SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE, 1917 (1999)
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 off' and 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.
I. All quotations used in this text from Jim Keating, Somewhere in France, 1917 (unpublished)