Surfacing: Questions of Memory in Anne Robinson’s Installation 'Hold'
Hold (2006): A twin screen projected video installation which places still and moving images side by side
The elements that constitute the sequence-image, mainly perceptions and recollections, emerge successively but not teleologically, the order in which they appear is insignificant (as in a rebus) and they present an configuration - 'lexical, sporadic' - that is more 'object' than narrative. i
On the left hand screen, in bluish monochrome, a shadowy, yet clearly female figure opens a door to the accompaniment of an eerie high-pitched whistle. There is light emanating from behind and in front of this figure. From where into what might she emerge? Immediately there is some confusion about the represented space: are we viewing from inside or outside? Exterior and interior seem to have become complicated and conflated. There is a strange, slightly distorted, wavery effect to this footage, reminiscent, at least for this viewer, of the shimmer that sometimes occurs when viewing through a heat haze or in a reflection. We cannot quite see clearly. Next to this, on the right hand screen, is a still image of a rope in pixellated chiaroscuro, this is replaced by what is ostensibly an abstract, “painterly” image containing the colours of metal: greys and rusts. This transmutes into another blurry, yet readable image, in the same palette, of the decaying hull of a boat. Shot from inside, the rib-like girders appear to encompass the viewer, what might have once remained hidden has been revealed by the elements. In contrast the next still is a misty impression of sea-like greys with a reflection that could be a moon, this could be read as invoking the sublime, there is no clear horizon to anchor us. Meanwhile, on the right, the moving screen shows reflection of a line of twisting, gut of rope. Writhing restlessly this line appears to be “drawing” on top of the water. This action attracts our attention to the surface and so prevents us from seeing what might be underneath, the sea seems impenetrable. Cut to a woman, back view, in a dateable Edwardian style bathing dress. She is in the sea holding a rope; she could either be pulling herself out of the sea and by implication out of the picture frame, or drawing the viewer in. She slowly turns towards us, but tantalisingly, before we are able to meet her gaze, an image of the sea’s rippling surface has returned.
This is a description of the opening sequence of Anne Robinson’s poetic digital video installation 'Hold'. It sets the agenda for what is to follow and seems to encapsulate the many paradoxes inherent in the work. Robinson is interested in the way in which affect is stimulated through chance encounters with images, possibly dissociated from their original context. By using this non-linear construction and employing an accumulation of what might in other situations have been inconsequential fragments Anne Robinson seems to have constructed what Victor Burgin calls a ‘sequence-image’, which is elaborated in The Remembered Film. This accretion of images might be considered analogous to thought and memory; the kind of way of thinking that happens when one is wandering around one place but thinking of another. The piece operates through abutting still and moving images side by side. The left screen plays a succession of interrelated clips, alongside this on the right one presents a sequence of painterly still images. The latter are informed by and testament to Anne Robinson’s skills as a painter. The generally smooth and languorous rhythm of the whole loop is interspersed with a few faster staccato moments. Although the effect of this is to divide the work into clear episodes it is certainly not in any way to build a conventional narrative. Through the conceit of showing still and moving images next to each other, the piece develops a complex blurring of the relationships between several apparent binaries; these include that which is still and that which is moving, that which is exterior and that which is interior, that which is directly experienced and that which is vicarious, that which was then and that which is now, what might be read as abstraction and what as representation and what is conscious and what unconscious.
This installation employs strategies of representation that both invite and then subvert or deny participatory involvement from a viewer; this is achieved through a series of strategies of distantation. There are different distances created throughout the piece, on the whole there is a “drawing in” then a “pushing back” exemplified by the woman with the rope. Hold operates through the cumulative effect upon the viewer of these pairings of still images and moving sequences. The structure of the installation also allows for a variety of unsettling viewing possibilities; for example, there can at times be a sense of impermanence within the static images and conversely, through the use of repetition and extreme slow motion a sense of durability in the moving sequences. This creates a mesmeric, rhythmic, quality to this work. For a viewer this allows for a paradoxical combination of meditative with transitory.
From re-filming to re-visiting There are tensions and moments of disquiet in this installation. One way in which the artist creates this effect is the slight distortion that has been emerges through the process of re-filming. The images are nearly all made from re-filming from TV screens using a digital camera. This procedure can result in various kinds of visual disruption: from apparent blur and discolouration to an apparent smearing or smudging. Anne Robinson considers that this process is almost like “seeing through other eyes”. One instance of an effect of this is that the woman in the re-filmed excerpts begins to look not entirely benign. This transformation of what was once familiar becoming strange is of course drawing on notions of the uncanny. This sense of unease is further enhanced, or even modified, through repetition, slow motion and close ups that take place throughout the duration of the work.
Indeed, the artist thinks of re-filming in terms of the impossible attempt to capture the space between frames. She has written:
My work in painting and video installation has for several years, been engaged with the freeze frame - the liminal moments in film language, which may have a heightened unsettling quality when isolated from causal or temporal flow, or when visually abstracted. Film languages, digital and otherwise have threaded through my practice including painting, and I have started to look at spaces between frames, with the blurring of frame spaces in digital imaging and editing; and to develop languages of re-filming to 'catch' these frames; exploring this as a space of the imaginary ii
The complex methodology she employs in this re-filming and selection can be traced back to procedures that she developed even in her student days when, in a pre-digital era, she had developed a process of making images out of film stills using photo silkscreen. A major difference in that earlier technique is that there is still a “manual” element in the facture of these in the use of the squeegee and thus a direct trace of the body of the artist, an issue to which I shall return later.
Moving away from her previous source material: when she was painting from photographed TV images which would be unlikely to be recognised by any viewer, in Hold she uses a potentially recognisable film. The 'sequence-image' from a remembered film she selects to use is taken from The Ghost and Mrs Muir, a feature film of 1947, which was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starred Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. It tells the story of a widow, who goes to live in a house by the sea with her small daughter where she falls in love with its previous occupant, the ghost of a sea captain. As we will see later this narrative has a particular resonance for Robinson.
Even through the very configuration of the piece an atmosphere of impermanence and mutability permeates this work. This sense also stems from the shoreline and seafaring imagery she uses as a catalyst. This, in itself, offers possibilities of change since the edge of land, of course, connotes passages or journeys: both arrivals and departures. Of course she is not alone in representing the sea so as to offer their viewers a space for dreaming. However, one surprising aspect of the images and sequences that Anne Robinson has selected, is that contrary to expectation, there are only very rarely shots or images which show enough distance to reveal a horizon. What is perhaps paradoxical about this piece is that she offers us nautical “dream” spaces that are a contained, almost claustrophobic; we long to break through the surface into the wide space.
'Hold' can be considered in terms of a representation of another liminal space: that of shoreline landscape. We could usefully think about this piece as the result of a series of complex interactions between the ‘landscape’ and human agency. In her essay ‘Lydia Bauman: the Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny’ Griselda Pollock offers the following definition of the imaginary space that a landscape painting might proffer:
More than topography, its painted representations have offered poetic means to imagine our place in the world. The paradox of landscape is that it is both what is other to the human subject: land, place, nature, and yet, it is also the space for projection, and can become therefore, a sublimated self-portrait. iii
In 'Hold' Anne Robinson has come to represent landscape through exploring certain unresolved autobiographical issues with which she had been grappling, in a sense she came to this through trying to imagine and understand her place in the world. She was brought up by the sea in Ayr in Scotland largely by her father who was born in 1895 and died when the artist was 16 in the mid 1970s. Intriguingly, The Ghost and Mrs Muir was made when Anne Robinson’s mother was a young woman, but much of it is set in the time when her father, who was many years her mother’s senior, would have been a young man. She later discovered that a connection with the sea was a long family tradition: her grandfather was a coastguard in Cornwall, her father and his six brothers all sailors, and great and great-great grandfathers in the navy as far back as 1800. Whilst on a visit to the Tate St Ives she walked to the village of Marazion and looked at what she thought were the cottages they lived in. Meanwhile in the studio she had been making apparently unconnected paintings from TV freeze frames: unnerving evocations of some peripheral contemporary preoccupations, drawn largely from forensic dramas or wrestling matches. These explorations into the family history quite unexpectedly changed her relationship not only with the past but also with her practice. She was also began to notice that some of the photographic and re-filmed material which she had hitherto thought of as merely part of the process towards the paintings were interesting in and of themselves and could in fact be deemed an “end product”. Then there came a moment when this interest in family history altered from idle curiosity into much more focussed research. Processes, methodology and concept began to coalesce. Robinson began to engage with Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory, namely a ‘second generation’ memory characterised by belatedness, secondariness, and displacement. Hirsch writes of the children of Holocaust survivors:
None of us ever knows the world of our parents. We can say that the motor of fictional imagination is fuelled in great part by the desire to know the world as it looked and felt before our birth. iv
Hirsch considers the different ways in which one generation might be shaped more strongly by what happened to the preceding generation than what might have actually happened to them. While it is clear that Anne Robinson’s work is not precisely postmemorial as Hirsch outlines it, there are some obvious parallels. The artist is interested in the quality of the removed distance which postmemory allows and the ways in which memory can be understood as cultural as well as individual. This also gives a context for the layered effect of displacement and distance in the work created through using slides, TV screens and re-filming. The refilmed images are of already mediated images of place-a double distance.
Other trips to Cornwall ensued, to revisit the beaches and the cottages where her family had once lived. She travelled with a digital movie camera in hand, filming in a way analogous to a sketchbook or notebook in an unpremeditated, open ended fashion. Anne Robinson had in the past only rarely drawn or painted on location and never worked in situ using still photography. Thus this new relation to the specificity of her family history has in fact opened up issues of representing place. This working visit to Cornwall was a pivotal moment. Now she was going to incorporate into her practice images of a place that she had actually visited. Yet this was not just any place, this was a place which was itself emotionally charged. Up until then she had used pre-mediated images in both her video and painting works. Informed technically, formally and theoretically by all that had been going on in the studio, these visits to Cornwall became something other than an impossible attempt to meet her father. I sense that an awareness of the here and now, something of the phenomenological experience of being in place begins to have a conversation with the distanced, secondary experience of the re-filming processes. It might well be that the “re”visiting of places which may have some emotional resonance for the artist may have parallels to the passages from films and TV programmes she had selected.
Surface Throughout Hold there is a strong emphasis on surface, and only rarely sense of an illusion of depth. There is footage of reflections wavering on the surface of the water. Some images look as if they might be the sea, but it transpires that they are facets of worn rock or other distressed or scratched surfaces close up, sometimes re-filmed. Rather than imaging the sea itself directly, the artist has chosen to focus on its effects, frequently in relation to that which has been manmade, whether boats or weathered structures at the edges of the water. Boats break through the surface of the water, partly below and partly above.
We are shown the effect of the sea on worn and textured harbour walls and ropes transformed and made strange through slimy deposits. The rope motif provides a link between the contrasting surfaces of land and sea as well as appearing to draw on and break through the surface of the sea. These are traces of the implicit threat and power of the waves and yet this danger seems somewhat softened by these sensual images. Another paradox here then: that something beautiful might be created by something dangerous. The interest in surfaces, needless to say, invites the question what lies beneath?
Sometimes it is impossible to identify where the seductive images on the right hand screen have stemmed from. This abstraction invites a lyrical, almost entirely visual reading, as if we were looking at the surface of a painting. This is partly created through re-filming, which means that there are apparent layers, interference and patterns. These operate in much the same way as a reflective, textured, or richly glazed painterly surface. There are effects that appear smeared, stained, scraped and scratched. There is a reciprocal and symbiotic relation between control and accident, between active and reflexive and of arbitrary interference. The artist considers that the way in which the results of re-filming distorts and changes might be linked to what happens when she paints. Painting is created through applying layer upon layer onto a surface. The layering in these video stills is not a literal one, but it is another kind of layering has occurred through accumulated processes involved.
Robinson’s practice moves to and fro between painting and digital video work and aspects of each process influence the other. In earlier paintings made directly from slides of the television screen, she has a much clearer sense of a final image from the outset, there is not much space for accident and the unexpected. In her video/stills re-filming work it seems to me that the methodology is rigid, but affords less control over the final image. It is through the selection of which images to include and in which sequence that a clear visual sensibility emerges. She is allowing a synthesis of these two approaches to materialise in her most recent series of very potent small-scale paintings derived from a small photograph of a half- brother in naval uniform.
Since this sequence of projected images in Hold is so painterly they might be read in counterpoint to some contemporary painting, for example, the filmic, ethereal paintings of Peter Doig. He too privileges neither abstraction nor figuration. He too offers us composite places for projection that draw on as wide a range of source material as Anne Robinson. I am thinking, in this context, not only of the ambiguous almost dream-like sense of space he creates through the rich consistency of his densely worked surfaces, but in particular of his mix of autobiographical and filmic memories. The use of the fragment brings to mind Victor Burgin’s thoughts on bringing together aspects from different sources:
Enigmatically incomplete fragmentary images - from the real world, from media images, from memory and fantasy - may be woven into delusional constructions of convincing realism. v
This woven mixture would seem to have equal resonance for both artists. In the following passage Beatrix Ruf describes how Doig’s work operates for her:
Doig's images are saturated with the variety of our memories. They are visually effective precisely because they do not show any one specific place, or landscape, our last winter holidays. Looking at them evokes a film-like movement of images, which is a movement from memory... In Doig's images we enter spaces that appeal to several senses at once, because they operate with the structure of our memory, because a smell, a colour, the accidental collision of a familiar architectural detail with a detail from a landscape can set in motion our own, individual "films." vi
In a sort of reversal of this process, 'Hold' invites us to make our own “paintings” from films. Not only does the passage seem to echo many of Anne Robinson’s concerns but actually also serves to accentuate how this kind of work develops out of a tradition of landscape painting which goes back at least as far as the Dutch Landscapists. I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Manchester Art Gallery whilst I was looking at the striated, dragged and scraped surfaces of Philips Konick’s 1648 painting Flat Landscape with a View of Distant Hills which attempts to offer a reconstructed ‘reality’ in the studio through a combination of outdoor sketches and recollection and memory. Konick’s painting, while not drawing on the fragment in the same way as a contemporary artist might, represents no more one place than either Doig’s or Robinson’s. Thus while the technology in 'Hold' might be of the 21st century, perhaps the combination of remembered and encountered places has a longer trajectory.
Where is the body? The rope motif that Anne Robinson employs repeatedly is perhaps at its most uncanny when ropes appear to be tying and holding a slung up body. As the footage progresses it comes to light that this is a hammock in the interior of a floating WW2 battleship. Of course the hammock is empty, yet it provides the space for a body. In this section I am going to consider what has happened to the trace of another implied, yet absent, body: that of the artist. It must be crucial for a reading of this work that these stills were captured by the camera, however constructed and painterly they might seem. The relationship between body and image is several times removed in this work, thus differing significantly from a painted surface where materiality of paint indexes us more directly to the artist’s body. There is no evidence of the ‘facture’ of these pieces as there would be in painting. So unlike viewing the surfaces of her paintings where the visible materiality of paint joining with canvas offers a sense of resolution and a closed-off surface, these virtual “paintings” appear to be more open-ended and uncertain, this can operate to counter-balance the seductive compositions and unsettle and disrupt a comfortable viewing. So in what way is what happens in Anne Robinson’s image-making process in Hold, more than a visual effect that merely appears painterly? The answer might lie in the notion of haptic visuality. Writing in relation to Susan Hiller, another artist who moves between painting and video, Rosemary Betterton considers that:
Hiller does not use video as a transparent medium, but in a way that evokes a physical and emotional response more akin to haptic art forms such as painting and sculpture. vii/viii
Anne Robinson’s work inhabits just such a space which is tactile as well as visual. However, there is a crucial difference between a painted and a projected surface and that is in the positioning of the viewer’s body. Where the viewer might need to move their body in relation as to understand and contemplate the painted surface, she is more likely to remain static when looking at the installation. Thus while both surfaces invite an embodied, haptic response, counter-intuitively the digital image is likely to provoke a more inert response than the painted.
Between Anne Robinson is wary of her work becoming over-personalised. The resulting work incorporates much personally resonant imagery but yet this remains wide-ranging enough to engage any viewer. Regarding the relation of the particularity of both the maker’s and the viewer’s experience/subjectivity Rosemary Betterton draws on remarks Keith Piper made at a seminar:
...the question of artistic subjectivity lies in the creation of a place ‘in between’. As Keith Piper has suggested, this means occupying a space where the artist can make work that both comes out of his or her particularity and can be read by others within their different social subjectivities and cultural locations. ix
The artist invokes the concept of the liminal not only in her use of the freeze frame but also between the two screens, she argues that for her, these new liminal space she creates seem to emanate motion, and therefore life rather than the stillness of death in a single frame. Arnold van Gennep’s notion of liminality is as a place of transformation, of transition, which might be considered a place ‘in between’. In the exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Stuart Morgan proposes that artists might be considered as passeurs, who have experienced their own processes of separation, transition and incorporation, and whose work in future might ‘help to deliver others’ x. It would seem to me that Hold could be considered in multiple senses to be ‘in between’, and a place or space of transformation or transition, creating in the artist’s words a “space for dreaming” . Hold does this using the metaphor of the shoreline between land and sea, between here and there, between movement and stillness, between painting and the digital image, between frames, between screens, between material and affect, between conscious and unconscious, between memory and history. In this way Anne Robinson’s profound, elegiac, painterly installation encourages an active, mutable understanding of our various pasts, thus offering her viewers the possibility of moving forward.
Dr Judith Tucker is a painter and lecturer in the School of Design at the University of Leeds. From 2003- 6 She was AHRC Research Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts at Leeds. She is co-convenor of LAND2, a research network of artists associated with Higher Education who are concerned with radical approaches to landscape with a particular focus on memory, place and identity. She exhibits regularly both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.
i Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, (London, Reaktion Books, 2004,) p. 21
ii Anne Robinson: ‘Slivers of Crystal: Living in the Oscillation’ paper given at The Afterlife of Memory: Memoria/Historia/Amnesia Leeds 2006, unpaginated.
iii Griselda Pollock ‘Lydia Bauman: The Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny’ in Lydia Bauman, Landscapes. Warsaw: Zacheta Gallery, 1997 p. 25.
iv Marianne Hirsch, 'Past Lives: Post Memories in Exile’ in Exile and Creativity: Signposts, Travellers, Outsiders, Backward Glances ed. Susan Suleiman (Durham NC: Duke University Press 1998) p. 419.
v Victor Burgin In/different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press 1996) p.272
vi Beatrix Ruf : www.postmedia.net/999/doig.htm
vii Rosemary Betterton, ‘Susan Hiller’s Painted Work’ in Unframed: Practices and Politics of Women’s Contemporary Painting (I. B.Taurus,London 2004), p. 90
viii Betterton draws on Laura Marks’ concern with haptic perception ‘the combination of tactile, synaesthetic and proprioceptive functions, the way we experience touch both on the surface of and inside our bodies” Laura Marks ‘Video haptics and erotics’, Screen, Winter, 1998,pp.331-48.
ix Rosemary Betterton, Intimate Distance. Women, Artists and the Body. (London. Routledge 1996) p. 193. refers to Keith Piper talking at the Site Gallery Sheffield June 1995.
x Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century (London: Tate Gallery Publications 1995) p.12