Lewis Bush: The Memory of History

History has come to an end many times in Europe, and with each successive conclusion, memories thought consigned to the collective unconscious have only returned to haunt the continent.  Compelled to examine the effects of the recent Eurozone crisis, Lewis Bush travelled across Europe in 2012 to discover how the cycle of collective amnesia could have returned with such vengeance.

In each of Lewis Bush’s images, history threatens to recommence once more as traces of the past return in the most incongruous of details, cracks in the steel and plastic sculpture which sits at the entrance of the European central bank, bullet marks scattered across a Franco-Prussian war monument, a no-entry sign lies at the foot of the gates to a synagogue in Budapest.  Partly inspired by the cliffhanger conclusion of Paul Graham’s seminal New Europe in which the continent seemed poised on an ideological crossroads, Bush employs a fragmented narrative to continue Graham's investigation into how formerly linear accounts of history can fracture so easily.

Originally self-published as The Memory of History in 2012, Bush revisits and updates his work for a new edition and exhibition of prints, opening on September 17th at London’s 12 Star Gallery.  Taking into consideration the rash of recent proclamations which have declared the Euro crisis an unfortunate episode already consigned to the history books, the insights offered by the  The Memory of History appear even more prescient than when first published two years ago.

We recently spoke to Lewis to find out more.

Alan Knox: What first inspired you undertake such an epic project?

Lewis Bush: Mainly a sense that we were at a really pivotal moment for the continent. It seems hard to remember it now but people were seriously talking about the possibility that not just the Euro, but the entire European Union might collapse. I suppose I wanted to see this first hand.

Bulgarian Fighter Jet: Sofia, Bulgaria: 2012

AK: I’m thinking of the context in which Paul Graham’s New Europe was made, published only one year after Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.  The last image in New Europe of the maimed man surveying a brutalist building scheme hinted that history would not remain dormant for long, in what respect does The Memory of History bookend New Europe and Fukuyama’s almost celebratory declarations of the early 90’s?

LB: I’m glad you brought up Graham, and Fukuyama, both were significant but differing influences on the project. As you say to Graham’s book left some very big questions open at its end, and there was a definite intent on my part to offer a coda to some of these questions. Graham was troubled by the idea that the wounds of Europe could be traded for consumerism and prosperity, we’ve seen how right he was to doubt the integrity of that exchange.Fukuyama was one of a number of inspirations for the texts, his ideas interested me because as well as taking specific historical events like the collapse of the Soviet Union as a way to evidence an ideology, he was doing the same thing with the structure and behaviour of history itself. My texts are partly intended to complicate this, and indeed any all-encompassing view of history, by stripping the idea of the past back to some of its most basic but irreconcilable elements.

Designer Fashion Boutique: Athens, Greece: 2012

AK: Could you describe the path you took through Europe when photographing The Memory of History?  Were there nations and sites you knew you had to visit?

LB: My path was defined by a mixture of pragmatism, research and chance. I wanted to first visit the places that were least badly hit by the recession, and which were playing the biggest role in deciding how events in Europe played out. So it made sense to travel through the north of the continent, through countries like France and Germany, and then swing around and travel back through the southern countries which were suffering most. Which countries I visited was defined by their role in the European Union, my knowledge of their history, transport options, and a few other factors.  The chance element of things proved very important in the project and some of the best images came from things I could never have researched or anticipated.

AK: Could you describe your editing criteria for such a mammoth project?  How did you decide which details to include and which to omit?

LB: Once I’d narrowed it down to several hundred images I printed those as small cards and then carried them around with me for several weeks. I’d look them over on the bus or arrange them on tables if I had some spare time. That way I started to see connections forming between the photographs. The final selection was based on a strange mixture of picking photographs with quite precise histories behind them, but also picking ones that had enough ambiguity that they could be interpreted in different ways by different people. To give you an example, the image of the red star emerging from behind the Bulgarian insignia on a fighter jet has been interpreted in a number of different ways by different people. I was very conscious of the legacy of the Soviet era when I took that photograph, but one Bulgarian friend for example read it quite differently, as being about the Turkish presence in the country and in Europe more generally.

Franco-Prussian War Monument: Berlin, Germany: 2012 
AK: What updates have you made to the book to reflect the acceleration of events in Europe during the past two years?  Have these events brought a new context to the project or merely confirmed it’s premise?

LB: The updates have mainly involved restructuring the book, slightly rewriting some of the essays to clarify them and framing everything with an introduction which tries to look at events with a little more distance. It was harder when I first self-published the book at the end of 2012 because everything was still so current. Two years on we can view things with some hindsight. Now we can see the Euro crisis itself gradually passing into history, and I suppose in turn creating its own scars and traumas which the continent may find itself having to come to terms with again at some stage in the future.

AK: The boxed editions of The Memory of History contain 12 books containing writing on a number of issues relating to the European project.  Can you describe how these texts aid in mediating between your vision of Europe and the viewer’s?

LB: The texts were written in such a way that I hope means they can be comfortably read by someone with no knowledge of the photographic part of this project. They are framed in terms of the recession, but make relatively little direct reference to it. As I mention earlier a large part of their purpose was to complicate our conception of the past and of history as a practice, views which most of us learn in school and which tend to be quite rigid and unimaginative. Some of the chapters examine fairly familiar historical concepts, but they also try to introduce ideas like randomness and synchronicity, the importance of which historians are less often prepared to acknowledge, but which I believe are key in the way we recall and construct past events. Some attempt to trace the shared origins of history, nationalism and photography. Some ask what becomes of the memories which are not possible to integrate into narrative of the mainstream, of the stories which fall by the wayside.

Carabinieri in Riot Gear: Rome, Italy: 2012

AK: The title of the project drew me to a quote by Pierre Nora when writing on the need to create spaces to contain memory,

“-we have gone from the idea of a visible past to one of an invisible past; -from a history that we believe lay in continuity of some sort of memory to memory that we think of as projected onto the discontinuity of history. – We discover the truth about our memory when we discover how alienated from it we are.”

What truths do you think photography can reveal about the nature of the collective European unconscious?

LB: That’s a great quote. I’m not sure about the collective unconscious, for me photography very effectively reveals the fragmentation and discontinuity in our conscious recall of the past, because that’s exactly what photography does itself. It fragments and breaks apart the things we experience as a coherent and ongoing flow of events.  The traditional model of history and photography, certainly journalistic photography, is to attempt to recreate the flow of events as closely as possible from what material is available, but that’s something I actively tried to resist with this project by producing it as a box of loose images and texts, a narrative form that is inherently non-linear and fragmented.

Site of the East German Parliament: Berlin, Germany: 2012  

AK: Do you view The Memory of History as an ongoing project?

LB; It’s the sort of project which is tempting to view as unfinished, I could certainly continue to produce more material on the same theme, but you have to question what value that adds. The detail in the project is in the cracks between the images, where a viewer’s own imagination hopefully takes over. Adding more material seems to close down the possibilities for that to happen.

The Memory of History displays at the 12 Star Gallery, Europe House, 32 Smith Square in London from the 17th until 26th of September.  View more of the series at lewisbush.com.


— Alan Knox