Sara Davidmann, “Ken. To be destroyed” (2016)

In her feedback for Assignment 2, my tutor recommended that I look at this book and, if possible, visit a pending Exhibition at the London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle. I have divided this blogpost into sections which follow the ways in which I approached and understood the work. I knew about the “Ken’ project already from reading a Photoparley blog in June last year . I have read other articles since but, originally, the Photoparley blog gave me the information I needed as to Sara Davidmann’s reasoning and motivations for revealing the story despite her mother’s instruction that the material should be destroyed.

Since 1999 Sara Davidmann has been involved in taking photographs, often over a number of years, in collaboration, with members of London’s ‘queer’ and transgender community and, since 2009, her work on ‘The Family’ has included her own family and family history. I see an early precursor of the  Ken project in her series of twelve photographs My Mother’s Notebooks   which were taken in the rooms where the notebooks were found – in fact Sara Davidmann refers to this in an illuminating 2013 interview with Jonathan Worth of phonar.org . There Davidmann talks of how she moved into photography from sculpture; her earlier work; what it means to her to work collaboratively and how the process developed for her as she attempted to redress the balance of power between photographer and subject. She also talks about the size of photographs for one series – 5’ in height to act like an ikon, for a transgender person to be seen as magnificent, and also much smaller 10”x8” so that the viewer has to step much closer and I saw this strategy used again when I visited the Exhibition subsequently.

The Book

Sara Davidmann worked with photographic historian and curator Val Williams to create the book and an accompanying exhibition and Williams wrote her own commentary on the archive (2016:24-30). Williams acknowledges and queries the gaps in the archive and why the papers were kept.The book is quite large (24cm x 32.5 cm in portrait aspect) and I quickly realised that it needed to be to contain the story and images that burst out from the pages. The front cover has a layered image – a woman’s figure in a 1950s dress, wearing gloves and holding a large handbag in front of her. All that can be seen of her head are her chin and bottom lip as the photograph has been cropped and laid against a larger image (looking to be of a similar scene) so that the top of a tree replaces her head.  For me, there are mixed messages in the title, reinforced by this front cover – Davidmann’s mother wanted the family to keep the secret she told them in 2005 and she later wrote the instruction to destroy the letters, yet she had kept them herself. Working through the book I also began to think that the title should perhaps have been “Hazel. To be destroyed” because, as the story unfolds therein, Hazel appears to be swamped by the energy and strength of Ken’s need to become a woman himself whilst keeping her as a wife; her own conflicting desires to end the marriage or to stay with him; and then Davidmann’s own urge to allow Ken to become ‘K’ by manipulating, de-constructing and re-constructing the photographs of Hazel.

The front cover opens onto marbled blue, rippled paper – a large detail of the inside of an envelope with ‘Ken’ handwritten thereon. I think that the structure of the contents with its thirteen different sections/chapters adds ‘punctuation’ to the narrative, allowing it to be revealed – mirroring a process of taking out the letters, unfolding and reading them. Following brief biographical details of the ‘players’ in this narrative and a wedding photograph Sara Davidmann introduces the story of the letters and photographs whilst clearly stating “They are a partial chronicle of the relationship between Ken and Hazel”.  (S. Davidmann 2016:09). We then turn to a 1953 photograph of Ken and his first letter introducing himself to Hazel. There are ten, numbered pages of this letter – covered with his handwriting and without side margins – full of information about himself, except for the information that overshadows their marriage.   A photograph of them at a ball, with Ken gazing intently at Hazel, is followed by a double page spread of a very enlarged extract from a typed letter (transcribed from a handwritten one written by Hazel in 1958 or 1959) containing the word “secret” (2016:16/17).

The story continues to be told through the letters, envelopes, cards written by Ken to Hazel and correspondence between Hazel and her sister, with her brother-in law becoming involved as well. As a reader I felt both pulled-in and repelled by the intensity of the letters and the enlarged details and repetition used by Davidmann – facsimiles of the letters (with some selected printed transcription towards the end of the book) and the detailed records which were maintained. Ken’s portrayed obsession with his progress was mirrored by Hazel and her sister and brother-in-law’s obsession with what was happening.

Sara Davidmann moved from re-photographing the photographs to physically engaging with their materiality, their marks and scratches as she examined them on her computer screen.

Looking at the enlarged photographs on screen reminded me of seeing things through the lens of a microscope – another way of looking, another way of seeing. These photographic details made me think about how we assume that what we see is all there is (2016:72)

She was particularly drawn to five photographs of Hazel from the 1950s and concluded that Ken probably wanted to be Hazel, to wear the clothes that she was wearing when he photographed her. Davidmann developed her examination of the photographs into experimenting with different ways of working with them – layering, painting, scratching and rubbing through. “I used collage and cut or tore and reconfigured the prints” (2016:72). She then wanted to visualise how Ken might have looked as a woman and did this by digitally combining photographs of him and Hazel., including a composite of the two of them together, both wearing Hazel’s wedding dress, to create ‘K’.

In addition to the work constructed around the archive; photographs were made of the stored archival material and here Davidman collaborated with photographer Graham Goldwater  .  These photographs are a counterpoint to the abandon of Davidmann’s  ‘Ken’ images earlier in the book. Piles of letters in envelopes, bound with string or yellow rubber bands are shown in almost forensic detail against a stark, white background 

The Exhibition Visit 7th March 2017

A teaser from the London College of Communication where the Exhibition was held during the Moose on the Loose Biennale of Research http://mooseontheloose.net   17th February to 26th March 2017. The Biennale was organised by the UAL Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC)

This gives a very good idea of the scope of the Exhibition and how it was presented. The larger than life size images of ‘K’/Ken on the back wall appear to be holding court over a long table which holds several copies of the book for perusal, whilst smaller images of ‘K’ and the archival material are in attendance on the two side walls. A darkened side room holds photographs of letter pages, with a video loop.

The Archive

After looking at the Exhibition we went to the UAL Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) to a Private View of the  Archive where we were greeted by Sara Davidmann and Val Williams.  I had been expecting to see the letters and other documents but this is an archive of the Project itself which has begun to be gathered together by Davidmann (who is still working with the material) and Williams.  Large scale annoted layout sheets for the book print were on the wall and we also saw some of the test prints from the Project and a handmade dummy book. We talked with typographer Alexander Cooper who has responded graphically to the Project in the form of a letterpress hand-bound book and I was also able to talk with Sara Davidmann who reassured me that the archival material is safely stored elsewhere.  We also talked about the nature of family archives and what happens to them and, after myself acquiring old photographs and letters through eBay,  I shared my own anxiety as to what will happen to my own archive of family photographs and letters in the future.

A Google Hangout

Subsequently I joined in a Google Hangout with three fellow students (Anna, Stephanie and John) where we discussed our individual responses based on looking at the book and/or attending the Exhibition. We touched on aspects such as how meeting the artist might affect attitudes toward the art; the physicality of an actual book; book layout and flow; photograph as object; the effect of an Exhibition and how/where it is presented and role/influence of a curator.

Some Conclusions

I am aware that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this Project; perhaps too much time; but it has had such a large impact on me, including a realisation of the amount of work, thinking and research that goes into a Project such as this.

The book had the greatest effect on me due to the richness of the content and context and I am very interested in the way in which Sara Davidmann controls the ebb and flow of the effect of her artistic process. She thought that this archival material was important, both as an illustration of family secrets and how they can inhabit the lives of family members but also as a means to both draw attention to the way in which being transgender  was dealt with in the 1950s and to raise awareness in the present day. In his Despotic post on the Project Lewis Bush points towards an aspect of an archive which holds a story of injustice or personal loss where someone working with it might feel the temptation to, ‘try and heal the wrongs of the past, if only by the act of allowing them to be witnessed and remembered by the present’, and he refers to Jules Michelet’s observation of the process being like raising from the sepulchre ‘as in the dance of death’. Bush links this with Derrida’s view of the archive as being a product of Freud’s death drive.

Whilst being clear that this is an incomplete archive and acknowledging her own artistic engagement, intervention and re-interpretation, Davidmann raises awareness whilst also telling the story of a relationship – well several relationships – a woman with her family; a woman with a man and vice versa and a man with himself.  It got me to thinking about how we choose partners – looking for an ideal other; someone just like us or someone who complements our gaps and inadequacies.  Ken’s need to reach out leaps from the pages of his letters, themselves contained within the pages of the book.  I imagine he was searching for his ideal self, a feminine alter ego; someone he wanted to be. I thought back to those sentences of Hazel, written in one of her letters to her sister, having encouraged Ken to  to be ‘the woman’ whenever he felt it necessary,  ‘E’ knew I was beginning to resent this woman who was taking my husband and was also taking my place as mistress of my own home……..I have noticed even as the man he has been jealous of me as a woman’ (2016: 53).  With her own work Davidmann gives Ken what he wanted – to become ‘K’ and, in doing so, figuratively obliterates Hazel as a person.

As mentioned above I felt sometime repelled by the intensity of the images, letters and story, as conveyed by Davidmann,, and I was relieved to read, Val Williams words, ‘Hazel becomes both appalling and powerless – serene and magnificent in her female-ness yet maimed and violated by an avalanche of chemicals’. (2016:27) as I had been concerned that I was over-reacting.  Having thought long and hard about my reaction I think there was a complicated psychological process going on for me on several levels. I was drawn into imagining what it must be like for Ken to believe and feel he was a woman whilst being within a man’s body and an identification with Hazel in realizing that not only were her expectations of a ‘husband’ not being met but that her status as a ‘wife’ and identity as a woman were under threat. Somehow or other, so far as we know, this tortuous process was resolved in that they stayed together.  [1]

 

References

Davidmann, S & Willliams, V  ( 2016  ) Ken. To be destroyed London, Schilt Publishing
http://mooseontheloose.net
https://phonar.org
https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2016/06/20/sara-davidmann/
http://saradavidmann.com/index.html
http://www.arts.ac.uk/lcc/people/technical-staff/graham-goldwater/
http://www.disphotic.com/ken-to-be-destroyed-by-sara-davidmann/
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/love-story-jan-morris-divorce-the-death-of-a-child-and-a-sex-change-but-still-together-839602.html
http://www.photographyresearchcentre.co.uk/what-we-do/moose-2017/the-ken-project-archive

_______________________________________________________________________

[1] . I am reminded here of the story of James Morris http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/love-story-jan-morris-divorce-the-death-of-a-child-and-a-sex-change-but-still-together-839602.html who remained living with the mother of his children after becoming Jan Morris in 1972, despite having to go through an amicable divorce for legal reasons and then, in 2008,  being able to re-marry in a civil ceremony.

 

Advertisements

13 comments

  1. Such a wide research Catherine, I understand why it took you long, but you should embrace this way you tend to do research – immersing, digesting, synthesizing. Each time you go deep into what you are looking at, and you emerge from it with so much perspective, like you did with all your reading about the archive.

    Like

    1. it was one of those occasions where I had to dig deeper so that I could understand why I felt such a reaction. I kept thinking of the way in which Sara Davidmann almost gave birth to ‘K’ – like a strange butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

      This is certainly not the first time it’s happened but I was concerned about the amount of time I was spending on this.Something has settled for me though, plus another response was that I went out with my camera as a release and to respond to what I saw there.

      Now to return to Part 3!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very comprehensive reflection on the work, Catherine, and has many, many layers. I particularly like the other critical voices you have explored in your research because it gives a superb contextual quality to your review of the work. Thanks – it is really inspiring.

    Like

    1. Thank you Anna. I also did quite a lot of reading around transgender issues but decided to focus upon the work itself and how Sara Davidmann achieved her aims. I think her work is brilliant in how she weaves memory, history and ongoing responses together and the fact that this is her own family adds deeper resonance.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed this post. As I read it I found I kept stopping and looking some more at pages on Sara Davidmann’s site and then thinking about hidden histories/experiences both my own and mum and dad’s and my re-reading his letters to mum when courting. I also thought about your post when you revisited your childhood home and commented on the continuities (few) and changes (many).

    Thanks.

    Like

    1. I’m pleased you enjoyed reading the post Pete and that it reminded you of other hidden histories. It’s only since doing this Course that I’ve realised how truth and memories can be so slippery.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I saw this being discussed I think at the Tate last year. I was overawed by it and am really sorry to have missed the visit you went on. I will try to find what I wrote about it. I am struck by the thing you said about being drawn in and repelled at once. The chapter of Hal Foster’s book which I am currently obsessing about discusses this sense of splitting at length, and one of the phrases I keep going back to (there are many and I am still re-reading this fantastic chapter) is this: ” a moral splitting, the paradox of disgust undercut by fascination, or of sympathy undercut by sadism; and a splitting of the body image, the ecstasy of dispersal rescued by armouring , or the fantasy of disembodiment dispelled by abjection.” This thing that postmodern art does is really worth exploring a great deal. And questioning ethics is very much ‘now’ I think. You start by saying her mother asked her not to use the material and yet she did and found a way to justify her use of it. It’s phenomenal work, it really is, but those mixed feelings and responses are so important. Perhaps, in the end, what the work is exploring more than anything else? Betrayal, ethics, trust, etc. I’m not sure… really interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Project is ongoing so maybe there’ll be another book and Exhibition. There are so many issues raised, especially when looked at within the context of Sara Davidmann’s previous work.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think this post thoroughly exemplifies what art can do, it’s ability to open up internal and external narratives about our place in this world. And especially poignant for me is your own journey with the work, as Stephanie suggests your drive to understand your own reaction to the work makes the reading of it that much more satisfying as revelatory. You are an example to us all.

    Like

    1. It seems to be my pattern that the more I feel challenged by a work, the more I research and feel overwhelmed but then I come to a resolution as to what’s going on for me psychologically. I think if I had just seen the work online and visited the Exhibition I would probably not have had the same reaction. It was the book that drew me into a different zone – becoming involved in the way Sara Davidmann developed the story and came to her own resolution. Amongst so many other aspects it also shows how important it is for an artist to keep on experimenting.

      Like

  6. This is a complex but engaging story Catherine. I can understand how it has occupied your time for so long. I have only skimmed through your post this morning but already I have picked up how meticulous your research has been.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s