Memory Like Water
By Mark Amery
Art doesn’t capture a moment in time, like a snapshot or a document. It’s about the fluidity of time, the sensations surrounding the memory of moments; the sense of life flowing from the past through the present and into the future.
Time runs through Gray Nicol’s installation at the Film Archive both in the strong meditation the work offers, but also in the life of the artist himself.
You’re unlikely to have heard of Nicol. He made a number of video and performance works at Elam art school in the 1970s, before leaving to become a sculptor and wood carver, first at Orakei Marae and then in England restoring 18th century interiors. Film Archive curator Mark Williams sought Nicol out for a screening of old video works and a reprisal of a performance last year, and now presents in public for the first time in thirty years his new work.
All of these previous elements in Nicol’s work come together seamlessly in three moving image pieces. Performance, light, sound, and the eye of the camera activate figurative sculpture created by Nicol in an exceptionally well-crafted set of works. It seems as if all of Nicol’s past has come to bear on these works, both in the combining of seemingly disparate art media, and the overall feeling that this, like much great art, is a contemplation of mortality, tracking memory and time from birth to death.
Beautifully installed the works come together as one whole, as if the high austere space of the Archive’s gallery were a chapel. Two white screens projected onto hang in the space (able to be viewed from either side), while a third screen on the wall casts a large watchful eye on them. From above the sounds of Christian choral chants fill the gallery.
In the central work ‘C.U. Madonna’ the camera slowly and intimately, you could say lovingly, moves over a sculptural relief of mother and child, carved by Nicol. While she sleeps or dotes, the epitome of innocent peace the child eyes us boldly, his arms reaching protectively out around his mother and his genitalia peeking out from beneath his garment. Through light the filming brings the sculpture strangely, moment by moment to life. By bringing into dimensional relief each elegant movement of the carving’s shapes, the camera’s own motion elicits spirit from the work. Then in the work’s final mysterious crackling digital moments child and mother become separated, the child left hanging within fluid in dark space like a babe in the womb.
For the work ‘Remember Snow’ Nicol carved a bust of a childhood acquaintance called Snow from memory. Connecting to the other work, the exhibition notes tell us this man was a friend of his mother’s before she married 45 years ago. The only document of his memory, Nicol recalls in a narrative soundtrack, a photograph “taken against the light where you can’t see his face”.
At first we see the bust of Snow to the left in light, paired with to the right, hanging faintly in the inky darkness, another face ghoulishly alive. The whole work appears fluid within water. The face to the right blows out bubbles which fracture and distort the surface and bring into sublime abstraction the sculptured face. It’s as if the two faces are becoming one. When the sculpture emerges the camera and dappled light play on it, moving it magically between being stone and flesh. Nicol explores how the past might be felt visually in the present. How, as he says in his narrative recollection, memory is where “an image is not solid, it moves up and down”. This is memory as water.
In the third work ‘Big Time’ an eyeball unnervingly stares out from a distorted reflection of a face within a giant ball. The ball starts to rock, slowly building up speed. It appears like the conscious eye of the artist - like a metronome marking time. Beyond that it defies description. Like all the works in this show it is beautifully crafted where so much contemporary video art is not. Its poetic power is beyond easy explanation.
New Work, Gray Nicol, The Film Archive, until September 5