Still Present: Exploring Psychiatric Institutions in Photography

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All Things Present - Courtesy of Dominion Post 2005-05-20 By Mark Amery There are a lot of rooms and objects without people in contemporary photography. We the viewers are left to fill or hold…

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All Things Present - Courtesy of Dominion Post 2005-05-20

By Mark Amery

There are a lot of rooms and objects without people in contemporary photography. We the viewers are left to fill or hold them. If the 19th century was the great age of the photographic portrait, the photograph as mark of social status ("a certificate of presence" as Roland Barthes described it), then the 20th century was the time of the documentary, of
recording our activity in the environment around us. By contrast, late 20th and early 21st century photography is often characterised by the presence of things in a photograph by their very absence.

Image: Jono Rotman's Lake Alice in Still PresentAll Things Present - Courtesy of Dominion Post 2005-05-20

By Mark Amery

There are a lot of rooms and objects without people in contemporary photography. We the viewers are left to fill or hold them. If the 19th century was the great age of the photographic portrait, the photograph as mark of social status ("a certificate of presence" as Roland Barthes described it), then the 20th century was the time of the documentary, of
recording our activity in the environment around us. By contrast, late 20th and early 21st century photography is often characterised by the presence of things in a photograph by their very absence.

Image: Jono Rotman's Lake Alice in Still Present
One of the strongest binary relationships in contemporary art has been that of presence and absence. How in the very absence of something we detect its presence, and visa versa. After all, the very notion of photography is based on the simultaneous presence and absence of light - a play with ghosts. We become intelligent readers of what is not stated in
an image as much as what is. Think of the different presences to be found in a Laurence Aberhart photograph of the empty interior of a hall. Or conversely the memories and associations that bounce with the light off an object up close in a Peter Peryer photograph.

Often with these photographs the camera is fixed, a receptacle for what is before it. Jean Baudrillard wrote of the power of photography to mobilize its silence, to "resist movements, flows, and speed by using its immobility; to resist the explosion of communication and information by
brandishing its secrecy" resisting the moral imperative to provide meaning. The viewer of the photograph is instead empowered to step into the space and explore.

Over three years Wellington artist Jono Rotman photographed unoccupied spaces in psychiatric hospitals and prisons, detailing human presence in the marks on the surfaces and occasional objects. In 'Chambers' at the
Adam Art Gallery five spaces are brilliantly lit up in large lightboxes, the viewer asked to enter these compartments. The dimensions of the lightboxes and the spaces recorded within them, themselves in a darkened enclosed rectangular space in the gallery, encourage our treatment of these as contained cavities for contemplation, like a mirror of the
camera's chamber itself. The two prison cells presented are scrubbed clean, beautiful, shimmering chambers of light you could mistake for modern chapels if it weren't for the presence of objects like a mattress, pillow, and bucket. Even a prison recreation yard here is a depressingly small, contained space into which the light finds its way. It resembles a bricked-up bus shelter, complete with one hardy weed reaching up out of the concrete floor and a bolted door patinaed by rust-stained grafitti.

Every dark scratch and slash of light in these images is a mark of what is both absent and present. In 'Dayroom, Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital' rows of empty, picked-at chairs sit awaiting bodies, facing out of the frame while directly in front us the light glints off a large wall painting of a typical sublime New Zealand mountain landscape. It's this
contradiction between imprisonment and transcendence that makes these images sing.

'Chambers' is one of three suites of work that makes up the exhibition Still Present: Exploring Psychiatric Institutions in Photography. While Rotman gives us spaces to enter, Taiwanese photographer Chien-Chi Chang's life sized images of pairs of chained inhabitants confront us, their environments darkened to invisibility behind them. Australian photographer Anne Ferran crops in close on a rhythm of details in her subject's gestures and garments, accentuating their anonymity and marginalisation as 'anyone', playing dream-like with our own personal memory. Both Ferran and
Chang remind us of the portrait's social use as a "certificate of presence", granted here to those people usually marked absent.

The title of the exhibition proved in this way a little bit of a red herring, suggesting the primary concern these artists share is in a documentary interest. I learnt little about such institutions and their inhabitants. It's a far greater credit to Sophie McIntyre's curation that through the conversation between the works I felt and thought deeply about
our presence and absence in and before the camera, and the way in a greater sense we inhabit spaces and memory.

In Mark Beehre's strong exhibition Wally's Place: 41 Michael Street at Photospace photography also deals with memory through the play of light in interior space - but with a specific story to tell. During the few months after Beehre's subject Wally Petersen died, Beehre photographed his home,
documenting it both as it was as he lived there, and then as it became cleared of possessions. Through study of the space and objects Beehre explores presence and absence as it is both maintained and lost as the domestic environment changes. The interiors in their warmth are the antithesis of Rotman's - we are welcomed in and shown around like
prospective buyers, with all the discomfort between past and future in the present that involves.

Through the documentation of everything from a stack of records to family photographs the exhibition proports to provide a portrait of the person, yet these images were the less successful ones for me, the objects dull rather than resonant in revealing life. They felt like a different series
with slightly different objectives from those others in which light plays across spaces in the house. Here like with Rotman there is transcendence, with the sense of light being let into the space to let the spirit escape, as it passes up and over a suitcase, or as we view the garden through an open door reflected in a large round mirror.

ENDS

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

25 May 2005

The Big Idea Editor