Essay

RESPONSE (1)

A feed of images. Terrazzo floors, smooth light and white walls. Cotton draped, delicately positioned into place.

Marble.
Cloth.

In March 2020, a colleague began posting images of artworks held in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection as they were each being concealed and shrouded in parsilk . The onset flood of these pictures – as they appeared in my Instagram feed – became my obsession: I would hold my phone close and check the feed regularly to make sure I wouldn’t miss the instantaneity of what was going on[1]. At the same time, COVID-19 had entered my bubble, and it felt to me that the urgency in the unfolding situation in Sydney as the city went into lockdown was being enacted in these visuals that I was receiving long distance. Over those few days, as the National Gallery was preparing to close its doors for an unknown period, I experienced the images in simultaneity – in visual and sensorial parallel to something that was occurring all around me in an unprecedented way. Draped rectangles and expansive views inside an empty gallery became a kind of reinforcement that this uncertain moment was actually taking place – here and everywhere else in the world.

The accompanying captions for many of these draped shapes directly alluded to the work that was being wrapped: “Rothko”; “A Claude Cahun”; “A Bridget Riley”. As objects before the smartphone camera, they took on an uncanny significance – I knew them, of them, but needed to connect the pictorial reference to the actual artwork being shared. I at once understood what the gallery was preparing for before the lights turned off, but I was also in disbelief of the urgency and speed that these preparations were taking place. During the same week, my partner and I took our two children out of school, resigning to stay put inside our small, inner-city apartment.

I remember thinking that the wrapped artworks took on a new life. As gallery conservators worked swiftly to protect and secure the works on display, their creations began to operate distinctly as autonomous forms – abstracted and removed from their cultural role – and into a hiatus.

An interruption in time. Standstill. Pause. A period when something is suspended.

Interrupted.

The origin of the word ‘hiatus’ means a gap or opening in something, such as a cave or cliff. As an artist, I have used the allegorical potential of this idea to signal to the concept of time. This very term, ‘time’ – which is in effect boundless, too broad and often used universally – poses a perfect quandary in relation to photography and its ‘temperament’. Artists who work with photography share a soft spot for speculative conversation about the image and time.

I collect images and objects throughout the process of photographing and archiving – an organic approach that tries to set up a way of thinking about the possibilities for interpreting and constructing images from a distance and across time. Shuffling. Avoiding completion. Embracing infinite endings.

When the scattering of images and objects in a studio are being shaped, they are unseen by others – even by the artist themself, who often doesn’t ‘see’ the work until it registers complete. And when is that?

Each photograph, if referencing theorist Roland Barthes, has the potential to immortalise the dead while becoming an unkind prediction of our own passing[2]. So, what happens when we see a photograph – which inevitably signals to a sense of ‘that has been’ – of an object that is concealed from view; that is, purposefully hidden?

Photography is inextricably linked to the temporal in that it fixes a moment: it materialises our desire to connect to the past while being able, in a way, to obscure temporal distance. It operates like an artefact that, when archived, is removed from the time when it was made and reinterpreted through a type of remaking after a period has passed. Cinema and moving image function similarly – image-based mediums that hold time bring the past into the present. Or do they?

Philosopher Martin Heidegger criticises the idea of time as derived from Aristotle’s Physics as ‘clock-time’: a linear and infinite or uniform ‘now’, where the future is the ‘not yet now’ and the past is the ‘no longer now’. The present, in this context, is the ‘now’ experienced as each moment passes in relation to the future and past.[3]

I once created a two-part artwork depicting an original photograph (Sailing for the abyss (black plastic) 2010) wrapped in archival tissue (Re-photographed (black plastic) 2015), after looking through my storage and discovering the original stored work. I was curious about what its shrouded presence evoked. The original photograph shows a part of a building under construction, with vertically and horizontally positioned timber posts pulling the black plastic covering the surface taut.

Sailing for the abyss (black plastic) 2010, Re-photographed (black plastic) 2015 pigment prints on photo rag 54 x 54 cm each Courtesy the artist and Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert

During a residency in Paris in 2008, I had photographed several of these sites in the north of France and Belgium. I would frequently pull over to the side of the road to take a picture when driving by and come upon many of these examples by coincidence. I had a vast collection of diverse structures concealed by industrial foil at various stages during their construction. I knew there were traces of the excised building’s stairwells, walls and bathroom tiles beneath the foil. These facades were usually the result of a nearby structure being demolished, therefore, the neighbouring site had to protect itself while the new vacant lot was being repurposed.

The new image I created in 2015, five years after the original, was captured in response to how the original picture was discovered. The tissue paper conceals and reveals sections of the image to distance it from the present. The physicality of the photograph is also acknowledged: the material creases in the tissue paper, the flat surface of the photographic paper, and the black plastic covering in the image’s subject.

As much as an archive tries to preserve the original significance of an image, the very nature of its existence away from its physical and temporal origins provides a shift in its reading. Curator Okwui Enwezor has also drawn attention to the archive as a mediation on time in his seminal exhibitions and essays, and Craigie Horsfield’s artistic investigations around the central relationship between photography and temporality “operate at the break between temporalities, between archival time and linear time”.[4]

Many of Horsfield’s images have a time lag between when they were taken and when they were printed or made into final photographic artworks: the exposure of the negatives and the printing of the photographs are sometimes lengths apart. In interpreting the image operating as a ‘shadow archive’, his captions highlight this temporal delay, emphasising ‘archival time’. The images are created in what he refers to as ‘slow time’[5], a play on the term ‘slow history’ coined by historian Fernand Braudel, who argued that history is traced through the silent currents of everyday life rather than a chronology of events, and that, as a result, meanings emerge in small increments over long periods of time.

The past, present and future, according to Heidegger, are fundamentally intertwined but conceived of separately and out of chronological order. “The future is not later than having been, and having-been is not earlier than the Present. Temporality temporalizes itself as a future which makes present in a process of having been.”[6]

Moreover now, on this day in October 2021, time has become more elastic, sometimes unmarked – it plays tricks on us. When I speak with friends, we are often clueless to what day it is, which might be because we are unencumbered by our calendars, kids’ activities and the scheduling of life. Perhaps what has occurred in the gap – the time between March 2020 and today – is less of a separation from what we knew but a productive enmeshing – a synthesis – a slowing down to better trace and feel our movements, experiences and encounters more deeply.

In this way, we are fortunate to have only felt the soft ripples that have, at times, ruptured our sense of order, clarity and temporal orientation. And as the shrouds that were over the artworks lift, the hiatus may be over – for now.

Reflection—mirrors and review mirrors.
Cancelled, postponed—
The looking glass.

 

[1] I’m referring here to an informal conversation and exchange over Instagram with Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator, Photography at The National Gallery of Australia.

[2] R Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Vintage, London, 1993.

[3] Heidegger suggests this notion to be the ordinary conception of time: “Not ‘time is’, but ‘Dasein qua time temporalizes its Being’”. M Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time, T Kisiel (trans.), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1985, p. 319.

[4] O Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, International Center of Photography, New York, 2007, p. 24.

[5] F Braudel & I Wallerstein, ‘History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Durée’, Review (Fernand Braudel Centre), 32, no. 2, 2009.

[6] M Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of Sein Und Zeit, J Stambaugh (ed.), State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1996, p. 321.

6

Izabela Pluta is a Polish-born, Australian artist living and working between the lands of the Awabakal and Worimi in Awabakal country (Newcastle) and the lands of the Bidjigal and Gadigal (Sydney). She’s a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture at the University of New South Wales. Pluta’s practice spans photography and installation. She employs imagery, video and re-purposed ephemera that speak to present-day questions about impermanence, belonging, the flows of migration and her personal narrative in relation to place.

Pluta has exhibited widely throughout Australia and this year presented her first European solo exhibition, Variable depth, shallow water, at Spazju Kreattiv, Malta’s National Centre for Creativity. In 2019 she was commissioned to create a significant new work, Apparent distance, by the Art Gallery of New South Wales for The National 2019: new Australia art. Izabela Pluta is represented by Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney.

Funding Partners

This project is supported by the City of Newcastle through the Council Support for the Arts and Cultural Organisations in Newcastle Program.

 

This project is supported by Create NSW.