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SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE, 1917 (1999)

catalogue essay

by Isobel Crombie

Clemenger Contemporary Art Award 1999

published by Heide and NGV 1999

Sometimes fate literally hands us unexpected opportunities. For Sue Ford a meeting with an

elderly aunt four years ago resulted in a package of old papers being pressed into her lap with

the words: 'You’ll do something with it won't you?’ The papers she was given were by her long

dead grandfather. Jim Keating: a short novel based on the diary he had written in the trenches

during World War 1. The story it told was a terrifying one of what it was like to be, ‘in hell with

Its lid blown clear offand somehow preserve your humanity.' The presence of her grandfather

reached through 80 years as clearly and intimately as a postcard written to her yesterday, and

a creative seed was sown.

That, so many generations of humans, with all their piled experience,

experiment, knowledge, wisdom: all the sum total thereof should have

culminated in this ogrish slaughter of our fellowmen.

Walking through a Greek museum, the faces are what Ford notices. These

classical sculptural busts carved so adroitly from marble.

The concept of the classical caries such connotations of bodily perfection that

the 'ordinariness' of their expressions comes as a surprise.

The emotions, thoughts and experiences of these everyday people have

inscribed themselves on the faces that she photographs.

A reassuring sense of their individuality is transmitted - these people too

struggled to cope with life, death and war.

One feels that over each of us, predestined fate has already set; but, I do also

feel Fate counts for little with the diggers, who by and large, is firstly a gambler

-- caring little whether it be choice, chance, dice or death -- he believes himself

to be amongst the most wonderful beings of time, motive and accomplishment

in a land and period where everything is exceptional..

The men are standing on the sandy banks of the Suez Canal. Most are naked, washing their bodies and rinsing the sweat out of their

clothes. There is a touching collegiality about the group, so unselfconscious in their nakedness as they bathe together: In the light of

history, this scrappy little photograph appears like a portent:  the young Australian bodies being cleansed before the sacrifice of war.

All of our institutions have failed lamentably when such a holocaust of humans was made possible.

Keating's expressive writing is a private history of the war; a

heartfelt story of horror and pain whose critical tone ensured

that it would never be published In its time. He titled the

work 'Somewhere In France, 1917’ and, true enough, he

never did know precisely where he was fighting. His

righteous anger and inherent compassion propelled his

journal safely through the decades, preserved in the hands

of family members, until it  reached its proper destination

with his artist grand--daughter:

This battle has not proved either side, right or wrong: it has

only produced casualties and pain and loss and bitterness

for many years to come.

Throughout her career, Ford's art practice has frequently

encompassed the relationship In Australian history between the present and the past. For her, then, Jim's journal was an extension of

this work. It proved a chance to explore, on many levels, how the actions and feelings associated with national and individual histories

Inform our lives today.

Footnote

I. All quotations used in this text from Jim Keating, Somewhere in France, 1917 (unpublished)