MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 4, Sustainable Prospects. Week 6
“Photography allowed the return of what had come before — and with it the prophecy of future returns. Whatever its nominal subject, photography was a visual inscription of the passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer’s own inevitable passing.”
Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea, pp 133
I have been guided by tutors to look at a number of practitioners in response to my practice and in particular the deepening research I am undertaking into concrete and image infusion.
Figure 2, 3
These images figure 2 – 0148, 2005, figure 3 – 769, 2015 were created by David Maisel as part if his ‘Library of Dust’ series. He gained access to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, USA (see also figures 4 and 5) and not only captured the spaces that tell a powerful historic story about the containment of people with deep psychological problems, but their remains were contained in copper canisters and numbered. Each containing the unclaimed remains of a patient. The spaces and the canisters have undergone the decay over time, evoking a disturbing embodied encasement of human disturbance. Reading these uniquely coloured and stained images together summon in one’s mind the activity of patients, staff and visitors and perhaps the aural screeches.
The exhibition of Maisel’s work was also made into a book and in its review in the New York Times, November 28, 2008 described it thus “Rivulets of chemical corrosion, almost oceanic in their intense coloring, run down the sides. Mr. Maisel’s book is a fevered meditation on memory, loss, and the uncanny monuments we sometimes recover about what has gone before”.
The expression here describes recovering what precedes us; the memory that a photographic image expresses here is both spiritual and human. In his essay entitled ‘Graves of the Insane, Decorated’, penned to accompany this exhibition, Michael S. Roth writes “This engagement of photography with death and ghosts became the seed for twentieth-century reflections on photography’s metaphorical connection to death and memory”. He quotes André Bazin “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” And goes on “It is this “proper corruption” that is unavoidable in David Maisel’s photographs from the asylum’s crematorium……. Maisel’s images recall the necessity of decay and the fact of death, even as they can be said to “embalm time.”
figure 4 Library of Dust (Asylum 14), 2016. figure 5 Library of Dust (Asylum 15), 2016
Of many other artists working to capture a physical and human condition the photographer Guillaume Herbaut created a body of work known as the Black Gold of Chernobyl. His haunting images of the nuclear plant’s explosion in 1986 visited 24 years later saw not only the activity of the substantial theft and export of contaminated scrap metal but the spaces that left upon them the signifiers of the scale of human loss, exemplified in figure 6 the school in the local town of Pripyat.
My reflection on this work is three-fold. Firstly, Maisel chooses to create a catalogue (hence the ‘library’ reference) of the spaces of a building that has passed its life and use in a particular era of medical treatment and as such I draw parallels with the premise for my Pause Project; Herbaut too manages this to powerful effect. Secondly, my obsession with the materiality of the spaces I study echo Maisel’s calm and finely captured canisters. The third element is the loss, the memoriam to the human spirit compressed here into a copper tin or the scattered gas masks.
This is reflected in the convergence of my practice strands where I draw out the past glory of concrete architecture into an act of remembrance of the sheer force of human endeavour to create buildings that are being destroyed, but I endeavour to deflect the possibility for dismissal and removal from memory via my work.
I use here in figures 1, 7, 8 and 9 images I have made of a concrete core sample which have a coincidental visual parallel with Maisel’s canisters, though clearly with less embodied content and meaning, but nevertheless they create a narrative. This concrete core sample was taken from the external balconies of the Central Fire Station, Lancaster Circus Birmingham, designed and built in 1935 which ended its life as a first station in 2006 and has since been transformed into student flats. The fascinating analysis reveals 5 layers to this core, each indicating a building application; the top surface was black asphalt which would have borne the footsteps of fires crews (figure 1) and the underside render (figure 9). But the building revealed secrets when this core sample was taken, as the balconies were cast, insitu concrete, clearly in three layers, the middle layer includes fragments of brick, seen in figures 8 and 9, which are problematic within concrete as brick contains sulphur which is detrimental to the make up and strength of concrete but historically of interest as a Georgian building stood on the site of the fire station and it is likely that the demolition of that structure found its way to making up the volume of concrete, thus not only saving the building contractor money in 1935, but embodying the life of its predecessor into the new. A visual and material history.
Batchen, G. (2002). Each wild idea. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Maisel D. ‘Library of Dust’ (Photographs by David Maisel
Essays by David Maisel, Geoff Manaugh, Michael Roth, Terry Toedtemeier
108 pp, 71 color reproductions, 17″×14″), Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 2008
Figures 1,7,8,9 Philip Singleton
Figures 2,3,4,5 David Maisel http://davidmaisel.com/essays/graves-of-the-insane-decorated/ accessed 4.11.2017
Figure 6 Herbaut Guillaume http://www.guillaume-herbaut.com/en/the-black-gold-of-chernobyl/ accessed 4.11.2017