Mnemosyne
Susan Bright


When my daughter was born, I stuck a note above my desk with the word “Mnemosyne” hastily scribbled on it. Mnemosyne was the Greek Titan goddess of memory. Herself a mother, she bore nine Muses and presided over an eponymous pool in Hades. This pool allowed those who drank from it to remember their past lives when reincarnated. Being able to remember everything, she was also a minor goddess of time. I needed to be inspired by her, as in those early days of mothering even the simplest of my memories seemed to have seeped away. It was as if I had visited Hades and drunk from the River Lethe, whose waters obliterated past recollections and knowledge.

 

For five years the fading note has remained. It often falls, as the glue is nearly useless now. I keep sticking it up. I don’t know why. Sitting to write this, I am struck by Mnemosyne’s skills and attributes and the connections they have to Kinderwunsch. Memory, remembrance, the present, the past, the future are all analogous with photography and play an especially vital role in the work of Ana Casas Broda. In turn, Ana has a sagacious knowledge of the power of the medium, using it both as a tool for unlocking memories and one for establishing them for the future. She also understands that time, intertwined with memory, is where the true power of the medium lies. The ebb and flow between the two, and the precarious instant of the present, are all crucial to understanding the subtexts and nuances of Kinderwunsch.

 

Time, as we know, is a far more nebulous and elastic thing than something that can be simply measured in units of minutes and hours. Think how long a minute can last when waiting, or how quickly it can rush by when approaching a deadline. Or even, more magically, how it can appear suspended—a moment of pure joy when time literally does seem to stop. Photography attempts to freeze time, but in reality it is rarely a static thing, and so linking it to the many metaphors of death seems like an antithesis to me. I think the metaphor of a newborn is more relevant. Photography is constantly alive, incessantly demanding, new, difficult and forever in flux, forcing artists, and all who deal with it, to constantly adapt and work with it. It also often keeps artists up all night. Here I would like to look at all the different aspects of time that Casas Broda touches upon and how she turns to photography to cope with the demands she puts on herself in dealing with her memories and desires, as well as the quotidian moments of mothering—all elements that are at the very heart of her project.

 

Patient with a four-year history of desiring to have a child (Kinderwunsch).
 
This project starts with exigency. A countdown. Years, hours, minutes tick. A doctor told Ana she had desired children for years. The biological clock can be anxiety-ridden for many women—literally a race against time to conceive or a rude awaking to the fact that the body does indeed rule the head. A start that is unphotographable, here only words work.

 

...I am pregnant. I am 38 years old.

 

To give birth to nine Muses, Mnemosyne had sex for nine consecutive nights with Zeus. For Ana the task of getting pregnant was a lot less passionate and dominated by bodily cycles, rhythms, counting, numbers, appointments and medication. Plotting and planning and being dependent on doctors and opinions. The feeling of being overwhelmed mixed with a desire so wild it would make her jeopardize her relationship with her partner. To photograph the needles, the blood, the endless waiting, contains the emotions and makes them tangible and understandable. There is a desire to control with the camera.

 

The impulse, the desire, the need. A sibling for Martín. Mother of two: another scenario.

 

Time for another baby. Val gazes out the window, his desire to be a father a crucial part of the story. They watch each other. Wary. Waiting

 

Insomnia, circular thinking. Suddenly, I find myself in a place that terrifies me. A slow and tortuous passage through a dark tunnel.

 

Memories come back, Ana pieces together scenarios from her childhood in the dead of night when time seems to stand still. How do you photograph insomnia? How do you photograph depression, memory and emotions? But photograph Ana must in order to help her through that dark tunnel. While medication and therapy may help, it is photography that is the linchpin here and the tool for her to face her demons. The house is silent at night. Ana quietly photographs the empty rooms—adding structure to the vague and amorphous nighttime hours. Photography allows Ana to create a new reality. It throws light on dark shadows and changes the argument. Reality and fiction melt in a new scenario, allowing her to construct her own story.

 

I feel very guilty. And at the same time I just want to hit him and make him finally shut up and leave me in peace. I lose track of time.

 

Fluid and free-floating time with young children. Endless everyday tasks that take forever, flashes of capricious behavior (both child and mother), and days that seem to drag on forever. Martín and Ana shout at each other across the table. What is photography’s role here? Do they reenact their argument? Is it happening at that point? Is Ana really angry? How can she be, if her mind is really on taking a picture? The slippage between what is staged and what is real becomes confusing. The Real. The thorn in photography’s side. Indeed there is real anger, more than any image can show. A photograph can only reveal the surface of something. Here different layers of reality come together. One is also reminded how much pretense there is in mothering—pretending in games, pretending you are interested, pretending you are happy to others. Photography is always there to remind you that most memories are not real—just stitched together by photographs. Sometimes photography can seem such a phony. Ana uses it to make things real. There will always be an inherent contradiction with it.

 

I have erased nearly all my childhood memories. Those that remain are anchored in my grandmother’s photos.

Photography acts as a time machine back to Ana’s childhood. The vernacular photographs here are essential to Ana’s journey. They calm it. They have gentleness to them. With no artistic intention behind their making, their tenderness shines through even if the memories they evoke are far from comforting for Ana. They show love where Ana may not have experienced it, and they show the profundity of repe-tition. Mothers bathe their young. Ana may turn this into a game using milk but she too gently bathed her boys when they were babies, just as her mother (and her grandmother) bathed her. A longing to connect. A desire to remember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martín is six years old now.

Photography and time remind Ana of when she was six. She is unable to photograph, filled with a fear that patterns may be repeated and memories throw her violently back into situations of her childhood. Anger, fear, uncontrolled emotions take over. Quies-cence. There is a gap both in the past and in the present.

 

Memories crowding into my body. Motionless, I listen to that voice inside my head. Alert. Withdrawn, pensive, suspended between two times.

 

This project is a delicate balancing act between different times, one no less or more important than the other. In an attempt to balance between them, Ana creates work to make the journey as vital as it needs to be. It needs to drag her into the present. She photographs to make her memories and the present real. Photogra-phy here is a cathartic tool, easing her voyage into motherhood and calming her childhood. They are part of the photographic puzzle that has helped Ana come to terms with her memories and her desire—desire as a child and as a woman.

 

The images are also about being in the present time for a short time, an instant, letting relationships grow and be shown through games and pictures. About being able to be in the present time and connect. And like Mnemosyne, Ana has her muses. Two small boys instead of nine personified sources of knowledge. These boys are the catalyst and the inspiration. For her, the photographic act is a conjunction between reality and construction. They make Ana discover aspects of their relationship that would not be visi-ble without the camera. It is about the instantaneity of the present and connecting, allowing her to come to terms with her hardest memories and connect with her boys and enjoy the present. Photography may be an imperfect tool, and the demands which Ana places upon it are at times unrealistic. She knows this. This is why she must write too. Her words are urgent, giving propulsion and order to the photographs. They rely on one another, words filling in the blanks when there are no photographs, and photographs expanding upon the words. Kinderwunsch can only coexist with words and photographs together. They sew the past, present, memories, desire and love together.

 

So finally, five years after I scribbled Mnemosyne on a note and stuck it above my desk, it has inspired me to write this. Perhaps she has done her job—not in the way that the myths about her suggest, but by quietly waiting for the right time to be of use to me. Kinderwunsch may be specific to Ana and her life, but it also transcends the personal and becomes universal. Like the very best photography, this project not only allows her to consider who she is and why, but it also gives us space to reflect and weave in our own experiences, memories, fantasies and narratives. Perhaps now it’s time take the note down.

 

 

Susan Bright