In Tonight the World, Daria Martin brings her grandmother’s dream diaries to life through exquisite 16mm films, thus shining a light on past trauma.
A figure walks through a villa in Brno, Czechoslovakia. The person’s identity remains unknown, but they are searching for something – or someone – in the house. In and out of rooms they move, cautiously curious, a sense of unease pervading the whole search. Doors open and close, locking and unlocking to a past not fully discovered, a future not fully known. Our figure enters rooms that are suspiciously empty, sparsely furnished, stubbornly shut to interpretation. There is no warm welcome; no fire flickering in the hearth, no tea brewing, no music softly playing in the background. All is grey and impenetrably shuttered, except for a few tell-tale signs. In the dining room, two newly lit candelabra glow. Carefully placed at either end of a long table they radiate greyish light, but light nonetheless. Next to one of the candelabra is a metal serving tray holding a miniature terracotta army. Strange, you might think, but its brownness leaks familiarity into an otherwise unfamiliar space. Who lit the candles and what the statuettes mean are never disclosed, but the figure takes note of the latter, holds the tray and several other seemingly displaced objects – a garish green toy robot, a glass ball, a plastic figurine of a soldier – also found around the house. Eventually the figure moves upstairs, holding the plastic figurine – for soldiers are made to pursue enemies and victims, to detect threats and signs of life. They open a door onto a balcony and another figure is briefly seen from behind, only to dissolve into the greyish night and for the sequence to start again.
This is Refuge, a HD videogame that opens the latest Curve commission, Daria Martin: Tonight the World. A computer game with a difference – one being that we, the viewer-cum-player, do not have any controls or control over the virtual world in front of us – Refuge is an experience quite opposite to what its title promises. The simulated rooms, hallways, balcony and court yard that make up the Modernist villa in Brno never offer the shelter or protection we or the unknown figure hopes for. This is no home, not anymore, and no amount of childhood belongings can make it so. If in Refuge a process of retrieval, of retracing one’s steps through the greyscale prism of the past is denied, in the subsequent films and installations that make up Tonight the World a whole other methodology of recuperation is problematized. But this is deliberate on the part of artist and Jarman award-winning film-maker, Daria Martin. Performing and re-performing one’s inability to completely access the past, especially the interiority and innermost trauma of those from the past, is one of the most effective and affective tricks on show. But that doesn’t mean one should not try to access it – quite the reverse in fact.
Tonight the World insists on reengaging with pain from the past. It does so respectfully, responsibly and creatively, and it asks us to do the same. Structured around an archive of dream diaries written by Martin’s late grandmother, Susi Stiassni, the exhibition reconnects with and transmutes intergenerational trauma as found in the peculiar logic and visual language of the unconscious. Fleeing the imminent Nazi occupation of former Czechoslovakia in 1938, 13-year old Stiassni arrived in Britain only to be placed in a boarding school for several years. Stiassni eventually settled with her family in California, but when alone in the UK she would read newspapers and learn of what her Jewish friends and relatives suffered under the Nazis. Loved ones perished, friends were killed and her childhood home, a certain Modernist villa in Brno, was occupied by Nazi soldiers. Years later and Stiassni refused to discuss her past, but the pain-filled legacy of her experiences lived on in her dreams and was meticulously recorded in her journals. Thus loss, migration, mass genocide and the inherited trauma produced by all three are prevalent themes of Tonight the World.
These themes also run through Martin’s past work. For it was Martin’s family who inherited Stiassni’s diaries in 2005 – all 20,000 pages of them written and collected over a 35-year period. And it was Martin herself who used the dream accounts to brilliant effect in one of her earlier 16mm films, One of the Things that Makes Me Doubt (2010-11). Acknowledging that Tonight the World is at once a portrait of her grandmother and a self-portrait, Martin places herself – and us – at the centre of the recurring dream narrative. For although many of Stiassni’s dreams returned to the villa in Brno, it is the home of the mind, the home of the ancestral and collective past that we’re really trying to return to. Brno typifies Stiassni’s, Martin’s and our yearning for a home, for an environment that is no longer hostile to our presence, for a space that holds our history intact and entire. In Refuge, the figure we follow around the desolate grey halls of the villa is at once Martin, Stiassni, and us. We become the figure searching for the past, attempting to piece together through random objects (items that were recorded in Stiassni’s dream diary) and fluttering journal pages that which is lost, except in the fabric of dreams.
But it’s not enough for Martin to create an uncanny videogame simulation. To fully place herself – and ourselves – in Stiassni’s position we must go to the actual villa, which still stands in Brno. Moving through the darkness of the gallery space and past a cavity in the wall (where multiple typed pages from the original journals are visible, yet tantalisingly out of reach), we come to a curved screen. It is here that five short, but exquisitely realised films are shown, all of which are based on Stiassni’s notated dream episodes. Each 16mm colour film opens with a magnified shot of the original type running the length of the screen, followed by marbled endpapers. Martin is literally opening up the diaries for us, replaying the events of the dreams as Stiassni recalled, but through her own lens and visual language. It’s a beautiful act of ‘reparation’, as Martin herself has said of the site-inspired films. Stiassni never once returned to the villa or her homeland, but the fact that Martin does is testimony to her grandmother’s and great grandparents’ determination to fight and live.
The first film captures something of this. Playing a game of hide and seek in the surrounding gardens of the villa, a woman with a fuchsia dress counts out loud. What begins as a scene of childish play gradually slips into one of panic. Pacing the garden and calling out for her children, the woman grows ill-at-ease and disorientated – are the children playing a game of sorts on her? She peers behind bushes and trees only to discover a swirling chasm of quicksand near her feet. Unnerved by this, she looks up and comes face-to-face with one of the children, who unlike her appears indifferent to the danger below. The children eventually reconvene on the lawn, running towards the house without a care. The woman is somewhat relieved, but the anxiety that their disappearance provoked remains palpable.
A garden where children once blithely played is fraught with hidden dangers; a home is now unhomely – but it’s not exactly Martin’s intention to interpret Stiassni’s dreams. Rather, she calls us to be witnesses, even players in their strange script. Three actresses take on the dreamer / dream persona of Stiassni, alternating roles depending on the dream playing out. In a second film, the young actress Flora Nicholson plays her, again head to toe in a striking fuchsia shift dress; in another film the slightly older though no less compelling Hayley Carmichael embodies Stiassni’s dream self. Unlike in Refuge, where we’re led blindly through the house, these female figures know their way around, although they’re rarely prepared for the surprises that await them between its walls. Whatever does happen – whether it’s a man in work overalls frying an egg in the cavity of a wall or the miniature terracotta army presented on a tray to a young Stiassni (although played by a much older third actress) during a restrained dinner around the dining table – all is recalled in lavish, painterly colour and with strict attention to detail, and all is registered on the expressive faces of the actresses. In fact, sharp close-ups of their every minute reaction give a preciseness and hyper-real tension to the otherwise woozy worldliness one associates with dreams.
One of the most achingly poignant and hauntingly beautiful dreams filmed by Martin is one where Stiassni is alone in a ‘woodsy region’, as she termed it in her journal, late at night. Played by the brilliant Carmichael, this Stiassni washes her face in a moon lit river, tense and ever-vigilant. She opens her locket fondly, an uncannily grey and pictureless replica of what you’d expect. This gesture of reassurance is cut short by the arrival of some hunters. Stricken with fear, Carmichael’s Stiassni runs to hide in a nearby thicket, her ‘white skin’ luminous despite the dark. And it gives her away; looking for fowl and game to shoot, the three hunters raise their guns, wielding fear for kicks, only to spot Stiassni abjectly crouching and trembling like a fraught hare. Stiassni has become their ‘prey’, their vulnerable target. Carmichael stands up, a pale semi-naked wisp of a woman. She is caught between surrendering and pleading for her life, the rifle inches from her face. Slowly Puccini’s ‘Un Bel Di, Vedremo’ plays louder and Carmichael’s Stiassni sings along, a bleating cry of a voice to its grandiose warbling. It’s a moving scene where victim is cruelly coerced to sing, rather pathetically, for her life. Once the rifle is lowered, Stiassni darts into the woods, spared the bullet but still a stricken animal nevertheless.
Stiassni originally typed up such dream recounts for the purpose of Jungian analysis. The film described above has some typed commentary appended to the original journal entry, which is on show at the far-end of the gallery. Her whole commentary reads like a poem and needs no further explication:
Beautiful dream. Emergence of something shy and wild like a rabbit, delicate like a butterfly. ‘Un bel de’ – Madame Butterfly’s song of longing. River – brown like in Brno. Mood – sadness.
To analyse the ‘archetypes’ and latent images pushing their way past the ‘rule’ of the ‘ego’ and what have you would destroy the dream’s simple, startling beauty. Martin has honoured Stiassni’s dream recount with her pathos-inducing short film. In doing so, the whole diary experience is brought closer to a Freudian notion of dream analysis. In the first edition to his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud concedes that in helping his patients, in hearing and deciphering the hieroglyphs of their unconscious, he has helped himself; he has exposed his own ‘intimate psychic experiences’ to the ‘gaze of strangers’. With her films, Martin has undergone a similar process; shared a similar moment with us, with her grandmother. In her return to Brno, she reveals her own hand in it all, her own mind operating, revealing and dreaming away. Tonight the World definitely returns to the hallways and ‘backrooms’ of Stiassni’s imagination, but it traverses through Martin’s mind, shining a reparative light on the hurts and wounds of the past.
Daria Martin: Tonight the World is free and will be shown at The Curve, Barbican Centre, until 7th April. Click on the link for events connected to the show and more information about the exhibition. Click here for more on Daria Martin.