> The surreal in the work of Clare Strand

Camilla Brown / The surreal in the work of Clare Strand

February 2017


Over the years Clare Strand has developed a range of projects and books and had a consistent output of her work nationally and internationally in exhibitions. Passionate about photography, she has been keen to interrogate its boundaries and limits. As with most contemporary art it can be hard to pin down Strand’s oeuvre as she adopts a heterogeneous style. Her work is always a project and exploration, and it seeks to provoke intelligent debate.

Strand’s exhibitions become public platforms that enable her to explore ideas, and often the subjects of her experiments are the visitors to the show. In 2015 in her solo exhibition Getting Better and Worse at The Same Time she made four kinetic sculptures in the space. In part the work she created were attempts to disrupt the context in which they were displayed, the commercial setting of a gallery space in central London. She stated that “The exhibition considers this complex proposition: can works continue to degrade yet still retain their value, their aesthetic and maintain a sense of reason?”

One of the sculptures in this exhibition, ‘The Happenstance Generator’ was formed of a large Perspex dome on a metal plinth. Inside the dome were a selection of research images, which the artist had collected over 30 years. These photographs were blown about by hidden fans. The machine would randomly propel some towards the surfaces of the chamber, where they were visible to the viewer, before repositioning them again. There was a sense of the machine editing what the viewer would see and being a mechanical and haphazard curator of the work on show. In ‘The Entropy Pendulum’ each day during the exhibition a photographic print from a news archive was selected and positioned under the Pendulum’s constantly swinging weight. Over the course of the 35-day exhibition, each photograph was scraped and rubbed away under the abrasive weight of the pendulum. The next day that print would be placed on display in a frame already on the wall. In many ways both of these works are all about a process and have resonances with the work of the Fluxus movement with its sense of performance and undermining the notion of the artistic object. Yet photography – albeit in this instance found photography – lies at the heart of the work and in its material substance and changing contexts.

Jump back to the early 2000s when Strand’s works were more formal portraits with large monochrome prints, such as in the series Unseen Agents (2003). This body of work explores supposed psychic emanations from adolescent children recorded by camera. Each subject’s head is shrouded with a fog-like halo that appears to be a depiction of their aura. Here she seamlessly links a contemporary form of typology photography with much earlier forms of photography when spiritualists believed the camera could document paranormal phenomena. Gone Astray Portraits (2002/3) also borrows from the 19th century street portrait convention of using painted murals as backgrounds to photograph city dwellers. Each subject is carefully styled to assume an urban generic type but with small clues which suggest wear and tear and some backstory – ripped tights here and a bandaged hand there.

These works look at subjects that would otherwise be overlooked, a theme which she continued in 2011 with her series Skirts. This work seems to epitomise Strand’s humour and wry observation and interest in human behaviour. The title Skirts suggests an item of female clothing and as such a symbol of femininity often in the history of photography the object of the male photographers’ gaze. Yet those are not the skirts of this book. Instead we see skirts used to surround tables during formal events and at functions. Their function is to conceal chaos and to keep up appearances. This is a vernacular language which I assume has a fairly British sensibility. It is at once absurd to elevate such an everyday object to a work of fine art and yet it is also transformative. A bit like Duchamp did to the urinal (of course, a particularly male found object) Strand does with the Skirt. Adding to the absurdist nature of the series, Skirts now finds itself housed in the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York.

Strand has also embraced commercial fashion photography and has stated “I’ve always learnt from fashion imagery, I like its freedom to embrace the absurd, and its refusal to provide any answers”. In her work Exquisite Corpse she was able in part to pay homage to the work of the surrealist photographers who had so long influenced her such as the Belgian Paul Nouge. A couple of the images are contemporary re-enactments of his earlier photographs with a woman’s head lying on a table with a circle of objects around her. In this case it is the visual effect of the surrealist’s vision which intrigues her, but more often she has been influenced by a surrealist approach to making work.

In 2011 Strand devised a work entitled 10 Least Most Wanted. She selected work from her reference scrapbooks and then turned those images over to put on display their reverse side. It was a challenging concept as what the viewer saw was visually random. Most viewers are keen to find a logic to what is in front of them. Curators in museums often place great importance on their curatorial eye and the subjective performance of selecting what work is hung where in a show. Strand’s process is to some degree an intentional deconstruction of curatorial prowess. It also questions our value systems when it comes to placing art and artworks in some form of hierarchy and the museum’s and curator’s role in that process. Here the artist takes over the museum. The selection of work is at its heart random, linking it in part to the surrealist notion of automatic poetry or writing. 10 Least Most Wanted was recently exhibited as part of the Pompidou Centre Collection show A History of Art, Architecture, Design from the 1980s until Today, curated by this year’s Venice Biennale Director, Christiane Macel.

Strand’s latest publication Girl Plays with Snake (2016) continues this theme and way of working. The book itself has a cover like a synthetic form of green snake skin. Inside are a collection of her images of girls with snakes. In this iteration of Strand’s ongoing research and reflection, women and girls are pictured holding, playing with and gazing fondly at snakes. She was keen to work out how to develop text for the work and considered authoring that herself. In the end she again reverted to a very surrealist approach including found and automatically generated texts around the theme.

“A live necklet
Draped around her
Two deadly snakes
Tamed by her
Snake-farmer father “

What better surreal accompaniment to her images with its random nods to Freudian analysis, fetishism and desire.

It is often hard to anticipate what Strand will do next. A few months back she set up a fairground attraction as an art installation at the Unseen Art fair in Amsterdam. Titled All that Hoopla, this work engaged visitors to throw rings around mini versions of Strand’s images to win prints. Despite the variety of her work several constant themes seem to bubble up which include her attempts to subvert the values of the art market and museum system in which her work operates. Also, as hopefully this essay has revealed, there is an ongoing connection to surrealism and the dadaist spirit in all its forms both in the history of photography and its embrace of the random, the absurd and the subconscious. Seen in that light, her practice can be seen to engage with a contemporary approach to an art movement that was vibrant and disparate and which sat on the edge of reason. Strand’s work continues this legacy in the way that it interrogates, explores and questions the world around us and photography in particular in an absurd, uncanny and ultimately surreal way.

 – essay by Camilla Brown


This essay was developed following an in conversation between the artist and author at Photoforum, Quad (Derby) March 2016

With thanks to Michael Sargent and Clare Strand