Sarah Ryan - The Clearing
by Dominic Eichler
The gold umbrella What is that on the wooden floor beneath the light fixtures that the artist didn’t choose herself? The floor is otherwise empty; it is the only thing there but alone it doesn’t seem to be enough to warrant the attention given to this visiting object. Is it because it’s shiny and its volume might change? The artist is the only one with keys to her studio—as far as we know. Maybe she can recall putting this gold folded thing where it is, but now that all of the attention is on just looking, the memory of that past action—the moving of material—seems somehow redundant. Now nothing is moving but everything is changing. The artist has a way of producing lenticular photographs, which is novel. But it’s not about novelty as such; it is about doing some kind of justice to those constant shifts and changes, the essentially imperceptible ones that are permanently occurring. The gold umbrella looks a bit like a creature from a low budget sci-fi film. Its intentions might not be all good. Its isolation makes it ask for some kind of one-to-one response. What is under the umbrella? And if the answer is space, it is still a space now full of complications when before it was just a small part of a room. The object’s crumpled folds are too busy to understand in one go, although the potential of its form is an everyday cupola. The gold umbrella might recall the light reflecting equipment in a photographic studio and all the associated glamour. But our umbrella is probably just saved from a rainy day. Anyway its function is receding into irrelevance, for now it has become the subject of a future image. Lenticulating involves a small tripod and graph paper marked in a way so that, eventually, one image is combined with many others. There is an equation to explain how this is done that looks like this: (INSERT the Mac classic plug-in) It’s all about axis, pixels, splicing and lining up adjacent views so that a plastic cover with rounded ridges will later give the passing viewer an ever so subtle sense of additional depth and movement around the thing depicted. Materially tricky, yes, but also conceptually honest about how things are looked at. We pretend that we are accustomed to single or still images even though their existence is an illusion in our heads. The lights above are on night and day, caught glowing in black and white. Do you see how their light catches the jewellery bracelet? Things go out of focus when they move. The clearing A clearing is an open space in a forest. A place created in nature, framed by nature, typically woodland. A man-made clearing in the colonial world was a place where the first incisions of a European ‘civilization’ were visible and accordingly, celebrated and romanticized in the Western visual arts of the openly Imperialist centuries. A clearing involves a particular kind of light and a preliminary excursion through the comparative darkness of the wild. Eyes open widely when the clearing is reached. The dabbled light framed by a shadowy perimeter suggests a sense of occasion. It lends importance to the people, objects or actions that meet or manifest there. This importance might affix itself in our minds as an image. But that image proves itself a paper-thin ghost of the moment it recalls. The single image can’t reproduce the time spent arriving. The incidental details along the way—the other images surrounding the remembered image—are phantoms for the image-maker and as good as nonexistent and inaccessible to subsequent viewers of that image. The image might be the story of its own making. Photography inherited painting’s Oedipal struggle with the real. Photography, a latecomer on the timeline of mediums, a modern upstart, thought it could do the Real better. Photography had its moments and the security and financial weight of technology, process and patents. That was before it was everywhere, even in galleries and became a medium like any other. Flatness and time remained issues. Is it possible for single image based contemporary art to put film to one side, if film happens not to be its focus? One of the main projects of post-modernity was to free ourselves of the linear narratives that most film inherited from literature. Oh how we secretly long for the reassurance of the narratives with their time-based beginnings and ends. Non-filmic visual arts continued with the still image unravelling its fabric unpicking its seems and picturing thought and unpicking the real. The artist says: ‘I am an artist who takes photographs not a photographer.’ I continue: I am not in love with the medium I am an image-maker. My roots are in the Renaissance. Do clearings exist in the urban fabric in the 21st Century? Art photography canonized the non-places, urban ruins and the aesthetic ragamuffins who zoom in on the incidental corners, refuse and in-between-spaces. Recouping through positive negation non-and dysfunction places—the shapes textures and contours of localities that don’t work but do work for one’s work. (But what’s underneath the umbrella?) In a notebook with a pink cover, is lots of nervous writing, unspeakable, the artist jots down: ‘The clearing of the space. The shots are empty. Another space, an unknown space, the 3D lenticular space. I don’t want to read my own notes. In that space there is magic and the uncanny. I think I am not alone in a fascination with the pull to the unknown - transitions from one kind of reality to another - doorways, paths, ingresses to different places. Taking the simplest things and loading them with ideas and poetry. A quiet refuse to return to where feeling and meaning still mean something. Avoiding the explicit or didactic in favour of producing a vague sense of remembering. A sucker for the Romantic, running away, there is the sense at night when you kind of do block out the rest of the world, you can't see it. Observation underlined: Observation. I am interested in slowing down the process of looking, there could be nothing there or just stillness. Slowing down time, looking at the sky, dwelling at length on detail. Hesitant, unstable and restrained photographs…’ Almost textually lenticulated, a friend looking over my shoulder at this text suggests anonymously: ‘If you’re going to talk about clearing—speak about being exposed in the clearing—being surrounded by a dark forest—the centre of an inversed Panopticon. They can see you, but you can’t see them—nor can you see in all directions in anticipation of what you can’t see. Agoraphobia as a Modern phenomena—think of Le Corbusier and his donkey paths versus modern tabula rasa city designs. When you are exposed—as in ‘captured’, you are taken from place and time. Why not speak briefly about time—the reconstitution of it, the regaining and recouping of it, the expansion of it… and wavering, and trembling suspensions… the moments before time crumbles and ceases to exist entirely. ‘Clearing’ has a German relative: the Aufklärung (Enlightenment). And with the lenticular technology, you are—for all intents and purposes–surrounding your subject (coming in from all sides).’ Non-identical twins One exhibition in two different art places, two sides of a coin stretched over a city. The same show twice, but not quite. Bookends. Nearly the same works are on display, but only nearly. Instead of shifts in a single picture we have shifts in lighting conditions or time and angle. Will the differences be retained? The non-identical twins speak now through the lenticular medium. They only hear echoes. Again.
Growing up and breathing by Robert Cook
Last Summer my twin sister T. came home – “for a month, just a month” she was promising herself. I’d missed her the last four years. She was working at The Hague in “some minor administrative” (read secretarial) capacity. Basically she was just thrilled that she’d gotten a responsible job after years of modeling in Japan, after, in her words, turning into “the most burnt out 25 year-old girl in the whole fucking world, a human incineration”. I guess she was still recuperating, readjusting, when we went out to Mum and Dad’s place in the Blue Mountains. Oh man... we just chilled… the whole time felt like a big exhalation. Clive and Barry, Mum and Dad’s elderly Alsatians, roamed the perimeter fences casually barking as old friends came over, spending a few days at a time with us, then drifting back to their own lives, only to be replaced by more friends. There were stories everywhere, filling up the house. There was fiction in the very walls, but tying it all together was this sense that there, here, was a society we’d made, and that getting away from it all, from the excesses of television and catwalks, and arts administration, made us more beautiful - to ourselves, each other… though no one quite said as much. Still, we said so many other things... we talked and talked. And there was a lack of urgency, for the first times in our lives, I think. We talked about projects and plans and I mentioned this essay I was writing for Sarah Ryan’s new show. I said I was struggling a bit because I didn’t want to over-explain her work, maybe because I felt that the images worked as a kind of relief from the strictures of the art world itself, so why use its pathetic, degraded language? More important at the time though was that Ryan’s work kind of mirrored, in an uncanny way, the world we had made between us and our friends at Mum and Dad’s, a world imbued by this feeling that everything was intensely significant, but not in a Lynchian or Barthesian way. It was more “some form of potent relaxation” T. said.
With this in our minds – though only barely articulated at that time - we looked over the pictures Ryan had sent and I can’t remember who thought of it first but we decided to write a story instead of an essay as a way of “dealing with” the work. Sitting on the floor we came up with a pretty cute story about a girl lining up for tickets to see a band she was already kind of sick of, but felt that maybe her former enthusiasm would return, or that she could fake it to herself until the time of the gig. Motivating her was something to do with not wanting to say goodbye to a part of herself she was growing out of. She’s lining up alone - her friends are out of town. There’s this interior monologue talking about how, alone, she feels like a loser, and we get a sense of her struggling to talk herself out of this attitude. Naturally, she’s cold; it’s September, windy. The commuters pass the BOCS outlet. Folk drink at the pub over the corner. Beers are couriered to the line. There’s this whole system some guys have worked out. Initially, the girl is feeling cool and like she’s a part of something, but as the night progresses, she is increasingly annoyed by the “real”, committed fans around her. (We weren’t sure what band it should be, but T. figured the Hellacopters would be as good as any. Loud stupid fun, something a smart girl could arch her eyebrows to, while also liking The National and Ida. The only thing was - would anyone line up to buy tickets for them?) The Hellacopters devotees were pretty obnoxious. They rehashed the dullest tales - of where else they had seen the band, the stupid fake intimate stories about the members' tawdry private lives. These shitheads became an endurance test for the girl, our heroine. Still, she stuck it out, bought tickets, but, and here's the thing, she didn't bother going to the show. She gave them to her younger sister who thought it was okay but little more than that. And immediately after buying the tickets she took up some kind of chic thing, an anti-youth culture cool that, as she put it to herself, gave her "more breathing space in the head". She felt constricted by the in-your-face bravado of youth culture in general and had, not coincidentally, recently discovered the films of Eric Rohmer. She was really keen on the whole Rohmer feel, that yes, there was another way of being in the world - posturing doesn't have to win the day. She had time in line to realise that, in some way or other, driving youth culture is this sense that the more aggressive your stance is the more "real" you are. And - this is a pretty tired awakening really - she also realised that what she had thought of as individuality was really fitting into a marketing campaign. Rebellion, as Morrisey put it too, could be expressed in many guises. So why not chic? The story ends with the girl trying to make yourself over in a combo of laid back French sophistication and New Englander preppy soulfulness. If you can imagine that. In the process she was coming back to herself, and thinking in a more generous way (outside and above the cliques, etc) about relationships and the world at large. She continued to embrace some pop music The Shins (obviously) and stuff that didn’t seem “too much” (Erlend Oye, Rebecca Gates, Benjamin Gibbard) but never again tried to be part of a scene. She’d won her independence.
Like I say, cute. We loved this little story and when we were writing it down it did that cool thing of taking on a life of its own. Little wonder that sitting on the decking over-looking the mountains and scanning the whisps of smoke on the horizon, half way through a bottle of red, we blurted out (at the same time!) that it was “our story really”. We hadn’t even talked about it, but it registered that this letting go of pop culture was something that, since we’d last seen each other, we’d both done, entirely independently. We’d gone from being game geeks, sneaker freakers, C-M and H addicts, haunted pop vultures to these unintentionally mellow and urbane and quiet Young Adults. It was weird, yet so like all those other Twin Tales, we guessed. We figured our DNA had told us to just fucking breathe, at the same time.
So that’s what our story was about, and I was worried about whether it had become too much our tale, not Ryan’s, to be of any use and I was going to dump it. T. convinced me, though, that it really did have something to say about Ryan’s work, maybe even more so because it was filtered through our very real experiences of growing up and after some discussion we were able to articulate the fact that for us, these photos captured what we dubbed “a sense of post pop languor”. Sure, this was a construction, a deliberate back-story and a projection, of sorts. Still, it just felt so right, this feeling that Ryan’s work too was feeding into a stream of yearning that while definitely youthful has turned its back on the more obvious elements of pop culture.
What was our beef with pop culture? I think it’s that while it’s hip and all, it limits you to a kind of tone that is very much fixed in a time and a place. Ryan, T. and I had all relaxed out of this and it felt like leaving school. Suddenly there's this other world out there. The jerks who were motivating your behavior, who had cast it as somehow reactive more than anything else, are gone. You are young and there is no precedent for you and you are confident enough to feel yourself and for yourself and to go with that. You spread yourself out on the timber floorboards and feel how blissful and cool they are. You enter into the weird connections that exist between cousins and family friends and your own friends. You learn about what friendship and space really are. Which sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how rarely it actually happens.
Waking us up to this, was, is, Ryan’s gift to us and our relationship as siblings. And it’s a gift whose generosity is amplified thanks to its subtlety, as she reveals all of this so easily, creating a richly languid world with little more than an angled limb, a cat seeping into a bed, a window, a floor, a view. As the Alsatians balefully ran after the fire trucks speeding toward the Johnsons’ property T. pinned it more concretely and with obvious allusion to our story, saying that “it feels like she’s not so much seen some Eric Rohmer films but been in them. You know what I mean here”. I did, in both Ryan and Rohmer’s works space is a "vehicle" for the rambling articulations of lives-in-process, a seriousness about the self outside of the world of career and ambition, a world of relationships and landscapes and houses and streets and swimming pools and oceans made over by these relationships. And as all relationships are fashioned out of a yearning, a romantic hue is cast over the work.
Yearning, mind, not desire. Jesus how sick are we all of desire? Yearning is not boringly transgressive. It's more like a dog sitting near a window. A dog who is mostly satisfied yet wouldn't mind rolling around on the grass outside. Yearning is not lightning and lycra and pin stripes and good posture and friction and neediness. In fact, the more it allows itself to drift from such qualities, the more it’s truly yearning. It activates projects as a kind of personable roaming. And that's what we figured is behind these photos as Ryan's mellow, reasonable feeling tone comes as a wave of relief, relief that art can come “from another place”. Which is obvious, maybe, but we are always in the process of forgetting that, especially since the means of legitimation are mostly, now, always so ecstatically hopeful and needy... like those flashy ballroom dancers with their fixed grins and lacquered hair.
Ryan’s work is super natural in contrast to such artistic artificialities. To us, then, Ryan is so totally in another league from the contaminations of the art world at its worst …plus… T. had seen in Berlin and Prague work by Mark Borthwick, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ola Rindall, etc and saw connections, and that there was another thing she liked. She had this sense that behind Ryan’s pictures was this laid-back global soul (she’d just read the Pico Iyer book) that could make-over any kind of place really, and make it more what it is, not less. This is a kind of anti-globalisation and it’s something that needs more thinking about, in another place perhaps... this whole idea. Anyways, within this, we both saw Ryan working in the shadow (?) of fashion photography. Fashion of course is "of the moment", so of the moment that it bleeds into "all time"… and fashion, as we know, as Olivier Zham et al have pointed out (always ahead of us, Olivier), has extended its parameters. It has turned into more than a mere documentary act, but a “vision”, which is more all-encompassing. No, it was always that, but now this vision has moved away from the body even. And something lingers, as, with fashion, we have the will to be somewhere, and this will is located in our body. So even if there is no body in the photo, there is our body. This is felt, this yearning, and we are clothing it with a sensibility.
We figured, T. and I, that if this is true then fashion’s vision is a commodification, a potential commodification, that also frees something up too. Sure, this is a private state yet by entering the commodity arena Ryan also frees her images of it. It is a form of Kantian Idealism; it is a yearning toward a spatial democracy founded on the yearnings of the ragtrade and its mutations as we wish to mutate ourselves. In Ryan's work this sensibility connects seemingly disparate forms. The Australian scenes, the exteriors, maybe shouldn't work. They should look, I don't know, scrappy or something. Yet they are elevated and refined. They are distanced in just the right manner. They sit in a world where we might come to appreciate them. They are shot as if in passing. They turn into narrative in this way. Weirdly it turns into a kind of classicism in this process.
The other thing we thought was that in fashion there are no parents and for those of us who don't live in that kind of scene the very sense of this can be disconcerting. I mean what do you do, when you’ve broken free of pop (and ma) and live, now, in a permissive culture? This very question is part of the philosophical power of these pictures: how do we deal with our own freedom? None of this is resolved of course. It hangs there because it cannot be defined, and resolution would be boring and beside the point. This means that Ryan's work creates openings, narrative, attitudes. It propels us into a world where we can make some choices about how we conduct ourselves, how we style ourselves. This is the flipside of the Nietzschean project however. We can style ourselves in mellow generous, communicative tones as well as bullshitty blustery ones that Friedrich so loved. We can become these rich cool people we see in Ryan’s work, whose power is in their yearning and their ability to relax with it. All up, it's a sensual oozing fired by a laid back intellectualism.
I’m guessing you’ve noted that the tone has shifted somewhere. Can’t pinpoint where exactly, but it’s more awkward, more didactic. I don’t know how to really say it, so I’ll just blurt it out - T. died before we got to finish this together. Just like that Smiths song, “the flames rose to her roman nose and her walkman started to melt”. Except she had an Ipod. I saw it happen. I still see it happening. So this reflection has become a kind of remembering too, of T., with Ryan’s work holding it open, the loss, the possibilities and the reality of being, now, half a person, missing their twin. But you know I think that’s what we do with culture… we reach out for it, we want something of it, from it. Most often frustrated, with its piss weak aspirations, its smallness, it being so full of its own worthiness, it cannot hold us. Here, as with her other work, Ryan has given us a bit more, so crisply, with such grace. And I’m just going to leave it there, hastily not-concluded, hanging, like my memories of T. and what she could have been.
Sarah Ryan - Like never before
by Robert Cook
Must be totally behind the times.
I only discovered the music of now-dead New York electro guy Arthur Russell a few months ago. See, I had this sampler disc a friend had given me a year or so back. On it, was Russell’s sublime song ‘That’s us/Wild combination’. I had listened to it before, when I first got the sampler, and had noticed it – kinda - and then moved over the track without really making any sense of it. But right before Christmas last year, I found myself rooting around my office trying to find it. A fragment of music was in my head and it seemed urgent to hear it.
I didn’t really know what song I was trying to find…until I found it. There it was - Russell.
What I was listening to was INCREDIBLE. The most tender, sensitive, soulful music I'd maybe ever heard. Not only that, but it was a part of the birth of electronic pop in a way, certainly its consolidation into creative maturity. It connected New Order’s ‘Confusion’ to Ben Watt today, then back to Curtis Mayfield and forward again to Susumo Yokota. Basically it moved across histories and between countries and moods and ambitions. It was so damned worldly, so pure, so inventive.
Somewhere inside I must have known this, but not been able to process it at the time. Its gentle radical beauty was too much to take in all at once.
I guess this minor revelation made me realise that it isn’t always obvious when we come across a new thing. Time and again in my life those moments of newness, of pure freshness, that have come to mean so much have not been marked by a sense of immediate novelty. I think this is because whenever we come across something new, feeling precedes cognition. And, I know it sounds like a cliché, but feeling really is harder to get a grip on.
It’s more intense, yet somehow more ambiguous too.
What I mean is this. As we live our daily lives we carry a whole bunch of conversations in our heads. These soundtracks-to-our-days basically colour the present tense, filtering and guiding our perceptions; the chatter fills up all available air time. So when we come across something new, we don’t get the newness straight away. We’re not conditioned to do so.
As difficult as all this is, it is exactly this that Sarah Ryan has made visual equivalents for. Her works in Like never before catch both the quiet build-up of the new on our psyches and the sudden rush of pleasure and reinvigoration when we finally come to realise what we’re encountering.
As I say this I do realise that proving it is impossible. It’s one of those claims that maybe just has to float, and if you feel it, you feel it.
I feel it…and the sense I get when looking at the images is a rush - but hushed, quiet - of expectation. It’s exactly like someone, some force, has taken the wind away. As paradoxical as it sounds, therefore, it is a rush of silence.
This sensation is felt in the arms, in the hair and at the back of the neck. I am serious about that. The works are experienced physically. In the body, before the brain. I am speaking almost mystically now, but I wonder if that explains that sense of expectation because the mind is lagging behind while the body is already there.
This works us over in other equally curious ways. Ryan’s perfectly pitched cinematic jump-cuts create fragments that, instead of deflecting us, pull us into a larger whole – some kind of indeterminate and elusive narrative arc. In a very real way, therefore, these gaps are filled in by our own desires and needs.
We fill them with the life going on between their frames, of its unseen pulse and movement.
Such an intimate, personalised adventure is located in a preternatural stillness that riffs on a planetary scale. In these images we see sun, shade, everything, working in a bigger and bigger context, so that our sense of appreciation of these spaces is mirrored by a deep understanding of the insignificance and therefore tenderness of all of our lives.
(Maybe that’s another reason why these works feel so quiet, softly spoken. They are overshadowed by a mass of interplanetary darkness - the great cosmic beyond.)
Yet could it also be that quietness is newness itself, that the two are the same thing. Because to be quiet and intellectually humble is necessary to allow for the fresh take on things to rise to the surface.
So…to allow ourselves to be fully open to the world, that is what Ryan’s work is ultimately about. And that is how it hits us. With slow charges. Exploding when we least expect it to, reminding us of the pleasures that are there to be had if our sensibilities are in tune with our times and our places.
Planets, new experiences, all things “happening” for the first time, all things making themselves over…each place new, each time different.
Here, therefore, I think Ryan has established a tacit drama centred on the humility not the hubris of discovery.
Of the newness that comes in a rush of stillness.
Its gentle radical beauty too much to take in all at once.
Like the wind being sucked away.
Like never before.
Robert Cook is Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia