When the monster comes, we shout ‘Watch Out!’ … which is how the Latin monstrare – to watch or to show – came to inform our word for the inhuman creature that haunts our dreams. The etymology is freighted with monere, too; to warn.
By rich and varied textual and visual methods, Chloe Dewe Mathews delivers a timely warning with her new book In Search of Frankenstein. Like many writers and artists before her, she has reanimated the endlessly fascinating story of man’s hubris by Mary Shelley, during a residency in Val de Bagnes, Switzerland.
The deep green book, bound to look like a travel journal with a red ribbon bookmark, is dense with hand-writing, and its concomitant nullifications. The hand belonged to Shelley herself, and is a facsimile reproduction from The Geneva Notebook, housed in Oxford’s Bodleian library, forming part of the original manuscript. The writing is more or less unintelligible, not least because it is overlaid frequently with Dewe Mathews’ photographs. Clearly the photographer is transfixed by the text, its content and its form. Its ‘ frantic, spidery’ style reflects the emotional state of the author as much as the content of the tale, and offers a reading superior to a typewritten page. Like the pauses and coughs of spoken testimony, textual aberrations can speak volumes. In selecting the hand-written text over the finished novel, Dewe Mathews is validating Shelley as the true author of Frankenstein (sometimes said to be Shelley’s husband, Percy, because such a young woman – she was just 19 when she finished writing the novel– couldn’t possibly understand or create such complex philosophical argument. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft…).
The reader is first transported to 1816, when the Shelleys, Lord Byron and his doctor John Polidori, were staying on the shores of Lake Geneva, in the grip of strange climatic conditions, following the explosion of the Giétroz Glacier, in which gallons of water, ice and rock tore a devastating path from the mountain to the lake. The ‘Débacle de Giétroz’ was caused by the eruption thousands of miles away of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the year prior. A deadly cloud of ash blocked out sunlight across Asia, North America and Europe, leading to crop failure and starvation. As Dewe Mathews writes: ‘1816 became the Year Without Summer.’ As the inclement weather confined the group to their houses by the lake, Byron challenged his friends to write a ghost story. Mary Shelley was at a loss as to how to undertake the feat, until one night she was subjected to a terrifying hypnagogic hallucination. Whether influenced by fashionable talk of ‘galvanism’ (reanimating a corpse) among her party, or by her recent loss of a premature baby, she knew she had her subject, and out-wrote the famous Romantic poets with her enduring and prescient story.
There is a subtle critique within The Search for Frankenstein of a hyper-masculine Romanticism, as embodied in traditions of contemporary landscape photography as in C18th and C19th century painting. If we consider the way in which Dewe Mathews used landscape to retell the stories of soldiers killed for cowardice in Shot at Dawn, the lineage is clear. Dewe Mathews focuses of course on the spectacular mountainous landscapes for this body of work, but as backdrop to contrasting interior spaces. As nature-writer Nan Shepherd wrote of the Cairngorms, a mountain has an ‘inside’, and the Alpine inside here is a network of bunkers, built by the Swiss government in the 1960s to provide refuge and medical assistance in case of nuclear disaster. The photographs of the ‘inside’ look like abandoned rooms, filled with abject items of cleaning equipment, disused signage, rolls of paper arranged on industrial scale shelving. Several of the rooms, containing variously a bed, showering facilities and a lone bucket, are decorated in unmistakably pastel hues, adding a surreal touch to these otherwise stark subterranean chambers.
In order to magnify the contrast, Dewe Mathews purposely over-exposed for the snow-whiteness of the exterior, which had, in any case, turned an off-grey: ‘The grey bulk of melting glacier became, like Frankenstein’s creation, an embodiment of human folly,’ she writes in her introduction. The vast snow-covered rocky expanses that would once have been perceived with due awe, as their summits touched the very heavens, now remind us more than ever of our collective failure to protect the natural world, even as we have the means to play God. Dewe Mathews captures this sense adroitly in an image of three statues, their heads bowed in reverie, as though they might be praying for the future of the glaciers. Michelangelo said that every block of marble possesses a sculpture within, and it is for the sculptor to find it. With this photograph, it is Dewe Mathews’ eye that has carved these spectral figures from the mountain, whose futile task is to try to guard their land; already lost forever. Along with a couple of plastic human skeletons in a teaching room inside the mountain, these apparitions offer the only semblance of human figures.
Somewhere in the spaces between these two registers of imagery, there is an odd conflation between Switzerland’s status as a place where death itself can be controlled via medical euthanasia, and the preserving qualities of ice, which have preserved and returned fallen walkers in fact and fiction. In W G Sebald’s The Emigrants, the narrator chances upon a newspaper article, which details the recovery of Johannes Naegeli, recovered in the Oberaar glacier. ‘They are ever returning to us, the dead,’ observes the narrator. The dead and the undead still haunt these mountains.
Dewe Mathews is such a talented image-maker that she might well have created a large-scale book of colour photographs. Yet her decision to create this at times frustrating image-text is crucial to the cautionary tale she wishes to convey; that the human hand can create monstrousness in fact as in fiction. ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night,’ pronounces the nameless creature to its creator, Dr Frankenstein. This utterance stands among the most terrifying sentences in English literature … yet we have not heeded the warning. The ‘hideous progeny’ of Dr Frankenstein did indeed go forth and prosper. Shelley’s darkest observation is surely that human race seems fated to sow the seeds of its own destruction in its endless quest for knowledge and power – the original Faustian pact. While the nuclear threat may not be as pressing as it was during the Cold War, environmental disaster seems unstoppable. Even the fictional monster has presaged this future fact in this near-perfect rendition of the Anthropocene:
‘The cold stars shone in mockery, and the bare trees waved their branches above me; now and then the sweet voice of a bird burst forth amidst the universal stillness. All, save I, were at rest or in enjoyment; I, like the arch-fiend, bore a hell within me, and finding myself unsympathized with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin.’
Dewe Mathews has not utilised the photographic image as she might easily have done, to ‘enjoy the ruin’ but has instead created an awkward, brilliant and discursive intervention into the pursuit of knowledge and its consequences. As scary as Mary.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Max Houghton
In Search of Frankenstein , an exhibition of photographs by Chloe Dewe Mathews, continues at the British Library, London until 1 July 2018 and will travel to Impressions Gallery, Bradford 5 October 2018 – 5 January 2019
Below, two images from In Search of Frankenstein © Chloe Dewe Mathews