In Conversation with Darcy Frey
Transcript of an interview by Darcy Frey, director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University, with writer Joan Wickersham and Adam Davies discussing their multi-media collaboration inspired by the Swedish warship Vasa.
Published Summer 2021, Scandinavian Review
Darcy Frey: I'm curious to hear about the beginnings of this project.
Joan Wickersham: My husband read about the Vasa in National Geographic magazine when he was six years old, in the early ’60s, just when the ship had been raised after being rediscovered at the bottom of Stockholm harbor. So when he and I visited Stockholm on a vacation in 2013 he wanted to see the Vasa Museum.
I’d had no idea what to expect, and I fell in love. You walk through three sets of double doors, and suddenly you're in this dark gloomy space the size of a hockey rink and there is this massive ship coming at you out of the gloom. It feels as if you’ve accidentally wandered into a secret space where a mythological creature is hiding. When we got back to the United States I started to write prose poems evoked by the ship. I did a lot of reading about Vasa and her history, and I began making yearly trips to Stockholm, to see the ship and the museum and to write.
The ship embodies a whole set of paradoxes. It should have gone out from the harbor and had a career as a warship, and it would have either been burned or sunk or wrecked on some rocks. The only reason it survived was that it was a colossal failure – a fiasco. It didn't do its job, when its job was really to get lost and forgotten. The way the ship is displayed in the museum makes time seem ambiguous and compressed, as if everything that ever happened to it is all happening at once.
Joan, what you've written spokes out from the story of the ship in all sorts of unexpected directions. You inhabit the mind, or you speak in conversation to, the widow of the shipbuilder; you speak to the shipworm; you speak to one figure who survived the wreck and one who didn't. You found your way imaginatively into all sorts of different portals.
JW: When something in a museum stirs you, part of what it does it to bring up your personal associations. These small human objects that were found with the ship – you recognize them as your own things. A sewing kit. A game board. A clock. A button. The story of Vasa was a big historical story, but it also was a small story of the possessions we have and the things we treasure. You feel the helplessness of being caught by some unexpected tragedy, along with whatever is around you.
These visits to Stockholm unlocked a lot of the feelings that I had about my mother's death. She was very suddenly paralyzed, and she had to go to a hospital and then eventually to a nursing home. She never got to go back to her house. And I would go into her house, and everything there was just the same as at that moment when this terrible event had happened to her.
I think I was at a point in my life where I was trying to reckon with my own failures and my sense of what had gone well and what hadn't. I was starting to see the shape of my life and to reckon with my own mortality.
How did the collaboration with Adam come about?
JW: We both teach in the summer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Adam gave a presentation of his work one night, and I was so blown away by his photographs – their beauty, and also his emotional eye – that I suddenly wondered what he would do with the Vasa. His photographs are monumental in scale; but they're also incredibly precise about small objects and small details. I had never thought of having images with this project, but I wanted to see what Adam's eye would do with it.
Adam Davies: It was an adventure that made sense to me. Something that attracted me to Joan’s work is her precision with language and the way that sentences seem to fall. There’s a rhythm to the language and for me that's really important in photographs as well, this sense that everything has importance and everything has meaning.
It was very much one of these processes where each of us was doing a little bit and the other person was responding and going in a different direction, which would lead to some new idea that pushed the project further and further.
Adam, when you first went into the museum what was it that stirred your visual imagination?
AD: To me it felt like a tomb. There's this very dark object, resting inside a concrete construction, and people file around it. It became a goal for me to break the hold the building had on the ship. The architects who had designed that building had done such an intense and strong job of trying to craft people's viewpoints of the ship that I was always looking for a way to subvert it, to see it from a different point of view, a different angle.
The museum was lighting the ship as an object on display, and what I wanted to capture in the photographs was something more emotional and evocative. The idea I had was of this object appearing out of darkness, and to achieve that we had to work with the museum to turn off all the lighting and use natural light.
One of the ideas and images I had was of the divers who had found the Vasa again for the first time. The ship was so filled with mud that they could barely see it – they were trying to find it by touch. That really stuck with me as a way of trying to create an image.
I’m struck by the incredible depth of focus that you achieve. Foreground and background seem almost equally precise, and I wonder if you could speak about how you achieve that effect.
AD: It's a very slow process, using a very small aperture. All these pictures were done on a tripod; the shortest exposure was half a minute, and the longest was 45 or 50 minutes. Instead of expansiveness, it's more about going deep into the picture frame. These photographs were all shot on large format film negatives and then they were scanned and printed digitally.
There's such originality and daring in both the literary and the visual components of the project. Was it similar to, or a great departure from, the work that you each had done previously?
JW: The Suicide Index is a memoir of my father's suicide – what led up to it and the impact that it had on our family, and that book was structured in the form of an index. My next book was called The News from Spain and that's fiction: seven unconventional love stories, each of which is called
The News from Spain but the title means something very different in each story. So both of these were very highly structured books about very messy subjects. The index was the spine of the memoir and the idea of the stories all having the same title was the spine of The News from Spain. For me the ship itself is the spine of this project, and gives it a kind of place from which it can go shooting off in all directions.
AD: For about five years I’d been doing work that was mainly around bridges and tunnels, different types of infrastructure. At first I was interested in how these structures changed the landscape and also were being absorbed by the landscape. Then increasingly I got interested in the way people were using that space, the subculture that existed in these spaces. I think in general my interest is in these delicate subversions of space.
This very much applies to the Vasa; it was designed to be a warship but it never actually functioned in that role. It deviated very quickly from its original path, and started to be used in ways that were different and unexpected, and to take on other meanings.
JW: The 17th century had the convention of vanitas paintings, where they would paint a skull on a table with a candle, with the ideas of mortality and transience. You were supposed to contemplate the skull and think
I will one day be that skull and that skull was once a human being, and nobody avoids that, it's inevitable. I think the Vasa is that kind of contemplative object. It encompasses all the cycles of being built, having a mission, failing in that mission, being somehow resurrected, and now deteriorating again. It stirs our deepest feelings about success and failure, mortality and corruption and preservation.