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Sebald in a good company

W. G. Sebald: Far Away - But From Where?

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich

Having read Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn followed by watching Patience (after Sebald), a Grant Gee’s documentary intrigued my interest in exploring more about the German-born artist, writer and UEA lecturer. This exhibition was open to commemorate what would have been W. G. Sebald’s 75th birthday. The archival material held by UEA and The Sebald Estate, his own photographs as well as other artists’ works responding to Sebald’s writings - Tacita Dean, Julie Mehretu and Tess Jaray were the main parts of the show, held on the upper floor of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from 11 May - 18 August 2019 in Norwich.

Majority of Sebald’s photographs, which he took while travelling, were displayed inside of glass cabinets along with informative texts linked to his writings. Some of his most interesting images were enlarged and placed on the walls. Despite this museum-like presentation, it was an interesting and engaging display. It was even, in some aspects, a nostalgic journey into my own past. Sebald’s photographs captured many places in my native country the Czech Republic during the time of my childhood. The black and white images expressed the ill-fated state-socialist Utopia to perfection. The photography played an important part in Sebald’s literary development, I could relate several images to his travel journal-like book The Rings of Saturn, which depicts his journey along the English East Coast countryside surrounding Norwich. Sebald’s documentation of the picturesque landscape reveals dark, often tragic moments in history of the visited places. This notion is not demonstrated through the displayed photographs, however, the images create a real urge to find out about the purpose of their existence.

Tacita Dean’s film about the poet Michael Hamburger, who was a close friend and a translator of W. G. Sebald was projected inside of a dark room placed in the middle of the gallery space. The sight of Hamburger’s cottage and garden will feel immediately familiar to those who read The Rings of Saturn (p.181), describing Sebald’s short visit. Dean’s commissioned work from 2007 allows to absorb the intimate atmosphere of Hamburger’s dwelling and introduces his interest in apples, which become the tool for communicating with the outside world.

The large-scale, six-panel work that uses photogravure Epigraph, Damascus (2016) by Julie Mehretu is a great compliment to Sebald’s work based on travelling. Mehretu sees her work as “story maps that merge history and place, manifestations of the imaginary, creating new readings, meanings and narratives”.

Tess Jaray’s work is also connected to Sebald’s literature, using short poetic texts within her eight screen prints located at the far end of the gallery.

The concept of having different kinds of narratives and understandings of Sebald’s literature along with his own contribution in form of photographs shows the large and various spectrum of meanings that his work creates. Sebald’s thoughts come alive mainly through his literature. His photographs are silent, without the text, they don’t mean much, however sharing the space with snippets of his writings and other artists views, gives the images a new purpose, asks questions.

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