Exhibitions Curated: Space Time Memory

The exhibition Space Time Memory, co-curated by Val Metz, Jacqui Metz, and myself, took place at CityScape Community Art Space in North Vancouver from Nov 2 to 25, 2006.

I was originally trained as a printmaker and spent many years making etchings. Gradually, I began to do photo-etching and from there moved into digital image-making. I teach western cultural history and find art historical images and their iconography intellectually and visually fascinating; fragments of cultural and natural history, juxtaposed or rendered with contemporary photographic imagery, are contemplated and manipulated in my work. These works are a dialogue with a history that, while irretrievably gone, is at the same time, ever-present. That condition of being both present and absent is most clearly articulated in the photograph, which records that which really was, the vanished, as being eternally here and now. This paradox I find particularly interesting – how can history, which is not now and never will be again, still be always present?

Green Monster Casino

Green Monster Casino, Sachsenhausen

The work is based on a more general aesthetic and philosophical interest in issues of temporality and mortality. Previous bodies of photographic work have included still life images of rotting fruits and vegetables, of wax anatomical bodies, and of visual expressions of fantasies of biological transcendence. This kind of work has a historical pedigree: it’s known as Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning remember that you are mortal and you too will die. This injunction appears visually in the genre of western painting known as Vanitas Still Life and in Medieval and Renaissance Christian art. The idea here is that one should remember the brevity and futility of earthly existence and meditate on the eternity of the afterlife in which one will receive one’s just reward, whatever that might be.

“The genre was little used in classical antiquity; there, the chief thrust of memento mori in the ancient world was “carpe diem” or “seize the day”, which would have entailed the advice to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” In the Odes of Horace, this idea appears with the well known line Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus. (Now is the time to drink, now the time to dance footloose upon the earth.) Horace goes on to explain that now is the time because there will be no drinking or dancing in the afterlife. This is the classic carpe diem theme” (Wikipedia).

Merida Mexico

V Metz, Merida, Mexico

Most memento mori works are products of Christian art, in which context the memento mori acquires a moralizing purpose quite opposed to the Carpe Diem theme of Classical antiquity. To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an injunction to meditate on the prospect of the afterlife.

For French theorist Roland Barthes, photography is an “elegiac art” which can be seen as the modern memento mori; for the human subject/object, the passage of time ultimately terminates in Death. Photographs represent the “this will be and this has been,” the time of an anterior future; that is, a future that is already a past, and this future is death. In his words: “Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence”. So, by this we can take him to mean that, whatever meaning we may extract from a photograph, something has necessarily been captured by the camera; the photograph is evidence of its having been there. It is precisely due to the very reality of this – the certainty of an existence in the past – that photography becomes inextricably bound up with Death.

Salpetriere I

J Metz, Salpetriere I

The critical element of a photograph, for Barthes, is the testament it offers that “this has been,” that the subject existed in this specific moment in time and will at some point invariably be dead. Writing in Camera Lucida, Barthes tells us that “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), photography is a kind of primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead”. Barthes later rearticulates this temporal character of the photograph as the simultaneous experience/perception in viewing of the “this will be” and the “this has been.” This temporal paradox is the strange, and powerful, realization that, at some point in the future, this now will be the has been.

Hallway (right)

Hallway, SS Troop Theatre (right), Sachsenhausen

There is some sort of compulsion at work in the taking of photographs, as a record, as evidence, as an exposition of something. The word ‘taking’ to describe the action of obtaining a photographic representation is significant – photographs are not ‘made’ but ‘taken’ – they are an acquisitive act. Evidently ‘taken’ from reality, the desire is to stop time itself: that is, to capture an image of someone, something, as it exists at that particular instant. Essentially this action implies a wish to negate the effect of death, but effectively it hastens death, multiplies it. Every photograph is a conscious, or unconscious, reminder of death.

In this way of thinking about photography, any photograph is not unlike a cadaver tomb or its representation. One of the most famous of these is Masaccio’s 1425 Trinity which represents a cadaver tomb beneath the crucifix. On this tomb is a skeleton of Adam over which is inscribed: “I was once what you are; you will be what I am”. This injunction applies to all of us.

Memory
What remains of the vanished
What is remembered?
Who is remembering?
Why are things remembered?

Aspendos

J Metz, Aspendos

“I come to the fields and spacious places of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. This is stored up, whatever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid-up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried.” (St. Augustine 4th c ce)

My work included here is part of a larger series entitled Contaminated Architectural Space, digital images of condemned, uninhabited, decaying or abandoned buildings. Sometimes I discover these sites while traveling; other times I seek out a particular site to photograph because it has some very specific associations. Whenever I travel, I am on the lookout for remnants and ruins that contain fragments of the past. Sometimes these are sites that have a larger historical significance; sometimes they are simply small-scale private spaces that appeal to my aesthetic or philosophical interests.

These photographs are part of a series taken at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 35 kms north of Berlin. The camp is now a museum; in addition to following the path outlined for visitors to the site, I also explored areas of the former camp off-limits to visitors. The prescribed path turned left; I turned right and slipped through another small door in a big stone wall. Behind the door, I discovered a vast area of the camp that housed the SS army headquarters. Here the buildings were in an advanced state of decay; some, such as the SS troop theatre, seemed to be in the process of being refurbished, presumably for later display. Here paint peels off the ceiling and walls like burnt skin. The troop theatre still retains some traces of its former grandeur with its rows of windows leading the eye to the stage’s edge.

SS Troop Theatre

SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

Here in the photographic rendering of the interior, the principles of theatrical space are inverted. So, rather than the stage being the spot-lit focal point of the room, the stage is a dark, blank, black void in the centre of a room into which brilliant light from the outside streams. The photograph mirrors or reflects physically the shining of light onto the hidden, the attempted illumination of the dark by some kind of enlightenment.

In this diptych entitled Hallway, SS Troop Theatre the geometry of the image presents a kind of infinite recession into nothingness. The focal point of the right-hand panel is the small window opening onto the real world outside this self-contained, self-referential interior space – is there light at the end of this very dark tunnel of human history? The diptych format serves two functions here: representing a space and its negative alludes to all that lies hidden from sight within this place – the lives and souls lost here. I have used the negative/inversion in several pieces in this series: the negative image is meant to convey an impression of radioactivity; inversion/reversal of image alludes to the inversion/reversal of all human values experienced by the inhabitants of this site. It alludes to the idea that the traces of these souls remain here, still informing a visitor’s experience of the space. It is an attempt to make visible the soul or spirit within a physical or material container.

Hallway (left)

Hallway (left), SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

You might notice that the positive image is designed to drawn you into the space – the colours are darker in the foreground and become lighter as your eye travels into the background and out into the light. Conversely, in the left hand panel the colours are lighter in the foreground and get darker as your eye travels back into the depicted space until finally arriving at the dark blank nothingness of the closed window in the background. This use of colour works to give the impression of being blown away from the image. The temperature of the colours used also contributes to this feeling – warm colours in the positive image draw one in, cold ones in the inversion blast one out. In this image the viewer is offered a choice; will there be an opening from here onto life or onto death?

The effect these contaminated spaces had on me was striking; coldness, desolation and a deep sadness for all the lost souls who had passed through or perished there. Inside the SS Troop’s Green Monster Casino the ceiling’s collapse has allowed nature in; the floor is stained with water, leaves, bits of paper, and random filth. In between rotting boards, puddles of oily water reflect the sky.

Oven (left)

Oven (left)

In these images of rooms a sense of recession in space is created by the rows of walls or pillars that recede into the background, framing a distant focal point. There is a very strong geometric architectonic to all the images. The spaces represented are bounded and limited, often confined to strict geometrical shapes. I am very interested in the geometry of images and pay particular attention to the framing of a picture and the enclosure of a particular space. In doing this, I make use of lines and edges to sharply define and mark out territory. In addition to the use of receding squares and rectangles, I also employ the triangle as a compositional device. Notice its use in the Oven diptych, the line created by the pillars in the Hallway picture, the line separating the floor and walls in the theatre image and the edge of the wall in the washroom picture.

Oven (right)

Oven (right)

I am also playing with the ideas of light and dark, visible and invisible, entry and exit, rising out of and going into the darkness – descent into the underworld, ascent into the afterlife. In the ancient world women were assigned the tasks associated with liminal states/boundaries between this world and the next – specifically birth and death. Women were the midwives and mourners whose work accompanied the passage of the soul from one state of being to the next. Who knows what comes after? In many of these images the viewer is positioned in the doorway, on the boundary between one space and another. We are also positioned metaphorically on a boundary between this physical and psychic space and the one to come. One cannot see where the journey ends – the door is closed, the stairway hidden. In the Prisoners’ Washroom, the window to the exterior is there, but blank. Nothing apparently exists outside this geographical and psychic space – the outside world vanishes. In the Oven the door is open, leading not to life but to death and destruction. Here the negative image expresses intense heat and conflagration, symbolizing the greater holocaust in its meaning of total burnt offering.

Doorway SS Troop Theatre Sachsenhausen

Doorway, SS Troop Theatre, Sachsenhausen

The metal door creaks slightly as the wind pushes it,
No death here, only sighing wind, the gentle rustle of the leaves as they sway –
Lightly floating, tumbling, twirling … resting here for a moment, there
then disappearing.
Where are they now, the dead ones?

A downward spiral … traced out against the sun.
To abandoned barracks.
Sighing trees … I shiver – it is very cold here.
The sky is crystal.
I imagine I hear their ghostly voices, the undead
Whose work shall make us free.
And with this, I remember the greens of the trees – olive, grey-green
the way the leaves looked as the sun caressed them
The soft dark shade beneath the breathing leaves.

Washroom

Washroom, Prisoners’ Barracks, Sachsenhausen

Interior/exterior: If we are positioned inside a room or building, is there a way out? Claustrophobic/open. Windows? Open/closed. Door open/closed?

In these works space appears as the architectural envelope or container within which absent bodies used to operate and function. Sometimes the space in an image is conceived of as a theatre, a stage with absent players. The principle animating this body of work is the idea of dissolution. Architecture is a way of framing material and space – when buildings disintegrate, for whatever reason, they allude to a more general principle of temporality and dissolution – everything temporal eventually decays.

Thinking now about the entire exhibition, I find it interesting that all of the works allude to states of absence and presence. My pictures present spaces from which its original human occupants are definitively absent – never to return. Val’s work represents spaces in which humans are both present and absent; here physical traces of their presence remain – these spaces are still in a sense occupied. And living beings walk through and above the spaces occupied by the dead. In Jacqui’s pictures the represented spaces are still in use, but seem to be temporarily vacant. While my work is devoid of living beings, living humans still move through these other rooms and along these other paths.

Pere Lachaise

V Metz, Pere Lachaise, Paris

Val’s works are beautiful – notice how the canvas is divided by using trees, edges or figures as markers. Her works tend to have an all-over illumination, rather than having particular elements spot-lit or highlighted. The light itself is soft, an illumination that acts to smooth out the rough psychic edges of the subject matter.

The lawn cemeteries started in Victorian times, often referred to as “landscapes of death”, sustained the Romantic ideal of a garden cemetery. Ross Cemetery in Victoria is a good example. Val has used a mirror-image technique here to create an image that is horizontally-symmetrical. Here the weeping willow is the main focus of interest – it has been described as nature’s lament, a symbol of sorrow and mourning. The tree seems to rise, phoenix-like, out of the landscape of death, its leafy branches like the wings of a great bird soaring skyward. The word cemetery itself means sleeping place, and the idea that the dead are not gone but merely sleeping to awaken to an eternal afterlife elsewhere is a comforting one.

Ross, Victoria

V Metz, Ross Cemetery, Victoria

In popular resting places such as Pere Lachaise and Montmartre in Paris, the garden of death is crowded, as mausoleums and headstones are packed in to every square foot of space along the winding treed paths, resembling more our crowded cities than a tree filled “garden”. Still, there is serenity here, even though we are reminded of the power and wealth of the famous, in this city of the dead. These planned and organized landscapes of death contrast sharply with the Celtic graveyards of Ireland and the humble gravesites of early Canadian history. The Irish graves seem haphazard and randomly organized, wild spaces rather than cultivated ones.

Irish graveyard

V Metz, Irish Graveyard

In these cemetery images, Val uses the conventions of landscape painting: a panoramic presentation, perspective, recession in space, a path leading the eye into the distance; and gradations of light and dark. Here the landscape is a theatre upon or in which human actors act. In responding to landscape images, we can consider the importance of point of view: where, as viewers, as we situated? Are we aware of ourselves when we view? Are there surrogates in the image with which we can identify? Are there any figures in the image looking out at us?

Possible points of view: From on high, looking down. Here the suggestion is a magisterial, godlike viewpoint in which we are more powerful or more important that the scene represented. From below, looking up: we are puny, insignificant, and less powerful that the scene represented. Straight-on: equality of importance, ease of accessibility, erasure of awareness of point of view. A high angle depicts a relationship in which the producer of the image and the viewer have symbolic power over the person or thing represented, while a low angle depicts a relationship in which the depicted person or thing has power over the image-producer and the viewer. “Power is signified most strongly by a low angle which is also a close-up” – as if, as Daniel Chandler notes, “as we get closer, we become more vulnerable”. (http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem08b.html)

Slane Abbey Hill

V Metz, Slane Abbey Hill, Ireland

The point of view in Val’s pictures is usually from below, looking up. Notice that the horizon line is high; much more of the ground is visible than the sky. The sky is often represented as a small strip of blank whiteness. In this image of a Celtic graveyard, rather than photograph the site from the top of the hill, Val has chosen to shoot it from below, such that we are encouraged to follow the line of the dirt path to the churchyard beyond. Such a point of view might suggest that it is the religious faith represented by the church that gives meaning to our experience of death.

In some images, such as these of the Banff cemetery, the point of view is a tight close-up in which no sky or horizon line is visible. This compositional choice can be seen as indicating the democratic nature of death – each of us is equally subject to it. Or, perhaps, it alludes to the gentle inquisitiveness of the viewer whose camera eye records this space. What I find most striking about these sites are the trees and fences and the wildness of the grass and weeds surrounding the small stone memorials. The horizontal spikes of trees and fence give a kind of protective embrace to the graves here, as if shielding them from intruding eyes.

Banff

V Metz, Banff cemetery

In the 18th century landscape was usually considered as a picturesque setting for some more important, human drama, or as topography, or a quasi-scientific reconstruction of the land masses of a particular area. It was seldom recognised as something that could be important in and of itself. Beginning in the 1780s a new aesthetic category was developed in Europe, the picturesque. In picturesque images, ruins were often utilised in landscapes to generate several different forms of sublimity, a quality of transcendent greatness.

“We do not comprehend ruins until we have become ruins ourselves” – Heinrich Heine

Salpetriere III

J Metz, Salpetriere III

In the pictures of Irish gravesites the graves are ruins or moving toward a state of ruination – this awareness of the inevitability of ruination gives viewers a feeling of melancholy. These landscapes of the dead are gentle and soft. The colours are pastel, the edges of the objects are softened, and the focus of the camera is soft. Here death is a natural outcome of the condition of being organic matter.

Jacqui’s work is informed by her interest in spaces whose usage has been altered with the passage of time, such that the buildings’ many differing uses and occupants exist in invisible psychic layers perhaps accessible in part to a perceptive viewer. For example, consider the series of photos of the chapel of Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. Salpetriere was originally a gunpowder factory (“Saltpeter” being a constituent of gunpowder), but was converted to a kind of dumping ground for the poor of Paris, into which were herded during the reign of Louis the Sun King in the 17th century the tramps, whores, crooks, and vagabonds of Paris, 40,000 in all out of a total population of 400,000. Eventually it served as a prison for prostitutes, and a holding place for the mentally disabled, criminally insane, epileptics, and the poor.

During the French Revolutionary period, in 1792, Salpetriere was stormed by the mob and 183 prostitutes were released, but others (probably madwomen) were less fortunate and were murdered. 45 disheveled, mentally-deranged women were dragged into the street and massacred in view of all. This prompted Madame Roland, hitherto a great supporter of the Revolution, to write in her Memoirs that the Revolution “has been stained by villains and become hideous”. Since the Revolution, La Salpetriere has served as an insane asylum and a hospital for women. (http://www.paris.org/Kiosque/sep98/la.salpetriere.html)

Salpetriere II

J Metz, Salpetriere II

The hospital’s chapel was built in 1675. Inside the chapel a dome covers a central octagonal rotunda where the high altar stands, the meeting-point of four naves which make up the shape of a Greek cross. This design allowed four groups of worshippers for whom the chapel was erected – men, women, boys, girls – to be seated apart yet close to the high altar, all of whom listened to the sermon and the Holy Scriptures read to them from the beautiful wrought-iron lectern that may still be seen now. Those for whom the chapel was built are long gone – the space is represented as vacant and the lectern empty of its reassuring words of scripture. A gentle beam of illumination enters from above; the lighting is soft, the stone is soft, almost chalky. Against this soft, beige environment, the black iron lectern stands out abruptly: its metal rigidity a mute protest against encroaching time and extinction.

The chapel has also been used over time as a teaching classroom; evidence of this use remains in scars of grafitti and the slight disorder of vacant chairs. The empty chairs have an expectant air about them; they cluster together, almost like a crowd of anxious visitors waiting for a sermon or concert to begin.

Jacqui’s images are primarily what one would call mid-range shots, ones whose point of view is straight on. In visual representation, social distance is related in part to apparent proximity. In camerawork, degrees of formality are reflected in shot sizes – close-ups signifying intimate or personal modes, medium shots a social mode and long shots an impersonal mode. As described by Daniel Chandler, “In visual media, the represented physical distance between the observed and the observer often reflects attempts to encourage feelings of emotional involvement or critical detachment in the viewer”. Here the mid-range view tells us that the artist is not intimately acquainted with the space photographed and visits it as an interested and engaged outside observer.

Mohamed

J Metz, Mohamed

This image is taken in the interior of the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, now known as the Ayasofya Museum, a former Eastern Orthodox church rebuilt after having been burned down in 532, converted to a mosque in 1453, and converted into a museum in 1935, in Istanbul, Turkey. Like the architectural spaces, this human figure, too, is in the process of dissolution. If he were to speak, what would he say to us? This usage of a figure who communicates directly with the viewing audience is one which many painters have used since the Renaissance. How might we interpret his gaze?

“Where the female model typically averts her eyes, expressing modesty, patience and a lack of interest in anything else, the male model looks either off or up. In the case of the former, his look suggests an interest in something else that the viewer cannot see – it certainly doesn’t suggest any interest in the viewer. Indeed, it barely acknowledges the viewer, whereas the woman’s averted eyes do just that – they are averted from the viewer. In the cases where the model is looking up, this always suggests a spirituality…: he might be there for his face and body to be gazed at, but his mind is on higher things, and it is this upward striving that is most supposed to please… It may be, as is often said, that male pin-ups more often than not do not look at the viewer, but it is by no means the case that they never do. When they do, what is crucial is the kind of look that it is, something very often determined by the set of the mouth that accompanies it. When the female pin-up returns the viewer’s gaze, it is usually some kind of smile, inviting. The male pin-up, even at his most benign, still stares at the viewer… Since Freud, it is common to describe such a look as ‘castrating’ or ‘penetrating’…” (Richard Dyer in Chandler).

Stereotypical notions of masculinity are strongly oriented towards the active. Dyer argues that the male model feels bound to avoid the “femininity” of being posed as the passive object of an active gaze. In this figure, however, although we certainly recognize it as a male, it exists somewhere between these two modes of passive and active: the gaze is partially effaced, erased; like its surroundings, the figure seems to be in the process of disintegrating, disappearing we watch.

Salpetriere IV

J Metz, Salpetriere IV

All of Jacqui’s photographs have an opening to the sky, so to speak. Illumination from above is present; shafts of light, rooflessness in the case of the theatre, evidence of light entering from the outside. Such illumination indicates hope, transcendence or the eternal.

To see the exhibition installation, click here.

Space Time Memory article

Space Time Memory notice