Exhibition essay for Lindsay Seers & Francois Lefranc
Plymouth Arts Centre, Plymouth
the haunted world of Lindsay Seers & Francois Lefranc
These are photographs; but not as we know them. The show is about normal domestic images but not quite of them. Our easy-going relationship to the photographic image is somehow arrested, as though the images themselves were somehow restless. The title of the show, ‘Witness’, might suggest some form of documentary but these are dysfunctional images, which disturb and haunt the cosy truth of domestic photographs. These are witness to the repressed.
‘Witness in the Woods’ plays with domestic, not professional, photography. It interferes in the psychological relationships we have with everyday photographs. The conjuring of these images and the disruption of the photographic process that this entails are thus not technical matters but psychological ones. The familiarity of our domestic images are made troublesome. Our smooth, reliable pictures are turned into ungraspable ghosts. Here photographs repeatedly have their images rent from the object of the photograph: the strangeness of this state of affairs gives these images an unsettled and unsettling life. The repressed content of ordinary images is awakened.
The figure of the ghost is so salient because ghosts are caught between worlds. They are image without body: signification without substance. Moreover, their substance lies elsewhere. They exist in the present but refer to the past, where their significance lies. Ghosts are unsettled because they are a reminder of unfinished business. Of course the human psyche is always already haunted by the past: the product of unfinished business.
The description of a ghost could fit the description of a domestic photograph: an image which refers to the past. Both are a suspension of time. The normal difference, however, is that the ghost prosecutes its displacement in time, making the past weigh upon the present, whereas the photograph keeps the past at a distance, a fixed image. Everyday photographs usually act as a way of shoring up the past and keeping ghosts in their place. It is almost as if the very familiarity and solidity of seeing these images protect the subject against feeling their content.
Proof deals with the particularly poignant domestic photograph, the family snapshot. In Proof there is a play and tension between surfaces. These are pictures from any family album: a mother and child, or children. The mother is a photographic image fixed onto board with liquid light. The children are painted in black and white, reproducing the photographic details of the photograph from which they are painted. The images fit together perfectly to form one picture. But the difference in surfaces rips the picture apart and separates the mother and children. One cannot see the mother and children existing in the same world. Although both surfaces are photographic in their different ways, neither of them has priority as the ‘original’ or unspoilt image. The comfort of the old, original photograph, as an object as much as an image, has been lost.
The genre of the family snapshot (or other group photograph for that matter) is meant to show persons together. The moment is often constructed and posed or taken at a special time, such as on holiday. The family portrait is not the site of oedipal dramas and other intrigues and conflicts. The family snapshot shows the family’s togetherness, when the reality of the family situation might be, and usually is, vastly different. The family snap haunts the real family in all its tensions and conflicts. The family snap refers to the ideal, happy family: an image without a referent.
Proof pulls apart this image. As a solid photograph safely housed in the album, or framed on the wall, the photograph of the family or group is a reassuring sign. It ‘proves’ that things are as they should be: to others or to oneself. Thus, as an object in itself, the photograph is reassuringly stable: the image becomes an object that is manageable, that can be handled. ‘Proof’ destroys the coherence of the surface of the photograph: thus awakened it becomes a ghost in relation to the family. The figures are isolated spatially by being trapped in different surfaces. They look through, or past, one another. Once isolated like this, each figure is seen according to a separate register and no longer as part of the family. When the coherence of the photograph has gone, the unity of the family seems illusory.
Ghosts are trapped because of injustice or other unresolved histories: an unwanted reminder. They are a surface which lacks a body in the present but which is a significant witness to the past. The figures in ‘Proof’ become ghosts like these: they signify our inability to understand, work to be done, the impenetrability of their pasts. In their irresolution they are the opposite of nostalgia, which is the desire for a safe and stable past. The family snapshot is often, literally, an unwanted reminder (“this is Mark when he was ten!” - I shudder). But the wanted snapshot, the showing it around, can have a kind of desperation to it, haunted by a form of unwantedness or a need to be loved. How many photographs does one need to take of oneself to prove that one exists? Photographs cannot prove that the subject exists because they are always already too late: they can only capture the past and the surface of things; they can only catch ghosts.
The photograph is a witness but not to the truth depicted but to the impossibility of depicting the truth, only catching surfaces. In this show surfaces are unreliable, seldom what they seem. There are frequent conflicts between the substance or physicality of objects and surface or image. This contrary unreliability is disquieting for the subject.
In our world ghosts have image but no substance. They live in the world of image but not in the world of being: in the world of the ego detached from the world of the id. It is a psycho-analytic commonplace to say that every object exists twice: once as itself (its inside or substance) and again as a representation (its outside or surface). The id relates to the former; the ego craves the latter. When the raw stuff of the object escapes its outside, escapes signification, we have horror and monsters: the ego is threatened by what it cannot know. When images escape the inside, we have hauntings and ghosts: the ego recognized signification all too well.
The processes of computer manipulation, reflection, variable focus, distortion, and projection are all means of dislocating the image of the photograph from the surface to which it adheres, or the peeling off of that surface. Of course the ego desires signification and through signification. But it is haunted by the reality principle, by the castrating object. So the unconstrained image should be the ideal fantasy of the ego. But the catch is that with no materiality, the image can only satisfy through hallucination, which means not at all. It is a reminder of loss. Therefore, the thinness, precariousness of the ghostly image reminds the ego of its own thinness, precariousness: its contingent history. It remind the ego that it can only desire, is caused to desire, unfulfilled. And this is through representations.
In Appliance a distorted, moving image on a horizontal television screen reconstructs itself on a reflective chrome tea pot sitting on the screen. The image occupies a virtual plane within the tea pot. Once again the image is removed from the surface. Therein the tea pot, the object, loses its identity at the expense of the image. And the television, whose surface is usually denied, here has it emphasised by the unreadable, distorted image. The image is restless between these surfaces, not belonging on either. The flickering of the super-8 film adds to the sense of impermanence or insecurity of the image.
The image is an old super-8 film of a children’s birthday party. It is a familiar, run-of-the-mill domestic event. However, it is displaced by the unfamiliar site of the tea pot. The tea pot is also unremarkably domestic, although tea pots rarely rest on an upturned television screen as this one does. Everything is out of place, as if a poltergeist had been at work. The domestic is where one is usually secure and relaxed, where one is at home. But it is also where ghosts live: where the repressed is repressed. These images and objects are not at home. This makes viewing the film both familiar and strange. The spectator also has to position herself in a specific place to see the image undistorted. This intimacy is a kind of isolation but one which leaves the viewer exposed. It is like looking through a keyhole at the past, which is unattainable, distanced. So not only is the physicality of the teapot and television negated by the image but their temporality, too. The image belongs somewhere else. If there is comfort and nostalgic, happy memories in looking at a scene of childhood indulgence, this is simultaneously displaced by its unattainability: the melancholy of lost innocence.
Of course the idea of childhood innocence is a relatively recent invention. Childhood as a time of innocent pleasures and play, to be protected from the world of adulthood, was invented by Victorian adults. It was part of a middle class culture that could afford both the time and money to project its sentimental fantasies of comfort and stability. Of course, this fantasy of childhood went along with the real break-up of traditional working class patterns of family life. The point is that it is adults who sentimentalize childhood from a position of irretrievable loss. It is this comforting fantasy that is under threat from this image and the process it is going through, possessing these common objects. The integrity of image and objects is lost through this haunting, so that nothing can be relied upon, nothing trusted. The ghost will not be settled.
Suspension takes apart a very different kind of photograph. The original photograph was of a group of unconnected and unknown persons waiting at a bus stop. The image is projected across the room. At various depths across the room, the image of a figure from the queue will fall on a suspended mirror. Each mirror is cut out in the shape of the person whose image falls onto it. The figures are thus reflected onto the walls. The focus of the picture roams endlessly, so that each person in turn comes into focus only momentarily. Thus, erstwhile members of the queue are spatially and temporally separated and scattered across the room.
The bus stop is a place of suspended time. The persons in the queue for the bus are only brought together by the purgatory of waiting: lost souls together yet each alone. The bus stop is public yet it is nowhere. It is a place of vulnerability and exposure; the only pleasure it holds is that of leaving.
This suspension of subjectivity, this killing of time, is the opposite of what the domestic photograph shows. Waiting in the queue for the bus is the last place that most persons would wish to be photographed: a portrait of ignominy and isolation in a place of mundanety and irrelevance. So this photograph is the bad conscience of the family snap: a rude reminder of inglorious life that we have no wish to represent.
The ghostly suspension of time for the persons in the queue is dramatized by the disintegration of the photograph. The suspended figures become pure image, lacking the weight of the photograph. Once isolated, the individual figure is seen according to a new register. Deprived of their context for waiting, each person’s demeanour becomes a fixed trait. No longer waiting for the bus, they are waiting for ever to be released back into life. The figures endlessly come and go, their histories and meanings impenetrable.
In Decoy, the unreal haunts the real. Computer generated objects inhabit real environments. Furthermore, the objects and their environments are at once united and separated by their surfaces. For example, if the background is wood, then the object’s surface is mapped with an artificial wood texture. But this artificial texture is real, applied by the computer but not generated by it. The objects are domestic appliances and the textures are not appropriate, or rather they are a kind of excessive surface: common domestic surfaces on common domestic objects that would not commonly have such decoration. The objects are a T.V. with a fake wood surface; a flask with fake cork surface; a car vacuum cleaner with fake leather surface; a telephone and hair drier with fake marble surfaces.
These objects are inserted into real photographs. These are of real surfaces made from the same natural ingredients. Thus a wooden table; a cork mat; a leather car seat; and a marble work surface. Of course these surfaces are in themselves made, not occurring naturally in these manufactured forms.
The idea of a decoy has the same hiatus between what something appears to be and what it is, as a ghost. What is promised by the image, the surface, is not what one gets: the subject is disorientated. And both lead the subject from the straight path: the decoy leads astray spatially; the ghost leads the subject to the buried past.
There is a disquieting lack of solidity to these pictures. Everything is surface at various degrees of removal from any original. The objects are modelled on real objects but are just a surface, drawn in the computer. The applied fake, natural textures are in essence fake surfaces, whose purpose is to symbolize what they are not. All are purporting to be ‘natural’ materials. The use of these domestic surfaces is another way of the subject being at home, in the home. Representing natural surfaces seems to be reassuring. But here they symbolize what they are: fake surfaces. This is emphasised by their incongruous application. The objects are modern plastic ones, whose perfectly moulded surfaces signified a futuristic transformation of the domestic sphere.
The past haunts the present on a register of the cultural, in Decoy, rather than on that of the subject. The objects are the ghosts of heroic, modernist, domestic appliances. The irony of the heroic, modernist object is that it signifies the future historically. The cultural tokens of futuristic progress are stuck in the styles of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Surface was important: plastic moulding enabling a curved, abstract and perfectly smooth surface. Streamlining was in, even for domestic appliances. These perfect surfaces could equally be considered a kind of non-surface (or ghost like appearance), in that the outside of the object no longer bears any intrinsic relation to the inside. History is easily reduced to style. Nowadays these futuristic tokens are mostly treated, with some cynicism, as an innocent belief in progress.
These images treat the modern object with some irony but also respect. Its abstract surfaces are camouflaged, as thought denying their history. But this heightens the issue of their surface. These appliances are familiar but once again out of place. The exaggeration and intangibility of surface heightens the peculiarity of these erstwhile familiar objects. It is hard to be nostalgic or dismissive of these artefacts because they are not real and because they are neither historically nor domestically settled: they do not fit in with our expectations. Moreover, they signify desires and aspirations that were not naive innocence, however historically distanced they may now seem. Not only was the modernist project not stupid but its legacy continues and remains to be worked out. Modernism sought to reinvent the domestic sphere and its spectre still haunts the conventions and repressions of the normal home. Through their weird, unreal reinvention, these modernist icons regain some life.
Kiss and Tell depicts the relation between subject and subject. The two artists photograph each other simultaneously. This is done by turning the mouth into a pinhole camera. The relationship is an intimate but frozen one. The artists face each other with open mouths as if in conversation. But the mouths see and don’t talk. So whilst this is an intimate moment, the artists are also distanced, cut off, from one another. The intimacy leaves traces on the photograph: the takers’ bodies, teeth and veins as well as the particular depiction of the other. But the intimacy is also inaccessible: not only is the viewer distanced (she was never there) but there are no words, no conversation, to guide her.
The photograph of a loved one is another ordinary domestic photographic genre. It is a token of love and a sign of intimacy. The photograph, like a fetish, is the making concrete of something which is immaterial. The photograph in the wallet or on the mantelpiece is a ritualistic carrier of sacred meanings: something of priceless “sentimental value”.
In Kiss and Tell this has gone wrong, or at least it has been skewed. The physicality of the photograph as an object is asserted. The photographs are distorted because of the shape of the mouth. They are negatives because normal photographic paper is placed straight into the mouth. They carry imprints of the photographers because their bodies are the cameras. The unfamiliarity of letting the process of making a photograph impinge on the image makes for strange, if not eerie, photographs. These disturbances are ripples on the surface of the photographs. The visibility of the process of production of the photograph draws attention to what it is made out of at the expense of what it depicts. The photographic body gets in the way of the photographed body. In a way this process dispels the magic of a photograph of a loved one because one can see that it is no longer an ideal image but something made out of a particular moment. It is not that moment, it is just an image. It lives on as a kind of conduit between the present and the past.
In another sense these images are very personal. The artists are lovers and this is a ritualistic sacrifice to capture the image of the other: to possess each other’s spirit.
Nevertheless the irony of the title Kiss and Tell is that these are two things that the mouth is not doing in these photographs. If anything, it is eating: eating images. This process is an act of internalization: ingesting and reducing the world to an image. The phrase ‘to capture’ a photograph is a telling one. Photographs domesticate bits of the world. It’s well known that when many cultures first come into contact with photography, their peoples think that a photograph has stolen the soul of the subject. Of course they are right. The taking of a photograph is like the exploration of unknown land: it is a form of claiming, a means of inclusion. Photography is a powerful tool in the modern subject’s fantasy of being able to experience everything: to reach a form of quasi-omnipotence, where the universe is a manageable and contemplatable object.
This is a post enlightenment subject. The medieval subject lived in a terrifying, unpredictable and large place and was small and humble in comparison. Kant introduced his idea of the sublime as a way of increasing the size of the subject. The category of the sublime brought the large and terrifying into the manageable register of the beautiful. The Kantian subject experiences the fearful proximity of the awful object and survives the experience. This is a way in which the subject can, in fantasy, envelope the object: all that is overwhelming, chaotic and dangerous. This is the narcissism of the modern subject, whose scale is immeasurably large compared to the medieval subject. There is no longer the possibility of true wildness: the unknown, the impenetrable, the untraversable; everything can be domesticated. Everything can be photographed.
Holiday photographs are an interesting example. They purport to be documentation: evidence of the tourist visiting whatever particular monument or location it happens to be. Often the tourist will stand in the foreground, as though extra proof that she was there might be a help. I think this is a clue that psychologically these photographs are not about the proof of the tourist visiting the monument but the other way round. They are proof of the monument visiting the tourist (after all, on the modern scale, the monument is rather small and the tourist unimaginably large). The monument is not something that is discovered: the relationship is not one of exploration but rather one of inclusion, as with trainspotting, it is ticking off a list. The photograph is a reduction, literally capturing it and cutting it down to its true psychological size. The monument is proof of the individual existing, to the extent that the modern subject is narcissisticly omnipotent. The photographs are just confirmation, in case your friends didn’t realize how important you are.
It seems unlikely that photography could have been invented before the Enlightenment subject was born. Images that document and encapture bits of the world are going to make sense to the modern subject. Before the enlightenment there was no need for such images and it’s hard to see what use they could have had. And whatever else photography can do, it is particularly suited to the domestic needs of the modern subject. The prevalence and importance of the domestic photograph for the modern subject is evidence of a particular relationship between a subject and the world: one where the former conquers and internalizes the latter.
Kiss and Tell dramatizes the modern subject’s desire to become bigger than the world but with a good deal of bathos. The world is internalized, domesticated, eaten, consumed. But in doing so, the subject is immobilized, unable to speak, itself turned into an object. The body is enveloped and penetrated by the world. Moreover, each artist is consumed by the other, each subject an object.
Kissing is intimacy. Telling is a betrayal of that intimacy. The mouth does both: obviously not an organ to be relied upon. The same could be said of the photograph. It can be the carrier of the most intimate feelings and memories. But the photograph has no reality and no substance, just a tenuous and unresolved history. And the fickleness of the image can betray the memory: it shows one different things at different times. We invest photographs with the properties of lovers: they, too, are renowned for intimacy and betrayal.
Inconstant Still, finally, is a ghost. Alone, in a totally dark room, a pale image forms in front of one. As one’s eyes become accustomed to the dark (as much as is possible, it is that pitch black), the image becomes clearer. It has no visible means of support. It appears to be a figure. Then it starts to move. Limbs unfold. It’s coming towards you. Getting bigger. It disappears.
Being in a lightless room is disturbing. One becomes extremely aware of one’s senses, in a state of anticipation, if not anxiety. It is tense. The ghost, the white figure, is obviously a photographic projection of some kind, onto an unseen screen. But the image is eerie. And this again is because the image is divorced from any support, from any objecthood. It is not at home. One does not know how to relate to a rogue image, one that has escaped its normal confinement to a surface. So the image has an unexpected life, or at least liveliness. It’s ability to refer has become detached from expected and accepted means of reference. And then the image comes towards one. The ego only normally experiences images without substance in dreams or hallucinations but here the subject has no control. This is an uncanny experience.
Photographs capture the world of the ego: the significations which are ghosts. The subject of a photograph exists in space and time in ways that will always escape the frozen image, stolen in a split second. The photograph is always false. The photograph can only capture the surface: it is a ghostcatcher. This show lets some of those ghosts free.