A Poorly Remembered Childhood - David Boyce

 When he was thus engaged he generally wore glasses with grey silk tissue instead of lenses in the frames, so that the landscape appeared through a fine veil that muted its colours, and the weight of the world dissolved before your eyes.

-W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz.

W.G. Sebald’s fictional character Jacques Austerlitz describes Great Uncle Alphonso’s technique of distorting his vision to paint watercolours of the landscape around him.  Austerlitz’s recollections are written vividly, the memories flowing so seamlessly, interspersed with details of actual events and city streets, buildings and other places that it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to separate the fictional from the real.  Reinforcing this sense of reality are photographs, uncredited and untitled, that appear intermittently throughout the text, the small, unassuming images seemingly endorsing the authenticity of Austerlitz and his memories.  The novel Austerlitz draws attention to the instinctive and perhaps misplaced trust that we place in photographs, above all other forms of aide-memoires, to help us recall the past. 

David Boyce’s series of images created in the form of small format contact prints are used to evoke the complex mechanisms of childhood memory recalled from the distance of adulthood.  These deliberately blurred images emphasize the impossibility of perfect recall and how the original events remain locked in the past, thwarting any attempt to bring them back.  The photographs suggest the difficulties of trying to remember how something looked and felt, of trying to bring yourself back to another time and place. Returning to his native New Zealand, A Poorly Remembered Childhood revisits significant places within the artist’s memories of childhood and questions the extent to which memories are the recollection of real events, or are the result of false recall, prompted perhaps by someone’s insistence that we were once there, or, are in the words of the artist things that we think we remember ‘because they are meant to be important’.

On viewing these small, ambiguous landscapes, one is immediately struck at how light is as essential to the evocation of memory as are smells, sounds or words.  Boyce’s photographs are filled with light, from the warm, golden light of a late afternoon, to the winter light of an overcast day, dissolving and transforming solid forms into muted colours.  As though viewed through Sebald’s grey gauze, the blurred landscapes convey a contemplative stillness and ambiguity.  The series is made up exclusively of photographs of public places and open spaces, some referencing the collective past, the Western tradition of monuments to the dead, another form of memory.  Curiously, images of interiors and the domestic past are absent, blind spots within the artist’s vision of which he was unaware until after the series had been created, yet they inadvertently attest to his deliberate desire to impose distances between himself, the viewer and the past.   Whilst the photographs that appear in Austerlitzseem to confer a convincing sense of reality, the photographs within A Poorly Remembered Childhood have the opposite effect, creating an air of ambiguity and unreality, suggesting the imperfection of memory and how despite our desire to protect and maintain our recollections, the past will always be lost.

Davina Lee

© Davina Lee 2009