Searching for Ramya
POMO Gallery, Milan

A conversation between Petra Stavast, the artist and Saul Marcadent, the curator

SAUL  In Ramya, as in your other projects, photography is a tool of reconstruction, return and invention of memory. Tell me about it.

PETRA  Memory and the medium of photography, in my opinion, are indissolubly connected. Besides that, and partial due to that, I feel very in place in a “reconstructing role”. The first time a critic used the term “reconstruction” regarding my work I was shocked actually… It gave me an important and reassuring insight on my process. Reconstructing, or in this case rebuilding, works as an umbrella under which I can allow myself the freedom to collect, unravel, translate and structure in order to compile a story, my version of a story. Memory in itself I find a fascinating process. Starting from the original, the actual situation: over time, what does one keep, what does one neglect, forget and what does remain? Memory, as I look at it, in itself is reconstructing.

SAUL  Searching for Ramya includes only some of the chapters of the book. We decided to proceed by taking away and, suddenly, you have preferred to focus on one aspect of the whole project: the portrait.

PETRA  Indeed. In the process of making
a book or an exhibition, it is always a matter of translating the material and the complexity of the story into a new medium, investigating its specific possibilities and limitations. In this case, while we were working and talking on a translation for POMO, our talk about our aim to make a clear gesture in the exhibition stayed humming in my mind. I found it beautiful how you thought of the space as a book, using the window as a cover. In the case of Ramya, a lot of different stories derived from the content of the book could be displayed but without the text of the book, it is easily to appear as scattered. The main theme in the whole project is my search for “The Portrait of Ramya”, both visually – as in the many portraits I made, gained and gathered of her – but also concerning the content, where I searched for Ramya as well. In this line of thinking, the title was born an all fell into place.

SAUL  Why did you choose to investigate the story of Ramya, why did you choose her story?

PETRA  Actually, it wasn’t a matter of choosing. In a way, the story chose me (laughs…). At first, I documented what happened in my own life, meeting her was part of that. I met her by accident when

I needed a room in Amsterdam in 2001 for an internship with a photographer and became fascinated by her. At first, she was quiet and later on, she told me the most strange stories of her life, merely in the past. She had lived such a reckless life while I was nearly 20 years old, just left my parents house in a small village and full of energy and curiosity towards the world, towards life beyond what I knew. But the first year, I didn’t see our contact and the images I made of her as a project. I was practicing photography as a student still, getting to know the camera and also I wanted to overcome my fear of portraiture. It struck me afterwards, after living with her for a year and getting my own house, that the series of photos that I made of her over that period were more than just practicing. In just a few days, I made a selection of the material, made it into a hand-made booklet and graduated with honors. After that, we became good friends, I kept on portraying her from time to time and after she died quite unexpectedly, some storylines that were already there just happened to fall into my hands. For instance the chapter of the pictures where her downstairs neighbor Bob photographed her secretly from his window: Bob asked me to help him to clear out her apartment and while we were doing that, he gave me a CD with all those images out of the blue. Also we found the papers of the self-help-course attached to the VHS-tapes, beautiful material just laying there for someone to find it. Those series of events and the beautiful intriguing material made me realize that there was more to be found and I started to look at it, again, as a project, re-opening a project so to say. What drove me in all of this in general was my never ending curiosity towards her. Everything contributed to that and still does – starting with her name, her house, her (constantly changing) appearance, the many unfinished stories she told me about her life and the stories of others about her that often are so opposed.

SAUL  I think of this project as a sort of script, a personal rewrite of the life of someone else. What fascinates you in this process?

PETRA  My fascination goes out to Ramya, that comes first. I am fascinated about the many storylines that opened themselves up to me, as an artist and as a person, just by being there and being sensitive enough to recognize them as being valuable.
In general, like I think I told before, I feel confident in the process of reconstructing something. The freedom I feel while gathering, transforming and translating is important to me, although this freedom doesn’t result in fiction: I try to stay away from fiction in re-writing someone’s history, it just never crossed my mind to do so. I do shift perspectives so the story doesn’t reveal itself as one fluent narrative, there are a lot of holes and contradictions. I have an unlimited urge to dig deeper, loosing myself in details, searching for Ramya on all levels and from all perspectives that are in my reach. Every image, letter or conversation can be a starting point for a new investigation, a new part of the total. It’s also fascinating how form follows content; each storyline has its own structure, it just extorts itself.

SAUL  Projects like Ramya or previous Libero (2009) although penetrating into personal lives are never voyeuristic. Rather, I scan in your choice the need to start from individual stories to tell collective feelings. Do I observe your work and your research from the right point of view?

PETRA  Yes, this is indeed the case, although I never intend this at the start of a project; projects, in my case, already started before I realize it myself, since the connection with my personal life and the events happening there are so interlaced. Once I’m aware that something might be viable as a project, I try to oversee and reflect the situation from a wider, less personal perspective, resulting from the need to achieve a compelling story that is legible for others. What might make my stories tangible for a wider audience are the many different and complementary views on a subject, some more impassable than others. In the process of gathering information and making work, I slip in and out different perspectives from what might be divided as the in- and the outsider. This is rather subconscious and not consequent at all to be honest… but towards the end, I open the process up to others, while editing a book with a designer or arranging an exhibition with a curator and in that part of the process, decisions are made very consciously: what is too vague, what is too explanative. Still, this balance is not
set following a standard; we set our own standard following our own ideas. To connect this to your question when you mention “collective feelings”: I think this personal idea is for a significant part based on what is my understanding of these collective feelings.