Bearing, 2007Single-channel HD video with audio35 minutes
Courtesy of the artist and Parasol unit
Copyright Darren Almond, 2007
Fire Under Snow, Parasol Unit, 18 Jan – 30 Mar 2008 and Moons of the Iapetus Ocean, White Cube Hoxton Square, 18 Jan – 23 Feb 2008
Two concurrent exhibitions offer a chance to view a range of Darren Almond’s recent work, across film, photography and installation. Combining night photographs of Britain with film and photo work from travels to Siberia, Indonesia, Tibet and China, its sum is a mini- retrospective of an artist whose work derives from a fruitful intertwining of conceptual and documentary concerns.
As a well structured entry into one artist’s precocupations the Parasol Unit exhibition is the place to begin. In the first room Tide (2008) consists of a wall of six hundred digital clocks marking real time. Minutes seem a long time when you stand there waiting for six hundred clocks to change and such a work evokes both static and momentum, similarity and difference, the inevitable and the impossible. On the facing wall are two texts, on metal panels that might be long elongated licence plates or the name plates on train engines. They read, respectively “ONLY SOUND NEEDS ECHO AND DREADS ITS LACK” and “A GLANCE IS ACCUSTOMED TO NO GLANCE BACK.” Given the Buddhist chanting coming from the next room, these seem a meeting of koan and Jenny Holzer (although actually, I learn later, they are extracts from the poetry of Joseph Brodsky): statements designed to instruct, forceful but seeming to settle into pedagogical paradox.
The texts and clocks are a useful preparation to the three screen installation In The Between (2006). The exhibition notes tell us In The Between was filmed on the Qinghai-Tibet railway, and shots from the train were juxtaposed with shots of Tibetan Buddhist monks filmed in the Samyey monastery in Lhasa. The journey from China to Tibet finds its form in the three screens which both separate and connect; the train a metaphor for China’s invasion of Tibet in 1951. But all this is unclear from the images themselves. The power of In The Between derives instead from how such structural and historical engagements actually become hugely uncertain when articulated visually, as do the most basic facts of geographical location. The most striking visual orchestration in In The Between is of a landscape shot from a moving train, that moves across all three screens. What is foregrounded is less any local detail than the shifting horizon line and the registering of degrees of vagueness. Similarly the monks' chanting on the central screen is a grounding within a cultural context, but one oddly familiar in an era of global Buddhism. Almond’s particular perspective on globalisation emerges in this piece, where the distance or proximity of his film's subjects from the London audience for this exhibition is hugely uncertain.
The single screen Bearing (2007), documenting magnesium miners in Indonesia, developed these issues in a more concentrated fashion. At first it seemed to possess many tropes of classic documentary: going off to an exotic elsewhere to bring back its report of an environment both beautiful and horrific, with a faith that “seeing” would lead to some response to such injustices. Although all these elements are activated by the film, Almond allows none of them to unfold according to the logic generic convention might lead us to expect. Like In The Between the sense of space and constantly shifting horizons prevent a sense of the exotic as either near or far. The opening shots of the sulfur mine are replaced, for the majority of the film, by a close up of a man’s face, replacing the presentation of landscape with an intense physiognomy, maintained for the time it takes him to carry his load of magnesium over a mountain. This inscrutability dominates over shock, outrage, or any other response. Although the man coughs, the film is not able to make any point about health conditions for workers in the mine. Such is the level of visual uncertainty created by this long close up of the man’s face that someone walking in and out of the gallery might have difficulty even ascertaining if he is walking, on a lift, or riding a donkey; let alone being able to spot what work he is carrying out.
Downstairs a photo of dead trees in Siberia prompted all my suspicions about the beautiful and polluted landscape being aestheticised into a form of ecological pornography. The room of photographs upstairs showed how Almond avoided this through variation and multiplicity. Now the photographs were large, arranged in triptychs, sometimes in black and white. A log would run from picture to picture through the triptych; other times separate images were nonetheless held together by the tautness of their visual arrangement. The images formal beauty seemed connected to the unambiguity concerning their destruction and it is maybe this meeting point that attracted Almond; although with a lack of contextual information such photographs are always vulnerable to being viewed and sold for purely aesthetic purposes. Almond chooses to provide no background information within the body of the exhibition itself, choosing to keep his detailed contextual statements for catalogues and magazine pieces, such as his explanations of this work in a short article in the February 2008 issue of Art Review:
I began to discover the history of Norilsk, which was once the largest of the gulags… I think you need to have a physical engagement with a landscape in order to understand its political aspect. I was photographing the bridge in temperatures of minus-46 degrees centigrade… The people who were constructing the railway were wearing cotton sacks and cardboard shoes, so it’s unbelievable the amount of torture they endured. I do believe that the landscape can hold a kind of memory. I’ll never forget sheltering from the wind, feeling that all these railway workers, prisoners, sheltered there too. The landscape is pretty extraordinary. The trees in the forest have been killed by the amount of toxins that has since been pumped into the atmosphere. Today Norilsk’s nickel industry produces more sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere – more acid rain – than North America, including Canada, so people die there 15 years below the national average. It’s owned by Norilsk Nickel, and it’s a totally closed, private city. (28)
Night + Fog (Norilsk) (5), 2007Bromide print, B&W, mounted on Kapamount119.3 x 149 cm (47 x 58 ¾ inch)Courtesy of the artist/ Gallerie Max Hetzler, Berlin/Jay Jopling, White Cube, London/ Matthew Marks Gallery, New YorkCopyright Darren Almond, 2007
After the richness of the Parasol Unit exhibition, I was disappointed by what felt like the over balanced conceptualism at the White Cube Hoxton Square. Walking into the downstairs space one encounters a room of large, seductive photographs of Romantic landscapes. It is the gallery notes that identify these as part of Almond’s ongoing Fullmoon series (1998- ), in which landscapes are photographed at night using moonlight and an extremely long exposure. As a way of revealing one’s native landscape, after the global travels elsewhere in these two exhibitions, this is a brilliant conceit – its depiction of a people-less Britain particularly haunting. But I’m not convinced the resulting images do “make strange” in the way that seems intended - apart from the fog, that is. Due to exposure times, running water becomes fog, whilst fog, of course, also connotes over-exposure. Such a tangle – on semantic, visual, and conceptual levels – is where I found these images most resonant. Elsewhere, the power of Romantic landscapes and modes of representation dominated over Almond's more contemporary interventions.
Upstairs at the White Cube the peace flags that appeared in In the Between are also found in four large scale photos from a new series entitled Infinite Betweens (2007). With its depiction of the mounds of peace flags, and, elsewhere, creation of a similar visual layering through superimposition, it is an appropriate epilogue to the way both these hugely thought-provoking exhibitions find formal means for responding to various forms of social and ecological entanglement. That Almond’s recent work should fill the spaces of, and require walking between, two galleries that most vividly embody the transformations and ambiguities of artist led redevelopment of inner city buildings seems particularly apt, although Almond’s methodology would highlight the uncertainty and unknowability surrounding such a process of the “inbetween.”