Margareta Kern: Cloth, Memory and Photography
Selected by Pippa Oldfield
Margareta Kern is concerned with teasing out the connecting threads between women’s lives, employment, migration, politics and clothing. Leaving her homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the outbreak of civil war in 1992, Kern has since been based in the UK, working as an artist and curator. Weaving together photography, video, performance and text, Kern describes her approach as a kind of anthropology, albeit one whose conventions are complicated by the artist’s insider-outsider status, both part of and separate to the culture she investigates.
Margareta Kern Clothes for Death, Rosa (Banjice, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2007
Margareta Kern Nevena (John Galiano dress), Graduation Dresses Series, 2005
As a photography curator, I am particularly fascinated by her exploration of the relationship between cloth, memory and photography. Cloth, with its intimate relationship to the human body and cultural or ritualistic function can become loaded with memory. Whilst works such as Trish Morrissey’s 'Eighteen and Forty Five' (2004) and Jessa Fairbrother’s 'I Did' (2007) have explored the wedding dress as a catalyst for memory, Kern has chosen to photograph alternative rites of passage, such as the graduation ball.
'Graduation Dresses' (2005 and ongoing) was inspired by her mother (a dressmaker in Bosnia-Herzegovina) who produces made-to-measure copies of couture gowns for young women. Like photographs, these dresses capture a fleeting moment, recording the subject poised on the brink of adulthood, full of hopes and doubts for the future. Both the photographs and dresses function as receptacles of memory, to be preserved and looked back upon when the wearer is old. This process is intriguingly reversed in 'Clothes for Death' (2006 and ongoing), a series of portraits depicting elderly women in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina who have selected the clothes in which they wish to be buried.
The semiotician C.S. Peirce has influentially proposed the concept of the index, in which there is a direct causal connection between an image or object and its referent. Photographs are considered indexes, made by light reflecting the physical presence of their subject. Like photographs, cloth can be indexical, retaining the shape, scent, and imperceptible physical traces of the wearer.  In this way, Kern’s photographs of clothing - traces of traces - function as potent double receptacles of memory, powerfully evoking the absent body across time.
Margareta Kern Mara (Orubica, Croatia), from the Clothes for Death series, 2007
1. For more information see Edward C Moore (ed). Charles S Peirce: The Essential Writings, (London: Prometheus books, 1998).
Pippa Oldfield is Senior Programme Manager at Impressions Gallery, Bradford, and a Doctoral Fellow at Durham University.
Margareta Kern on Axis
Jessa Fairbrother on Axis
More information about Pippa Oldfield