Below is a text, Making strange, that I wrote for artist Tracy Hanna, who’s solo show is currently running at The Dock in Carrick on Shannon. For more information look at her site www.tracyhanna.org or definitely pop in to the show if you’re around the area.
Tracy Hanna’s work, I believed, was predominately sculptural. On meeting her for the first time in her studio, however, I stood corrected: video, she said, was what she made mostly, and was best at. On subsequent consideration of the work, it seems as though this was not wholly true. That is not to say her video pieces are of a low standard – far from it – but rather that her video work actually works by its integration of processes most commonly associated with sculpture. From what I could gather, her works access sculpture through video, placing in them in a strange locus of the neither sculpture nor video. This can be illustrated most clearly by a recent work, Untitled (paper), shown to me in her studio: two roughly constructed pieces of mdf stand facing one another, bolted to the floor perpendicular to them. Two projectors encroach upon the two surfaces, casting similar footage onto the outer face of each one. The viewer cannot see each video projection simultaneously, only one at a time. Therefore the viewer must circumnavigate the space between the two surfaces, onto which the videos are projected. The sum of these parts – projector, mdf, light – recreates the space as an object for apprehension in time and space. Furthermore, the video itself also reiterates this object-ification of the virtual. A barely there study in light and hesitancy, the artist explained it to me as a study of the transformation of a piece of paper into a cone: to the viewer it remains an abstract play of light and shadow. Thus a synchronicity between how the work is shown (the physical set-up of the thing), and also what is shown (the video piece) work to interrogate, or undermine, the area of medium, or formal, specificity: here,
Installation becomes object = paper becomes cone = video/painting becomes sculpture.
The demarcations separating each one are not set down definitively; rather they flow into each other, sometimes unnoticed, just as the cone is created from the flat sheet of paper. Of course Hanna’s work is by definition predominantly video, but it is by her accessing the traits of sculpture through it, by demonstrating its walls as thin and permeable, that the work truly succeeds. Video takes on strangeness through Hanna’s manipulation of it, and this strangeness is that of the three-dimensional making itself felt in the flat.This particular process of making strange is another key factor in the work. The medium used often becomes strange in itself; it appears as estranged from its normative qualities by the usurpation of other ones, more typically witnessed in another. Furthermore, the materials depicted in the video pieces in A Day is a Room, are captured in such a way as to estrange them from quotidian understanding. These materials – coal, milk, and the leaves of a tree – are in themselves everyday: they pass generally unnoticed. They are all, additionally, organic compounds, which are by definition incomplete – they are the product or secondary offshoot from another, primary, whole. Through their framing, however, they become whole in themselves, and the root of their being – the tree, the fire, the animal – becomes irrelevant. By this process, these everyday materials become strange to us. The coal dust, (Places formed by time spent in other places (ii)) captured presumably in the aftermath of a blaze, continues to move, its particles sparking up and catching the light spontaneously. Indeed, it appears to act almost independently: the embers become an amorphous, seemingly living mass, actively living on in the absence of a central life force i.e. the fire. But as the video progresses, we gradually recognise this as folly: the wind is derivative of an external source: the coal is, in fact, dead. But it is this double take into the uncanny, and back again, which makes the video work. Tangentially, as I put down these thoughts I listen to a song called Things Fall Apart by UK artist Zomby: serendipitous, because this was the name of a previous solo exhibition by Hanna, also. Though the reference points for this shared title are many, and presumably more Achebe than dubstep, there is something common to the way this music works, and the means by which Hanna studies these secondary, reactive materials: that is, by means of estrangement. With Zomby’s music, and the work of other dubstep producers, the voice is suspended, technologically divorced from that which creates it i.e. the body. In this, it is manipulated in a manner just like any other sound effect. However, rather than strip the music of all emotion, it often has the opposite effect. As with Hanna’s work, the realisation that the part is only that – a part – creates a powerful desire for the whole. But it is the fleeting belief that it might be more than that – whole in itself – that leads to this pervading sense of the uncanny, or strange.
Hanna acknowledges an interest in the problems of perception as one of the main characteristics of her work: that is, the issues associated with the aim of truly perceiving, or understanding. This particularly applies to the video works shown in A Day is a Room, which all use the devices of video to thwart this primary motivation, in the viewer. Often this is achieved by means of scale or framing. Hanna studies these physical materials – coal, milk, leaves, paper – with a studious zeal that conclusively erodes any conception of scale or context. The girl floating calmly in milk in the video piece Places formed by time spent in other places (i), shrunken down through projection, is further miniaturised by the suggestion that the body of milk extends indefinitely outside of the frame. The specific capacities of video – the capacity for technical trickery – are thus here being exploited to great uncanny effect. Freud defines the uncanny as existing ‘in some way (as) a species of the familiar’[i]: Hanna’s work, then, retains elements of the familiar, but presented so as to disrupt normal perception of them. The leaves of a tree, (Places formed by time spent in other places (iii)) doubled back over itself to create two identical images spilling out from a central line, further articulates this particular mode of working. On first glance, the image simply does not make sense; it is only through a durational engagement with the piece that we can identify the image as one born of familiarity. Gradually, the waterline in the center – where these two mirror images meet – belies the reality of the image, but nonetheless the result has been achieved: the image does not become familiar once again. It remains strange, irreconcilable alongside lived perception; the sky too blue, the diegesis too stiflingly claustrophobic. What remains through the artists’ manipulation is another kind of reality, a reality in which the only narrative is the repetitive struggle of the natural to escape the framing devices imposed upon it. This is evident in the piece that captures the coal dust settling, also. From the framing of both pieces, there seems to be a desire to almost anthroporphise these materials. For no narrative is present but for the fluctuations in the materials themselves, and this has the effect of not only making them strange to the viewer, but also of prompting him or her to read into these narratives as metaphorical. This is a problematic bind for the materials are in truth dead, they live on vicariously only through the intervention of the artist. Hanna tricks us into believing in these images as naturally strange and independent, but on further consideration it is she that is seen to be in control.
A recent event came into my mind when I began to think about Hanna’s work, and this body of work in particular. Walking home from the city one day, I followed my usual route up Dominic Street heading north towards Stoneybatter. Rather than walking down Bolton Street, and then up Blessington Street by way of Kings Inn, I decided on an alternative. I cannot now remember the name of the street, and am doubtful I had traversed it before. In any case, I approached the end of the road, expecting to make my way onto Constitution Hill, or thereabouts. At the end of the street I came instead to a junction of which I recognised elements – a billboard, a dilapidated shop front – but simply failed to compose the location in my mind. I had been here before, but not from this approach: I was completely lost. A strange sense of dread overcame me, similar to vertigo, and though it might have been only a few seconds before I regained my sense of place, in truth it seemed like an aeon. Finally I placed myself as approaching Constitution Hill from the east, facing an intersection I had walked innumerable times before. To me, this was an instance of the uncanny in its most acute form, and retains a gravitas disproportionate to the actual banality of the event. Constitution Hill, by no means the worst nor best of Dublin, was transformed in that instance into a strangely disconcerting place. It happened so not because of the unfamiliarity of it, but rather of the familiarity that pervaded the location: it became uncanny because I knew the place, but could not reconcile this place with what I thought I had known. In some strange sense, consideration of Hanna’s work holds echoes of this event, albeit in a more subdued manner. Looking at her work, at these video studies in the minutiae of things, one starts to read between the lines, conjuring up narratives built on fabrication and half-truths. We begin, in essence, to formulate the conditions on which the uncanny, that unfamiliar familiar, is founded: Hanna sets up the conditions, and we simply do the rest. The result is an experience akin to adding two and two and being unable to reach four, yet feeling powerless to redeem it. The works indeed can be explained away by technical manipulation and the clever use of framing, and yet they hold an uncanny power independent of this knowledge. The part becomes whole, for just a split second, and reverts just as sharply. But it is this suggestion, even if it is subsequently lost, which estranges the familiar – the coal, the leaves, the milk – from the viewer entirely. In the knowledge that they are incomplete, dead, a glimmer of doubt subsists independent of the reality of the situation, creating a new uncanny reality in and of itself.
[i] Sigmund Freud (1919) The Uncanny In Freud, Sigmund (2003) The Uncanny London and New York: Penguin pp. 121-162