This week over at the Tate Gallery some idiot took it into his mind to deface a Mark Rothko painting with black ink. Fortunately curators at the Tate are optimistic that the work can be restored and will suffer no lasting damage. Sometimes things cannot so easily be put right. When Tracey Emin’s famous work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, a tent in which the eponymous names had been appliquéd, was burnt in the Momart fire in 2004, it was impossible to repair. Emin decided that it could not be recreated despite a reputed £1m offer from Charles Saatchi.
“To recreate it would have been morally wrong. It wouldn’t have that emotional input to it,” she explained at the time. “It wasn’t simply the names of everyone I’d ever slept with. It was about intimacy.”
So when does a restoration become a copy and lose artistic integrity? How much of a work has to survive to remain an original after restoration? Is it 50%? 70%? More? Less? This week Julia Mitchell, whose work is signed simply Jules, faced that decision.
Jules is in my year group at Hastings College undertaking the course in Fine Art Contemporary Practice. Last summer her study 20 Polaroid Photographs earned her a distinction and was widely recognized as one of the most outstanding works of the year. She was invited to display it in the Corridor Gallery at the college and also in Sharon Haward’s Underground Studio Exhibition Out of the Frame as part of the Brighton Photo-Fringe festival in Hastings and St Leonards.
20 Polaroid Photographs was an intensely personal work which Jules created as a memorial to a close friend who died early in 2012. It comprised, as the name suggests, of twenty Polaroid photographs each one covered in paper clay and fired, creating, fragile biscuit-like objects that were both beautiful and enigmatic. Each one was different; the way that Jules had applied the clay and the firing process produced effects that were subtly intricate. Displayed in a Perspex box, on top of a plinth, they appeared, as in fact they were, precious and unique.
Covering photographs with clay might seem bizarre but it was in fact a logical progression of Jules’ earlier work. In February she had been responsible for clearing her friend’s possessions and had been struck by the way that when someone dies what remains are their shoes. She created an installation that was also in her memory, covering shoes with clay to signify the way that each of us returns to the earth.
It was later in the spring when looking at photographs of her friend, Jules realized that they did not reflect her memory of the time that they were taken. “They just seemed to be a record,” she said and so she began to experiment with materials to create something that better captured the moment. The result was striking because it reminded the viewer how impossible it is for any of us truly to capture memories and so, as well as being a memorial, the work became an exploration both of the nature of memories and of photography.
Last week there was an accident, the box was knocked from its plinth and a number of the Polaroids were destroyed. They will not be showing at the Photo-Fringe and you will not be able to see them, which is a shame as they were remarkable. Jules says she cannot recreate them; she currently believes there was too much emotion bound up in them. My personal view is that enough is left for the work to remain an original even if she were to create a few more of the strange clay Polaroids to take the number back to 20. I understand why she feels she cannot do it, but I hope she changes her mind.