Texts Index | Playing in the black box | Exhibition Review 
Conversation with John Statham

playing in the perceptual fields: 
the story of skipping 

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 open. 
-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. 

skipping stones

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." 
    -from Alice in Wonderland
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 insists, 
     to find 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 Language

     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 ceremony. 
  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 appearances. 
  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?

    Perhaps the 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

    For every 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. 
    --Richard Bolton

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 puzzling communion. 
  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. 

    Mariianne Mays

Works Cited.

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, 1993.

Texts Index | Playing in the black box | Exhibition Review 
Conversation with John Statham