Dark Matters: Shadow, Danger, and Ghostly Presences
In January, Gemma John and I went to an exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery called Dark Matters: Shadow, Art, Technology.
Given interest at the moment in the Levenson Enquiry and the smoke and mirror relationship between the media and politics which it is revealing, I thought it might be interesting to share some reflections which we wrote after visiting the exhibition.
On Friday 13th of January 2012, an appropriate date perhaps, we joined a curated tour at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, of their recent exhibition: Dark Matters: Shadow, Art, Technology. Inspired by the gallery’s permanent collection of shadowy images of people, places and landscapes, Helen Stalker had curated an unusual exhibition that included the work of 10 contemporary artists who were all working in very different ways with the representational and affective role of shadow in art practice. Many of the artists in the exhibition were working with new technological formats. The most striking is perhaps was Daniel Rozin’s Snow Mirror. A shimmering pixellated curtain hangs in a darkened room, reminicient of an untuned analogue television. As the viewer approaches the centre of the room, the shimmering begins to mutate hinting at a potential resolution. Experimenting with movement one eventually realises that it is only through stasis that a mirror image is allowed to slowly resolve in the storm of pixels imposing a kind of discipline on the viewer.
Rozin’s other work in the exhibition is a specifically commissioned piece called Peg Mirror. Described by Stalker as a ‘clock for seeing’, it takes the form of a circular machine comprised of individually rotating wooden pegs. The overall effect is similar to the snow mirror – the rotating pegs are programmed to turn in response to images picked up by a camera, and in turning, they produce a shadow image of whatever passes in front of the camera. But unlike Snow Mirror, what is particularly mesmerising about this piece are the hidden mechanics which drive it. Like the wonder caused in the 19th century by the invention of the chess-playing Mechanical Turk, the automaton-like quality of this art piece conjures a sense of magic by keeping hidden the very means by which its effects are produced. Recall, then the unease that has clearly been produced by the publicisation of the close relationship that has always existed between top level politicians and the leaders of some of the UK's most powerful newspapers - a revelation, perhaps of the mundane mechanisms which keep the magic of the state alive.
Older pieces from the Whitworth’s permanent collection which were also included in the exhibition gave a coherence to the display, allowing the themes of the more contemporary artists to become articulated as experiments with what is a much longer-running artistic preoccupation with the power of the indiscernable or unseen. On the boundary between two galleries we were treated to the Whitworth’s Francis Bacon – A Painting of Lucian Freud. At the bottom of the painting were the shadows of two unidentified onlookers, an extension of the frame of the picture into the realm of the unknown. A surprise Vincent Van Gough was included because of the ghostly presence of two hardly discernable figures in the foreground of his painting of a Paris promenade. Whilst some believe these figures to be a mistake, rubbed out, others believe Van Gough deliberately included them to give a sense of the presence of past walkers.
But the painting that captured the spirit of the exhibition best for me was a small mezzotint print by an unknown artist entitled ‘Moonlight off the Needles’. A broodingly dark seascape which merely hints at the presence of a familiar English coastline, the print is dominated not by the needles themselves, but by a menacing void at its centre. The absence at the heart of the painting is like a vortex, sucking the viewer into a realm of indiscernability where history and place are recast in an uneasy sense of foreboding. Violence, death, and oppression lie just beneath the surface of this exhibition, with shadow working as a constant reminder that all is not as it might at first seem.
Art then, and particularly the pieces displayed in this exhibition provides us with some powerful ways of thinking about the theatre of contemporary politics. Visual depications have the capacity to attune us to some of the more affective dimensions of power and politics, a topic which, incidentally, we will be discussing in an upcoming Theme 4 workshop on Affective States: Exploring Emotion in Political Life.