Conceptual artist (°1950). Working with photography as documents (registrations) from the middle seventies until now.
About the project Monuments:
In January 2011, I decided to photograph all the personal roadside memorials that I encountered during my perambulations along the highways of Europe. These places are usually in remembrance of young victims of traffic accidents and situated where it is difficult to photograph – such as hard shoulders and verges - due to heavy traffic. These poignant memorial spots are essentially public expressions of grief.
They generally consist of objects that remind one of the youth of the victim – plastic flowers, soft toys, favourite toys and knickknacks of all kinds - and spread out from a central point: a photograph. The photograph is often labelled with the victim’s name, date of birth and date of death. Sometimes there are texts and statements about the victim, or newspaper articles that report the story of the accident. Anodyne poems may complete the picture.
In Belgium, the cross is often used as a symbol of death. But I tried as much as possible to avoid the memorials that display this symbol too prominently.
These places of reflection indicate the need for long-term, publicly visible mourning, regardless of whether the deceased is to blame for the circumstances of their death. They are often maintained by relatives in an on-going battle against the elements. Does this reflect an unfinished grieving process or a need to permanently commemorate the dead?
These monuments are also aimed at reminding the unsuspecting motorist of the dangers of reckless driving. The association Ouders Van Verongelukte Kinderen (Parents of Children Killed in Road Accidents) provides SAVE signs that add an air of respectability to the roadside memorials.
Not all of these memorials are as noticeable as the SAVE signs. There are those that over time have become barely distinguishable from their surroundings, requiring a sharp eye to find them. The forgotten dead? Have the loved ones completed their mourning process and moved on?
In Monuments I took on the challenge of portraying these places that one so often simply drives past. It was not my intention to take perfect pictures. The project has more of a documentary flavour (1).
Such memorials are mainlines to tragic events and therefore subject to overwhelming emotion. This probably explains the limited, somewhat chaotic nature of the structures. If an aesthetic experience has to do with order then one can say that this is completely lacking in the roadside monuments: taking the “right” photograph is therefore not easy. The visual impact can be difficult to capture photographically.
As with the project No Trespassing (2), Monuments is born from the compulsion to catalogue and archive. Neither the ritualistic memorials nor the “No Trespassing” signs are exactly prominent artefacts: they are located on the fringes of society. One encounters them "en passant", on a walk when it comes to No Trespassing or driving in the case of the roadside shrines. They find their visibility in the dissonance of their positions in their environments.
These monuments of sublimated grief still grab my attention. They are both simple and complex. The “No Trespassing” signs also remain fascinating to me. Just as with the latter, I will allow this project to run and continue to take pictures until such a time as I no longer feel able to add to the complicated narrative that these monuments to mourning evokes in me.
Daniël Dewaele, September 2017
(1) Signs of Disagreement is another project with a documentary style. These photographs show black flags that have been hung out – in the city and environs – in silent but visually powerful protest against decisions taken by government without or with barely any say by the people.
(2) I began the No Trespassing project in 1976. Ever since, I have been photographing every sign with the text “no trespassing” or “private property” that I have come across. The hundreds of photographs are exhibited in rows next to each other. The work is a confrontation with our territorial behaviour. But it is also a statement about art as a “No Access” zone: active participation in this project is not possible.
In 1976, I made my own territorial behaviour explicit by placing a sign reading “Reserved for Daniël Dewaele". This statement was the start of a project that prioritised the participation of third parties and that had no hierarchical structure.
Participation projects include: "Art Against Unemployment" 1979, "Art And Society, Are There Solutions?"1984-1986, "Nice To Be Also Represented" 2002.