Monday, 12 November 2012

Photographing The Exhibition

Installation view of Parasomnia, Viviane Sassen © Doug Dubois
A young black male leans backwards, arms propping up his torso, head turned away from the viewer. Set against a background of dusty brown terrain, he also sits in a patch of powdery blue pigment, staining his trousers, skin and an otherwise pristine white vest. In the foreground, just overlapping the edges of this picture, a reclining statue in plaster echoes the pose, as if following the gaze of this 'other' figure, a reverse image, into the unknown distance.

Strictly speaking, two photographs converge in the above description: an image by Viviane Sassen, from her current exhibition Parasomnia at Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland, and the installation shot, a singular perspective that integrates both her aforementioned photograph with the surrounding environment of the gallery's sculpture room (in actuality, containing plaster casts of seminal Graeco-Roman statues). This latter picture, taken by the American photographer Doug Dubois, clarifies the formal affinities between Sassen's languid black youths and the dramatic postures of classical statuary, albeit through a deliberate cropping of the composition. The bustling, cluttered site of the exhibition is narrowed into an image that isolates and emphasizes their resemblances.

Installation view of Parasomnia, Viviane Sassen © Doug Dubois
It can be said then that the installation photograph sacrifices something of the 'truth' of the space in order to achieve an idealized representation. The relationship recalls Michel de Certeau's distinction of place and space: "A place is […] an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variables." Naturally, the installation shot would fall into the former category: devoid of noise and activity, serene, composed, unhurried.

The irony here is that it is this technically 'inaccurate' image that allows for greater insight into an exhibition, and that allows the site to be read as a photograph in its own right. One pays attention to the contrast of black and white 'skin', the correlation between Sassen's dreamlike compositions - the term parasomnia refers to sleep disorders that cause fitful movements and behaviours - and the mythic, allegorical connotations of the sculptures, even their shared status as reproductive mediums. While it's usually said that there's no substitute for experiencing the exhibition in the real, sometimes it's the distanced, second-hand perspective that allows one to see it at its best.

Chris Clarke (critic and curator, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork)

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