Art During one of my previous obsessions, reviewing Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog, I talked about visiting the city centre in the middle of the night, when the only company were the street lights – this was before twenty-four licensing when the average Liverpool pedestrianised area was deserted, desolate and quiet. I likened it to Carlo Di Palma cinematography, but something I failed to mention was the orange glow that rendered across the pavements and walls, giving everything a slightly artificial quality, like a film sound stage.
It’s that orange glow which Rachel Louise Brown captures perfectly in The Boarding School, her contribution to the group show Album at Wolstenholme Creative Space. She spent a year creating work at this educational establishment inhabited by Japanese students whose parents are business people in London. In the accompanying information, Brown explains that she’d walk about the grounds at night and “experienced the psychological effects of fear and the unknown”. She's fascinated by the way analogue photography can “absorb, abstract and portray the psychology of artificiality”.
There’s a shot of the Manor House, the glow of an unseen light thrown across the building; some trees silhouetted to the point of abstraction and perhaps most surprisingly three portraits of the students themselves, in end of year poses, smiling enigmatically but surprisingly lacking in sinister intent as though heading to a midnight feast. The overall impression is magical, of capturing a memory or emotion and like the best photography drawing the viewer into the world of the photographer, be with her as she tramples about the grounds not sure what she might find.
Threaded through these works, and similarly magical, are Emma Critchley’s underwater photos which share many of the same visual qualities but delve even deeper into the photographic process. In One Breath, what we’re presented with are a group of very dark images with the ethereal faces of participant only just perceptible on the surfaces, undetermined shapes of what may be cheeks and mouths, eyes and ears. They were taken under water at night, each exposure the length of a single breath from the sitter which accounts for the just imperceptible element of movement.
There is actual movement in her video piece opposite, Shared Breath. On a tiny tv screen, two similarly ghostly figures are embraced in a kiss, again underwater, bubble slipping out for the edges of their mouths. Critchley says she’s exploring “how breath embodies the fragile balance between life and death” and its not until some time into the video which runs for what feels like eons that you realise that either of these participants could theoretically drown, that this is literally a kiss of life (taking into account safety procedures which must have been in place obviously). It’s thrilling.
On the ground floor, behind a curtain, and requiring activation from the invigilator because of the racket it makes in operation is Vicki Thornton 16mm film piece which wins my admiration not just for its unembarrassed referencing of early Luis Buñuel / Salvador Dali collaborations and I think, visually Douglas Sirk or is it Aki Kaurismäki (which may or may not be conscious) but also her use of the word “interstitial” in the accompanying notes (one of my top ten). This is underground cinema de jure and there’s something about presenting it in film that gives it a substance that sometimes pieces produced using a digital camera for budgetary reasons lack.
For much of the film, a girl, who we might assume is the artist, sits in a domestic room at a dining table filled with a mirror. She’s blonde, with rouge red lipstick and she’s beautiful. We’re then presented with a series of shots of the room and the girl and the table from a variety of angles, interspersed with a series of intertitles which mimic a film script and talk of landscape and sound beyond the diagetic space of the film, picturesque tableaus that can’t be fulfilled by the available set, as well as contradictory descriptions of action within the room in relation to the mirror.
An initial reaction is that the artist is recreating the effect of silent cinema, the intercutting between action and title cards. Except that W.G. Griffiths elaborated on the action we could already see, often describing the action of the succeeding scene. But Thornton in talking about what isn't visible goes beyond that forcing our imagination to fill in these lesions and they’re also written in a style which takes advantage of modern cinema editing and lighting language mentioning cuts and focus and pans forever undercutting our assumptions.
As Bunuel said, “Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether,” which isn't too far away from Thornton's intent when she says she’s interested in the “notions of interstitial space, or rather the spaces that may exist between moments in time; between lightness and darkness; colour and the monochrome; sound and silence or visibility and invisibility”.
As my brain split in two, my physical state wasn't that dissimilar to when watching Chris Nolan’s Inception, albeit for a much shorter duration, rationalising the surrealism of the images with the conventionality of the text, or should that be rationalising the surrealism of the text and the conventionality of the images? Once again in this Biennial I'm very conscious of overstating my enthusiasm for any artwork but this is one of the pieces which my mind keeps returning to not sure if its remembering something I saw, or instead imagined. It's memorable for all the right reasons, not least that it can't be easily put into words. If only I'd remembered to write down the title.
Until 17th October.