A Pairs of Shoes

schuhe“How can the Gulag – a penal camp system already described by its contemporaries as the ‘quintessence’ of Soviet tyranny – be described, how can it be comprehended in all of its dimensions?” www.dhm.de/ausstellungen/gulag
Because of the disrespect that lies in forgetting and the dangerous complicity of ignorance, it is imperative to visit the trauma of others,

(at the time of writing I was reading about the Gulag in the Soviet Union, though it could have been any other period of history. There has never been a time where the whole scale slaughter of one group by another has not occurred. The instances of which have been underestimated in our standard histories as most witnesses to these massacres, were quite logically, unable to tell their stories because they were dead). The question of how the representation of trauma can succeed in conveying to the viewer the realness of the events is paramount for worse than ignoring is to misunderstand suffering and any documentary artist has to pay close attention to these issues or risk doing more harm than good.
The second question is what cultural space shouldvincent-van-gogh-a-pair-of-shoes-paris-1886 that remembrance take place in, a religious space, a public space, the space within a community, an art space?  Objects that witness, as opposed to artists dramatisations after the fact, stand in for a direct contact with events beyond our horizon, and by being real they have the nature of proof and remembrance intertwined. They seem to shimmer so that a pair of boots becomes a symbol for all the miles walked through snow, by all the prisoners, all their frozen feet, all their lost toenails, all the suffering, all the deliberate brutality and untimely deaths.
The image and the placement of the shoes remind me of Vincent van Gogh’s  “A Pair of Shoes, from 1886”. Could we learn something by comparing these two objects together? If we cross boundaries from real suffering to the precincts of art are we connecting two wholly separate epistèmès, or by questioning each objects functioning within our present value system can we bring light on the structures of meaning which separate us from meaningful activity.  Van Gogh’s painting has a huge value but a pair of shoes worn by multiple prisoners several of whom could have died wearing them, is that of more or less value, than a painting of shoes?floyd-burrouhs-work-shoes-copy
What is the difference between these two objects? The painting is from the Van Gogh Museum, where they describe the paintings of shoes as somehow symbolic of the artists difficult life. He bought them in a Paris market to paint and did not do so until he had worn them in the rain, so they were suitably muddy.

 

“This painting of a pair of down-at-heel shoes prompts speculation on a variety of psychological questions. They have been seen as symbolising Van Gogh’s difficult passage through life.” www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm

But they were the shoes worn by a labourer, not Van Gogh who by contemporary accounts only wore them to get them in a sufficiently muddy state to make an interesting subject, though no doubt he did wear shoes, just not the ones he chose to paint. It is interesting to see how it is seen as symbolic of the artists struggle and not a labourer’s work.

“Van Gogh made a number of still lives with old shoes. To him, as to several of his contemporaries, they may have been symbolic of the hard yet picturesque life of the labourer.” www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm

It is also interesting to note that there is an assumption, even if the intention of the artist could have been documentary, that the artist was making an attempt to romanticise labour. Either the painting is romantic because it speaks of the internal suffering of the artist or the artist himself romanticised labour. Because we mediate our relationship with Art through the character of the Artist and do not seek a direct contact with the subject, we are drawn to see only the Artists suffering as interesting, and of value, despite what the artists intention was. Do we make the same simplistic interpretation when we look at his sunflower paintings, that he was blossoming into life.5-2_josephcolony_malcolmhutcheson_001-copy The more beautiful the work becomes through successive generations of critical analysis and the remoteness of the past, the more detached it becomes from its original relationship with the real and the Artists struggle with truth values. A year after writing this, I saw these two shoes abandoned by the side of the road by a worker from an Iron rolling foundry, Lahore. It led me to revisit these ideas within my own work. How to see the moon and not the finger pointing? What is our relationship with the real and if representation is separate from real how is it possible to interpret without a consciousness of this fundamental problem.

“There is never a neutral position nor a clear cut representation because sense perception and thought act as a filter between us and the world. On the basis of this fundamental insight, critical documentary practices do not dismiss the real; on the contrary, they consistently pursue their commitment to multiple dimensions and complexities that comprise it.” Hila Peleg, “The Struggle to Narrate” in Forum 3 Catalogue. (Berlin, Haus de Culture de Welt, 2014)

charlie-chaplain-bootBecause the real is unattainable through representation, any art that claims to be documentary in nature, is questionable. It is incumbent on artists and audiences to constantly re evaluate it, neither to dismiss nor to cultivate it without asking; what went on here, who did what, why did this work survive, whose interests does it serve, does it give value the subject or the process or the audience or the artist? Now the interesting thing which happens to the audience is, if they use these questions to evaluate any art they experience, the art becomes or is experienced as, by the process of questioning, ‘documentary’.
In someway time does the same to all art. This is illustrated in the turning of cave paintings into archeological objects, but a more fun example is Charlie Chaplin who was not famous for making great films but for making films that made people laugh. But now we can appreciate work on multiple levels we can see both beauty, social consciousness, humanity and humour in the scene in Gold Rush where the tramp eats one of his shoes.

Work shoes of prisoners , worn along the Arctic Circle railway Salekhard 
- Igarka , circa 1950s . Collection 'Memorial ', Moscow. 
Photo : Peter Hansen

A Pair of Shoes. Vincent Van Gogh. 1886, France

Floyd Burrouhs work shoes, Walker Evans. 1939, USA

Workers Shoes, Malcolm Hutcheson. 2016, Pakistan 

Still from 'The Gold Rush', Charlie Chaplin. 1925, USA

 

Leave a Comment