February 6: Elliptic

Date #6Angels may dance on the head of a pin, but devils lurk at the point of a needle.

In the catalogue of Tara Gilbee‘s current exhibition Ellipses 2 February—19 March 2023 at Castlemaine Art Museum Dr. Peg LeVine, clinical psychologist, medical anthropologist, genocide and trauma scholar, who is also an internationally exhibited sculptor, describes how Gilbee’s panoramas;

…simulate prison guards’ vistas and their circles of sameness day-after-day when standing watch in towers and on grounds. One might ponder how places committed to human confinement and monotonous routines desensitised guards to torture. Gilbee connects and disconnects these black and white images in ways that invite us to pause on that which is off screen … execution, flogging, treadmill torture {an invention by British colonialists), sensory deprivation, and ‘legal’ lynching of Aboriginal People.

Tara Gilbee exhibition Ellipses, Sinclair Gallery, showing hands-on display of pinhole cameras and ‘lumen’ prints.

Gilbee has undertaken a two year site-specific project at the Old Gaol in Bendigo and recent site visits to local gaols in Central Victoria to produce a series of studies using the classic tin-can pinhole camera design in which the photo-sensitive material —resin-coated paper in this case—is inserted in the upright can so that it forms a curved surface opposite the pinhole drilled with needlepoint through foil. In effect it is not only a panoramic camera, but as a cylinder it also replicates, on one axis, the formation of our spherical eye which provides us a panoramic, peripheral view up-and-down as well as on the horizontal plane.


Nevertheless, the vignetting of Gilbee’s pictures presents peripheral vision quite like the way we see, as described in Ernst Mach‘s pictorial  analysis and representation of the field of view through one eye, made in drawing what he saw while seated on a chaise longue, in a picture in which even the arch of his eyebrow, nose and moustache are encompassed.

Ernst Mach (1886) ‘Picturing the Visual Field,’ from page 15 of Die Analyse der Empfindungen (“The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical), fourth German edition, Jena, 1903

As with Mach’s representation, approach one of Gilbee’s panoramas close enough with one eye closed, until it fills the field of vision, and the scene seems to ‘pop’ into three dimensions; the viewer becomes the pinhole and, as LeVine intimates, joins the guards in their “panoptic surveillance bestowed on them by the radial ‘panopticon’ design [though not strictly the Benthamite arrangement that enabled a constant view of each individual prisoner] and towers reminiscent of medieval castles.”

Photographer unidentified (n.d., pre-2018) Old Castlemaine Gaol, showing panopticon design.
Screenshot 2023-02-05 at 5.25.56 pm
Valentyn Odnoviun (2019) from Surveillance, exhibited 28 February –31 March 2019, Latvian Museum of Photography.

In his Surveillance series Ukrainian-born photographer currently living in Lithuania, Valentyn Odnoviun (*1987), reminds us that the ‘pinhole’ in prison observation was a spy hole in the door of the exercise yard or prison cell, the latter literally a ‘camera,’ the Latin term for a chamber or room. His work was made over 2016-2018 in former KGB prisons in Baltic States and Ukraine; the Stasi remand prison in East Berlin, Germany; former Ministry of Public Security headquarters in Poznan and its Remand Prison for prisoners of war and political prisoners in Warsaw, Poland. The work has been published.

Through the peepholes in Odnoviun’s close-ups we at first strain to see anything; the cell or yard is a mere blur. It is the surface of the glass, placed to protect the guard’s eye, that becomes the subject and its exposure to scratches, smears of paint, chips and imperfections. These obstruct the view, metaphorically casting the veil of mutual incomprehension and intolerance of the others’ view. which we understand as an impenetrable barrier to any clear insight; a blinding by ideology. A pinhole turns things upside down; through it from above, I look at your feet, from below, I see your head. Inside the pinhole, is a pinion or spindle which does this, an infinitesimal point on which balance the angels and devils.

Screenshot 2023-02-05 at 5.24.13 pm
Valentyn Odnoviun (2019) from Surveillance, exhibited 28 February –31 March 2019, Latvian Museum of Photography.

That opposition is present in Gilbees placement of a positive and negative image facing each other at 45º across one corner of the exquisite geometry (as Peter Tindall showed us it is) of the hexagonal Sinclair Gallery. Rather than present the positive as a contact print of the negative, which would render a mirrored image, the scene is unchanged in digital scans apart from the tonal inversion. The sinister whip-like lines crossing the negative are revealed to be railings around the exercise yard and along a path at a greater distance, and a tree-trunk at right; a pinhole image renders everything at any range equally sharp. Placed adjacent, these prints’ tempers are contradictory; the negative is adverse, antagonistic even to our comprehension. Gilbee aptly and intelligently includes in her wall notes lines from Samuel Beckett‘s Watt (1953) in part of which the eponymous anti-hero spends time incarcerated;

‘So it is with time,
That lightens what is dark,
That darkens what is light.’

In the negative, the architecture of the two-storey building is not a four-square and stolid prison, but floats unanchored on a smog of grey, while the dirt of the exercise yard glows radioactively. The positive, reassuringly real, elucidates the negative; its sky is open and shadows stay in their place beneath. Hovering between the two are psychological extremes of fatality and survival. One of these is the red pill.

Tara Gilbee (2019) Untitled (9am23619 OoN) digital print (scanned photographic record) on cotton rag Collection the artist, and  Untitled (9am23619 OoP) digital print (scanned photographic record) on cotton rag Collection the artist

The idea of the panoptic is extended in a series of magenta-hued prints that extend either side of the entry into the next gallery. These are prints from enlarged digital internegatives of Tara’s DSLR camera documentation of the new Castlemaine gaol, Loddon Prison which Corrections Victoria describes as “a campus-style prison within a secure perimeter [with] landscaped grounds, modern buildings and wide range of programs and activities provid[ing] an environment, which as closely as possible resembles those available in the general community.”

Tara Gilbee exhibition Ellipses, Sinclair Gallery, Castlemaine Art Museum

At the floor talk last Sunday I asked Tara why the continuity of the panorama had been broken in its hanging around the doorway. She said that her series as shot circumnavigates the entire prison, but that she had chosen 10 only frames out of the set for display, and that their selection and placement replicates the interrupted view of the huge facility one glimpses from the train which passes its northern end as it is ‘erased’ occasionally by the intervening scrublands.

Tara Gilbee exhibition Ellipses, Sinclair Gallery, Castlemaine Art Museum

Appropriately, the informal hanging of these pale prints directly on the wall emphasises that contingent and obstructed visibility of a prohibited and forbidding place, one that most outside would rather not see, happy to know ‘undesirable’ people are locked away there, ‘out of mind.’

Using a term coined only in the last twenty years, these are often called ‘lumen’ prints. Just as the French word ‘giclée,’ (meaning ‘squirt’) is used for inkjet prints, ‘lumen’ would mystify and glamorise an ordinary process. Once common, it is really just ‘printing-out,’ as it was known in the days of the economical POP paper (i.e. printing-out-paper) favoured by amateurs and for professionals’ quick contact proofs from 1860 to about 1940. It required no darkroom, only a contact-printing frame in sunlight to bring out a visible image, rather than the chemical development required by ‘developing-out’ silver bromide paper which Gilbee exposes in the same way, but has had to chemically fix the images.

In a hands-on display of the pinhole cameras set out in the gallery for visitors’ interaction, Tara includes a black plastic bag containing some unfixed prints whose images which, as they are examined, will gradually turn an even purple and be obliterated, like our memory and consciousness of those fellow human beings who are locked away.

Opening night of Tara Gilbee exhibition Ellipses, Sinclair Gallery, Castlemaine Art Museum

Gilbee’s exhibition is ingeniously titled Ellipses both for the shape of her pinhole imagery but also in reference to the ellipsis which even though it refers what is known colloquially as “dot-dot-dot,” has a plural, ‘ellipses’ with emphasis on the second ‘e’. Ellipses can indicate a slight pause, words left out, omitted or censored, an unfinished statement, unknowing, a trailing off into confusion, or an embarrassed silence.

The embarrassment here of course is the penal system and the vexed question of justice, especially as we become aware of the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations people and especially their youth. Dr. LeVine reminds us of the “moans that these humans and stone walls endured,” and that “Victoria had high execution rates between 1842 and 1975,” adding that “across Victorian Gaols…cold was bloody cold, hot was stifling, and cruelty justified,” including “the tormented fate of women in the female Bendigo wing before and after they were transferred to Pentridge in 1896.”

Tara Gilbee (2019) R. M. Kellar (1868 to 1889). Digital Print (scanned photographic record) on Cotton Rag

Where Gilbee’s positive/negative imagery embodies and encourages reflection on the imprisoned, two works evoke the state of those who guarded. Her background in sculpture (studied in her 1996 BFA at the Victorian College of the Arts) prompts hybrid works. At one point in her floor talk Gilbee remarked on her consciousness of the very physical and haptic nature of working with the pinhole, and indeed, the images have a sense of proprioception, of being in the carceral space. With her hands on its surface she discovered a trace left by one of the turnkeys; a graffito he left engraved in a brick in the observation tower recording his length of service of  twenty-one years spent watching the curbed and crabbed lives of the convicts, while himself being bound to the task. Another, G. Comitti in the 1970s, also left his mark.

Tara Gilbee G Comitti 1977 Graffiti 2019-2023 digital print (scanned photographic record) on cotton rag Collection the artist
Tara Gilbee (2019-2023 ) G Comitti 1977, Graffiti. Digital print (scanned photographic record) on cotton rag Collection the artist

Effectively bas-reliefs these depart from the pinhole imagery in technique; they start as rubbings from the raised surfaces of the prison which then become negatives in their transference to the photographic emulsion, before being scanned and printed on rag paper which gives the blacks a rich velvety depth. What is incised remained blank on the rubbing, so when used as a negative, those areas printed black, forcing an ambiguity as to what is surface and what is void. Like some portent told in runes on an ancient stele, they emerge and, demanding to be decoded thus hold our attention. In transmitting the harsh contrasts and exaggerated textures of cold bluestone, sandstone and brick to the eye, they exert a profound affect.

Gilbee’s inventiveness and analysis applies the idea of the pinhole as a representation of surveillance, incarceration, duration and endurance. Open, generous and frank in her floor talk presentation, she emphasised the accessibility and relative economy of the processes she used. Local secondary students are lucky to have the benefit of her creativity this year when she undertakes a residency at the  Secondary College.



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