THERE-THEN-HERE-NOW, a group exhibition of eight artists on show in the co-operatively run Bankley Studios & Gallery space, investigates the disruptions of temporality and space which lurk at the heart of the photographic image, encompassing collage, manipulation, re-photography, installation and mixed-media.
British-Ghanaian artist Papa Nii Akushey Quaye’s ‘Beatitudes’, and ‘Quaye Family Portrait’ (from the series ‘I CANT DIE NOT KNOWING MY MOTHER TONGUE, I CANT DIE NOT SPEAKING MY FATHER’S LANGUAGE’, all 2022), framed in warm oak and set against the backdrop of a Cerulean-painted wall, seem like a logical and sensitive starting point for the exploration which the curators and artists have undertaken. Deconstructing the fragmented character and ‘always-becoming’ of diasporic identity, Quaye digs into the archives of the family photo-album, cutting images of his loved ones out of their Ghanaian surroundings and inserting them into present-day Manchester.
Printed on fabric, the cropped and pasted members of his family appear, at least upon first inspection, to be in mediares. It is only upon browsing Quaye’s photo-book ‘Backwards Never’ (2022), provided as a companion piece to the works which appear in the exhibition, that one sees the manipulation at hand: the too-sharp edges of the cropped figures, the warm Ghanaian sun which shines on the smiling faces in the original photographs, contrasting with the cold light of an autumnal England in a landscape filled with leafless trees, the grain and overexposure of a point-and-shoot photograph against the smooth digital blur of a street scene captured with a DSLR. These doctored images of moments of familial tenderness—weddings and birthdays, the proud smile of a new father, the mischievous grin of a younger cousin or sibling—are temporally and spatially bifurcated, like the bright, collaged patterns of the woven cloth which the images are placed alongside. Threads of desire, of love and longing, of dreams and memory—threads both bright and hopeful weave these two histories of the artist together.
James Dewhirst’s monolithic, untitled black-and-white print from the ongoing series ‘Some Strange Rain’ (2022) offsets Quaye’s homely and intimate image-making. Happened upon by the artist, the image shows a fence—as you would see surrounding any construction site—cutting across a woodland clearing. Peeling away from the fence are decorative, painted panels illustrating an abstract woodland scene, at first resembling a window onto the scenery beyond the fence, or perhaps a mirror reflecting the landscape behind the photographer’s lens. The work hugs the gallery’s wall closely with magnets, echoing the rivets fastening together the fence which the photograph depicts. It appears less like a representation of a subject and more like a portal, or series of portals, cutting through the focal plane. It feels as though the viewer could step through-and-through, past the photograph and into the idyll imagined by some unnamed and unknown artist. The work invites contrasting readings of the capacity for photography to restructure our conceptions of space, and as such reconfigures our interpretation of the other works in the exhibition—the ability of the camera to abstract the ‘furniture of the world’ and project them to viewers at distinct locations and times, the ability of the photographic game to replace the ‘events as they happened’ with the ‘events as they were pictured’—whilst pointing at the fragile character of this newly-created photographic ontology.
This ludo-photographic experimentation with scale, space, temporality and materiality continues in Sarah Blaszczok’s ‘Prop’ (2020), wherein arrangements of shapes and ‘stages’, in the artist’s own words, are constructed from found materials and layered to form a landscape abstracted of all identifying features, except for depth, texture and elevation. The photograph is ancillary to the selection and staging of these materials in their final sculptural composite, it speaks of a double temporality: we are witnesses to the ‘final product’, to the photographic documentation of a process-based practice, whilst at the same time being with the artist as they place and re-place these materials. The quality of the print means that we are able to make out the texture of the paper and other materials used, and the shadows between each layer bid us to look deeper into this landscape in a vacuum, timeless and pristine, which signifies only itself.
This emphasis on the materiality of the photographic image—or, perhaps more accurately, the increasingly (and at times frustratingly) immaterial nature of the contemporary photographic image—is again reconfigured through the mixed-media practice of Ellie Rankin. ‘Screen Games’ (2022) is a body of work which sees the artist’s intervention in images which are initially wholly digital—ageless and without dimension—resulting in an ongoing collection or archive of representations of domesticity. These are interpolated through the artist’s practice of re-photography, sculpture and video, and through this back-and-forth play between the physical intangibility of the digital artefact and the imperfect materiality of the photographic print or sculpture, Rankin seems to offer up objects haunted by their immaterial past, digital noumena, objects whose aspects will never be fully understood.
Rebecca Howard’s ‘Metamorphic’ (2022) is an ongoing project represented here by two ‘layered’ photographic works on a clear taupe acetate, built up to give the impression of three-dimensionality, and a 3D-printed cast resting upon a plinth. This sculptural work is diminutive but sharp-edged and pyramidal, and slices through the gallery space floating in a formless ‘void’ of marbled paper which reaches down the wall and across the floor with a sharply-creased corner. The photographic prints on acetate are formally fascinating in their own right, and possess a spectral quality, where each sheet of acetate builds upon and duskily clouds the one behind it. The final shapes depicted mimic the sculpture which sits below, and feel as though they were only half-present, subtly being re-shaped by our movements through the space.
The diptych ‘Ground (Edit01)’ and ‘Surface (1)’ (from the series ‘Coral/Trellis’, all 2022) sees Joshua Phillips and Benjamin McDonnell again complicate the photograph’s relationship with space and time. Much like the other artists in the exhibition, Phillips’ and McDonnell’s process is firmly rooted in the creative space of the studio, utilising the throwaway materials of artistic practice in a sort of photographic transubstantiation. In one image, green tape appears to be creased against empty space, presumably the result of a manipulation removing an object. The wooden board that forms the foreground of the first image—a warm horizon of eye-pleasing pink paint fading the blonde grain of the pine below, impressionistic squiggles of white daubed in groups above—is repurposed as the second image’s background in playful self-referentiality; in its centre a hidden object, obscured by a square of cardboard digitally inserted into the scene. Phillips and McDonnell’s work in THERE-THEN-HERE-NOW appears to reveal their photographic universe by way of exclusion, a past which is absent but whose reverberations in the living present are still felt.
The exhibition ends where the photographic image more-or-less begins: in a darkened box which is alternately filled with light. Lim Tze Yan’s ‘Standing Before an Open Window’ (2022) is the only installation in the exhibition, but is a compelling experience nonetheless. The viewer enters through a heavy curtain, emerging into a space in which the noises of the gallery outside are hushed by an ambient composition, soothing at the same time as it throbs with the dull intensity of a headache. A projector beams out a looped video work in which an indescribable form swirls in a pinkish-blue haze. A text slowly fades into view in the blurry-edged rectangle formed by the projector, recounting a dream of the artist in which they fall from a tall building; the artist returns to the site of the fall in the hope of gaining some understanding of what this dream means, only to fall again. A scratched acetate sheet, dangling from a length of fishing wire, rotates in the center of the installation. Disturbed by the presence of the viewer, it creates a hypnagogic play of smoky luminescence against the walls, glistening for a moment as its curlicues and jagged finials grow faint, before reappearing momentarily in another corner of the room.
This dream-event is so powerfully symbolic for the artist that it threatens to shatter the normal temporal order, dooming them to be trapped in this cycle. And yet, as in any Sisyphean effort, there is the ‘question’ of hope, that this endless recurrence may usher in something new. The unpremeditated play of light on the walls is never quite the same, and one could read off of its dancing scintillations the ways in which chance might lead through the repetitions of this ill-fated event into some sort of resolution or self-actualisation. It speaks of the power of photography to create new realities, of the allure of the intrinsic possibilities of the photographic image. We might make the same photograph an innumerable number of times and display it in any sort of fashion, but each exposure acts as a cradle for potential transformation or transcendence. Lim’s ‘Standing’ leaves this question hanging, unanswered, in front of the viewer.
Although each practitioner in THERE-THEN-HERE-NOW approaches the subject matter of the exhibition with a distinct aesthetic sensibility, the deft curation of Bella Probyn and assistant curator James Dewhirst allows each work to ground these central motifs of disrupted temporality and the multiple realities of the photographic universe, and the result is a group exhibition which feels rigorous and cohesive, whilst still maintaining the integrity of the world internal and unique to each work.
THERE-THEN-HERE-NOW continues at Bankley Studios & Gallery until 11th December 2022. Saturday and Sunday 12-4pm. This review is supported by Bankley Studios.
Michael D’Este is a photographer and writer based in Greater Manchester.