I decided to visit ‘Destination UK’ by Marion Trestler at the Austrian Cultural Forum following previous FMP (Final Major Project) research into portraiture. I knew nothing about the exhibition or the photographer, all I knew was that the content consisted solely of portraits.
I believe that much of what is important to achieve a successful piece of portraiture is the story behind the image. This was re-iterated on visiting the National Portrait Gallery where Sandy Nairne - director of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, put this into perspective. In his opening text for the exhibition he demonstrated that although it is a combination of brilliant location, lighting and style; subject and narrative play an important part.
Therefore I wanted to view the works first with no background knowledge and discover if once learning the story behind the portrait my perspectives change.
Erika Slowman - 1926 (UK 1947) Erna Robinson - 1925 (UK 1949)
I was surrounded by large and almost life scale images of beautiful older women. I already loved them as every line told a thousand words along with the direct eye contact made. The large scale of imagery made the subjects appear life size, and photographed in what I thought was there own personal space allowed for a personal connection to be made as you felt present in their environment. I soon noticed that there were only women presented and all of a similar age but, knew nothing of, who they are, why they were chosen to be photographed and the links between all these women (I assumed there was one due to the presence of only females of the same age range).
I was then taken on a tour across the two storey exhibition, where I was given the information behind the imagery and handed a book that related to what I was viewing. The tour guide was a great touch as I often don’t like to sit and read pages of writing or long exhibition captions while viewing artists works. She spoke through the photographers (Marion Trestler) concept and chose a selection of images to talk through which was brilliant as we were given the chance to respond, ask questions and form discussions surrounding the different pieces of imagery. As the speaker has a close relationship to the work, it also added a personal touch to the interactive experience, reflecting the personal qualities of the photographs.
The exhibition documents the life stories of Austrian immigrant women who moved to Britain after World War II. The photographer, Marion Trestler, who is Austrian herself travelled across the United Kingdom, interviewing and photographing her subjects to record their experiences, to capture engaging and intimate portraits that paint the quiet spirit and dignity of the adventurous women. The book that coexists with the exhibition records their reasons for leaving Austria and how they have adapted to a new life, a new language, new customs and the reaction of their arrival by post-war Britain.
Above demonstrates the layout of the accompanying book. Each women has a selection of pages which start with her Trestler portrait - the same as the exhibition image. Followed by her story written by the author both in English and in German. The subsequent pages contain words from the women themselves alongside imagery they have submitted.
Destination UK addresses social, political and physiological dimensions of female migration. On discovering the background to the images of the exhibition and looking at the coinciding book, stories began to develop as I discovered why they migrated and what drove them to move, love? work? escapism? adventure? curiosity? a thirst for experience? a new culture? The chronicle looks at family situations, social and economic circumstances and why Great Britain wanted them. My emotions consistently varied from sad to happy as I discovered why they left their families, friends and livelihoods in Austria to move to Britain. I think its wonderful that Trestler wanted to in her own words ‘record their experiences before they were lost forever’, she is preserving a history that little knowledge is understood or expressed about.
As I was about to leave the guide ran away to return with quotes from the women. Again, bringing a personal touch as you got a small snippet of what each subject thinks about Austria and England with relation to their experience. Many of these words expressed how homesick they were but how much they loved England, how they wouldn't change a thing; and frequent dispute between being Austrian and British arose:
"You can't get away from it. You have two cultures within you and people who don't have that don't understand
what it means; that you can come from somewhere and you can belong to another" - Josefine Macalister
"British or Austrian? Beises ist ja so ein Zwiespalt [it's a conflict in both cases]" - Erika Slowman
"And as soon as I have been in England I was homesick, but reply homesick; I was happy here but homesick.
And then in Austria I was homesick for England, would you believe it" - Trude Klobikovsky
I would have never have found this exhibition if it wasn't for a friend wanting to visit, as it's not widely advertised... So go take a look. Simple but personal and effective. The large scale of intimate portraits allowed for a life like presence which enables the audience to feel involved and invited into the personal space. Having the subject photographed in their own environment invites viewers into the subjects space and creates a connection. The coinciding narrative to the portraits is just as important, by altering perceptions on the image the story made them stronger. The nice touch of a guided tour created a more personal and interactive experience and the quotes alongside help to distinguish the stories and identify with the subjects thoughts in conflicting identity.
The Austrian Cultural Forum also hold lots of events a recent one I unfortunately missed was Austrian harpist Elisabeth Plank. I am sure to check out a few more of their upcoming events and exhibitions as I was re-assured they are free and involve a little free wine... win win!