The light that was never was
Sep 6 – Sep 30, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, September 2018
The new works of artist and photographer Fiona Annis exhibited here offered viewers a truly sublime haunting, an invitation to partake in a séance with the ghost of photography’s past and portents of its future. Employing antiquated photographic processes, primarily the wet-plate collodion technique characterized by hand-processed photographic plates coated with chemistry that Annis mixes herself according to recondite 19th century recipes, she invokes the noumenal and the spectral in her continuing investigation into light and temporality.
Hand-processing of camera-less images allows her to harvest gestural incidents and accidents and discrete interventions on the receptive surfaces of photographic plates that form a litany of subtle and suggestive signs. This semiotic bounty is not the text of photographic representation but the subtext of its implements and process. So ghostlike and ethereal are these traces that they build up a spectral palimpsest that contributes to a larger haunting. They are like brushstrokes in advanced monochrome painting, where the sensuous presence of the excrescent pigment and the casual authority of the hand that applies it offer unexpected delights. Here, they mirror and mimic the light of antique days, bringing photography’s past up close to its present, all the while dilating on time, attrition, memory and the origins and textures of light.
Sidereal, uncanny and liminal, the images have a dream-like resonance and generate a potent atmospheric haze. In the most abstract images, the ground plane of representation itself – the horizon line – suggests some ash-blasted wilderness, the shorn diameter of the intestate earth without a human heir in sight.
The tree is like a lonely sentinel in If not, winter (2018), and it stands iconic, tall and true, a visitation from a distant time zone, wreathed in an unearthly jaundiced light. 13.1 billion years ago (2018) portrays a roiling firmament, a day of creation when darkness was still on the face of the deep. And the three framed c-prints of The light that never was (2018) suggest an Impressionist landscape tinged by the light from stars that never were.
Annis, like analogue fellow travellers Lorna Bauer, Jessica Eaton and Natascha Niederstrass (all based in Montreal), is a tireless, gifted researcher. In earlier work, she mined resources as varied and recondite as the first spectroscopic data on the trajectory of Halley’s Comet, recorded in 1910, and Binary Stars: A Pictorial Atlas, (1992). Her knowledge of contemporary literature and philosophical and scientific thought is vast and her titles reflect this immersion in the research phase. Earlier ones drew upon the writings of Walter Benjamin, Camille Flammarion, Victor Hugo, and Rebecca Solnit among others, and the titles here refer to Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson, The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart, The Future Birth of the Affective Fact by Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Survivance des lucioles by Georges Didi-Huberman.
In The Gift (San Menaio) (2018) an image from a “recovered” roll of 35mm film, only the title gives us a clue that it was taken in San Menaio Gargano, a small town and seaside resort in the province of Foggia and the Apulia region of south-east Italy. But the manor reminds us of the dilapidated, haunted mansion in Warwickshire, England in the 1940s that was the setting for Sarah Walter’s splendid ghost story The Little Stranger or the one in which the devil was invoked in Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. The gift (Gargano) (2016), another image from that “recovered” roll of 35mm film, is a lovely muted mauve monochrome in which the ground plane of representation can be barely glimpsed.
A word now about the artist’s characteristic restraint: in all the shows I have seen of this artist’ work, she has exercised a judicious paring down in installations that read as precise distillations, even when objects are added to the mix. They could easily have been overwrought but never were or are. Without recourse to theatrics or wilful opacity, Annis creates installations that are hugely pellucid and auratic. With light and temporality as the central axes around which her aesthetic organically grows, she has learned that less is usually more. This minimalism extends to the artist’s palette: the seductive mauves and yellows and soot-rich blacks and soiled whites are muted and marry well with myriad shades of grey and are never off-putting, decorative or plangent.
In her earlier work, it was clear that Annis was no mortician of dying stars, but a searcher after lost light. Still, all her work touches movingly on the theme of human finitude. Perhaps this is why Survivance des lucioles is especially pungent where this work is concerned. Georges Didi-Huberman asks: “Have the fireflies disappeared?” and replies: “Of course not. Some of them are near us. They brush past us in the dark; others have passed over the horizon, trying to reform elsewhere their community, their minority, their shared desire”. The radius to be drawn between this sentiment and the inhering spirit of Annis’s work is not so very remote: it has an implicit political dimension, after all, given its concern with the extinguished but still perceptible light not just of stars but of human beings, and the wider darkness that surrounds us everywhere. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.