15.07.2021 - 14.08.2021
Chris Bowes, Installation view, multi-component interactive mirror
What strikes me initially is the responsiveness of Chris Bowes’ video installation Split. From out of a chaotic onslaught of visual noise an image suddenly appears, comparatively quiet and gentle. Though somewhat monstrous, somewhat incomplete, in its stretching and spanning across an array of screens, there is a surprising coherence to the image. More than a collection of fragments, the synchronous movement opens up a space to look upon or look into. The faceted nature of the piece is oddly seductive, in that the image seems to flow over or through each screen, taking on different characteristics, but retaining a sense of uniformity. When the image breaks down – when the viewer looks away or when areas of the face become obscured – it does so completely, returning to the aforementioned noise.
In this responsiveness, the work acts as a selective mirror. It waits for a face. It is 'active' only so long as it registers a face, and the visitor must look upon themselves for it to remain in this active state. Like a conventional mirror, our image only exists within it so long as we stand in front of it.
The mirror develops a primary narcissism, opening onto what psychoanalysis calls the ideal ego. It allows for the idea of a coherent, authoritative, sense of self, and with this an agency, over our own body and its surrounds. Simultaneously, the mirror phase is the condition of our entry into the social world; our being in relation to others, and a codification of the body and its appropriate disposition and limits. Despite appearances, there is nothing natural or spontaneous about the mirror, the mirror is the symbol of our subjectivation, and of the hole or insufficiency that remains at its centre. The mirror reflects our self but this self is the self for the other, an objectifiable, delimited subject.
And still, from what can seem like a chaotic, uncontrollable flow of sensations, thoughts, worries, desires, the mirror snaps something into focus, the image of a self, staring directly back with our own eyes, an experience of (almost) absolute identification.
But at the same time Split suggests something else. In the experience of the installation as a response to our presence it suggests not simply an encounter with one's own image, but something unseen, acting upon us, producing something, showing us something that we perhaps want to see, an experience that is disconcerting, disorienting. The phasing in and out seems to reinforce a loss of mastery, our image and our access to it are determined elsewhere.
It's the gap between these two effects of the mirror that Split comes to play upon, the narcissistic enjoyment of the self-image, and the disconcerting feeling of apperception. Though we know the image we are presented with is 'us', it is clearly also something else, the production of a representation that is beyond us.
I'm reminded of Samuel Beckett's Film, in which the camera literally pursues the fleeing protagonist. In the final moments of the piece the protagonist is confronted with the (terrible) recognition that the camera’s gaze is simultaneously his 'own', that he perceives himself as an other, through the mediation of the apparatus.
This kind of confrontation is made explicit in Split. As the artist remarks, the piece literally 'looks back'. But the question remains: who, or what, looks back? Something looks back, something more than a compromised ego-ideal, something which takes on its own kind of presence, is suggestive of a simulation. The way in which the image cuts in and out so drastically seems to imply that this interloper exists in a separate dimension, not so much dependent on our presence, but instead preempting our arrival.
This looking back becomes uncanny. Freud, in a footnote to his classic essay on the subject, describes an experience of misrecognition in relation to his own reflection. The image, mistaken for a real person who resembles him, invokes in the author a sense of revulsion. Freud immediately jumps up to usher the intruder out of his train compartment – to banish this unwanted double from his domain.
The immediate encounter of Split may suggest this menacing doubling, but as we start to explore the space that this image opens up, a more playful, energising relationship can start to take hold.
Bruce Nauman’s Four Corner Piece does something similar to Film. Walking around a square structure, the visitor turns each corner to see another screen at the end of the hall, and in this moment they catch a glimpse of themselves from behind, disappearing out of view. One can imagine coming to this work without any prior knowledge, and literally pursuing the apparition around the circuit without realising it is one’s own image.
Nauman’s installation instigates a kind of choreography, which develops from his own performance pieces for camera. Split likewise allows for a kind of performance to emerge between the viewer and imaging apparatus.
While Nauman prompts us to follow an image that is constantly escaping, Split demands our constant face to face attention to sustain the image. In this way it invokes the attention economy, and mirror effects, of social media.
Geert Lovink describes a form of sadness, particular to the online world, which manifests in the gap between one's inflated persona, and the real precariousness of one's sense of self-worth. The ‘sad platforms’, that have become a central domain of social life, are attuned to this sense of lack or insufficiency, in relation to which they manipulate our participation or attention. As Lovink relates, it’s not uncommon for users to report their dissatisfaction or even disgust with their own actions online, or with the persona which they have actively or passively cultivated – yet it remains difficult to look away.
Split speaks of this heightened sense of self, and its exhausting maintenance, and more widely the effect that these media technologies have on the psyche and the temporal experience of the everyday. Even if we are not compelled individually to perform, or appear, a constant attention is demanded in relation to the stream of posts, images, and events that constitute our various feeds.
But at the same time Split seems to directly confound the normative conditions of appearance, gesture, or pose, that accompany the production of oneself as an image. This normative construction is especially apparent in the media personality, where what counts most of all is a particular idea of consistency and commitment. In the realm of social media this goes beyond a public obligation, to an attempt to fulfill a greater fantasy, that of living ‘authentically’, of becoming an ego-ideal.
By contrast, in the performance that we enter into with Split we maintain a somewhat amorphous, shifting sense of selfhood, that refuses consistency, or capture. Strangely enough, the disjointedness of this mirror allows for the beginnings of a dislodgment of the codifications through which we usually encounter our image.
Stephen Palmer is an artist and writer living on unceded Wurundjeri Country. He was a facilitator of Light Projects ARI, a member of Artists’ Committee, and is a founding member of the Artists’ Union Working Group.
Chris Bowes | About
Chris Bowes is a photographer, educator and artist specialising in abstract and experimental photography and video. His current practice focuses on society’s relationship with digital devices, often creating interactive installations that fracture the physical and digital worlds. Chris’s work has been exhibited extensively around Australia, most recently in his solo exhibition ‘The Cowboy’ at PhotoAccess, and is held in several significant collections including LACMA and The Macquarie Group.
Denise Ferris - Opening Speech
To begin this evening’s opening, I acknowledge the Wiradjuri to the west, the Yuin to the South East and the Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Ngarigo peoples of this region.
I acknowledge their elders past present and future, as well as any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
It is a privilege to work and live on this country ⎯Dhawra to the Ngunnawal people.
Here we have three different artists and apparently three disparate practIces but as you move through the gallery space I suggest you will see their formal and conceptual connections.
These links acknowledge the curatorial insights by the PhotoAccess team, bringing together these three bodies of works, which offer a coherence at first perhaps not obvious.
Let’s first consider their alignments:
Process is revealed, and process is the work’s evidence and its meaning; pulling apart and on the other hand pushing much together; the use of colour is minimal (not loads of what I call “eye lolly”) and toned monochrome, thus as viewers we can concentrate on the essence of the work. A very obvious note here, making something that is implicit quite explicit. All these artists harness the power of photography, its indexical nature, where the referent / “reality” is apparently directly transmitted, that is seen when we immediately identify eyes in Ben’s work, when we recognise the documentary (though usurped) of Catherine’s images and the self-evident pull of Chris’ intention for his manifestly “attention seeking” (literally) installation.
In the work of Catherine Evans, the depiction of interference revealing the rupture in our memories; and drawing a connection between Ben Rak’s work, I see again the instability of representation. But while the way in which this instability, the flux, is visualised is different in a formal sense-one adding detail (Ben) the other obliterating detail (Catherine) they are aligned.
The layers in Ben Rak’s prints that reveal and conceal, build a personage to face life and build it materially through his practice of printmaking, working the image and the surface to construct.
• the dispersed fragments of Chris Bowes installation (it could be on one screen but is not) pull apart representation rather than, as Ben does, consolidates, building and layering the image we encounter. Nevertheless, as a viewer we are confronted with the entirety of an image disbanded; dissolved; destabilised.
We can enjoy three practitioners who are keen to show us ⎯ on our careful reflection ⎯ how they visualise “destabilise”, “disrupt”, “dislocate”, cleverly subverting representation when revelation from photography’s realism is expected and indeed assumed.
In Catherine Evans’ work, disruptions and interventions draw attention to and metaphorically replicate our own interventions into the “history” “reality” of events. Catherine concentrates her imagery on an event, her memory of the Royal Canberra Hospital implosion. (Weirdly it happened on 13th July the day I am writing this but many years ago.) This was an event that was an engineering necessity making the space for progress, a spectacle for some, and as it happened a human tragedy for others. One person, Katie Bender who was twelve, died and others were injured. Like many events that figure in public and thus in the public imagination, the facts of the event live on in many memories, a multitude and a multiplicity of memories. While Catherine mobilises digital interference and shows us its warp on memory, she also demonstrates to us the array of ‘positions’ of what we see and what we don’t see in the obliterated images.
Catherine visualises rupture….interference literally…the interference between what happens and what we think happens…both time interferes and our perspective interferes…and effects what is retained…she every eloquently encapsulates her underlying intention in this work that memory’s exploded 3 pieces fall between what happens and what we remember happens, what makes an impression on us and what are the buried considerations.
I truly cannot say it more elegantly or economically than Catherine. In her work she calls the stable narrative of personal and collective memory into question, and makes the answer to that question quite clear when she says, quote:
Memory, it is a choice.
I recall Chris’ work The Cowboy, which manipulated footage that was captured from several Times Square webcams, recording a lone cowboy, naked but for his white boots, white belt (?) and big hat, playing his white guitar to a deserted urban scene. amid the height of the New York COVID-19 pandemic. This lone figure strolls through the urban space performing and with no audience but we watchers - it is eery, especially when you think about previous Times Square and the new reality of this empty place. I mention this work to draw attention to Chris’ ongoing concerns about surveillance, and where previously he got us to think about our pervasive fears of isolation, now the sense of “breaking-up” (literally) leaks into the work you will see in the gallery.
The work Monitor I think of as “watching me, watching you”. Mesmerising in its capture of the viewer but also unsettling in its fragmented delivery of a very up close and personal reality. I really enjoyed the documentation photographs too where you see the subject and their pieced together self in the one image, allowing you to really take time to look (and without being seen looking!...). For different to the many surveillance cameras that have watched and recorded all of us today ⎯ inevitable I assure you⎯ this work allows you to acknowledge and rather uncomfortably wallow in that scrutiny.
Ben Rak’s work Don’t Be Fooled By The Face I Wear again foregrounds the instability of representation but the way in which this instability, the flux, is visualised is hand wrought through process. In his malleable prints Ben works up an array of perceptions and postures of what we can readily see and maybe don’t see. Leaning on what is a “real” and what is imaginary, using photography and the hand mark in concert and in opposition. Ben lends also the weight of meaning to his ideas with the titles of his work, Pulling the Wool; Masks; Facets; he offers us variable options and suggest there are choices about identity even if obscured. I also like the title Unhinged very much…though it refers to the movement of a screen when printing I understand but it works well as a title to suggest psychological undercurrents. (and we’ve all felt like that!)
The photographic eyes that look out at us anchor the work’s representational claim but are overwhelmed by the instability of the other marks, which are foregrounded and dominate and at the very least challenging the photographic (THE REAL) that often steals our gaze, that offers us the “certainty” we often seek in figuration. This impasse between the so called abstract and the photographic has a history in printmaking and to this viewer and I think others, remains a source of fascination. There but not there.
My congratulations to these three artists⎯I really enjoyed experiencing your work in installation and commend other viewers to take time experiencing the entire exhibition.
Emeritus Professor Denise Ferris
Former Head of School, School of Art & Design
College of Arts and Social Sciences
List of Works
1. Chris Bowes, Split, 2021, webcam, screens, computer, code and cable, 145 x 250cm, 1/1, $3000