I wonder what Octavio Paz would say about ‘time’ now, 25 years later, considering the global phenomena of digital cameras, smartphones, I-pads, e-readers and miscellaneous tablets. Would he agree with all those who claim that the concept of history continues to decline? That people always seem to look to the now and to the future? That the present has set itself free from the past? That the past has become synonymous for out of date? In every country and on every continent?
‘Time Tells’, the new project from Diana Blok, contradicts these skeptics and should give them hope. All of it has been realized in the present using present-day means and facilities, but during the creative process the past has emphatically imposed its presence and given the work its richness and stratification, which is ultimately what makes it so exceptional.
Diana Blok (1952) is the daughter of an Argentine mother and a Dutch father. She lives in four Latin American countries in succession before her 22nd birthday. She then moves to the Netherlands.
Her mother designs and makes clothes for herself and her four daughters. Her father is in the diplomatic service. When her mother dies in 2005, she leaves behind a wall to wall wardrobe full of designs. Most are still in good condition. Time reveals its presence, but has not yet taken hold.
Blok decides to photograph the clothes. As still lifes, poetic still lifes, in honor of her mother, as a symbolic representation of their significance. “The image of her behind her sewing machine was peaceful, comforting and inspirational.” (3)
Diana Blok's father is Jewish. This is never spoken of within the family. Vague and tenuous hints never reveal the secret during his lifetime. With a devoutly Catholic wife who grows up in an anti-Semitic environment of Argentina during the war, it seems better for him to remain silent on the subject. Their happy married life makes it a non-issue.
In 2009 Blok finds out by pure chance that from 1935 her father - who was then 24 - not only worked for the Turkish Ambassador to the Netherlands, but that he also lived with his family and that in 1939 the Ambassador took him to Buenos Aires and was thereby able to save him from the clutches of the Germans. It turns out that her grandparents and her father's brother were murdered in Auschwitz. He becomes mentor to the Ambassador's children. After the war the Turkish family returns home. Blok’s father remains and goes on to work for the Dutch Embassy. It can surely be no coincidence that his diplomatic career, which will take the family to so many different countries, starts just across the street from the Turkish Embassy.
For Diana Blok this discovery is more than an insight into her youth, into her father's past and into the extraordinary nature of the family in which she grows up. The discovery leaves her with no choice but to return to thinking about her own identity. This has suddenly been superseded by the past. The question ‘who am I?’, particularly significant for someone who lives with and amongst different cultures, the question she considers to have been answered after so many years, has to be posed again.
In dealing with this process, she decides to complement the black and white 'still lifes' from her mother with a silent testimonial to her father's life. She takes photographs of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Color photos, zoomed in on details, printed in negative. Just as cryptic and suggestive as the life they will symbolize. She then goes to look in the family archives for additional and explanatory visual material. A conversation on film with the Ambassador's children gives an extra dimension to the incredible, far-reaching and existential story. ‘Time Tells’ has taken shape. The ambiguous title sums the project up perfectly.
The private, familial nature of ‘Time Tells’ might seem to isolate the project within Blok's oeuvre. This is certainly not the case. Over the years 'identity' is a theme that recurs time and again in her work.
In ‘Blood ties and other bonds’ (1986-1990) for instance she photographs family members and close friends. Usually naked, looking into the camera (or rather, at the photographer). A situation in which everyone is clearly at ease. Diana Blok says that the purpose of the project is to gain insight into her own roots. “Through making portraits of family and friends I could mirror myself by seeing them.”(4) Searching for her own identity via family and friends. One of the photographs is an iconic portrait of her parents. In loving togetherness: her mother's head resting on her father's shoulder, her long hair adorning his jacket. Her father's silenced past was clearly never an issue.
In ‘Possible Paradise’ from 2003 identity plays a different, dual role. It seems to be an objective filmed report of a brief stay in Suriname, but it is more. It is a depiction of how a country is and how it could be. Just like Blok, Suriname lurches backwards and forwards between different cultures: the culture of the colonial ruler and its own culture. Like the artist the country is searching for its identity. The exuberant colors – her early work was exclusively in black and white – turn it into an optimistic project.
‘See through us’ from 2009 portrays gay and transsexual life in Turkey. A group for whom 'identity' absolutely dominates day-to-day life, for whom secrecy is second nature. The question of ‘who am I?’ is urgent in a country where tradition and religion nurture and legitimize racism and homophobia. The way that Diana Blok can identify with these women and men and can therefore gain their trust so that they pose for her stems from a sense of recognition. The Latin America of her youth had the same taboos. ‘See through us’ is not simply a glimpse into the lives of her Turkish 'models', it brings her own past back to life.
In yet another respect ‘Time Tells’ is characteristic of Diana Blok's oeuvre. While it is true that she makes individual photographs, most of her works are projects that tell a story. A Brazilian story, a Caribbean story, a family history or an autobiographical story. Even in ‘Blending Archives’, the project that she does together with Pieter Bijwaard in 2010, where she combines images from her archives with taut drawings from his, she seems to be searching for a story, a story by way of association, in particular one that will make the contrasts complementary. There is a good reason why she prefers to conclude her projects with a publication. A book is the perfect way to tell a story, to place images in time. This is also one of the reasons that video and film form part of her work.
It is not only the content that enables her to tell, as in ‘Time Tells’, exceptional, emotionally charged and poetic stories, but it is the way she tells them. The people featured in her narratives feel at home in her story. Because they are allowed to be themselves, because they are not posed, because they are treated with respect, because they feel an affinity, because they understand the importance of the project. At the same time the viewer does not feel like a voyeur. He does not feel intimidated because he is being looked at. He is more likely to feel involved, making it easy for him to 'lose himself' in the story, as he would in a good book.
There is never an 'ending' to Diana Blok's stories. ‘Time Tells’ is no exception. She supplies the ingredients, she suggests, she leaves blank sections, she gives the present, the past and the future every freedom in the game they are playing with each other, she gives the viewer plenty of space to go looking for possible interpretations, to make his own story or to substitute his own story. This justifies the description as 'poetic'. She presents her images the same way as poets, such as Octavio Paz, present their words.
The fact that with ‘Time Tells’ she implicitly endorses his ideas about the past is more than a useful coincidence.
New York, July 2012.
1. Quote from an interview with Octavio Paz by Nathan Gardels in New Perspectives Quarterly, Volume 4, #1, Winter 1987;
2. Quote from this same interview;
3. How Diana Blok describes it in the explanatory text for the subsidy application to the Mondriaan Fonds, June 2012;
4. The words Diana Blok uses to elucidate this work on her website.
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