The Suspension of History

Basement Project Space

The Suspension of History brings together the work of five artists from five different countries, all currently pursuing the M.A. in Photography at the Royal College of Art in London. It is an interesting theme for an exhibition of photography – History with a capital H can often be presented as a univocal statement of fact, a concrete and accepted timeline of events; however, these artists aim to hold this monolithic concept up for examination. Here, history is presented as ambiguous and enigmatic, a shifting mass of uncertainties and disputed narratives, colored by individual subjectivities or blended with folktales. Photography is likewise a slippery medium, despite its indexicality, and its fidelity to fact is widely regarded as questionable in the age of digital manipulation. However, it has played a crucial role in the recording of both historical events and everyday goings-on, the photographic image serving to freeze an instant (within a discrete spatial frame) and offer it up for as long as we care to look. Married to the inconsistency of history, then, is the photographer’s subjective de-contextualization of reality by the framing of an image in a specific moment in time. Each image becomes a puzzle or an enigma, with more going on than at first appears beneath the still surface of the photographic print.
Joanna Piotrowska’s large format C-print, entitled Zubensko, 65 Houses (2010), for example, confronts the viewer with a dense tangle of scrubby forest, relieved by a flume of pale apple blossom. The work is one from a series of photographs in which Piotrowska investigates cultural memory through enigmatic images of landscape. Here, the domesticated fruit tree flowering in the wilderness signals the absence of the house and garden of which it was once part. These trees are now the only remains of the villages erased by the ‘Vistula’ or forced relocation of Poland’s Ukrainian minority in the aftermath of the Second World War. Haunting and compelling, Piotrowsk’s melancholy and yet restrained work quietly infers past traumas through the juxtaposition of lyrical image and bald title.
Patrick Hough’s images similarly wrong-foot the viewer. Isolated artifacts photographed against a vivid green background: a painted Greek vase, a gilded finial in the shape of a bird, a carved portrait bust, all enigmatic and oddly mute without identifying captions. At first the photographs recall Marcel Broodthaers’ Department of the Eagles project, a critique of the museum as an institutional structure that deploys cultural artifacts in the service of a particular ideology. On reading Hough’s explanatory notes however, the mysterious objects are revealed as film props, (alluded to by the green screen background). Automatically the items are recast in a different light, exposed as flimsy facsimiles or frauds rather then ‘authentic’ objects replete with historical significance, yet now somehow tinged with cinematic glamour. Hough’s slyly effective work comments on the manner in which we consume history through film as a form of entertainment.
Michal Baror similarly photographs objects removed from their context: a fragment of a plaster head, a bouquet of cellophane wrapped bird skins, and, more mysteriously, items cropped from their backdrop leaving only a white void. Baror’s work investigates the archeological history of Palestine from her particular standpoint as an Israeli migrant living in London, using geographical distance to gain perspective on the fraught and competing historical narratives with which she grew up – the Zionist one to which she was exposed, and the Palestinian one which was suppressed. Baror’s spare images open onto a palimpsest of occupation, acquisition and conflicting histories, reflecting on distance, gaps in knowledge, and the uncertain power of archeological fragments to illuminate erased histories. Neither the past, its objects, nor their meanings are ever just one thing. Elizabeth Molin, in contrast, photographs museum spaces evacuated of their artifacts. A solemn marble niche occupied only by a tiny gift shop copy, and an sturdily imposing plinth supporting a mysteriously shrouded monument, Molin’s images draw attention to the manner in which the institutional setting of a work or an object couches it in the august trappings of institutionalized history – history with a capital H. At the same time her strangely surreal images strip the museum and its monumental spaces of self-importance, poking fun at the manner in which history is packaged for consumption.
History in its guise as personal narrative, or as a story handed down through generations, is explored in the work of Beth Atkinson, which explores the way in which anecdotes blend with folklore and myth in the storied Forest of Epping. In her evocative split screen video piece, the artist’s mother sings simultaneously the melody and harmony of a folksong that originated in the locality. The forest is further documented by two almost identical photographs of uprooted trees, massive and monumental ruins, their eerie similarity hinting at the ease with which one could loose oneself in such a landscape. The back-story to the work is revealed on a printed card, in mirroring tales of two asylum escapees separated by more than a century, wandering through the woods, their paths crossing. The intertwining strands of Atkinson’s enigmatic work provide insight into the process through which a memory of a place’s history is created and signified.
This is a subtle, ambitious and thought-provoking show, all the more impressive given its diminutive size. The Basement Project exhibition space is physically tiny, but its determination and drive to encourage dialogue between practitioner, practice and viewer is ably demonstrated here. The economic downturn that so decimated the commercial gallery scene in Cork has ironically made room for more experimental and resourceful artist-led initiatives that have begun to colonize and revivify the city’s vacant commercial spaces. Given that museums, monuments and art galleries provide us with public venues in which we can try to make sense of the world and our history, this exhibition which questions the way in which historical memory is reified and consumed, is as heartening as it is compelling.
The Suspension of History was on view 8 – 16 June 2012.