Magic. Illusion. Void.

Last week we looked at Amanda Harman’s photographs of the Somerset Levels and it occurred to me that really I ought to have mentioned Peter Benson’s novel which had such an enormous impact on me when I first read it all those (thirty two!!) years ago. Back in 1987 the landscape aspects of the novel certainly did not affect me as much as the narrative, yet there was certainly something beguiling and magical about it all that led me to pore over OS maps of Somerset, orientating myself around the place names and references in Benson’s words. Strange perhaps then that despite moving from the South West of Scotland to the South West of England five years after reading the book, the Somerset Levels remained (and remain still) something of an ignored treasure. Something to do, perhaps, with being just outside easy travelling distance, particularly as I only learned to drive in 2014, and perhaps too because there is a desire to keep the mystery caged and wrapped up in words and imaginations.

I have cycled across parts of the Levels in recent years, on solo sojourns and as part of the Bristol Belter sportive ride, yet I admit that when I am on my bicycle my thoughts are primarily about the process of cycling and only rarely, fleetingly, connect to the landscapes through which I am moving. The movement is the thing, and I have often wondered how I might go about using cycling as a process in which to fit art. My ‘tiny moments’ writing project of a few years ago is probably as close as I have got, although if there was some way of being able to make photographs or drawings whilst cycling in the same way I have done on train journeys then perhaps I would do so. Perhaps too I should simply admit to the fact that for me at least the act of cycling remains explicitly ABOUT the act of cycling and nothing else.

One of my most regular cycle routes takes me along the Exe valley, past Dulverton and up towards and occasionally onto Exmoor. On that route I often pass the Bridgetown cricket club and it’s delightful looking clubhouse/pavillion. I have never stopped to make a photograph of it (see above about the movement being the thing. I hate stopping on a ride even to refill bottles and much prefer eating on the move to stopping in a cafe) but you can see a glimpse of it on Google’s Global Surveillance Project (aka Streetview). Every time I pass it I think it would be fun to do a project around clubhouses before figuring that someone probably already has, or is doing so. I’m sure I stumbled on a blog at one point where someone was documenting village cricket pavilions of England and it delights me to see that Amanda Harman has built a body of work herself around a similar notion of clubhouses.

Harman’s Clubhouse images are varied in terms of the activities and sports they serve yet are all united by the absence of the people involved. What we see are the spaces devoid of the individuals who create them. We see the objects they leave behind them, sometimes related to the activity (a green fixtures book on a burnt sienna table top; cricket bats and pads on a changing room bench) but more often universal (a bar stool and a mobile gas heater; washed dishes draining beside a kitchen sink; assorted chairs; towels hung beside sinks). There is something of a fragile fragmented determination in these spaces, a sense of time draping gently into a distant past mixed with a hesitant hope extending into the future. These spaces are clearly communal yet we see them emptied of the chatter and shared experience of people. Instead the memories of moments linger in the air, unseen and unspoken but marvellously real. For me the photographs immediately bring to mind a scant few years of my youth spent at the long disbanded and dismantled Troon Sailing Club, dragging boats up and down the beach and slipping into the forbidden spaces of the clubhouse as a pre-teen waiting for my father to come back from his races on Tornadoes. I suspect these emotional attachments are, like those dishes on the draining board or the towels next to basins, universal. Many of us will have such memories and connections to fall back into and build upon on seeing these photographs. It’s one of the ways in which photographs should work, after all.

Elsewhere in Harman’s work we see shots under a collective title of Tidal Reach and here too are the tendrils of memory that reach back to my sailing club moments. The water, the sands, the horizon and the unflinching skies. My favourites of these images are the ones which are most formally constructed in terms of horizontal planes for these conjure thoughts of Rothko paintings and begin to enter the meditative realm of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes. Is it possible for anyone to make photographs of seascapes and not have Sugimoto’s work drawn in as a reference point? Probably not, but this is fine for there are surely none better.
I have come very late to Sugimoto’s work and this may be to do with the slow dissolve of an instinctive mistrust of spiritual meditation which has accompanied me for most of my life. In recent months however I have become ever more drawn to his work, intrigued by the notions of time within his long-exposure images. Our instinctive response to the function of photography is to see it as the freezing of fragments in time, a vehicle in which to store memories. I have found that this is one of the hardest barriers to overcome when teaching photography at GCSE level to teenagers. It is perhaps analogous to the development of the brain and connects to the way in which most teenagers cannot get past an infatuation with ‘accurate’ recording regardless of the medium.

It is a long time since either Sugimoto or myself have been teenagers (and I for one heave a sigh of relief that this is the case) so perhaps this helps explain a move away from an infatuation with freezing moments and instead looking at ways to acknowledge time as perhaps the crucial dimension as a factor in our experiencing (and hence recording) the world around us. The most obvious response to the dimension of time is the moving image, and whilst this is intriguing in its way it feels somehow too real to be real. Only at its extremes, like with Warhol’s film of the Empire State Building, does the moving image really, ahem, move me. More interesting by far are the ways in which illusions of time are captured within the single, still image. Sugimoto is a modern master of this and his theatres work is simply breathtaking in both its conceptual and formal execution. Ditto the seascapes and particularly the Revolution development which (literally) moves the composition on its side, further into the realms of abstraction and, if we can bring in this idea again, of meditative spaces. And here is that connection to Rothko again, taking into account the Rothko chapel and the supreme meditative space of the Rothko room at the Tate in London (personally I have much fonder memories of the paintings within the ‘original’ Tate Britain than in their ‘Modern’ context but I appreciate this is more than likely down to where I first experienced them). Even within the context of the printed photo book Sugimoto’s work resonates with an otherworldly presence. These images vibrate and send tingles of electricity down the spine precisely because there is almost nothing there. The lightness of most of the seascapes is such that they almost literally become weightless whilst the darkness of the Revolution series echoes that depth of void hinted at in Sarah Jones’ rose bushes. These photographs draw us is, envelope us in their delicious emptiness. They seem to say that only in nothing can there be something; the only thing real is unreal. Magic. Illusion. Void.

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