JJ Charlesworth

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Produced on the occasion of New Work by Laura White, on show at firstsite 10 February – 18 March 2006

Laura White makes sculpture by projecting video imagery onto assemblages of objects. The two elements together make them a sculpture; instead of being merely a collection of everyday objects on one hand, and an ordinary video sequence on the other, these simple building blocks are fused together to create a novel and surprising kind of sculptural experience. Not quite magical, certainly fascinating, White’s sculptures open up a type of artwork that has few precedents, in part because her work explores the potentials of the rapidly evolving technology of video projection, on whose growing capacities White’s artworks rely.

White’s work is not however simply a shiny demonstration of the latest video gadgetry, though our surprise and engagement with her work no doubt stems from the novelty of the experience of seeing an apparently solid object ebb and flow under a skin of light that seems evanescent and alive. More substantially, the intersection of object and projected image casts new light on our usual understanding of the difference between an object and its surface, between an object’s physical presence and its image, between image and reality, and ultimately, between the man-made urban world and the natural world around it. The surfaces of ordinary, unexceptional mass-produced things, to which we pay little attention, become the scene onto which are played vistas of animal bodies and pastoral landscapes; poles apart, yet somehow sharing the same physical and visual space.

In Still life/Long life, her new work for firstsite, White further develops the complex opposition and interrelation between the human and the natural that underpins her recent work. In earlier pieces, White chose as the subject of her videos surface-images of animals that are recognisably exotic: In Pretty Boy for example, a bucketful of artificial flowers under plastic wrapping is host to the twitching and folding of a parrot’s rainbow- coloured plumage. With Fragile Brute, the stack of old cardboard boxes and drapes accommodate the ponderous and restive movements of a rhinoceros, and in Deck, a combination of old tent canopies and deckchairs merge with the strangely refined lines of a group of elephants, legs and trunks swinging in slow motion.

In each of these works there is a telling correspondence between the objects used and the subject matter of the projection. Pretty Boy’s colourful projected parrot is almost synonymous with its ever-bright flowers. And in Fragile Brute and Deck, the particular bulk, weight and demeanour of the big animals depicted are evident in the materials used. The boxes that make up Fragile Brute suggest the stocky and immobile attitude of the rhinoceros; by contrast, the odd protruding angles and taut or slack fabric of the deckchairs and sheeting in Deck seem almost to restate the particular poise and precarious delicacy of the elephant group.

These connections, echoes or correspondences reinforce the sense that White’s interest in the natural world’s relation to a human order is not about an uncomprehending division or opposition, but is rather about a constant dialogue between them. If White’s technological combination makes the distinction between projection and object vividly clear, whilst at the same time making the fusion of the two compelling and unavoidable, then her choice of materials similarly suggests a clear difference between the natural and man-made worlds, even as those two worlds cut through, reflect and merge into each other.

In the new work Still life/Long life, White has moved away from the exotic creatures of earlier works to the image of the familiar and domesticated Friesian cow. White’s earlier choice of subject already admitted to the human influence at play, even with those exotic animals; they are after all captive, tamed, held in zoos or safari parks. Now White has found a subject whose identity is intrinsically bound up with human society; cows such as these are after all long-time products of human intervention. Bred for their milk or meat, their appearance and character is the consequence of generations of selective breeding and organised agriculture.

With Still life/Long life the image of a field of these cows is captured and projected onto an array of simple, everyday consumer items: A bucket, a roll of bubble- wrap, a lampshade, various containers and cartons, all stacked in a series of columns, and set on an ordinary, functional trestle table. With this arrangement, White allows the projected image to play across a more broken set of surfaces and volumes; here the patterning of the cows’ hides shifts and slides around a multitude of objects rather than being bounded by a single coherent sculptural form. As they move, the green of the grass behind them appears and disappears in patches. Again, a parallel is drawn between the repeating, generic forms of the cattle - all different, but really all the same – and the anonymous, wholly interchangeable shapes of the domestic objects that make up the columns.

Still life/Long life is in part a reflection on the forgotten place of the still-life in the tradition of fine art, and on how modern production has to a great extent ‘disenchanted’ the image (mostly in painting) of the objects that people make and possess. If a high point of the still- life genre can be found in the Dutch still-life painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is partly the combination of a highly developed painterly technique and the rich and opulent subject matter depicted that make them convincing. The images of fruit, flowers, fish, hanging game and ornate silverware that became the typical content of high still-life painting are still popular today; what is interesting is that our relationship to such objects and products has changed. A common interpretation of Dutch still-life painting’s fascination with plentiful foodstuffs and exquisitely crafted objects is that for the first time private citizens, merchants or wealthy townsmen, could afford
and enjoy images suggestive of their own wealth and good taste. By contrast, modern industrial society’s extraordinary productivity – the abundance of food and consumer goods –makes ordinary that which, three hundred years ago, would have been seen as exceptional, a symbol of status and privilege.

If Still life/Long life resembles any example of still-life in modern art, it might in fact be the muted, humble still-life paintings of the mid-twentieth century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. Morandi’s paintings continuously focus on the worn, simply-made shapes of vases, jugs and tin containers, grouped in quiet huddles and seen in a flat, contemplative light. The opposite of the bold colours, strong contrasts and virtuoso mimicry of the earlier still- life, Morandi’s paintings depict objects that are humdrum and unremarkable. This is perhaps the unavoidable fate of manmade objects, when a society is so prosperous that such objects are no longer noticed as things of value, simply because no great investment is needed in
their production.

Still life/Long life in this sense reflects on the way in which both natural and artificial objects are subject to the process of generalisation that comes out of intensive production; rather than rare objects or exotic animals, we find abundant mass-manufactured goods and intensive agriculture. Instead of luxurious products for a small minority, we live in a society that produces huge quantities of decent products for a great majority. Cows become factories for milk, just as much units of production as the bottles and cartons from which we drink it.

If Still life/Long life extends White’s investigation of human-natural oppositions, and the complex hybridising and interaction that refused to see these oppositions as black and white, it does so at a time when the distinction between nature and society is seen as increasingly problematic. It is always ironic that industrially produced food is often packaged with scenes of pastoral harmony and contentment; mountains and babbling brooks for salmon, fields of grass and butterflies for yoghurt, and of course, herds of cows roaming on green pastures in rolling hills for a bottle
of milk.

White’s approach refuses to fall into such easy, self- deluding dichotomies. By playing with our conflicting senses, of what is present and what is represented, of what we deem ‘natural’ and what we see as human, White’s work develops an engaging new line of inquiry into the experience of physical and visual space, and of the significance of urban society’s curious and melancholic attitude to itself, a relation that it expresses by projecting its sense of value onto all things natural. In this sense, White’s literal projections make visual sense of such split identities, but do so through the potential for experience appropriate to sculptural form.

At a time when our urban space becomes increasingly surfaced with the disembodied imagery of video projections, flat screens and video walls, we are more substantially surrounded than ever by surfaces that deny the material context behind them, and which instead present us with windows onto commercialised fantasies that draw us away from lived reality. Such projected fantasies cast no light on our relationship to daily life, and indeed take us further from encountering reality in any substantial way. White’s work, by making difficult and surprising the way we distinguish between the material objects present and the images of those absent, pushes sculpture to account for its existence in an age when substance and image, the world of images and the world of lived experience, are more divorced than ever. White’s object-images, by realising the seeming impossibility of looking at untainted nature through the surface of man-made things, encourages us to consider not only the relationship between human society and nature, but how we might revalue ‘authentic’ experience in a culture where ‘real’ experience is mediated by comforting fantasies that continuously encourage us to forget, rather than live the here-and-now.

JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and artist, writing regularly for Art Monthly, Modern Painters and Flash Art. He is curator of the Herbert Read Gallery, at the University College for the Creative Arts at Canterbury.