Megan Dunn – 13 March, 2012
The audience moves around Interface unaware that the steps they take echo the artist's own trajectory, as she photographed her studio wall. But is this work also about that gigantic subject - the void, or am I off on another tangent? In literature Moby Dick depicts oblivion in the jaws of terrifying whiteness. In the gallery context, I couldn't help but wonder if Interface was also about an experience of terrifying whiteness?
30 January 2012
It’s not every day an artwork gets damaged by an air current during a fire drill. But that’s exactly what happened to Interface, a photographic print by Molly Samsell, exhibited last year in a group show in the Hancock Gallery (at City Gallery) called The Un-sited. (Insert your own irony here.)
The Un-Sited featured non-representational works recently acquired by the City Gallery which, according to their website, complicated ‘…the concepts of site’ so central to civic collections. Indeed. No one could have predicted that Interface would have its perfect surface ruffled by a smoke evacuation fan. We tend to think of artworks and buildings as inert, yet they can interact in surprising ways. What happened to Samsell’s print was an accident, one of those behind the scenes events that usually remains invisible. What’s interesting is her response. This January, she exhibited the re-worked piece during a one night show at City Gallery, displayed in the same place as the original.
Interface - both the first and the reworked version - is an image of Samsell’s studio wall. The work’s most startling and immediate feature is its length - at eight and a half metres long, this photograph is a continuous unbroken white line that was technically difficult to produce. Its panoramic length reminds me of Robert Altman’s film The Player, famous for an opening panning sequence that lasts over 7 minutes without a single camera break. The Player certainly has no direct connections to Samsell’s practice. (Or vice versa.) Altman’s film is a satire, littered with in-jokes about Hollywood’s commercial infrastructure.
Samsell’s work doesn’t have any obvious sense of humor at play; she’s an artist with a background in astro-physics who makes site-specific photography. However, Interface is a technically complex work that exposes some of our awkward social behavior in the white, bright, light of the contemporary gallery and raises anxieties about artistic production in our post-medium, post-everything art world.
Samsell told me Interface is a derivative of the original, pointing out that there are multiple derivatives in the photographic process. The print is a derivative of the negative. The negative is a derivative of the initial subject or experience. This work was produced for her Master’s thesis at Massey and as such was shown on the floor, perpendicular to her studio wall. (In mathematics she tells me the second derivative can be used to define the perpendicular to the tangent…) For me a photograph of a studio wall conjures an image of the artist alone in a white cell wondering what the heck to make next. But that’s probably just my own projection. Is Interface, in part, a work about drawing blanks? There’s a sly transition at stake: the studio wall becomes the gallery wall.
Samsell says her work is always a response to the space in some way. The audience moves around Interface unaware that the steps they take echo the artist’s own trajectory, as she photographed her studio wall. But is this work also about that gigantic subject - the void, or am I off on another tangent? In literature Moby Dick depicts oblivion in the jaws of terrifying whiteness. In the gallery context, I couldn’t help but wonder if Interface was also about an experience of terrifying whiteness?
White is a neutral, not a colour, yet it contains the symbolic resonance of spirituality, of sophistication, of good taste (and occasionally bad taste e.g. Don Johnson’s suit in Miami Vice). White is also used to signify nothingness, the blank slate, empty space. We refer to the contemporary art gallery as ‘the white cube.’
On the night of the opening this January, I’d expected to come and find Interface lovingly restored. Instead Samsell had chosen to accentuate the imperfections. The print is now littered with holes, its pale surface broken like skin. A friend at the opening said, ‘it looks like silverfish have been at the work.’ I thought this a rather lovely idea. A fleet of transparent silverfish crawling all over the print, munching on it like caterpillars chewing on a leaf.
Samsell had spent weeks sanding the photograph, highlighting the multiple creases and frown lines caused by the air current. ‘I could have kept sanding it,’ she said.
At the opening we all agreed the work had been improved by the damage. Visitors peered intensely at the surface of the print admiring the holes. We were at a one night, one work show. The light in the gallery was shadowy, everyone seemed uncomfortably aware of the voluminous space. This isn’t a put down. Samsell’s background in astro-physics means she’s ideally placed to produce artwork that examines so-called ‘empty space’. A previous body of her photographs, Horizons, consists of close ups of window ledges and skirting boards. The horizon lines running through domestic landscapes are located simply by switching scales. The infinite is contained in the finite, the original within the derivative. Samsell shows us the links.
I noticed at the opening visitors repeatedly called Interface a really beautiful work. The damaged surface was beautiful, yet I wondered at some level if we were avoiding talking about the obvious? Our behaviour in the gallery reminded me of the well versed ‘players’ in Altman’s film. Essentially we were approaching a long white expanse of wall and on that wall was a long white expanse of a work. This was our Interface.
‘What’s it about?’ I asked the artist.
‘Trauma,’ she said.
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