Catalogues, in so far as they function as a guide to the work on display, endorse two assumptions: that the work needs explaining (by some authority other than the viewer) and that it can indeed be explained (made understandable with/to a degree of satisfaction). To some extent this seems a fair point of view, especially if we assume that work is more than a surface onto which we project what we want to see. The ‘object’ in question, the proverbial hook which anchors our desires and thoughts, may, after all, communicate other levels of meaning, particularly to the initiated or after prolonged meditation and study. Both meditation and study imply the passing or passage of time. The expectation however that reading a catalogue may provide a shortcut to such an experience is unlikely to be fulfilled.
We may ask instead, both in relation to the works shown in this exhibition and in more general terms, how images represent temporal relations. We may also muse on how we individually perceive or experience time and its passing. Assuming that there is a differentiation to be made between an externally measurable duration of time and an internally perceived sensation of temporality – a distinction which infers an external world with some objective referentiality and an internal one that is subordinate to regimes of subjectivity – there are several instances in which linear temporality appears suspended: remembering something from the past is one obvious example, but an everyday experience such as going to the cinema provides another. So, too, is an act of repetition. Whether we ourselves engage in rituals or simply witness them seems to make little difference to the power they exert over our sense of temporal progression. But time isn’t experienced in isolation.
When a word, for example, is repeated several times over in fast succession, the result, most certainly, is the loss of its original clarity, context and meaning in favour of a poetic but mystifying and strange otherness. The estrangement that ensues is not just to the word and its meaning but to our own mouth and the speech uttered from it. This formal device allows a level of abstraction which, in altering the time/space relationship words in a sentence are usually subordinated to, disrupts our habit, and with it the way we experience both ourselves and reality. This sensation of estrangement, here being induced and experienced in and through our own body and volition, operates on a similar level to the ways in which we may experience the works in this exhibition.
And it is experience and perception that are central concerns to Mara Zoltners and Andrea Thoma.
Mara Zoltners works mainly in video. With, or should I say despite it, she creates sensuously textured, rhythmic structures of often visually complex and ambiguous character. Urban spaces and their associated everyday activities speak of transition and alienation, especially in relation to dislocating natural phenomena. In Strange Place to Snow (2003) snow falls in the middle of an enclosed environment and in Landscapes of Utterance (1997), made during a residency at Art in General in NY, she brought rural images of a Midwest location to the streets of downtown NY.
Her constructions are often looped, and as such they are endless repetitions of paradoxical ‘Gleichzeitigkeiten of emptiness and fullness. The choice of her subject matter – banal, everyday activities often featuring transitions or set in transitional spaces – seduce us into a sense of recognition which is gradually unsettled and frustrated. In Periphery (2003), we are placed on the passenger’s seat, at a distance to a passing outside world, and allowed only fleeting glances as though our gaze functions solely at the periphery of vision. Our already challenged sense of directionality is further compromised by the constant backward and forward motion of the camera both inside the individual frame and the overall arrangement across 9 monitors. In Between There and Here (2003), we watch the spatially complex and perplexing comings and goings of a train station from an elevated, removed and indeterminable position.
Zoltner manages to conjure up spatial configurations that create time through the suspension of temporal progression. In direct contradiction to the context of the source material (transitional spaces and temporal activities), we experience a kind of timelessness. Placed in front of a screen that records movement, we become aware of our stillness.
To the painter Andrea Thoma the very materiality of paint, the texture and surface of its ‘thingness’, to borrow a Heideggerian term, is of great importance. But so is the possibility of the paintings holding highly abstracted and philosophically informed ideas. Derived from banal everyday motives like a cloud or an archway, her paintings are consciously referential – both to a signifier we all know and to a tradition that engages with the very relationship between the thing and its image.
The paintings in this exhibition belong to an ongoing series of explorations entitled Thought Dwellings, which she has been working on since 1998. Increasingly referential only by intent, the resulting abstractions emphasise an absence. This paradox – on the one hand, Thoma asserts a referentiality to a clearly defined object, on the other hand, her images can no longer be read as even remotely figurative – may best be described with yet another Heideggerian term, as a bridge, which in this instance connects the shores of her objects with the shores of our imagination. Traditionally, figurative images were made in the service of religion; to remind the viewer of its timelessness (both as a system of belief and as an image) and of the effects of age and mortality. To remove the figurative dimension could be said to replace this appeal to engage with an eschatological narrative with an invitation to engage with our own processing of time. Furthermore, such abstractions raise critical issues about the role of image as the narrator. But Thoma doesn’t just offer an abstracted canvas for us as to project our thoughts onto its surface. Maybe one could think of the world Thoma presents us with as an alternative to the one she is referencing. A space/world of possibility in a world that may no longer hold them? As such, it may be the presentation of a space in, or rather, through which dwelling in its external and internal dimensions may again become possible. However, one may ask what kind of dwelling is possible in a world that is experienced as both anterior and alterior to us?
What remains open is the question if dwelling, as a kind of home-making or home-coming, may also be possible in and through an engagement with someone else’s artistic practice. One possible answer may be located with Adorno who, in direct response to Heidegger’s trust in language as the house/home of Being (“das Haus des Seins”), retorted that “one may actually no longer habitate at all (‘..berhaupt nicht mehr wohnen kann..’)”
What may then be at stake is no longer a dialectical pairing of internal/external reality, emptiness/fullness, exile/at-homeness, banal/sublime but reality itself; what and whose it is – and our place in it.
In summary, I may boldly speculate further that both Zoltners’s and Thoma’s images of real things ask us not to recognise them for the things they are, but to leave them behind. In other words, we are faced with a shift in the function of images from narrator to facilitator. In such an instance the viewer becomes less an onlooker or listener and more a participant. However, what we must also consider is what we are asked to leave behind or turn towards, what are we asked to be part of and participate in. In short, we may remain mindful about how to place ourselves, specifically in this instance but also in more general terms. In the end, only you, the viewer, can decide what hooks you and where to direct your desire. Finding out, though, takes time.
Lily Markiewicz works in installation, video, sound and photography and occasionally Artists books. She is particularly interested in ethical questions relating to spectatorship and cross-generational transmissions of trauma. At present, she lecturers at Camberwell School of Art, the University of East London and Birkbeck College, London.
Other publications include:
PROMISE II, Exhibition Catalogue, Mount St. Vincent University Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 2002 ISBN1-894518-13-6
THE PRICE OF WORDS, Artists Book, Bookworks, London 1992 – ISBN1-970699-09-2
Essays by Griselda Pollock, Devora Neumark, Ian Hunt and Dorota Glowacka on her work can be found in: PROMISE, Exhibition Catalogue, The Koffler Gallery, Toronto, Canada, and The University Gallery, Leeds, 2001 (see also PROMISE II, above) and PLACES, Exhibition Catalogue, The University Gallery, Leeds, 2001
Works referred to:
Mara Zoltners : Strange Place to Snow (2003); Landscapes of Utterance (1997): Periphery (2003); Between There and Here (2003) shown in this exhibition
Andrea Thoma : Thought Dwellings