Posing as a Subject Amongst Subjects is Michelle Deignan’s first solo exhibition at Maria Stenfors Gallery in London. The title ventures a hint of for how to enact the role of viewer in this exhibition, and suggests the inter-subjectivity that is at play in this presentation of photography, film and digital video works.
On the wall opposite the entrance to the gallery are two framed C-type prints, titled Tuesday Blooms. They depict cherry blossoms in full flush, vivid against a blue sky. These images have a deliberate element of the casual snapshot in their execution, suggested by their modest scale and their closely cropped format.
Michelle Deignan: Journey to an Absolute Vantage Point, installation view, 2009, 2 channel HD video installation, 6 min 13 sec loop; Image courtesy Maria Stenfors Gallery.
Behind, there is the familiar whirring sound of a 16mm film projector that serves to conjure a sense of nostalgia associated with the home movie. This Super-8 film, transferred to 16mm is also titled Tuesday Blooms. It is projected in a small, intimate format on the wall, and like the photographs nearby, depicts cherry blossom trees in full bloom.
Occasionally, a figure appears within the frame, in the act of capturing the blossoms on a hand-held camera. This self-reflexive depiction of a subject in the act of representation ruptures the immersive effect of the projection. It reminds the viewer that we are precisely that; observers in the act of observing. The subject in the film appears so involved in his own activity of recording that he is unaware of the gaze of another. The C-type prints Tuesday Blooms that hang nearby suggest the possibility that these could be the output of the subject within the film.
From the way the projector is placed on a plinth it is possible to observe the tiny frames of the film as they pass through the machinery of the projector; the blossoms pass by in minutae. These flowers are at the peak of their glory, on the cusp of the point at which they will wilt and die away. Here in this recording they are preserved in celluloid, remaining forever in bloom and impervious to the seasons.
Michelle Deignan: Tuesday Blooms, installation view, 2011, 16mm film, projector; Image courtesy Maria Stenfors Gallery.
These two works examine amateur film and photography and what they signify. On one hand they are documenting and preserving a moment for posterity. Yet the presence of the photographer within the film creates an awareness of the selectiveness of this imagery, a reminder that these images are not passive in their observations.
Around a small divide appears an alcove where two framed Lambda prints hang. Descriptively and simply titled, Violin depicts a violinist in a recording studio, Microphone a woman in the process of recording a script. Blurred in parts, with their subjects in motion, these lambda prints read more like film stills than photographs. Both indicate the process of interpretation and representation, of subjecthood found within the relating of a musical score or a written script.
Michelle Deignan: Microphone, 2008, unique lambda print, 46 x 61cm; Image courtesy Maria Stenfors Gallery.
Nearby, bisecting the space is a 2 channel HD video installation titled Journey to an Absolute Vantage Point. On one side of the screen appears a recording of a commissioned piece of music by three performers; a pianist, cellist, and violinist. On the other side of the screen a film depicts panoramic scenes from the Schloss Charlottenburg and gardens in Berlin.
The accompanying voiceover is in English, by a German actress and describes the meeting of a man and a woman in the grounds of the Schloss. The two protagonists’ discussion begins tentatively, the motivation for their meeting remains a mystery to us, but seems to be a source of anxiety for them. Their exchange in the most part seems innocuous, variously discussing Beethoven and Casper David Friederich.
As the musical score swells to a crescendo from the opposite side of the screen, so too does mood of the protagonists’ exchange. An argument breaks out: “What are you doing? You deliberately shifted the discussion…I could accept it if it was clear that we just had different opinions, different viewpoints of the same subject.” At the same time the film depicts a lake where two camera wielding interlopers doggedly photograph the film-maker in the act of filming. The spell is broken, and the narrator repeats the opening dialogue again, as if nothing has happened.
Michelle Deignan: Journey to an absolute vantage point, installation view, 2009, 2 channel HD video installation, 6 min 13 sec loop; Image courtesy Maria Stenfors Gallery.
Journey to an Absolute Vantage Point is a deconstruction, laying bare the various collaborating cinematic components of voiceover, musical score and cinematography. Deignan alternates between using these devices in concert, to utilising them to rupture the cinematic artifice. The artist makes visible that which is normally hidden by filming the performance of the score by the musicians. Meanwhile the voice of the narrator ensures that as viewers we are kept at a distance from the subjects. They remain invisible; they are never visually represented in the film and their words are spoken and interpreted by another.
Throughout this exhibition, the viewer is reminded to consider the construction of what is presented, the nature of the exhibitions’ individual parts, and our agency in the work as a whole. Our subjecthood within this dialogical matrix is never far away, the artworks don’t allow it. As the title opined from the start, we are reminded that we are acting as a subject among subjects.
Barbara Knezevic is an artist who lives and works in Dublin.