Farlight has 16 installments
By Alison Glenny
London, July 2001
Claire was so preoccupied with her new job (with a publishing company) and flat ( a large shared house in South London) that when she saw Pia Morrow’s response to her email in her inbox, it was a moment before she recognised the signature.
Pia Morrow’s email began with an apology for her slow reply. She said that Claire’s message had given her a lot to think about. ‘Your grandmother from New Zealand was on the same expedition as my great-aunt Constance!’ she wrote. ‘What a crazy coincidence!’ She added that she was due to visit London in a few weeks’ time and would be interested to see Claire’s photographs. She suggested meeting for coffee, and proposed one of the cafés at the recently opened Tate Modern as a convenient place.
Claire, who had only seen a photograph of the artist, was unsure whether she’d recognise Pia Morrow, but she needn’t have worried. The artist stood out from the crowd. In fact, by comparison with both the native Londoners and tourists in their dark coats and jeans, she seemed almost luminous.
The creator of Mariage Blanc/White Wedding was dressed almost entirely in shades of white and cream. She wore a pale silk shirt, cropped white pants, and a cream wool shawl. The colour scheme extended to her white pom-pom socks and her canvas boots, which were the shade of pale straw. Pia Morrow was petite, with a long, straight nose and bleached hair, and she was wearing horn-rimmed glasses.
They ordered coffee, then sat in front of the tall windows that overlooked the Thames and framed the city and the dome of St Paul’s. Claire asked Pia Morrow about her great-aunt.
‘When I was a child,’ said Pia Morrow, ‘great-aunt Constance was already very old. To me, she seemed a crazy old lady. She had trained as a doctor, but by the time I knew her she had been a psychoanalyst for years. She and her husband – also an analyst – had a shared practice in Geneva.’ Pia Morrow stirred the foamed milk and cinnamon on the surface of her cup into the coffee below. ‘I remember visiting her in her consulting room. It was classically Freudian – a couch, oriental carpets, the primitive figurines. She collected statues of goddesses from all cultures. I believe there were a few pieces of modern art – including a bronze head of Nord, the leader of the Farlight expedition. But in my memory that piece is confused with all the others. . . By the way, have you ever happened to see the movies that Nord made in the Twenties, before she became an explorer?’
Claire shook her head. ‘Are they good?’
Pia Morrow shrugged. ‘Glorious and absurd. Overblown plots and melodrama. Romantic in a rather kitschy way. But if you focus just on the images, there is something oddly magical about them.’
Claire nodded. ‘You were telling me about your great-aunt’s room.’
‘Yes. I found it creepy, to be honest, slightly claustrophobic. In that room I always felt I was in the presence of secrets, hidden knowledge – most of it sexual.’
‘Perhaps that’s why you became interested in making art about rooms,’ Claire suggested.
Pia Morrow wagged her finger at her. ‘Very good,’ she said, ‘but I should warn you that I’m immune to psychoanalysis. It comes of having had analysts in the family.’ She sipped her coffee. ‘What about your grandmother? I presume she was a New Zealander?’
‘Actually, she was born in the United States. Ann was my grandfather’s second wife. He married her in the 1950s, after his children had grown up.’
‘She was the stepmother, then.’
‘Yes, but not like in the fairy tales! My family adored Ann.’
‘How did she and your grandfather meet?’
‘My father was on holiday in the States, and decided to visit the Grand Canyon. While he was there, he took a side trip to the Hoover Dam. He was an engineer, it was the 1950s, and New Zealand was starting to build hydro-electric dams. Ann was there too – taking pictures. She was a professional photographer and journalist, and the photographs were for an article on the bas relief sculptures designed by Oskar Hansen for the elevator towers on the dam. The story goes that my grandfather was so taken with Ann and her camera that he invited her to have dinner with him that evening. The next day over lunch in Boulder City, he asked her to marry him.’
‘That was quick. What did she say?’
‘She turned him down. She hardly knew him, and it must have seemed a mad idea, to leave everything she knew and go with him to New Zealand. But my grandfather was persistent. He kept writing to her from New Zealand, inviting her to visit. Finally she agreed. He met her in Christchurch and drove her into the mountains – the Southern Alps – and they went tramping and climbing together. By the end of the visit, she’d agreed to marry him.
Apparently she used to say that she married him for the mountains.’
That story had always been told as if it were a joke, but now, as she retold it to Pia Morrow, Claire was struck by the uneasy thought, what if it were true? As a child she’d believed her family history was somehow fated – that everything had turned out as it should. Now she sensed the possibility of other narratives, folded inside the story she’d grown up with, narratives in which her grandparent’s lives were characterised by accident and compromise.
Pia Morrow said, ‘May I see the photographs?’
Claire rummaged in her bag and pulled out the photos she’d retrieved from the desk. She’d bought a photo album with clear plastic sleeves, so she no longer had to keep them fastened with a rubber band. She gave the album to Pia Morrow, who turned the pages slowly.
‘Ann left most of her Antarctic photos to an archive,’ Claire said. ‘I’m not sure why these ones were still in her house. Perhaps she forgot about them, or didn’t think they were good enough to be preserved as part of a collection.’
‘Or they may have been experiments,’ Pia Morrow said. ‘It’s interesting. You can tell by the edges of these ones here that they are actual contacts, printed directly from the negatives. They look a little like snapshots,’ she added.
‘Did people take snapshots in those days?’
‘Not as much as today. But yes – my grandparents had whole albums full of them. Black and white of course.’
Pia Morrow examined one of the photographs more closely. ‘My goodness!-That’s great-aunt Constance! I’m sure of it.’
Claire peered at the image. The photograph was slightly over-exposed. It showed a young woman with a round face, gold-rimmed spectacles, and fair hair just visible under a woolen hat with ear flaps. She was sitting on a wooden chair in front of what appeared to be a cupboard containing jars, tubes, and boxes. There was a microscope case at the end of the table, which was a wooden board propped on packing cases, and just visible, leaning against the back wall, a pair of wooden skis.
‘My goodness,’ Pia Morrow breathed. ‘What do you know? She was really there! I always knew it, of course, but sometimes it seemed a little bit too strange to be true.’
‘Your great-aunt was the expedition doctor?’
‘I don’t imagine they took her along to psychoanalyse them! No, I assume that great-aunt Constance earned her place in the expedition by dispensing pills and diagnosing frostbite.’
Pia Morrow peered at the photograph again. ‘That cabinet must have been her dispensary.’
‘Did she ever talk about the expedition?’
‘I don’t remember her referring to her time in Antarctica at all. She used to say that people in Switzerland complained about the cold too much – that we were all soft. But then, the radiators in her apartment were always turned up high.’
‘Old age?’ Claire suggested.
Pia Morrow said, ‘Yes; the elderly have earned the right to be illogical.’ That wasn’t quite what Claire had meant, but she didn’t pursue it. ‘So she didn’t talk about the other expedition members?’
‘Not really. Although she may have referred to them in her book, if not by name. Some of the figures she discusses appear to be composites. The expedition leader, Nord, is the only one she discusses by name, and in any detail.’
‘Could I read the book?’ Claire asked.
‘Well, it’s in German, so that depends. But, to be honest, would you want to? I forced myself to once, over the summer holidays. Basically, great-aunt Constance argues that the desire to explore the polar regions comes from a childhood experience of maternal coldness or absence. She presents case studies of famous polar explorers to show they all had mothers who were either absent or withdrawn. She uses this to argue that they were driven to explore the polar regions by the desire for some impossible reunion with a remote maternal presence. “To crawl back into the icy womb, the fatal embrace of the withholding mother”, is how she describes it. According to her theory, polar exploration is a kind of elaborate desire for self-annihilation.’
‘And the reference to a supposed wedding that took place between two of the women? How does that fit into her theory?’
Pia Morrow smiled, showing small, slightly pointed teeth.
‘According to my great-aunt, it was an example of what she calls ‘confabulation’. A condition in which the sufferer mistakes fantasy for reality – motivated, of course, by the unconscious desire to disguise an inconsolable loss.’
‘You sound as if you don’t agree,’ said Claire.
Pia Morrow shrugged. ‘It seems a bit complicated,’ she said. ‘Maybe the two women just liked each other. I was married myself recently. Would you like to see some pictures of the wedding?’
She took out her wallet, smiling slightly as she thumbed through some photographs, before handing them to Claire, who peered at the images. The wedding appeared to have taken place in an unusual formal garden. It was very green, and the trees had been trimmed into dramatic sculptural shapes. Pia Morrow was recognisable in a white ensemble that was not too dissimilar to what she was wearing in the café. Her partner – also a woman – was wearing a garment that reminded Claire of a large chandelier.
‘We had the ceremony at a house in Zurich,’ Pia Morrow said. The garden was designed by a friend – a brilliant topiarist.’
‘Congratulations,’ Claire said. She added lamely, ‘You both look very nice’. She wondered whether marriage between two people of the same sex had legal status in Switzerland, but decided not to ask. Perhaps Pia Morrow and her partner considered the wedding as performance art.
‘Is that what inspired you to make White Wedding?’ Claire asked. ‘Because you were planning your own wedding at the time?’
‘Maybe,’ Pia Morrow said. ‘Although ever since reading great-aunt Constance’s book, I was thinking about how I could use it. For a while I had an idea for a video work that would project images of aircraft across clouds and icebergs. But to be honest, it wasn’t the pioneering flights that most appealed to me. I think it was probably more the curious fact of them being there at all. After all, for a lot of the time they didn’t do any flying at all. They spent an entire winter in a hut. Don’t you find that fascinating? Imagining what it must have been like – half a dozen women together in a hut, for an entire winter in Antarctica?’
‘I never really thought about it that way,’ Claire admitted. ‘I suppose I’ve always tended to see it from Ann’s point of view. I imagined that she spent most of her time either taking photographs or developing them. As well as writing about the expedition – she was there as a journalist, after all. She was meant to be recording it all.’
‘Yes,’ Pia Morrow agreed, ‘it wouldn’t have mattered very much to her whether they were flying or not.’
She said, ‘In your email you mentioned that you work for a publisher. You sound as if you’ve thought of writing about the expedition.’
‘I used to,’ Claire admitted. ‘But then I studied history. And I decided it wasn’t feasible – that there were too many gaps in the written record.’
Pia Morrow gave her point-toothed smile. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘How interesting. I love gaps in the written record. I find them highly stimulating. So much room for – what did great-aunt Constance call it? Confabulation.’