Notes on the making of Traverse

Sarah Tomasetti, 2016

I began the series Traverse in the half-light of memory and imaginings that surrounded my late mother and grandmother’s diaries of their trips to China in 1958 and 1936 respectively. These trips are bound up with my own consciousness of loss and the fictions of memory that build and scatter in the passing of time. The first journey was to Imperialist China, the second to be shown the achievements of Communism, two vastly different but connected political moments. Now a constantly expanding population is throwing peoples everywhere into a new problematic relationship with the Earth, an issue that dominates the present day political landscape in China.

The full colour images of my own recent trip to China seemed not to fit my purpose, so I began searching through the scarce documentation of glacial landscapes of the region from early in the 20th century. I went back to a book I inherited from my mother, by Victorian adventurer Isabella Bird*, and studied the tiny photographs taken of people she encountered along the road whilst travelling. These images brought to life my grandmother’s account of people she met, and simultaneously evoked something of the surge of displaced peoples the world is seeing now.

And so Traverse became a juxtaposition of, or rather a collision of, past and present. The glacial landscapes that feed the great rivers of the world as seen then, in early photographs, and now, via satellite imagery. They are, in a sense, beyond dominion, and emblematic of humanity’s struggle in the 21st century to come to terms with our dependence on the vast interconnected systems of the planet. We cannot own or inhabit these regions, but our survival is bound up with their protection. The mute faces of people negotiating an inhospitable world echo that ongoing effort.

The space is one of incoherence. Early film photographs, snapped in less than ideal conditions on the sides of dusty roads, with protagonists who often moved at the last minute creating a ghostly blur, seemed to echo the interior place I found myself in. I was trying to extract a narrative from a cross- generational encounter with a profound otherness that continually recedes from view.

Traverse is an attempt to capture that incoherence, to speak broadly of journey, memory and loss and an encounter with what is difficult and strange. The outer journey a metaphor for the shadowy regions of the interior one. This also speaks to separations of all kinds; the separation from familiar country and people, physically through the necessity of migration, and across time through death and displacement.

*BIRD, Isabella, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. First published by J Murray in 1899