Contents Of A Dead Relative's Handbag

The Latvian National Museum of Art, 2007.

Curated by Ineta Zelca.

 “What I want to seek…was the actual image of this point of no return, the consciousness of this radical fracture. What I wanted to interrogate, to throw into question, to test… were my own roots in this non-place, this absence, this fissure, on which any such quest for the trace, the word, the Other is based.”


George Perec

Ellis Island: Description of a Project

from Je Suis né: 1979


In 2004 I went to Latvia to search for my family who were last heard of prior to the Second World War. The project was to continue the concepts, explored in previous works, Traces and Re-creation Seascape and Re-creation Sky, of myth, as well as concepts of fictive, collective and individual memory.


The only hard evidence I managed to find as to the existence of my Latvian family is the tattered identity card application form for a woman by the name of Frieda Bernitz dated from 1920.


Contents of a Dead Relatives Handbag is an installation of eight paintings, partly inspired by objects on display in the Museum of Occupation in Riga and by my own objects and painted on canvas using oil, acrylic and human hair. The size of the canvas follows the exact dimensions of the passport photograph of Frieda Bernitz found on her application form and enlarged by 100cm. Each object has been chosen to represent the mythic contents of her handbag.


Shown alongside the paintings, in a custom made wooden, glass fronted display case, lined in felt, are 21 small brown labels, like those used in museum storage. They are printed with text, which may or may not pertain to an object that is depicted, but instead serves to create an alternative narrative.

The labels become like archaeological or forensic artefacts.  They are placed in a display case, attached to the felt by pins. The objects having been placed in the case are the scatted with dust collected over time from my apartment, removing the objects leaves only their impression, suggesting looting, theft and loss.


Contents can be seen as archaeology of myth and memory. Usually the contents of a person’s handbag are intimate with the objects revealing a clue as to the identity of the owner or their life. However, the objects in this case are symbolic of other stories too vast to depict – they are beyond imagination.

The work seeks to explore simultaneous existence in the past and present day collective memory, while memorializing the incompletion, the gaps and the flaws in my dead family’s modern image. Frieda Bernitz existed and through the absences, the disparity in her story I can explore the concept of this existence, non-existence, uncertainty and memory.