Several months ago Sibylle Fendt asked me if I would be willing to write her a text for her soon to be published book “Gärtners´ Voyage”. So I did:
Life tells many stories, but most of them remain unheard. / His hand on her hand, she feels his touch. And the journey begins, wearing a summer hat, stopping for short breaks, tomatoes on the table, sun falling on her face, small clouds up in the sky and above all the fresh air. / Everyday moments can be so trivial and yet it is these moments that are the source of real happiness. And even if the ground you are standing on seems to be slipping away, and from one moment to the next it feels like everything has changed, even then you need to experience the occasional uplifting moment, however short it may be.
Falling Down and Rising Up Again – that is how Sibylle Fendt named one of her projects. And there are days, which are hard to stomach – days, when you really feel like it’s best just to remain in bed or stay put. But then all could be lost – or so we are made to believe. Sibylle Fendt takes pictures of people that are emotionally, mentally or physically damaged but are nevertheless willing to fight. They are fighting for their health and for an inner equilibrium.
To be ill means you are different. It means you are unable to function. Being ill often means you are seen as suffering from a defect. / And we, who remain able to function – however much we may be struggling – look away and try and avoid reading the writing on the wall. / But Sibylle Fendt manages to capture what it is we are trying to avoid. She makes us take a closer look and makes us realise that those suffering from illness are not as different as we may think.
Gärtners’ Voyage is not a report about the mental and physical decline of a woman suffering from dementia and it is not a report about the sometimes indescribable effort that goes into caring for a person who is increasingly loosing control of themselves and their bodily functions. / What we see is a man and a woman, presumably a couple. We see the man mowing the lawn and see the woman standing by, looking somewhat incapable. We see the man hanging up washing and see him getting the woman dressed. We see him doing her hair and notice that he is holding her like a child. / Something seems out of balance. But we can only presume so, we do not know. Because photos do not offer extensive information, they are unable to shed light on the context and they cannot fully explain what is going on. They simply depict a given moment. But sometimes they illustrate more than can be seen at first sight. That’s it – plain and simple, and yet it can be so much more complex. / Often however photos are accompanied by words. They change our perception of things and images.
The knowledge of Elke Gärtner’s disease is the key that opens Sibylle Fendt’s work to our wider understanding. / Looking shy and introverted, in an empty hall, which is lit up but still quite dark and shady, a woman is gazing at the floor. It may not be cold in this room, but it looks as if she is shivering nonetheless and holding on to herself for reassurance. / Memories disappear, they vanish bit by bit. Places and streets be-come unfamiliar, as do objects and loved ones. Even the present starts becoming something that is unfamiliar. / Nothing is tangible, there is nothing to hold on to, everything seems dislocated. Life becomes an approxi¬mation and the gaping hole is filled with something that is known as fear. And this fear starts to spread and multiply. /That is how it might feel, deep inside. And in situations like this it helps, if someone is there. /That woman is like a child now and is happy that someone is there. She senses that she is being touched. That is something that will last. It helps to deal with the disorientating and fear-ridden loneliness.
So often photographs depict the obvious misfortune of others by showing shocking images. And in pictures like that it is not ourselves we are looking at – we are not the starving body, we are not the people, who appear to be so different to ourselves. The stimulus is overpowering, the distance is too great, we avert our gaze without really being deeply moved by what we have seen. / Sibylle Fendt’s photos, if at all, only very cautiously depict the everyday hardship that life entails for people suffering from dementia and their relatives. / A plaster on a shinbone, a burn on a hand – they both hint at the dangers that Elke Gärtner is continuously surrounded by, because she is no longer able to take care of herself. / And so Lothar Gärtner takes responsibility for her, continuously, re¬lentlessly, 24 hours a day, until – despite all his efforts – a mishap occurs that cannot be prevented. / And all the time it is clear that one of them is going to outlive the other. But time will pass until then.
And so the two Gärtners set out on their last journey together. Courageous indeed, but also upsetting. / Husband and mobile home become the last anchors of stability in this woman’s life / He holds her tight. And long after she has lost the ability to speak, she writes down a simple sentence on a notepad. A note that is presumably addressed to him. The sentence is repeated three times:
I want you to be.
We rarely hear about the kind of love that is evident in these pictures. It is very well observed whilst avoiding sentimentality. It has an element of everyday love about it, but at the same time it is also something very special. And that is when we think, this is how things might be and this is real.