WG Sebald: Far away – but from where?

Open to commemorate what would have been author WG Sebald’s 75th Birthday, the Sainsbury Centre’s exhibition Far away – but from where? is an elegant display of works by celebrated contemporary artists and Sebald’s own photographic archive, meant to reflect on his writing from an interdisciplinary, nearly philosophical perspective. Having joined UEA in 1970 as a lecturer, and appointed chair of European Literature in 1988, Sebald’s involvement with the university means that the Sainsbury Centre has had exclusive access to the university’s archives to explore the writer’s own use of photography.

Writing after the end of the Second World War, Sebald’s writing reflects on themes of memory and loss, identity and displacement, and is concerned with the way in which literature both records and blurs our perspective of place and the passing of time. The public is able to question such issues in relation to visual art, engaging with the ways in which Sebald’s own pictures, which he took while he researched for the mapping of his narratives in his book Austerliz (2001) travelling across Europe, documented and enriched his writing with personal experience. The exhibition also puts on display the way in which Sebald re-used and re-contextualised photographs that he would find in junk shops, often reproduced as grainy black and white bookplates alongside his written work, and which informed and documented his writing process.

Is photography able to stop time? To fragment memory? How does the visual alter our vision of perspective, document the fading of remembrance, or preserve it? Such questions appeared to be at the heart of the curating process of this exhibition, which displayed, in conversation with Sebald’s written and photographic work, visual art by artists who responded to themes of migration, memory and transience. The public would navigate through the visual to access the political questions that appear in the author’s post-war writing.

The exhibition displayed the work of Tess Jaray, which consisted of a series of written fragments extracted from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) and Vertigo (1990) shown alongside her abstract images. The collaborative work allows the writing to be experienced as poetry rather than prose, fragmenting and re-contextualising the writer’s large works into visual statements that powerfully questioned the limits of fiction and knowledge. A large-scale six-panel work by Julie Mehretu, using the technique of photogravure (fusing photography and etching) also featured as a response to the tension between remembrance and erasure that threaded through the exhibition. Finally, a film by Tacita Dean about poet and Sebald’s friend Michael Hamburger was screened to fuse the writer’s personal relationships and the themes that he explored through his work.

A meditation through the thin line existing between literature and the visual, between fact and fiction, memory and loss, the exhibition is a platform for the public to engage and experience, through art and unique archival documents, the latent political themes and the interdisciplinarity of Sebald’s written work.

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October 2021
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