Clare Gasson, gimpel fils, 28 February-5 April, 2008.
Expanded cinema often involves the workings of cinema becoming part of a public event – be it the music and image spectacle of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, or the light projector installations of Anthony McCall, recently shown at the Serpentine Gallery. So it was interesting to be thinking of that idea of expanded cinema as I saw Claire Gasson’s exhibition downstairs at the Gimpel Fils gallery in Davies Street. Certainly cinematic practices were being expanded into environment and event, but what was entered into was an entwined realm combining domestic space and the artist’s studio with private and collective memory.
Concepts for shows often run aground on the vagaries of individual viewing. The notes for this show comprised an eight point set of instructions on how to experience the show – “Come into the gallery. Walk down the stairs and stand for a moment in the ante-room” began number one, whilst the final instruction suggested inviting “Clare to read to you at home, in the office, in the park or in a café.” Actually, I didn’t mind these prescriptions, because the work itself was always more than them, it seemed to share their tone but also mock it’s simple phenomenology with its own intelligent, ebullient energy.
The Ante-Room (2008) for example, is an altar suggesting arrangement of objects at the bottom of a staircase. There is a mirror and a candle; an old wooden box with its lid open, too high for anyone who isn’t a giant or standing on a chair, to see in. There is an array of different books: the script of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, a David Hockney illustrated version of Wallace Stevens’ The Blue Guitar, and a stocky, fat 1000 Masterpieces of European Painting 1300-1850, which when I visited was open at Fuesli’s Titania Caresses the Donkey Headed Bottom. There were photos of a room containing a stool on which were piled three pillows. It was all deliberately careless and everyday, even as it was a high culture evocation of theatricality, aesthetics, and a certain sexualised mystery.
The notes were very keen that between each work one pulled aside a black curtain, as if Gimpel Fils’ basement was suddenly a labyrinthine wonderhouse. The work itself embodied this combination of aspiration and base, although when I visited I could not reproduce this gesture of opening and revealing because all of the black curtains were pinned back. The Washaway Road (2007-8) comprises a small stage with a chair, draped over which was a dressing gown and a scarf, whilst underneath it are some paint brushes, tobacco pouch and cigarette papers. On the far wall there is a folded piece of blue velvet on a shelf, topped by a piece of masonry.
I looked at the objects whilst listening to a looped dialogue. In experiential terms, this conversation was the show’s central feature as it could be heard throughout, even whilst wearing the headphones another work required. In the conversation, a woman is lost backstage in the opera house where she works as a production assistant on La Voix Humaine. She takes a call on her mobile from her ex-boyfriend, a depressive, agoraphobic painter, unwilling to leave his flat. The conversation moves quickly from polite chit-chat to an uneasy excavation of their relationship, the emotional entrapment and failure, linked both to the physical situation of each character in the story, but also to the hermetic world of the installation, creating a powerful set of emotional resonance and echoes amongst texts and objects, whilst never letting the later become too talismanic or too invested in meaning. In both dialogue and setting a balance is created between distinctiveness and cliche, individual and stereotype, spontaneous emotion and script, formality and casualness. Here, a certain haunting by Grotowski’s “poor theatre” and Peter Brook’s “empty space” is a more appropriate reference point than cinema.
Through another black curtain was another chair, the same as the one in The Washaway Road but without any props and not on a stage. Because it was in front of a TV with a set of headphones on it, it seemed right to sit in it – I don’t mean this facetiously: Gasson’s work is attuned to the slight differences that inform behaviour and environment. The Ballad of Albatross Way (2007) comprises a slow, 360º camera movement around what is presumably the artist’s studio, whilst Gasson, to accordian accompaniment, recites a haunting surrealist-inflected ballad.
I found Gasson’s text pleasurably hard to comprehend in its ever accumulating richness, imagistic layering, swirling vernacular, myth and poetry, but upstairs looking at the script – as I was told to do by point seven on my hand out – it seemed to fit a conventional ballad format just fine. Similarly, the camera pan functions to unfold a scenic bibliography of the artists CD, book, DVD and VHS influences, as well as documenting her working environment. One can pick out a photo that also appears in The Ante Room, connect the exhibition to her tattered copy of John Cage’s Silences.
But The Ballad of Albatross Way is also a journey through piles of stuff that could never be fully identified, nor do we know how or if books or films were ever read or viewed, just as the woman whose back and hair form the image for the start and ending of the film, is not revealed to us. This space of the studio is one where theatre set and intimate mental and domestic space meet through a revealing mix of serious and careless, plan and accident. It’s the ballad form that captures the swirl of such spaces within the public and social. Such tension finds musical expression through the accordian’s double presence: as silent, sealed object in the studio and as droning atmosphere and mood on the soundtrack.
I saw Gasson’s show as I was reading Other Than Yourself: an investigation between inner and outer space, the catalogue for a show of video art at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna. Gasson’s work would have fitted well in such a show, as her gatherings of objects and forms do posit inhabitation of space as just such a combination, relating, for example, to Beatriz Colomina’s comments in her catalogue essay on Adolf Loos:
his definition of architecture is really a definition of theatrical architecture. The clothes have become so removed from the body that they require structural support independent of it. They become a stage set. The inhabitant is both covered by the space and detached from it. The tension between sensation of comfort and comfort as control disrupts the role of the house as a traditional form of representation. (46)