Essays:

> Tabula Rasa: a cross-section of new Scottish work at Kaunas Photography Gallery

Dr. Katherine Parhar / Tabula Rasa: a cross-section of new Scottish work at Kaunas Photography Gallery

November 2015

Much of the photography now rising to the surface in Scotland’s exhibitions and its exports deals with roots, origins, and history. A stand-out example is the collective Document Scotland, still showing at the National Galleries, who have garnered high praise from a broad base of world press for their explorations of Scotland’s varied selves.

But Document Scotland are not leaders in a creative arc that has peaked with the referendum and will likely wane. Nor are they part of a more enduring inward look, a parochialism that has roused outside interest in Scotland’s newest photography purely as a social index for our contested notions of imagined community, imagined home.

Many of Scotland’s emerging photographers working around these ideas are not born Scots, and in any case the work, over all, is not coalescing into essentialist self-images that set up new formulas for ‘nation narration.’ No inherently ‘Scottish’ style or iconography is evolving.

There is, however, a marked seam of interest, shared by artists working quite independently of one another, in the passage of time and its effects on place, self, memory, history. It informs their subject matter, and – more than that – it guides their ideas about the very process of photography: its mechanics, its techniques, its own origins.

These are photographs that – in all their formal variety – deliver in significant ways the pleasures and concerns of exploring our diffuse, less articulated concerns about the conditions of our lives. They are explorative. They are often exciting.

And they are present, in their full register, in a show called Tabula Rasa – a ‘clean slate,’ or ‘the absence of preconceived ideas’ – at Kaunas Photography Gallery in Kaunas, Lithuania, staged in partnership with Street Level Photoworks. Tabula Rasa has brought together five Glasgow artists who each create a distinct entry point into the medium, tying feeling to content, and to photography’s physical essentials.

Frank MacElhinney won the 2014 Jill Todd Award with aerial photographs of the River Forth, taken from its source to the North Sea using a kite. For Tabula Rasa, he assembled the results of another geographical project, 45 Sun Pictures in Scotland, ‘solargraphs’ scanned from the unfixed, fugitive prints yielded by 200 pinhole cameras placed facing south in 45 of Scotland’s most populous towns in late December 2014.

Pinned unframed, edge to edge, on a large wall at the end of Kaunas gallery, the project presents an odd skin of yellow and orange, struck through by sweeps of red. These are sun trails, some of which show clear city skylines in relief. In others only a blur is visible. But to MacElhinney, the success of each image – despite the labour involved – meant less than the search itself. He was looking for a collected image of a country, knowing that his process would leave it obscured in parts, as unresolved as he feels the referendum has left the future shape of Scottish society, and as liminal, still, over time.

MacElhinney, who studied medieval and modern history, is the only artist in Tabula Rasa whose process is framed in overtly current terms. But photography, so often used to claim a crisp perspicacity about unfolding events, is divested of its incisiveness here, so that any latent polemic falls away. Taking its place is MacElhinney’s personal, intellectual, and physical encounter with contingency.

By contrast, Alan Knox’s lucent work, filling the arched windows of Kaunas, glowing onto the street outside, deals with the point when life passes from contingency to finality. Man in the Moon documents a material process he constructed to explore, and deal with, the loss of his grandfather. Making large black and white negatives from his family archive, he backlit them to the moon, then photographed them at each stage of the lunar cycle.

We see his grandfather’s face lit again and again as the moon brightens and wanes with each image of him as a boy, a suited young man, in middle age, old in a passport shot. In these photographs, two inter-dependent cycles of life, the lunar and the corporeal, elide. But they work on distinct time scales. It is as if Knox is trying reconcile the perpetual renewal of lunar time with the linear, transitory nature of biological life.

The heart of Knox’s installation at Kaunas is the image of his grandfather’s young face, repeated twenty times in the gallery’s largest two windows. Each frame shows us the same face lit by a slightly different trace of the moon. These panels, like contact sheets, confront us with Benjamin’s idea that the work of art (or in this case the image as a personal talisman) loses its ‘aura’ with infinite reproduction.

But Knox follows theorist Margaret Iversen, who says that we, as viewers, invest an image with its aura. By being receptive to it – to the ‘other,’ as she puts it – we give it the ability to look back at us. Knox says that he uses his grandfather’s photograph to mediate the moon’s ‘gaze’ so that we, like him, might become fully receptive to this man’s death.

Knox’s process, then, enacts both photography’s loss of aura, and its potential to recover aura. His personal loss remains final, irrevocable, and in his creative search to address that – confronting photography’s deficiencies as a facsimile – he will never arrive at more than a proximate destination, and Knox knows this, which is why his search is so moving.

Kotryna Ulia Kiliulyte’s project Amber Room, exhibited for the first time in her birth country, seeks also for something she knows she won’t find: home, a ‘fictional room,’ as she puts it, ‘that glows warmly, promising the feeling of belonging, of truth, of unity.’ Amber Room amounts to 101 images, only a few of which are shown, distributed in different sizes over half a wall at Kaunas.

No show of Amber Room contains the same prints as any other, so while Kiliulyte is no longer adding to the series, it remains as unsettled as her own sense of place, and is fixed only in her book dummy where all 101 images appear. Her images range from a luminous montage of a communist mural to twilight portraits of young men outside municipal housing, to a corner of a chapel or church, struck by sun, and a mongrel running up a long green garden.

Though she developed the project over five years, Kiliulyte allowed herself the freedom to photograph, not just over different seasons, in different places, but also with different cameras, and the resulting instabilities in Amber Room’s aesthetic are evidence of a split eye, an eye laden with fragments, glances, memories belonging to a fluid worldview that never quite coalesces into an anchored vision. It’s Kiliulyte’s own eye, that of a migrant.

Moving far from a fixed path of essentialism, and from any defining clarity, these are photographers who pursue the provisional. Of the five, Stephen Healy and Julia Bauer take the more conceptual tack, each handling, not the emotive ties of home or blood, but the effects of land and built space on the eye and the self.

Nature, Healy’s series of square black and white prints, show roots of trees rising like branches, when in fact they are splayed flush to the ground; water moves upward and a shard of rock, striated into fingers, seems to rush in and scoop it up. Healy’s work, in getting so close to the land, makes it so strange.

Working in medium format, which is increasingly hard to source, Healy aims to retain ‘honesty’ or ‘reality’ in these images, as he puts it, embracing the accidents of framing and chemical process. Yet he looks, in his subjects, for a painterly abstraction that makes the eye question the photographic ‘authenticity’ he is otherwise so committed to.

Healy, like Knox, Kiliulyte, and MacElhinney, strays into the grey grounds of photography, the places where, for all we might take it to be a truth-teller, it obfuscates and contradicts itself.

Bauer’s series Pinboards is perhaps less invested, conceptually, in process itself. What we see, simply, are twelve pinboards, blocked as a group and pinned (fittingly) next to Kiliulyte’s more scattered, changeable work.

Bauer focuses, as part of her larger exploration of institutional spaces, on the tangible marks accumulate with long lapses in time on (now empty) pinboards. By recording these myriad holes, she creates photographs that are ‘small relief sculptures,’ as she puts it, or ‘galaxies,’ a natural analogy between micro and macro for an artist who is also a jeweller, working instinctively with touch and trace.

Shown alongside Knox’s cerebral and emotive work or Healy’s textural tricks, Bauer’s Pinboards might seem out of step, too prosaic, too impassive. But it’s their quotidian nature she seeks to elevate. And the group works as an abstract whole, the colours of the boards, so faithfully reproduced, punctuated by bright sprinkles of pins.

For me, however, one print lifts the series. It shows a world map pinned in different colours, which reveals something of someone’s story, their hopes and wishes, things that, on the empty boards, have been effaced. Bauer hesitated before including this image. Perhaps it steps beyond her institutional focus. But as she says, it ties all the boards together – reminding us of our own, primitive need to mark-make (physically as well as digitally), to share and show ourselves even in the most banal, transitory areas of our lives.

From Bauer’s layered traces of quotidian time to MacElhinney’s clouded explorations of a social moment, Tabula Rasa has brought together five artists around broad themes of time and place to showcase a cross-section of work that gives some illustration of the new currents in Scotland’s photography sector. This show – as its name states – offers no defining comment on where Scotland’s scene is now headed, or on what will last of it and what will not. Rather it has caught us in process, at the point of greatest possibility.

 – text by Dr. Katherine Parhar

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Notes:

Tabula Rasa was exhibited 29th October 2015 – 22nd November 2015 at Kaunas Photo Gallery, Kaunas, Lithuania, in partnership with Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow

A selection of installation views and image details are presented at right, with thanks to Street Level Photoworks.