VIDEO: When Phil Toledano was six, his sister died. His family never talked of her again. But when his parents died, they left a box of her belongings. This is what he found.
His only remaining memories are of beating on her bedroom door, shouting that he wished she was dead. And the police coming to tell them the news.
Phil Toledano was six and Claudia nine when she died in a fire. Partly to protect him, Claudia was almost never spoken of again. In turn, he somehow managed to block her out. He can’t remember anything of the years after she died. He developed a strange fixation with space, distant planets, the seemingly serene, slow-moving existence of being an astronaut.
His only other memories of her were as a baby or toddler, he says. “But that doesn’t make any sense, because she was nine when she died, and I was only six.”
When his parents died, Toledano discovered a case in the back of their wardrobe. It was full of Claudia’s belongings, and of pictures they had taken of her.
BJP – Phil Toledano – When I was Six from Apptitude Media on Vimeo.
“When I saw the pictures, she seemed so grown up, and that was so shocking to me,” he says. “She was a real person. I guess it’s easy to think you’ve lost a baby than you’ve lost a person.”
By opening this Pandora’s box, he had to come to terms with a time that evidentially happened, but had been hidden away. “She had remained this constant, unknown presence in my life. But it meant I had to now get to know her and, in a sense, myself.”
A year elapsed between his discovery of Claudia’s belongings and finding the strength to begin When I Was Six. “It was almost hilariously miserable,” he says. “I’d take a picture, then I’d start crying. I’d go to sleep and then wake up, take some more pictures, and start crying again. It was just so exhausting, on a molecular level.”
In one picture, now part of the series, Claudia is sat on the grass in a bathing costume, brazenly smiling as she gobbles down a piece of chicken. In another, a lock of her pristine blonde hair. “It just seemed so new,” he says, “as if had been cut yesterday. That was real, physical presence – evidence of her. It really knocked me off my feet for a while.”
What might his parents think of this, I ask: a box of their most private and freighted belongings, hung in the corner of a church in Derbyshire, to be debated by passersby. “My mother was French-Moroccan, so she was always an advocate of talking about your emotions. And my Dad was a very emotional guy, to whom family was everything. He was a man of the fifties, so there was never an ‘I love you’ from him, even if I felt that very clearly. My parents were very private people, but yet they were very altruistic. I honestly don’t know what they’d make of this.”
His mum, at the age of 79, died of a brain aneurysm. She’d cared for Phil’s father, an American artist who was 16 years older than her, and who suffered from dementia. She’d successfully managed to hide the full extent of it from Phil, his new family, and the world at large. “I think the strain of caring for him became too much for her. She literally blew a gasket,” he says. “She was in the hospital for three days. I switched off the machines. Yeah, that was pretty shit.” He became his father’s chief carer, giving rise to a project titled Days With My Father. He died soon after.
“I’m the artist I am now because my parents are dead,” he says. “All my work is now a result of them disappearing, suddenly. And when your parents die, they leave a shadow, and that’s all the things they give you. And some of that is physical, because they leave you with a lot of unopened boxes, and you have to choose whether to open them or leave them closed.”
Indeed, Toledano was a very different artist before this experience. He was born in 1968, in Mayfair – the nice part of central London. “My art education came from my father. It would be fair to say that I learned by osmosis,” he says. During his career, Toledano varied in medium, from photography to installation and painting, and in themes, from socio-political points about the currency of beauty, to a study of internal, unspoken desires, to the strange things video games do to us.
But, lately, he’s “strayed” into the very deeply personal, from the death of his father, to his fears of starting out on his own fatherhood, to now exploring tragedy in his childhood. It’s interesting to see how, with every deeply cathartic project, his profile has risen. From a well-known face on the photography festival circuit, he’s now gearing up for a dedicated major show at the Hamburg Triennial, and is the subject of a feature film about his family life, which is due to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“I just want it to be useful to people,” he says of When I Was Six. “Lots of people go through this, but we’re not very good at talking about. Everyone says the clichéd bullshit: ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ and all that. But, you know, people have talked to me about their own experiences as a result of this. It’s helped.”
What, I ask, would he say to the boy who had lost Claudia, who was unable to communicate to his parents, who was going through an experience so private and painful that he blocked it out.
Toledano pauses, his head down. “That you’re going to be OK,” he says. “That somehow you’ll get through it, and find a way to be happy.”