BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gateshead, UK
31 July - 4 October 2009
The following interview between the artist and BALTIC Curator, Alessandro Vincentelli, is taken from the interpretation leaflet (pictured) published to accompany Subterrania at BALTIC:
AV: Why is the exhibition called Subterrania?
FC: The title Subterrania refers to the subterranean nature of all the sites depicted in the images so, in a literal sense, it is descriptive. However, the word ‘subterrania’ doesn’t actually exist, nor therefore does the place.
I often play with the presence of two opposing ideas or contradictory forces within the same work and it fascinated me that this word, ‘subterrania’, could carry meaning despite having no fixed definition. I thought about it as a place or an idea that is, on the one hand, ‘knowable’, yet on the other, impossible to properly locate.
One of the contradictions might be that the images are made at historically significant sites yet they are not documentary in any straightforward way.
Historically, all the sites were evolved for a particular function and were inhospitable, dangerous environments. In their modern guise as tourist sites, they retain much of their phenomenological power yet have been rendered, for the most part, safe and accessible. I find the complex relationships that this change of identity brings about – where the conflicting imperatives of history, leisure, tourism and heritage all become conflated – really intriguing, but I’m also interested in how, in such circumstances, the potential for a documentary narrative ceases to exist.
How do you choose the places where you decide to make work?
In a variety of ways. I had visited some of the sites as a tourist years before – like the military hospital in the Channel Islands – but others get distilled through a process of research.
The earliest works in the exhibition were made in 2001/02 while I was living in Rome. I took a guided tour of one of the catacomb sites and was struck by the sculptural presence of the labyrinthine tunnels that are, essentially, an architecture made by extracting matter. I ended up working in the catacombs over a period of several months, taking negatives in this environment that was intensely interior, where the climate, summer and winter, is absolutely stable and the silence is profound. All these factors made it an extraordinary site within which to make still images because many of the basic precepts of photography – light, time, space – are partially or wholly suspended, meaning I was making a still image of an environment that was, in essence, already ‘still’.
This powerful experience and its bearing on the visual and conceptual life of the work became a precedent for the subterranean sites that I have since chosen to work in.
In the catacombs you worked with pinhole cameras, but the later series in the exhibition have been made using a medium format camera. Can you tell us a little about the different techniques you use?
The pinhole cameras I make have a hole drilled in copper for a lens and no viewing system. I have used these cameras on several projects in the past as a way of removing the primacy of sight from the photographic process. This may seem like a bizarre idea since photography is an inherently visual medium, but when I was in Rome, for example, I found the visual spectacle of the city so overbearing that it was almost impossible to work with conventional cameras without producing a visual cliché. With a pinhole camera you can never ‘see’ the image as it is being taken. It is only later, when one is removed from the time and space of the site, that one perceives that place as an image.
In recent years I have mostly been using a medium format camera, and have come to acknowledge that this separation of place and image remains a crucial aspect of how the work functions. It is one of the reasons why I continue to use film rather than digital technology. Again, this may seem wilfully obtuse since negotiating access to some sites can be a protracted process, both for logistical and bureaucratic reasons. In this context it might be tempting to try and achieve an image in one hit, but when I return to a site several times to achieve the technical quality I need, I am working my way through this relationship between image, place and memory.
Time seems to be a key concept running throughout the work...
A variety of time ‘frames’ exist within the work. For example, the slow, durational accretion and dissolution of geological time, or the historical time of labour, whether it be by early Christians, 17th century lead miners or 20th century prisoners of war. Entering into this trajectory is the moment of photographic exposure that is, relatively speaking, instantaneous. I say ‘relatively’ because the film can take up to three hours to expose.
The French photographer Cartier-Bresson famously described the moment when a camera shutter is opened and an image is formed as the ‘decisive moment’. In contrast, the images here in Subterrania were made by the camera entering into a slow continuum where indicators of time or geographical location have been effectively suspended. In this respect, my process could be seen as being antithetical to Cartier-Bresson’s idea. Here the images simply bear witness to the ontological fact of the space – in other words, to its state of ‘being’.
And through this process you make us - the viewers - very aware of the presence of the photographs as objects in the exhibition space. Can you tell us a little about the installation you have made here at BALTIC?
Within the installation there is a strong emphasis placed on the dialogue between the work and the architecture of the gallery. The construction of the spaces allow for the possibility of experiencing the formal presence of the works, including their sculptural dynamics of mass and weight, alongside the intellectual ‘reading’ of the work as images. Some works are isolated with particular sight lines, allowing the scale of the image, in relation to us as viewers as well as to the architecture, to become explicit.
A monograph of your work, Hyper Passive, has been published to coincide with the tour of Subterrania. How did you approach the production of this?
The book charts the evolution and production of the major projects I have undertaken over the last 10 years and creates a context in which the themes within the work can be explored.
It includes a beautifully crafted and insightful essay by Christopher Townsend that looks at how the work unpicks what he calls ‘the rhetorical forms’ of photography.
The title – Hyper Passive – suggests a negotiation of contradictory forces, something that I alluded to at the beginning of our conversation. One of these might be the exploration within the work of how a profound stillness can, paradoxically, create an intense energy, almost like white noise.
When viewing these images, you are aware that no people are pictured, but our role as a viewer means we participate. This sense of the viewer somehow ‘completing’ the work seems highly significant?
The relationship that exists between the time and space of the photograph being taken, and the time and space of the viewer’s experience of the work in the gallery is something that has always greatly interested me. We’ve just been speaking about the different layers of time within the work and the viewer is crucial to this dynamic. For me, this is where the work ultimately exists, in the viewer’s ‘act of encounter’.
© Alessandro Vincentelli & Fiona Crisp 2009
BALTIC Library and Archive
© J. J. Long 2009