February 15: Are we blind to other ways of seeing?
Künstlerhaus, Donau-City-Straße 1, 1220 Wien, opens the EIKON Award (45+) tonight at 7pm and continuing until April 14. The Award, newly established by the Austrian artist Valie Export (*1940) marks the 100th issue of the German/English language quarterly EIKON: International Magazine for Photography and Media Art which has been published since 1991.
The award is limited to European women photographers and media artists aged 45 and over. It recognises “the (biographically caused) delays in artistic development and practice of both late entrants and returning artists,” and to alert the public to this issue for women in the visual arts. It is certainly a factor in the careers of many women who are creative artists that there is a break to nurture a family, and though for some, it is also an artistic opportunity and inspiration, it takes its toll on being able to meet the creative, time and financial demands. An ‘obstacle race’ still certainly exists in visual arts.
The organisers also aim to survey women’s art production in current times of divergent tendencies and to do so the exhibition initiates an interdisciplinary dialogue between the three place getters; Susan MacWilliam (* 1969, N.Ireland), Katrín Elvarsdóttir (* 1964, Iceland) and Gabriele Rothemann (* 1960, Germany).
From a total of 273 applicants from 23 different nations the prize money of € 5,000 for the winning artist, Susan MacWilliam, was awarded by body artist/conceptualist Jürgen Klauke (*1943), feminist conceptual and media artist Margot Pilz (*1936) and Æsa Sigurjónsdóttir (*1959), Icelandic curator of contemporary art, photography, history of photography and fashion. Each of the three artists received extensive coverage in the 100th issue of EIKON.
In discussing MacWilliam’s work may I plead a failing, or a kind of blindness? My patience with video art is short, and as I enter a gallery to be faced by a bank of screens I cannot help but groan. While a good still image can easily hold my attention for 30 minutes or more, or hours if I am writing about it, video pieces leave me with the sense that I am inadequate to the task, though I comprehend much better a series of stills from the work. There are exceptions in experimental film, particularly those that exploit the mesmeric effect of the 24 fps oscillation that film inflicts, as in the art of pioneering New Zealander Len Lye (1901–1980).
My prejudice, I hasten to say, is overwhelmed by the professional quality and zeal of MacWilliam’s work, which encompasses an extraordinary array of interests in perception, in particular the oddball, the paranormal, extra-sensory and super sensory varieties of perception, including ‘remote seeing’, dermo-optical sensing, telepathy, ectoplasm, X-ray vision, table tilting, clairvoyance and other psychic abilities and phenomena. She works across media, not only in moving image, producing photographic works, sculptures and installations.
Many of her video works involve interviews with psychics. Most of the latter are women and it is their treatment by men’s imposition of logic on the paranormal phenomena that they transmitted, in a confrontation of physics with pataphysics, that interests MacWilliam.
In her first film, The Last Person, 1998, MacWilliam, spewing ectoplasm, acts in the persona of Helen Duncan (1898–1956) who in 1944 was the last person to be prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. She says that her videos are a one-person affair;
I am my whole crew and then I experiment and when I edit the film that is the most creative part. It is a bit like painting; you move things in an edit and everything changes. You can also repeat a sequence to reiterate a point.
That is me swallowing muslin in my re-staging of the phenomena. Swallowing and regurgitating made me retch but it is what you do when you make work. Yes it is difficult but it makes you think about all that bodily stuff.
Though the Künstlerhaus and EIKON are keeping details of specific artworks to be displayed, apart from the three thumbnails on their website, under wraps I find her Aldous’s Eyes intriguing.
As a teenager, I became aware of limitations to my sight and happened across the self-published book, Perfect Sight Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, M.D. (1860–1931). His selling point was that all sight problems were due to habitual eye-strain and that glasses were harmful and never necessary. I tried his exercises, convincing myself they were doing some good, though I could never read bus numbers until it was too late to hail them, and now wear glasses. Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) ironically the author of Chrome Yellow, and Eyeless in Gaza, was victim to a debilitating eye disease and a credulous follower of Bates’ now largely discredited methods (which Huxley described in his 1942 The Art of Seeing).
Glass eyeballs from the History of Medicines Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC., provide the subject matter for MacWilliam’s short video which reenacts some of the eye exercises prescribed by Bates through its tracking and panning. The installation shot (above, at a previous exhibition) and stills from the video will suffice to convey that idea here.
More significantly, Huxley confessed to possessing no mind’s-eye…
I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been, a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object. By an effort of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday afternoon…
On seeing 93 year old Yvonne Duplessis (1912–2017), in MacWilliam’s 2006 video Dermo Optics, who appears to be able to sense colour through her skin, we are left to wonder if are we also not ‘disabled’ perceptually, suffering from a blindness different from the two kinds with which Huxley was inflicted.
MacWilliam however remains a paranormal agnostic;
I am not interested in the categorical understanding of, or the veracity of such phenomena, but in the experiences and narratives around them.
MacWilliam represented Northern Ireland at the 2009 Venice Biennale and while her win here is well-deserving, this exhibition will warrant attention to all three placegetters because of its curatorial interaction of perceptual phenomena with the subtle poetry of Katrín Elvarsdóttir and the conceptual strategies of Gabriele Rothemann.
Where MacWilliam deals in ectoplasm, Katrín Elvarsdóttir wreaths memories into her images that are in common with those of her audience; the filmy barrier of the lace curtain, the evocativeness of the musty, homely scents that it hoards, its pressure against lips and hair as we peer through, as a child or just yesterday, to see the outside gently muted.
Elvarsdóttir seems to ride this curtain like a will-o’-the-wisp or ignis fatuus beyond the window, spreading its softness over the world.
While the sequence of images makes sense of the similarity between a shadow and a silhouette and that which is caught in netting, there is no story. Hers are visual connections;
They spring forth from moments of inspiration that can hit at any time – I often try to capture a fleeting thought and turn it into something bigger.
In the case of Longing the obscuring, gauzy effect may be assisted by the special optics of the Holga camera, or the like; sharp only at the centre, with evident chromatic aberration and vignetting, with random light leaks, all evident in this shot from the sequence;
Her Vanished Summer published as a photobook by Crymogea, Reykjavík in 2013, is a larger grouping. Since one of the images, of a green-painted caravan, is featured on the gallery website, one may assume the series will be on show.
Elvarsdóttir picks up the 35mm camera for the rephotography that forms part of this sequence; pictures of caravans in summer and in winter evoke the sense that summer is a cyclical yearning, another variety of longing, in Iceland, where the season is all too brief.
The caravan stands, ready for a brief occupation, around the cycle of seasons, its trim peeling just a little more as adjustments are made to the platforms surrounding it, logs stacked and then burned away, and the protective hedge comes into leaf and is bare again. In the meantime the windows seem to reflect the season that is past, or which is to come; the white of winter and the red of summer.
Other images from this suite Vanished Summer are evocative in forcing the viewer to look through, or into, the depth of the picture space, through a gateway into a clearing amongst trees just barely in leaf, along a path stretching into the dense woods, through the fog of the warming, sunlit air, or into the sky filling little ponds.
It is at first glance easy to believe that this blue-painted concert pool is reflecting with clouds and sky and the dark of deep foliage, but it is a momentary illusion, and it is such moments that are the stuff of this Icelandic artist’s work that gained her second place in the EIKON Award.
Gabriele Rothemann shows Schlangenmosaik, seen above as installed at Foto-Raum, Vienna in 2012 when the work was made. What appear to be tondos framing arabesque line drawings turn out on closer approach to have been live snakes, shot from above and barely contained by the crisp, circular frame.
Originally trained as a photographer in Kassel, she decided to continue her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf in painting taught by Fritz Schwegler (1935–2014), producer of whimsical, but iconoclastic, multi-media works, in the mid-1980s and this aspect of her practice is reflected here. Markings and scale pattern on the serpents are intensified, just as is the blank white of the background, their looping, twisting and knotting makes us writhe with a deep-seated and instinctive visceral response that mere pencil marks could not achieve. The intensity is an effect of the large format negative used; Kodak Tech-Pan film intended for line copies and tone-dropout and out of production since 2003 (though stocks are available to the film industry and there a some revivals).
It is with the closer inspection that the images invite that one notices a subtle alteration; the appearance amongst the scales of a checkerboard pattern, just in isolated patches that follow the contours of the sinewy, stretching creatures. These have been painstakingly applied in the darkroom with the placement of high-contrast film on the surface, as the print is exposed. Thus, natural markings are made to assimilate signs of art. This imagery of snakes does not stray too far from the organisation of domestic living that fascinates Rothemann. She collaborated with Ena Rottenberg, selecting individual animals from Schlangenmosaik to decorate porcelain painted by Angela Busch, who incidentally keeps a python as a pet.
To make sense of this one can discern a fascination with order and disorder, chaos and control, in imagery of domestic accommodation at a distance, as long ago as in Rothemann’s oeuvre of 1997, in a series called DNA that wrests other serpentine patterns from human structures seen from the air in archival aerials, whether in Japan or in southern Italy.
From these Rothemann marks a selection that is the isolated, masked, processed and enlarged to create the final mural work, DNA (1997).
Rothemann, who favours monochrome imagery, achieves novel linear effects in her ingenious series Hab und Gut (‘possessions’ or ‘chattels’), in which she uses mural-scale x-ray film to reduce household objects stored in containers into ghostly outlines.
The paraphernalia of domestic existence, our burden of ‘stuff’, even when packed neatly away in boxes (above) is rendered as a weightless pile of cryptic forms, sometimes only discernible from the nails and screws holding the item together.
In Hab und Gut N° 1, a television supports a pedestal lamp with its lightshade askew under the weight of a child’s mattress, with only the springs inside it visible, that is slumped across it. The series expands Rothemann’s interest in Ordnung-Unordnung.
X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) were announced on 28 December 1895 in his paper “On a New Kind of Ray” submitted to the Würzburg Physical Medical Institute. Interestingly, he initially demonstrated the photographic results to his colleagues in an industrial (not medical) application, with a radiograph of a set of weights in a box; just like the situation repeated here in Rothemann’s work, which replicate the radiographs of shipping containers made routinely by port authorities.
In exhibition, these nearly metre-wide x-ray transparencies were displayed in openings on a false wall illuminated from behind (left, above) to emphasise their uncanny ‘radioactive’ negative glow.
There is a conversation here, making sense and provoking emotion and surprise, out of the paranormal, the ephemeral and the structural.