Conversation between: Jackie Chettur, Matthew Richardson and Gerbrand Burger
Published in Garageland issue 20, 2016 'Remake Remodel'
JC: Thomas Hardy resurrected the ancient kingdom of Wessex for his characters to wander through. People mistakenly believe Wessex to be purely an invention by the author. I decided to continue this ambiguity by searching for the landscape from Tess of the D’Urberville’s far away from Hardy’s ‘Wessex’. My prints depict real places in other parts of England and Wales and correspond to my perception of the terrain described in the book. Matthew, I’m interested in your search for the landscape of JG Ballard’s Concrete Island using Google Street View, potentially the ‘ultimate’ way of exploring the world from our own current location. Do you feel you have you located it?
MR: I’m not at all sure I have located it! I was interested in the idea that we travel through and ‘know’ a place via Google Street View and that the journey and route is ‘given’ to us – so almost already a fictional way of ‘being’ in a place. I wanted to use Google maps as a way of rootling around in an idea of the ‘subconscious’ - perhaps screen based technology has become our ‘subconscious’, memory, sense of place, individuality? I wonder why Hardy resurrected Wessex? As well as protecting real individuals, maybe the shifting of somewhere into a fictional place turns the people and places into archetypes? In my project I was interested in the fact that Concrete Island is Ballard’s re-scripting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. So this idea of an ‘already’ told story interested me, in as much as a certain structure might remain, even while almost everything changes. The idea that a story might shift and be adapted over time, through different technologies, different cultures is interesting to me. I guess this is the idea of myth? The idea of an ‘island’ as a place, and metaphor was also something I wanted to play with - hence looking at Defoe’s original and Ballard’s re-invention. There is a tension between a sort of yearned for fictional desert island and the reality of isolation and survival, making do and mending, escaping (or not escaping). These are all fairly seductive impulses for using this narrative as a beginning – the place might almost be a metaphor of imaginative fiction.
JC: Gerbrand, I know that in a previous work you have also merged elements from the setting of an Argentine novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares with a more familiar landscape of the Dutch Polders. For this exhibition you show drawings of books which maybe speak about the potential inherent in books and our expectations in reading them. I know you have even drawn some unread books.
GB: The promise of unread books, or the hidden aspect of closed books in a shelf, speak to the dreamy side of me. I enjoy the anticipation of reading certain books, or to start reading certain writers, already knowing, or pretending to know, that the text will make sense for my own work somehow. With Roberto Arlt for example, who’s relatively small oeuvre I’m reading at the moment, I was convinced beforehand that I would be able to use his writing as a background or inspiration for new work, that it would resonate in a way that works for me. Arlt produced his work during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Argentina and Uruguay, and his writing was at the very beginning of the modern novel, or the nueva novela. Like some other South American writers he makes a rare and unique combination of absurdism, thriller, philosophy and political critique (and more), with a very good sense of form. The text is constructed very well, but you can never really seem to grasp what it is you are reading, it’s too outlandish and strange, and I like that very much. The way I read is not so much studying a text or analyzing how a novel is written, it’s more like I put myself under the influence of a text.
I enjoy taking the liberty to make things and combinations of things that are hard to grasp, or that don’t make sense in a direct way. As a rational and practical man I am well aware that you cannot consume and absorb the contents of a book by looking at its cover, let alone by looking at a pencil drawing of its cover. But as an artist I don’t have to count those objections; it’s an enjoyable mind game, a playful mental exercise.
JC: My jumping off points and reading material are very different, but like you I find it pleasurable to take liberties with existing novels. My attraction to specific books and desire to re-work them is an attempt to preserve and make visible my own reading experiences. Ideas and impressions which remain and seem somehow precious. I anticipate re-reading certain books to see if my overriding idea of them still holds true. I wonder if this activity is connected to being a slow reader and an anxiety at only having a finite number of novels available to me.
I have worked with the texts of three classic novels: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight and I’m currently working on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Adapting and reducing the texts through my own schemes, my aim is to reveal just one memorable theme. The writing styles across the novels are diverse but in common they are tense, unbearably tragic, insistent and poetic. They are stories about ordinary folk, the decisions they make and the social and political backdrop in which their lives are played out. None of these novels would have you believe that you can achieve everything that you desire, by simply working hard, or by possessing a talent. Sorrow runs liberally through, as fate and social conditions takes a toll on the central characters. In the novella Ethan Frome, the character’s name is melancholically repeated throughout and had somehow lodged within me as the sum of the book. My distilled version was intended to reflect this and it now reads as a kind of poem of Ethan with only traces of the ongoing drama. More optimistic themes also run parallel to these harrowing plots lines and I think maybe it is these which make the books unique and memorable. For example, with Steinbeck the importance of family permeates the narrative. In Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight the small everyday pleasures of a depressed women make the book bearable. In Wharton’s Ethan Frome finding true love is a central theme. Hardy writes poetically about the natural world. For this exhibition I have distilled Hardy’s tragic text to leave only Tess’s forward movement through his exquisitely drawn landscape.
MR: I am also drawn to narratives that are tense and poetic. I like the promise of a book too, the sense of anticipation. It is often the opening sentences, the very beginnings that intrigue me most. JG Ballard’s ‘Concrete Island’ begins like this: “Soon after three o’clock on the afternoon of April 22nd 1973, a 35-year-old architect named Robert Maitland was driving down the high-speed exit lane of the Westway interchange in central London. Six hundred yards from the junction with the newly built spur of the M4 motorway, when the Jaguar had already passed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, a blow-out collapsed the front nearside tyre”. I was immediately drawn in by the precise description of person, place, time and speed - and my impulse was to use Google Street View to find the site of the crash. In trying to connect this fictional moment with a virtually real space, I wondered what this strange place was, in a crossover somewhere between fiction and reality, past and present.
It felt as if there was enough ‘space’ in the novel to allow me to take off and develop work without planning a route. The short animation / film I made wasn’t storyboarded, it grew and evolved and became its own ‘work’. Probably what drew me to Ballard’s mid-1970s stories was the description of heightened reality in the everyday. Ballard talked about using urban liminal spaces as metaphors for the subconscious, what he called ‘inner space’ (as opposed to Sci-Fi ‘outer space’). I was interested in how I might make this idea of a subconscious visible and what the landscape of this mysterious geography might look like. It is amazing to me - the capacity for words to describe a place, to totally engage our minds, to absorb us in a way that is different than a visual form. Gerbrand, you have drawn specific versions of particular books. Is that significant? I’d be interested to know a bit more about the books as objects.
GB: Maybe Ballard’s 'inner space’ relates to the way I’m looking at books as objects. A closed book provides an enormous space for fantasy and projection. Whilst preparing for Adaptation I picked up a book by Rilke, The notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I opened it randomly and even though I had read the book several times before, I hadn’t really noted this passage.
“Last night my thoughts turned again to the little green book that must have been in my possession at one time when I was a boy; and I don't know why I imagine that it had originally belonged to Mathilde Brahe. It didn't interest me when I first got it and I didn't read it until several years later at Ulsgaard one holiday time, I think. But it was important to me from the first moment I saw it. It was filled with references through and through, including its covers. The green of its binding denoted something and you immediately understood that what was written inside had to be as it was.”
The passage shows how objects took on meaning for Rilke, in a very personal and imaginative way: and this touches on the sensation that made me start the book drawings.
MR: Yes it is interesting how the form of a book, the annotations, the age, the fact of whether it is pristine or used has a bearing on how it is experienced. I spend a lot of time in secondhand book shops, and I’m drawn to and the signs of use and scribbles and notes made by previous owners, and what I might find inside - like a kind of ‘second story’ within the book itself. I am interested in finding different ways into a narrative. The material book might stimulate an idea as much as the text inside. In finding, using, and maybe adapting a text, I am interested in the way a story is lost, distorted, fragmented and re-made as it moves across forms – written word, spoken word, sound, drawing, print, photograph and object. In thinking about a visual form for this narrative, I was interested that Ballard talked about his writing in cinematic terms - and to quote him: “I wanted to suggest a sort of mythological stratum… it's rather like a film, (…), where the action is suddenly overlaid by another image, just briefly, and one's conscious of a different system of time, perhaps a more dream-like atmosphere, something that touches another level of the mind.”
The landscape of Concrete Island, slowly reveals the ruined sites of past technologies beneath the undergrowth - a derelict printing works, the cellar of a cinema. I am interested in a historic progression - in the way we adapt to shifting and overlapping media technologies - books, phones, film, radio, television, computers and how it affects what it feels (and means) to be human. I have been reading about the idea of the ‘Technological Uncanny’ – the idea that new technology is experienced at first as magical, before it disappears into the everyday, yet aspects of the past technology still break through in ways that might disturb, jolt and surprise. The work in this show sort of plays with this idea - it makes fictional, the digital fabric of Google Street View, and also plays havoc with the idea of Victorian science - and turns it into fictional ‘bigger and better’ versions of magic Lantern slides. Jackie, I wonder if there is anything about the techniques of print and photography you are using that specifically relates to the text or the way the work is shown?
JC: The point that you make about new technologies having magical qualities is interesting. Maybe this goes full circle, as old technologies take on something more than the purely utilitarian. Renewed interest in film photography, and for example collecting vinyl records, might be connected to our desire to possess physical objects again. Technically I cover a lot of ground to create the prints for this exhibition. Moving between analogue to digital and back to analogue and the hand made. Starting with a large format film camera, my images are eventually printed from inked printing plates and printed using an etching press. I'm pleased with the inbetweenness of the final images. These photopolymer gravures sit somewhere between a photograph and an etching. They transform real places that I know in Bedfordshire, London, Wales and Gloucestershire into my imagined setting of the novel. Hardy positions both his characters and his readers out of doors immersed in the elements and so physically seeking out paths and tracks puts me very much in the feeling of the novel. Hardy is said to have written in a cinematic way, even before the invention of film. His poetic descriptions of light falling on landscapes make for a wonderful link with photography - as drama or inertness in the sky above you affects how a landscape is brought into focus or not. I like this unexpected link, which follows through when exposing a film to light to produce the printing plates. This in turn creates its own terrain on the surface of the plate. Depths and shallows create wells for ink to gather dictating darker and lighter areas on surface of the paper.
Gerbrand, you have made a cabinet as part of our ‘Adaptation’ exhibition. I know that you have a real love of making and crafting and like me you go to great lengths in pursuit of an idea. Can you say something about the ideas and process of creating the cabinet?
GB. The design of the cabinet is one of my recent attempts to create objects that might have been Erdosain’s pseudo-inventions. Erdosain is the stressed and fatalistic main character of Arlt’s two-part novel The seven madmen / The Flamethrowers. The objects I make combine references to furniture, machines and architecture, while posing as abstract sculptures. This idea of Erdosain’s inventions helped me to start making. So I’m remodelling fragments of the novel in my own way, with my own concerns and intuitions.
A few months ago I started working on some sculptural pieces, hollow box-like volumes, with a thin skin of veneer, constructed from cheap wood and plywood, figuring out the final shape as I go. On the outside they look clean and crisp, but on the inside they’re fiddly and messy. The idea for the book cabinet is an offshoot from these experiments. In my mind the cabinet is both a model for a sculpture that can hold some books as well.
MR: The ambiguity of this object-model-cabinet is a great ‘container’ for the show. It seems to hold a residue of many of the elements we are exploring - of character, of place, of form. The sculptural idea of a messy interior and a polished exterior also seems fitting – like a book, like the process of adapting and finishing.
These works were shown in ‘Adaptation’ at Transition Gallery, London 3 - 25 June 2016
Erica Böhr: you must have seen Ethan Frome: a reader’s experience
I encountered artist Jackie Chettur’s you must have seen Ethan Frome (a re-arrangement of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome) in the exhibition Art:Language:Location in Cambridge in October 2013. The artist sited her work in the Museum of Technology, where she had painstakingly handset and hand-printed the work over a period of two years. I felt that the sheer commitment to producing such an exquisitely finished book deserved the commitment of being read cover to cover. As I have not read Edith Wharton’s novel, I was interested to see how I would experience Chettur’s work.
Although I was familiar with parts of the work, which I had seen unfolding at Wysing Arts Centre (where bothJackie Chettur and I have our studios), I was intrigued to see how the reading of it would unfold, both semantically, as well as experientially.
Reading the book seated at a table proved unsatisfactory, so I chose instead to read it seated in a comfortable chair, on a sheepkin, with a cushion at the small of my back, the way I would read a book at home. My mobile was put on silent and out of reach to minimise any distractions. I washed my hands very thoroughly beforehand, as I didn’t want to mark the exquisitely clean pages. I had thought of wearing white cotton gloves, but I was glad I didn’t, as the experience of touching the thick, ivory paper was part of the pleasure of reading the book. The weight of the book is considerable and on my lap it had an almost anthropomorphic presence, like that of a small child. I read in the studio in total silence.
I examined the book: its hunter’s green front cover with its title ‘you must have seen Ethan Frome’ and its illustration contour drawing of a sled, taken no doubt from the phrase ‘Ethan dragged the sled with’. The back cover has the drawing of a house and on the spine, running its full length, is a tree in leaf, foreshadowing the phrase near the beginning: ‘the Varnum spruces, and Ethan Frome’. The drawings and title are all in white, which contrasts pleasingly with the cover.
The use of the ‘I’ for the narrator, became me, the reader, as I navigated my way slowly through the text. Almost as soon as I started reading, I became aware ofthe typographical isolation of one phrase per page - the blank space surrounding the text worked as silences which allowed the text to speak.
Some of my favourite pages included:
Frome’s silence fell with it
Frome’s wake i floundered toward
Frome scrambled up the slippery: my experience
ethan’s ears were alert for
Ethan, taller, fuller, more womanly
lifted and light flooded Ethan’s
with the odour of Ethan’s
Ethan consumed with the longing
Ethan’s dark thought melted in
Ethan’s face’d break your heart
Only once in the entire work, at about the halfway mark do two consecutive pages follow semantically: ‘ethan reached over for another/’jug, which stood between’.
I found only one phrase hard to read and had to read it three or four times to make sense of it: ‘must be ‘most out, “Frome’.
During my reading I found I was concentrating on the words themselves. Removed form the white noise of narrative, plot and meaning in the traditional sense, I was freed from these constraints and could revel in the words as discrete units or pockets, each imbued with slippery and ambiguous meanings of their own. I became aware through the reading process that the phrases and clauses on each page ended on a precipice, as I was left to fill in (or not) the rest of the imagined sentence. This encourages a close and active involvement with the text.
Certain pages e.g.‘Ethan put the candlestick in’ offer clues to the time in which the original work was set, and written.
The few finite clauses that I noted contrasted sharply with the vast majority of phrases and non-finite clauses and became more powerful as a result e.g. ‘Ethan was seized with horror’, ‘Ethan was overcome with shame’, ‘Ethan had seen the couple’, Ethan drew a meagre living’, ‘Ethan looked at him blankly’, ‘Ethan felt the blood drumming’, ‘Ethan drove on in silence’, ‘Some erratic impulse prompted `Ethan’.
In Chettur’s work, I was struck overall by the sense of abright, clean, clear, cold, crisp, wintery world, peopled with ghostly presences and a few vivid, techni-coloured objects e.g. ‘the red gash’ on the second page, reminiscent of Chettur’s stereoscopic photographs of her tableaux in her practice.
The first page is the same as the title: ‘you must have seen Ethan Frome’ and the last: ‘if she’d ha’ died Ethan’ are structurally strong bookends for the work: by the end this reader had truly ‘seen’ Ethan Frome. As the protagonist’s name appears on every page of the book, I came away with a strong sense of having had fleeting but repeated glimpses of Ethan Frome.
Over the course of this reading, I was interested in how a collaged narrative emerges: the fragments (non-finite clauses and phrases), whilst slippery and ambiguous in isolation, take on a shifting narrative, despite my intention not to read for meaning.
I intend to read Wharton’s work so that I can compare and contrast the two works.
Studio 1, top barn, Wysing
Start time 1pm. Finish time 2.20pm.
The outdoor world of Thomas Hardy Jackie Chettur
The Thomas Hardy Society’s website states that ‘Hardy was first and foremost a landscape novelist, a landscape poet, who painted enduring pictures of a natural world – a real outdoor world – which forms the stage upon which his characters live out their tragic lives.’
Hardy’s landscapes are presented in exquisite visual detail and he frequently uses the effects of light to reveal a landscape to the reader, as here in the opening passage of the return of the native.
A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen, the earth with the darkest vegetation their meeting line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of the night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. 1
Hardy created narratives with a painters and filmmakers sensibility even before the advent of film, which is probably why so many of his novels nine in total have been adapted for the screen. He was a great admirer of Turners later paintings and their break with a slavish realism ‘the just aim of art’, Hardy declared, ‘is representation that has an eye to being more truthful than the truth’ 2
In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy presents us with a sensual image of summer and a fecund earth. The following excerpt describes Tess walking towards the sound of a harp which is played by Angel Clare.
'The outskirt of the garden in which Tess found herself had been left uncultivated for some years, and was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds omitting offensive smells — weeds whose red and yellow and purple hues formed a polychrome as dazzling as that of cultivated flowers. She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arm sticky blights, which though snow white on the apple tree trunks, made blood red stains on her skin; thus she drew quite near to Clare still unobserved of him.' 3
This outdoor world of Thomas Hardy’s is set in a part real, part fictional place called Wessex, Hardy’s Wessex takes up large swathes of the south west of England. Most of the drama in the novels takes place in the area we would recognise as Dorset, with many real Dorset towns and villages thinly disguised with fictional names. Names and their ambiguous nature are significant in Hardy’s novels along with his use of chance and in Tess of the D’Urbervilles the tragedy begins on the open road in the opening passage of the book, with an encounter between Tess’s hapless father Jack Durbeyfield and Parson Tringham, an amateur genealogist. The latter reveals that Durbeyfield is in fact a misspelling of D’Urberville a great and ancient family who have all but died out. In the hope of improving their situation, Tess’s parents persuade the unwilling Tess to make a fateful journey out of the safety of her beloved Vale of Blakemore, to the unknown area of ‘The Chase’ to introduce herself to a supposed wealthy distant relative. And so Tess’s wanderings through the landscapes of Wessex begin.
Hardy uses his outdoor settings to explore everything from social inequalities and the unequal plight of women to the advances of farming technology and the dehumanising effect this has on farm labourers. He uses the rhythm of agricultural production in Tess to show the movement of
people across the land, but although used for dramatic effect, Hardy was also commenting on the increasingly unpredictable and nomadic existence for those without property who relied on seasonal farm labour.
Hardy’s novels are a strange mix of social realism, naturalism and 19 century Gothic. They record a microcosm of rural life in a south west corner of England in the mid to late nineteenth century. Hardy understood this way of life to be disappearing, he had a long term interest in English folklore and in the emerging science of anthropology, which all persuaded him to actively collect local dialect, song and rural customs. His method of preservation was then to embed this English folklore within the pages of his novels. Hardy’s interests in the local and the particular, merge into perhaps a larger embodiment of human history, as we see his characters traverse across landscapes and ancient pathways, conveying a sense to the reader of these figures wandering through time. Hardy’s use of Stonehenge as the dramatic climax in Tess of the D’Urbervilles is significant, as archeological digs were happening all over Dorset in the mid to late 1900’s, with earthworks revealing how human activity had played it’s part in forming the landscape around him. In Rebecca Welshman’s essay on Hardy and Archeology she writes.
‘Hardy experienced archeology as a practical and imaginative exploration into the complexities of the relationship between the individual, living in the present, and the long history of human life upon an ancient earth. It afforded insight into the nature of past activity within a setting and imbued that place with a magic and meaning that transcended ordinary time’ 4
An enthusiastic follower of Charles Darwin Thomas Hardy was interested in humans place in the order of things and how chance, social conventions and prejudice affected individuals. Hardy’s critics read many of these concerns as pessimistic and fatalistic whilst those that love him recognise him as a humanist, a philosopher, an environmentalist and much more.
1. The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, first published 1878. P1.
2. Millgate, Michael, ed. Thomas Hardy's Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, and Miscellaneous Prose,
Oxford: Clarendon, Press, 2001.
3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy, first published 1891. P123.
4. Rebecca Welshman, Archeology p. 228 Thomas Hardy in Context edited by Phillip Mallett Cambridge
University Press, first published 2013.
Essay by Anders Pleass:
Commissioned by 39 gallery for their publication 'Show one of each' Featuring exhibitions by: Jackie Chettur, Simon Holly and Rebecca Spooner.
Room 310: Photographs by Jackie Chettur
A decade ago, when travelling home for Christmas from Australia, I stayed overnight at the Hotel Nikko at Kansai airport in Japan. A newly built palace of glass, marble and steel, for which an entire island was built in Osaka Bay, the airport is crowned with an almost unimaginably large hotel. Despite being blunted by a long flight, ascending into the hotel’s lobby directly above the arrivals hall, one still feels the keen pulse of modernity. A pulse not felt at Heathrow since… well, since the days when it was called an aerodrome.
The Japanese take on international modernism has its own peculiarities (such as the beautiful vitrines in the lobby displaying intricate plastic models of all the dishes available in the restaurant), yet is ground out in the pursuit of the inoffensive vernacular. My room, a peculiar amalgam of Tudorbethan and Regency styles was strikingly at odds with all the ‘smooth and shiny’ downstairs. Hotel rooms are like that. If airports are the naves of modernity, thronged with worshippers, hotel rooms are its confession boxes. Places where the invisible accretions of countless minor ‘off the plan’ oversights, assumptions and neglections quietly come to rest and crave stylistic forgiveness. They are to architects what Davy Jones’s locker is to sailors.
In 310, a set of meticulously made photographs, Jackie Chettur captures and develops what is outwardly an interior design cul-de-sac into something uniquely beautiful. The pictures carefully weave together the genres of interior painting, cinematography and the filmic mise en scène. In doing so, they concentrate and reify the multiple ambiguities of the hotel room with which we are all familiar.
Despite the faintest of echoes of the interiors genre here, there is much going on that would serve to take this project beyond the straightforwardly depictive, although interestingly, some of the pictures seem to be just that and nothing more.1 They are presented to us as a single sweep of images. Named collectively after the hotel room in which they where taken, we are given to understand that they are all differing vistas in the same room (although it is easy to miss this detail when drawn under their spell). They are devoid of human presence. There is no indication of the time of day. Rather than timeless, they are frozen in time. Their points of view and the way they are cropped indicate a camera led, cinematic, composition, as opposed to a constructed painterly one. They have an unreal, almost saccharine colour, by turns sumptuous and queasy.
All of this would seem to imply that the considerations of film and theatre are of key importance, and there is one more crucially visible element that gives this away. Certain things within the pictures are handmade by the artist. Look closely at the flowers and you will see they are made of paper. Observe the drapery with which chairs are dressed. No Marriott has silk and damask of that quality. These then, are clearly pictures of the hotel room-as-film-set. There is artistry in the manner in which it is dressed and artistry, the other side of the lens, in the way in which it is captured.
To speak of film sets is ever so slightly misleading. There are no actors, or if there are, they are absent. These are not moving images. More accurately, they are photographs that evoke by association with – and through – film. And they do this in spades. This is one of their great strengths. For me, they are redolent of the 1950s, with a colouring akin to that of The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel, or on the television, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men (1997-2010). Where does this come from? How does the cinematic sedulously creep into these pictures? There are, in fact, two types of colour at work here. All that is handmade by the artist, along with all their interventions in front of camera has a slightly heightened colour, a Technicolor of sorts. The other colour is perhaps whatever the camera picks up. The works in 310 are perhaps made in techni-technicolor, so to speak.
Whilst cinema’s early use of Technicolor is useful in providing a mechanical slant on what is going on here, a way of understanding the pictures’ inner workings, it does not provide much help in addressing the ‘cultural’ content. Many early Technicolor films owe their cultural value to what happened to them after theatres ceased showing them. Although Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz of 1939, cited as an example discussed by the artist in relation to these works, was fairly successful at box office, what makes it interesting, culturally, was that, through constant global televisual repetition, it grew into something else.2
310 underscores the idea that colour can evoke a particular moment in time, yet since its components are bound to the picture plane and hung on walls, its evocation is fundamentally different to that of cinema. There are limits to the relationship of still and moving imagery. A cinematic reading of these works is fine if pure escapism is your thing, less so if you are in pursuit of some sort of visual truth. The Edwardian age was – as far as colour goes – no more sepia toned than any other, and yet, thanks to the likes of Merchant and Ivory, we all, right now, to varying degrees, carry a particular impression of it as such. The result is an impasse. An historico-chromo-filmic hell. Not so much room 310 as room 101.
I would like to suggest that what prevents this impasse from taking hold, and what gives these pictures a wonderfully flexible convoluted quality, are the myriad ‘invisible accretions’ of which I wrote at the outset. They keep popping up here and there to remind us that this is not just a straightforward imbrication of the cinematic. They are the physical residues that result from the imperfect quest for modernity. They affirm these works as art.3
1. The interiors of the Danish painters Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) and Peter Ilsted (1861-1933) in particular.
2. I am grateful to Chris Brown and Anthony Shapland for bringing to my attention The Wizard of Oz in relation to these works. For a fuller reading of the role colour plays in the film, see Batchelor, D. Chromophobia, 2000, London: Reaktion Books. In the days before the Second World War, Walter Benjamin had concluded that film could either glorify the actions of the proletariat in the present (as suited the communists at the time) or re-structure the past to justify a despotic vision of the future (as suited the fascists at the time). What is ironic is that at precisely this moment The Wizard of Oz was taking film in neither of these directions, but down a rather different road. A road lined with millions of cathode ray tubes rather than yellow bricks.
3. A suitable alternative to The Wizard of Oz, through which to consider these pictures, is Sophia Coppola’s elegant Lost in Translation (2003), set in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, a shade more up-market than the Nikko in Kansai. It takes as subject matter the cultural misunderstandings arising out of how we negotiate a globalised post-modern. I would like to suggest that its characters act out a sociological equivalent to the modernist compromise which architects and interior designers face when addressing the hotel room. Interestingly, it is less Technicolor and more watercolour.
Anders Pleass: curator writer and academic.
Chris Brown, March 2009 originally written for Axis - open frequency for nomination as artist of the month
Perhaps it is the site-specific nature of Jackie Chettur’s ongoing practice that distracts from what ought to be the first remark about her work – that is, the fact that it is often highly accomplished and technically ambitious. Her interventions are incorporated so seamlessly into their carefully chosen settings that the means by which they exist could easily be overlooked, in much the same way that a well constructed theatre or film hides its workings. Indeed, considerations of the traditions of film and theatre are ultimately at the root of Chettur’s work.
In searching for a thread or ongoing concern throughout Chettur’s multi-disciplinary practice, one would be initially thrown by the formal disparity – from a ‘magic lantern’ greenhouse situated on a bandstand (‘The Winter Garden’, Ynysangharad Park, Pontypridd, 2006) to a series of specially cast bone china cups (Station Residency, Pontypridd, 2006) – but nevertheless there is a coherence through this work. Chettur works faithfully with her chosen environments to create a response that fits seamlessly into the setting (a process the artist describes as having ‘meaningful presence’) while introducing an element of fantasy or escapism. For her residency at Pontypridd railway station the artist drew on the film Brief Encounter (1945), as well as working with local train enthusiasts. In response to the disused buffet, the aforementioned bone china cups were moulded from a found teacup at the station combined with a highly ornate handle (based on a teacup design from nearby Nantgarw china works), creating an invented memory that could be supplanted convincingly and perhaps confused with what had actually gone before. Chettur’s interest lies in the mediation of memory and experience, and how this mediation – particularly a cinematic experience – can sit as an almost tangible memory of the past. It is this play between creating something sincere and emotionally resonant, even though largely based on second-hand experience of film or cultural phenomena, that is the key in the work’s ability to engage the audience.
Akin to the sensibilities of film, Chettur’s meticulous attention to detail is crucial in achieving a successful emotional resonance. Her recent photographic works ‘310’ (2009) are testament to the laborious processes she undertakes to create convincing fantasies. Here Chettur is responding to the dreariness and uniformity of a chain hotel room. Who hasn’t felt the lifeblood sucked out of them in such an environment? In a gesture that warrants a ‘Wizard of Oz’ comparison, Chettur gives this bland space a dazzling transformation with hand-crafted paper floral arrangements and shimmering drapes. The colour palettes deliberately evoke a bygone era by direct association with film stock and processing techniques of Technicolour film. The resulting images are unmistakably fantastical, but as with Powell and Pressburger’s films, this make-believe is tainted by our own invention and painful memories.
Chris Brown, March 2009
Chris Brown is co-founder and co-director of g39.