A white gloved hand holds a viewfinder, made to resemble a brick wall, up against a majestic landscape.

Fiona Crisp:
Weighting Time

Fiona Crisp, Belvedere image detail, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London.

Weighting Time is a thoughtfully contextualised survey exhibition sampling thirty years of Fiona Crisp’s art. Installed (with accompanying events) across two of Sunderland Culture’s venues, at the town’s Museum & Winter Gardens and the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA), it also features a new large-scale work on the exterior of the Museum, viewable from Mowbray Park.

Crisp is Professor of Contemporary Art at Northumbria University, and her work is held in several national collections including Tate Gallery, the Government Art Collection, the Arts Council Collection, the British Council and The National Trust. Although working primarily with photography and film, her explorations of the ways in which these media and their processes can be expanded into large, constructed installations, philosophical research, collaborations with other disciplines and choreographed encounters, makes her practice as much about sculptural experience and performed provocations as the crafting of an image.

Crisp’s preoccupations include responses to space, time and place, fields of arcane knowledge that grapple with these, heritage that becomes spectacle, ways in which ’viewing’ happens, and the relationships between object, imagination and image. She has explored unconventional ways both of registering the visual outcomes of this and of presenting the results. Deep research is presented with a beguilingly deft invitation for anyone to engage, at any level.

In this exhibition, both spaces greet the visitor with an architectural layout, combining giant wall-hung images with Crisp’s trademark assemblies of screens and frames on scaffolds, which serve to define her images as objects to be inspected from their undersides and insides, as well as from in front of their best face. Unfamiliar soundscapes, including a rendition of the Earth’s magnetic field, fill corners of the room as accompaniments to the moving image works. Visitors who settle on the strategically placed seating benches may or may not realise that they are also creative constructions by the artist, and part of her continuing commentary on the act of viewing.

The Sunderland Museum gallery space. In the foreground a large colour photograph of a doorway in a square frame is supported by a frame of scaffolding. Behind on the white gallery wall a colour photograph of a scene inside a box.
Fiona Crisp, Weighting Time installation view, 2023, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens. Courtesy of the artist and Sunderland Culture. Photo: Colin Davison.

The works in the Museum focus mainly on Crisp’s absorption in the process and purpose of registering a viewpoint, while those at NGCA further interrogate what such registration does to present (or skew) the meanings derived. Both elements are integral to an understanding and enjoyment of her practice, so it is a little sad that the Museum-based portion of the exhibition (which arguably included some of the best works) closed in June, while the NGCA portion continues until September.

A number of the works at the NGCA provide atmospheric treatments of otherworldly subterranean spaces, ranging from ancient Roman catacombs (‘Catacombs’, 2002/ 2009) to a deep mine used for space research (‘Boulby-Hubble’, 2018/2023, ‘Joy Continuous Miner’, ‘Safe Haven’ and ‘Pump Lodge’, all 2010), a physics laboratory buried inside an Italian mountain (‘OPERA Archive’, 2018) and a wartime underground hospital in Guernsey (‘Abteilung’ series, 2004/ 2009).  The hermetically isolating circumstances of these locations force particularly intense engagement with their power.

Some of the giant format images were made using custom pinhole camera apparatus (including a Berwick residency series from 2000 and ‘Still Films’, 1999 at the Museum, and ‘Catacombs’, 2002/2009 and the ‘Santa Maria’ series, 2003, at NGCA). Pushing this technique to its limits, almost in a rebellion against photographic conventions, involved the artist in elaborate trials and errors of measuring, positioning, revisiting and waiting sometimes several hours for long exposures to complete. Time (suggested by a moving figure) and space (laid out through a car window) appear to become reorganised.

The NGCA galley space: on the right three large black and white photographs are displayed on beige boards, to the right a set of beige wood benches face the photos. In the background are columns with scaffolding attached and four photos spotlit on the far wall.
Fiona Crisp, Weighting Time installation view, 2023, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. Courtesy of the artist and Sunderland Culture. Photo: Colin Davison.

One of the most interesting dimensions of Crisp’s practice is her contemporary take on the whole business of offering and receiving a ‘view’  With a combination of scholarly art-historical allusions and family fun, issues of framing, staging, selectivity, social commentary, psychological intrigue – and the role of the camera – are unendingly available to explore. At Sunderland Museum, ‘Belvedere’ (1999) and ‘Belvedere (Mowbray Park)’ (2023), ‘Norwegian Series’ (1999/ 2005), ‘Randsfjorden’ (video, 2015/ 2023) and ‘The Pantheon’ (2012/ 2023) are good examples. Frequent featuring of doors and windows creates a sense of teetering on thresholds, between inner and outer, known and unknown.

This body of work also evokes the idea, suggested many years ago by Robert Pirsig, that an intent focus on any one visually selected particularity might unlock creative insights into the entire universe. From the constructed seating to the large architectural triptych of ‘Santa Maria’ (2003) at the NGCA (and not forgetting the walk between two separate venues), Crisp activates her viewers in a sculpted and subtly performative relationship with the works on show. This perhaps challenges the more prevalent passivity of the digitised visual world we have come to inhabit, and the manipulation of in-person ‘seeing’ exemplified by the Adachi gardens of Japan.

The ultimate effect of all this questioning of how we arrange to see, and the meanings we construct in consequence, is to feel that Crisp’s installation-photographs are examining us, as intently as we are examining them. This is encapsulated in the two works at NGCA, ‘Theatre Royal’ (2005) and ‘Theatre #12’ (2005), where the camera’s viewpoint is thrust on stage under the gaze of lights, and we imagine an invisible audience staring back at it, expecting something.

An even more unsettling example, in a position where it can be examined as the last item before exiting the doors of the NGCA, is the work entitled ‘The Ballroom’ (2004/ 2013).  Ostensibly a registration of total underground darkness, but operating in fact more like a Claude glass or ‘black mirror’, it reflects whatever the viewer’s angle of gaze offers it, in the immediate surroundings or in the scene beyond; and it provides a parting challenge to us all to question and extract more from every ‘view’ that might be on offer in the world outside.

Fiona Crisp, Weighting Time was at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens and Mowbray Park 1 April – 3 June 2023, and continues at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (NGCA) until 3 September 2023. Belvedere (Mowbray Park) at Sunderland Museum also continues to Sept 3 and both exhibitions can now be experienced via a virtual tour.

Fiona Crisp’s work is represented by Matt’s Gallery, London. Works in an earlier exhibition by the artist at NGCA (Material Sight), were reviewed in Corridor8 in 2018.

Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.

This review is supported by Sunderland Culture.

Published 25.07.2023 by Lesley Guy in Reviews

1,072 words