A search for sensory experiences
The French writer Marcel Proust described in a now famous scene how the sensation of scent and taste can bring the past to life. While biting into a Madeleine cake dipped in lime-blossom tea, the narrator of the story suddenly relives a moment from his youth. The past is suddenly vivid, clearly delineated – experienced as extremely intense and pleasurable.
The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, one of the founders of modern cultural history, introduced another experience, the notion of ‘historical sensation’. Through objects of the past, especially everyday ones, ‘historical contact’ can occur. A feeling of stepping outside one’s self can be brought about by an old and preferably worn object.
These two phenomena, described by Proust and Huizinga around hundred years ago, have a lot in common. They occur unexpectedly and give the impression of being first-hand real experiences. In both cases, the event is accompanied by delight. This sense of happiness seems to be related to a mental shift in time and space. Proust experiences his faded memories again; Huizinga goes a step further, he is carried away to a time outside his own existence.
Still, what does pleasure experienced as surprise actually have to do with art? We can’t create these sensations, we can only be open to them when they occur. To me art is, among other things, a search for moments like these. How do they come about? What conditions and circumstances are necessary? Huizinga saw it as a museum’s task to make experiences like these possible. Is this asking too much? Or perhaps a museum setting actually prevents this from happening?
Antique textiles continue to play an important role in my own photographic work. Textiles are unique because both the maker and the user are intimately involved with the material – woven by hand with great care and literally worn close to the skin.
I also experienced a sensation new to me when I tried on a pair of my mother’s mittens shortly after her death. She had used a traditional technique to make them: first she ‘crocheted’ loosely spun wool, then she wet it with soapy water and rubbed it until it turned to felt. This technique is also so magical because the mittens are worn during the felting process. They completely take on the shape of the hand. My mother was proud of what she had made and wore these mittens all the time. When they passed to me after she died, I washed them and pulled them on, still wet. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of my mother’s hands, lifelike, as if my hands were hers. Due to this fortuitous and incredible sensory encounter, these mittens took on a different meaning. They are no longer just a tattered object, but a valuable one to be held on to and cherished.
This experience brought to mind the Patron Saint of photographers, Veronica. A story is told that when Jesus was on his way to being crucified she wiped the blood and sweat from his face with her veil. (Sixth Station of the Cross) A likeness of Christ was then left in the piece of cloth. A soiled rag became a ‘true image’ and was cherished and revered as such.
The name ‘Veronica’ is derived from a combination of the Latin word Vera, meaning truth, and the Greek word Icon, meaning ‘image’; the Veil of Veronica was therefore largely regarded in medieval times as ‘the true image’, and the truthful representation of Jesus.
This article was first published in Dutch in december 2014.