Looking at the Overlooked
If you use a camera, you are stuck with an instrument that is documentary and that will record perspective and will record a set form of vision which has a history behind it. It would be an illusion to think that necessarily you record things as though you weren’t part of language and language is part of institution. But on the other hand, the most exciting photographs are probably the ones that open a chink in that or subvert or in some way upset it. — Catherine Yass , March 2000
Catherine Yass’s photographs have been described as a play of opposites tensioned between light and dark . A highly abstract metaphor which layers images of a specific location with a constructed arena in which our vision can turn over and question institutional life . This is to say no more that Yass and the viewer of her art collaborate in an active seeing of the everyday . As French philosopher ,Gaston Bachelard has noted , it is the use of the architectural as: “an instrument with which to confront the cosmos.” [1.]
Cell (1998), the first work by the artist to be exhibited in Iceland, belongs to a family of works made over two years ,1998 to 2000, in which Yass focuses on public architecture which regiments individuals’ activity. In Britain the archetype of such buildings is the model prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18thC, a panopticon or circular structure in which the gaoler can survey prisoners from a central viewpoint . Cell’s subject, actual police cells in Birmingham, Yass found by accident when working toward the video Town ; Walsall, commissioned in 1998 by The New Art Gallery, Walsall and recently completed.
Having discovered this police station, Yass returned several more times to make photographs. First, in order to shoot stills on a 35mm camera . When back in the studio, she selected some of these for a storyboard , a method that allowed her to assimilate and condense her initial experience of the prison interior. At this point in the artist’s making of Cell, criteria from which to construct the finished work began to emerge.
For example, the camera’s selective framing of a place might represent the control exercised by the institution. Photographs were to be systematically taken head-on and the architectural detail which appears in each image should be centred within the frame. In addition, Yass decided to use the smallest architectural unit of enclosure, the rectangular cell in which prisoners are held, to represent the individual body under constraint. To echo the automatic camera eye’s ruthlessness as it invades the everyday , windows and peepholes of various kinds- instruments of surveillance – appear repeatedly as do barriers to free movement-gates and doors. Having discovered this much , Yass returned a third time to make photographs on a large format 5 x 4 inch plate camera .
The resulting work , Cell, contains eight of these large format images, which are Ilfochrome transparencies , each 88.5 x 70 x 12.5 cm placed on individual light boxes . These are hung along the length of a wall in a spatial configuration which both invites and bans the viewer from entry to the world of the photograph. To understand the prison’s geography whether in or outside- adjacent to, or far away from-various parts of the building proves difficult. To accentuate this effect, when hanging the work, Yass also tends to divide it into two series of four , the one set hung in mirror symmetry to the other .In the process of walking along the length of this configuration the inverted repetition of images is registered but not made sense of. Memory is teased, then it defaults and goes blank.
Yass’s choreography of the work is done to disorientate the viewer . Not in the slightest arbitrary , it is a signal to become detached from both a documentary and narrative reading of images. In a statement for The 1999 Glen Dimplex Artists Awards catalogue the artist said: “blindness is associated to vision. The eye or camera depends on a blink or shutter. Without this negative moment there would be no limit to vision.” [2.] In other words the process of undoing what is seen – Yass considers as essential to photography as recording what is present.
The technical method by which Yass imprints this moment of erasure on her photographs has been much discussed, most recently, in a forthcoming book on the artist by English writer, Greg Hilty : “she physically overlays a positive image with a negative image of the same scene, shot just a moment later. The technique, which has become almost a technical trademark for Yass, had its origins in an error early in her career, when a colour film loaded incorrectly was processed as a negative. ..The two images are always presented out of register, the negative being fractionally smaller.” [3.]
As a result of this process, viewers see each large transparency in Cell as an admixture of acid colours-indigos, yellows , greens which seep between the surfaces-and pool- sometimes to confirm ,sometimes to erode, the given physical boundaries of the things which Yass photographs.
A third light source, the light boxes which push diffused light from behind the transparencies, gives viewers’ eyes the function of optically mixing colour on the transparencies’ surface. Via a more documentary photographic record, contained in the same transparencies, Yass simultaneously offers another kind of acquaintance with the prison interior . Images of hand painted graffiti , engraved messages or sticky paint dribbles which rut and texture the building’s walls and doors push against the viewer as a corporeally dense, photographic skin. In Cell 2, one of the eight images in the work, Yass directs our attention to a found, visual pun which counterposes the flat repressive, sameness of the prison architecture with the active process of seeing this other sensual element. A large blue circle is pictured as a delicious, if defiant gesture, which copies the actual glass peephole, adjacent to it.
What, these photographs ask, is what the distance is between the felt , the might-be and the real?
In sharing her pleasure in this small coincidence, Yass underlines how important it is to question what is given by sight in an engaged, calm looking which fuses touch and vision. The photographic moves from cold, scientific document to radical still life. This is also underlined by the artist’s intentional use in Cell of close-ups of what the art historian ,Norman Bryson has called “the overlooked”, those things too humble or small to be looked at.” [4.] Yass goes on to magnify these quotidian objects into beautiful, if disquietingly, active icons which achieve what Angela Dalle Vacche has described in her book, Cinema and Painting, as “the subversive vocation “[5.] of European genre painting of domestic interiors . That is to show the power of vision from the margins of the public world of institutions By altering our notion of smallness and largeness , Cell puts before us an all important moment, an enriched void of understanding, in which we might wish to reconsider what is heroic, what unimportant.
- Caryn Faure Walker
1. Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space , Massachusetts, USA: Beacon Press, 1994 , page 46.
2. The Glen Dimplex Artists Awards (catalogue), Dublin, Eire, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 1999, unpaginated.
3. Hilty , Gregg. A book due for publication, London, England, May 2000. Quotation from the manuscript, pg. 6.
4. Bryson, Norman, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting , Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1990, pp. 136-178.
5. Dalle Vacche, Angela, Cinema and Painting: How Art is Used in Film Austin, Texas, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 221-245.