playing in the perceptual fields:
The human imagination, however,
has great difficulty living strictly within the confines of a materialist
practise or philosophy. It dreams, like a dog in its basket, of hares in
the story of skipping
-John Berger from Keeping a Rendezvous
Alice was beginning to get very
tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do:
once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but
it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book,"
thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"
-from Alice in Wonderland
In Salvador Dali's woodcuts illustrating Lewis Carroll's
Alice in Wonderland, Alice appears as a young girl with a skipping rope.
Her shadow is cast longingly over the imaginary worlds she peers in on
and participates in, sometimes in anticipation, sometimes lingering behind.
She is always on the cusp, turning her rope between real and fantasy worlds.
The figure of the skipping girl offers an intriguing
model of approach to the dense photographic worlds that Bruce Hanks has
created here. i vacillate between uncertainty over what it is i am seeing
in each photo and, weighing the narrative or iconic possibilities, a kind
of metaphorical enticement or evocative implication: turning the rope.
Like Alice i long to name, to make sense of, to see into these other worlds,
worlds which seem to be awakened to another language, stories that shape
and distort themselves before and with my tentative entry.
The game of skipping stones depends on the surface tension
of water holding up against the momentary weight of well-chosen stones
and just the right angle and velocity of projection. Flat surface against
flat surface, one gives energy to the other.
Julia Kristeva has much to say about the reaches and
possibilities of "metaphoricalness" and the impetus it extends to
ordinary objects. She writes,
Being like is not only being
and nonbeing, it is also a longing for an unbeing
in order to assert as only possible "being," not an ontology, that is,
something outside discourse, but the constraint of the discourse itself.
The "like" of metaphorical conveyance both assumes and upsets that constraint,
and to the extent that it problematizes the identity of signs, it questions
the very probability of the reference. Being?
-Unbeing. (273 Tales of Love)
Because these photos present an immediate challenge to
the visual perception of the viewer, s/he is tendered all of the possibilities
of metaphor: "This one looks like a mountain peak; no, a knife; or a cracked
mirror with missing shards of glass." Simultaneously, however, the process
is charged with doubt and difficulty: the viewer's focus is continuously
jostled between metaphor-making and an awareness of the viewing processes,
which themselves run from a consciousness of the photographic medium and
act of image-making to an awareness of one's own acting-out of metaphorical
translation or transformation.
Photography theorist Douglas Crimp makes
an important distinction when he suggests that photo-taking is always,
really, photo-making. By suspending the viewing process and deferring
meaning to the metaphor-making of the viewer, the photos in side-long
glances foreground the intricacies of their "making" and of their unmaking:
both assuming and upsetting their constraints.
hey! where am i, anyhow?
"Would it be of any use, now,"
thought Alice, "to speak to this mouse? Everything is so out-of-the-way
down here, that I should think very likely it can talk: at any rate, there's
no harm in trying."
How do we begin to speak to and speak about the out-of-the-way
worlds we encounter? More specifically, how do we place ourselves before
visual art and begin to hypothesize and verbalize the space between ourselves
as viewing subjects and the art; how do we take account, as well, of those
affective sites of intersection--where the affective aspects seemingly
overwhelm the distance? Yes, we look around for familiar objects, for those
particulars we recognize and name instantaneously including, as far as
we are acquainted with the language of formalism, those elements which
we see as making up the composition. And this can lead us, as Kristeva
-from Alice in Wonderland
our way through what separates the place where "I" speak, reason, and
understand from the one where something functions in addition to my speech:
something that is more-than-speech, a meaning to which space and colour
have been added. We must develop, then, a second-stage naming... We must
retrace the speaking thread, put back into words that from which words
have withdrawn. (210 Desire in
Bruce Hanks's photos shake up
conventional assumptions about the distance between the viewing subject
and the work of art, not because they succeed in drawing the viewer into
one cohesive and overwhelmingly 'other' world, but because they seem to
draw the eye--my eye--across their surfaces again and again, in a kind
of scan for patterns of composition and meaning. Like flashes of memory,
their patterns are often loosely consistent but also sometimes seemingly
random. Flashes of detail, some lucid and distinct from their hazy settings--for
instance, the crisp figure in white, prostrate before (what compositionally
could be translated as) a band of water, a slice of sky or wall--others,
so densely merged that figure and ground become impossible to discriminate.
It's almost as though there is no fixed organizational frame in operation,
apart from haphazard and often happy coincidence of a particular visual
and emotional memory, creative play, instinctual compositional decisions.
Laughingly? Dumbfoundedly? Coyly? Ironically? One gets the slightly unsettled
feeling that if there is a trickster lurking, both audience and photographer
occupy the same side of the trick. Memory, dreams, sometimes just our own
movement through a quickly-moving world can feel just that way.
So, there are pangs of both
a gifting and a trust revealed here--quite vulnerable--since sidelong
glances shares with a wider audience a starting-up of and feeling through
creative thought, a foraging of memory banks, a stirring of past work,
current considerations and future possibilities. Vulnerable, yes
--also remarkably hopeful.
queen of 'arts
Green in nature is one thing,
green in literature another.
--Virginia Woolf from Orlando
The idea of a queen (or royalty) appeals to me here in
relation to art and artifice because of the rich cultural associations
it accommodates. In Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando, the central
character first encounters Elizabeth I only by her hand. It is ringed,
thin, with "long fingers always curling as if round orb or sceptre; a nervous
crabbed sickly hand; a commanding hand, too": "a memorable hand." The young
romantic Orlando is much impressed by the extended hand of the queen, but
Woolf's sly tones here in describing both the majestic aura bestowed by
the hand and the illusory cultural underpinnings of that aura cue the reader
to the double edge--the power and the absurdity--embedded in artifice and
This double edge Woolf employs so aptly, in her
shrewd and artful invitation to the reader, is the edge of irony. Irony
is contingent upon bringing together a community of readers or viewers--a
group whose members share a knowledge base that permits them to appreciate
the effect, an effect hinged on the subtle incongruities of surface and
The photos in side-long glances quite modestly
address questions of surface and the superficial. They do not insist on
exposing the secrets of their subject matter or penetrating to some imagined
Real. Instead, they seem to know intuitively that vision does not afford
us transparent access to reality or the organization of knowledge, however
concrete. On the other hand, they do propose value in stopping the visual/video
flow and gathering an image for contemplation: they respect the eye in
a way that doesn't presume, as in the Cartesian model, a direct link between
an objective and unconfounded eye and a rational inner self (see Crary
for more on Descartes' model).
A confounded eye is one that is able to tolerate
a measure of surface volume, despite the disorientation that such layering
of memory and meaning may bring with it. This kind of surface volume is
unabashedly artificial: it bursts conventional notions of perspective in
three-dimensional, ordered space--in which the photographer's viewpoint,
where her/his lens is situated in relation to the object, is clearly apparent--and
simply presents everything as surface. The viewer's looking is continually
frustrated, stretched thin.
i'm thinking specifically here of the earth-toned
painterly image which could be interpreted as a girl with bowed head and
doves; i associate it strongly with the beautiful movie Anchoress,
in which a young medieval woman chooses to be sainted and enclosed in the
walls of a chapel wing--the story, and even more so, the visual narrative,
explores ideas of interiority, corporeal possibilities for mysticism, and
intensely personal religious experience based on an access to the spiritual
through the physical. The photo feels similarly reverential to me, with
emphasis on the movement or interplay between different textures, the fluttery
strokes of paint, the solid blotches of black and the coolness of grey
stone. There is a sense of the tactile here, of surface and touch for the
sake of the sensual pleasure of it, but also of a greater spiritual element.
The success of this photo is in its doubleness,
in its reverent endorsement of a physical-metaphysical continuum and simultaneous
recognition that the image can offer only an ironic comment or speculation
about the specificity of this continuum.
halt! who goes there?
immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by
our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the
immobility of our conception of them.
As viewers of these photos we are unable to ignore the
framing devices; we are unable to avoid thinking about how we fix our images,
how we hold our memories. Sometimes it is in acknowledgement of the act
of framing that we are able to imagine the things that surround us out
of their immobility.
There are several photos in sidelong glances which
appeal directly to my sense of wishing the world askew. Of these, two are
particularly evocative: the photo of the mona-lisaesque face escaping its
frame and the photo of the transparent figure superimposed over a blurred
landscape. Both of these images seem to address a different way of seeing--an
access to a trans-logical or "irrational" means that is at once brave and
hopeful. And they seem to speculate about the practice: if we make the
leap to an imaginative way of seeing, if we welcome other realms, what
are the uncertainties and unpredictabilities we approach--or that approach
us? What ghosts may prowl, trouble us? And if we admit the failings and
shortcomings of our eyes, how do we deal with the more obstinate haunting,
of our own vision?
transparency and reflection
claim about the transparency and obviousness of the photograph,
there can be found an opposing claim emphasizing the difficult language
introduced by the photograph, a language based in the liberties of framing,
montage, juxtaposition, and surreality.
My favourite photograph--which also sums up for me what
this group of photos is about--is the one of a dark blue pool of water.
The strength of this image for me lies in its capacity to hold contradictory
characteristics of photography, specifically concerns considered in side-long
glances: "looking", framing, memory and knowledge.
The upper edge is curved back in on the photo
and forms an almost talismanic arch protecting the contents, the still,
opaque waters. An eerie quality to the eye-like features of the pool recalls
the ancient powers of the eye in warding off malevolence or harm, but can
also be unsettling to the unsuspecting viewer. It's the mirroring of the
viewer's gaze here that feels uncanny; the eye doesn't so much interrogate
its viewer as suggest a zen-like deflection of the viewer's inquiry: a
It's a similar puzzle to Alice's. The wonderland
inhabitants she encounters only further confound her attempts to understand
the world she has entered and its distance from her above-ground world,
where her senses can be depended upon, or at least taken for granted. On
the one hand, shifting the locus of inquiry to the outsider or viewer is
an ultimate acknowledgement of and freedom for the creative/creating "I"/eye;
on the other, it constitutes the ultimate spectral haunting. As in Alice's
wonderland, the complexities of side-long glances reverberate and
multiply in an infinite house of mirrors.
Berger, John. "The Soul and the Operator." In Keeping
a Rendezvous. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Bolton, Richard. The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories
of Photography. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland.
Crary, Jonathan. "Modernizing Vision." In Vision and
Visuality. Ed. Hal Foster. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988.
Dali, Salvador. Woodcuts for ... edition of Alice
in Wonderland. In Surrealism and the Book.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1980.
Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1987.
Proust, Marcel. The book formerly known as Remembrance
of Things Past.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Toronto: Penguin Books,
Texts Index | Playing
in the black box | Exhibition Review
Conversation with John Statham