express with this method?

FR: There are a number of things going on simultaneously here for me. What I do is I just start trying a lot of things and seeing what they look like, and those things that appeal to me visually, well, I work with those some more.

©Frank Rodick, 2012 Archival pigment print 100 H x 81 W cm / 40 x 32 in

Portrait, Frances Rodick (stone-blind)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

When I look at the obfuscations on my mother’s face I see different things. There’s the damage of Alzheimer’s disease, which is something my mother lived with longer than any human should: well over 15 years. That’s a disease is a personality destroyer. There’s the damage caused by not only her experiences but also the way I think she internalized some of those experiences, how she processed her hardships and also the hardships of others, in particular, the personal consequences of anti-Semitism,which, of course, found its ultimate expression in the Nazi extermination. There’s also the obfuscation caused by my

I just make pictures. I make pictures to flesh out my personal obsessions and ruminations, to amuse myself, to have something to do that doesn’t bore me and doesn’t feel like a waste of time, to do something rather than nothing, sometimes to share something of myself with others, sometimes to scratch a nasty itch. What other people choose to do with the things I make isn’t up to me.

own perceptions and memories, which “get in the way,” carry their own blockages and blind alleys, and prevent me from knowing her, just as they get in the way of anyone knowing anyone else. That obfuscation runs two ways – it runs from my own self to my mother, just as it ran from my mother out into the world. I mean, really, when it comes to knowing the world, knowing each other, knowing ourselves, we’re all far more blind than we are sighted. That’s the reality that I see. Another point about the markings over my mother’s face: I think they’re an expression of my anger, which, sadly, is a tendency I share with my mother, although our respective angers expressed themselves differently and in different directions.

Portrait, Frances Rodick (you must console me)
© Frank Rodick, 2012

EKH: The other day we ran to each other at Starbucks and you mentioned that your work is currently on display at the Baltic Biennale of Photography in Kaliningrad and there is “trouble” around it. It touched a nerve of a politician who wants to remove your pieces, as he finds your depiction of your mother in that way “disrespectful”. I don’t think it has anything to do with your mother. It is a very expressive montage that addresses suffering. Death is one thing, suffering is another. Middle Europeans know suffering too well, its stages, the distortions it can make to their faces. People may relate to your works there in many different levels. There is a layered meaning in them, and a very strong one. I am sure people in Kaliningrad who go and see your photographs appreciate them more than you can imagine. Art is a political act there. Are you aware of the possibilities of different interpretations of your work? How do you feel about it?

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Portrait, Frances Rodick (from left to right: Sex; disposal; time)
© Frank Rodick, 2012
Installation view from the Baltic Biennale of Photography in Kaliningrad, April 2015.
Photo: Dmitry Kuryshev. Courtesy of the artist.

FR: The problem in Kaliningrad has to do with politics and religion. Of course, I totally accept that there will be different interpretations of my work. Subjectivity’s inherent to the whole thing. I’ve always said that the longer view of the creative act winds up being a fusion between three elements: the artist, the artwork, and the audience that interprets the work. That fusion

I don’t see my view as dark. It’s the world that’s dark. Not always, but when it is, and when it slams into you and yours, it’s transformative. I often think other people spend an awful lot of time and energy kidding themselves about the world, about other people, and about themselves. Sometimes I wonder how they live with that, especially when a crack in the carapace starts opening up.

is dynamic, largely because of the changing audience, and the changing experience of the audience. No problem there at all. In fact, I can find it very exciting when I hear interpretations of my work that I didn’t expect. When I showed my early work, Liquid City, in Latin America, the Argentines would often interpret it in light of their own recent history. They’d talk about the similarities between the blurred, anonymous figures in Liquid City and their own tragic Desaparecidos, those people murdered anonymously en masse in Argentina’s Dirty War. Obviously, that wasn’t my intention in creating the work, but that doesn’t mean the interpretation wasn’t insightful, interesting, or ultimately valid. It was all of those things, and those people did me the generous honour of taking the time to place my work closely next to their own intimate experiences.

What I object to is careless, lazy, cynical, or pig-headed interpretation. That is, you have people who can barely be bothered to look, never mind think or feel, before they start talking about the work. Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do about it.

I just make pictures. I make pictures to flesh out my personal obsessions and ruminations, to amuse myself, to have something to do that doesn’t bore me and doesn’t feel like a waste of time, to do something rather than nothing, sometimes to share something of myself with others, sometimes to scratch a nasty itch. What other people choose to do with the things I make isn’t up to me.

EKH: Your childhood, grotto like, images are very disturbing. They all pose a young boy’s body without limbs, mutilated (Everything Will Be Forgotten, self-portrait as child series). Why? Didn’t you have a happy childhood?

FR: There were times I remember as happy. When a person suffers greatly, that suffering is often visited upon their children in some way. Perhaps not every single time, but usually – it depends a great deal on how the parent deals with their own suffering. And when there’s a background of historical trauma, this pain carries a cross-generational quality that can take generations to burn itself out.

I’ll tell you something I’m grateful for. Whatever the suffering I endured, I at least had some of the resources – whether they be external or internal – to try to make something out of that suffering that, I hope, isn’t destructive. My mother didn’t have the resources I had.

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L: Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 1.2)
R: Everything Will Be Forgotten (self-portrait as child, no. 2.1)
© Frank Rodick, 2014

EKH: There is so much pain and suffering in your photographs. As Nancy Brokaw said in her essay about your work, Sex, Death and Videotape, “I take one look and ask Do I really want these images lodged in my brain? Once you’ve crossed over into the mysteries of life and death, can you get a return ticket?” Why is your view so dark? How can you live with your images?

FR: I don’t see my view as dark. It’s the world that’s dark. Not always, but when it is, and when it slams into you and yours, it’s transformative. I often think other people spend an awful lot of time and energy kidding themselves about the world, about other people, and about themselves. Sometimes I wonder how they live with that, especially when a crack in the carapace starts opening up. There are times when one gets a little more closely acquainted with reality’s cudgel and, after that, I’m sure the world’s never quite the same place. That’s the part where there’s no return ticket.

Mostly, I live with my images just fine — better than I live with the world around me if you really want to know. As for the pictures, here’s what I think and don’t think. I don’t think they’re the result of compromise, or other people’s opinions. They’re not hand-me-downs, pleas for acceptance, or chips in a game where I’m trying to get ahead. They’re not propped up with a wink and a smile. They feel like they’re mine. And in this world, how many things feel like they actually belong to you? There’s comfort there.

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Three Studies for a Mouth (Explorations in statecraft, love, and the passing of woes)
© Frank Rodick, 2010

www.frankrodick.com

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97532: Memento Mori

April 30, 2015 — 2 Comments

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida begins with a poignant memorialization of his mother, as remembered through her photograph…. And Jacques Derrida’s posthumous Athens, Still Remains, a travel memoir accompanied by the photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, begins with the mystical phrase “We owe ourselves to death.” For Barthes and Derrida, photography was a medium of suspended mortality—every photograph a memento mori.

— Josh Jones, “The Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein”

Here’s what I remember. I was standing in line, waiting to board the Porter Airlines plane headed for Montreal. My mother lived in that lovely city, as she had for 91 years. Three hours earlier I’d received a phone call: a female voice from the nursing home told me she was dying and wouldn’t survive the night. I remember feeling at a loss, but not for the reasons you might expect. My mother – her name was Frances – had lived years longer than we ever expected despite severe illness and disability. How could anyone be that certain she wouldn’t survive the next twelve hours?

I was naïve—these people know their business. I shuffled forward in line, my phone buzzed, and I heard another female voice: it said she was dead. It was a few minutes past 9 pm, June 15th, 2010.

Two hours later, after a short flight and a taxi ride, I climbed the steps to Maimonides Geriatric Centre. Late nights in hospitals are different from visiting hours. Things are still, except for the odd uniformed figure moving with purpose. Once in a while you hear elevator doors open and close, but you can also hear the white noise swishing alongside the thoughts in your head.

A nurse took me to my mother’s room. Her small body lay on the bed under a thin white covering, every thing bathed in a fluorescent glow reflecting off pastel green walls. A garbage bag lay in a heap next to the bed, with my mother’s belongings inside: some clothes, a tiny pair of tennis shoes. My mother’s head was bound with a piece of fabric that ran under her jaw and over the top of her head. They do that, I’m told, to keep the jaw from slacking open. When my father died six years before, they didn’t and his mouth gaped open like he’d expelled his soul in one last act. Still, the photographs would show that even with the fabric, my mother’s lips, once so full but now thinned by time, were slightly parted. You could see a few skewed teeth, yellowed and worn down.

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97532, no. 1
© Frank Rodick, 2011

I waited a long time for my mother to die. That sounds harsh, but it doesn’t matter anymore. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease, which is common enough these days. But that doesn’t make it less awful. Frances had Alzheimer’s for more than fifteen years, a long time for that illness to do its all its dirt. She hadn’t recognized me in six years. She’d asked me once if she’d ever had a child. She’d forgotten years ago whether she’d had a husband, which she did, for 58 years. The parts of her brain that gave her speech were gone, and the closest she came to communicating was opening her eyelids and, looking down, slowly moving those dull, watery eyes from side to side.

As well as Alzheimer’s, my mother had Parkinson’s disease. Sometimes she shook so hare that the nurses were afraid her tinto splintery bones would break. She hadn’t taken a step in seven years, lifted by the hands of strangers from bed to wheelchair, and then wheeled to a common room where a TV murmured at low volume and others like her didn’t watch. Then back to bed.

And yes, she shit herself regularly. A few years back—at one of those hellish family/staff meetings where the topic of discussion is the purgatory of someone’s  charge—a nurse told me, with a cheerfulness I can’t fathom to this day, that my mother would play with her feces. Measures had been taken to stop that kind of thing. That might have explained one of those 7 a.m. phone calls I’d receive, like the one asking my permission to place her in a special diaper, a contraption that somehow fell legally under the classification of a restraint. I said yes.

・・・・・

About the photographs: That night of June 15th, I carried with me a little Canon camera, which at the time was all I used for digital photography. It’s what I used to take the photographs that a year later became the images I titled 97532, no. 1 and 97532, no. 2.

Something came up recently at one of my exhibitions overseas where a number of public figures declared that my photographs were disrespectful (I may be putting their disdain mildly), that I had, as they say, gone too far. Here’s what I think. I don’t think these images are reverential but I don’t think they’re derisive either. They’re pictures I made of my mother’s body when she was dead. I knew when I walked into that hospital room that I’d never have another opportunity to take the pictures I’d snap off in the next ten minutes of my life. I did the same when my father died in 2004.

I read once that the problem with being an artist is that everything is material. Whether it’s a problem or not, I don’t know. But the death of a parent is usually a big thing to someone. And, yes, big things are material.

・・・・・

A year before my mother died, I read this, by Julian Barnes:

. . . the death of a parent you love is in many ways simpler than the death of a parent you hate or to who you are indifferent. Love, loss, mourning, remembering — we all know the scheme. But what is the scheme when this is not the case, when the parent is not loved? A tranquil forgetting? I think not. Imagine the situation of someone . . . who realizes that for all his life as an adult, and for many years before that as well, he has lived without knowing what it is like to love a parent. You will reply that this is not so extraordinary, not so uncommon, and I will reply that this does not make it more easy.

Rereading what Barnes said helped me. (Art’s most generous gift: the feeling that you’re not alone, even when you really are.) Whatever life my mother and I shared, we mostly wasted. There were moments when a few of our serrated feelings for each other alined to include something you might call love. (What an impoverished word for something so nebulous and strange and indefinable. And difficult.) But if I resist embellishing, I’d say that rarely happened. And even now I feel sadder than I expected saying this –  this years later, and at an age when I’m ashamed to have that feeling. If I read Barnes’ words with a certain frame of mind, I can even feel teary. I’m ashamed of that too.

Did this deficiency of love make it easier for me to make these pictures? Yes, it did.

The complicated entanglement of feelings finds its way into this picture and also the others I made about my mother’s life and death. I’m not going to say much more about that because I don’t feel like it right now and because I’ve spoken of it elsewhere. And because I feel like the pictures might not only say things better than I can—they might even, somehow, know things I don’t.

・・・・・

The “97532” in the title comes from the reference number on my mother’s death certificate. It’s not the entire number but a truncated version, shortened because I thought it made the title less unwieldy. As it turns out, the number isn’t only truncated. It’s wrong. A couple of months after I finished the image, I fould her death certificate again and saw that I’d incorrectly remembered the real numbers. I was so sure I’d committed the whole number to memory – how does one forget something like that, especially when you’re obsessive about details like I am? But I did get it wrong.

I left the title, 97532, as it is. Because it reminded me—and reminds me still—that memory is a devious storyteller. It reminds me of all the other things I’ve probably got wrong. And it stands as a small memento—a memento of how our great stumbling between the immensities is just a brief trip through fog and mirrors.

www.frankrodick.com