This solo exhibition of photographs by German artist, Catrine Val borrows its title from the collected writings of Frances Wright (1795-1852), a freethinker and abolitionist who was born in Dundee. Later emigrating, she became a US citizen in 1825 and established a “Robert Owen- style” multi-racial commune in Nashoba, Tennessee. Frances had been born at the tail-end of the century of the Scottish Enlightenment that followed political Union with England in 1707. Her father’s wealth was founded on success as a linen manufacturer. Yet he was at the same time a republican and radical, who also happened to know the economist, Adam Smith. Wright’s upbringing occurred during the “Age of Revolution” that is before the “Age of Capital”[i] truly got going in earnest. This is an interesting start and historical counterpoint as we live in an age affected by information revolution and a growing concentration of capital in the hands of a small economic elite.[ii]
Associative fictions perfomed by Val are displayed as photographic stills. All are specially selected for GI 2016 from her series “Philosophers” and feature her as protagonist, setting to or off with fellow explorers and idealists in “takes” that have Scottish and women’s experience angles. In that company and in common with Wright and across time she re-imagines trades, transmissions and exchanges of materiality for intangible values. The question remains: how do we find a way to live?
Brushing off the silver nitrate of time, wars, corruption and inequality the camera has documented much since the time of Wright’s taking of US citizenship. Its use (and misuse) is extended as visual communication grows in the age of the internet. The volume, speed and shallowness of incessant images and associative ideas, commentary and mis-information are distracting and confusing. Amidst this “white noise” and camouflage there is at stake – now as never before – consciousness. Is it possible to think and find space for originality within a global time loop and deluge of images that is political as it is senseless? Access and unprecedented openness seem to serve to reveal banalities. Rather than challenging power the net supports it via commercialisation and manipulation of images. These seem poor exchange for intrusion or even erosion of private “thinking” space.
Val’s images challenge this poor trade by asking: can we extend common understandings to defy time and human weakness? How can we protect ourselves against the death of idealism as we may know it? Each image is displayed with the associated book of theory as object (rather like a fossil perhaps) out of which her images spring as they hang above. The viewer makes associations from theories of her own or whatever she may think she knows. Rather like a “philosophy bomb”[iii], we look at the artist consuming and translating theory. It feels like browsing vicariously, but at the same time by making new connections from transmissions like applying a square root of power. Val surfs the philosophical canon as imagist and search engine (here search: “Scotland”, “women’s experience”), making surreal combinations and arbitrary connections. However, human processing by artist and then by viewer makes this work interesting as random connections are extended from and among source materials. By shared transmission and by being apart physically in time or geography yet together in shared consciousness, we take steps beyond fantasy and reality, philosophy and spiritualism or psychology as fable and individuation[iv].
There is a refusal of meaning in the artist’s tableaux of associative mirrors and reflective translations. This is effective in illustrating the way the internet can be often used associatively and in denial of the passage of time and solitude needed for thinking. As a viewer, I found myself responding associatively and positively. The point is that if we yearn hard enough collectively then perhaps humans can transform individual and surrealist collages of philosophy and information trouvé into new creations and forms that step beyond knowledge as that which can be known.
I found all of the images in that sense and in my active association to be memorable and interactive. Val on both sides of the lens beckons us to see beyond corners and theory. We associate to share experience and consciousness naturally and in relation. In my view one of the most powerful images is entitled, “ Luce Irigaray Speculum of the Other Woman (2013)”. Irigaray’s theories of exchange and value of women’s roles is spun out by Val as a call to consciousness in the face of consumerism. Consciousness can undermine the false values of a society that can and must consume [v]. Can we channel empathy to arrive at a new creed? New ways might heal all that has gone before and passes before us now and in the future. If we can transmit through and exchange the numbing effect of internet, we might all be Lee Miller now.[vi] We can bathe in the internet as lagoon or swamp. Consciousness gives us free will to know the value of time and our place in it.
Review by Alison MacNeil
Catrine Val | Political Letters at Streetlevel Photoworks, Glasgow – 8th April to 29th May 2016. Part of Glasgow International 2016.
[i] So called by E.J. Hobsbawm in his book: “The Age of capital 1848-1875” part of the History of Civilisation Series by Weidenfeld & Nicholson. The fore-runner in that series is “The Age of Revolution 1789-1848” which covers the ‘Dual Revolution’ of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Hobsbawm integrates economics with political and intellectual developments in his account of the revolutions and their failures, of cycles of boom and slump that characterise capitalist economies, of the victims and victors of the bourgeois ethos which during these ages (and perhaps in contrast with our times) became the ideal and as such was exported across the globe.
[ii] According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2014) Belknap/Harvard we are on the way back to ‘patrimonial capitalism’ in which economic power dynamics are dominated by wealth and moreover by inheritance of wealth.
[iii] cf the current trend for celebrity “photo bombing”.
[iv] The artist’s image entitled: “Margaret Cavendish (1632-1673), A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding and Life” (2013) set me thinking of the fable of the “Goose Girl” and of the psychological analysis of fables and folk stories in the Jungian writings of Helen M. Luke in her “The Way of Women: Awakening the Perennial feminine” pub. G&M 1995. In that way the effect of the image thus extended and stimulated my thoughts from the memory of reading (i.e. not my knowledge of or from) that book.
[v] Perhaps Val pulls off (in my view) evocation of compassion for loss of innocence by a reference to pop culture aimed at children as consumers, Bambi by Walt Disney?
[vi] I am thinking of the image “Lee in Hitler’s bathtub, Munich 1945” by David E Scherman, featured in Carolyn Burke’s biography “Lee Miller on both sides of the camera” 2005 Bloomsbury. Miller poses sitting in the bath between Hitler’s portrait and statuette of Venus (cut off at the knees).