James Smith: Temporal Dislocation / Reviewed by Roy Exley / 12.02.13
Although not ‘taxonomical’ in nature like the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, there is something about James Smith’s work that is reminiscent of the Bechers’ oeuvre. Like theirs, the central subjects of his images assume the nature of the monolithic. However, instead of subsuming them within an archival context, which is an essential part of the Bechers’ intentionality, in his ‘Temporal Dislocation’ series of images, Smith elevates these subjects above their intrinsic banality. There is a similar formulaic element in his approach to photographing many of the subjects in this series, whereby Smith adopts an isometric viewpoint, as viewers we see all these subjects – be they stacks of straw bales, stacks of wooden boxes for agricultural produce, or a portakabin (abandoned, derelict and ‘blind’) – from one corner, so that the vertical axes of their closest corners effectively anchor those subjects in the picture-plane, and Barthes’ ‘punctum’ is transformed from a focal point of prominence, to a focal line that dominates – the viewer’s eye is irrevocably drawn back to this line. This gives these mundane objects, or collections of objects, that might normally elude our attention, a sculptural quality that surprises. Also, we are allowed visual access to two faces of these ‘objects’, which informs us more clearly of their ontological presence within the picture-plane.
Another parallel, more contemporary than the Bechers, for Smith’s photographs, are those of the German photographer, Frank Breuer, whose images of container stacks, or huge industrial sheds and warehouses in Germany, emblazoned with corporate logos, have been transformed into monumental sculptures by Breuer’s photographic strategies. The difference is, however, that Breuer’s images are more of a critique of corporate capitalism than an exploration of perceptual strategies.
The aesthetics of Smith’s images are, however, only a part of their essential mien. Through his images of banal found ‘objects’ or scenarios, Smith affords them an identity – effectively, he invites us to glimpse fragments of their histories that would otherwise have gone unsung (elevating things that are culturally peripheral), offering fragmentary biographies and contexts that tantalise rather than inform. An analogy might be receiving ten pieces of a hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle and then being asked to identify the image of which they are a part – we have to imagine the other ninety pieces! Here we have to refer to our own experience of such contexts to get a ‘feel’ of their significance for Smith.
One such isometrically ‘posed’ object – for it does look, paradoxically, as if it is posing – is a substantial block of concrete, in a field, (Temporal Dislocation # 2, 2012), that has the appearance of a truncated obelisk or a plinth for a monumental sculpture, of which it has been robbed. However one might imagine this weighty concrete block, it looks decidedly like the remnant of something – plagued by an aura of absence – but here it has been elevated by Smith, into an icon, now transcending any banality that might previously have been its lot. Smith likens it to the Ancient Greek ‘Omphalos’ (the stone at Delphi they believed marked the ‘centre of the world’), and it’s location, near Daventry in Warwickshire, is as close as can be to the centre of England. Effectively then, this sizeable but otherwise insignificant block of concrete, is faithfully implanting the centre of gravity of our land, into the earth, that’s something! Although weather-stained and lichen-blemished (or, perhaps because of this), this block has the appearance of something immortal, something that will endure and ultimately pass into the realm of the archaeological. Smith has more than done justice to this unsung tapered-sided concrete block and, unwittingly or not, it has now become part of his history, anchoring something of him, that episode of his life, to that location while, at one remove, we, as viewers have also become implicated.
To turn the mundane into the iconic, to subsume it into a hidden narrative that intrigues, and whose complexity and significance we can suspect, but only guess at, is a knack that Smith has, obviously, worked hard to achieve. There are more questions than answers posed by James Smith’s eclectic and carefully honed series of images in this show, the viewer is exhorted to do some work here, but after all said and done, that’s good isn’t it?
Photofusion Gallery, 17A Electric Lane, Brixton SW9 8LA