Text by: Professor Efrat Tseëlon, University of Leeds.
‘Home’ according to the OED is ‘a dwelling place; a person’s house or abode; the fixed residence of a family or household; the seat of domestic life and interests’. But beyond a physical structure it is also ‘the place where one lives or was brought up, with the reference to the feelings or belonging, comfort etc’
The trajectory of the interior as a source of individuality and as a repository of individual memories, frames the context of the Berzon MacKie’s exhibition. Her exhibition entitled ‘The House’ documents a memory journey. She returns to her family home in London that she had left when her parents emigrated many years ago, following the death of her aunt who was its last inhabitant. The memory storehouse that a ‘family home’ usually hold is bittersweet. It is an archive of memories of absence, of her mum who died from an illness soon after they emigrated, of her grandmother who passed away some 15 years ago, and of her aunt who died 2 years ago. It is also an archive of memories of presence, of a happy childhood of Sofie and her brother and two sisters. Having remained intact all those years, like a time capsule, both in terms of décor, layout, and the positioning of the furniture, the house that her grandmother moved to 70 years ago had acquired a museum quality, to which the family deferred, so no one dared to change it at all. Thus it preserved the spirit of the family who inhabited it in an almost tangible way.
The death of Sofie’s aunt disrupted the utopian domesticity, and signalled to her that she had to document the house now, since it would soon be emptied. Coming to the house to take her leave, she could also reconnect with her past. Apart from the visual traces of rooms, furnishings and objects, the house held memories of touch and smell, the noises it makes, the winter light through the windows, and its refractions. And as Barthes observed in Camera Lucida the camera registers at the same time the presence and the past. It testifies that something has-indeed-been in existence, but also that it had-already-passed. In fact, as Barthes notes, ‘a photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (1981, p. 4). Sofie’s attempt to recreate her childhood led her into two routes, blending a number of genres. One route was of capturing the spirit of the domestic space through atmospheric photographs in the tradition of the Flemish painters’ Genre painting depicting scenes from everyday life. Rooms and parts of rooms were photographed in black and white long shots. The photographic angle used for most of the images is not the generally frontal view, which encompasses an entire wall of the room. Rather, Berzon MacKie often used close-up shots centering upon furniture or décor detail as one would on a figure in a portrait.
While the photographsof interiors are figureless, traces of the inhabitants are clearly visible giving the appearance of interrupted existences: The creases of the duvet cover, and the clothes that are hung out to dry on a Victorian ceiling pulley drying rack, books andpapers are scattered over a desk where the chair is pulled out as ifsomeone could sit in it, the electric heater is plugged in, a cup on the table, a stack of bedding on an armchair, pictures hanging above the staircase are slightly unaligned – all are silent witnesses to a living presence.
The other route was by excavating everyday small objects, reminiscent of childhood memories, and shooting them individually in colour and sharp images in the tradition of still life, then arranging them into a collage. Her series of domestic interior contextual photos are counterpointed by a selection of photos of stand-alone objects. The objects are almost a random selection of fragments of ‘everyday life’ of the child that she was. Printed as 25×25 cm images, they appear to be objects, and yet, like in Magritte’s famous 1929 picture The treachery of images– they are not the objects themselves. What contributes to their perception as ‘objects’ is their presentation. Objects of personal appearance like a lace kerchief, hairbrush, ballet shoes, pendant charm as well as a toy, a book, a photo, and a hand-written memorial poem were laid on soft dark brown velvety fabric as if they are items of precious jewellery and photographed that way. Treating them with special care signals their priceless value despite their ordinariness, as receptacles of the memories they contain, the homesickness. Her contextual photos create a theatre of interrelated elements which recreate the charm of the house that was home to 3 generations of her family for nearly a century. The de-contextualized photos are not significant in themselves but they create meaning by virtue of what Meyerowitz defined as ‘the tacit relationship, unspoken connection between objects thrown together’.
The ‘miniature’ and the ‘gigantic’
Berzon MacKie manages to combine what Stewart refers to as the ‘miniature’ and the ‘gigantic’. The ‘Miniature’ – ‘Gigantic’ dimension provides an imaginary space which links viewing with contemplation and speculation. ‘Miniature’ and the ‘Gigantic’ become abstract metaphors of containment; private and public, unofficial and authorized, separate and social. This she achieves by a careful construction of her shots to include a play of lights and mirrors. The miniature is part of the intimate experience of the individual: the home, rooms, soft furnishings, clothes, cupboards and drawers, and books (Hunt, this volume). The gigantic belongs to the social realm of experience, devoid of the intimate quality of personal acquaintance with the individual. Berzon MacKie’s work transforms the house, which is a ‘miniature’ space into a hybrid space of both the miniature and the gigantic. This she achieves by the combined styles of large-scale (rooms) small-scale (memory objects) but also through the use of light and mirrors in the monochrome images that evokes a personal emotion at the same time that it adds an allegorical layer.