Mitchell Engel

Artist Catalogue

Virtual Exhibition

Pulvis et Umbra Sumus – We are Dust and Shadow

My body of work is a response to a quote from Horace’s Odes IV 7, ‘Pulvis et Umbra Sumus’, translated as ‘We are Dust and Shadow’. It is a provocation through which to explore the notion of memory, as well as it and life’s intrinsically ephemeral nature. The primary area of exploration is within my own family’s archive, particularly to preserve it from being lost and enshrouded in obscurity.

This photographic investigation is characterised by a deep curiosity and an inner conflict regarding the preservation of the family lineage through procreation, as well as the experience of grief. My project becomes a form of personal preservation, a means to exhume memories and understand my place within the family's history. In engaging themes of ephemerality and mortality, I find alternative ways of navigating bereavement without overtly involving departed loved ones.

The motif of burning and light plays a significant role, encompassing both historical and personal elements. It relates to my great-great-great grandfather's research on phototherapy, as well as tragic events in the family's past involving burns and cremation, namely my brother who passed just over a year ago, who was cremated. My mother, sister, and I collectively share the wish to be cremated as a viable alternative to traditional burial, and this ties into the biblical concept of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," symbolising destruction and rebirth. These motifs of light and fire are therefore allegorically representative of destruction and rebirth: of a fading and incineration of treasured memories over time, yet inclusive of an experiential materialisation of loss and fading in the form of varying photographic techniques.

The book Pulvis et Umbra Sumus – We are Dust and Shadow - is a collection of collages comprising found text pieces and re-photographed images of departed family members. The inclusion of concealed eyes, a customary practice after someone's passing, respects their identity. The book concludes with mention of my late grandmother and a superimposition of my distant relatives in my living room, a way of contrasting my intrigue of the past with the present or future in terms of lineage. It thereby insinuates the idea of the familial archive having a posthumous spectral presence.

In Self-Immersion, a series of photographic transfers onto canvas, I interact with objects from my family's past, reanimating them and inserting myself into the family narrative for which I had often felt like an outsider. The inclusion of myself signifies my own eventual inclusion in the archive and acknowledges the impermanence of my own story.

The second book, Topographies of Memory delves into landscapes as memories of ancestral habitation, exploring the tension between the known and what remains obscure. Here I lapse in poetry and storytelling, briefly touching on my own connection to this enigmatic history and the notion of nostalgia.

The final book, Talismanic Treasures: A Visual Inheritance features photographed objects with deeply personal significance. These objects hold core memories, especially with those gifted by loved ones who have passed away. As I do not intend to continue the familial bloodline, these objects represent what I will physically leave behind.

The kallitype series titled Silver Séance, alludes to the use of ultraviolet light in my ancestors' practices. Kallitypes, known for their poor archival properties, symbolise the inevitability of fading. The use of ultraviolet light's transformative capabilities in creating kallitypes holds both profoundly historical and figurative significance, in that I am using the same technology as that of my ancestors to ‘resurrect’ the archive, akin to a form of necromancy. The removal of my ancestors' eyes in the images symbolises their absence and fading of their past selves (they are no longer physically present to see or be seen).

The film component of the project focuses on my own history, featuring childhood video footage with my great-grandmother. It alludes to life's impermanence, using fire and smoke allegorically to emphasise the transitory nature of existence. That is to say that in the end, we are all ‘dust and shadows’.