Oct 4, 2010

Shaping Silence

Shaping Silence’ @ Grey Area


Jürgen Albrecht / Erieta Attali / Russell Chater / Marie Docher / Roy Exley / Anisa Sarah Hawes

Renata Hegyi / Andy Lock / Eamonn McCabe / Dylan Thomas

Curated by Roy Exley

The gratifying aspect of the image is that it constitutes a limit at the edge of the indefinite.’ - Maurice Blanchot

In contemplating the works in ‘Shaping Silence’, viewers are invited to allow themselves to swing between the poles of cosy and sinister, of comfort and unease, of certainty and of doubt, as they look at and explore variants of the idea of interior, and their infinitely diverse connotations, through the eyes of these artists. Of course we know that interiors can be homely, comforting, cosy and inviting, but can equally be perceived as hostile, sinister, oppressive or repulsive, but what about those spaces whose demeanour hovers in between these two extremes, to be found somewhere - exactly where we are not quite sure - along the spectrum that divides these two polar opposites, the ones that we can’t immediately make up our minds about, the ones that hold different associations, trigger different memories, stir different emotions, for different viewers?

There are spaces, whose emptiness invokes a sense of absence, the sense of abandonment, or even of dereliction, we might wonder about their occupants, through whose absence we might feel moved to create a palimpsest of presence, through considered figments of our imagination. There are others where the occupant might have just slipped out to the corner shop, or might simply be waiting, out of shot, for the photo session to finish, where material traces offer the viewer clues as to their daily lives. Quite other images depict neutral spaces, those ‘Non-places’, places of transit, of mass anonymity, so called public spaces, that actually seem to belong to no one, so eloquently surveyed by the French theorist Marc Augé in his book of the same name. There are partial views of rooms that have been abstracted from the totality of those rooms what brand of reality do they represent, actual locations or film or stage sets? Cast adrift from their contexts, they seem to have become elaborate visual exercises in the study of random and diverse geometrical forms. Other rooms, whose sheer ordinariness casts them in the mould of the banal, might be juxtaposed against sinister, ill-lit, stygian spaces whose auspices are distinctly ominous and anything but ordinary. While some images ask questions of their provenance, others of their reality, and yet others of their purpose, ultimately they ask what is real in the contemporary photograph and what is not? As a consequence of the nature of the photograph, we experience these spaces as still, frozen in time, mute, totally silent. Although we can rationalise about their two-dimensional, illusory nature, our experience of this soundless stasis does in fact influence the way that we perceive these images. It is with this knowledge that some of these photographers capitalise on those qualities of the photograph that tempt us to suspend our disbelief, in order to emphasise a particular message that they are trying to get across to the viewer.

It goes without saying that our mood can vividly colour our perception of a particular space, just as, conversely the nature of that space can affect our mood, another French writer, George Spyridake, wrote in his book, Morte Lucide, “My house is diaphanous, but it is not glass. It is more of the nature of vapour, its walls contract and expand as I desire, at times I draw them close about me like protective armour. But at others I let the walls of the house blossom out in their own space which is infinitely extensible”. This distorted, fantasised view of the spaces that surround us, is the result of the intertwining of perception, cognition and emotion, in the same way, the intentionality - and its attendant emotions - of the photographer can radically shape the morphology and consequently the ambience of a particular image. In his book Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “On the second floor, on the top storey, the house seemed to be infinite and growing. The house is not this large, he thought, it is only made larger by the penumbra, the symmetry, the mirrors, the years, my ignorance, the solitude”. Perceptions become mutable and distorted by shifts in emotion, as the subject of this story lurches along the constantly receding tracks of memory. Some photographers are experts at seamlessly weaving a sense of ambivalence into their images, generating an enigma that puts the onus fairly and squarely on the viewer to forge his or her closest approximation to the truth whatever that might be, this might be a futile task but we feel bound to go there.

Since Nietzsche declared God to be dead, of course, we no longer give much credence to the idea of ultimate truth, we like to think that we can each formulate our own personal sets of truths – we can’t rely on science, theories come and go, at first confidently expounded and ratified by current expediencies only to be later refuted through new, more fashionable sets of parameters. Likewise the photographic image, once thought to be indexical – the camera incapable of lying – is now known to be a tool for the creation of credible artifice. This artifice of the photograph is discredited in different ways and in variable increments by different viewers and, in this exhibition, each of the spaces depicted in the images, will be experienced in a different way by each viewer, the mutability of their ‘truths’ making for a rich and varied visual tapestry. Your truth is bound by a different set of permutations to your neighbour’s truth – we all have our different motives for our suspensions of disbelief. Whether emotively charged or neutrally banal the interiors represented in those works shown in Shaping Silence, move the viewer in particular ways, the ways in which the viewer is so moved deserves considered analysis and hopefully this analysis will be imparted by the variety of questions that are triggered in you, the viewer, by these images.

Silence can also lead to feelings of claustrophobia, indeed, it was used as a punitive tool, along with confined space, in the regime of solitary confinement, as a last resort for difficult or intransigent prisoners. At the inception of solitary confinement in Auburn Prison, New York State in 1821, the prison authorities issued the following statement … “Let the most obdurate and guilty felons be immured in solitary cells and dungeons … cut them off from all intercourse with men let not the voice or a face of a friend ever cheer them; let them walk their gloomy abodes and commune with their corrupt hearts and guilty consciences in silence”. The idea of a gloomy abode, whether it be to do with incarceration, or the Gothic intimations of some ‘film noir’ or ‘horror flick’ scenario is inevitably wrapped in silence. Meditative silence might be a salve for stress and anxiety but mandatory silence is it’s total antithesis. Whatever the case, silence is almost always a strongly emotive mood trigger whichever end of the mood spectrum might be activated.

The installation artist Mike Nelson, short-listed several years ago for the Turner Prize, fabricates complex and confusing interiors whose references, while somewhat off the wall, are nevertheless based in reality and despite being unable to suspend our disbelief, we are able to be carried along by the illusion as we respect and submit to the richness of Nelson’s imagination. How much more then are we able to suspend our disbelief if we see a photographic image of such a scene? – we are so accustomed to treating photography as a documentary tool, that despite our rationalising about photographic trickery we instinctively believe the photograph, so where is the threshold in this exhibition between reality and artifice, between document and fantasy? The viewer should feel constantly challenged here – nothing should be taken for granted. We might be perceiving snatches of reality that have the demeanour of artifice, or artifice that convinces of its reality, after all silence can be shaped in a plethora of ways. Silence, absence, stasis all provide fodder for the imagination, offering a void that we reflexively, intuitively and imaginatively need to fill out. Silence, as an acoustic void, is like a vacuum that we strive to fill, our subconscious ushering in all manner of imagined or randomly recalled sounds. Our awareness of something’s absence, is a summoning of its presence through a recall of its past presences through an amalgam of recollections, reconstructions and imaginary fabrications. It is notoriously difficult to discern where is the interface between what we perceive as reality and what our imaginations conceive to supplement that reality, to fill in perceived gaps, to shore-up shortcomings or nullify possible threats.

Marc Augé offers an interesting insight in his most recent book, Oblivion, where he states, “We define ourselves as objective observers, at the very most, careful not to let ourselves be carried off into the stories of others, not to let a role be imposed upon us; in doing so we do not think of the fictions we ourselves are living.” Our lives are lived out as unsung, hardly recorded, narratives, each a unique and fascinating journey whose accumulations express who we are. The ten artists in this exhibition each brings his, or her, own unique vision of widely differing interiors, and sometimes their facsimiles, each has their own agenda. In their different ways - predicated on the unique source materials of their differing biographical journeys - they have variously weighted the power of those subtle hints, clues, traces and visual innuendoes proffered by both the general mien and those minutiae of the tiniest details in those deserted interior spaces, that goad and coerce us to arrive at conclusions that ultimately can and must only be our own. We are assailed daily by differing degrees and modes of noise, that add to our experiences of life, hopefully this exhibition will show that we can also experience differing degrees and modes of silence, absences of sounds whose imaginary presences colour the way we perceive our environment. The subliminal sources of silence, might offer a soothing, comforting experience, conducive to meditation, or an uncanny or even sinister experience, that might leave us craving for sound. Silence, when it reigns in our lives is, undoubtedly, a powerful and often ineffable presence.

And these – the dreams – writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms’ - Edgar Allan Poe.

Roy Exley

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