Interview with Renee Turner
Dieuwertje Hehewerth: Dear Renee,
Perhaps it’s good to start by admitting that it was the title that drew me to the exhibition. Spending an off-afternoon updating myself on Amsterdam’s exhibitions, I read the words “The Warp and Weft of Memory” in the Amsterdam Art Calendar. My mind was imbued with thoughts about Filtered Recollections – due to Pandemic’s October theme – and so the title synced with my current preoccupations, leading my feet to Castrum Peregrini. I had no idea what the exhibition would be. But I had once spent a rainy afternoon there attending a talk, and the space was amazing – so what was there to lose?
My experience of Castrum Peregrini is colored by a person named Gisèle. A person who, from the moment of stepping through the door, becomes a household name: one I am embarrassed by not knowing about; one I slyly ask questions about until an approximate profile is commandeered. She was an artist, a traveler, and now patron of the arts, whose house, after her passing, has been dedicated to researching and encountering art.
A quick scan of the website tells me this is only part of the place’s story. But Gisèle’s story is the one that is currently on show: on the lips of the gallery attendant, on the cover of the recently written book, and on the floor of her studio where you have exhibited your research – a research that has been conducted through her left-behind clothes.
My visit led us into conversation, leading me to ask if I could continue this conversation, in the form of an interview, in relation to the topic that had brought me there: Filtered Recollections. So here we are.
Since visiting the exhibition, I’ve been looking at the online component of your project – reading the letters between yourself and Kate, between yourself and Frans-Willem; looking at your documentation of Gisèle’s clothes. I realize the research is about remembering a person you’ve never met, and I wonder how it has been for you to engage in this conversation? One where you ask questions but are never questioned back?
Renee Turner: I suppose in one way or another, history is that kind of encounter or dialogue – we speak to those people, things or events that cannot talk back. Fragments left behind are inevitably space for projection where the present and past are woven together.
DH: The more I engage with the project, the more it feels to be planted in – and growing from – Gisèle’s wardrobe, rather than being about it. Which leads me to ask, what is your relation with Gisèle now that the project is concluding? Is the project still about her memory, or has it grown in other directions?
RT: One of the thoughts that was consoling to me was that while I was working on this project, Gisèle’s biography was being written by Annet Mooij. She covered that territory. As an artist, I’m not sure that’s where my area of expertise or interest is situated. From the beginning, I wanted to focus on the encounter with her wardrobe and the strangeness of going through her closet while not being a relative. We’ve all had the experience of going through a deceased loved one’s belongings and deciding what should be thrown out and what should be given to other family members or friends. But this was not the case – nonetheless, I was a woman going through another deceased woman’s closet. Her things reveal something about her as an individual, but also tell stories that many women would recognize.
DH: I find it really interesting how your research leaves the confines of Gisèle’s wardrobe in the form of letters – or emails posing as letters – as noted by Frans-Willem. This letter writing allows the research to expand – beyond yourself, beyond Gisèle – through musing on topics beyond her clothes. Is the letter as a form important to your research? Has this decision shaped it into a particular form?
RT: The choice for epistolary as a form arose for different reasons. Barring one letter, I chose not to read Gisèle’s correspondences. And she had loads of them – she not only kept the ones written to her, but also when her parents died, and later her husband, she inherited back the letters she had sent to them too. (To live longer means letters are returned to sender.) I knew if I immersed myself in her letters I would occupy both her “I” and “eye”. I wanted to write from my perspective – that’s why one section is called “notes”. To me, it was like taking field notes from her closet – I was journeying into her private space.
But sometimes this felt too diary-like and hermetic. The correspondence with Kate Pullinger, who is a fiction writer, and Frans-Willem Korsten, who is Professor of Literature, opened things up again. These letters, or electronic mails (AKA emails), were sent while on my voyage into Gisèle’s closet, and like any correspondence written while journeying, they tell something about travels past and present, daily banalities and also something about the sender and the recipient.
Next to writing with Frans-Willem and Kate Pullinger, another way I broke out of my own insular thinking was having others involved who shaped and informed the narration. The backend of the site, which is a Semantic Mediawiki, was worked on extensively, and designed, by Andre Castro and Cristina Cochior. The database, containing around a thousand items, is much like Gisèle’s archiving: it has its own idiosyncratic logic. The frontend interface and development was designed by Manufactura Independente, who made the different registers legible. I also worked with Cesare Davolio who did the illustrations for the notes. He created an almost dream-like space through his drawings.
DH: This letter-writing, paired with the focus on clothes, makes the research focus on, and work through, ephemeral forms. They are objects that have a transitory quality – a quality of carrying and covering – of existing as an in between. I’m curious if you see these relations? And more directly in relation to the project, what it is about these ephemeral objects/forms that catch your attention? What have you learned by exploring these mediums as a way to remember and engage?
RT: It is precisely the ephemerality that fascinates me. Like the body, Gisèle’s clothes will turn to dust, photographs taken to preserve memories will fade, or lose relevance, simply because those represented are no longer remembered. But there are always echoes. I thought often of Virginia Woolf’s line in To the Lighthouse where she says: “how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned.” I think by going into the intimate space of her closet, I imagined her figure. And I say imagined, because there is always an element of fiction in remembering, especially with things you have never known.
DH: For me, the interesting thing about the exhibition has been how it dives into history, only be projected back into the present/future. But I’m curious what is it about the research that you really enjoy? Is there some unexpected part of the process that you learned greatly from, but is so obscure – or seemingly insignificant – that nobody thinks to ask?
RT: I think there are almost too many surprises I encountered to focus on one. Perhaps a list:
*Gisèle was a complex figure – her history is plural and contradictory – in 100 years one can live many lives, and it is a life that will be re-written by many. Lives are full of sediment to be excavated by future archeologists.
*She wore corseted dresses as a young woman, tattered and worn clothes during the war, went braless on the beach while wearing a kaftan in the seventies, and she wrapped herself in a warm woolen sweater in her twilight years.
*Her closet is representative of many women, but her cataloging is unique, obsessive if not pathological. I wondered if she suffered from some form of hypergraphia. She has closet inventories going back for decades.
*One of the challenges of representing textile digitally is how to show its tactility. The revelation for me was the simple act of folding the clothes on video. You hear the sound and the weight of the cloth. This is how touch came into the project. Go to the Semantic Tapestry and look under Theme: Folding.
*When I look in Gisèle’s mirror, I expect to see her posing in front of it as she so often did before, but instead I only see myself.