Bernhard Sachs is a Melbourne-based artist who has exhibited nationally and internationally since 1977. His work, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, centres on activating and destabilising relationships between history, philosophy, semiotics and aesthetics. Sachs is particularly interested in exploring ways through which language and mediated imagery anchor experiential processes of describing and representing the world. It is perhaps unsurprising that his first degree was in twentieth-century European history. Sachs’ larger artistic project – which he refers to as ‘During Philosophy’ – interrogates the nineteenth-century notion of the so-called ‘history picture’, rearticulated as existential experience. Sachs has long been drawn to the ways in which personal and public memories can infuse one another, sometimes producing situations in which mediated historical events mask personal lived experience. Significantly, this can unfold within complex constellations of images and stories that are often resistant to specific interpretation. In this large (150 x 200 cm) charcoal drawing on paper, Sachs reimagines his experience of the world, including its mediation through the imaging of collective histories (in this instance, a radical remediation of a once commercially available postcard image depicting a personally significant location in which one of the now-blurred figures is the artist’s father!).
By the late 1980s, some artists were beginning to imagine how it might be possible to move beyond the image-making concerns that dominated the linguistically charged era of postmodernism. This deeply paradoxical undertaking necessitated somehow self-consciously existing afterthe already projected ‘end of history’. This drawing was produced in 1989, a year marked by the collapse of the Cold War era, and, by extension, the beginning of a still-contested transition from fuzzily defined postmodern conceptions of politics, art and culture to equivalently ambiguous notions of the ‘contemporary’. Significantly, this alleged collapse of postmodernism appeared at roughly the same time as a so-called ‘memory crisis’ in the humanities more broadly. This crisis was driven by a new suite of suspicions about established forms of individual and collective memory formation – processes that were increasingly seen as fundamentally inadequate. For artists such as Sachs, just as traces of erased histories can persist as ‘ghosts’ – even when substantially erased or concealed – new memories are constantly inscribed. As Sachs puts it, this is revision in perpetuity, for ‘the past is never the same twice’. This dynamic relationship between processes of erasure and the remnants of recognisable forms can evoke strangely ambiguous concurrent feelings of ineffability and familiarity.
This drawing features a remote railway station in rural South Australia where Sachs’ father was station master after leaving the ruins of postwar Germany to migrate to the farthest place imaginable, at the end of the earth. Although the drawing features personalised content, this recedes into historical abstractions and processes of formal erasure. His father’s experience of migration, fleeing the horrors of a then recent history, to live in a nation yet to face the ineffable depths of its own horrors clearly influenced Sachs’ experience of the world. In this sense, one might even say that terra nullius had an ontological reach in horror vacui. Accordingly, this ominous meeting of faded familial memories of post-apocalyptic destruction reset in peripheral antipodean desolation is only barely accessible through the movement of blurred figures in a monochromatic emptiness. Sitting somewhere on a continuum between representation and concealment, this striking register of being offers an intriguingly shadowed and fragmentary account of the complexities of intersecting histories, fictions and memories.
Sean Lowry is a Melbourne-based artist and the head of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. He is also the founder and executive director of Project Anywhere and one half of The Ghosts of Nothing. For a full list of exhibitions and publications see: www.seanlowry.com.