Time/Travelling: Spectrum Studies and Jüdisches Krankenhaus Berlin
Wil Aballe Art Projects, Vancouver
By DILLON RAMSEY, MAY 2015
Perhaps the most basic distinction people might make between photography and other visual art media is that photographs are a snapshot of reality. In a sense, this is true, since in order for something to be photographed, it has to be present in the first place. But there are also a lot of problems with such an assumption: is the snapshot not a very selective representation of a specific version of reality? Can a single photograph not portray several interpretations of the same reality? Can absence not be photographed as well as presence? Do photographs even need to represent anything at all?
Each of the photographs in Spectrum Studies and Jüdisches Krankenhaus Berlin at Wil Aballe Art Projects reveals to the audience multiple realities, while at the same time contesting the assumption that one mode of perception – or one notion of reality – is superior to others; some of the moments captured in these photographs never even happened, and are created by blindspots and shortcomings inherent in the camera's capacity to record the truth. And while both artists in this show have employed specialised techniques of image-making to produce these works, none of the photographs in this exhibition have been manipulated after the fact. Every section of every work shows something that really was – or wasn't – in a particular place at a particular time.
The overall effect of having all these artworks in one gallery is almost kaleidoscopic, providing keen viewers with more visual stimulation than they can possibly process at once; but by no means is it overwhelming. For all their complexity, these images remain wonderfully aesthetic at their core, inviting a measured contemplation which slowly yields subjective, multifarious answers to the questions they pose. "I think that the two exhibitions feel related to each other," comments curator Wil Aballe. "They're separate shows, but they dialogue really well with one another, because both artists use their practices to show the potential of photography, but also the limits." He adds, "For both artists, place is very important, and their works also play with the passing of time."
Scott Massey's Spectrum Studies is a continuing project which currently consists of six photographic landscapes; four of them are presently featured at Wil Aballe Art Projects. Within their respective frames, each of the four photographs are subdivided in a radial symmetry, and every segment of this radial symmetry varies in its visual effect. For example, in Spectrum Study 3 (day-night), the image is split into twelve sections, each of which reveal a significant shift in natural light throughout a twenty-four hour cycle. The picture was created completely in-camera; with one Hasselblad camera, a special film brought in from Germany, and custom laser-cut dark slides to strategically preserve some parts of the film and expose others, Spectrum Study 3 was composed over the course of fourteen hours in a single location, rewinding the same roll of film for each carefully-planned shot. This dedicated method was applied in all the Spectrum Studies – though Spectrum Study 3 (day-night) is the only one in the present show from the previous iteration of the series, which debuted with the premier of Vancouver's Capture Festival in 2013.
In the three most recent Spectrum Studies, it is not the transience of time and light that is revealed, but new modes of seeing that transcend people's ordinary sensory perception. Moreover, the landscape itself is now a more prominent part of the image. "It's not just about being beautiful," says Massey of the locations he selects. "They have to have a charge in some way." While this pertinent, almost mystical sense of place still pertains to Spectrum Study 3 (day-night), which was shot in a contested, ecologically-significant grassland outside Osoyoos, British Columbia, it could be argued that Massey's "charge" gets stronger and stronger in each of his new works. Spectrum Study 4 (infrared), with its striking colour contrasts in pinks, purples, and reds, positions the viewer at the starkly sublime site of the Hope Slide, a deadly disaster that was the largest of its kind in Canadian History. Spectrum Study 5 (visible), with its rainbow picture plane, transports its audience to an obscure plateau outside of Kamloops, British Columbia, which was identified in 1984 by a prominent congregation of Buddhist monks as a spiritual centre of the universe; incidentally, the location was sacred to First Nations bands long before the Buddhists found it. Spectrum Study 6 (greyscale) relates to its predecessor; photographed at Deadman Falls, the river depicted in this bleak but breathtaking landscape is a major tributary to a lake beside the Buddhist "centre of the universe". A palpable energy is channelled between the two places, just as common themes and aesthetics connect the photographs.
Malcolm Levy's photographic works in Jüdisches Krankenhaus Berlin are likewise segmented pictures whose themes deal with time and place. The setting may be the most important aspect in this suite of work; Jüdisches Krankenhaus Berlin translates to "Jewish Hospital, Berlin," and is indeed a Jewish hospital which miraculously survived the entire Second World War and Holocaust, saving some eight hundred lives.
All three of Levy's photographic works are titled for where they were taken and what they show: Snow and Lights on Ground was photographed on the hospital's perimeter; Walking Through the Hospital was taken within the hospital itself; and Office of Hilde Kahan was captured inside the former office of the dauntless secretary who worked during the war years, and who helped the doctor in sheltering their wards. Unlike the meticulously planned analogue photography of Massey, Levy's works are recorded by digital technology, and are taken more spontaneously as he moves through a space. Levy then slows down his moving image so much that frames of empty time, where the digital technology has failed to document anything, begin to emerge between the real frames. Fascinatingly, the digital camera is designed to automatically assume what these frames should look like, based on the frames beside them, so they conform to the colours and textures of the real frames despite the fact that they literally show nothing. The result is a series of radiant, grid-like works whose illuminated surfaces are immersive but abstract, and simultaneously reveal what is and is not there.
Levy initiated this project when he was invited to participate in a show at Supermarkt in Berlin, and just the memory of being in Berlin is deeply moving for him. "Especially for me, you can't be Jewish, in Berlin, and not think about what happened during the War," Levy explains. He has envisioned this exhibition so that the presence of Hilde Kahan seems to permeate everywhere, as though he is paying a tribute to her. Having researched his project thoroughly, Levy learned about the hospital's wartime secretary and acquired audio of an interview she provided in the 1980s which details her personal recollections of the Jüdisches Krankenhaus. This interview, transcribed by Aballe, is available to be read, or listened to on a headset, in the gallery space. At the same time, a video loop is projected onto the central wall of the gallery, filmed by Levy in Hilde Kahan's office; the focus and depth of the image have been distorted by its close proximity to its subject, obscuring and abstracting all visual information save for a remarkable sense of presence that remains – and this presence is communicated to the viewer through Levy's organic, gestural camerawork. The film retains a representational or documentary quality, so long as the audience accepts that all representation and documentation is suffused by the artist's subjectivity.
With its emphasis on embodied presence, gesture, and subjectivity, there is almost an abstract expressionism pervading Levy's exhibition. In fact, as he formulated his concept for this show, Levy himself notes how he felt he was following the tradition of famous Jewish abstractionists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. At the same time, the partitioning of Massey's pictures produces a sense of planarity that draws attention to the flatness of the works, as well as their fastidious composition; Aballe describes the aesthetic as Minimalist, though colour field painting might also come to mind. All in all, it is exhilarating how a photography exhibition in 2015 can somehow emulate a painting gallery in the mid- to late-1950s. Aesthetically and conceptually these two adjacent shows overlap, and seem consciously continuous with one another, as they challenge conventional understandings of space, place, and time. WM
Dillion Ramsey is a writer based in Vancouver, BC.view all articles from this author