JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Blankt Papir Press (here). Folder-bound softcover (31 x 22 x 2 cm), 90 pages, with numerous black-and-white reproductions. Includes color illustrations, tipped in news-clippings, and text by Julia Mejnertsen. Edited and designed in collaboration with Alex Bocchetto (Akina) and Yumi Goto (Reminders Photography Stronghold). In a handmade edition of 45 copies. Cover available in four different colors. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Perhaps, because I continue to grapple with my own unresolved family history, buried somewhere between two wars that I didn’t witness and countries that no longer exist, I am drawn to stories that unearth the fragmentary lives of people’s pasts. To unearth such lives – those of ancestors and family members, historical figures, or people who simply slipped through the cracks of the arbitrary construct we call history – is always tricky. It can take various forms and modes of exploration. Archives and documents, photographs and letters, oral recollections and passed along memories. Depending, however, on the questions we dare to ask and the answers we hope to find, a story of “what was then?” can easily drift into one of “what ifs?” – into a place where imagination may become just as powerful as actual knowledge.
Blurring the boundaries between fact, fiction, and wishful thinking, M.M., by Danish artist Julia Mejnertsen, re-imagines the life of her great grandfather, Mejnert Mejnertsen – a Danish farmer who was born in 1892 and died at the age of seventy-one under mysterious circumstances in the USSR. Merging the formal elements of a spy novel, a movie script, and a visual search for traces, M.M. unfolds as an intricate personal narrative that is organized within three chapters, or sequences. Titled A, B, and C, all of them contain text, black-and-white photographs, news clippings, and color illustrations.
Each sequence begins with a short script excerpt, the full length of which is hidden within or behind the same, delicate French-fold page. If you want to read the script (which you don’t need to follow the story, but I recommend, nevertheless), you have to cut it open, carefully and considered, like you would do with a well-kept secret. What you’ll discover when doing so, are two intertwining storylines that are swiftly described, but more intriguingly experienced throughout the book. Stretching from the late 1920s to 2018, Mejnertsen’s story revolves around five characters that are of equal importance, even though they are not equally present in the text.
The first storyline is dedicated to J.M., a photographer and M.M.’s great granddaughter, and the discovery of her great grandfather’s forgotten belongings. These involve canisters containing developed negative film, and a letter. Asking her father about this discovery – M.M.’s grandson, who is caring but unable to help in retrieving further information – J.M. begins to scan the negatives. Her findings and resulting online and archival research are the visual heart of the book, and the core of the second storyline.
Meandering between further dialogues, atmospheric research descriptions, and evocatively informative notes accompanying some of the images, we slowly embark on an increasingly ominous journey. At first, we see images of fields, crops, and animals; of people farming or at leisure, in rural and urban settings. There are portraits of children, teenagers, and adults with haircuts and clothes typical of the 1930s and early 1940s. Then the imagery shifts. Enhanced, joined, or underlaid with Danish newspaper pages, handwritten notes, territorial maps, or lists of names and numbers, the photographs show men in military attire (some of them wearing Nazi uniforms), a few civilians, and, most importantly, airplanes. Accompanied by an intricate history of provenance, we learn that some of these British and French airplanes were re-painted to deceive the Nazis (assuming that my reading is correct), and later used in the evacuation of Dunkirk. You instantly wonder why and how M.M. was able to photograph them? In their conjunction, text and images suggest a possible connection to the Danish resistance movement, which is further complicated by the murder of Fred H. Ringer, a potential informer (respective news clippings recount, but don’t untangle the mystery).
The suspicion that M.M. may have been a spy takes another turn as we come across a letter written to him by a Danish farmer then living in the USSR (and married to an American woman). Asking him for information about a certain type of crop, we understand that M.M. repeatedly travelled to Russia. The resulting photographs, however, show little farm-related subject matter. Instead we see images and contact sheets of men and women in coats, secretly captured while secretly gathering; and of people photographing the photographer – some of whom are singled-out by a red grease-pen. The suspense is tangible, especially for the images’ pointed layout, which recalls visual tropes of a Cold War spy movie. But the story ends as bizarre and unresolved as it unfolds – with M.M.’s sudden death in 1964, as documented by Danish church records, which include a certificate from the Probate Court of Moscow.
The real surprise hits you, though, as you reach the end of M.M. Still pondering over the spread reproducing photographs of the forty-five canisters – their minute labels and dates, and the life (or what remains thereof) they encapsulate – a short note reveals their actual origin: purchased by Mejnertsen in 2017 (in a Danish antique shop), and enriched by family photographs, documents, and memorabilia. Cunning, you might think, and rightfully so.
The book’s successful disguise lies as much the multifaceted story it tells as in its deliberate design: the loose-leaf binder and the beautifully tactile pages, some of which are coated while others aren’t, and perfectly match the intimate, inquiring, or bewildering feel of the images. The tipped-in and glued-on details, which remind you that words and images are ultimately objects; and, of course, the old-time typewriter-font. Equally convincing are the yellow highlights marking important passages, and thereby keeping your gaze from getting lost within the material.
Conceptually, Mejnertsen’s approach recalls some of the work by Sophie Calle and Christian Boltanski, merging fictitious, hybrid narratives with images and objects that relate to personal, cultural, or historical memory. Yet these comparisons only hold on the surface. The inevitable moral dilemma I keep struggling with is the origin of Mejnertsen’s photographs and the historical baggage they carry – well-knowing that the questions concerning their intention and purpose may never be answered.
“I have always been, as I think most Danes are, intrigued by WWII and the Danish experience of being occupied by Germany,” Mejnertsen wrote me. “We have a national narrative that says that we were heroes during the time – we opposed the Germans, we helped the Danish Jews to safety in Sweden, we had a strong resistance movement. While all this is true, we also had a governmental collaboration policy that meant we were, in fact, supposed to work with the Germans.”
Mejnertsen also says that it is difficult “to mess with the history and narratives that form a nation, but history isn’t finite.”
As an artist whose projects explore subjects of family, roots, and identity, Mejnertsen admits to have always wondered, perhaps wished, that her family were part of the resistance movement and, therefore, part of her country’s heroic narrative, despite the absence of evidence. Born and raised in Germany, I can relate to this feeling (even though mine arises from within a culture that has undeniably been the perpetrator). Still, are we actually allowed to use found photographs pertaining to difficult histories to tell the stories we seek to hear?
I’m inclined to say no – or, rather, no, depending on the facts we manage (or don’t manage) to unearth. Treading these murky grounds, I return to book’s title. In Danish, M.M., the initials of Mejnertsen’s great grandfather, also means “et cetera” and denotes “a number of unspecified additional persons or things.” It is this sense of uncertainty, winding through Mejnertsen’s book, that I carry with me, as I wonder, how many times I have mistaken images, and their accompanying words, as agents of truth or entities to rely on.
Collector’s POV: Julia Mejnertsen does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).