STILL LIFE

 

Notes – REMEMBRANCE

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.   Susan Sontag

Observing the peaceful ordering of forms within Nature facilitates a path towards calming the chaos of the human mind, and banishes the everyday anxieties that beset us all.

Reflecting on the Dutch and Spanish Golden Age idiom, of an unconstrained and generous sensibility towards Nature as exemplified through its visual treatment of flora and fauna, is the starting point for the compositions.  Arranging objects and fragments of natural elements in a composition, and then photographing it, provides the human connection that links us with the comforting organic rhythms that rule our world below the urban chatter of everyday life.

This body of work is an homage to Nature – something we take for granted, we abuse and diminish.  I often wonder how it’s possible that we’ve managed to totally overpower all other organisms, through our arrogance and desperation for total control. 

When I started this series, I would completely plan which elements I would use, hand select, order, and buy them, and then put them together with a preconceived idea – having the luxury of knowing that each element I imagined using was available for that composition in all its perfection.  This became a costly exercise.

So I turned to my own backyard and began to source from my garden.  This forced me to use elements that were in season only, and I had to rely on whatever the plants produced - perfect, or not so.  It is quite an unforgiving microclimate here, with unpredictable winds and sudden drops in temperatures.  Typically, from one day to the next, the magnolia trees may be resplendent with giant, creamy blooms, which are suddenly sliced, diced, and browned by an unexpected hail storm! 

Now the work focuses on objects, fruit, insects, fur, animals, birds, fabric, and sometimes flowers.  Many objects are borrowed from family members or found in curio shops. And always it is a study of chiaroscuro or tenebrism.  I look to the old masters for resonance, particularly Caravaggio, Gericault, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci, Goya, Velazquez, Zubaran.  Also the 17th century Dutch and Spanish masters - de Heem, Snyders, Ruysch, van Beyeren, van Aelst, Claesz, Oudry, Mantilla, Cotán, Bodégon, etc.   

This series has evolved over the past 15 years.  Unable to travel all year round in search of ruins, I began to look to my immediate environment and changed my focus – from b+w and concentrating on angles, hard shadows, dramatic contrasts, and man-made monuments, to Nature and colour. These works are pictorial exercises in composition, exploring the components of line, shape, texture, form, tone, pattern, and finally colour.  The negative space sometimes has as much significance as the positive.  Still Life allows a concentration on the fundamentals of composition as the elements are static and can be arranged in any way – unlike reportage, a landscape, or a portrait.  It doesn’t need a lengthy dissertation to explain the intention – I like to reflect on them as objects of slow quiet, beauty or tranquility in a world that has become subsumed with the chaos of digital technology.

Process:

Using the same backdrop of 3 or 4 different pieces of velvet and the same lighting technique – 1, maybe 2 tungsten lights with no flash and no digital manipulation – provides a constant for the changing foreground.  Long exposures, slow film and shutter speeds (a well-lit normally exposed indoors transparency could take 1/60th sec exposure – some of these were up to 8 minutes!) are always used. The long exposures compensate for the low light. 

Each work is a guaranteed original, even though using a multiple medium. To retain the integrity, I cut up the transparency of each print once it has been perfected and framed. Together with a signed certificate of guarantee this process ensures that it is an original with no possibility of reproduction.

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FRAGMENT: icons from antiquity

For the exhibition, each image was hand-printed onto a glass plate using analogue darkroom techniques. The plate was then mounted into a medium-sized black, custom made wooden lightbox and illuminated from behind within the box. Each lightbox was accompanied by a shallow, wooden specimen tray, thus creating a diptych, which housed various remnants that may have been found on an imaginary archeological expedition of an era gone by.  Soundscapes of wind, running water, and people chattering played continuously during the exhibition.  The gallery floor was covered with thick sand.

Notes - November 2000 (with reference to the exhibition that coincided with the book launch)

 • The whole idea is about fragility, disintegration, and exalting great civilizations that have impacted on western civilization as we know it today.  A person from the new world marvelling at the old world, it’s history, it’s might and power, it’s significance on today’s society, the architecture, the large scale of the buildings, the aesthetic attention afforded in the applied arts (sculpture, ornamentation, architecture); observing the remnants and using imagination to conjure up what it must have been like.

• By boxing the images, it brings attention to the fragile nature of the sites themselves.  A private experience of looking in, the image being recessed and not sitting right up on the picture plane to achieve this.  Use of glass to indicate fragility, transparency, fleeting nature, disintegration, erosion.  Also reminding us of the origins of photography - glass plates.  Away from the digital age.  Imperfection.  Hand made - the acknowledgment of the hand-made, not perfect and not machine made.  Not manipulated as in digital imaging/computers, where often now we don’t know whether what we’re looking at is real or not.  The idea that at one time the camera/person was in the presence of the subject - not a medley of gleaned images.

• Photography that is clean, crisp, traditional, lasting - away from pop-culture.

• For an age, others and such notables as Byron, Proust, Goethe, Ruskin, Whatley, Henry James, Marlowe, and Chardin, have meditated before ruins, rhapsodised about them, and mourned pleasurably over their ruination.  “A monument of antiquity is never seen with indifference . . . No circumstance so forcibly marks the dissolution of a spot once inhabited as the prevalence of Nature over it,” as Whatley points out. (From “Pleasure of Ruins”, Rose Macaulay)

• My work follows the veins of Neo-Classicism and European tradition in which the classical ruin is elevated out of oblivion to a particularly exalted position of contemplation or worship.  Using a modern medium (photography) to transform ancient techniques (bas-relief, frieze, and 3-D sculpting, together with architecture), I concentrate on a rendition of the subject in an honest, straight forward way.  Relying heavily on the elements of light and shadow, positive and negative space juxtaposed, and form, I seek to enrich the original antique iconography and transform it into a new image.

• Snapshot fragments of a whole sometimes transcend the physical towards an abstraction.  Because the images are often details, the execution needs to be precise and sharp - detailing the detail.  The photograph preserves the essential ambiguity of the ruin by protecting its fragility as a fragment; the ruin is always about to fall apart but still works for us as a prompt to memory, as a call to and from the past.  The fragments that remain of once great structures and civilisations, become important relics as this is all that’s left. 

• Every framing creates the possibility in turn of aesthetic reframing, of transmuting the framed ruin into another aesthetic configuration.  The physical ruins then become only a distant referent; it is their representation that is being re-presented (and reinterpreted) in subsequent artistic renderings.  The frame means that the object conveys something essential about the past and the passage of time.  When a ruin is framed it is reclaimed from its fall (which is inevitable and occurring day by day, minute by minute) into decay and oblivion.  There is an attraction to care for the decaying fragile trace of the past, and a tension arises between what is preserved and what is lost.

• These works in turn become objects of memorialisation.  We seek a connection to what has been - what has formulated the basis of our civilisation, our aesthetic disciplines and appreciation thereof, the development of theories, philosophies and codes - all from which to springboard, incorporate, or deviate.  There is an historical nostalgia, sometimes romantic, that subconsciously pulls us to examine an inescapable past.  By highlighting the objects I encounter in the context of an archaeological site, I hope to induce reactions ranging from nostalgia to foreboding, from dreams of grandeur to fears of mortality.  By taking them out of their environment and into the gallery space, our space and our time, I seek to turn our focus onto their now ephemeral quality, and elevate them to precious-object status.  For me, the drama manifests in the volumes of light and dark.

AN ADDITIONAL THOUGHT . . .

 “What has led the building upward is human will; what gives it its present appearance is the brute, downward-dragging, corroding, crumbling power of nature.  Still, so long as we can speak of a ruin at all and not a mere heap of stones, this power does not sink the work of Man into the formlessness of mere matter.  There rises a new form which, from the standpoint of nature, is entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated.  Nature has transformed the work of art into material for her own expression, as she had previously served as material for art.”

Georg Simmel, “The Ruin,” in Kurt H Wolff, ed., Essays on Sociology, Philosophy, and Aesthetics (New York: Harper, 1965).

• Once mighty structures, now reduced to fragments.  The idea of fragments, parts of the whole, which we see as precious reminders and are made precious by putting them in museums.  The nature of photography as fragmenting the whole - we only see one fragment of the whole scene.  The antiquing of reality (Sontag). 

Then there is the beauty of the form for nothing else but that - the line, curves, solid forms, use of light to sculpt the fragment.

• Would like to have been an explorer/archaeologist in the 17th/18th c.  Imagine stumbling on one of these sites and having the privilege of documenting it for the first time.  i.e Napoleon’s campaign in 1798 - how wonderful to have all those people documenting everything from buildings, birds, insects, animals, shells, plants, people, customs - for the first time.

• The interconnectedness of each civilization - Egyptians, Rameses and his campaign against the Hittites, Alexander to Persepolis + known in Egypt, + Turkey.

Reminds us of our fleeting moment on the earth - what will we contribute?  What will be lasting/left of us in 2,500 years??

• Abhorrent of the disposable society today, plastics, abuse of resources (water, paper etc).  Space junk, computer junk, the speed at which technology supersedes itself - a throwaway society.

• The elegance and refinement of the arts and aesthetics, have not progressed since that time.  Here there is an abundance of lasting imagery which transcends time, cultures, trends.

• The accompanying specimen box:  reminds of what the documenters saw, found, looked for.  Fragments and elements are included to evoke those finds - shards, scents, plants, pigments, minerals, fossils, shells - continuing in the tradition of 17th c. wunderkammern cabinet of curiosities. The fabric refers to the way fabric has been treated throughout the ages in art practice, and the ultramarine pigment to the importance that pigment has played in the history of art for the last 500 years.  Also a reference to memento mori.

• Sand - what it all turns into to.  Erosion, can’t stop it.  Constantly changing due to erosion by water, people, wind, sun - the elements.  Nature is ultimately the boss.  The sites are also constantly changing and alive due to restoration.

• To me, pondering a completely adorned/sculpted/incised wall, from ground to all over the ceiling at Abydos for example, has far more weight, poignancy, and depth than a supermarket docket pinned to a wall in a contemporary white cube gallery.