Memory, Place, Image: Photography in a post-truth age


An essay by Rachel Ciesla exploring perception and memory in relation to the work of PHOTO 2021 artists Justine Varga and Hayley Millar Baker.


“The poetic image […] is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of any image, the distant past resounds with echoes.”

― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space


“You have to hurry if you want to see something, everything is disappearing.”

― Cezanne


In urging ourselves to open up to an expanded poetics—beyond dates, beyond rationalist categorisations, and most importantly, beyond the retinal—Gaston Bachelard announced: we must listen to images…a listening that would unfold in the localised ‘spaces of our intimacy’. [1] These Bachelardian spaces are inhabited, made resonant and meaning-full by Hayley Millar Baker and Justine Varga as they operate in an ebullient yet still transient, phenomenological arena, deploying the photographic image and substance to salt an intimate memory with the specifics of the space in which an ‘it happened’ happened. Giving form to the invisible, unseen or otherwise imperceptible narratives that exist (persist) within regions of our living, both Millar Baker and Varga create assemblages of place composed from the traces of that which can be sensed and remembered by the body. Embedded within political and economic frameworks operative over broad spatial scales, their practices counter our contemporary condition of forgetting and forgetfulness, becoming an antidote to post-truth politics, and the ‘quasi pathological systematic infatuation with both the Now and the New.’ [2] The photographs of Millar Baker and Varga are subsequently and consequently archives of the immediate, a present that consists of its own memory, and its own reproduction.


Image: Justine Varga, Aggregate, 2018-19

Image: Justine Varga, Aggregate, 2018-19


If we can learn to listen to such carefully rendered images (and listening means being possessed by the image entirely through resonance and reverberation) then we can use this act of attention to understand how their work acts upon us. We can glean how it might change, or enable, us to apprehend a specific reality, one that is held between the bounds of the finite body and the infinite exterior world.

At once a material object and a multitude of paths, the photograph is a useful place to begin thinking about the threshold. The ability of the photograph to be both an ‘in-between’ and a gateway to a ‘beyond’. [3]

Disrupting photography’s technical linearity as referent (original), negative (trace), image (reproduction), Varga clearly treats both image and substrate as palimpsest—marking the negative with scratches, scrawls and secretions—she disrupts the surface of the image, rendering singular the process by which its current form has been derived from a multitude. While the digital production of images calls into question the future status of the referent in a production of images that is geared towards a repeated obliteration, Varga does not obliterate the support. Rather, her photographs are simultaneously referent, negative and image, and an existent articulation of the threshold.


Where then, can we locate the evasive threshold of the photograph if it is only revealed by a negative that it can never be reduced to, and if it can never be separated from a narrative that it nonetheless cannot directly display?


The photograph throws up the threshold as a possibility and a challenge, but do we ever really pass the threshold of the photograph—the moment, the artefact, the stillness—to reach that other place? [4]

Re-producing this, Varga allows this double act rather like Dados demonstrates, unfolding the liminal aspect of photography in order to stretch the image beyond the real/unreal. In her most recent series Tachisme, 2020, and throughout her career thus far, Varga continues to alter the ways in which we conceive of memory and time; she demonstrates how the photograph is a boundary between past and present, image and experience, existence and disappearance. Her earlier works Moving Out, 2012 and Sounding Silence, 2014, therefore evoke not just the physical aspects of the artist studio, but the affective dimensionality of that productive realm. This exploration of photography’s relationship to the physical world continues in her later works as she moved towards the production of photographs made both with and without a camera, and a decision to work directly with the surface of the photographic print. In detail, the creation of Varga’s photographs is a durational process, whereby the performance of bodily actions (scratching, handling, spitting, drawing on or cutting into), environmental conditions (light, water, earth and heat) and surrounding architectures (the studio, the body of the camera, and the darkroom) are all imparted onto the film. [5] Muddied with fingerprints and exposed to the light, Varga’s photographs breaks with hermetic tradition, processing and printing the traces of a lived experience. As phenomenological record, directly informed by time and place, the works fashion a breathing archive memory and emotion upon and within the body, by the world that surrounds it. In doing so, Varga reactivates the original purpose of the photograph, intended from its inception to be a visual conduit for writing. [6]

Image: Hayley Millar-Baker, detail from [I Will Survive], 2020. Courtesy the artist and Vivien Anderson Gallery.

Image: Hayley Millar-Baker, detail from I Will Survive, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Vivien Anderson Gallery.


Think about the surface, the gaze and the constant tricks of perception. We all have an ability to see one thing multiply. Rather than imagine that there is a fixed meaning for any image, we can view images as social tools, activating mnemonic elements that offer the possibility of sharing patterns of thought. By gazing at the images of Millar Baker and Varga does it bring us into another space; or does it merely transform our desire to name, decode and classify into a narrative that takes the place of the image? What does Millar Baker’s manipulation of archival images and Varga’s manipulation of the substrate tell us about the spatial and temporal dimensions of the threshold? If, as Homi Bhabha suggests, the same [cultural] signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized, and read anew. [7] Then the threshold of the photograph, this liminal space, marks a ‘dangerous territory’. [8]


For Millar Baker and Varga, photographs are, as above, assemblages of place and displacement; overwriting and overlaying their images to assert a presence in space. Both record that which can be sensed by the body, the negative itself being both referent and spectre—the ‘that-has-been’. [9] In this regard, the narrative-shaping of Millar Baker and Varga moves the image elsewhere outside the photograph itself—from the coasts and crevices of regional Victoria, to the artist’s studio in Sydney; to the streets and suburbs of Perth, the social and cultural landscape which I presently inhabit, to where I encounter their photographs. But what about the photographer’s narrative?


In examining the localisation of memory within the poetic image let us turn to Millar Baker’s The trees have no tongues, 2018. Self-described by the artist as being ‘a portal to the in-between’ [10], in these photographs we see a ghostly apparition gazing upon the suburban street which falls outside the home’s window frame. Two spectres, one of shadow and one of light, hum like a slow chord, their hazy borders edging slowly outwards from their mid-century suburban lounge room. At once at home, though uneasy; Millar Baker captures a physical space and the ghostly trace. A woman whose identity was fragmented across time and space; trough the undoing of millennia-old cultural practices by settler colonialism, of European sovereigns laying claim to the territories of the non-Christian inhabitants, the irreparable and resounding trauma of terra nullius. The trace is the ‘that-took-place-there’ of the image, what Jacques Derrida calls ‘survivance’. [11] These witnesses are survivors: they lived that and say so. Millar Baker leads us to encounter the ghosts haunting suburban homes, letting the specters haunt you with the images already seen.


To localise a memory in time is for the historian, or the biographer—a narrative to be externally communicated to others. Millar Baker is not a historian, nor is she writing her biography. Her photographs demonstrate that to alter our collective imagination, we must rid history of its conjunctive temporal tissue [12] so as to understand the meaning of our memories. In Untitled (The best means, of caring for, and dealing with them in the future), 2018, Millar Baker continues to slice away at history’s conjunctive temporal tissue. A white-washed steeple rises from the mountainous ruins of a crumbling mission, built from the granitic and volcanic stone of Gunditjmara country. [13] The disintegration of this historical building is amplified through photographic manipulation; doubling, inverting and piecing together fragments of this colonial edifice to lay bare the processes of place. Each extracted stone hums with the echoes of a distant past; a place concealed by whiteness as ‘the best means, of caring for, and dealing with them in the future,’ yet resounding with the knowledge of a country that has cared for its people for more than 60,000 years. The tension between fact and fiction is palpable, and troubled further by a fiction that is not necessarily ‘make believe’. While Varga abandoned the camera as the intermediary between the film surface and the record in order to approach photography as a sculptural means of witnessing and record-making, Millar Baker adopts a sculptural means to dismantle the photographic object. By cutting into and reassembling the landscape—the waterways, skies and trees—that was ‘fated to disappear’ [14], she co-opts the destructive and interruptive layering of colonialism upon Country, to create a photographic assemblage of Gunditjmara lands, tracing her matrilineal inheritance of dispossession and resilience across time and space. Similarly, through the photographic duplication of herself in I Will Survive, 2020, Millar Baker connotes the way in which memories of quite different events—of her own childhood and the stories passed down to her—multiply and interact across national and temporal boundaries, thereby strengthening rather than obscuring each other. By engaging with the complicated history of the site—its shadows and highlights—Millar Baker recognises how its current form is derived from this multitude, and demonstrates an understanding of memory not as a static entity, but as a circular, supple mode of representation and transmission. Through a twin act of deep listening and magical thinking, Millar Baker blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, young and old, past and present, providing us with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of history and culture as existing and intermingling across time and generations.


These are complicated scenarios, ones that both artists actualise and arrange, drawing from the body and from the landscape, in step with Bachelard, composing dynamic localisations in the spaces of our embroiled and implicated intimacy. Out of this determinacy, they operate as mirrors, witnesses, testimonies, and palimpsestic layers, suspending self-oriented, reactive thinking to make space for a sustained, patient listening such that they, these photographs, might record, might perform a truth. To hear these truths requires an acceptance of that which is not known as an experience of non-self and intimately self-focused-in-abeyance possession.

Rachel Ciesla is a curator and producer based in Boorloo/Perth. She was recently the Associate Curator, Projects at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and has held positions at PHOTO 2021, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne Art Fair and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. She is also a co-founder and co-editor of Heart of Hearts Press, a publisher and journal for contemporary art and literature.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

[2] Dieter Roelstraete, ‘The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art,’ e-flux journal 4 (March 2009): 3.

[3] Nour Dados, ‘Liminal Transformations: Folding the Surface of the Photograph,’ Seuils, Thresholds, Soglitudes 7 (2010): 1.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Aaron Lister, ‘Justine Varga: Areola’ in News from the Sun (Wellington: Bad News Books and City Gallery Wellington, 2020): 7-10, Exhibition catalogue.

[6] The photographic negative, termed skiagraphy or ‘words of light’ by its inventor William Henry Fox Talbot, refers to this notion of shadow writing and to the absence of the referent. A notion carried forth by Jacques Derrida who speaks of skiagraphy ‘as a simultaneous memory, a memory of the present, a division of the instant,’ and in doing so seeks to ‘imagine an archive that is somehow immediate, a present that consists of its own memory or its own reproduction?’ Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography, trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 1.

[7] Homi Bhabar, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

[8] Dados, ‘Liminal Transformations,’ 3.

[9] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 1993).

[10] ‘The trees have no tongues (2019),’ Hayley Millar Baker, accessed 27 July, 2020,

[11] Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Jousse, ‘Cinema and Its Ghosts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida,’ trans. Peggy Kamuf, Discourse 37, no. 1–2 (Winter/Spring 2015): 22–39.

[12] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

[13] ‘A Series of Unwarranted Events (2018),’ Hayley Millar Baker, accessed 27 July, 2020,

[14] ‘Tomorrow (2017)’, Hayley Millar Baker, accessed 27 July, 2020,

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