a thesis by Angie Nam '19
My grandmother passed away in early December 2018, but I was able to spend the last three months of summer with her, share her experience as a patient suffering from dementia, and record her last moments and words through photographs and writings. While watching dementia brutally tear down her existence, leaving only vague traces, and causing consequential death, I became curious about vanishing visuals and traces leftover from the fragmentation of memory. All the fragments of her memories are the traces that my grandmother had lived, components that had accumulated to form her, and parts that defined her. Vestige is an installation of a visual diary comprising a series of portraits, texts, snapshots, and photographs from a family album. It explores the ideas of personal loss, erasure, absence, and the correlation between fleeting memory and an image-making process that captures a transitory moment. Each part of the project can exist individually, yet the group as a whole resonates with each other and becomes a response to my complex feelings of curiosity and fear of forgetfulness and of being erased from the memory of someone I knew intimately.
While watching my grandmother lose herself due to dementia, I decided to take a portrait of her in the hospital every time I visited as one of the ways to remember her as she was going through her last moments. In Vestige, a series of photographs filled with repeated gestures and dominant beige skin tone with a hint of purplish bruising from injections serves as a metaphor for personal suffering and mental agony. Even though all portraits in Vestige never fully expose my grandmother’s face, they delineate fragments of her life, her pain, and what she had gone through. Furthermore, the portraits of my grandmother are not only a documentation of her in the hospital, but rather, a series of shots focusing on her skin texture, complexion, and certain gestures, forming poignant images representing the deterioration of her body, aging, and the insecurity of losing herself.
During my regular visits to see my grandmother in the hospital, she tried to talk about certain incidents, and feelings that flashed through her mind. Even though it was not clear what she was describing, I unwittingly related her words to images in my memory and decided to take photographs in response to her talk and bring prints to her. Bringing images in response to my grandmother’s words every week was the way I communicated with her. The text in my work is not a direct description of my images, but rather a poetic narrative, which serves to stimulate the audience and make them curious about the words and phrases with no given context at all. While the subjects and incidents that are absent due to memory loss are restored through my responsive images, the unstructured words without any punctuation or capitalization refer to the insecurity and destruction of oneself due to illness.
After my last visit to my grandmother, all of the portraits, narratives, and responsive images created from June to August became a book called Dear. As part of Vestige, my photobook, which incorporates text and image, not only illustrates an intimate relationship between grandmother and granddaughter, but it also becomes a diary of these two people: my grandmother, who was close to death at the time, and me, watching her suffer and slowly degenerate.
Exploring the idea of memory deprivation encouraged me to think about absence and loss. Analogous to memory, which is an ephemeral and intangible illustration of absence, a photograph is a physical illustration of absence. Both are the presence of an absence and always about something forever lost. After thinking about the idea of loss in photographs and memories, the hundreds of images in family album, including celebratory and mundane moments, become not just an archive, but a sentimental collection of absence and the physical presence of memory composed of moments that have already vanished from my mind. As part of exploration of visualizing memory loss, I started to erase the printed pigment of the photographs from my family album, leaving only traces. While incorporating the idea of nostalgia, new, unstable visuals emphasizing the fragility of memories are created during the process of losing and accumulating, which is similar to the process of losing memory. For me, the process of losing memory is not only about erasing or destroying but also about replacing, refilling, and remaining. The language of sanding images containing memories is aggressive and brutal, yet through the action of scratching away images of myself and my grandmother’s memories, I could face the intense emotions of fear and grief brought by being removed from someone with whom I am intimate and this ritual became the way I let my grandmother go.
Having grown up in Korea, I have been involved in various traditional ceremonies relating to birth and death, even though death is usually considered as a negative thing in Korean culture. When a baby is born, people in Korea thank the goddess in the sky, and when one passes away, we usually bury the body in the dirt, but we often believe that the deceased goes back to the sky by same goddess. As part of the project, I created an ethereal and emotional space depicting the ideas of loss, death and the circulation of life by incorporating the sky and dirt. In the installation, I printed a 340-inch image of sky on silk used for traditional Korean clothing to cover the dead body and placed an image of my grandmother’s room that I took after she passed away on the wall facing the silk. Furthermore, multiple elements representing loss mixed in the dirt are evocative of a ritual - chrysanthemum flowers are used in Koreans funerals, and the scent and ashes of burnt incense intensifies associations with death. As the fabric gently flows in the air, responding to the viewers’ movements, the installation creates a sentimental ambience while evoking the idea of nostalgia.
Before working on the thesis project, I was more like an observer or companion in the hospital, watching my grandmother going through her last moments. However, through the process of working on Vestige, I became a part of the erasure and loss, and the project became a way to interrogate memory. Furthermore, though my grandmother’s story was an impetus for the project, the final piece is more universal, unspecific, and allows for the projection of anyone’s memories. The series of images in Vestige not only embodies the ideas of nostalgia, loss, erasure, and death, but also depicts what remains after the endless process of loss and gain.