Letters as tokens of memory:

Chantal Riekel

from Mme Andrée to my personal letter collection

‘If we can reproach memory with being unreliable, it is precisely because it is our one and only resource for signifying the past-character of what we declare we remember … we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place, has occurred, has happened before we remember it’

Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (2004)

I recently came across my old collection of letters and postcards ranging from my childhood to my experience as a young adult when mobile phones and text messages did not exist. Unlike modern digital media, the act of writing and sending thoughts on paper captures an individual trace and represents a physical connection between the sender and the receiver. Though we have access to other tools to communicate how we feel at a given moment, and can post videos and other moving images, I am always fascinated by the materiality of memory within letters. 

This thread brings me back to a work I developed around the memories of a centenarian lady with whom I was living and helping to take care of in London, between 2010 and 2012. Adrienne, or ‘Mme Andrée’ as she used to be called in her circles had kept a large box of letters received from France over decades – she lived most of her life in the UK but continued to be nostalgic of the village she grew up, often telling me of her family left behind. The envelopes containing this precious correspondence, became a token for her connection to a whole community and past. Years or dates may have vanished, but not their characters or destinies. My montage of these envelopes and the prints that I created with her consent from old photographs, all are based around the partiality of memory as ultimately we all have our own version of a given moment of our past, in dialogue with the present. I used different printmaking techniques to engage with the tangible aspect of memory within letters and old photographs.

As for me, I am a visual artist working mainly from the photographic image based in Grenoble (France).  Through my practice I am interested in questioning how we form and process memories and the role of our imagination for transmitting them. 

My projects often involve research from multiple angles, working with a range of found materials and sources. I strive to combine different voices in the making of a work: for instance that of a historian, archivist or detective. This process leads me to investigate for instance the significance of locations, singular episodes in life. I am particularly fascinated by the visible (and invisible) traces that events in time leave. The narratives that I create combine elements of fiction and reality and question our relation between past and present.

Works from: Réminiscences/homage a Mme Andree, 2011-2013

Photo-etchings (photo-lithographies) on textile, screen prints

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