How quickly trigger memories and feelings. They don’t even have to belong to us. Though the faces are unfamiliar, activities and rituals are often the same.
Two elderly ladies waiting for the performance of The Wizard of Oz wander over to see what is on the table. “Have you ever kept a diary?” “No, never… Oh! I’ve got pictures just like that… “ Then excitedly, “And that! And that! I can remember the horses delivering when I was a girl…” 22nd December 2012, a busy afternoon for DLWP. The car park and foyer were full. Families came to the Christmas show in the auditorium wondering if there was time for a coffee beforehand. Despite repeated warnings from their mother, children continued to noisily bounce up and down on the metal plaque at the foot of the main stairs. Then there was a ten-minute call and the foyer fell quiet as the show began As a response to Ghost Dance, I had laid out some old photos, notebooks and diaries opposite the entrance to Ian Breakwell KEEP THINGS AS THEY ARE. These things belong to my husband and were chosen because I know very little about them, other than they were the meticulous records of his grandfather, a very disciplined and organised man. The initial idea was that books and photographs might encourage visitors to find a narrative as Ghost Dance does, but instead, people used them to share their own touching and eccentric family stories, all involving connection or the lack of it. Secrets and hiding behind a mask seemed to recur again and again. When casually flicking through the notebooks a grandmother started talking about how she wished she had a better relationship with her angry daughter. Another woman picked up a black and white shot from a family celebration and smiled. “In those days it was ‘Stand up straight!’ 1953 I got married. My photo is just like that.” At interval time the foyer became crowded once more. People wandered over and pick up the notebooks, which account by day, month and year, the financial details of the Johnston family. It struck me that this could be considered a dispassionate form of diary ( on one page, my father-in-law’s birth was recorded in the list of weekly expenditures). When I pointed out that every last ha’penny was recorded in the housekeeping notebook, a man told me: “That’s just the way it was for people back then. My nan had different jars for different bills.”But how true is that? Like Ian Breakwell, many are interested in the private truth behind the public image and how limited one’s knowledge can be when accepting photos and records at face value. A woman already familiar with Ian’s work showed me how truth can be stranger than fiction. She had discovered that her grandmother had invented a past where she’d lost her family in the Blitz. This had been the accepted truth until recently when a distant relative got in touch, producing the grandmother’s siblings and parents with photos as proof. Her family still don’t know why she should choose to reinvent herself in this way. It felt surreal to look at a photo on the woman’s phone of the Victorian locket showing photos of her great-grandparents. “My son takes photos. The kids take photos all the time and put them on Facebook, but no–one backs them up. Hard copies of photos are increasingly rare. People don’t back up and this heritage is lost. I made a book for my 70 year-old mum of the grandkids. I was really glad I did, but it took me ages.” Her own heritage has yet to be fully unravelled.
I was moved listening to people talk and it struck me that the reason Ian Breakwell’s work has such resonance for me is that connects so honestly with the human condition. As one visitor said “We all need the same things, to feel connected and to have privacy.”
For one man, Ian’s exploration of the surreal and the mundane was hard to justify, even provoking anger. He wasn’t convinced by the emotional value of art expressed through document, photo and text rather than commercially marketable painting and sculpture. “Who is this for? This makes me really angry! A painting of black with stars? What’s that about?” Though our discussion began in heat, we did find some common ground talking about The Walking Man Diary and the importance of connecting with one’s neighbours. As we shook hands and said goodbye, it was good to hear him say: “You’re never going to get me in there saying I love it, but I’m glad there was someone here to talk to, so I could find out a bit more about it.” And “ Maybe I’ll bring my kids back to have a look.” With the stories from the afternoon spent at the DLWP fresh in my mind, I travelled to my parent’s home over Christmas and deliberately rooted out the battered tin box where our family photos are kept. My daughter was delighted to hear for the first time those embarrassing, long forgotten stories about her mother, as my parent’s fished out pictures of look-a-like relatives.They in turn were equally delighted to receive their tickets to the tea dance that the DLWP we’ll be going to at the DLWP on the 12th January. Uncomfortable and lovely at the same time, it felt like being in the gallery again. I was struck by how interconnected we human beings are and how skilful Ian Breakwell was at showing this to us.