Damian Dillon and Rebecca Shanahan exhibit together as Interzone. Their first self-titled joint exhibition was at Eastern Bloc Gallery and their second, ‘Homelands’, was at UTS Gallery, both Sydney 2012. ‘Homelands’ was subsequently exhibited at Kings Artist Run in Melbourne later that year. ‘Dead Air’ was shown at MOP Projects in April 2014 and will be at The Substation Centre for Art and Culture in July.
Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Hidden opens with an interminably long and seemingly blank surveillance shot of an inner city Parisian street. At first it is not clear what the unseen camera operator is focusing on but as the minutes pass we become aware that the gaze is quite specific. After the delivery of this and further surveillance footage of the home of successful literary professionals Georges and Anna and their young school age son Pierrot we witness the painful deconstruction of a previously secure and comfortable bourgeois Parisian family. This is Haneke’s obsession of course and in such films as Hidden, Funny Games and the more recent White Ribbon he explores the interconnectedness of individual psychology and domestic dysfunction and its relationship to broader historical narratives of fear and violence. His fragmentation of domestic wholeness, where interiority and exteriority become confused and where spatial and psychological boundaries appear fluid is also an articulation that reality is made up of a multitude of component parts that are in constant flux. His is a complex vision of the personal is political, where one is very much reminded that the political is also deeply informed by personal dysfunction.
In search of the origins of the surveillance footage Georges is ultimately led to an outer Parisian suburb that is palpably alien in comparison to the geographical familiarity of his comfortable home near the Parisian centre. He is also led back to his long repressed memory of the childhood betrayal of a child of North African descent who is symbolically orphaned, first as a result of France’s colonial legacy and secondly by Georges own irrational jealousy. The romantic, clichéd and often saccharine version of Parisian life, lived only at its centre by the select few is cinematically punctured at this point in the film. Indeed, one is reminded here of that other troubling Parisian set film, La Haine (‘hatred’, directed by Matthew Kassovitz in 1995) whose main protagonists, in search of their own form of justice, are forced to navigate their way through a set of Parisian territories rife with racial and social divisions on the brink of violent implosion.
The themes in Hidden and La Haine could of course be transposed to contemporary Sydney, a city that can also be too fixated on its own touristic identity rather than on its wider socio-political complexity and future functionality. Sydney is also a city with its own current and growing set of unsustainable geographical, economic and racial divisions. Include in that the mix of stories from those two films of shootings, stolen away children, the demonisation of immigrants and the complacent denial of conditions that act to consolidate physical and psychological ghettos, then the comparison may not be too fanciful. Ultimately though, the message in Haneke’s film is as much about the subtle potential for the ordinary to transform into the extraordinary and where the roots of societal dysfunction are to be found in the latent materiality of the everyday.
Rebecca Shanahan’s still and moving images remind us too that our perception of reality is fragmentary. Cold nocturnal city vistas compete with the warmth of domestic interiors and the intimacy of children’s toys and drying washing appear to interrupt the pretensions of night-lit corporate headquarters buildings in a seamless collage of darkness and light. An exterior tangle of foliage in one image alludes to our primordial fear of the forest but within the same photograph, overlaid onto this dark jungle, is that familiar searing hallucinogenic computer screen whose own interior holds the potential for loss of navigation and the meeting of monsters.
A classic definition of montage is to take two elements or meanings and place them together to create a third meaning. In these pictures, Shanahan subtly alludes to this historical dimension of montage. But the third meaning also reminds us of Barthes’s third meaning, his obtuse meaning that is at once persistent yet fugitive and whose poetic realm transcends the informational and any obvious or direct symbolic meaning. For me, as a parent, I recognise something of the contradictory mood in these photographs: that feeling of deep familial engagement coupled with those moments of detachment. There is an articulation here beyond the visual, beyond the myriad elements that so elegantly compete with each other within these frames. There is a search for some form of resolution to those contradictions, those tensions between selflessness and the survival of one’s own identity. It is a language that can never be fully developed unless something be destroyed.
Early Twentieth century modernism was full of images of the fragmentary and the nocturnal. Gustav Mahler, inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch (1642) wrote his infamous 7th Symphony – his symphony of the night – partly as a response. Mahler’s controversial use of progressive tonality, where the beginning of a score is deliberately dislocated from its end, was symbolic of the societal and cultural fragmentation occurring across Europe. It also came to mirror his own tragedy. Between finishing the 7th in 1905 and its first performance three years later his young daughter had died from scarlet fever and he had himself been diagnosed with terminal illness. In Mahler’s 7th we see a precursor of the elements that were to make up the early avant-garde dialectic of montage, collage and assemblage that followed war and revolution and the aesthetic of night, shadow and fog that was at the heart of much German Expressionist cinema and in such films as Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (Shadows – A Nocturnal Hallucination, Robison, 1923), Nosferatu and Phantom (Murnau, 1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Weine, 1920).
Mahler’s Symphony is as oblique a cultural expression as that other modernist masterpiece of the night, Finnegans Wake, a novel that captures in its materiality the anxiety, fragmentation and tragic turmoil of the twenties and thirties. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce was influenced directly by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and Freudian examples of typical dreams can be traced throughout his book. Indeed, Joyce’s previous novel Ulysses published in the same year (1922) as those other two modernist literary milestones – Elliot’s The Wasteland (“For you know only a heap of broken images”) and Woolf’s experimental novel of stillness and absence,Jacob’s Room, were all affected by an anamorphosis (distorted perspective) not unlike that described by Freud in The Dream Workwith all three being appropriately polysemetic and syntactically fragmentary. Perhaps there is something in the air now of this global uncertainty that echoes that particular era and its cultural and material manifestation of the fragment. If so, then this exhibition takes its place amongst a growing cultural output of language that articulates a mood that one hopes is not too prescient of what came after that Weimar moment.
Damian Dillon’s ethereally soft and scratched portrait of a track-suit ‘New York’ emblazoned young woman reminds us of Weegee and his city, but the dead now appears to have been replaced by the living dead complete with dark hollowed-out eyes that confuse us into thinking she may merely be asleep. We suspect otherwise. Another portrait – a kitsch reclining nude hanging sullenly in cold-lit space, manages to retain some furtive sexual power amidst the laconic gloom. Perhaps some hint of flesh provides relief from the other rooms depicted whose contents finally solve that nocturnal riddle of where all the discarded technology tossed onto the city streets goes by morning. Photographers are collectors of images, but this one is also a collector of things, ready to be brought back to life or regenerated Frankenstein-like into other technological iterations.
There is no relief outside. Two small box-like houses are now rendered as toothless gargoyles and a distant desolate gun range’s symbols and numbering become mysterious midnight runes. What voodoo syntax is this? A warning perhaps. Because we are now also bordering the territories of recent drive-by shootings. Photographs made in Sydney’s west, the suburbs of Blacktown, Villawood, Merrylands, Northmead whose after-hours shadows are observed from the viewpoint of the nocturnal margins. Dillon’s vehement materiality attempts to implicate us in the action, to close that gap between representation and experience. Familiar places are made unfamiliar through his nocturnal filter and if we are made to linger in the interzonal spaces of the city, we do so furtively. In this work, and in contrast to Shanahan’s, we are forced to see and experience spatially the jump-cuts, the rips, tears and splices. In these images, and in the eclectic use of varied cameras, formats, fresh and stale paper and film the language is close to the Brechtian idea of epic theatre, that symbolic filling in of the orchestra pit that brings the audience and the action closer together.
The attempt to solve the seeming contradiction of utilising photographic materiality whilst maintaining the indexical potential of photography is what has always given this form its power. The Weimar writer Siegfried Kracauer put it succinctly in suggesting that;
“A hundred reports from a factory do not add up to the reality of a factory, but remain for all eternity a hundred views of a factory. Reality is a construction. Certainly life must be observed if reality is to appear. Yet reality is by no means contained in the more or less random observational results of reportage; rather, it is to be found solely in the mosaic that is assembled from individual observations on the basis of comprehension of their import. Reportage photographs life; such a mosaic would be its image.”1
In this echo of Brecht’s familiar quote in Benjamin’s A Small History of Photography, on the need to construct something more from a “photograph of the Krupp works or AEG”2, Kracauer is seen to be wrestling with the common contradictions of modernist cultural expression that Benjamin and Brecht were wrestling with, the need to show the world to make it strange.
To use photography whilst at the same time rejecting its tendentious naturalism, or in Kracauer’s words, “In order for history to present itself, the mere surface coherence offered by photography must be destroyed.”3
Christopher Stewart, 2012
1 Siegfried Kracauer quoted in Steve Giles Making Visible, Making Strange: Photography and Representation in Kracauer, Brecht and Benjamin in Kracauer, New Formations 61, Summer 2007, p.72
2 Walter Benjamin, from A Small History of Photography in One Way Street and Other Writings pp255, Verso 1992
3 Siegfried Kracauer in the essay Photography, in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Harvard University Press, 1995, p.52
Christopher Stewart is Associate Professor in Photography in the School of Design – Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology Sydney.
Damian Dillon Rebecca Shanahan
Level 4, Peter Johnson Building,
Building 6, 702 Harris Street Ultimo
Sydney NSW 2007
12 June – 20 July 2012
Opening Tuesday 12 June 6-8pm
Join the artists as they discuss their practice with Christopher Stewart, Associate Professor in Photography in the School of Design (UTS). Followed by exhibition opening.
The Nocturnal City panel discussion:
(date to be confirmed)
Join researchers, urban planners and academics as they explore the marginalised and hidden places in the city.
HOMELANDS CATALOGUE available now.
The 60 page hard cover accompanying catalogue is available in a limited edition.
Please contact us for more information or preview and purchase at the links above.
The artists would like to thank Hugo Borbilas, John Chesterman and Anna Huppauf, Tim Kyle, Maxine Most, Christopher Stewart, Vasili Vasileidis, and Anthony Wyld.
Images © Damian Dillon, Rebecca Shanahan, 2012
Essay © Christopher Stewart, 2012