Through the Looking Glas - By Osvaldo Budet
Sunday, 19 February 2012
The first time I saw the work of Australian photographer Bridget Mac titled ‘Glas’ was in Berlin. I was attending one of many openings that swell with eclectic crowds witnessing the ever-changing exhibitions and happenings, which grace the walls and spaces of this pulsating city.
Mac’s body of work ‘Glas’ was part of a group show, an opening that spilled in to the street on a balmy late summer night. The space was typical of Berlin, shabby and somehow beautifully reminiscent of a past that lives in the present, layers upon layers, brick and peeling wallpaper, carpet and old floorboards.
In a moment I found myself at the end of a long, dark room totally captivated by Mac’s installation of 9 photographic projections of landscapes. The lights were dim and in my concentrated state engaging with her work both the noise and distractions of the crowd subsided. Intermittently Mac’s landscapes of lost and found places were projected in the direction of the wall in front, interrupted by a suspended spinning
panel defying the images that wished to grace the wall. The effect of movement and light as the images flashed between the spinning panel and the wall was mesmerising. I found myself delving into Plato’s allegory of the Cave, which describes a group of people who once lived chained in a cave facing a bare wall. These prisoners watch shadows projected on the wall by shapes and beings passing in front of a fire behind them, and in real time begin to ascribe forms to the shadows dancing on the wall in font of them. Accordingly Plato describes how the shadows the prisoners witness on the wall are as close as they get to view reality. The prisoners see mere shadows while in opposition the philosopher is a freed prisoner from the cave who comes to understand that he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the shadows on the cave wall.
So here I was in Plato’s cave, the projection of Mac’s images was the fire, the viewer likewise the prisoner watching the shapes and movement on the suspended panel like whirling Dervish in front of the wall evoking two new levels of reality. One moment I was able to discern the image projected on the panel, a second later in a blur the projection of a moody landscape was briefly seen and perceived on the wall. Back and forth the projections played, between the original light source of the image, to limbo and beyond. Between stability and ambiguity as flashes of places and spaces danced on the cave wall. With the concentration of the best of one Plato’s prisoners who may have received a laurel for observing the quickest of movements and of form, one could identify mysterious places and reflections. These all at once darkly lit projections were landscapes of the mind, landscapes of the senses.
Mac subjects the viewer to eternally watch the illusion of a reflection in a lake, photographed by the artist, projected on a spinning panel that produces layers of shadows and of light in an alternate world on the walls in front. It is here in this space between light and dark, between perception and illusion that Mac expands the medium of photography. Pushing the boundaries, which Walter Benjamin suggested in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of the Mechanical Reproduction’. Benjamin writes of the loss of aura through mechanical reproduction of art itself. The aura for Benjamin represents the originality and authenticity of a work of art that has not been reproduced. The photograph for Benjamin is an image of an image, or copy of a copy more distant from the original. Mac’s work poetically challenges this idea, she works like Alice through the looking glass, she restores the sense of aura and what she has seen and captured embodies individual reality dealing with time, place and space. The places she presents us with are landscapes filled with mystery, a landscape which one may find Plato’s cave to be hidden in a darkly lit void.
(Dis)mantle-Pieces Essay by Michael Chapman
I have looked upon this city, its villas and pleasure grounds, and the wide circuit of its inhabited heights and slopes for a considerable time. In the end I must say that I see countenances out of past generations — this district is strewn with the images of bold and autocratic men. [...] I always see the builder, how he casts his eye on all that is built around him far and near, and likewise on the city, the sea, and the chain of mountains; how he expresses power and conquest with his gaze: all this he wishes to fit into his plan, and in the end make it his property, by its becoming a portion of the same. The whole district is overgrown with this superb, insatiable egoism of the desire to possess and exploit; and as these men when abroad recognised no frontiers, and in their thirst for the new placed a new world beside the old, so also at home everyone rose up against everyone else, and devised some mode of expressing his superiority, and of placing between himself and his neighbour his personal infinity
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science [291: Genoa]
Writing in the lead up to his most frenzied period of both travelling and producing, it was in 1882 that Nietzsche surveyed the landscape of Genoa, a city he visited several times over the course of his life, and he found solace in its anarchy. Rejected and solitary, suffering with illness and battling near blindness, the nomadic philosopher witnessed, in the piling up of buildings upon the dramatic Mediterranean landscape, an internal defiance. A defiance of not only the physical and environmental forces that, in this sweeping stretch of coastline, all pointed inevitably downwards, but also a defiance of design, beauty and the inessential. For this archetypal mountain man, here was architecture constructed as philosophy: inanimate, noble and aristocratic, and poised to overwrite the horizontal leveling of history that resided just below
the surface, beneath the cobbled streets of this ancient maritime polis. Against these flaccid archaeologies of mediocrity, Genoa offered an artificially constructed panorama; more correctly, it offered a panorama of construction. In a world that has become increasingly consumed with the seductions of design, the primal instincts of building are sometimes overlooked. Rarely, are we confronted with the raw evidence of building, the internal logic that precedes construction, the secretive groundwork that conspires to give form, to resist, and to overcome. Building is now concealed behind layers of litigation, compliance, quality assurance and economics, to the extent that we inhabit a conglomeration of effectively designed and mass-produced surfaces and objects that conceal the instinct to build and its philosophical and spatial ambitions. Building not only precedes design, it subsumes it. It is also bound by a vast network of social, political, spatial and environmental hypocrisies meaning that the philosophy of building has been radically suppressed, if not eradicated.
Art, in its most primal form, is the remaining mode through which the philosophy of building is articulated and preserved. Generally uncontaminated, it offers fleeting resistance to the hegemony of the transient commodity, the inoffensive product, the consumable lifestyle and its virtual avatar.
The work of Bridget Mac occupies a similar defiance. Interrogating questions of masculinity, space and politics, her building of inner worlds and silent landscapes transgresses the traditional domains of art, and opens onto broader questions of philosophy, and building. The work is a peeling away of layers of ornament, and disguise. It is a removing of superficial masks to reveal the raw and uncorrupted self; the logic of self, and its reinvention. Here you can find a tapestry of visual and gendered residues pasted and preserved against the historical and archeological surface of the page, the canvas, the ground,
the body; a construction of panoramas... and discursive melodramas.
These constructions imagine a body at home with its unhomlieness, as it buries deeper and deeper into itself. Within this work is evidence of the instinct to build which is, as Nietzsche knew, also the instinct to destroy.
— Michael Chapman is a senior lecturer in architecture at University of Newcastle