DAMAGED: RUIN AND DECAY IN WALKER EVAN'S PHOTOGRAPHS

Presented at the Walker Evans: Reading the Magazine Work International Symposium at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne 7 October 2016.

Abstract:

In an interview in 1974 Walker Evans described photography in terms of its illusive nature as “the thing itself is such a secret and so unapproachable.” He thought of his simple and straightforward photography as an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminated in an amazing accident that arose so convincingly to speak to a generation of Americans. This paper will explore his photographs that imaged the ruin and decay of everyday life in America and what he called the “aesthetically rejected subject.”


Walker evans, [Workers Loading Neon "Damaged" Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City] 1928-30 Metropolitan museum of art, new york

Walker evans, [Workers Loading Neon "Damaged" Sign into Truck, West Eleventh Street, New York City] 1928-30 Metropolitan museum of art, new york

In 1943, Walker Evans reviewed a book by J.M. Richards titled The Bombed Buildings of Britain for Time magazine, remarking on the “peculiar aesthetic” of the “architecture of destruction,” a theme as David Campany notes, which is central to Evans’ photography.[1] This theme or interest of Evans was well established prior to this review in what I consider as a critique of the unravelling of American culture that so intrigued Evans in his quest for the “aesthetically rejected subject.”[2] He once postulated an aesthetic of the ruin and the rejected saying “A ruin is more interesting than a freshly completed building. It shows the effect of time and experience.”[3] Evans’ interest in ruin aesthetics found its way into photographs by way of the subject matter: debris, decay and the obsolete. For example, in the December 1930 issue of Creative Art, four photographs by Evans were published in a spread that celebrated the modern city, the first being this image of a giant electric sign ‘Damaged’ being loaded onto the back of a truck.[4] This simple sign and its rendition in this iconic photograph recalls Evans’ own thoughts on photography as an “unconscious phenomenon” that culminated in amazing accidents of composition. The photograph seems to portend the many photographs to come that image decaying towns, streets and the “appallingly damaged group of human beings” —as James Agee described the subjects of his project with Evans—titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.[5]

Evans’ almost forensic analysis of the everyday urban subject has much in common with Eugene Atget, the documenter of old Paris, much lauded by the surrealists for his uncanny photographs. A critic of the decadent and mysterious tricks of the avant-garde, Evans was drawn to Atget’s photographic renditions of the Parisian environs, for “his trained observation of it, special feeling for patina, [and] eye for revealing detail”, as he puts it.[6] Atget’s documents, as he himself referred to them, have a directness that appealed to Evans and in an interview with Paul Cummings in 1971 Evans discussed the definition of his work as being in a documentary style rather than being documentary photographs. The difference lay he said in that “a documentary photograph is a police report of a dead body or an automobile accident or something like that. But the style of detachment and record is another matter. That applied to the world around us is what I do with the camera, what I want to see done with the camera.”[7] Despite this position, Evans recognised that the photographic intentions of Atget were unclear and it is possible to read into the photographs “many things he may never have formulated for himself.”[8] I take this position today to look again at some of Evans’ photographs of damage, ruin and decay.

Damaged:

Evans used the magazine spread to form a narrative and it is over a sequence of photographs that we can read connections and disconnections - both in the images—and in the gaps in-between. Hence, in the article Mr. Walker Evans records a City’s scene, the photographer who is trained in “modern Continental methods”, selected four examples that convey the essence of vivid city life. The first titled Truck and Sign is printed below Dadaist style typography, which the magazine describes as “intended to convey in symbolism—as it were, to typify—the blended babel of such a modern city’s life.” The second and final images reiterate the energy of the city, evoking both the visual and verbal cacophony of the urban throng. Printed along the long edge of the magazine, the city diner, full of workers on their lunch break are unsympathetically captured by the camera. You can almost hear the chatter of people and clatter of knives and forks as they hurriedly gobble their food washed down with ice-cold milk – a scene that Evans referred to in the caption as “the foundations of dyspepsia for the million.” The third image of the SS Leviathan sits between these two loud photographs and is offered as an “unexpected monument of calm” that is in contrast to the agitated stridency of the opposite photograph. The photograph implies a visual pause in its abstraction, and yet it connects us back to the first image with its angular nature and contrast of black and white. This visual array, presented over four pages is loaded with visual connections and oppositions that are typical of Evans’ magazine work.

The Wreckers

Evans’ sense of the temporary nature of things is poignantly rendered with harsh wit in a portfolio of photographs for Fortune Magazine from May 1951. In opening the text up as a humouring and cruel buttress to the forlorn, yet colourful imagery, Evans describes the event as the “almost loving destruction of a building seems to answer a deep human need that is surely akin to humour, to impudence, and to the balm of irreverence. Hence, the rapt sidewalk attendance at spectacles of demolition.”[9] In an almost jeering text, Evans remarks on the public’s sheer delight in witnessing the demise of these stone and concrete reminders of former upper-class glory, much like the celebratory songs enunciated at executions in the days of the French revolution or England’s reign of Henry the VIII. The scene, suggests Evans, is best viewed when the building is half demolished and the gleeful wreckers have gone for the day. “Then the torn flower-designs, the wounded beams, the indecent laths, and the entrails of iron weave their most complex spell.”[10] Evans’ corporeal descriptions and oddly anthropomorphic captions are intertwined with photographs that lay bare the interiors of these former New York buildings: The Ritz Hotel, town houses and the Fulton Fish Market; all appearing ruin-like in their forced destruction and dismembered parts.

Evans’ scrapbooks in which he pasted collected imagery such as postcards, news images and articles, reinforce this interest or perhaps fascination with the ruin and the corporeal, abject form. It is through these collected images that we can extend a reading of Evans’ work beyond the descriptive and expected. Hence, we find Cuban news photographs of corpses in the street, which Evans rephotographed and kept as 8 x 10 copy negatives, an act of appropriation that confuses authorship and originality, much like Sherrie Levine’s photographic series After Walker Evans. In these scrapbooks we also find anatomical drawings of foetuses, the lynching of an African-American man, illustrations of toilets, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and images of violence and death. Most pertinent here are images of an electric chair and the news article about the execution of murderer Ruth Snyder by electrocution titled “Crowds follow Ruth and Judd to Grave.” What is it about these found pictures that fascinated Evans and how might we think about the ways in which they developed a critical eye that makes its presence felt in his ongoing photographic endeavours?

The Aesthetically Rejected Subject

Evans’ photographic approach to the ruin and the detritus of everyday life is not limited to the made world but rather extends into the realm of the human subject. His 1936 project with the writer James Agee was a commission to record the lives of three share-cropping families affected by the depression, which culminated in the 1941 book Let us now praise famous men. As in in holding photography as congruent with its referent, Agee remarked that the camera was the central instrument of the time. “If I could do it,” argued Agee, “I’d do no writing here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.” Describing Evans’ photo book American Photographs as honest, uncompromising but also dangerous and loaded with distressing unease, Agee sets the scene for how we can read many of these revealing images of lost and forgotten people living on the edge of existence.

The framing of many of these images, which is often changed in the final book or magazine layout, is revealing of Evans’ strange looking. For example, in this image on the right [Fireplace and Wall detail in another bedroom], the subject of the photo is not centrally placed but rather is positioned off to one side, despite the presence of two matching vases on the mantle. Surrounding the fireplace is an odd assortment of objects, pictures and markings captured by Evans that reveal his concept of the unconscious phenomenon and also recalls Benjamin’s optical unconscious. On the table that sits in front of the fireplace, covered by a scrap of white paper, a pair of shoes, Sunday bests, are placed to dry, their heels caked in mud. Atop the table are vases and a wrapped object suggesting a mummified cat. On the wall a calendar hangs with the month of August’s young lady sporting a dashing hat and holding a bloom of flowers, flanked on either side by what appear to be family photos or decorative images. Underneath this, indecipherable words are carved into the wooden lining. To the right an array of pictures from a children’s book are crudely nailed to the wall and most oddly a left handprint is evident, which is matched on the other side, just visible at the edge of the picture. So while the inhabitants are absent from this photograph, their traces rub up against the surface of the print in a palpable and yet grotesque way, their poor attempts at decorative homemaking made somehow repulsive by Evans’ unsympathetic and disembodied camera. As Lincoln Kirstein remarks, Evans captures the facts without poetic distortion, acting like “a kind of disembodied burrowing eye,” “stepping cautiously so as to disturb no dust from the normal atmosphere of the average place.”[11]

People and Places in Trouble

In a photo-essay for Fortune in March 1961 titled ‘People and Places In Trouble’, Evans uses the magazine’s pages and a sequence of images to build a picture of the poor and unemployed. The images are accompanied by a short text written by Evans, in which he claims that the plain photograph represents the sheer personal distress of the subject clearer than any sociologist prose or government report. He uses the photographs of the willing participants to voice their own “inept quietude, their inability to convey their intense stupefaction of the will, and hardening of the spirit” as he puts it. Across the four-page photo-essay, Evans weaves a visual thread of despair, loneliness and an intense feeling of obsoleteness. Nevertheless, these people are in fact remotely observed, reflecting fellow photographer Leo Rubinfien’s reflections that it “is far from clear that poverty is the point of his best pictures.”[12] One could perceive Evans’ early work as laced with contempt and you could argue that his photographs for the planned photo-essay with Agee for the US Resettlement Administration, is less about an altruistic or essentialist attitude, but rather an exacting forensic approach that used the mediating lens of the camera to remove him physically and emotionally from his subjects.

This sense of a keen class-minded or socially aware eye pervades many of Evans’ photographs and yet his photographic approach to his subjects is not imbued with pity or awe but rather a matter-of-fact presence that claims to reinforce an even-handed analysis. However, recent scholarship, that contextualises his life through his many diaries and letters, recasts Evans as a cruel commentator.[13] He was a keen diarist and in his entry for 4 July 1935 Evans wrote of his encounter with locals as he drove through West Virginia: “There a homecoming of natives, very degenerate natives, mush faced, apathetic, the pall of ignorance on all sides. Photographed the most gruesome specimens.”[14] As Evans is not, according to his own view, a social-minded reporter, how can we read empathy in any of these pictures? In his afterword to the primary book of Evans’ career, American Photographs in 1938, Kirstein wrote that Evans’ “pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin.”[15] The ruin here, I would argue, is not a structure such as a majestic out-of-style hotel, but rather America itself seen through the lens of its forgotten citizens and through Evans’ harshly critical and at times cruel, contemptuous eye. Evans himself thought that the “The secret of photography is that the camera takes on the character and the personality of its handler.”[16]

Unconscious Phenomenon

Seen in light of his own extensive archival image record and diary entries, Evans’ photographs and, in particular his photo-essays, seem to constantly rub things up against each other in the desire to create a type of friction that tests the boundaries of representation. His analytical and seemingly cold rendition of people on the edge forms a tension that sears the image. This can also be seen in the juxtaposition of vernacular houses, figures and mass-produced billboards, which was, John Tagg argued, something that Evans attuned himself to notice.[17]

This tension is present in his photographs that over a period of time reflect his tendency to search for oppositions that in part recall his interest in the unconscious phenomenon and the aesthetically rejected subject. Using his archaeological lens he captured aspirational images of advertising billboards such as this for a triple-A hotel in Florida followed two years later by this of a Negro house in New Orleans. The contrasts and tensions don’t just flow across images through series or via his unique vision of America; they are also painfully present in the individual photographic frames. Like Margaret Bourke-White, Evans’ trained eye sought out strange juxtapositions such as can be seen here with the Heinz advertising billboard for Tomato Ketchup on the left with a dilapidated house on the right that hosts an endless number of African-American inhabitants. At this time he was using a large format camera with a tripod, and while some of the tenants are clearly intrigued by his behaviour, others were either oblivious or purposefully turning their back on the photographer.

As a cultural archaeologist or an undertaker, not only was Evans drawn to photographing the murky undercurrents of life but also to other photographers’ renditions of drab and weary representations of America. In writing about an interior photograph by Wright Morris, Evans extolls the virtues of photography in casting a cruel eye. “Engraved forever”, he writes, “are those hideous designs on the chair back; and the peeling plywood of the chair seat, the stains on the floor linoleum, are here placed on permanent record. You know just how that cheap door hardware sounds, and how it is to the touch. You know too, that there is fly-paper somewhere in the room, just out of sight.” This, says Evans, “is a perfect example of photography’s habit, when guided by a master, of picking up searing little spots of realism and of underlining them, quietly, proportionately.”[18] Evans was no doubt drawn to Morris’ photograph because it so eloquently references one of his own taken in a Virginia Coalminer’s house in 1935. Here, a wicker rocking chair sits on bare floorboards – the absent sitter we imagine as resting after a day’s work in the coalmine, feet reposing on the torn and dilapidated piece of linoleum. The room is heated by a stove in the corner, with its stoker hung on a crossbeam and fuelled by pieces of timber that resemble those that line the room, which are interspersed by pieces of cardboard placed to keep out drafts. Our eyes, however, are drawn to the cardboard advertising signs, one being of young university graduates and the other for coca-cola—two aspirational goals most likely out of reach for the inhabitant.

Visual tension is also designated in this photograph from a commissioned series of New Orleans shot in 1935. In the image to the left, the French Opera barber and seller of Perfecto hair restorer stands in the doorway of her elaborately decorated storefront with hand-written signage, proudly displaying her scissors in her right hand. Next door, in the window of the Bourbon drug store, a younger woman’s face looks ahead to the viewer from the flattened plane of an advertising sign for the beautifying powers of Kränk’s lemon cleansing cream. The model’s glamorous presence heightens the tension of the scene and enhances the incongruous attempts of the barber at her amateurish decorative improvements. On the right is what some writers refer to as a cropped version, but rather this photograph is from a separate negative, published in American photographs in 1938. This version shifts the contrasting elements to the barber with her striped shop and clothing and highlights the broken pavement in the foreground of the picture with its grime and litter of spent matches.

Evans often took multiple shots of the same subject, a habit he commenced in June 1935 when he started work for the federal government. He would take several photographs, always keeping one or more negatives for his own archive in addition to those delivered to Washington. Comparing these negatives reveals much about how Evans operated and how he used the camera to search for amazing accidents of composition. His unpublished and unprinted negatives reveal much about his photographic unconscious and his intentions. Numbering in the tens of thousands in the Evans Archive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they remain as if ruinous traces of a pursuit for the illusive nature of photography “the thing” he thought of as “such a secret and so unapproachable.”

Decay

In 1973 at the age of 70 and with failing health, Evans picked up a Polaroid SX-70 camera for a bit of fun. In the two years before he died in 1975 he had taken over 2,600 instant photos in colour and some in black and white. In the early 1970s the Polaroid Corporation gave a number of major photographers cameras and film stock in order that the Polaroid process would be seen as more than a popular toy and Evans became an enthusiastic devotee of the medium. Although he was known for his black-and-white work and had tried to distance himself from colour photography he now claimed to be rejuvenated by the Polaroid technique and said: “it reduces everything to your brains and taste.” Evans used Polaroid to photograph subjects he was most familiar with, for example the various elements of the street as well as still-life and people. Despite his early reticence Evans quickly adapted a new vision that he thought unexpectedly opened up new stylistic paths. On the virtues of the SX-70 he remarked “A practiced photographer has an entirely new extension in that camera. You photograph things that you wouldn’t think of photographing before. I don’t even yet know why, but I find that I’m quite rejuvenated by it. … True, with that little camera your work is done the instant you push that button.”[19]

My interest in these Polaroids is in his renewed concentration on the minutiae of life and it graphic qualities, many of which align with his collection of scrapbook images. For while his many photographs of signage and posters have been attributed to his literary leanings, they also attest to a strong visual language of abstraction and the doubling or slippage of meaning. The framing of many of these Polaroids is close, intimate, abstract and yet strangely banal—an aesthetic trope more likely attuned to to conceptual or contemporary aesthetics employed by many of his photographic protégées.

It was in these last years that Evans again became the subject and turned the camera back on himself. On the left is a photo by John Benson, which with its cracked surface and informal composition set in a black void, heralds his coming demise. On the right, we see Evans’ own foot, captured as he looks down wearing what seem to be chenille pyjamas. The intimate and jewel-like aspect of the small format clearly appealed to him as he focused on details of animate and inanimate objects and was able to present them in the heightened tonalities of the Polaroid. Evans’s image has all the delicacy of his best black-and-white work and exhibits an intrinsic understanding of the vibrancy and immediacy of the medium. The veined foot of the artist on the curly carpet, the brightness of flesh on the lively, dark pile highlighted by the flash – all result in a richly textured image. From the depths of the carpet pile Evans’ visually detached foot becomes visceral with its matter of fact execution of the bodily form. The hair curled on his big toe that mirrors that of the carpet, his neatly clipped yet strangely chipped toenails and his overgrown cuticles and dried skin are all marks that Evans self-designates as an aesthetically rejected subject.

[1] ‘Among the Ruins’, Time, December 27, 1943: 73.

[2] George Eastman House, Image Magazine 17.4 (December, 1974), Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.

[3] Walker Evans, The Hungry Eye (Harry N. Abrams, 2004), 332.

[4] Belinda Rathbone, Walker Evans: A Biography (Mariner Books, 2000), 57.

[5] Rathbone, Walker Evans, 129.

[6] David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Gottingen: Steidl, 2014), 213

[7] Interview with Walker Evans Conducted by Paul Cummings in Connecticut, October 13, 1971 In New York City, December 23, 1971.

[8] Campany, Walker Evans, 213.

[9] Campany, Walker Evans, 103

[10] Campany, Walker Evans, 103

[11] Kirstein, “Photographs,” 194, 197

[12] Leo Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[13] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[14] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[15] Rubinfien, Art in America, December 2000

[16] Alan Trachtenberg, Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 307-308. Leslie Katz with Walker Evans, 1971. http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/interview-an-interview-with-walker-evans-pt-1-1971.html

[17] John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[18] Evans, Photography, in Louis Kronenberger ed. Quality: Its Image in the Arts (New York:Atheneum, 1969), p180 here from Walker Evans and Company, MOMA, 137.

[19] George Eastman House, Image Magazine 17.4 (December, 1974), Originally Published in Yale Alumni Magazine, February, 1974.

LYNNE ROBERTS-GOODWIN closupatadistance

 Kronenberg Wright Artist Projects, September 2016

closeupatadistance presents a dialectical spatial opposition that unfolds over photographic and video works and engages with the aftermath of human action on Earth’s topography. In keeping with Roberts-Goodwin’s interest in trade routes, colonisation, migration and cultural displacement, the works traverse geopolitically contested locations at two extreme points of elevation: the Dead Sea and the Himalayan Mountains.

The Dead Sea, at the lowest elevation point on Earth, is a salt lake made famous by its waters that are largely absent of life and are highly buoyant enabling tourists to float aimlessly. The feeling of stillness experienced by floating in the almost motionless water is condensed in the series deadcalm, with their intensely flat and disorienting surfaces. The artist was drawn to this ever-changing landscape, as a contested site of desolation, sublime beauty and conflict, to work with a team of environmentalists. Roberts-Goodwin researched and photographed the landscape as akin to engaging with a ruin aesthetic, established in the western tradition as sites of contemplation on humankind’s past achievements. Here, the images of stillness belie the ongoing environmental destruction and human conflict over settlement rights that continue along its banks that lie between Palestine and Jordan.

deadcalm distance 100 and 101, taken from elevated points on the opposing banks of the occupied territories and Jordan, are images not only of stillness but of endless time that is seemingly embedded into the very pigments of the prints. To look at these photographs is to look into the vast unknowable space of time and history recalling Walter Benjamin’s musings on the decay of the aura. In illustrating his concept Benjamin turns to what he refers to as the aura of natural objects, “to follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”  Aura’s decay, according to Benjamin, rests on the increasing significance of the masses to get closer to things both spatially and humanly, and their desire to assimilate a thing’s uniqueness as a reproduction such as a postcard or a magazine that one might find in the possession of an armchair traveller. Time and space seem to unravel in these photographs; and in one image a technology tower hovers on an islet in the bottom third of the picture and what appears to be frothy waves are indeed salt deposits formed over eons of endless time.

The Dead Sea research undertaken by Roberts-Goodwin also encompassed studying archival photographs from the Library of Congress Matson Collection in Washington, a rich historical source for images of the Middle East. The majority of the archive’s 23,000 glass and film negatives and photographic prints depict Palestine from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, many taken by the American Colony Photo Department. This photo studio serviced the large tourist trade documenting Middle Eastern Culture from the end of the Ottoman Empire to the Palestinian Exodus in 1948.  Roberts-Goodwin has selected a number of these images depicting the landscape from an oblique aerial view and etched the negative image into aluminium plates forming a reversal of sorts. Presented in a grid formation the photographs can be read across and through time, space and history with a myriad of narratives forming in the interstices between the images. Tales of migration, colonisation, tourism, industrialisation, erosion and archaeological finds flow across the surface of the grid as a woven historical map of human conquest and destruction.

elevation is conceptually positioned against the deadcalm series and takes us to a high altitude located at the end of the Himalayan Mountains on the border of China and Vietnam. The video comprises two layers composited together, one being of the last river that flows from the mountains at Ha Giang, the other at the altitude of the last mountain range. This conflation of image and place establishes a non-place that is interrupted by sounds of the water flowing, birds chirping and wind blowing all that one expects to hear and sense in such remote locations. Woven through these mesmerising aural treats are sounds of urban life, motorbikes, planes and cars that interject and create a sense of dislocation and disorder.  

Through these works Roberts-Goodwin critically explores the conditions of human mobility and colonisation of these extreme locations as sites of displacement, slippage and alienation. They disrupt and interrupt our understanding not just of time and history but what it is we see and what it is that photographs do. As fragments of lives lived and places encountered, photographs, much like their creators, traverse the globe and migrate into postcards, memoirs, archives and as reproductions in newspapers, magazines and on screens. Much like Benjamin’s aura or Hito Steyerl’s wretched screen photographs flow through time and space, like the Jordan River flowing into the Dead Sea or the rivers of the Himalayan Mountains, depositing their debris like cast-out memories along the shorelines of history.  

Donna West Brett, September 2016

DANI MARTI: FOOL'S PARADISE

You took me up to heaven

When you took me in your arms

I was dazzled by your kisses

Blinded by your charms

I was lost, in a Fool's Paradise

Good and lost, in a Fool's Paradise

…and so goes the lyrics sung by Buddy Holly in 1958.[1] The illusory charms of a fool’s paradise promises a state of happiness that is bedded in the pure folly of false hope. The phrase first appeared in 1462 in a collection of English letters by William Paston — I wold not be in a folis paradyce — then used by William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet in 1592 when Juliet’s nurse contemplates the young lovers’ doomed romance.[2] By the time George Bernard Shaw used the phrase in Misalliance in 1910 it had become a cliché.[3]

Dani Marti’s new series Fool’s Paradise takes this mysterious concept as the foundation for his illusory paintings made from reflectors in varying arrangements with titles as if from an ancient poem or song. Compositions and arrangements of moon yellow and dawn, coastal blue and honey sizzles, hospital green and golden peach, endless green and morning wisps sit alongside others of night-tide forest and sizzling thirst, deep victory and howls in blue and yellow; lastly slippery silvery stones and fading histories. Each arrangement weaves words, colours and emotions into a seamless, floating poem that draws the beholder into its mysteries and tales composed from reflectors that twist and writhe across the surface.

These paintings of folly and illusory promises are an alchemist’s dream of a fool’s paradise that seems just out of reach much like Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1597–99) who stares into the water forever fixated by his own reflection. As myth has it, Narcissus neither recognised himself nor realised that the mirror was a boundary between reality and fiction, an illusory trope that led to his demise.[4] This almost melancholic desire of Narcissus for an unreciprocated love that was in fact only an image is played out in Marti’s sculptural paintings in the tension between touch and vision. The seductive surfaces of colourful reflectors, which are used in daily life for safety and protection, are presented here to be consumed and to be experienced as a mirage or a portal of endless screens much like the reflection of Narcissus. The series plays with the history of painting, such as colour, painterly surface, perspective and the ways in which light defines the surface of a thing. Painting, as Pliny the Elder knew only too well is illusion itself, as he witnessed Zeuxis’s painting of a bunch of grapes that appeared so real that bird’s flew down to peck them.

Instead of paint, Marti uses everyday materials, favouring process over image making and follows in a long line of artists challenging what painting is and what it does. Barnett Newman’s evocative black painting Abraham from 1949, whilst minimally painted, is indeed a portrait of his father. As he wrote in 1948 “We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”[5] Marti also uses the genre of portraiture to deconstruct painting, rejecting paint and brush but embracing the structure of painting to represent pleasure, desire and his own mother.

In the two series, The Pleasure Chest and Mother Marti weaves together vintage necklaces collected from charity shops for over two years. The weaving and tying of the individual necklaces reflect notions of time and labour, processes related to work and making. As a form of collective portraiture, the Mother series in compositions of gold, white and black, weave together necklaces made from beads, fake pearls, silver and gold, all of which are typical of costume jewellery discarded over a lifetime. They are the bits and bobs left at the bottom of a jewellery case perhaps worn lovingly, purchased on a whim, or precious gifts forgotten on the passing of the wearer. The baroque minimalist pieces evoke layers of histories and emotions of the former wearers with their stories woven together to form a sea of lost narratives. The Pleasure Chest series similarly suggests the secret lives of the former wearers, jewels received from partners, lovers or children with the title referencing a chest of treasures or the chest of the wearer on which the necklaces rest with their caressing touch.

As in many of Marti’s works the layers of arcane meanings and narratives simultaneously intertwine and counter each other. The Pleasure Chest, whilst denoting sensuality and desire in its reductive minimalist surfaces, also brings to mind a queer dress-up box or sex shops where fantasies can be bought in the form of sex-toys and bondage wear. The paintings evoke a Freudian fetishist assemblage of sexuality, repression, motherhood, ecstasy and desire, themes that Marti has explored in earlier works. As if in a dream the works function through an irrational signifying chain of associations and an incongruous condensation of objects much like Max Ernst’s strange meeting of objects in the sewing machine and dissecting table, drawing on Freud’s notion of the Oedipal complex and unconscious desire.

In addition to the lusciousness of the paintings are two video works that continue the visceral experience from touch to sound and moving image. Continuing the themes of Narcissus and a fool’s paradise, Fallen Screens, comprising of 4 plasma screens in their fallen state, display glitter shimmering on a red carpet, writhing and pulsing as the light bounces off their glorious surfaces. The final work, Ice Blue is a video about Mark, a former antique dealer who lives in a small flat in New York City. Mark’s story unfolds over a sequence of vignettes, a succession of broken spectres of his former life that are caressed by the camera much like that of a lover’s intimate touch. As our eyes wander over the enigmatic surfaces of antique possessions that fill the space, sounds of the city and a dripping tap emanate through the layers of colour and tone. An unspoken narrative of loss and failure evolves and scatters throughout the video reflecting his physical decline and addiction to the destructive forces of the drug known as Ice. Mark, or Iceblue as he is known on a gay hook-up website, appears here as a baroque sculptural figure, still and contemplative as if already frozen in time much like his discarded and lost past.

Donna West Brett, August 2016.

[1] Written by Norman Petty, Horace Linsley, and Sonny LeGlaire.

[2] Alison Westwood, The Little Book of Clichés: From Everyday Idioms to Shakespearian Sayings (Canary Press eBooks, 2011).

[3] Christine Ammer, The Dictionary of Clichés: A Word Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).

[4] Miele Bal, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 237.

[5] Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’, Tiger’s Eye 1.6 (December 1948): 51-53 quoted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (MA: Blackwell, 2002), 581-82.

HOME AND HOMELESSNESS: ANN SHELTON'S AESTHETICS OF DISPLACEMENT

I was in the room, or rather I was not yet in the room since she was not aware of my presence … Of myself … there was present only the witness, the observer with a hat and travelling coat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again. The process that mechanically occurred in my eyes when I caught sight of my grandmother was indeed a photograph.
                           — Marcel Proust, 1925[1]

On 30 September 1957 at 12.20 pm in the city of Wellington, a ‘spinster’ named Nancy Martin signed a house mortgage with Australian Mutual Provident Society for the princely sum of three thousand one hundred pounds. Purportedly, the first single woman in Wellington to obtain a mortgage to build her own home, Martin was unusual in many ways. In 1948, as a young teacher, she travelled to England to study music, courtesy of a British Council scholarship, and on her return she introduced the recorder to New Zealand primary schools, an action many parents would undoubtedly not have appreciated. By 1952 Martin was responsible for music education at Victoria University and started collecting art by local artists. In the meantime, the Czechoslovakian-Jewish architect Frederick Ost and his wife Greta escaped from wartime Europe and migrated to Wellington at the other end of the world in 1940.[2] What brought these two individuals together – Martin and Ost – was a house: a home for Nancy and a chance for Frederick to exercise his European modernist aesthetic principles. These narratives from two ends of the earth have at their centre concepts of displacement and loss, experiences of belonging and not belonging, of home and of homelessness.

            What drew Ann Shelton to these intertwined narratives was the house, perched on the side of a hill, overlooking bush on one side and facing towards the city centre on the other. Shelton now lives in this house with her partner, along with traces of Martin whose presence continues to echo in the rooms, through her singular vision of building a home and from the narratives that Shelton has overlaid through her photographic series in the artist book A Spoonful of Sugar and the site-specific project House Work, both from 2015. Shelton’s photographic process has consistently engaged with uneasy places, sites of fractured and anxious histories, and with events that have been displaced in the landscape. Drawing on her earlier career as a newspaper photographer, Shelton approaches her subjects much like a private investigator or a domestic archaeologist, gathering material that forms a skin and a framework for the resulting work. The artist book A Spoonful of Sugar features photographs of both the inside and the outside of the house and includes a selection of house plans, the mortgage document and rubbings of various surfaces from the house, as if Shelton is determined to build familiarity with every textual and textural component of her new home.

            The site-specific project House Work was also a performance of sorts that began with participants walking through the bush and up the hill to the house. Here, they were met with almost-empty rooms bar some of Shelton’s artworks and stools and the sound of an intriguing, evocative spoken narrative emanating from the built-in speakers.[3] The actions of the participants echo those at an open house viewing, when prospective purchasers can inspect a property, just as Shelton did; it is a mostly anonymous process and a chance to objectively view a house or peek at your neighbour’s possessions. In this instance, the participants were instead implicated in the fictional aural narrative wafting through the rooms, intertwined with elements of the real narrative about the real place, which they were now visiting. This dialectical action of real and not real sets up an uneasy feeling of not being at home: although the house may seem familiar because of its likeness to home, it is anything but.

Villa #10, formerly Lake Alice Hospital, Wanganui, 2004 Diptych, C type prints, 720 x 900 mm each.

Villa #10, formerly Lake Alice Hospital, Wanganui, 2004 Diptych, C type prints, 720 x 900 mm each.

            For Frederick Ost, home is but a distant memory, an apartment somewhere in Prague, from which he and Greta were driven by the burgeoning threat of war and the rise of National Socialism throughout Europe. The visual conditions of migration and exile, or what can be referred to as an aesthetics of displacement, offer an opportunity to consider the ways in which photography conveys loss or reveals a lack of feeling.[4] This sense of loss and displacement was explored in the writings of German film and cultural theorist Siegfried Kracauer, who also found himself in exile in the early 1940s. Throughout much of his writing, Kracauer considered the concept of the homeless image, in which photographic meaning is transformed by the loss of the referent, suggesting the state of exile and echoing his own condition of being extraterritorial.[5] Kracauer used the concepts of extraterritoriality and of the homeless image to explore the uncanny sense of displacement and alienation when the familiar and the unfamiliar butt up against each other to form a schism or an inversion of homeliness.

            Shelton delves into the psychological state of alienation in those of her works that engage with concepts of home and homelessness, such as room room, 2008. On visiting the abandoned site of the Salvation Army’s former drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility on Rotoroa Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, Shelton photographed the women’s wing of the Phoenix building before the site was demolished. Places such as this, in their empty and abandoned state, become unlived spaces and have a melancholic atmosphere much like a crime scene. In looking at photographs of abandoned places, we imagine that something has happened there and the photographs somehow open the spaces up to our forensic enquiry. These bland, cheaply decorated yet functional rooms reek of despair and anxiety, with their fading or peeling wallpaper and nasty floor coverings evoking a sense of punishment rather than a sense of home. For these spaces are temporal locations for their inhabitants, and despite the poor attempts at personalisation, such as a mirror or pasted images of mountain views on the walls, the stained single mattresses and deteriorating conditions speak of unfortunate, desperate stories. This feeling is enhanced by the circular and ocular nature of the images, which convey a sickening sensation of surveillance and voyeurism. The photographs not only use the convex form but also the images themselves are reversed, recalling the proto-photographic tool of the Claude glass. The Claude glass was a tinted, blackened convex mirror used to produce a stable reflected image reminiscent of the paintings of Claude Lorrain and which, with its rather weak reflection, dulled the pictorial details. The glass was held up so the viewers could see a reversed image of the landscape behind them. The pictorial properties of the Claude glass reduce everything in its view to a visual equivalence, becoming strikingly like those of a photograph, as photographic historian Geoffrey Batchen puts it.[6]

            room room is an elegy in part to Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, based on lectures she delivered at women’s colleges in Britain. In the essay Woolf ruminates on the desire of a hypothetical female author to have a room of her own and a modest income in order to write. Rather than evoking a sense of literary or creative freedom, these rooms instead recall Proust’s horrid sense of estrangement at the unexpected sight of his grandmother when the ‘instant photograph’ conjured in his mind becomes a screen that hinders involuntary memory.[7] room room is the anathema of both Woolf’s desires and of Kracauer’s idea of photography being a medium without artifice – for what in these photographs can be seen as true when their inhabitants used hallucinogenic substances to escape reality and photographic meaning itself elides solidity?

            In once more from the street, 2004, Shelton turned her lens to another institutional site, that of the former Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital in Wanganui. Opening in 1950 and closing in 1999, the complex comprised ten two-storey villas with eleven beds in each, four villas with fifty beds, its own fire station, swimming pools, library, chapel, morgue, garage, garden, rugby grounds and cricket pitches.[8] Apart from the reference to ‘psychiatric’, one could be forgiven for thinking this description is straight out of Brideshead Revisited, the novel by Evelyn Waugh written as a memoir of a young student at Oxford University, and published just five years before the opening of Lake Alice.[9] Instead, this abandoned site, much like that of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, references stories of extreme trauma: the abuse of patients here led to calls for a royal commission into their mistreatment and resulted in compensation payments.[10]

            These photographs and those of room room also recall the photographic and psychiatric practices of Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where the camera flash and photographic apparatus were used, supposedly objectively, to capture and reveal the hidden, deceptive traits of the hysteric. Photography’s ability to capture moments that have the potential to be experienced but fail to register in the subject’s own consciousness is described by Ulrich Baer as being akin to the structure of traumatic memory.[11] Baer takes up this concept from Sigmund Freud’s reflections on memory and photography: Freud describes the unconscious as the site where memories are stored until they are developed, alluding to a delay in the recognition of memories and images.[12] Likewise, Walter Benjamin contends that the camera catches that which the photographer does not see, an optical unconscious that Benjamin likens to the discovery of the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.[13] Unlike the series room room, the photographs in once more from the street do not show us interior spaces but rather that the villas are situated in the landscape, perched uneasily it seems on the unkempt grounds. Shelton’s inversion of these photographs, as in many of her works, seems not just an optical illusion but also a doubling effect that creates a schism in vision and in mind, reflecting her interest in the association between trauma and time, and between the photographic image, the past and the present.[14]

            The use of doubling or inversions in Shelton’s works critiques the monocular nature of photography and recalls early photographic techniques such as the stereoscope, developed in order to see photographically as if by the duality of human vision. For Jonathan Crary, the stereoscope became a crucial indication of the subsumption of the tactile within the optical, with the doubling of the image forming a phenomenological effect on the viewer.[15] The invention of this optical tool was closely aligned with theories of optical illusion, after-images and other visual phenomena but the central question, according to Crary – given that the observer perceives a different image with each eye – was how is the subject then experienced as a single or unitary image?[16] For Shelton, two or more identical or almost-identical images present a particularly strange experience, which constitutes a slippage or a schism that departs from monocular vision and ‘foregrounds the role of the camera in the construction of fields of representation’.[17] It is this slippage in vision, or a stammering that disrupts the reception of images, that Shelton suggests references a kind of trauma, violence or pathology. Hence, the reversed images in room room, or the doubled images in once more from the street, suggest darker narratives and evoke an observational unease.

            The concept of doubling in the Lake Alice project is present in many of Shelton’s works, including a kind of sleep, 2004, and Twenty six photographs of a house from 2007, in which the original photographs of a house taken by its architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor in 1930 are juxtaposed with Shelton’s images. In a classic rephotography project, the images form a schism in time, with the space between the images representing the lives lived in this rather peculiar Arts and Crafts house. Besides very minor changes to the kitchen and garden, the house remains largely in its original condition as if, in being charged with the time of its making, it lies outside of time at its site in rural north Taranaki. Rephotography has a long tradition in survey or scientific expeditions and, in re-recording sites with a comparative image, it offers a unique means to explore and analyse even the most insignificant changes in the landscape. The comparative topographic photograph is also anticipatory and incomplete, as it hangs in an air of expectation with both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images situated in a state of constant referral to the other. In this sense, the repeat or return image is doubly displaced from time and history; the space of time between the comparative images forms a gap, an empty space or fissure, that reveals the traces of history.[18]

            One of Shelton’s earliest photographic series, Abigail’s Party from 1999, has personal and aesthetic resonances with her most recent series in that it features her home at the time, a share-house in Auckland. Like House Work, this series has both biographical and historical resonances and yet is reminiscent of a house magazine article from the 1970s. With its atonal colourings of yellow, cream and burnt reds, and featuring empty rooms with vintage furnishings, the series has an eerie quality of a deceased property, as if the owner, who we imagine in a bouffant wig and a flared pantsuit, has gone on a long cruise and never returned. The series was inspired by the 1977 Mike Leigh stage and television play Abigail’s Party, which evokes the same garish colour scheme and kitsch aesthetics. The one-room play tells the story of Beverley and Laurence who invite their new neighbours Angela and Tony over for drinks, accompanied by the divorced Susan. Susan’s daughter Abigail, who is never seen, is having a party next door. As the night wears on and the alcohol takes effect, an argument breaks out over an artwork and the much-maligned Laurence has a fatal heart attack. This dry and cruelly observant play focuses on the British class system and the bitter efforts of the growing middle class to forge a new life in 1970s suburbia.

            The photographs in Shelton’s Abigail’s Party are all titled with references to women, such as Calendar Girl, Modern Girl or Show Girl, as if attempting to place the absent Abigail back in the picture. We see her bathroom, living room, dining and sitting room, and her kitchen with Barsony-style dancing figures on the wall, the latest in wall ovens and forlorn and empty countertops bereft of any evidence of a party. Instead, the curtains are drawn, everyone has gone home and a feeling of loss ensues. Women often feature in Shelton’s work, present in portraits in her earliest works and later designated through their physical absence but poignantly present histories. There is the absent Abigail with her kitsch and groovy apartment and Nancy with her modernist Wellington dream house and in between are references to classical women, working women, incarcerated tragic women, lost girls and murderous girls. Their lost stories become the focus of Shelton’s lens and, like in a Claude glass, we glimpse into their world as if from the edge of a precipice, from the corner of our eye or in the reflection of a mirror. They remain ungraspable and, as if in a dream, we anxiously search for them but all that remains are traces displaced in obscure narratives, in urban myths, lost to history and to memory.

            This sense of loss and the concomitant desire to reclaim the past through photographs as a form of unconscious remembrance is what makes Shelton’s work so poignantly and painfully present. These empty spaces of domestic and institutional homes, bereft of occupants, are reminiscent of Kracauer’s homeless image where the image is torn from its referent, reflecting a sense of loss and an anxious desire for the past, which is displaced and irreconcilable. This sense of loss, evident throughout Shelton’s photographic oeuvre, like the homeless image, conjures stories of displacement, of belonging and not belonging, and reveals hidden views, lost histories and invisible, numinous presences.[19]

            In thinking about Nancy Martin, I imagine her as privy to Proust’s ruminations on photography and memory, so appropriately described by Kracauer in ‘The Photographic Approach’. Kracauer writes of Proust’s passage in The Guermantes Way as identifying the photographer as a witness, an observer and a stranger – all types, he considers, who are characterised by their ‘common unfamiliarity with the places at which they happen to be’.[20] In the passage, Proust sees his grandmother in contemplation, and for the first time sees her as if through the indiscriminating eye of a camera, and he recoils at the dejected old woman sitting before him who he does not know or recognise. In describing Proust as being so overwhelmed by involuntary memories that he could no longer register his present surroundings to the full, Kracauer quite rightly identifies Proust’s recognition of the photographic approach as being akin to the psychological state of alienation.[21] It is this state of alienation, an aesthetics of displacement, that Shelton evokes through her doubled and inverted images, in photographs of lost places, sites of violence, trauma and anxiety, or in forgotten histories. Shelton is the observant visitor who stands at the elbow of Proust and, rather than recoiling at the horror of it all, photographs it.

Donna West Brett, 2016. Published in Ann Shelton: Dark Matter, Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tāmaki, NZ, 2016. 

[1] Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, in Remembrance of Things Past, vol 1, trans CK Scott Moncrieff, Wordsworth Editions, London, 2006, p 971. See also Siegfried Kracauer, ‘The Photographic Approach’, in The Past’s Threshold: Essays on Photography, eds Phillipe Despoix and Maria Zinfert, Diaphanes, Zurich/Berlin, 2014, p 66.

[2] Leonard Bell, ‘A Series of Displacements: An Introduction to the Art of Frederick Ost (1905–1985)’, Art New Zealand 86, Autumn 1998, p 64.

[3] The narrative was written by Pip Adam.

[4] On migratory aesthetics, see Mieke Bal, ‘In Your Face: Migratory Aesthetics,’ in The Culture of Migration: Politics, Aesthetics and Histories, eds Sten Pultz Moslund, Anne Ring Petersen and Moritz Schramm, IB Tauris, London, 2015, pp 147–70.

[5] Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans Thomas Y Levin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1995, p 340.

[6] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997, p 73.

[7] Kracauer, The Past’s Threshold, p 19.

[8] Lake Alice Hospital website: http://www.lakealicehospital.com.

[9] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Chapman & Hall, London, 1945.

[10] Simon Collins, ‘Terrible Legacy of Lake Alice, New Zealand Herald, 26 October 2001.

[11] Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2002, p 8. See also Batchen, Burning with Desire, p 187, and Jennifer Good, Photography and September 11th: Spectacle, Memory, Trauma, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2015. Good expands on Freud’s concept of belatedness in relation to photography, memory and trauma.

[12] For Freud on the conditions of memory, trauma and photography, see, for example, Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans Katherine Jones, Vintage, London, 1952, p 152, and Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans James Strachey, Avon Books, New York, 1965, p 574.

[13] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, Verso, London/New York, 1997, p 243.

[14] Donna West Brett and Ann Shelton, ‘The Event Horizon: Returning “After the Fact” ’, Memory Connection, vol 1, no 1, December 2011, p 336.

[15] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1992, p 62.

[16] Ibid, pp 118–119.

[17] Ann Shelton, Doubling, http://www.annshelton.com/texts-and-media/artist-texts/doubling/.

[18] For rephotography projects, see Mark Klett, Ellen Manchester and JoAnn Verburg, Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1984, and Donna West Brett, ‘Afterimage: Rephotography and Place’, in Photography and Place: Seeing and Not Seeing Germany After 1945, Routledge, New York/London, 2016, pp 99–123.

[19] Thanks to Tom Loveday for discussing the relevancy of numinosity to Ann Shelton’s works, Sydney, March 2016.

[20] Kracauer, The Past’s Threshold, p 67.

[21] Ibid, p 68.

PHOTOGRAPHY AND PLACE: SEEING AND NOT SEEING GERMANY AFTER 1945

Donna West Brett, (Routledge, 2016) Available to order from: https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138832527

As a recording device, photography plays a unique role in how we remember places and events that happened there. This includes recording events as they happen, or recording places where something occurred before the photograph was taken, commonly referred to as aftermath photography. This book presents a theoretical and historical analysis of German photography of place after 1945. It analyses how major historical ruptures in twentieth-century Germany and associated places of trauma, memory and history affected the visual field and the circumstances of looking. These ruptures are used to generate a new reading of postwar German photography of place. The analysis includes original research on world-renowned German photographers such as Thomas Struth, Thomas Demand, Michael Schmidt, Boris Becker and Thomas Ruff as well as photographers largely unknown in the Anglophone world.

GREYSCALE

Peter Burgess, Julia Davis, Adrian Gebers, Pollyxenia Joannou, Lisa Jones. Rayner Hoff Studio, National Art School Postgraduate Centre, September 2015.

In his Remarks on Colour from 1950, Ludwig Wittgenstein ponders the philosophical challenges of colour and luminosity and asks, “Was macht Grau zu einer neutralen Farbe? Ist es etwas Physiologisches, oder etwas Logisches?”[i] The concept that the neutrality of grey could be seen as either physiological or logical reveals the complexity of an often overlooked, yet essential achromatic colour. The earlier work of German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald similarly quantified colour from a psychological and physical point of view, drawing on the 19th-century experiments of G.T. Fechner who had shown that stimuli relate to sensations.[ii] Ostwald applied his colour theories by firstly establishing a scale of greys that ranged from white to black, essentially forming a greyscale against which he measured an atlas of colour-sensations. Harmonic balance was achieved when sections of his atlas showed complementary hues that had equal measures of value on the greyscale, an effect that was particularly pleasing.[iii]

And yet grey is ambivalent, often ambiguous and tends to be measured in terms of indicating or defining a spectrum between the two binaries of black and white, filling in and describing the void between the two opposites. In terms of cultural theory, grey is more than the in-between of black and white—it is in fact both a mix of and a harmonic tone for all colours—it is a perceptual and experiential phenomena.[iv] The self-titled “grey anthropologist” Nils Bubandt, along with other commentators use greyness to understand dimensions of contemporary life, particularly in terms of politics, identity, labour and the economy. He claims that “grey may in fact be the universal colour of the contemporary moment.”[v]

 

The uncertainty of grey, its in-between-ness, and its ability to reflect and absorb light, uniquely enables the form and structure of our strange nuances of existence. Grey is the colour of melancholy, loss, or transition and in its monochromatic existence enables a space for contemplative reflection that is strangely alluring and comforting. Grey is also murky and mysterious—it is the site of the shadowy unconscious where we form our dreams and store our memories until they are developed, which Freud alludes to as being akin to the photographic process.[vi] This sense of stasis or belatedness that Freud refers to forms the sensation of a pause, a space, a gap—in essence, it has a sense of waiting that is anticipatory and incomplete.

For the artists in Greyscale, this sense of in-between-ness and anticipation assuages a logical space for investigation of both the colour grey and its place in the cultural imaginary. Grey is used here to rework how we perceive matter, how we embody place, the ways in which we encounter, remember or retrace time and remnants of existence. It is also fundamental for the possibilities of recording the world through the intricate materialities of graphite, felt, paint and photography or lava and ash.

Adrian Gebers physically takes the greyscale, in the form of a standard reference card used by photographers and designers to measure colour, and re-presents it as a large wall drawing. As a filter from which photographers measure reality, the greyscale is itself forever mutable, altered by the warmth and coolness of light, or reflecting the ambient conditions around it. The greyscale is drawn here in graphite, denying its accuracy as a truth meter; it is void of function and instead becomes a symbol of futility. Behind the drawing is a grey painted wall, the colour of which is drawn from the process of a paint company’s camera, designed to recreate reality as accurately as possible. What emerges from the dichotomous arrangement is a visual schism where the attempts to portray reality are undone by their own representation; the work is seemingly only completed by the photographic reproduction, which is itself calibrated by a computer monitor.

The greyzone in Peter Burgess’s series Made in England, 2013–14 takes everyday ideograms as a cultural reference system for the construction of meaning. Set against a backdrop of surveillance symbols, solitary figures or figural groups are measured by the grid in a form of mapping that locates the body in space. Alluding to the process of recording everyday activities by surveillance cameras and camera phones, ‘via cruel lens’ is formed by its specific location and the work is only completed by the presence of the visitor who becomes part of the surveillance greyzone. Burgess also refers to the mechanism of the camera obscura and inverts the sacred English oak tree as a linguistic sign following in the footsteps of Rodney Graham’s Oak series 1989/2001. The anagrammatic text piece ‘surveillance’ and the visual representation of the camera operate as a liminal zone—a narrative void that places the spectator in the greyzone, which is brimming with potential.

 Pollyxenia Joannou, Lisa Jones and Julia Davis also take up this sense of measuring or recording place in their works. Joannou, for example, uses grey as a tone of possibilities, enhancing and mediating the world around us. The works are centred on elemental properties of materiality, line and organic environments that are stripped back to geometric and tactile forms; each becoming part of a larger serial narrative. Delineating space, shape and form, grey is used here to structure narratives that recall modernist icons from Malevich, Albers, Mondrian or Lissitzky. Joannou intertwines elements of drawing, painting and 3D with materials such as acrylic paint, conté and felt to reflect upon migratory history and its remnant traces in the urban landscape. With its simplified forms, Chair Mugshot, 2015 can be read on several levels, such as a memory canister for a former sitter or owner. It also signifies setting up home, sharing meals, or indeed, being photographed for an identity card or police record. These ideographic pictures evoke a sense of signification that recalls Barnett Newman’s epistemological paradox of the aesthetic act as a pure idea, and the pure idea as an aesthetic act.[vii]

 Lisa Jones also uses grey as a signifying element for memory and erasure, and as a formal element to map the world and the body in two and three-dimensions. Jones’s interrogation of the relationship between the body and place takes the form of mapping, both cartographic and cultural, resulting in drawings or sculptures that reinterpret human and made systems. These systems, which include transport lines, bodily organs or cracks in pavements, are symbolic of dislocation, order and chaos, history and time. Cracks in the World is emblematic of this process as it explores place and its erasure, observation and mapping; or moment and time through the witnessing of human presence by mark making. Inherent through the works are the notions of memory and forgetting, evidenced through erasure, the dissolving of time and place and the traces of marks and stains that suggest a lived experience.

Our place as embodied humans in the world is also key to Julia Davis’s work, which explores the effects of time and how this underpins our sense of self and place. Working in active landscapes such as deserts, volcanic areas or salt lakes Davis spends long periods interacting with the location and accumulating data and materials. In a recent iteration of this ongoing project, Ru(a)pture #2, 2015, Davis utilises research gathered from an erupting volcano with the title alluding to contradictory feelings of foreboding and rapture. The ecstatic instability of the violent imagery and our physical reaction to it forms a tension between anticipated loss and subsequent renewal. Here, grey is represented in a photograph of the turbulent volcanic event, which spews ash and smoke into the atmosphere—the ash forming the grey tonal range of the image. Next to this hangs a plastic sheet into which lava and ash has been physically ground, forming an anxious trace of the event in an act that unites the sublime and the romantic in raw materiality.

According to Newman, the idea-complex discussed in his essay on ideographic pictures, makes contact with mystery, the mystery “of life, of men, of nature, of the hard, black chaos that is death, or the grayer, softer chaos that is tragedy. For it is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.”[viii]

[i] “What makes grey a neutral colour? Is it something physiological or something logical?” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, G.E.M. Anscombe, ed., Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle, trans. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 27–27e.

[ii] G.T. Fechner, Elemente der Psychophysik, 1860. See John Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 257.

[iii] Gage, Colour and Meaning, 258.

[iv] Nils Bubandt, “Coda: Reflections on Grey Theory and Grey Zones,” in Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, Ida Harboe Knudsen and Martin Demant Frederiksen, eds. (London: Anthem Press, 2015), 194–95.

[v] Bubandt, “Coda,” 188.

[vi] For Sigmund Freud on the conditions of memory, trauma and photography see for example, Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, trans. Katherine Jones (London: Vintage, 1952), 152 and Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1965), 574.

[vii] Barnett Newman, “The Ideographic Picture,” Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, 1947. Quoted here from Art in Theory: 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 566.

[viii] Newman, “The Ideographic Picture,” 566.

DOUGLAS MCMANUS: LAUNDRY OF THE TERMINAL PSYCHE

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche, Dark Mofo 2015, Rosny Barn Hobart. 10–28 June.

One of my earliest memories of Douglas McManus is of him striding through the university halls looking much like a Scottish warrior sporting a shaved head, a beard (before it was fashionable), facial piercings, tattoos and the most fabulous kilt with long socks and biker boots. Even then he wore his queer masculinity with panache and wit. His early works reflected this sense of hybridity along with an historical sensitivity that saw him creating exquisite works from men’s handkerchiefs and ties. In recent years McManus has explored masculine sexuality through experimental textile techniques and digital technologies resulting in sculptural interactive installations and three-dimensional fabrication. This is complemented by photographic interventions, montage and printmaking that further investigate the tension between perceptions of societal hetero-normative masculine ‘action’ and the deeper masculine ‘psyche’, where the male body goes to battle against conjured zombie gimps in the midst of a mysterious Tasmanian forest.

Douglas McManus: Last Stand of the Ursine Clan 2015

For Laundry of the Terminal Psyche, McManus has created an interactive installation in Hobart’s historic Rosny Barn, in which the viewer is physically immersed in the deep recesses of the masculine psyche. This is a work that challenges preconceptions of masculinity; it tears at the flesh to reveal the fragility of the body that, despite the depiction of hunky men bearing weapons, it simultaneously reveals that body as subject to wounds, deterioration and demise. Somewhere between these two manifestations of physicality lies the male psyche camouflaged for survival. The body as a site for desire, for pain and for difference is at play here, each revealing the fragility of the flesh as open to physical and psychological wounds.[1]

On entering the space the viewer is faced with a hoard of men bearing axes, sledgehammers, chainsaws and firearms. The target of their violence being mythical, digitally enhanced zombie gimps that enter from the edges of the scene. On the left, a fierce warrior lies mortally wounded, another is anxiously curled up in a laundry basket and bearded fellows armed with weapons chase an attacker from the picture frame. The scene conjures up numerous b-grade films where humanity is at risk from alien invaders and yet is saved at the last moment by a bloke with a rusty knife. But unlike these filmic renditions of hetero-masculine heroism, McManus’ rendition reveals men with their pants down and as everyone knows you have to wear pants if you want to fight evil.[2] This enormous panoramic view can be read not only from left to right but also from the surface to the dark depths of the image. For a start, it is an environmental nightmare with numerous deer having met their demise evidenced by the discarded antlers; a crashed car, clothing and household items are scattered across the landscape while a hoard of zombies exit the deep recesses of the dark forest marching toward us. Meanwhile, several figures seem apathetic or lost in the scene with their naked forms marking them as Other and as vulnerable. At the very centre and positioned at the extreme edge of the image is a man dressed only in a jacket of leaves, as if, like the mythological Green Man depicted in Kingsley Amis’ novel, he has left the forest to chase his prey.[3] But this Green Man figure is melancholic, displaced and inactive with his acanthus covering failing to protect him from our gaze.[4] This dichotomy of man as defender and man as fragile is in unison with the life forces of the forest as both protector and protected.

Last Stand of the Ursine Clan is transparent (and can be read in the reverse) and through this work can be seen further leaf-like forms titled Flourish and Damage, and in the centre, Psyche is found surrounded by a Jungle Skull Vine. Looking back through these works to Last Stand of the Ursine Clan the viewer experiences the layers of texture, movement and shadow that cast a mysterious scene against the huge panorama of men and zombies. Here in the epicentre of the work the Psyche is in torment, its form is blackened like a cancerous cell and its fragility is clearly defined in the leafy limbs. It is surrounded by a jungle vine of skulls that figure mortality and draw upon the arch aesthetic of British designer Alexander McQueen. Both Flourish and Damage are three-dimensional works, intricately fabricated as Gothic renditions of bodily organs, and mounted on a dark polished surface in which the spectator is captured in reflection, becoming part of the interior psyche. These tactile central works are all sound activated and respond to the visitor in the exploration of the space in which the masculine psyche is constantly at war with itself and the body is subject to neurological disarray.

Conversation of Gentlemen also employs sound in an interactive sculptural installation of two historically inspired gentlemen's garments created from laser engraved and digitally printed microfibre. The ‘figures’ are physically and visually connected by sound activated electro-luminescent wire and micro speakers embedded in the garments that respond to the interaction of the audience as they circumnavigate the work. As the visitor encounters the Gentlemen, the connecting wire transmits a glowing cascade of colour between them. An intimate conversation commences with projected voice and ambient sound that adds to the conception of the psyche as a playground for subtle nuances, for introspection, for memories. The Gentlemen are reminiscent of the ambiguous Wildean Dandy with their shocking wit, always in need of an audience to display their charm and otherness.[5]

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche presents the dichotomy of masculinity through contrasts of the vigorous body and one that is flawed. The queer body is already marked as different and like discarded laundry it is seen as being soiled but also as being dangerous. The rampantly violent and visually explosive romp of the zombie battle is countered by the interplay of several images of men as contemplative, broody, melancholic, damaged and erased. There is nothing reparative about these pictures that place the masculine body in states of solitude, of internal anxiety or external danger. The damage cannot be undone. In the series Momentary Erasure, the tightly contained and cropped figures merge into the fabric of the canvas, camouflaged by the textural markings of the flora that one sees repeated throughout the installation. They have become part of the internal depths of the psyche, they look inward, and the tension between immersion and exclusion becomes palpable in front of these works.

The semiological play of the exhibition title alludes to key elements of this exhibition. Each word can be deciphered in multiple ways allowing for a fissure in meaning that leaves interpretation floating between the elements. While laundry is discarded into a pile at one end of the installation, it waits in vain for the remediating actions of washing, cleaning, and the erasure of stains and corporeal traces of skin, blood or semen. The function of the stain, according to Lacan, “is recognised in its autonomy and identified with that of the gaze, we can seek its track, its thread, its trace, at every stage of the constitution of the world, in the scopic field.”[6] The stain here is written on the body through the terminal marking of the flesh as damaged, as deteriorating, and as Other. Its trace can be found through the representation of the body in the margin between saviour and victim, between warrior and survivor. The gaze of the male figure in Stain is, like the other renditions of maleness in this work—internalised—it is not directed at us. This work, which counters its opposite entitled Burnt, is evocatively internal, intimate and shrouded in a cacophony of blackness, of texture and melancholic darkness. In contrast the figure in Burnt, strides into the dark expanses of the image, into the depth of the psyche with his head alight with a burning flame, concealing his identity. The violence in this work is conspicuous – it forms a stain across the surface, marking a dark space of domination, of singularity, despair and of strange determination.[7]

Laundry of the Terminal Psyche is both overtly and subtly transgressive. The men depicted here in their flannel shirts, jeans and beards fighting off alien creatures are overtly masculine and are here to save the day. But as their discarded laundry reveals, underneath that macho exterior are black translucent underwear. Beyond the surface of the skin, male flesh is subject to bruising, wounding; the organs, bones, nerves, flesh and sexuality are exposed to damage, deterioration, violence and death, but also love.[8] McManus depicts masculinity as contradictory with its public exteriority of bravura and private interiority of vulnerability, battling alien invaders one minute and contemplative solitude the next. From macho men, soft textural organs and hard fetish underwear, to exquisitely manufactured sound activated organs, McManus takes us deep into the male psyche where we too become part of the dialogue.

Donna West Brett, May 2015

Conversation of Gentlemen 2015, features in the group exhibition, Electric Craft at CRAFT, 21 August–3 October 2015 during the National Craft Conference organised by the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Craft Initiative.

[1] For a discussion on masculinity and anxiety see Calvin Thomas, Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1996.

[2] In Mystery Men (1999), ‘The Bowler’, played by Janeane Garofalo tells her naked compatriot ‘Invisible Boy’ that “Maybe you should put some shorts on or something, if you want to keep fighting evil today.”

[3] Kingsley Amis, The Green Man, 1969.

[4] Commonly, the Green Man is made from fig, oak, vine or acanthus leaves.

[5] On the Dandy and Oscar Wilde, see Edouard Roditi, Oscar Wilde, New Directions Publishing, New York, 1947.

[6] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Karnac, London, 2004, 74.

[7] For a discussion on the stain see George Baker, ‘The Space of the Stain’, Grey Room 5 (Autumn, 2001): 5-37.

[8] On wounding see Mark Seltzer, ‘Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere’, October 80 (1997): 3-26 and Amelia Jones, ‘Performing the Wounded Body: Pain, Affect and the Radical Relationality of Meaning’, Parallax 15 (2009): 45-67.

ANNE GRAHAM: MNEMONIC OBJECTS

Anne Graham, William Wright Artist Projects, 28 August–13 September 2014. Shifting sands and falling trees, Articulate, 19 September–5 October 2014. Published in Craft International 2015

Visiting Anne Graham’s studio several years ago was akin to a child visiting a lolly shop – eye’s darting everywhere, settling on one object only long enough to be enticed towards another. Etched into my memory were boxes of combs, fossils, horsehair, gatherings of wood and wax, shells, pins and needles, all of which I likened at the time to a Foucauldian community of monsters.[1] These objects pop up now and again in various artworks, and while some find themselves permanently attached to a work others go back into the library of things for a future incarnation. This gathering of life’s minutiae and detritus, from lint, coal, dust and dog hair to bowls, feathers and Japanese stools all reflect Graham’s interest in the way that ordinary things are imbued with meaning.[2] Susan Pearce’s observations on the compulsion of collecting acknowledges that the peculiar qualities of objects open up the possibility of forming relationships with the distant or relatively distant past, and in doing so achieve some sense of continuity.[3] The objects themselves have been collected over several decades from travels around the world or from Graham’s own backyard, hearth or the local laundrette. She also has an uncanny ability to persuade unsuspecting victims, including her curator husband Anthony Bond, to participate in her folly and this is how some of the works in two recent exhibitions in Sydney came to be. The first exhibition was held at William Wright Artist Projects, and the second, Shifting sands and falling trees was held at Articulate.

Both exhibitions contain works that are made from either found objects – a distinctly Duchampian trait – or works that are made from earthbound materials, such as felt constructed from dog hair or pieces of discarded wood and metal reflecting Graham’s deep interest in the work of Joseph Beuys.[4] Beuys believed that materials such as copper, felt and fat could generate restorative energy. In the upper gallery at William Wright Artists Projects Graham installed a number of works from a series she has been working on that involved several friends and their canine companions. Over a period of time two artists, a curator, a writer/designer couple and other friends collected the hair discarded by their dogs. Through the ancient process of felting, Graham combined the dog hair with merino wool and made large sections of felt, which were then cut and sewn to make coats, hats or scarves for the pet owners, the resulting garment depending on how much hair was collected. In the exhibition, the garments hang on the wall next to a large photograph of the subject wearing the felt costumes, accompanied by their beloved canines. The tactility of the felt is reinforced by the subjects, who in wearing the garments are in the process of becoming ‘dog’, swathed in the warmth of their animal friend who not unexpectedly resembles their owner.

The objects in both exhibitions are highly enigmatic, tactile and mnemonically charged – one work bares the trace of a cooked fish in Japan, another recalls the singing sands of a long lost Japanese beach, and yet another, the wings of currawongs or dancing dervishes. These objects evoke memory-images, fluid as in a fictive narrative or a ‘contaminated memory’ as Graham puts it, and yet they are rooted in the mere object-ness of the thing before us. This process recalls the writing of WG Sebald, whose inconsistencies between his meandering writings and the photographic images he includes to give veracity to the text, form layers of meaning that are shaped by both Sebald and the reader. Graham’s works, like Sebald’s texts are from the position of being the outsider or the observer who, like the character in The rings of Saturn, collects experiences and stories along the way that become merged into new forms.[5]

Several of the works in both exhibitions fall into this category – such as the works resembling Japanese fans made from cedar salvaged from an industrial cooling tower that were combined with copper, aluminium or Perspex shelves. The various shelves hosted living organisms such as a grevillea root or mini native orchids. These objects become contemplative and meditative spaces where something new is formed from often seemingly conflicting materials. This is true also of the sculptural installation Ziggurat, which is reminiscent of a shrine, consisting of a number of Japanese stools piled on top of each other and various glass and wooden vitrines. On the central stool at the top of ziggurat is a bottle containing water from the Cox’s River in the Blue Mountains and on each side are vitrines containing bird feathers, lint from the Lithgow laundry and cinders from Graham’s fireplace. Placed on the remaining stools are brass bowls with ash from the home hearth. All of these objects have a visceral connection to the artist and to her sense of place, whether in a local or global sense. This sense of place comes very much from mnemonic connections to objects but also in Graham’s ability to situate herself in a place through various artist residencies that build up an archive of memories, stories and things that she can draw upon to make her art.

The story of the lint from the Lithgow laundry provides a narrative that draws on Graham’s wit and her interest in detritus. On chatting to the laundry owner “Mrs Washalot” (as she calls herself), Graham became intrigued with the role of the laundry as the place where local workers and miners have their uniforms washed, and she requested the lint be collected for a possible project. What resulted were sheets of fibrous lint that contain layers of various colours and textures from the uniforms plus the coal dust, hair, and other fibres pressed into rivers of patterns. These lint sheets, like the dog-hair felt, contain traces of various lives all interwoven into the textiles presenting a tension between their corporeal forms and incorporeal qualities. In the exhibition these textiles are somewhat severed from their associations and “reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights—like torsos in a collector’s gallery” as Walter Benjamin puts it.[6] Benjamin likens memory to an archaeological report in which the subject digs through the layers of strata to locate traces of the past.

The sculptural installation Singing sands is a reconstruction of a piece Graham made for the 2009 Niigata Water and Land Art Festival in Japan. Like Benjamin’s archaeologist the work located the connection between Shinohara Kozaburo’s house in the village of Gokahama, which had been relocated from Kakumihama, a small village that disappeared due to erosion and was famous for its singing sand.[7] By creating Singing sands as a site-specific piece in the house, Graham reunited the building with its former location through the memory of the singing sands. The ‘singing’ sound is formed from friction when the grains press against each other in movement such as when a foot presses on the dry sand or in Graham’s work, when the glass beads and carborundum are funnelled through the centre of the glass and bronze columns. Singing sands keeps the memory of the former village alive but also brings with it other related stories that blogger Noi Sawaragi discusses in relation to Graham’s exhibition in Gokohama.[8] The villages of Niigata and Kakumihama are connected, not just through the relocation of Shinohara’s house, but also through the legacy of Atomic warfare. According to Sawaragi, Niigata was identified as a potential atomic target at the end of World War II, fortunately averted due to bad weather. In 1969 it was proposed that a nuclear plant be situated on the remaining site of Kakumihama, which thankfully never went ahead given its unstable foreshore. Graham’s new iteration of Singing sands in Sydney keeps these connections fresh and creates new relationships between her mnemonic objects and us in forming memories of them.

[1] See my catalogue essay, Anne Graham: The alchemy of becoming, Sherman Contemporary Art Gallery, Sydney, 2003 and Michel Foucault, The order of things 1966.

[2] See Janet McKenzie, Anne Graham interview: ‘The ability to see things as if for the first time is for me the essential quality necessary to make art’, Studio International, 1 October 2014. http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/anne-graham-shifting-sands-falling-trees-sydney?id=2501&tmpl=component&print=1&layout=default&page= [accessed 6 October 2014].

[3] Susan Pearce, On collecting: an investigation into collecting in the European tradition, Routledge, Oxon, 1995, 250.

[4] Marcel Duchamp, 1887–1968 and Joseph Beuys, 1921–1986.

[5] WG Sebald, The rings of Saturn, Michael Hulse trans. The Harvill Press, London, 1998.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Excavation and memory, c1932, Rodney Livingstone trans. in Michael W Jennings et al, Walter Benjamin: selected writings, vol 2, part 2, 1931-1934, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1999, 576.

[7] McKenzie, Anne Graham interview, np. Shinohara Kozaburo

[8] Noi Sawaragi, A Restatement: The Art of 'Ground Zero' (Part 10) Nukes and Niigata III, http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_contri9/4cQ9STGKWCqUFJBYf2Mi/ [accessed 7 October 2014]

COEN YOUNG: ALL YOUR INFLUENCES. William Wright Artist Projects December 2014

http://williamwrightartists.com.au/index-1/#/coen-young/

In 1839 on the announcement of the daguerreotype process, largely considered to be the birth of photography, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre wrote a broadsheet announcing the invention. Part of it reads as follows: “The daguerreotype is not an instrument to be used to draw nature, but a chemical and physical process which gives her [nature] the ability to reproduce herself” implying an ontological connection between nature and image.[1] When exposed to light the daguerreotype copper plate, coated with silver, captures everything before it in great detail, no matter how near or far, but in a reversed mirror image of the subject. It was often reported that the daguerreotype revealed things that the photographer could not see with their own eyes suggesting mystical attributes. Seeing a daguerreotype is also contingent on light conditions. The object must be held at a certain angle in order to see the elusive image in the highly reflective, mirror-like surface; the image appearing to be either a negative or a positive depending on whether a light or dark background is reflected in the photograph. The labour intensive and alchemical process produced unique images that were mounted under glass in elaborate cases in order to prevent oxidization of the silvered surface and to enable the precious object to be carried on one’s person.

Although a painter, Coen Young has turned to the elusive chemical processes of photography to reconsider the gesture toward image making that Daguerre implies is both designated and ontological. Using a photographic methodology, Young applies various media and chemicals in multiple layers such as gesso, marble dust and enamel onto a sheet of cotton rag paper; the last being silver nitrate, which is applied, fixed and washed just like a sheet of photographic paper. Each process leaves its trace on the paper, evident at the edges, and evokes a sense of the object’s history as it slowly reveals itself to the viewer. The result is a highly polished surface that claims a certain objectness that is also its antithesis, revealed in the tension between the surface and the ‘image’, which is only manifested in the reflection. The works gesture towards an experience or temporal moment that like a memory remains ungraspable and somewhat illusive.

The idiosyncratic nature of the surface is made evident in the viewer’s attempt to contemplate the image, an image that is brought to the object by the viewer in their corporeal reflection but also emerges, unbidden from the surface itself. But this image is not a picture per se, but rather a contradictory, ever-changing manifestation of what we expect to see. In fact, if these mirror studies have a subject at all it is contradiction itself. They are both paintings and photographs, images and non-images, illusions and objects and the ‘imperfections’ in the works bring the viewer back to the surface, which like a daguerreotype is pressed up to the glass as a reminder of its mutability. The works’ refusal to translate as a static image is evident in any attempt to capture them in photographs and in the constant struggle between surface and depth. A perceived emptiness in the images also presents a contradiction because it asks us what it is we expect to see in what we think of as an unmediated visual experience. A mirror, or looking glass – is in and of itself – empty.[2] It contains no signifying information and all that it is – is what we – the ‘looker’ bring to it; and without light a mirror is but a blinded instrument full of potential. The unpredictable nature of Young’s mirror studies challenge this perceived emptiness in the uncertain tension of the surface, and by uncertain I am referring here to the quiet assertiveness the images have in their claim for autonomy. For while they are made at the same time, the crafted nature of the process combined with the artist’s intentionality, creates a series in which the images are the same but different. Even in ambient light the image persists as the reflective surface captures that which surrounds it.

The uncertainty of the image is what drives us to keep looking, a process Young thinks of as ‘expectation’, a desire to see and to know, which is often thwarted and complicated by a surface that denies any medium specificity. In the age of the post-medium condition, in which the pursuit of a purity of medium is seen as antiquated, various commentators ask What is photography? What is painting?[3] This question regarding categorisation of the medium is prevalent in the work of the German painter Gerhard Richter who provocatively claims that he paints photographs: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph; I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means.”[4] Young too is not ‘making’ a photograph in the way that we think of a ‘photograph’, with a camera and a lens, but rather evokes in many ways the earliest ventures of image making such as the camera obscura where the image remained unfixed; and also references other contemporary iterations of non-lens based media.

While Young’s previous experimentations with the photographic process were reminiscent of the Claude glass these new evocations are closer to the reflective surface of the daguerreotype.[5] The Claude glass was a tinted, blackened convex mirror used to produce a stable, reflected image reminiscent of the paintings of Claude Lorrain, which gave a rather weak reflection that dulled the details, while colours were toned like those of varnished paintings. The glass was used by travellers who would hold it in their hand so as to see a reversed image of the landscape behind them and for the purpose of composing pictures.[6] The pictorial properties of the Claude glass, reducing everything to a visual equivalence as Geoffrey Batchen puts it, are strikingly like those of the photograph. As one aficionado commented in 1839 on seeing a daguerreotype “The best idea I can give of the effect produced is, by saying that it is nearly the same as that of views taken by reflection in a black mirror.”[7] Although Young’s current mirror studies evoke a sense of a ‘looking glass’ they are neither faithful to projecting an unmediated sense of the real, nor are they stable in their reflective qualities. Rather, they are unpredictable and at times disturbing objects, which will continue to intrigue and mesmerise as we look for that which lies beyond the surface.

 For Bill.

Donna West Brett

[1] Beaumont Newhall, ‘Eighteen thirty-nine: the birth of photography’, in Photography: discovery and invention, J Paul Getty Museum, 1990, 19.

[2] See Norman Bryson, ‘The gaze in the expanded field’, in Hal Foster ed. Vision and visuality, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture no 2, Bay Press, Seattle, 1988.

[3] See Rosemary Hawker, ‘Idiom Post-medium: Richter Painting Photography’, Oxford Art Journal 32.2 2009, 263–280. See also David Green ed. Where is the photograph? and Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iverson, Photography after conceptual art.

[4] Gerhard Richter in an interview with Rolf Schön, 1972, Hans-Ulrich Obrist ed. The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962–1993 (Thames and Hudson, Anthony d’Offay Gallery: London, 1995) 73.

[5] First Mirrors. 2014 at William Wright Artist Projects, Sydney

[6] Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with desire: the conception of photography, MIT Press, Mass 1997, 73.

[7] Batchen, 74

BREATHING ROOM

CURATED BY JAIME TSAI

MOP GALLERY 1-18 AUGUST 2013

The interior is the individual’s private universe, a cradle of memories, accumulations and geographies. 'Breathing Room' is devoted to the poetics of the interior, the “asylum where art takes refuge,” as Walter Benjamin described it. This exhibition will explore the psychological investment of place, the relationship between intimate dwelling and the desolation of infinity, the play of presence and absence, of territory and liminality, and the tension between the security and unity of domestic life and the potential violence of a broken home.

BREATHING ROOM is an artist/writer collaborative initiative. Each artist has been paired with an art historian or art writer with the intention of encouraging enduring relationships between local practitioners and writers, and stimulating a critical dialogue between visual and textual representations. The catalogue produced for the exhibition will feature reproductions of each artist's work with an accompanying essay.

ARTISTS:
NADIA WAGNER
LAUREN COMMENS
SARA OSCAR
YVETTE COPPERSMITH
MIKE HEWSON
ELOISE KIRK
CLARE THACKWAY

WRITERS:
MICHAEL HILL
GEORGINA COLE
VICTORIA CARRUTHERS
DONNA WEST BRETT
MARKE DEVITIS
SOPHIE HOPMEIER
ADAM JASPER


 

Still from Sarah Oscar's series for Breathing Room 'From Here to Eternity.'

Still from Sarah Oscar's series for Breathing Room 'From Here to Eternity.'

ANN SHELTON, in a forest

Ann Shelton's photographic series, in a forest will be exhibited at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney 1 December 2012-17 February 2013. 

The photographic works of Ann Shelton oscillate between conceptual and documentary modes of image making. The images from in a forest engage with history in relation to the social and cultural memories and meanings of a particular group of trees. These trees, sometimes erroneously said to have been given by Hitler himself, were presented to the gold medalists at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany as seedlings and are often referred to colloquially as ‘Hitler Oaks’. Shelton’s new work charts the complex nature of these tree signs and their shifting ideological status from her hometown in Timaru, where one of the trees grows, across North America and Europe.

Artist talk:  11–11:30am Saturday 1 December 2012 Free Admission

http://tmp.acp.org.au/current/

http://www.annshelton.com/

© Ann Shelton Seedling, George Miez’s Olympic Oak (These trees were awarded at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and are sometimes also called ‘Hitler Oaks’), Winterthur, Switzerland, 2011. Courtesy the artist

© Ann Shelton Seedling, George Miez’s Olympic Oak (These trees were awarded at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and are sometimes also called ‘Hitler Oaks’), Winterthur, Switzerland, 2011. Courtesy the artist

JOSEPH BEUYS AND THE 'ENERGY PLAN'

Joseph Beuys’ fascination with medicine, science, myth and history forms the basis of his diverse body of work. Shaman-like, his art transforms natural and found materials, combining an interest in politics and education. His Energy Plan for the Western Man was described by the critic and photographer Werner Krüger as ‘the transformation of Beuysean aesthetic-artistic creativity, his cosmos of ideas, his plastic imagery into photography’.

The exhibition focuses on the relations between Beuys and Krüger who documented many of his installations and performances. Krüger also played a key role as both a friend and advisor to Elwyn Lynn, curator of the Power Collection. Joesph Beuys and the 'Energy Plan' is the first of four exhibitions celebrating the 50th anniversary of the JW Power Bequest, co-presented with the Power Institute. Curated by Donna West Brett

http://sydney.edu.au/museums/events_exhibitions/beuys.shtml

Joseph Beuys, Overcome party dictatorship now 1971, JW Power collection, The University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, © Joseph Beuys/Bild-Kunst. Licensed by Viscopy

Joseph Beuys, Overcome party dictatorship now 1971, JW Power collection, The University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, © Joseph Beuys/Bild-Kunst. Licensed by Viscopy

THE STRANGER'S EYE

01.07.2010 to 24.07.2010

The Stranger's Eye presents four artists who, in various ways, utilise the photographic view of the urban environment to explore the liminal spaces of public and private, the visible and the invisible, and notions of place in terms of inhabitation and homelessness, alienation and strangeness. In lived cities and in those that are inhabited temporarily, the stranger's eye is one that lies between that of the flâneur and that of the spectator or tourist -- seeing the 'out of place', the strange and odd. These photographs utilise modes of the documentary and photographic construction to present the urban landscape from Sydney and Melbourne to Berlin, London and Seoul as dis-placed, alien, odd, sinister and strange. Curated by Donna West Brett. Artists: Yvonne Boag, Richard Glover, Tom Loveday and Anne Zahalka

http://peloton.net.au/e/the-stranger--s-eye