An artist confronting grief has the almost insurmountable task of expressing deep, complex feelings to complete strangers. This is especially true for an artist dealing with the death of a parent. It is even more so when the death was an apparent suicide.
Artist Peter Watkins manages to bring his audience of strangers into his inner world, allowing them an intimate glimpse of his pain in his art installation, “The Unforgetting.” He uses photography overlayed with multimedia treatments that breathe new life into the motionless stills. He couples these with physical objects that he places meticulously to direct our attention to their deeper meaning.
Deep Grief at a Tender Age
When Watkins was just 9 years old, his mother ended her life by throwing herself into the North Sea. “The Unforgetting” is partly a look at the mystery of her life and partly an explanation of the impact that her death had on her son. It is also an examination of our collective relationship with grief and death.
In one piece, Watkins displays the knapsack that his mother took with her on the day that she died. The knapsack in itself has little meaning. But knowing that she took it with her that day gives the piece an eerie quality. The bag is closed tightly, so we can’t see what’s inside. This adds to the mystery, and is a beautiful metaphor for her death. The viewer identifies with the fact that she hid parts of herself, as we all do. This gives us a strong sense of her complex emotions and her richness as a human being.
Most of the pieces focus on Watkins’ mother, such as her baptismal dress, which looks as if it’s floating in water. But other photographs, like the self-portrait below, offer a far more personal look at Watkins himself. The artist explains that the inspiration for the piece was his research on Chinese holistic medicine — specifically the practice of cupping, which practitioners use to relieve physical pain. (They place heated cups on the skin, and the suction they produce results in large bruises.) For Watkins, the bruises represent both his emotional pain and his efforts to relieve it.
Another powerful piece in Watkins’ installation is a series of photographs of his mother at 9 years old — the same age Watkins was when she died. It is a powerful reminder of the hidden, eerie connection between the two. Both unsettling and poetic, the images show us how terribly young Watkins was when he experienced this immense grief. They also give us a glimpse of the fact that his mother was once a happy child despite the pain she felt in her later years.
“The Unforgetting” shows us that grief is a constantly evolving emotion. Filled with bits and pieces of memories intertwined with new experiences, it is a part of our personalities. It’s a collage of thoughts and feelings that never entirely disappear. They merely take on new form.