Touching on highly personal but also universal themes, Peter Watkins' series deals with death and remembrance
“It’s a story that starts at its end, in death. We have an evocation of a life which has been lost, which then becomes another kind of life, one whose presence or absence is conjured up in various states of remembrance.”
So says Tim Clark, editor-in-chief of the online magazine 1000 Words, who has curated an exhibition of Peter Watkins’ series The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery. It’s a highly autobiographical piece of work, showcasing photographs and sculptures produced after a long inner exploration of a traumatic loss. On the 15th of February 1993, Watkins’ mother walked from Zandvoort beach into the North Sea, to her death. The heart of the artist’s project is his reconciliation to that loss, through an examination of their shared German heritage.
“This is a work that explores the machinations of memory in relation to the experience of trauma,” says Watkins. “The culmination of several years work, The Unforgetting is a series made up of remnants, as well as the associated notions of time, recollection and impermanence, all bound up in the objects, places, photographs, and narrative structures circulated within the family.”
When Watkins began work on the project in 2010, he visited the place where his mother had died, and filmed the village where she grew up, and interviews with family members. “What I came to realise was that the recollections of my family followed a certain narrative thread that had been somehow unified over time,” he says.
“By and large, they each had very similar recollections of this shared traumatic event. I decided at that point to drop the film and explore these ideas through the representational capacity of photography.”
It’s an intensely personal story, and when Watkins started working on it, he “spent a long time considering, there is a fine balance between revealing too much and too little”. “When I started showing the work, I was reluctant to include much biographical information,” he adds. “There is this push and pull between the universal and the highly personal in the work.”
Watkins was born in 1984 and graduated from the prestigious MA at the Royal College of Art in 2014, but says he wasn’t particularly inspired when he first started taking pictures. “I used to walk around the streets photographing people and detritus just like anyone else with a camera, until eventually I got bored making photographs in this way,” he told BJP back in 2014.
“The revelation really came for me when I realised that photography was essentially about everything – philosophy, sociology, history, language, religion and politics.”
He’s enjoyed great early success, with a spot on BJP‘s Ones to Watch in 2014 and solo shows in institutions such as The Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam, but says his ideas about photography continue to evolve. “I see a shifting plane, away from some kind of false notion of photographic purity to a much more elastic understanding and dissemination of the medium,” he explains.
“Yet I’ve got a real fear of the work slipping into cliché, and I find myself constantly fighting against this.”
“Peter is, to my mind, not only one of the most interesting photographers to emerge from the prestigious RCA in the last decade but also of the many great photographers of this generation working today,” says Clark.
“I had the idea to stage a series of itinerant shows that explore the relationships between memory and representation and Peter’s work is a perfect fit,” Clark adds. “As 1000 Words approaches its tenth anniversary, these will take place across Europe and feature artists who have been featured in 1000 Words over the years.”