Convention Submerged in Wright's Still Water
Monday, February 21, 2011
By Tony Martins / Photos courtesy of the artist
Andrew Wright’s Still Water exhibition now on display at Patrick Mikhail Gallery literally throws a curve at conventional ideas of image-making. In this show, six austere steles dominate the gallery space with a physicality we don’t normally expect in photography. (stele, noun, an upright stone slab or pillar bearing an inscription or design and serving as a monument, marker, or the like.)
Imprinted on the steles are photos of a shallow waterfall that Wright found along the Grand River in Cambridge, Ontario. Shot with a huge lens and an immensely powerful flash, the images are of fast-moving water that has been photographically stilled, but the vast blackness above the water is of equal importance in the works. Here, even Wright’s powerful flash cannot illuminate the space, making it what the artist calls “indeterminate.”
Ominously motionless like the rocks of Stonehenge, these photo-objects offer more questions than answers. Wright calls himself an interdisciplinary “lens-based” artist because he would rather uproot conventional photographic assumptions than follow along with, say, changes in technology or the traditional ways of seeing an image.
We talked to Wright about the Still Water exhibition.
The works immediately made me think of the imposing obelisks from the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Were you trying to create a certain feeling of totemic power with the tall, looming shapes?
I love that reference! Instead of totemic power I think of them more as surrogate bodies. In 2001 it seems to me that the obelisks are the rational expression of an unknown intelligence—they can't be questioned or known. But they are nonetheless us. I think Still Water's ‘steles’ are both foreign (because they are bigger than us, angular, square, solid, black) and familiar (unique, singular, part of a group, and more or less like us). The more obvious reference for me is modernist and minimalist sculpture: Judd instead of Kubrick (but I'll take Kubrick if it's the only thing on offer!).
The j-curve at the bottom of each piece bends in opposite orientation from the implied curve of the waterfall that’s pictured on it. Is this opposition a reference to the warped nature of space/time or to the slanted view of the image-maker?
In my practice I have been interrogating photography itself. Deliberately throwing into question received conventions of picturing, subject matter, interpretation, and ultimately seeing. I wanted to create a deliberate tension between the information pictured in the image and the form of the thing in so-called real space.
Why are you interested in fusing the two-dimensional image with three-dimensional sculpture?
Ultimately I guess I'm dissatisfied with photography—or more precisely with the way its technologies get used. In other works I've made the case that there is a “realist” bias in common uses of photography. The rush to develop and accept 3D, for instance, assumes a singular way of experiencing an image. There are infinite ways of understanding and experiencing an image and I wanted to explore an aspect that is little recognized-—the fact that I photograph is an object first and foremost—perhaps even before it is a “picture.”
This is from your artist’s statement: “The artist sees the seemingly inevitable demise of traditional photographic techniques as problematic, and the beginning of a void.” Problematic in what way? How should we be concerned about this imminent void?
Well, this is really a statement about digital taking over everything—to the exclusion of many other viable, unique, and very useful technologies. If you're a photojournalist in Bagdad and you can’t charge your batteries, or you get dust in your CF card—and you don't have an analog camera, you're kinda screwed. But more importantly there are so many ways of creating images and imagery that are being forgotten or dispensed with simply because there is something “new” and it gets assumed that new means “better” instead of different.
Also from your Still Water statement describing the works: “They become forms of the here and now while referring to an uncertain elsewhere.” Does this uncertain elsewhere reside in the artificiality of image-making? That is, the image exists artificially as a recording and then again artificially in our perception of the recording?
This statement is a specific reference to an argument claimed by Penny Cousineau-Levine in her book about Canadian photography, Faking Death. But for me the uncertain elsewhere also refers specifically to undetermined space in the blackness above the falls—where does it end or begin? Is it space or a surface? Object or image?
My suspicion is that the title of the show, Still Water, may reflect the paradox of photography whereby we attempt to render the movement of a thing or a scene by freezing it in time. Thoughts on that?
There's a deliberate reference to the nature of photography and the whole “capturing of moments” thing … which I think is a very limited way to understand photography—so it's kinda tongue-in-cheek. This water is clearly not still in actuality—nor is the space above it—but it's space, so how would we know?
Still Water is a prelude to another exhibition of yours called Coronae set to launch at Patrick Mikhail Gallery on March 9. How does this show relate to Coronae?
The images from Coronae are largely black. They are some of the largest single sheet photographic surfaces that can be made with photographic paper (61 inches wide) and the vast majority of the area is devoted to black. The images become more about surface and that indeterminate space. The “image” part is also indeterminate … and I think I'll wait until you see them in person before I tell you how they are made.