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Photography

THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection reviewed

16 Jun, 16 | by cquigley

L0081645 'His Masters Voice'. Painting by Franci

‘His Masters Voice’. Painting by Francis Barraud, 1919. Credit:Courtesy of the EMI Group Archive Trust

 

THIS IS A VOICE

Wellcome Collection, 14 April – 31 July 2016

Reviewed by Steven Kenny

 

Approaching the exhibition entrance of THIS IS A VOICE at the Wellcome Collection, it is easy to think the voice is treated as criminal, being contained, controlled and its behaviour segregated from the world outside. Initial thoughts would suggest that it is being acoustically surveyed; with the steady opening and closing of the exhibition door, sound rushes to the exit. Yet its attempts are ultimately futile, the room has been sound proofed, noise restricted from accessing the outside world. On entering the space, grey triangular padded shapes line the walls, detail reminiscent of a kitsch science fiction film from the 1980s. The exposed patterned structures, evocative of the décor of Ridley Scott’s periled spaceship in Alien, enclose you in a warm, familiar hug of nostalgia. Sensing that this space is one visually tread before, it is easy to forget the prestigious institutional context of the exhibition. THIS IS A VOICE, a show investigating the potential of the voice in all its forms, techniques, objects and cultural baggage, is particularly engaging for it knowingly understands such a topic cannot be wholly represented (due to various cultural and language complexities). Yet it does a heartfelt job in attempting to at least understand how the voice as a product, both commercially and non-commercially viable, can be exhibited. Curatorial flourishes can be found everywhere, from the nooks and crannies of seated listening stations to the maze-like paths that allow a gentle flow of avid listeners from one space to the next. From attending numerous shows at the Wellcome Collection I must comment that THIS IS A VOICE is one of the most stimulating and generally refreshing exhibitions to be held in its space.

It would seem that an inner versus outer exploration of the body and the voice is focused on throughout. One telling example of this is immediately apparent in the work Circular Song, 1974 by Joan La Barbara. A half dome like structure hangs from the ceiling, the speaker’s hollow interior pervading the space below with sound. The experience of entering this wall of sound is generally unnerving, a constant and increasingly uncomfortable echo of inhaling and exhaling performed by the artist, breathes all over you. It is nightmarish, a deathly noise that would seem totally apt in the exhaling howls of a victim being chased by a stalker in a nerve inducing slasher film. Sound in this manner is represented as an abject substance, an uncanny emotional pulling of the visitors’ own sentiments to the body and the amplified vocalisation of a body process that now seems one of disgust. Yet this is in direct contrast to Marcus Coates multi-screen film installation Dawn Chorus, 2007, which is silly, funny and surprisingly touching. This room is filled with the fluttering sounds of birdsong, a number of monitors positioned at varying heights depicting subjects in everyday locations comically singing along to each sound created. Experiencing this work initially seemed deceptive­­–I could not understand how both image and sound aligned so perfectly, as though the birdsong was actually being produced by a human lip whistle. Subjects pursed their lips and jotted their heads up and down in perfect alignment. The façade is lifted on reading the work’s description: ‘After recording the dawn chorus with multiple microphones, the individual birdsongs were slowed down to last approximately 16 times as long, which enabled the participants to imitate them, while being filmed’. Yet not knowing these details did not matter as my imagination roamed freely around the space. I observed each subject as one would watch a bird in the wild, mesmerised by its harmonic whistle and merry bouncing of its head.

Words

THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection, 2016. Credit:Photography by Michael Bowles

Dotted around the exhibition are various textual works, the written word laid bare. Erik Bunger’s wall text I Hearby Command You to Give Voice to These Letters Silently or Out Loud, 2011 was surprising in that it forced an involuntary restriction of my own voice from permeating the gallery. I so badly wanted to shout out loud the words I was reading yet thought better than to add to the already noisy space. Yet on second thoughts maybe that would have made for some interesting spectator reactions. Bunger’s playful register, was paralleled by Mikhail Karikis’s digital prints (photographs by Thierry Bal) Sculpting Voice, 2010, where the artist was photographically recorded pulling various facial gestures. Three prints line the wall in sequence, each exhibiting Karikis’s comically retuned face, made even more comical by the muting of what would probably have been quite a painful or otherwise loud projection of sound.

L0081817 THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection, p

THIS IS A VOICE at Wellcome Collection. Credit:Photography by Michael Bowles

 

The exhibition saved its loudest and most intriguing work for last. Entering the final room of the show, you would think that you might have woken in a Lynchian nightmare. Best described as an interactive, participatory constructed, sound installation, a lone and somewhat foredooming sound booth, tempts the spectator.

L0081800 Matthew Herbert, Chorus, 2016

Matthew Herbert, Chorus, 2016. Credit:Photography by Michael Bowles

The aptly titled Chorus, 2016 is by the British electronic musician Matthew Herbert, whose work ‘asks visitors to sing a single note within a professional recording booth following a set of instructions. The visitor’s voices are then automatically added to a chorus of voices, including performers and staff from the Royal Opera House, forming an ever-expanding sound installation that plays in the exhibition space and at the Royal Opera House’s Stage Door in Covent Garden’. I entered the space to sing the requested solitary note. Escaping my throat, my voice joined the squeaks, squeals, and sometimes correctly pitched notes above. Noise reverberated violently throughout the room, puncturing the space like a diminished fifth encroaching a melodic passage. The voice in this exhibition is presented as an ever-changing entity, one that is able to attack, calm and arrest.

 

Articles from Medical Humanities on the human voice:

Kelly BD. Searching for the patient’s voice in the Irish asylums. Med Humanit 2016;42:87-91.

Demjén Z and Semino E. Henry’s voices: the representation of auditory verbal hallucinations in an autobiographical narrative. Med Humanities 2015;41:1 5762.

Puustinen R. Voices to be heard—the many positions of a physician in Anton Chekhov’s short story, A Case History. Med Humanities 2000;26:1 3742.

 

The Reading Room: A review of ‘Jo Spence, The Final Project’

23 Jan, 15 | by cquigley

 

Reviewed by Steven Kenny

 

 cover

Jo Spence, The Final Project, 1991–92. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

 

Jo Spence was a pioneering figure within the realms of photographic discourse, image based political activism and the application of photography as a therapeutic tool. From the early 1970s Spence worked within photographic collaborative modes, first with Terry Dennett to form the Photography Workshop Ltd and later co-establishing the Hackey Flashers and Polysnappers. Spence’s later works turned inwards, directing the gaze towards the body, and specifically her ill/diseased body, and her battles with breast cancer. Such works became charged with a context of survival and transgression, this photography ‘a response to her treatment by the medical establishment and her attempt to navigate its authority through alternative therapies’ (Vasey, s.d).

 

The Final Project is the last documentation of Jo Spence’s work. A book of eerie beauty and macabre investigation, The Final Project stands as the artist’s last photographic output before her death as a result of leukaemia in 1992. The resultant images stand as a testament of confrontation, expectation and spiritual transcendence. Within the book’s inside flap a small quote from Spence provokes thought, ‘“How do you make leukaemia visible? Well, how do you? It’s an impossibility”’. This quote particularly hit home as my uncle also died as a result of leukaemia. At the time I did not understand the condition, only hurt by its ramifications, never truly knowing its pathological effects nor its ability to conceptually redefine the body as sick and the other. The Final Project is a particularly significant book as it highlights the importance of representing the ill body, one that is affected by the invisible and the hidden. Spence’s work depicts a process of struggle, humour and later acceptance during her illness experience.

 

At the end of her career, Spence became too unwell to travel and work. However, the limitations imposed by physical frailty did not stop her determined and strong work ethic. During this time, Spence trawled through her vast photographic archive to create further visual documents from those that make reference to mystic realism. Her output became imbued with the anticipation of death, and as a result the imagery decoded visual artefacts of the iconography of the dead through the layering of two slides, one on top of the other. These objects, once photographed, became talismans of spiritual power, and as Louisa Lee (2013:11) comments, ‘allegorical props for representation’. The skull features consistently throughout The Final Project; in one photograph it engulfs the frame, in another the skull is depicted as a mask to be worn (see front cover above), and in others it appears to be used as an object to physically represent the artist’s presence. The skull is now a contemporary icon, a product of fascination that can be seen across various artistic forms and cultural practices. Her archive takes on its own being, and as a result comes to physically stand in for the artist; her visual history creating new histories that can be once again archived. The photographic montage can thus be seen within the book as a form of catharsis, the constructed image an item of therapeutic power with the ability to define new identities.

Pg-84

Jo Spence, The Final Project, 1991–92. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

 

On examining the work throughout the book, one might conclude that such images may be associated with Sigmund Freud’s theory on the death drive, which explored the apparent conflict between not having knowledge of our inevitable experience of death, and the resurgent repetition of unconscious exploration into gaining such insight. As suggested by the author Maria Walsh (2012), ‘Art can be tied to either of these strands, depending on whether an artwork is on the side of binding the chaotic force of the death drive or repeating its disruptive impulses’. Spence’s work within this series seems to lie preciously between the two, with such works seen as a taming or normalisation of death from acceptance of its iconography, yet becoming entangled within a mode of repetition as images are repeated and spliced with others to form new variations. It must be stressed, however, that such work is not at all chaotic, but is instead peaceful, dreamlike and calmly ambivalent. Thus it becomes difficult to categorise Spence’s final work, also true for her entire lifetime output, which confidently straddles various modes of representation and classification. The work is enigmatic, a photographic force in representing the invisible and redefining the ill body in transgression.

Humour has served as an important emotional device throughout Spence’s career and artistic work, and again is of great importance within The Final Project. Melancholy juxtaposed with laughter creates a darkly humoured conflict, the work’s methodology resembling the artist’s perseverance in contrast to her deteriorating health. Humour is utilised as a concept not only to promote positivism, but also to punctuate the isolation caused by disease. The skull as motif is disseminated as a cryptic symbol of both death itself and of its subsequent control over it. Spence does not trivialise death but instead attempts to seek some comfort and emotional release from its seriousness. As Sheri Klein (2007) suggests, ‘The intent of humour is to overcome the tragic impulse so that life is bearable’. Spence does not give up, nor does she stop creating. Instead, the artist utilises photography as a method to pictorially represent her own transition. The work serves as a form of therapy, much in the same manner as her previous phototherapy work represented her battle with breast cancer. One element has importantly changed, however. Spence now begins to absent herself from the frame, and instead presents her physical self through her previous constructed representations — a body not yet affected by the disease, a historical body that can be manipulated and freely controlled.

How do we come to terms with death? Perhaps more importantly, can we ever come to terms with our own limited physicality? I believe that these are deeply subjective, complex and quite probably impossible questions to answer, but as Klein (2007) suggests ‘Humour from art, as experienced through smiling and laughing, can be a catalyst for personal and collective healing, wellbeing and improved psychological health’. From reviewing the work of Spence, one could conclude that laughter and the ability to poke fun at death might be more therapeutic than resorting to a grief state that solely focuses on inexorable loss.

GRAVEYARDSESSION

Jo Spence, The Final Project, 1991–92. © The Estate of Jo Spence. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery, London.

 

 

Lee, Louisa (ed.) (2013) Jo Spence: The Final Project. London: Ridinghouse.

 

References

Klein, Sheri (2007) Art and Laughter [Scribd Edition] From: www.scribd.com (Accessed on 13.01.15)

Vasey, George (s.d) Jo Spence – Biography. At: http://www.jospence.org/biography (Accessed on 13.01.15)

 Walsh, Maria (2012) Art and Psychoanalysis [Scribd Edition] From: www.scribd.com (Accessed on 13.01.15)

Parkinson’s Disease and Being Human: Through a Lens

7 Oct, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

‘Over the Hill’ at Create Gallery

New England House New England Street, Brighton, BN1 4GH

until 17 October

 

Tim Andrews was working as a solicitor when he was diagnosed in 2006 with Parkinson’s Disease and was obliged to retire. The following year he responded to an ad in Time Out for ‘real-life’ nude models – as opposed to professionals – and enjoyed the experience so much that he carried on responding to similar ads. Volunteering to be photographed soon developed into a project in which Tim became the active subject in charge of a (still expanding) portfolio of work by more than 300 photographers. Photographs and films by nearly sixty of these artists are currently on show at Create Gallery in Brighton.

This project is extraordinary for several reasons but most importantly because the quality and range of work is outstanding. It would be unfair to mention a selection of names or personal favourites, so do look at Tim’s blog for more information http://timandrewsoverthehill.blogspot.co.uk

The fact that all these lenses have been pointed at a single human subject transforms the collection of art works into one giant multi-faceted portrait not only of a man, but of everyman. Tim is Tim in all the shots, he says, adding that he has not had to act a part for any of them. Instead he feels that every photograph shows a different side of him. It is this quality of confrontation with each camera, open collaboration with each photographer (eloquently described by Tim in his narrative captions accompanying the photographs), which brings integrity to the collection. In a way that is both more natural and more deliberate than with most portraiture, Tim is not so much the subject as the co-maker of each photograph.

He is clear that although he set out to be ‘photographed by different people during the course of my illness’ he now feels that ‘it has not been my intention to document my illness but rather to document myself at a time when I happen to be ill’. I think both intentions are palpable in the wholehearted way that Tim has made his life into an art project. There is memorializing and there is documentary inherent in the business of recording our bodies with cameras. There is also, in Tim’s case, intense playfulness and a rare ability to reimagine, and have reimagined for him, a body – a self – that is simultaneously seriously unwell and vibrantly alive.

In his speech at the opening of the exhibition, Tim thanked those who had taken the photographs, those who had helped him put on the show, those who have treated and continue to treat his illness. He also said thank you to Parkinson’s Disease, because as he put it ‘without it, none of us would be here this evening’.

In a society which insists most of the time on presenting our relationship with incurable illness as a battleground where campaigns are lost or won, this ability to own and even to embrace what happens in the diseased body is remarkable. Tim’s way of seeking wholeness through creation and re-creation is an inspiring example of living well with disease. The exhibition itself is a stunning showcase of photographic talent.

 

Clare Best

Writer in Residence, University of Brighton, 2014-15

www.clarebest.co.uk

http://selfportraitwithoutbreasts.wordpress.com

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