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... the persistence of the witness has now become the occasion for a general mobilisation of the illusion of the world.
Mary-Louise Pavlovic's latest work quietly seduces its witnesses into an irredeemable position. Regimented in neat rows are twenty-four plastic buckets. At angles suggesting spill and slippage they contain twenty-four images of faces and hands; distorted, split from bodies, arising out of what we know must be nothing but air beneath. Under pressure-pressed as if under glass and trying to breathe-the images have been made from gestures forced against glass and photocopied. In the buckets the pressure of transparency distorts. They are on the surface and as if under water at the same time.
Here is photography working not so much as the freezing of images as the capturing of them, under ice. The play between depth and surface renders the distance between two and three dimensions problematic.
It works so quietly that it is deeply disturbing like watching an entire culture arranging its own drowning with martial precision. Images are immersed in their buckets. We are immersed in the orchestration of their lines of capture. They are not able to come up for air, yet they are close enough to the surface that we can see the consequences of their containment. We are made to look through the pressure, through the 'glass', through the 'water and ice'.
As so often in our rapidly de-mobilising culture, we are left only with what Virilio calls 'the persistence of the witness", engulfed in a shock which is precise enough to horrify us but then exceeds that horror through that horror's precise arrangement. Our first response is the now regular one-to merely witness; just as in life we watch the news, or we watch bodies in distress in the street everyday. We witness. it is all screened for us and we are familiar enough with artworks drawing attention to this process.
Yet the beauty of Pavlovic's work is not only the pull of this experience. It is its interruption. It is easy enough in this post-postmodern age to make things flow-to mark out the space of images as a mobilised dispersal without end: It is much harder to manage that flow precisely-to open at the right moment and to time the closures of a work- so that the openings and closures of artworks not only mirror those of culture but contest them on the perceptual level. Flow is now the condition of our culture. The question is when and how can we stop? When does witnessing ever cease? When can contemplation of our culture's increasingly rapid deployment of bodies under pressure, under glass, under ice, begin?
In Pavlovic's work we experience the speed of our culture's perceptual distress, but through its witty closures are given the grace of inertia: a chance to slow down.
So we are pulled through images, each with its own irruption of death and depth from below in the form of an empty plastic bucket. (Perhaps depth in art only reappears now in such ironically obsolete technologies as plastic buckets?). We are pulled to three enamel sinks on the wall. Each contains a similar image to the buckets. Faces struggling to break through the surface, but frozen by form. Some hands that are completely dislocated from their bodies, severed sharply behind the wrist. If there is any further flow, it is in the pull beyond the sink, down the plug-hole. Pavlovic has directed our eyes and our bodies as silent witnesses to this final joke. The sinks open out to three large test tubes, each held in position by huge clamps which look like metal praying mantises seizing their prey. The eye and the body have been directed through so many pressured images which refused to stay quiet- to this. A dead stop at the end of an empty test tube.
For once, flow is arrested and contemplation begun. As containers of images the buckets become plastic infernos, our silent witnessing starts to turn back upon itself and to combust. The sinks suggest a depth away from the persistence of the witness, and their test tubes a transparency which contains, rather than letting us pass through.
We are confronted with what we need to rediscover: that our surfaces have all been purloined by being frozen thus; that our gestures of distress are under increasing pressure to be noticed despite their social delimitation. The eye in the 1990s seeks a resting place for the body, and for itself, yet our culture conditions it to move forward, just to watch, maybe to do a course in postmodern culture.
This work problematises that whole process. Lt recognises that the problem now is not the opening of texts, the acceleration of perception. We are well enough trained for that on stock market computers and in video arcades. The problem is when to open a text and when to close it. Pavlovic's work captures the whole confusion surrounding the movement of the eye in distress- in a culture which marshals its witnesses only to say 'move on, move on'.