In 2016, Chloe Dewe Mathews was invited to do an artist’s residency at the Verbier 3-D Foundation in the Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. The chosen theme was the so-called ‘Year Without a Summer’ of 1816, which followed the eruption of Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia. The eruption, which emitted a vast cloud of ash blocking sunlight across much of the world, caused temperatures to plummet, the dramatic weather changes leading to crop failure, starvation and mass migration.
Two centuries later, while researching the area’s history, Dewe Mathews came across the story of a local disaster that happened because of these weather changes. Between 1816 and 1818 the Giétroz Glacier built up to form a great dam of ice, which then burst its banks and tore up the valley below, leaving a trail of destruction all the way to Lake Geneva. She went on to discover that Mary Shelley had also been in the area during that summer-less year, staying on the shores of Lake Geneva with her husband Percy Bysshe and fellow Romantic poets Lord Byron and John Polidori.
Due to the unforeseen weather, the group were confined to their lodge and, with nothing to do, Byron challenged them all to write a ghost story. “Shelley was only 18 at the time and she was wracking her brains trying to think of a way to come up with a ghost story to contend with these older, much more experienced figures in the Romantic scene,” Dewe Mathews tells BJP. “Then, one night she had a waking dream in which the whole story of Frankenstein played out in front of her.
“After making the connection between Geneva, the Swiss Alps and the epiphany that inspired Mary Shelley to create her iconic work, I packed my old copy of Frankenstein and took it with me on my first trip to Switzerland,” she says.
Once in-situ, Dewe Mathews began talking to local people to unearth more about the region. In Verbier, she was told about a network of nuclear bunkers deep within the mountain, built on mass scale by the Swiss government in the 1960s to accommodate the country’s entire population in the event of nuclear disaster. For her, this was an unexpected discovery. Initially, the bunkers didn’t seem relevant to her project, but then she began drawing parallels between the robust, internal spaces of the bunkers, created to protect against a man-made disaster, and the questions Shelley’s novel raises about hubris, human nature, man-made disaster, and our destructive impact on the natural environment.
“The stark aesthetic contrast between these man-made fortresses and the fragility of the snow-covered slopes seemed to chime with Mary Shelley’s nightmarish vision, and became the substance of my project,” Dewe Mathews says.
“The research element is what enriches the work for me, because while I really love being in a landscape responding photographically and aesthetically, without the research it feels less full-bodied to me. It is about that balance between the two things in my work.”
On her return to England, Dewe Mathews was granted access to see the physical manuscript of Frankenstein itself at the Bodleian Library. “It is hard to describe my excitement at the intimate experience of seeing her frantic spidery handwriting; the corrections and additions that made up the initial draft of the novel,” she says. In fact, Dewe Mathews has incorporated reproductions of the Geneva Notebook – the first half of Mary Shelley’s original manuscript – into her forthcoming book, In Search of Frankenstein – Mary Shelley’s Nightmare.
“What’s so lovely about a manuscript is that it shows the inner workings of a mind; I think we’re all fascinated by the process of creativity,” she says. “Looking at the Frankenstein manuscript, you can actually Mary Shelley’s ideas forming on the page in front of you.”
While she spent one week at the residency, Dewe Mathews returned a year later to complete the project. Using a medium format camera, she enjoyed experimenting with the exposure on the side of the mountain, trying to get bleached-out images of the alpine landscape and “really pushing the exposure, so that the images almost melt or disintegrate.”
She adds, “when finishing a project, working out what to include and what to leave out is the biggest challenge of all,” but says that, as her work straddles the line between documentary and conceptual art, she tries to allow the viewer space to think about the subject and find their own way into the images, rather than being entirely literal. “I think that’s a delicate balance to achieve,” she says.
An exhibition of In Search of Frankenstein is on show at the British Library in London until Sunday 1 July 2018. Selected objects from the Shelley archive, including the first edition of Frankenstein, will be on display in the nearby Treasures Gallery for the duration of the exhibition.
The artist book In Search of Frankenstein – Mary Shelley’s Nightmare will be released in April 2018 by the independent publishing house Kodoji Press. The book combines Dewe Mathews’ photographs with reproductions of the Geneva Notebook: the first half of Mary Shelley’s original manuscript. chloedewemathews.com
In Search of Frankensteinis a Photo London satellite event https://photolondon.org/public-programme/satellite-events/